Something which is almost fundamental to modern MMO design is the idea of a level progression mechanic. Players expect to progress as they play, which can cause new players to despair when confronted with EVE's passive skill system. Skills train whether you're online or not, and you don't gain skill points from combat or any other activity. The skills required for basic ships and equipment will train quickly, but you'll soon find the skills you want can take days or weeks to train to a decent level. With effort decoupled from skill progression, players who are used to traditional MMO game design can feel demotivated, as if they aren't being rewarded for playing.
With its notoriously steep learning curve, EVE's progression isn't in the skill system itself but in a player's real experience with the game mechanics. What makes a player truly effective in EVE isn't the skills he trains while logged off but the real experience and skill he acquires while logged in and playing. No amount of waiting for skills to train can teach you how to fit out a battleship to tank level 4 missions, manipulate the market for a profit, get past gate camps or chain battleship spawns in nullsec. The outcome of PvP rarely hinges on the difference in trained skills of the individual players involved. Instead, it depends more on the size and composition of the fleets involved, the tactics employed and how well each side executed its chosen strategy.
Catching up to the veterans
New players will quickly discover that, since everyone's skills train in real-time, they'll never catch up in skill points to the older players. They see the 80 million skill-point lead that EVE's early adopters have on them and think they'll forever remain on the bottom of an ever-increasing pile. The truth is that EVE's skill system doesn't directly equate skill points with power or ability. Players coming from a game with levels might find it hard to grasp the fact that EVE has no linear power progression. The idea that a player with more skill points or more expensive ships and modules is not necessarily going to perform better at a given task can be a little counter-intuitive.
The thing to remember here is that a player can only specialise so far in any one area as there's are only so many skills which will affect any given ship or task. When I'm flying a Gallente Thorax, for example, all my skills in electronic warfare, missiles, industry and a dozen other categories aren't being used. A new player who has specialised in flying the Thorax could match my skills in the ship within just a few months of starting. If you want to catch up to the veterans, specialisation is definitely the name of the game. New features introduced with expansions also tend to require a new set of skills. This puts most players are on an even playing field as no player can possibly have trained the required skills before the feature went live.
What should I do?
Something that most pen-and-paper gaming enthusiasts will be familiar with is the concept of railroading. This is where the player is led along a roughly linear path through the game's content, with no real choice as to where they go or what they do. A less harsh variant on the idea would be quest chains in EverQuest 2, Runes of Magic or World of Warcraft, in which you move across an overland zone as the chain progresses and find yourself ready to enter a new area appropriate for your increased level. Fans of MMOs have come to expect some kind of direction from the game as to where they should go and what they should do to progress. Monster and quest levels restrict adventuring to a rough selection of level-appropriate zones, quest chains lead players from one zone to the next and instanced dungeons may be directly limited to a given level range.
As a sandbox game, EVE Online doesn't provide any obvious direction. This new philosophy can be jarring for someone coming from other games which railroad players or give them a clear idea of what they should be doing to progress. The trick to dealing with this transition is to see EVE as a game that lets you set your own goals rather than setting them for you. There are no arbitrary achievements for getting a solo kill in PvP, earning your first 100 million ISK or completing a hundred level 4 missions, but you're free to create those goals yourself. Good player-run corporations often create reward structures for their members and give out medals to commemorate achievements. If you're not sure what you could accomplish with your current ship, skills and experience, it always helps to ask older players for advice.
EVE Online is one of the few major MMOs which is based almost entirely on the sandbox philosophy. As such, preconceptions a player brings with him about what constitutes an MMO don't always apply to it. EVE is a game where using the best gear you can get your hands on could be an expensive mistake, and new players can fight alongside veterans as a useful part of PvP squads. The lack of linear progression or direction from the game itself can make it a tricky game for new players to adapt to, but one that I think is well worth the effort.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at massively.com. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you want to message him, send him an e-mail at brendan.drain AT weblogsinc DOT com.
Special thanks go to reader "Thorium88" for suggesting the idea for this week's column!