CCP adopts the same stance as Blizzard on WoW
It’s been roughly five months since EVE Online went free-to-play, and developer CCP seems to be pretty happy about how it’s went so far — at least on the surface.
“We were super nervous, both internally and externally in terms of our playerbase, when it came to going free-to-play,” said EVE designer Steven Clark. “Last year we were sitting at roughly a 50% retention rate, and now we’re much lower than that, but partially because we have so many more people coming in and trying the game. That’s always a good problem to have.”
It’s staggering to think that EVE Online, a single-server MMO started all the way back in 2003, as they’ve come so far in their near 15-year journey. And yet they have so much farther to go when it comes to keeping new players invested.
One huge barrier to entry that I’ve learned about from talking to players is that while EVE does offer a freeing “sandbox experience” in the sense that players can do whatever they want, there’s still a few cookie-cutter ways to make fast cash and find the most success. In EVE players tend to skew towards PVP very quickly, as getting ganked (killed) by another player can mean a serious loss of gear and/or time. By focusing heavily on PVP and thus killing other players, you can progress quicker than you would doing a more rote activity like mining, and the cycle begins anew — another new player joins, gets blown up by a converted PVP-er,
Clark mostly agreed, noting that if he could add one dream feature to the game it would be something akin to a PVP arena or battleground mode. “I think players need an avenue to be able to let out some of their aggression in an easier way than world PVP. While there’s a chance something overboard could cheapen the sandbox feel, ultimately I want there to be something players can drop in and drop out of without having to put a lot of time into their session. That would really help the efforts we’ve already made with the new player experience.”
I think he’s definitely onto something, as the new player experience (NPE) is a vast improvement from when I used to play EVE Online back near launch (good luck getting anyone else to play it back then!), but it still has a ways to go. Andie Nordgren, the game’s executive producer, feels the same. “We’ve made big steps with our NPE, but we still have a lot of work to do. We need to evolve and become a more modern game, or we’ll risk getting left behind. Our main job is to keep building paths so players can enjoy themselves, that’s the number-one priority.” She goes on to quantify that statement, saying, “one of our weaknesses is that sometimes we can rely a little bit too much on our players.”
Having followed EVE for some time, it seems to come in baby steps. CCP brought on a large number of developers to fine-tune their new player experience, and they’re literally doubling down on it as each year passes — ensuring that prospective buyers are still engaged after that fateful two-hour mark, where most of them quit. The intro above is one of those many strides; during the opening keynote hardcore fans went wild for it, but Nordgren is looking at the bigger picture.
“We want to change the way players interact with the world,” she mused. “We’re looking at NPCs that might collaborate with them, without taking away the freedom to collaborate with other players. That’s what makes EVE so tough to balance…we don’t want to make it too guided and remove some of the heart and soul of the game. That’s sort of what we learned from Dust [their now-defunct PS3 shooter tie-in]. It was a dream to have a boots-on-the-ground EVE game, but it just wasn’t interesting enough on its own.”
While some MMO developers are keen on moving to the next iteration as quickly as possible, CCP is fighting tooth and nail to preserve EVE as it was during its 2003 release while making improvements where they can. “An EVE 2.0 wouldn’t make any sense,” Nordgren explained. This exact same sentiment was expressed to me by World of Warcraft game director Ion Hazzikostas last BlizzCon — which is good company to be in.
All this “room for improvement” lamenting comes with a silver lining. At the moment, EVE is still thriving, at least according to CCP. Although Nordgren was not keen on giving me specifics on the number of players (either free or premium), she noted that it was in the “multi hundreds of thousands.” They also had a record year, earning $86 million in revenue, and they’re going full-bore on next year’s Fanfest, promising “the biggest celebration yet” for the game’s 15th anniversary.