Is New Player Retention Fixable in EVE Online

At EVE North CCP dropped some tidbits of information on us.  They’re going to rework the Vexor Navy Issue.  Pirate faction implant changes are coming.  And the new UI pointer feature has reached meme status with the undock button.

[Addendum: Nosy Gamer has a better summary of things CCP brought up at EVE North]

Things you see in local in Tribute a lot

I think it is great that how to use the new UI pointer feature was the second most created UI pointer, but this is also a good tool for helping people new to the game.

There was also a slide about new player retention that looked pretty grim.

How many new players log back in as time passes

Hilmar previously assured us that EVE Online was still getting plenty of new players… or new accounts created in any case…  seeing about 10K such every week in the game.  They just don’t stick around.

This is not a particularly new bit of information.  We saw a similar chart back at EVE Fanfest in 2014, a little over five years back, which laid out what happens with new players.

New Player Trajectory – May 2014

That chart actually looks better, but ignores a big chunk of new players as it only counts those who opted to pay the then mandatory subscription fee.  Of those who stepped up to that level, half left after their first subscription period ran out, 40% ran down the solo mission path and left once they had essentially leveled up their Ravens to do level 4 missions, and 10% found a home and stuck with the game.  When those who didn’t bother to subscribe were included, these three groups were a much smaller percentage of the pie.

Of course, when this sort of information comes up people immediately assail CCP for having a bad new player experience, an unintuitive UI, and a horrible and unhelpful player base that abuses newbies.  Somebody will eventually claim that Goons are ganking new players on the undock of the tutorial or some similar fantasy.

And CCP has tried to address this retention issue pretty much constantly throughout my tenure in New Eden.  The horrible tutorial that I went through in 2006, which was a motivator to start this blog, has been revamped half a dozen times since then, but things haven’t really changed.

The EVE North chart starts off with half the people who register not even logging into the game.  I guess you cannot blame the NPE or the UI or Goons for that.  Probably bots doing that I guess.

Of the 10K that make it into the game, by the 30 day mark less than 500 are still logging in.  That is just about 4.4% given the numbers on the chart.  That seems like a horrible retention rate.  How can that seem to be anything else?  At least to you and I and any other outsider.

But knocking around in the back of my head for some time has been the question of context.  I dislike numbers and statistics without context.  4.4% seems bad, but without being able to compare it to other MMORPGs it is difficult to say whether it really is bad.

Unfortunately, most game developers are not as forthcoming as CCP.  Almost nobody gets out in front of the players and gives us as much information as CCP does.  Can you imagine Blizzard or EA or NCsoft doing this?  So CCP tells us something and we assume the information for the rest of the industry, guessing that it must be better than this.

So I decided to poke around to see if I could find any information about this, prodded by a comment on Twitter than linked to something akin to what I was looking for.  However, that wasn’t the meat I wanted.

Fortunately, somebody has done some work on this front.  As it turns out SuperData Research did a study titled Understanding Free-to-Play MMO Retention.  This seemed quite relevant, since there is no subscription barrier to playing EVE Online any more.

The study looks into player retention and compares players who jump on the game at launch versus those who come in after the game has been established.  People who join as soon as it goes live have higher retention rate.  Those who come in later don’t stay, though after some time goes by that gets a bit better because new players after the two year mark tend to come more by word-of-mouth, and thus likely have friends that play, a significant factor in retention.

Of those who show up late to the party… and given its recent Sweet 16 birthday party, anybody showing up to EVE Online now has missed quite a few parties… only 2% of those who register and log into the game will still be around 30 days later.

While EVE Online‘s retention after the first day is much lower than what SuperData reported… 40% of the word of mouth crowed logs in after the first day while only 28% of CCP’s sample did… but with 4.4% retention at the 30 day mark EVE Online is doing pretty well compared to the study where post-launch players peaked at 3% and settled down to 2% even with word of mouth.

Which is not to say that EVE Online doesn’t have problems and couldn’t do better.  The game has some pretty big factors working against it.  But the angry player insults about CCP being exceptionally bad/stupid/ignorant/greedy seem to be, at best, off base.  And anybody who shouts “marketing” needs to just shut up.  The company seems to be in the same boat as other MMOs, and revamping the new player experience yet again probably isn’t going to change that in a drastic way.

Short of teaching people how to form social bonds in their game, a key factor in retention (I don’t think a How to Find Friends video quite cuts it, but nice try I guess), I am not sure there is any easy answer to getting people to stick with the game, mostly because people don’t seem to stick around with most MMOs they try.

Raph Koster wrote a piece earlier this year about various methods that can be applied to user retention.  There are probably a few suggestions in that worth pursing, though CCP is already on to some of them.

10 thoughts on “Is New Player Retention Fixable in EVE Online

  1. bhagpuss

    Looking at the figures above, it’s not the 4.4% retention rate that surprises me, nor even the lower 2%. I’m actually astounded EVE supposedly sees ten thousand new accounts created every week. That sounds insanely high. This is a sixteen year old game. Where are they all coming from? I wonder just how many of those are bots?

    In the blogosphere you can easily get the impression that we’re all trying every MMO that comes out and probably darting around between half a dozen or more at any given time. I’ve played five different MMOs in the last 48 hours, for example. My feeling, based on not much besides anecdotal evidence from playing and talking to people in-game, rather than reading blogs and forums, however, is that most people who play MMOs play them serially, not in parallel.

    The part about people staying longer when they start from launch makes a lot of sense. If you play an MMO when it goes Live, it’s a good bet you knew it was coming and were waiting for it. You have an emotional investment. It’s also the time when there may be a buzz aroud the game, making it seem like the place to be, at least for a while. A year or two down the line, chances are any potential new players are a) bored and looking for novelty b) idly curious or c) following someone they know who already plays. (Or they could be a blogger looking to get some new material but we’ll ignore weirdos like that).

    We all know about the ever-increasing barriers to entry that all aging MMOs acquire. Those will almost always be sufficient to counter idle curiosity. I could imagine someone alleviating their boredom for a while by digging into new mechanics and systems but I suspect that people who get bored as easily as all that would balk at the effort. That leaves the people joining friends, who may both get support and suffer social pressure to keep playing. Given that all established MMOs also generate bitter vets like a dog sheds fleas, even having frinds who play doesn’t really guarantee new players will stick.

    Going back to the original numbers, I would love to know just how many people play all the major (and minor) MMOs. Not just the fixed populations but the throughput. I can’t help wondering if the numbers are actually much, much bigger than we imagine.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – That and I want to know about the 10K people who sign up and then never log in at all. Seriously.

    Because EVE Online has free to play in the form of Alpha accounts which can be used to bot anomaly ratting in the Vexor Navy Issue, the ship I mentioned at the top of the post that is getting a rework specifically to combat that, there are no doubt a bunch of bot accounts that get created every week. CCP is also going to cut back on some more Alpha account abilities, which will make some people angry at CCP, but the botters are why we cannot have nice things, as they say.

    I would like to see data from some other MMOs on this front. As I indicated, the fact that we get data like this from CCP and nobody else means their numbers are basically in a vacuum so you cannot tell if they are doing well, poorly, or whatever relative to comparable games in the industry.

    Finally, the title of this post is a bit of a troll. I put it in there when I started on the post. And while I wander around several things in the post, at no point do I ever actually answer the question. Go me.

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  3. SynCaine

    Interesting data for sure. I wonder if CCP could build something into the game that auto puts new players into a Corp like EVE Uni after the first 15 days or something. Basically rather than hoping people find a real corp vs the NPC ones, the game itself puts you in one.

    It would of course open up a million issues to deal with, but at its core I can’t help but think it would help in retaining more people thanks to the hard push into the social aspect.

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  4. Yeebo

    It’s funny, just from the title my first instinct was: “Well to do that they would have to have a reasonablly fun solo game for those that enjoy things besides crafting and playing the market.”

    Nothing I’ve ever read about EVE convinces me that it has what Ii would consider a decent solo PVE game. The second figure seems to confirm my instincts. It looks like the bulk of players that manage to undock play the solo PVE game until it gets boring to them, and then leave.

    Should EVE actually add a more fun/ rewarding solo PVE game? Probably not. It would be like tacking some other game on to an MMO that already has a pretty devoted and profitable fan base in place. It would be hard to do that without at the very least making existing fans feeling like their priories were being ignored, or at worst pulling an NGE.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Shintar

    I remember Blizzard talking about WoW retention pre-Cataclysm, because they cited wanting to improve it as one of the goals of the old world revamp. I thought the quote was that 9 out of 10 players didn’t make it to level 10, but Google seems to reveal that actually it was “only” 7 out of 10.

    Not sure how to map that against the EVE data, because even back in 2004 reaching level 10 didn’t take you more than a couple of days even while playing casually. But I think it shows that retention numbers for these games are generally very low. And if even the King of the Hill couldn’t get 70% of players out of the starting zone during its prime I don’t think EVE’s numbers sound quite so terrible.

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  6. anypo8

    The uniquely horrific UI of EvE is not an easy fix — but fix it CCP must, if they are going to get decent retention numbers.

    That’s not just speculation: I set a bunch of newbies to it a year ago, and watched them struggle to do anything. Doesn’t CCP do user studies? Do they do anything with the results?

    The Pointer thing is a great plan, but only works for people who are talking to someone. That appears not to be a thing for new players. So the Pointer needs to be made largely unnecessary.

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  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @anypo8 – That leads us back to a discussion we have had before, whether or not the investment in a completely revamped UI, which effectively requires a new client (as you say, not an easy fix), will be worth the investment. Other attempts at that sort of thing, such as Ultima Online and Meridian 59, have not led to an increase in users commensurate with the cost. And neither of those were as ambitious as a complete UI redo. If I knew of a success story on that front I might be optimistic.

    Even EverQuest, which has improved its client incrementally over the years, has basically given up on new players as a major source of revenue. They mostly farm their installed base with nostalgia focused servers in order

    And then there are the numbers we have in the post, which suggest that EVE Online‘s new user retention isn’t dramatically out of line with the general MMORPG industry, most of which have far more standard and comprehensible UI schemes. Even allowing for half of that number being alpha clone bots still isn’t too bad given the dread learning curve of the game. And bots give us something to shoot.

    As time goes on I subscribe more and more to the idea that MMORPGs peak, after which point there is no further growth, just staving off the long decline over time, which probably makes be a pessimistic fatalist. But that pretty much describes my outlook on many things, so I’ll take that.

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  8. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    And, just for grins, because I was out fixing dead links, here is what The Mittani said CCP should do about the new player experience about five years back. It is on the Internet Archive because INN has no search function and apparently hid a bunch of old columns. But nothing is ever gone on the web.

    Oh, and EA was saying 70% of free players give up within a day while, as noted above, Blizz was saying 70% of players were not making it past level 10 in WoW. I actually referenced that in a post, which again proves I have forgotten most of what I used to know.

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  9. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    Hilmar said the following on Twitter:

    The NPE doesn´t cut it at all, it´s a gaping hole that needs to be fixed and we are dedicating talent to that – at the cost of other developments. It´s what EVE needs now, you could argue it has needed it for a long, long time but at least we are doing something about it now.

    I asked if CCP had any new insight into the problem, given their past NPE history, but do not think I will get a response. I expect the usual routine. They’ll go in a conference room and brainstorm ideas until the oxygen level gets so low that one starts sounding plausible, then run with that.

    [I did get a response. I should have said a “meaningful” response.]

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