On Saturday I was a guest on Matterall’s Talking in Stations show about the Lifeblood expansion and PvE.
The look at Lifeblood was largely a review of what was part of the expansion announcement last Friday and comparing that with what we knew already from past statements from Fanfest along with a bit of speculation. Also noted was the fact that October is already Winter in Iceland, so Lifeblood is, indeed, the Winter expansion.
Then we moved on to the PvE discussion which was picked up and driven by Seamus Donahue of EVE university and quickly turned into an EVE University PvE 101 lecture covering the breadth of PvE options in New Eden.
Certainly a guided exploration of the What to Do in EVE Online chart has value. I didn’t know each box in an much detail before the show as I did after, so I came away more informed. However, that was not the discussion I prepared for and, as such, I had little to add to that presentation aside from some details about escalations and cosmic anomalies.
Once the exploration of the chart had subsided the show moved on to some discussion of the Alliance Tournament, its popularity, and whether or not the teams really represent alliances or specific sub-groups within alliances. I had nothing to add on this front as the Alliance Tournament doesn’t hold much meaning for me, so the audience was spared having to listen to my voice any further.
After the show wrapped up and people wandered off, Noizy from The Nosy Gamer, who was also on the show, myself, and Matterall hung out in the Discord channel for a bit to chat a bit about the philosophy, reality, and problems CCP has with PvE in EVE Online, the discussion Noizy and I had prepared for. Matterall actually recorded some of that and it may at some point become a subsidiary show. But, as I pointed out in our discussion, I try not to let things go to waste and notes for the show could also be notes for blog posts.
However, rather than jumping straight into a sprawling screed about the failings of both PvE in New Eden and CCP’s assumptions about how PvE players will approach a game like EVE Online, I want to focus on one specific aspect of PvE, progression.
While I am in a null sec alliance now, I spent the first five or so years of my time with the game doing various PvE things in high sec. I did them in the traditional MMO way, solo. And even since my move to null sec at the end of 2011 I have spent time exploring various aspects of PvE. See yesterday’s post for an example.
Anyway, after that long preamble, let’s talk about progression.
Progression is, to my mind, a vitally important “hook” that keeps people playing various MMORPGs. You can find progression in various forms, from the loved/loathed levels that are the staple of so much of the fantasy genre, to raiding progression, to faction and standings, to your PvP battleground scores or arena standings.
Progression is a thing that keeps a lot of people going, and EVE Online has its own sandbox forms of progression. It is something that people pick up on… if they get through the tutorial and pick up on anything at all… pretty quickly.
You might remember this chart from Fanfest 2014. (Seen in this video.)
Back before the Alpha clone option, when you had to figure out if you wanted to subscribe to EVE Online by the end of your 14-21 day free trial, half of those who actually opted to subscribe cancelled their subscription before it reached the end of its first cycle.
At the other end, ten percent of those who subscribed found a group and went off to play in New Eden in the ways that CCP expects people to do. They found or formed groups and went off to help build or blow up castles/content in the sandbox.
In between those two, are the people who came to EVE Online and played it like they would expect to play any other MMORPG. 40% of those who opted to subscribe, myself included back in the day, hit the end of what passed for a tutorial, followed the bread crumbs to the first mission agent, and started running missions.
Missions do provide some of what quests do in other games. As with WoW, which I will use as the baseline for this discussion, there is a financial reward. Sometimes you get a module or an implant as a reward. Not as often as you get a gear upgrade in WoW, but once in a while. You also get loyalty points, which can be traded in for equipment, so maybe that makes up for not getting gear as mission rewards.
And there is even progression of a sort. Every time you finish a mission you gain standing with the agent, which increases your future mission rewards, as well as standing with the agent’s corporation. The latter will, over time, open up access to higher quality agents as well as higher level missions.
Eventually, however, that progression ends. Once the solo missioneer has unlocked level 4 missions, progression is about over. They can unlock higher quality agents for a while longer, but eventually you’re done. Level 5 missions, which run in low sec (read: danger zone!) and are supposed to require groups to finish, are not a viable route.
Continuing to raise standings by running more level 4 missions has some minor benefit, in that you get a small boost with the empire as well, which raises standings for all of the associated corps of that empire. I’ve done enough missions with various Amarr corporations that if I want to start in with a new one I go straight to level 3 missions. And standing used to have other uses, like being able to deploy jump clones in empire stations and being able to put up a POS in empire space, but that has all fallen by the wayside of the years. So progression is pretty much done.
Compare this to WoW. While every quest gives you some immediate reward, that is almost a minor aspect of most quests. More important is the progression. With each quest you gain some experience that helps you level up. You also gain some standing with a given faction with most quests that helps you unlock rewards later on.
In addition to that, each quest unlocks the next quest. And, while I may revile the destruction of the old world with the Cataclysm expansion, the quest system that resulted where each zone has a story and each quest advances that story means that there is a sense of coherence with the progression as you move through zones. My nostalgia fights with the improvement that brought to some zones. And the zones add up to stories in expansions and so on.
Now, of course, WoW has it’s own problems with progression ending. When arriving at the last quest in the expansion we have seen a lot of people unsubscribe and go off to other things until the next expansion arrives. And hand tooling a series of quests requires a lot of work and tend to be one-offs, so it costs to do that. And then there is the eternal gear grind and upgrades and what not. It is an imperfect system.
But this progression is popular enough that WoW’s subscriber base at the post-Draenor low ebb was still an order of magnitude larger than EVE Online‘s peak a few years back.
So the question seems to be should CCP devote some time to that 40% of players who show up looking for an internet spaceship progression journey?
CCP has remained steadfast in believing that progression in New Eden means going from PvE to PvP of sorts, though they do have paths to group PvE via incursions and higher risk PvE that exists outside of high sec space. Should CCP throw the solo PvE players a bone? Is that compatible with the sandbox?
CCP knows they have a problem here, and they have tried a few things. We have the various empire epic mission arcs. Though, like many things in the game, those remain hidden gems rather than obvious destinations. And the recent events based on the event framework of The Agency have given people little bites of progression.
But it doesn’t seem like enough. Furthermore, if you looked at the Lifeblood updates (Noizy goes through what we know point by point) you’ll see in the mix an attempt to turn The Agency framework into a multi-player event focus, no doubt based on data indicating that people who join up with other players end up sticking with the game.
However, as some players will never progress to PvP or null sec or faction warfare, some players will never progress past a solo focused experience. So going towards a group focused version of The Agency will leave people behind.
I remain mixed on the whole idea myself. I see a great benefit to extending and enhancing the solo capsuleer experience, giving them meaningful progression that will guide them to exploring the game more fully without the expectation that they will graduate to some other aspect of the game. A few will. More will likely stay in the comfort zone.
On the flip side I am concerned about making a path that might funnel people away from the sandbox nature of the game and I cannot personally visualize a form of progression that would both fit within the nature of the game and that would both provide the sort of fulfilling guided experience that would keep the solo mission runner demographic engaged AND not end up as disposable or empty in the long term as the typical WoW expansion quest/story chain.
So I come to the end of this with many questions and no answers, just a feeling that there could be something CCP could do. Somewhere between sandbox heresy and doing nothing at all there ought to be an answer. I’ve been down this path before. But New Eden is a place that benefits from more players, even players who just live there but keep to themselves.