EVE Evolved: Getting new players to stick with EVE Online

EVE Online has the odd distinction of being one of the most impenetrable MMOs on the market today and yet also one of the stickiest. Few new players make it past their first week or month in EVE, but more of those who do scale that infamous learning cliff tend to stay for several years and become part of the community. Many of the most active veteran players have even admitted that EVE didn’t really click for them the first time, and for some it took them several attempts before they finally got hooked.

This anecdotal evidence seems to mesh quite well with CCP’s own brutal retention statistics, as we heard back in 2016 that over 1.5 million people had signed up new accounts that year but just over 50% of them quit within the first two hours. Even after the free-to-play option was added to eliminate the biggest barrier of entry for new and returning players, retaining more of those players in the long term is still proving difficult. So what is it that prevents new players from really clicking with EVE even if they want to, and what can be done about it?

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I look at some of the factors that make EVE difficult to penetrate, the importance of joining a corporation, and a few things CCP could do to help with player retention.

What makes players quit in the first place

Last month I looked at some of the different factors that can drive EVE players to breaking point and make them quit the game, from the catastrophic collapse of a beloved alliance or corporation to major losses sustained during a war or suicide gank. Every player will eventually experience one of these natural jumping-off points where they lose the things that tie them to the game world or the community, and for many the option of quitting seems reasonable. You can see some of the more bitter breaking points (such as losing all your possessions in a suicide gank) spelled out in the comments of almost any EVE article online, and seeing those comments may be enough itself to turn some players off trying the game.

But what about that 50% or more of players who do try the game and don’t even make it to the two-hour mark? Excluding alt accounts belonging to existing players or accounts made by farmers, these are all people who saw something about EVE that attracted their interest. They put in the effort to download the client and register an account, and yet they give up shortly after coming face to face with the game itself. There’s a clear disconnect between the expectations some players have coming into EVE and the reality of the game that meets them. Perhaps they read some interesting article about a war going on in EVE and decided to give it a go, only to find themselves mining or shooting NPCs in a tiny ship with no clear path to the gameplay that interests them.

Joining a group is absolutely essential

The single biggest factor in new players sticking with EVE in the long term has always been whether they join corporations or social structures in-game, and CCP isn’t oblivious to this fact. In a recent Newsweek interview, Senior Game Designer Linzi Campbell said that “when new players find a group to play with quicker, they stick around longer” but also that “people don’t necessarily want to join a group immediately.” Recent group PvE additions such as Resource Wars mining sites and themed events have been designed with new players in mind and to encourage ad-hoc groups, but we don’t know whether these have improved retention.

It’s not necessarily the case that group-based gameplay is more attractive to new players, I think it’s more that EVE‘s most compelling hooks are all in the emergent interplay between players. EVE is not so much a game as a virtual society with spaceships, and finding a place to belong in that society is a powerful draw. That’s where the community comes in, with well-known organisations such as EVE University and Signal Cartel having proven track records of showing newbies the ropes. Many players who start life in a training corp will eventually leave and join one of the other thousands of player-run corporations across the game that focuses on their particular area of interest, finding a place they can belong in New Eden. Those players stick!

Would improving the tutorial help?

CCP has overhauled the new player experience several times over EVE‘s 15-year lifespan, but even its most ambitious and well-executed plans don’t seem to have made much of a dent in the retention problem. My introduction to EVE way back in 2004 was being dropped into space in a tiny ship with no instructions, set adrift in an unfamiliar universe and presented with an inscrutable user interface. I promptly shot a stargate and was blown up by the police, and if I had been just randomly exploring the free trial, then I’m sure my EVE career would have ended right there.

What made me stick around is that I was invited by a friend who offered to show me the ropes and invited me to join his corporation. Though today’s tutorial is incredible compared to the hammer in the head I received in 2004, all new players are still presented with an intimidating user interface and gameplay that’s now 15-years deep. They need something that compels them to get over that hump, and not everyone has a friend in the game to rely on for that. This could be an opportunity for CCP to use its new data collection technology that’s coming this month in the Into the Abyss expansion, which will give CCP an impressive granularity of data on all player activity and could open up some interesting new feature possibilities.

Could career milestones be the answer?

The upcoming expansion will add a new Activity Tracker interface showing detailed stats on everything a player has done in-game. I think CCP should go one step further with this, adding achievement-style milestones for each gameplay area. The milestones should be tiered and spaced incrementally further apart so that new players experience a lot of them, encouraging continued play to get over the two-hour hump. CCP could even add small rewards in the form of ISK or skill points, and incentivise joining a corporation by adding special milestones for doing things with corpmates.

I suggested a similar milestone system back in 2015, but a lot of the data it would have relied on to work may not have even been feasible to capture on the server en masse until now. Taking the idea another step further, CCP could also give corporations special rewards when their members accomplish milestones or even just make certain combined stats of all members publicly visible to provide visible corp milestones to achieve. Any rewards associated with these systems would have to be carefully selected to prevent abuse of free alpha accounts, but a system like this would be great because it only rewards corps that actively engage new players in activities.

It’s said that there are two very different types of player who come to EVE: The type who quits in frustration when ganked for the first time, and the type who writes the ganker’s name down in a little book and starts making plans. I’m always tempted to think that trying to retain the former player is an act in futility and that EVE will just never click with certain people, but then I think back to my younger self shooting that stargate in 2004 and wonder whether I would be one of those people too if I didn’t have a friend in the game.

While there are almost certainly things CCP can still do to improve the new player experience, the most important factor in getting new players to stick with the game in the long term will always be choosing to interact with other players and finding a place in the virtual society of New Eden. Maybe all anyone really needs is a friend to show them the ropes, whether that friend brings you into the game or you meet them there, and perhaps the best thing CCP can do to help new players is just to point them in the right direction and let the community handle the details.

EVE Online expert Brendan ‘Nyphur’ Drain has been playing EVE for over a decade and writing the regular EVE Evolved column since 2008. The column covers everything from in-depth EVE guides and news breakdowns to game design discussions and opinion pieces. If there’s a topic you’d love to see covered, drop him a comment or send mail to brendan@massivelyop.com!
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