I’m feeling a bit wrung out on the video game front this week, and it is only Thursday. We had Daybreak slip in a great subscription deal I had to seriously consider. There has been the World of Warcraft Legion expansion launch and all the attendant excitement and new things. And then there has been CCP, which has seemed determined this week to occupy every last free neuron in my brain with its announcements.
First CCP hit us with the dev blog about how fleet boost would be changing with the coming November release. The boring, old “park your boosting alt in a safe” method is being replaced with an area effect method that will put boosters on grid and in harms way. This made a lot of people very angry, and you could certainly tell who was invested in the status quo.
Then, yesterday, CCP announced that EVE Online was going free to play. Sort of. Certainly, free to play made the headlines, though the plan itself is a lot closer to WoW’s unlimited trial than, say, Rift’s up-until-now, you’re not in Azeroth, everything is free method. (Trion decided they needed to charge for expansions, which sounds fine for me.)
The free accounts announcement, the Alpha and Omega clone system, seemed to get a favorable response. The implications of this proposal on the game are huge, and most people seemed to accept that CCP’s first problem was going to be containing the current player base to keep it from abusing the system for their own ends without locking Alpha clones down so much that nobody would want to play them. It is going to be a balancing act, and only the naive think it will be easy.
This Alpha clone plan will have two big bonuses right away. First, it will attract lapsed players back to the game, and lapsed players with friends and such in game are likely to resubscribe from time to time if they are allowed constant access. Second, unless PCU remains stagnent or drops even further, it will have been effectively removed as the favored “EVE is dying” metric… for a while at least. I expect that the PCU will go up significantly for months after Alpha clones become a thing.
But the real goal of the plan has to be to bring new players, fresh blood and/or meat, to New Eden. And, on the surface, this seems very likely. Free is the best price point at which to get people to try your product, and we have seen spikes in the PCU when CCP has free weekends on Steam. (See the weekends of May 6 and August 19 on the EVE Offline new character creation chart.)
Unfortunately, here is what you do not see after those free weekends: Any significant change in the PCU.
This is the elephant in the room, the long time problem for the game, the failure to convert trial players into paying customers. Some of you likely remember this chart from the New Player Experience panel at Fanfest 2014. (video here, chart comes up at about the 16 minute mark.)
That chart is actually more grim than it seems. Half of the players who get through the new player experience and subscribe, cancel and leave the game before their first subscription cycle is up. 40% solo mission for a bit, then leave. And maybe 10%… that seemed to be the optimum number… found some experience they really liked in the game and stuck around to become a bitter vet.
The thing is, that chart, as noted in the presentation, only talks about people who made it through the trial and the new player experience and decided to subscribe. I would have to imagine that, were the chart to run from the start of a trial account, the percentages at the end would dwindle to insignificance.
During the previous Steam free weekend, approximately 20,000 new characters were created in the game. Did the PCU shift by much? The next weekend was a little better. It broke the 30K mark, which is back to being the benchmark for a “good” day, literally the same situation the game was in back when I started in 2006. But there wasn’t anything dramatic after the free weekend, neither in August nor in May.
So it would be tough to call that free weekend a rousing success, at least when looking at the longer term. CCP threw 20,000 new characters onto the ramparts of the current new player experience in August (and 26,000 back in May), and the NPE held them off. Solid is the bulwark of the NPE, and it will deflect all but the most determined capsuleer.
Basically, on top of the learning cliff that is EVE Online… or maybe it is at the base of the cliff… damn metaphors… there is a new player experience which is indifferent at best. As I wrote in the past, it is a toss up as to which kills the game harder for new players. I lean towards the NPE being more critical. If you could get people engaged and enthusiastic, they might ask in the help channel or go out of game to figure out the more obscure bits.
I am sympathetic to CCP on the NPE front. It is easy to sit and yell at them that they need a better one. But actually creating one, a fun and engaging experience that will draw players into the game, but which isn’t too rigid, and which moves at just the right pace… the right pace for everybody… is a very tall order indeed.
And it isn’t as though CCP hasn’t tried. The NPE has changed drastically a couple of times since I started the game. My first experience was guided but flawed back in 2006. That was replaced by a much more closely guided and mission orientated experience. And lately, we have the much more free form opportunities, which I watched my daughter struggle through, and during which she asked me the magic question, “How do I warp to something?” NPE fail.
CCP has even tried to hold classes to educate users directly.
As I said, they have been trying. We’re just not there yet.
However, at Fanfest earlier this year, as part of the keynote, there was a passionate talk by a new member of the team, CCP Ghost, who gave us a vision of a better NPE. (Video here, CCP Seagull introduces him at about the 52 minute mark.)
My hope is that we are not done with announcements about the it-so-needs-a-good-name November release. My hope is that CCP has at least one more thing to share with us, something about a vision for an engaging NPE that will retain new players better than the attempts that have gone before.
Because without that, I don’t think the Alpha clone idea will make a big enough of a difference.
I know I will be logging in any unsubscribed accounts I have laying around to start training up alts to their five million skill point cap come the November release. What would be the downside of that? I fully expect the Imperium to have an Alpha clone doctrine. I expect that a lot of current players will take advantage of the Alpha clone idea and that, far from any sort of “filthy casual” response to 5 million SP pilots, they will quickly be accepted as part of the ecosystem and the game will adapt to them.
But unless Alpha clones attract new players, players who become invested in the game and end up subscribing, there won’t be a whole lot of upside for CCP as a business. And to get there, I think we need the NPE vision that CCP Ghost was trying to describe to us.
Addendum: CCP says that the NPE has not been forgotten as part of their summary of concerns.