Monday, January 26, 2015

New New Player Experience

Reaching new players has always been a major stumbling block to the success of EVE Online. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation once said that EVE “feels like a game that doesn’t want to be played” and to the outside observer it is quite true. If you need a refresher, I suggest watching his video While it is several years old, many of his complaints still hold true. However, much of what he found wrong was not so much a problem with the game itself, but rather how it appears to those outside. Many “bad” reviews for EVE have been made over the years, and universally they come from a perspective of someone who has yet to even catch a glimmer of what EVE is actually about. The blame for this does not rest on these reviewers however. Rather the majority of the problem rests on the game itself, and most importantly, its new player experience.

The new player experience of EVE has undergone several revisions and updates over the years, one of the most recent being a project of CCP Foxfour before he went on to  be the paragon of third party development. Although the latest installment is by far the best iteration of the NPE it still falls wildly short of what it should be, predominantly because, although it has been updated and polished, the NPE still follows the same formula it has followed since the beginning. The current NPE comes from a time where it is pretty safe to say CCP did not understand their own game, let alone their players or why anyone plays it. It strives to teach you the mechanics of various aspects of the game, without teaching you the “whys” or really helping the player understand both the awesome moments out of the game, and also how to be successful when striving towards those moments. It is time to reevaluate the NPE.

To design a better NPE, first one must set out some goals for the experience. Next, you test the current system against those goals. Thirdly, you redesign the structure to be more in line with those goals. I have assembled the following goals for my new NPE.

  1. The NPE must teach the mechanics of the game, encompassing as many aspects of the game as possible.  
  2. The experience must be engaging. A tutorial that is bland is one that is not payed attention to, and without proper skills, failure in EVE is almost guaranteed.
  3. It must expose the richness of the game universe. There is a ton of in game lore that helps people attach to the game universe. Unfortunately, most of it is hidden in chronicles. Players that are immersed in the universe are more likely to retain information, press forward, and be successful.
  4. It must set players up for success, not failure. While the tutorial shouldn’t teach players of every pitfall in the game, learning about basic mechanics including Crimewatch, Corporations, the Market, Turrets vs missiles, shields vs armor, etc. will be the foundation to allow players to get full enjoyment out of the game.
  5. It must instill in the player a desire to forge their own future. The most common question I am asked about the NPE comes after the last career agent is finished. That question is “Now what do I do”, and as true as “anything you want” is as an answer, it doesn’t serve the new player very well. There needs to be a clear handoff from tutorial and game that sets in motion player driven goals.
  6. The NPE should protect the player from too much outside interference as the prepare for the sandbox. It is important to note that the NPE IS NOT PART OF EVE’S SANDBOX in the same way as the rest of the game is. Players at this stage should not be considered full EVE members. The skills of EVE are not easily acquired outside of the game universe, and thus New Eden requires a type of “air lock” allowing the new player to become acclimated to our universe. This period of time is the only time a player should be protected from outside interference.  

So let’s first test these metrics against the current system.

  1. The NPE must teach the mechanics of the game, encompassing as many aspects of the game as possible.  
In this regard, the current NPE does a fair job. The tutorials teach the fundamentals of piloting, combat, trade, exploration, industry, and some bits about ship fittings. The information IS there, but it is often unclear, confusing, and incomplete.

  1. The experience should be engaging. This above all else is where the NPE falls flat. Tutorials are already a challenging thing to get new players to do. Like asking for directions, many gamers see tutorials as “beneath them” preferring to figure things out on the fly. EVE is not that kind of game, and bored pilots miss big parts of the training, or simply do not retain the information because they are not engaged by it. Space and spaceships are distracting, you need a tutorial that can teach as well as interest the player.

  1. It must expose the richness of the game universe. The Blood Stained Stars arc does try to tie some of this together, but in a way that is difficult to relate to. Nothing is personal,. Everything is generic. The really cool things, including both lore and mechanics (from pirate factions to Titans) are not clearly related. The result  is that people who spend months killing “rats” without understanding why they even exist in the universe. This creates misunderstandings that may take years to fix, and fails to foster an interest in the depth of the universe thus limiting investment.

  1. It must set players up for success, not failure. None of the mechanics that would help avoid hardship are touched upon in the NPE. CONCORD, Safety settings, the reasons you want to join a player corp, as well as the reasons you should not 100% trust other players are not addressed at all. This failing, while delightful for those who wish to prey on new pilots, is devastating to retention.

  1. It must instill in the player a desire to forge their own future. Absolute failure here. There is nothing in the NPE that explains thip is used for basic combat and with it you destroy the key enemy and watch the rest warp off to an unknown part of space.
  1. hat advancement is personal, or how the sandbox works. As said above, many new players end the tutorial expecting to be ferried off to the next adventure, only to find out there isn’t one without their involvement.

  1. The NPE should protect the player from too much outside interference as the prepare for the sandbox. CCP does a fair job at this. Strict rules against griefing in new player areas exist, as well as a very successful rookie chat. However, as with most of EVE, this is more punitive than preventative. Ultimately it would be nice for new players to have an area of space that is safe for them to learn, but does not function as an area to be exploited by more informed players.

So with this in mind, how can we make an NPE that is worthy of the game it represents? We know we need to make it engaging, show how cool and interesting EVE can be, teach some of the more nuanced rules, and it must inspire new players to do great things.

Unfortunately, I believe that the NPE fails due to fundamental underlying assumptions. Most other games give a cohesive story, one that draws you in and answers the questions of why you are here, and what you are doing. While EVE has a story, it is told through text that is largely ignored. It also is very generic and mechanical, as opposed to really bringing you in.

Stories help us learn, give us something to latch onto, and a reason to invest. While EVE is primarily about player driven stories, you need a bridge to get players from where they are to where you want them to be. To this effect, a well written story adventure can get people trained up and excited, and then can hand the reins over to the player, challenging them to make their own stories.

  • The EVE NPE should be an engaging story, that ultimately hands the drive to generate stories over to the player.

In a big way, EVE, especially given the current story arc, is about authority vs. God like powers. The empires have created these super powerful immortals and seek to control them. This conflict results in exploration sites, Highsec vs Lowsec vs Null. Also trailers such as the one for Rubicon. We can use this conflict to teach about the struggle between safety and autonomy in EVE. Let’s assume that all pilots start out as empire sponsored trainees. This would mean they are within the system, and taught to toe the line. However there are thousands of these God-Men (of which you are now one) that want to drive you away from the warm glow of empire and towards the freedom of the capsuleer life as we know it.

  • The NPE is set in an empire-controlled facility, where you're being transformed into a capsuleer, but an agent is there to convince you not to stick with the "man"

EVE also has some really, really cool things, such as Titans and empire structures out in Null. However a player who is playing it safe in the space lanes never see them in action. Furthermore, because things like Titans are big and flashy, a lot of members think that to “win” EVE you would require one of these. *We* as experienced pilots know that this is false. So we should introduce players to these cool things, but as tools to be used, not goals to shoot for from day one.

  • During the NPE, the player should encounter a Titan, and use it to bridge to do something cool.

Also, while protections do exist, ultimately the space in which new players work to learn is just a normal part of space. While this is cool to some extent, In order to ensure a successful training, and to allow for things that simply are not allowable in the normal space, a new area of space will be required. A secondary sandbox so that people engaging in the NPE can have their content, that eventually dumps them out into the normal universe with no way, or reason to return.

  • The NPE should take place outside of the normal solar systems.

The Narrative (Caldari Perspective):

EVE NPE starts the day before the transformation. You have just finished the most intensive simulator the Caldari State Capsuleer Training Program have to offer. However, since you are not yet a clone, these practices are dangerous and your brain is slightly scrambled. Aura, your personal cyber assistant wakes you up and recommends you prep yourself for the transformation. Several simulations are available as you can review basic things such as manual piloting, navigation controls, etc.

From there, the user is taken through the process of their first cloning. This is important to really instill in the user that this game is fundamentally different than other games in its views on death, and your place in the world. You get to witness your death, and experience your resurrection, but shortly thereafter, the Guristas Attack.

The (New) Battle for Caldari

A band of Guristas attack the installation you are at. Perhaps some reports may indicate this is linked to their kidnapping of pilots and stealing of tech (Valkyrie anyone?). You hop in your ship and go forth to defend the State under orders. Your noob s
The Caldari tell you that it is assumed that the Guristas are using the pirate gate networks, and they think this this evidence that a gate in that network is within the very system you are in. They outfit you with a probe ship and tell you to find the gate and observe it. Once the player does that, the Caldari decide to move forward.

The key feeling that a new pilot should get from this portion of the experience is “expendability”. To the State, you are no longer a person, you are an asset to be used. Again and again. This time they send you through the gate with a ship fit with mining tools and a new deployable. (Mechanically it could be basically a mobile depo. Once you have secured the area on the opposite side of the gate, and collected the resources, an ally jumps in and uses the supply to anchor a POS as a beachhead within this hostile space.

You are sent on several scouting missions including one suicide mission to collect information about a high profile installation through another gate. The plan to attack and destroy the installation is made, and the plan includes a major fleet including dreds and Battleships. For a show of force the State will be bridging from the beachhead directly onto grid with the installation. For that they need a Titan.

Meanwhile you get contacted via fluid router by a mysterious pilot who identifies himself as a capsuleer. He warns you that the State holds no value to your life, or anything about you. That outside of the bounds of Empire sit a thriving community of Space Gods ruling rather than being ruled. The systems in your hydrostatic pod are allowing the State and CONCORD to have control over you, and he is working to free you from your bonds.

From there, you are sent to collect some more resources and use the POS to manufacture some basic equipment, including a Cyno generator. Once built you use a Cyno to jump in a Titan, that gets attacked by Guristas forces. You must defend the titan as it enters into warp, following targets that are broadcasted for you to clear (Hictors who have the Titan pointed). The titan warps to the safety of the POS.

Now is time for the final battle. A small station has been established, including cloning facilities. You take your Noob ship to the Titan and bridge through into the climatic battle.

It is explained that the massive weapons being used can not track a small target such as yourself, but only if you keep moving. You are given several targets (including pointing the BBEG), and if you get popped they do pod you, sending you back to the med clone in the small station. It is OK to die here, your ships are provided, and it should be mildly challenging. This is when the player can really test their understanding of combat mechanics. It is also time for them to realize death is only part of the story.

Once successful, the capsuleer breaks in stating they are here to break you free. You warp to the destination to find a secondary, small POS and a jump bridge that takes you into normal space. From there the capsuleers teach you the importance of Safety settings, CONCORD, Crimewatch, and Corporations. This of course hands the players increasing agency, until they are a full fledged member of EVE Online.