EVE doesn't really start until... you get into PvP
When EVE was launched back in 2003, its primary focus was on being an open world based on player-driven game mechanics. As usually happens when you put a lot of players in one place and give them the tools to kill each other, wars erupted. Despite the plethora of casual PvE elements introduced in recent years, EVE has always at its core been a PvP-oriented game. A long time ago, I was one of those players whose only experience of PvP was jumping into gate-camps or being on the receiving end of a roaming pirate gang. Since starting to PvP, I've found it to be the most real and engaging experience I've ever had in an MMO. If I hadn't gotten involved in PvP, I would probably have quit the game long ago.
I'd have to say that a lot of EVE's best gameplay centres around PvP. For many players, the ultimate goal of any ISK-making PvE venture is to buy ships with which to PvP. The issue with PvP being central to fun gameplay is that, as Sera said in her recent opinion column, a game should be presenting its most fun elements right from the start. Although new EVE players can become usefully involved in PvP within their first week of play, the game itself doesn't do much to encourage PvP involvement that early. With EVE's steep learning curve, the tutorials and early gameplay elements have to first cover the basics of travel, ship set-up and combat. After that, the player is introduced to PvE missions which may bore someone looking for PvP action.
EVE doesn't really start until... you join a good corporation
As a heavily social game, EVE almost demands that a player get involved with the online community in some manner. The main lure of having over 330,000 players in one server is that the communities that evolve there feel very real. As there are no separate instances or shards to play in, the actions taken by groups in EVE are a lot more tangible than they otherwise would be. This gives rise not just to on-going conflicts, but to politics, territorial warfare, market wars and an intense meta-game. I've often said that EVE doesn't really take off for a lot of people until they find a good corporation, and I stand by that assessment. Over the years, I've built some very real social relationships with members of my corporation and alliance, even bringing a few real life friends and siblings into the game. Just knowing that my friends are waiting for me in-game drastically increases my will to play EVE and has been a major factor in my sticking with the game for over six years.
A solid corp is more than just a group of people to chat with while you play. They're people that work together toward common goals and support each other. For new players, corporation members play an even more essential role. They're the guys who have your back on the battlefield, take you along on their missions to make some ISK and teach you to survive in New Eden. Unfortunately, this kind of social involvement isn't something you can guarantee every player or build into a game purposefully. EVE tries to ease players into corporations by having them start in an NPC-run starter corporation, but this doesn't really have the same effect. Players in an NPC corp aren't all there by choice and the group has no structured goals or events to bring members together. At best, NPC corporations simply act as a nice place to chat and ask questions about the game.
How could the new-player experience be changed?
Without intervention from another player or corporation, a new player may never get into PvP. That player's first experience of PvP is likely to be running into a gate-camp or pirate gang when inadvertently traveling through low security space. To combat this, perhaps a new PvP tutorial could enroll a player in his race's faction warfare militia. The tutorial could provide a few cheap frigates with common fittings, discuss how to get into PvP gangs and help the player get to grips with the tackler and damage-dealer roles he can fill from as early as his first week in the game.
As Sera mentioned, games should try to involve players in their most engaging gameplay right from the start. Getting players involved with EVE's social meta-game from day one is a tricky affair. Although it's not realistic to expect new players to join a good player-run corporation, perhaps the benefits of finding one could be made clearer. New players would also benefit from some tips on setting goals for themselves and finding a corporation with similar collective goals. Perhaps the easiest and most influential change that could be made to the new-player experience would be to coax people into the various social communities within EVE. There are plenty of forums, in-game chat channels, podcasts and even radio stations to engage people socially. The sooner players are introduced to them after starting the game, the better.
I can definitely get behind the notion that an MMO should be showing the player the best gameplay it has right from day one. Perhaps, then, EVE's main problem with retaining new players is that its best gameplay is sometimes too deep to become involved in within a free-trial period. Thankfully, the new-player experience is constantly under change and revision in an effort to make EVE more accessible. The big challenge, as far as I see it, is to consistently introduce new people to PvP and get them involved in the game's tight-knit social structures. But is it really possible to make EVE's deepest gameplay accessible to everyone, or is it something that will always take a great deal of time and effort to get into?