EVE Online is going “free to trial” with the introduction of Alpha clones that can in principle do the same things for free that we pay monthly for but with less powerful tools. This allows players to experience all that EVE has to offer but with no real monetary risk involved. The EVE community is strongly behind this for the simple reason that more players = more content = more fun. EVE online is one of the very few MMOS where human interaction actually matters and bringing new players into the game has always been a heated topic. Other than the monthly subscription and EVE’s (unjustified) reputation of “Excel in Space for supernerds and sociopaths”, what really stands in the way of new players experiencing our Universe is the sheer complexity of the EVE game. The choices that a relatively young pilot can make are staggering. You can create your new character and immediately embark on a trip into the deepest, darkest depth of Sovereignty Null Security or Wormhole space. Nothing other than players will stop you. And we will, of course, which is what this is all about. New players get easily confused by this freedom and log off, blaming the game for its steep learning curve and that “you can’t catch up”. We know that this is nonsense but it has been a very hard reputation to kill.
I wondered, though, how do other games do this? While we EVE players think we are special, other games have the exact same issues.
Progression-based games like World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online make it simple, you roll a new character in an entirely protected starter area (“petting zoo”) and gently plink away at a few sheep or rabbits until you get the hang of the one weapon and the one move you have. Then you level and progress. Incrementally, you get more skills, tougher foes, broader choices where to go. The world opens up, increasing freedom is created by increasing the decision space and the player is gently let loose into the greater world. This caring, nurturing approach is a combination of protection (starter zones don’t allow PvP) and motivation (specific tasks that a new player can accomplish and where failure is reversible). EVE Online has a rocky history with security for new players in general and the concept of entirely safe starter zones has been discussed ad nauseam. But in the end, “safety” doesn’t fit the narrative of the game and philosophically, EVE does not need to be Warcraft, we are allowed to be different. And while there is nowhere safe in New Eden, brand new players are now guided along a much more specific path with clearer goals, engaging missions before they are gently set down on their own feet. This is laudable, hugely needed and in effect the only realistic way that CCP can act.
How about free-to-play games? I recently picked up War Thunder, a game where you pilot a tank or a plane, get dropped into an arena with your team and shoot at people that are on the other team. The arcade style game promises quick 15 minute increases in heart rate, little adrenaline rush between grinding work conference calls. And to be sure, the new player is given a tank that works as expected, a 5 minute tutorial on a shooting range and is dropped into battles where the goal is clear, the risks are zero and the sight of burning tanks is oddly satisfying. I loved zooming around in my starter tank, sneak around a corner and wallop a shell into the unprotected rear end of an evil foe. If detected, I could take a hits and generally run away. Fun game! And then I leveled and everything stopped. Somehow, I was advanced into a new tier (not my doing) and found myself entirely under-armored and under-gunned. Now, if I sneaked into a position and land a hit on an enemy, my strongest shell will generate “no damage” on my enemy. More often though, I don’t even get into position but am one-shotted by an unseen tank literally across the entire map. The game experience is excruciatingly bad and I simply serve as a feeder for those who are willing to pay some form of real life currency to advance their tanks. Obviously, as soon as I find another game that scratches this it, WarThunder is deleted from my PC.
New players in EVE online will face a similar issue with they Alpha characters, if they ramp up the risk a little (i.e. venture into lowsec), they will be clay pigeons to the shotguns of established PvP outfits. Heck, even I may go hunting for foolish newbs who take their Ventures out of highsec in search of riches. But here also comes the difference to WarThunder. Once a new player is shot dead, generally the killer engages him with real advice, money and maybe recruits him to his team. For doubters, this scenario is far more common that one thinks. Old EVE players are nearly compulsory teachers, we want new players be better, stronger and on our side. This is the fundamental difference between WarThunder and EVE – the game, the mechanics and player base is geared toward engagement and interaction, without it, we’d have no New Eden.
Ok, lets head back to other games. A while ago, I did purchase Elite:Dangerous and attempted the tutorials. Space, vehicle shooters, WASD, all seemed familiar. However, then the tutorial was so bad that I could not for the life of me figure out how to undock and had watch YouTube for the most basic guides. My friend Oreamnos flew many lightyears to watch me fail to dock, apparently a common occurrence when one tries to fly without a joystick. I don’t have a joystick, sorry. Nowhere did it say that I must have one and I was willing purchase one to improve the game, not to enable it. I tried the game again last week and while the tutorials are much improved, some bug prevented me from docking and frustration ran high. As a new player, I am frustrated not by the social interaction but but the sheer opaqueness of the game control trying to achieve my minimalist goals.
Now, this is something that EVE is at risk of also. Aside from the New Player Experience, EVE is full of weird menus and occult wisdom how to operate it. Look at the Overview and how its set up, to be honest I still don’t understand half of its option. And yes, for some situations, the player must interact with these archaic systems and without the community, the new player will soon be driven off.
So, I do feel bullish about bringing in Alpha players into our game and hobby and I do believe CCP has done their part to facilitate a gently entry and a reasonably soft landing. But it is our job to take Alphas by the hand, point them into the right direction and give them a mighty kick in rear to get them out of missions, mining and into exploration and explosions.