The challenge facing New Eden
Playing EVE Online is not for the weak of heart.
Playing EVE Online takes a dedication and resilience found in few other video games.
In a world of Battle Royale style, quick turnover games designed for short attention spans, EVE requires a depth of focus unmatched except by few other games, like Dwarf Fortress, which scares even me.
When it connects, the pull of EVE on a player is strong as they see the opportunity to do things in the games that satisfy their dopamine itch. The exact itch that is scratched is kind of dependent on what a person’s Bartle type is, but invariably the aspiration to a specific goal is motivational.
Some desire the player versus player aspects and killmarks, others exploration of the vast universe, and some simply enjoy mastering the complexity of building ships and citadels. The point is, they aspire to achieving something in the game that only EVE can provide.
Humans aspire to all kinds of things. One aspiration that people have is mastering our physical environment, like climbing mountains.
Once the pinnacle of human endurance, climbing the highest mountain on Earth has been reduced to spending a lot of money and being accompanied by people that can reduce your burden.
Yes, it’s physically demanding and dangerous, but the biggest challenge is not now the mountaineering skills, it’s having enough money to pay the fees, equipment, travel, and sherpa costs to follow the well-worn path with repeatable methods.
Just as humans have conquered Everest, players have conquered EVE.
This analogy has been shared between the CSM and CCP and I have personally discussed it with Hilmar Pétursson, the CEO of CCP.
Tasks that first seemed monumental, like building a Titan or placing a Keepstar have gone from being celebrated group moments to mundane rites of passage. The game developers realized this and wanted to create a change that made these kind of achievements more special.
However, instead of creating new peaks to climb or deeper depths to dive, they simply made it more expensive.
The equivalent would be increasing the cost for climbing Everest from ~US$100,000 to almost half a million dollars. The climb itself wouldn’t change, just the price. The wealthy would still be able to participate, but many others would simply find it impossible to summit. No way to reach their aspirations.
In EVE we find ourselves in a similar situation. Older, wealthier players find themselves without much to aspire to these days. Having titans & supers, parked in a variety of Keepstars, is checked off on the to-do list. Arena combat has been gamified to the point by experienced players that the winners list is a painfully similar set of names. Every system is documented, mapped, screenshotted. Every mission has a recommended fitting and a walkthrough.
Newer players arriving see the potential of the game and get hooked. But meeting their aspirations has a much harder route to traverse. The in-game costs are simply much higher requiring more ‘grinding’ than ever before. All the time, watching other players who came before them casually joking about items that seem unachievable in the games current state.
We see demand for skill injectors growing as a cycle of earning ISK to pay for injectors to enable better ISK earning to buy more injectors become commonplace as some feel continually left behind.
EVE is facing a strange problem. Experienced players, having conquered the game, literally having nothing more to reach for, slowly drifting away from the EVE looking for something new to release that dopamine. New players, conversely, facing the daunting task of trying to carve out a place in New Eden, being surrounded by older players who can outcompete them in every arena, making their progress in the game even more difficult.
The learning curve of EVE is notoriously steep and continues to keep getting steeper. The attempts to somehow restrain and push older players are having an order of magnitude more powerful effect on newer players, laboring under the HTFU changes that have come into play more recently. At the same time, the older players, rather than being constrained, are finding more ways to exploit changes to become increasingly powerful and wealthy.
This is an exceedingly difficult game design problem to solve. There are no simple tweaks or adjustments that will result in a game alluring to players new and old. The harsh reality is that complex problems require complex solutions.
Not keeping the idea of player aspirations and goals at the forefront of a vision for EVE would be a mistake. While minor tweaks to ships and the environment are welcome improvements, they are no substitute for a set of new goals for players to sink their teeth into.
Players drive the stories in EVE. While CCP may create opportunities for new goals and achievements, it is the players that determine the paths to them. The methods developed by the player hive mind are often surprising to the developers, who might have had different expectations.
Hilmar once said “We want to be the janitors, we want to be making sure the lights are on and everything is operational…”
Yet, recently we see a strange dissonance in the game design focused more on constraints to force player action rather than opening up new opportunities for exploration and achievement. Significant changes to the games like Pochven & new stargates are promoted as player driven, but clearly the changes were fait accompli, regardless of the players actions. Disillusionment when the facade of agency was revealed was disheartening, especially to those that participated intensely.
Players create almost everything in EVE, from the ships and citadels to the drama and propaganda to the headline creating battles and wars. But the players cannot create new aspirations in EVE. New mountains to climb and depths to plumb are needed, yet we see minor adjustments to what equipment to use on the same worn paths instead.
Currently, EVE Online is like a giant cruise liner, full of passengers. The crew is constantly adjusting the menu and evening entertainment to keep people happy. But the ship has no destination and no one knows where it is heading. At some point, the captain must explain where they are taking everyone.