Something I've always marveled at is the remarkable ability of people to self-organise into cohesive units. Give people in any MMO a challenge to overcome and they'll work together to resolve it. Give players tools to support collaboration and they'll use them to create a society. I think the desire to build cohesive communities is something inherent in the human psyche. We all want to feel like we belong in a group or location, and MMOs offer us an opportunity to fulfill that desire.
In any functional society, be it in fictional fantasy lands, in the imagined voids of interstellar space or even in the real world, several different types of people are required. There will always be leader types, who take on the responsibility of organising and planning. In an MMO, these are the power players -- the people who run guilds and corporations, write guides, show off what's possible in the game and help new players find their feet. They give people a place in the game and fill them with the goals, drive and purpose they'll need to continue playing in the long term.
In EVE's early years, much of the game's development focused on watching what organisations did for themselves in the sandbox and helping to support it. New ships emerged to fill roles players had created themselves. Mining-fit battleships were replaced by specialised mining barges, and throwaway tacklers and scouts were replaced with fast interceptors and cloaked covert-ops ships. New corporation tools were released to help the power players of EVE organise, and formal alliance mechanics were introduced to help corporations work together. Starbases and outposts gave players a way to develop the empty areas of nullsec space and settle there, providing goals and conflict.
At some point over the course of EVE's development, focus shifted away from core infrastructure and into gameplay features. Rather than supporting EVE's in-game leaders in their efforts to give people a place to belong, CCP has been focusing on introducing new ways to play the game. We've seen the introduction of faction warfare, epic mission arcs, incursions, wormholes, planetary interaction and other big features. Almost every new feature in the past few years has been designed to broaden the appeal of EVE to new players and help it capture a larger segment of the now-colossal MMO market.
Leaders and followers
While this development strategy draws more people in to try the game out, that doesn't necessarily translate to increased subscription growth. EVE's subscription numbers have climbed slowly over the past 18 months from 302,000 to around 357,000, but a continuous graph of subscribers shows a worrying trend that we don't normally associate with EVE. For the last few expansions, subscriptions have peaked just after the expansions were released and then quickly dropped back to normal. This indicates that expansions are drawing in a lot of new and returning players, but that those players are not staying subscribed.
A lot of new features have been designed specifically for groups of players or individual follower-types who expect to be told where to go and what to do. This makes sense when looking at the numbers, as most people who play MMOs probably fall into this bracket. The majority of players in an MMO are not power players, in the same way that the majority of us in real life are not business leaders, politicians or managers. Only a small percentage of any population can be expected to lead, while the rest slot themselves into the organisations that leaders create. Unfortunately, designing features for groups or individuals without taking the organisers and leaders of EVE into account doesn't seem to work.
The problem is that these new features aren't being designed with player organisation in mind. Highsec incursions, for example, are notoriously difficult to organise a regular group for as they spawn randomly and are completed in as little as six hours at peak play times. Without highly effective organisational efforts from EVE's power players, new gameplay features will always suffer from a lack of longevity. We've seen it countless times, a good example being when star fleet commanders leave faction warfare militias.
When players lose their leaders, as in the above example, they're far less likely to stay in the game in the long-term. This means that EVE's player retention is tied directly to the ability of leaders to provide other players with a home. As a result, players who don't join corporations or who join corps that can't organise themselves well exhibit a drastically lower retention rate than those who get into solid corps and alliances. I strongly believe that developers should be focusing on providing EVE's player-leadership with better corp management, recruitment and organisational tools. Corps need to be able to offer solid benefits to members, and ideas for improvements on this front need to come from the players themselves.
Getting new players into the game is always a priority for an MMO, but in EVE it doesn't seem to be having the desired effect. It could even be negative for EVE's long-term prospects, as players who are unable to really get into the game are unlikely to give it another shot until another big expansion feature draws their eyes six months or a year down the line. Some will be so put off by their experience that they'll probably never play the game again.
The captain's quarters coming in this summer's expansion are aimed at helping new players find their feet in EVE and get into solid corps. For the captain's quarters to do what CCP wants in giving players a good start to EVE, however, the expansion will have to be paired with improvements to the corporate management system. CCP has been talking to EVE University to find out how the organisation is run and what can be done to help university-style corps proliferate, so hopefully this is the direction CCP is planning to take.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.