Expert Systems in the Face of Failure

As I noted yesterday, if there is one thing you can count on from CCP, it is an overly grandiose and technically incorrect name for something mundane.

Last week CCP announced a new feature called “Expert Systems,” which I immediately summed up as “rent a skill,” as you’d be hard pressed to convince me it was anything else. (It was certainly nothing like an expert system.)

No expert that I know

It has been billed as a way for new players to try out skills they have not yet trained, which doesn’t sound awful on the surface.  The announcement, lacking in details though it was, did specifically mention the “magic 14” skills as part of the plan along with some industry stuff, but nothing about it was crystal clear.

The thing that got a lot of people riled up was the implication that this would be a paid service.  The gut reaction was “pay to win,” though “rent to be mediocre” might be more accurate, but the deeper issue on that front for me was the company having its hand out looking to make money from helping new players figure out the game.  That isn’t a good look.

Well, that and the whole thing seeming to add up a tepid and ineffectual compromise that won’t change anything, which got me back to the bigger problem of the new player experience and how it drives away pretty much everybody who tries the game.

We saw this chart back at EVE North in 2019, which was when CCP said they were making the new player experience a priority.

How many new players log back in as time passes

But we’ve seen charts like that in the past like this one from FanFest 2014.

New Player Trajectory – 2014 edition

CCP has been focused on the new player experience, the NPE, for a year and a half now, tweaking and making modest updates and generally trying to fix the issue without really doing anything too radical.

And it seems to have largely been a wasted effort so far.  CCP was given a golden opportunity during the pandemic to increase its user base.  Every month of the pandemic I have posted the revenue chart from SuperData which has indicated that revenues across the board have been up 15% for video games.  Even CCP has seen a bit of that surge, with the peak concurrent player count finally cresting above the 40K mark back in April as people sought indoor activities during the lockdown.

Hilmar himself was on a Venture Beat panel in late January where he said that EVE Online added 1.3 million new players in 2020. (This number gets mentioned again in the Expert Systems post.)  That was more that the previous few years combined, a gift to the company from the pandemic.

The question is, where did they go?  If CCP was running at the 4.4% long term retention rate their EVE North numbers suggested (which also didn’t seem bad compared to numbers I could find from comparable titles), that ought to have dumped another 57K players into New Eden.  That would be about a 20% boost over the approximate 300K monthly active users that Hilmar has mentioned in the past.

With that big of an influx of new players… so I am assuming they are not counting returning vets joining the war or looking for something to do during lockdown… the peak concurrent players online ought to be up enough for that surge to stand out.

But is it?  Looking at EVE Offline, it doesn’t seem to be.  After the great valley of the null sec blackout and Chaos Era, when CCP seemed keen to actively drive players away, the PCU climbs, sees a surge around April and May, then settles back down to about where it was pre-blackout.  Congratulations to CCP for flattening the curve?

Further evidence for CCP failing to capitalize on the jackpot scenario include the 2020 financial results from Pearl Abyss.  On the surface it looks like the EVE Online IP is growing.  But in we cannot forget that in Q2 2020 CCP was able to re-open the Serenity server in China and in Q3 EVE Echoes launched and attracted a couple million players on its own.  If you were to subtract those two items I suspect the EVE Online IP bit of the chart would be closer to flat.

And then there is the bottom line for the Pearl Abyss acquisition of CCP, which ended up with PA paying just $225 million of the potential $425 million price tag due to CCP missing performance goals, which I am sure included some revenue requirements.  Hilmar and some other big investors missed a payday there.

Fun times.

I don’t want to go all “EVE is dying” meme now.  But in the face of all of this, which stinks heavily of failure, the idea that CCP spent dev time to design and implement this new Expert Systems feature which allows new player to rent skills for some amount of currency in a game where skill injectors exist seems like a wasted effort.  It doesn’t feel like something that will move the needle at all on new player retention, in large part because it doesn’t feel like something that will impact a new player’s experience before they get frustrated or bored and log off.

I have bemoaned the fact that EVE Online is old and cranky and and has issues that will never be fixed because, after nearly 18 years, there just isn’t the time, money, or wherewithal to do it.  And I myself have been cranky about CCP in the past about things like selling skill points and the fact that when they say they won’t do something, that statement has a hidden expiration date of about a year.

But I try not to get too worked up about monetization.  This is a business and, frankly, the price we pay to play hasn’t changes in almost 18 years.  It was fifteen dollars a month in 2003, it remains fifteen dollars a month in 2021.  But I am going to bet somebody has gotten a pay raise or the rent has gone up or costs have otherwise risen in that time.  To balance that out you either have to make more money or have less staff.

So I am not irate like some about the real money aspect of this so much as being unable to see how this will make a lick of difference.  Software development is a zero sum game.  You only have so much time and resources, and if you waste them on things that don’t make the product better you cannot get that time back.

Now, maybe I am just not seeing the big picture here.  Maybe CCP has all the right data to hand and they know that this is a winning idea.  I’d like to be wrong in my assumptions and the announcement was vague enough for a lot of wiggle room as to how this will turn out.  Unfortunately, I have been party to way too many half assed, badly calculated products and features in my career to have a lot of confidence.

The real problem with software is that is written and designed by people who all have their own special collections of bad ideas.

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6 thoughts on “Expert Systems in the Face of Failure

  1. anypo8

    Nosy’s take on this one is really interesting. The idea that Expert Systems is aimed at the Asian market’s expectations at least makes the whole thing make a tiny bit of sense. That said, I’m on your side — there’s a million better ways to spend dev effort to get better new player retention, probably even in Asia.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @anypo8 – There has been a flow of opinion that this was a Pearl Abyss idea, something suggested by them… forcefully or otherwise… that CCP went along with. PA’s expertise, and its main focus, has been Asia, which probably explains why CCP is back to supporting Japanese and will probably have Korean support soon enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bhagpuss

    I have no clue about EVE specifically but I did find Nosy’s argument quite convincing. I’ve played a lot of Asian imports and they almost always have a huge focus on rented power and rented convenience. I think it’s probably fair to say Western mmo players are less than keen on renting bag space, mounts, costumes or just plain old xp buffs. They’d much rather either buy the option to have them permanently or buy consumables with no expiry date they can keep and use as needed.

    That’s not what the cash shops of these big, successful mmos offer, though. Or it’s by no means the main thing. They’re stuffed with temporary permissions that last at the very most a month (which seems like subscription by a thousand cuts to me) but more commonly a day or a week. Since all the games and all the companies seem to do it and the games are deemed successful I have to accept that their customers prefer it that way. Or if they don’t prefer it they at least expect it, understand it and are used to it.

    Maybe a game as famously difficult to get into as EVE really does need to be made that little bit more familiar to Asian audiences if its going to make any headway there. After all, it’s not like the new player retention has been a raging success under the Western model. On the other hand, if it ends up alienating the core Western playerbase to the degree that a significant number of people decide to take a break or even quit then attracting Asian players through Expert Systems could end up being something of a Pyrrhic victory.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. RegisCastelo

    I suppose we need to mark it up as another life lesson, a reminder that what companies say in a specific moment in a given context will be ignored or forgotten the moment it no longer directly serves their interest.

    Therefore, CCP promise is an empty and worthless thing. I see it clear now.

    They dont´s care about our opnion. Then want money. They must acquire money by the demand of they owners. So they will put more and more of that crap upon us. There are no return. Just suck it and move on or quit.

    We are helpless. The only possible way to end of this is a big boycot of the game. A mass unsubscribe and no play for at least 1 month. It is the only thing you / me / us can do against that crap.

    However, in the end, it will not happens, So, again, live with it or quit. I am sorry for us all.

    Like

  5. Archey

    I was all set to come here to the comments and bemoan this as another brain dead CCP vanity project or Pearl Abyss mechanically adding cash shop options no one wants. But Nosy’s article does cast it in another light.

    Eve has always had a robust Russian community in addition to US, EU, Australian, and now Chinese groups. Missing from that list is Japan, India, Singapore, Korea, and other Asian countries with less barriers to play than China. If they can draw those players, it certainly would represent a healthy infusion of new blood.

    That is, if they can ever cobble together a reasonable new player experience…

    Like

  6. Nosy Gamer

    Thanks to everyone who read my piece and thought it had some merit. It’s nice to see that listening to all the earnings calls paid off :)

    @bhagpuss – I haven’t played as many Asian games as you, but when I saw the plan, it reminded me of Pearl Abyss’ Black Desert Online’s cash shop so much. Also, I’m currently playing Final Fantasy XIV and renting 3 retainers at $2/month each. I’m not opposed to renting as long as the feature makes sense.

    I think what CCP is implementing is aimed more at Asian players than western. I just hope that doesn’t drive people off. I know I found BDO’s monetization very off-putting.

    Like

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