A few bloggers have posted well-thought responses to my article about boosting retention of new players. I advised new players to get out of high-sec and join a player corp to start making the social connections that are so important to the narratives in Eve.
The contentious part was in me saying they shouldn’t jump right into solo play, but should play with others initially. A couple bloggers took exception to my use of “optimal” in the context of that position. Sugar Kyle mentioned that she tends to be somewhat contrarian to anything she perceives as dictating the “right” way to do anything. TurAmarth mentioned that solo play, or playing “the wrong way”, is something he truly enjoys.
So that got me thinking about “optimal” as it’s used in Eve. And in looking into it, I realized that a lot of players and bloggers tend to use “optimal” as a way to say “best” without sounding so overtly arrogant, as if they know THE RIGHT WAY to play Eve and that all other ways are wrong, wrong, wrong. But that’s not what optimal really means, and that’s not how I’m using it here.
What Optimal Is
In its pure definition, the optimal path in any situation is one that balances all of the various factors at play in the most efficient way. The optimal point is a point at which adding one more unit of effort (an arbitrary quantification) is no longer worth the additional value. It’s tied up intrinsically with the Law of Diminishing Return, which says basically that the pleasure you get out of the first scoop of ice cream is greater than the pleasure you get out of the second.
Optimal also implies scarcity of some type, either of resources, of time, of attention, of energy, of interest, etc. At some point, dedicating more time to a problem ceases to be an effective use of your time. “Good enough,” is a statement of the optimum. And “optimal” implies an objective. You need to be moving towards some goal or ideal to be able to determine an optimal path to get there.
And – here’s the kicker – optimal is a value judgment. If you value something differently than another person, then your opinion on the optimal path will change. There is no such thing as a quantum of effort that is the same for all players, or a fixed dollar-value on every single player’s time. The factors that go into determining an optimal path aren’t the same from player-to-player.
And that means that “optimal” is a very specific thing, tied to a scenario, an objective, a situation, and a set of valuations.
So, there’s no optimal way to play Eve, because every player values their time and different aspects of the game differently. Some players gain pleasure in trying new things, and figuring out everything about mining is as engaging as figuring out how to win at PvP. Some players enjoy trying to make the “terrible” ships work in different situations (as Sugar said she finds interesting). For a player like that, flying a weird ship or flying a ship in a weird way provides enjoyment. If you’re engaging in the activity that makes Eve as enjoyable as possible, then you’re following your own optimal path, based on your objectives and situation.
And that’s awesome. Because playing Eve isn’t about finding the one best way to play and exploiting the hell out of it. (Well, that’s the optimal way some players enjoy the game, so you could say that, for them, it is). The broader objective of playing Eve is to derive enjoyment from it. And that’s a very personal, very subjective goal that doesn’t quantify easily. It’s built around comparisons with what we could be spending our time doing. Should I mine or PvP? I choose PvP because I gain orders of magnitude more enjoyment from the rush of PvP than I get from the peace of mining. But someone else might disagree, and choose the mining. For both of us, we’re following our optimal strategy, even though they differ so completely. We both arrive at the same ultimate goal, enjoyment, but in ways that suit our natures, situations, and value analyses.
Optimal & Retention
In my post, I said, “There’s no ‘Right’ way to play”, then immediately followed it up with, “That said, there is a wrong way to play. That’s trying to do it solo.” For an established player, this is absolutely not true… playing so is certainly viable if you experience enjoyment playing that way.
But my statement wasn’t advice for established players. It wasn’t even advice for a new player. It was general advice for ALL new players. The full category of new players, regardless of their background, initial knowledge of the game, and desires. That’s a very broad group, and when giving advice to broad groups, you have to play the numbers. This advice is going to definitely leave some people out… general messaging can’t possibly resonate with everyone*.
We all know CCP’s statistics about new player retention by this point. Players who join in-game communities – corps, alliances, channels, or interest groups that engage them in-game – during their first month have significantly increased odds of remaining with the game long-term compared to those who stay in an NPC corp doing things solo. The true content of Eve lies in the interpersonal interactions between players. We are the content that creates compelling emotional connections that appear to be integral to long-term retention.
I believe that interpersonal connection is absolutely critical in the first month or two of a new customer’s interaction with Eve. And the data seems to back up that assumption. So, my advice is for players jump into situations that involve them in making as many connections with other players as possible.
And I’d call that the optimal approach to learning the game… based on my objective of getting them to subscribe long-term. It’s not the best way for them to play the game (no one can know that), but I think it’s the optimal way to buy Eve the time needed for them to find the best way for them to play the game.
And that’s the distinction. I think this advice provides an optimal strategy for increasing new player retention… and nothing more. Once they’re hooked, that strategy is useless… they’ll need to find their own “optimal way” to play Eve. But at least they’ll have the opportunity to, something that would be denied them if we continue to let them cast about in high-sec NPC corps without any spacefriends.
The Confusing Uses
Now, that’s a bit different from how a lot of other bloggers use the term optimal. A lot of times, it’s used to reference specific ship fits. “The optimal Moa fit” for instance. But there is no such thing as a single “optimal fit”. The question always comes back to, “What are you trying to do?” Without an objective and usage instructions, a fit is completely useless by itself. If you take a Slippery Pete Tengu, for instance, into a Maze, a PvP brawl, or a solo wormhole hunt, you’re making a huge mistake. It may be an optimal fit in certain circumstances (ie. massed in large fleet engagements while controlling engagement range with effective warp-ins), but it’s an expensive lossmail in others.
Likewise, some bloggers use the term to refer to generating wealth. “The optimal way to earn isk…” is often followed by a bunch of advice that depends upon flying a certain ship (with certain sp requirements) with a certain number of friends, in a certain area of space, etc. etc. etc. In other words, it’s niche, limited-application advice without the caveats attached. And – worst of all to a marketer/writer – it’s also a thinly-veiled attempt to say “best” with a dash of “you’re stupid if you don’t do this…” thrown in.
When used accurately, optimal refers to an approach that will achieve a goal in the most efficient way possible. It balances all of the factors involved. But, in most cases in Eve, the “enjoyment”, “satisfaction”, and “engagement” factors are entirely ignored along with all of the other subjective considerations in favor of a purely logical conclusion.
Yes, identifying optimal methods is a logical exercise, but he subject matter and the objectives can easily be purely subjective. “What is the optimal method for me to fall in love?” may very well be, “meet as many people of your target gender/lifestyle/interests as possible, spend time with them, learn about them, and pursue those who you feel an emotional connection with”, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible to come up with an equation to love.
That’s part of the reason why the utility calculations of Economics 101 are only good for understanding principles and are useless in the real world – there’s no such thing as a unit of utility, satisfaction, or value!
So, yeah, I hold to my claim that you can have an optimal way to increase retention through the way you market the game and advise newbies, even as I believe there’s no optimal way to play. Those ideas aren’t competing. The optimum is a tool… how you use it is what matters.
* Some commentators have responded to this argument with, “Well, that’s why you shouldn’t write general advice.” But this argument isn’t very helpful. Most of CCP’s marketing, for instance, is general in nature. It can focus on different aspects, sure, but only highly targeted marketing – which I’ve seen very little of from CCP – can be customer-specific. For new players – those who CCP has no metrics on because they haven’t logged in yet – all CCP has is general marketing. When sharing advice on a blog, for instance, any player or potential player could read it… I know nothing about my readers beyond the fact that they have an interest in Eve, else they wouldn’t be reading. Naturally, if I’m talking to one new player, my first question is going to be, “What drew you to Eve?” and I’ll tailor my advice to match his/her interests, but that’s only possible when you have personalized data or the ability to engage in a dialogue, neither of which is possible in passive promotion.