Monday, September 5, 2016

Getting Meta about Clone States

The launch of an Eve free-to-play mode with Clone States has sent the player base into a fervor, spurred by the dual facets of excitement over having more people to shoot and anxiety over having more people shooting.

However, most of this buzz is focused around the level of the forest floor, not the wider view.

After all, CCP just announced a big change by allowing players to enter the gameworld without paying. This is a big deal. CCP is treating it like a big deal, with video blogs, a massive winback campaign sent to lapsed accounts, and a PR team working overtime to generate buzz about this change. Clearly, CCP wants people to take note. They’re doing everything they can to represent this as a big deal.

And that suggests a number of consequences.

1) Subscription counts have, indeed, gone down. For the past year, the debate has raged about whether Eve has fewer paying accounts now than in the past. Those who argue the subscriber base is declining point to the lower PCU and CCP no longer releasing subscription counts in their announcements and presentations at player events. On the other side, optimists point to game changes that reduced the need to log in (input broadcasting, capital travel changes, waves of bot bans) to claim that the subscribers are still there, but they just aren’t logging in as much now.

You don’t change your business model dramatically if everything’s hunky-dory. It’s pretty fair to say that the pessimists are correct; Eve has lost players, and they’ve lost a significant enough amount to justify dramatic changes. That debate is pretty much resolved at this point. There really can’t be any other interpretation.

2) CCP is displeased with the current subscriber base and nervous about the state of the game. Sure, every business wants more customers, but usually they accomplish that through special deals to encourage adoption. This is something quite different. While you can rightly claim that the alpha status is really a limited, locked version of the free trial without a time element, that’s not how CCP is pitching it. They’re positioning it as a dramatic re-envisioning of the way the game functions. It’s a Rubicon that they’ve elected to cross; you don’t get two chances to do something like this, and they aren’t going to be able to reverse it out while saving face. It’s a line that, once crossed, changes things forever.

Irrevocable changes are scary to businesses. Planting your flag in the ground and stating something boldly when you aren’t sure how it’ll go is risky. CCP would only do this if they feel they’ve done everything they can otherwise. Clearly, they believe players need more than a month to become addicted to the game, and that they need to give it away until that addiction takes hold. They’re clearly worried.

3) CCP notices a lot of older players coming back for a month, then leaving again. Alpha states are ideal for new players who need more time to learn the game, but it’s also ideal for intermittent players who may come in and go out as finances or RL concerns change. Particularly with recent rebalances and redesigns, it’s easy for lapsed players to feel lost by new game mechanics as they return. If they do that once – subscribe for a month and feel lost, then lapse – they’re unlikely to do it again. But by giving them the opportunity to log in at their leisure and engage with the game bit by bit, these players have an incentive to remain informed about the game, lessening the hurdle they face when they try to return through a subscription. I suspect a key part of this strategy is to help lapsed players have some skin in the game during their hiatuses so the barrier to re-entry is lessened.

4) CCP agrees with our complaints about empty space and the need for content. All of CCP’s marketing talks about player-generated content. For that, they need players in the game, interacting. With PCUs declining, a lot of players have argued that there just isn’t as much to do or shoot as in the past. Solo roaming has been devastated by links and cancer ships, and large fleets are experiencing fewer and fewer reasons for fighting. Content is at a premium, and this move – injecting players into the gameworld even if they aren’t paying – reflects an adoption of this perspective. A player can enjoy the game, but they also contribute to others’ enjoyment too. Each player is more valuable than the sum of their parts.

Even amid all the discussion about clone states themselves and their anticipated impact on the gameworld, I’m intrigued by some of these implications. I suspect there were a great number of unpleasant conversations amid the C-suite and VP-level prior to the development of this idea. There had to have been, for them to propose such a radical – and much unloved – strategy.

Don’t overlook the risk they took in announcing clone states. Prior to it, players connected f2p with pay2win in a particularly nasty marriage. Yet, the way CCP is doing it seems to have been met with near-universal excitement. It’s the possibility of “next steps” that concerns players, after all.

But this was a big change. It was risky. And, you don’t take risks unless you have no other choice.

1 comment:

  1. Honestly it should have been done like this to begun with in 2003, or at least years ago. Apparently 40% of eve players are engineers (go go gadget unconfirmed statistics). When i started playing, I spent 9/10ths of my time reading about the game rather than playing. My point is its absurd to think that anyone but those who do eveesque stuff irl or have a lot of spare time (hello), will spend 15$ on something like eve after less than a month. They don't even know WHAT they're buying! Its A design flaw on the level of nothing else we've ever seenseen, and considering what game we're playing that's REALLY saying something.