Sunday, August 28, 2016

Colonizing the 30-Minute Session

I’ve been playing a lot of Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO as the kids call it) in the last month or so. Trading really has freed up the time I used to spend ratting in Eve. Really, you can’t ask for two games that are more different than CS and Eve.

Where Eve is all about making your own path and creating opportunities and goals, CS spoon-feeds you one of four or five possible routes on every map and clear objectives. Save the hostages, or plant the bomb. That’s it. There isn’t anything more complicated than that.

Counter Strike is all about a single skill, twitch reflexes. You need to be able to line up a shot and fire as fast as possible. It’s based on physical reaction time, so it’s a much more difficult skill to acquire. Eve, on the other hand, requires many skills that are much easier to perfect. The challenge comes from applying them when you see that yellow box appear around your target. Success in Eve requires a much more difficult skill to acquire: contextual decision-making. It’s borne from situational awareness, something that most games don’t need.

As a result, it takes a lot longer to become proficient. You’re not teaching your hands to do things, you’re teaching your brain to work a different way. It requires commitment over months or years. And each play session of Eve requires significant time. It can often take half an hour or more just to get to your destination. Form-ups may take half an hour again. And then you need to make your way home. It’s unlikely that an op will go faster than two hours from start to finish. It consumes an evening entirely.

And that’s Eve’s main problem.

I noticed something when playing CS:GO over the past few weeks. Most games had female players, too. I admit, at first, I was a little surprised at this, after coming from Eve’s heavily male-slanted player base. From my perspective, I’d have thought Eve offered more for female players. Essentially, CS:GO offers you the ability to do one thing: shoot other people in the face. It’s all-PvP, all the time. You pick a gun, you go out there, and you try to fire off shots from good vantage points as quickly as possible.

Eve, on the other hand, offers a wider variety of content. You can destroy if you want, but you can also build, mine, explore, accomplish, scam, spy, organize, or design. Aspects of Eve appeal to a wider variety of possible interests and desires than CS:GO does. Yet, CS:GO has 500,000 players online during the early afternoon US time – when both EU evening players and US kids home from school can play. It’s simpler, yet it’s far more popular. It’s a shooter, and Eve isn’t.

Why does that matter, I started to wonder. Why does CS:GO – a game dedicated to just shooting people in the face – attract more female players, more kids, and more people generally than a more varied game like Eve?

Is it the sandbox aspect? Do players simply prefer to have structured goals to achieve? To some extent, that may be the case. People like to be told what to do most of the time; it’s comforting and it provides us reassurance that we’re conducting ourselves correctly. Most folks don’t like free, open circumstances; it makes us as humans feel uncertain and unable to measure success. Perhaps CCP needs to improve Eve’s scripted gameplay options to appeal to players who really want to follow a path… at least until they get used to the game.

My experience with other games, paired with what I read from other bloggers about them, suggests to me that the major problem with most games is that once you reach the top of your skill progression, the game ceases to have any meaning. That seems to match with the players who return to WOW for a couple weeks when a new expansion is released, then lapse again when they’ve “beat” that expansion.

Yet, Eve has a solution to that: the sandbox. Players can play for years without ever maxing out. There are always new parts of the game to try, new disruptions from other players, and new situations created by player politics. Yet, the initial progression is almost wholly lacking. Perhaps Eve needs a little more scripted, tracked content to get players through their first few initial months, until they get used to the game and start to understand the dynamics within it. An icebreaker period, if you will.

And, of course, CCP should encourage players to group together in social groups to make that time more enriching. But I could think of far more things more detrimental to the game than creating a progression system for young players that gets them logging in and loving the game. A “first hit”, if you will.

But what if the sandbox aspect isn’t enough? Eve also has a problem with time. It takes forever for anyone to be able to do anything in Eve. Is there a way CCP can adjust that in some way, so casual players who only have half an hour have something they can do, too? Sure, “casual players” is an over-simplification, and they’d really need to address “casual PvPers”, “casual explorers”, etc. etc. But I think it’s a worthwhile goal. There are obviously a lot of gamers out there for whom that kind of content would appeal.

CS:GO is pretty simple. You log in, you find a game, and you start shooting people. I’ve often found myself choosing to play Counter Strike rather than logging in to Eve. Usually, this happens around 10:30 at night, when I have about an hour left of play time. It’s not enough time to do any DED sites (since finding one would take some time), and it’s not really enough time to PvP from where I am now; targets are within five jumps, I need to go at least 10 jumps for the fertile hunting grounds. Once I get started, it’s time to leave, and I’d end up having to log in space somewhere far from home: a problem if the next day sees me joining a fleet.  So, rather than spend time cooking the fine meal Eve provides, I’m cracking open the can of CS:GO beans and sticking it in the microwave.

That is something CCP can address, and something they should address. While PCU counts aren’t everything in light of recent changes that have narrowed the gap between total accounts logged in and real accounts logged in and flying through space, I do think getting people into space doing things is far preferable than them logging out and playing another game because they can’t get anything meaningful accomplished in half an hour. A player sitting at the console doing something – particularly if it’s quick – is a player learning to love the game.

That last question sticks in my head, though.  Why does it seem that so few women play Eve? Women clearly don’t have a problem speaking up on comms in CS:GO or WOW, but they do seem to stay to themselves more in Eve. They join fleets and engage, but more than once I’ve heard women express hesitation to speak up in comms and make their gender known. Why is this?

Granted, I believe the problem extends beyond perceptions and concerns about being identified as a female gamer, as troubling as that tendency is. I do think Eve hosts fewer female players than other games. Why? Is something about it less appealing than other games?

I asked this question of my wife, and she pointed to the time element. She views Eve as an activity that consumes an evening. She reads and sews cross-stitch for fun. She plays Where’s My Water? and Angry Birds on her smartphone. The common thread among all of them? She can pick them up and set them down at a moment’s notice. They can fill the spaces between activities and make use of ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there.

Eve is not that kind of game. At all. And, part of me wonders if perhaps it’s cutting out a key demographic of gamer – those who are looking for some fun and aren’t too worried about creating an individual story or sandboxing it all day long. Those who have other responsibilities and priorities than a video game.

Here’s the thing… I don’t see any reason Eve can’t cater to both groups. Content created for the specific intent of allowing players to accomplish something within a half-hour session doesn’t need to diminish or taint the game we all play today. We can make the rewards sufficient to appeal to those casuals, but not to unbalance the incentive for players to dedicate time to the game the way they do today. Casual players are smart, and the idea that they need to put in more time for the top-tier rewards seems natural.

Plus, as I’ve said before, Eve’s future dedicated PvPers or null-sec leaders aren’t on the other side of some marketing campaign on the far side of the Internet today… they’re playing Eve in high-sec right now. If we want to keep the pond stocked for next year, we need to make Eve as appealing as possible for as many people as possible.

Some of those new casuals who come in may try Eve for a time and leave, of course. But providing content that can be meaningfully consumed in a half an hour and tracking it so players know what it is they “should” be doing can keep them engaged at least until they complete those tracks. After that, either they leave and CCP keeps the money they spent on their subscription up to that point, or they buy into the vision of a sandbox MMO and become dedicated, long-term Eve players.

But, without something to hook them that follows a familiar path and appeals to the desires they have today, we have no chance whatsoever to sell them on new immersive desires that only Eve can provide. Eve has a unique value proposition, so new players need a taste of it before they can buy into it completely.

That’s what the next few years of development need. Eve requires some perception and attitude shifts to bridge players from their typical expectations of an MMO to the expectations Eve delivers on. Up to this point, CCP has been relying on players doing that work for themselves, outside of the game.

I think it’s time that changes.


  1. You what would you need for something like this?
    Some kind of free to play character? or some kind to directly tie smalls amount of game-time to revenue for CCP.
    Create activities akin dailies? so they can be quickly achieved by "casuals" but not abused by the rest?.

    For a while I've thought that EVE need to strengthen its PvE, its the way in which you going to play if you want to get in fly and shoot something. Also i happen to think that PvE its the core of in-space activity.
    I would also like to see mining made something more active, possibly with higher yields but more scarce resources (belts) so the amount of ore harvested EVE-wide stays the same but the activity is more concentrated.

  2. There's RVB for people who want quick fix. Although I assume what you mean is a typical nullseccer can't log on and get quick content, at least of their main. Thank Phoebe for that. An alliance op to say, bash a pos, would take a half hour. A solo'er could use jump bridges to go fool around in nearby lowsec. Not anymore.

  3. I think you've pretty much summed it up for me. EvE requires a mental investment far above and beyond games like CS:GO that I'm not prepared to make anymore. After 10 years, there isn't much that I haven't done. I don't have the energy I once did to put into finding new things to master, and I don't care enough about the meta-game to get involved with groups of people. I'm just not hard-core anymore.

    EvE does have things that can be done in less than 30 minutes: Missions, Mining, Industry, PI, others. It's just that those things are about as engaging as watching grass grow after you've done it a few -thousand- times.

    Risk/Reward is ineffective as a motivator for a player like me. Increasing risk changes how I prep for the task but doesn't increase the fun factor much. And to get me to bite for a reward, you'd have to increase it so much that it'd crash the economy. Even then, I'd only bite if I thought the task was entertaining.

    I could talk your ear off for hours about how to fix all this but it all boils down to this: PVE, as a core mechanic in EVE, has breadth but not nearly enough depth, variety, detail, or even a good presentation. It fails to be engaging versus the competition of other sci-fi games.

    -Baljos Arnjak