Monday, December 8, 2014

“Optimal” Deconstructed

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.


  1. Talvorian,

    While you aren’t mistaken, you are, perhaps, a little tone deaf. If I may suggest, go back and watch the ‘This Is Eve’ trailer again. It’s carefully, wonderfully, thoughtfully crafted. This time however, pay attention to it’s portrayal of solo play. Note how, in the middle, the very center of the video there’s a crucial solo interlude.

    Beginning at the 1:30 mark we meet Wingspan TT chatting about escaping pirates . . . solo, followed by Magnasis Drakenwolf mining . . . solo, next up is Sir Livingston manufacturing . . . solo, and finally Jeffraider ship fitting . . . solo. Having reached the 2:17 mark the video then returns to fleet actions. These four players may or may not be primarily solo players but in the video it’s their solo play being represented.

    The entire video lasts 221 seconds. 47 of those precious seconds are dedicated to solo play. By the numbers CCP has consciously, intentionally and deliberately chosen to dedicate no less than 21% of its trailer time to solo play.

    I would argue that trailer is more optimal for dedicating 21% of the trailer to solo play. CCP are a clever bunch. They can pull off a ‘both and’ trailer that appeals to fleet players (fleet play brackets the trailer as beginning and end) as well as solo players (solo play is the crucial hinge the trailer wraps around).

    I see no reason why, when it comes to player retention, they can’t pull off a similar 79/21 distribution.

    1. And yet, CCP hasn't been able to do that. Players who play Eve as a solo game are vastly less likely to remain with the game long-term.

      Mind you, I'm not saying solo play isn't possible once your interest in the game is matured and you understand what you're doing. I'm saying that if you start off in Eve expecting to play solo the whole time, interacting with people the way you'd do rats or NPCs (avoiding them and buying and selling to them), then it's been shown that you're likely to burn out and leave very soon.

      You may not want to be a professor, but you still go to school - with other people - to learn a trade. Then you decide if you want to join a small company, a large corporation, or start your own business.

      Solo play is absolutely viable, but is it the best way to introduce ALL new players to the game? I'd argue that the evidence says no.

      If group interaction is so integral to retention of masses of players, I'd argue it's better to start them with group play while making them aware that solo play is an option than it is to start them with solo play and let them know a wide world is out there.

    2. Oh Talvorian, you really are tone deaf. There’s a reason we soloish players bristle at your presentation. Despite your best efforts, you continue to center your particular preferences while displacing other preferences. I do have to admit you’re clever about it. You carefully avoid saying there’s an optimal way to play the game by, instead, saying there’s an optimal way to retain customers that matter. And that optimal way is to heavily (and exclusively it appears) advertise group play. “Everything begins with group play” if you will. For soloish players it’s very alienating. Appears you’re comfortable with such alienation.

      I have no problem with ‘heavy emphasis’, it’s the ‘exclusive’ that annoys me.

    3. If that's the way it comes across, then I'm not doing it right!

      I'm not trying to alienate solo players. And I think you're right..."emphasize", "encourage", and "strongly suggest" are better than "You're doing it wrong." Heavy emphasis is a good approach, I think.

      The default starting position for all truly new players (off the street, don't know anyone) is that they're alone in an NPC corp. If you encourage solo players to join a player corp, they can ignore that advice and continue to play the solo game. Or, they can take it and become involved in the social game that has a much higher likelihood of leading to deep, long-lasting engagement.

      If, on the other hand, you encourage all players to play a solo game, players of a more social nature are going to be bored and turned off by the solo game, and unsubscribe. You've lost the opportunity to keep them long-term.

      Let's call it Talvorian's Wager... "In Eve, if you encourage social play to a solo player, you've lost nothing. If you encourage solo play to a social player, you've lost everything."

    4. DireNecessity, mail me if you're interested in writing a counter-point from your perspective. I'll post it under your name.

    5. Talvorian,

      I appreciate the offer but I don’t think it’s necessary since, as we’ve happily bickered back and forth our claims and positions have moved pretty close together all the way to the point that it’s less an argument about what should be implemented and more about what a particular implementation implies. Allow me some specifics . . .

      “Solo play is absolutely viable, but is it the [one] best way to introduce ALL new players to the game?”

      I’ve added the ‘one’ to emphasize your careful definition of optimal as that which most effectively generates ‘interpersonal connection’ as well as to highlight how, in my view, it can set up a false choice.

      You are correct to say, “general messaging can’t possibly resonate with everyone.” That observation however, doesn’t mean a good piece of general messaging can’t resonate with a surprisingly large group of disparate people which is why I made such a fuss of actually measuring how much time ‘This is Eve’ spent highlighting soloish play. The trailer’s wonderful and part of that success is its ability appeal to disparate groups simultaneously. Good messaging does that.

      So, hopefully, this cracks open a different notion of ‘optimal’. One version of ‘optimal’ (yours it appears) is to do the maths, uncover the one best option and pursue it tenaciously. Another version of ‘optimal’ (mine) is to do the maths, then exercise some proportion judgments and cast the net as wide as resources allow.

      One reason soloish players like myself are kicking up such dust is that to us, any discussion that begins with ‘all’ and ‘best’ pretty much sets up an inclusion/exclusion dynamic right from the get go and disturbingly, we find ourselves the excluded ones. It can be aggravating. CCP can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. They just did it (see ‘This is Eve’ trailer).

      With this in mind, your Talvorian’s wager isn’t necessary. Why gamble at all? Instead find intriguing ways to support, encourage and introduce disparate players to multiple play styles.

      I suppose we could quibble about how to proportion resources but I’ll leave that to CCP as they are the ones who 1) know where they want to take the game and 2) are the only ones who’ve conducted actual research. We players have only been handed a few crumbs on these matters and t’would be unwise of us to speculate extravagantly.

      If you ask me, the question is not whether CCP should find better ways to introduce players to the crucial social aspects of the game but rather just how in the world they might go about it. Strikes me devilishly difficult to devise an automated way to gracefully deliver players into a complicated, dynamic social world.

    6. I'm giving you last word on the topic (as least from me!). But that is an interesting question you pose at the end (maybe a blog banter-to-be, Kirith?).

      And you're right, it is a difficult question... that's why people like me have jobs doing Marketing and brand positioning that require an understanding of language, communications, sales, psychology, and propaganda!

  2. Tal,

    In the immortal words of Don McLean, "they did not listen, they're not listening still... perhaps they never will."

    Your advice is sound and your blog is enjoyable. Those who wish to argue will always find a reason, no matter how trivial it may seem to others.

    1. Do you think it is an interesting argument or strange quibbling?

  3. It's an interesting discussion, but it feels like more of a disagreement over words used than the topic. We all want to feel like our style is "best", and you've stated that whatever style is preferred by an individual is, in fact, best for that individual.
    Bottom line, the trailer was fantastic. It has generated new players that we will all interact with and it's good for the game. Each of these new players will seek their "optimal" and I really hope they find it.