Paths and Horizons
Sunrise Aigele

Virtuozzo has a couple of interesting posts over at Failheap Challenge (1, 2).

There currently is no room for what players consider “vision”, for many reasons. I agree that it will have to be reestablished, reaffirmed. But what is a horizon if you have no path towards it.

What, indeed? The executive summary is that EVE’s success rests on three pillars: Customers, the product itself, and its custodian, CCP. CCP, scarred from Incarna, had retreated from its role supporting the ecosystem. Now, slowly, perhaps painfully, it is returning. The senior CCP staff have always seemed astonished when their attempts at highlighting the lore are received enthusiastically, but they are. Yes, we want to know what is in our spaceships! But this is not just about the lore. A custodian has many responsibilities.

Introducing the Game

I do not need to dwell on this, but leaving more than the most indifferent introduction to the game to whoever happens by–a recruiter for a passive and indecisive mining/missioning/exploration/PI/wormhole/maybe eventually PVP corp, or a bored griefer, or nobody at all–is insanity. The traditional riposte is that players are responsible to sort through innumerable web pages, find the right wikis, and read and read and read. That is why EVE has a retention rate of around 4%. CCP no longer finds that acceptable, and that is for the better.

This is not about attracting people to the game who would not otherwise consider its brand of sandbox play. It is about giving new players who would enjoy the game the chance to discover that they would, and to find out how they would.

Communication

Given the extent to which EVE Online depends on player interaction, you would imagine that CCP has provided a robust set of tools for players to communicate with each other. You would be wrong. What there is is rudimentary. There are chat channels for every interest, but no way to discover them short of word of mouth. There are hundreds of player-provided services that I would never have imagined existed if I had not acquired the habit of reading the biographies of randomly selected capsuleers while in warp. Advertising is limited mostly to chat bots in trade hubs. There is no channel for ships on grid with each other. Direct player-to-player communication is announced with a modal dialog, as are invitations to fleet, making them among the more effective griefing tools. The dialog provides no significant information about who is inviting you. Despite the beautiful work of the art team, nothing is graphical, and integrations with the game are haphazard and mostly confined to links in text. It would have been impressive twenty years ago.

CCP should make updating in-game communication tools a priority. There should be enough in-game integration to make the use of their tools appealing relative to the use of third-party tools. Did you know that EVE supports in-game corporate forums? Why would you use them when you already have a hosted forum? When Signal Cartel needed a forum, they chose Reddit!

This should look and feel like something from the future. Chat windows do not scream “science fiction.”” You have the ability to render avatars, CCP. Use it!

EULA Compliance

Did you know that EVE Online has a TEEN rating? The game was significantly more adult (and also “adult”) when it launched. The Gallente Pleasure Hub has been demoted to mere mission furniture. But is EVE truly a teen-rated game? There is an asterisk that all MMOs affix to their ratings that states that they only apply to publisher content, not player interaction. But when you have signed over content generation to the players, the banishment of such things as Pleasure Hubs is empty symbolism. Far more explicit things than the original Quafe Girl are posted as links to the average fleet member on a regular basis.  Lazy, alienating language flies freely, even proudly, everywhere. To the extent that EVE is played on third-party forums and third-party voice communication software, there is scarcely a EULA at all. It exists to catch those who are sloppy or foolish enough to reveal themselves on in-game media.

(The white-knuckled terror that certain countries have of sexual content is another matter entirely.)

Tools

I was gratified to see CCP Seagull introduce a phone app for EVE Online. With all respect to the third-party apps I have used for years, it was long overdue. EVE Online is so reliant on third-party tools for basic needs that even CCP itself relies on pyfa internally. There is no good reason for this. For one, the lack of robust in-game tools leaves CCP with no way to integrate, and thus encourage the use of, in-game forms of communication. This is a tremendous missed opportunity. And whIle I have become accustomed to pyfa and I find it indispensable, it is neither intuitive nor friendly nor evocative of EVE Online, except in the worst ways. As with everything related to EVE, I heard about it through word of mouth, on an out-of-game voice server.

Metaphor

I have dwelt on the subject before, so in brief: the only consistent metaphor in the EVE interface is the right-click menu, as befits an interface designed when Xterms looked futuristic. You can right-click everything. You can also single-left-click anything to select it. There are no other actions for which this is true, and this cripples the discoverability of the interface. No one wants to play “guess what I’m thinking” with one of the most complicated interfaces in any multiplayer game. If you had any idea how many times I have clicked and held on a name in Local, expecting a radial menu….

Control

I have saved the most controversial, and the most significant, point for last. Sandbox development is impossible without player feedback, which comes in a great variety of variously constructive forms. But EVE Online is CCP’s game. Feedback is neither game design nor direction, and “players know best” is merely a reconstruction of the toxic old adage that “the customer is always right.” CCP should in fact be mindful of its customers, because they may be right about one concern or another. But it should not take direction from them. Now, posit an in-game social group that is far larger than CCP could ever have predicted, and which is organized primarily out of game. Imagine that they are organized and motivated. They will have an outsized voice in direction, that is, in advocating for particular play styles and approaches, because of the implicit threat behind the size of their representation. Even if you assume good faith; even if you assume that the representatives giving feedback are knowledgable and trustworthy; even then, they will have their own biases, and they will reflect only one broad view of the game, and this will distort the process of collecting feedback. Now, look at the incoming CSM.

It is in CCP’s interest to have us split into enough groups across enough play styles that when many of us speak with one voice, it is on a matter of great urgency. In a sense, they must design a game that gives them the freedom to design the game. As they had already defaulted on that obligation, they have a steep and treacherous hill to climb, and it is quite possible that they will not conquer it. Initial results from the current cluster-wide war are promising.

But there is another option: bring in so many new players that the now-exceptional size of the greatest alliances becomes commonplace. And so we return to the beginning.


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