“In a way you could say that we’ve been failing at teaching Eve for 19 years,” says Bergur Finnbogason, the creative director of Eve Online. It’s not the whole story when it comes to new players in the infamous space MMO, but it is the dominant one.
Among the many graphs that Finnbogason presented to the Eve faithful during his Fanfest keynote in Reykjavík this year, one was a colourful standout. It showed Eve Online’s learning curve as a comedy cliff face, so steep that it turned back on itself. Stickmen tumbled from its peak, while others were crucified or hanged from the curve’s mantel – killed by Eve’s notoriously cruel new player experience. It earned a laugh of grim recognition from the audience, all survivors of that terrible climb.
If you think of Eve as an alternative reality – perhaps the deepest and most societally complex that PC gaming has to offer – then the issue quickly becomes apparent. Starting out in Eve isn’t so much a question of learning the controls as it is another birth.
“The problem is, on this side of reality, we go to kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school, college, university,” Finnbogason says. “And at 25, you feel like you have the mental brainpower to maybe buy a flat or not be drunk every Tuesday of your life. So it is a crazy thing, expecting that a new player would wander into low-sec after a day or a week. There’s so much beauty and epicness that happens once you hit this PvP element of Eve, but teaching it is super daunting.”
New players come to Eve all the time, off the back of stories they’ve read about grand, player-driven battles and shocking, high concept betrayals. But the gulf between their first baby steps and participation in that emergent space opera is so wide as to seem insurmountable.
“The churn is just phenomenal for Eve, how many people don’t make it past an hour,” says Mike Azariah, an Eve veteran who runs an initiative for new players called Operation Magic School Bus. “It’s hard to explain to new players that there isn’t a right thing to do next.”
“We funnel an incredible amount of new players through, and we’re really good at killing them,” Finnbogason says. “They somehow manage to come out the other end with three black eyes. We’re just really good at not allowing them to experience the awesome that Eve is.”
“We funnel an incredible amount of new players through, and we’re really good at killing them.”
It’s not that developer CCP hasn’t been trying. Over the years, the Icelandic studio has made numerous attempts to soften the curve, with mixed results. “But every time we’ve tried new things, we’ve learned something new,” Finnbogason says. “And back in 2019, we basically made the call that, OK, we have to stop looking at this as a thing we can duct tape, and we need to look at this as a company-wide problem.”
CCP started asking staff in HR and finance to sit down and log into Eve for the first time. They watched as these space babies “crashed into walls”. And in the months afterward, the dev team worked with the manta ‘stop the bleeding, fix the stupid’, patching up the bad experiences that plagued the early game. “It was just really hard to understand Eve,” Finnbogason says. “I think we had 135 different buttons in the game. We taught the blue OK button, and then it was pink and round. That’s bad. Sometimes you’ve just gotta take a step back, take a deep breath and say, OK, we gotta deal with it.”
Since CCP halted the haemorrhaging, it has patched a new story-driven intro into Eve that begins right after character creation, and concerns the cinematic evacuation of a besieged facility. There’s also an introductory mining mission in the same vein – a bit of ore humour for you there – and plans for a similarly curated quest focused on exploration, which the studio’s data shows is one of the major draws for new players. These NPC stageshows aren’t what hardcore Eve is like, of course. Instead they’re more like interpretive art – fictions designed to represent the kind of dramas that occur in player-owned space.
Beyond that initial greeting, CCP is working on the AIR Career Program – a background system designed to guide new players through activities in their chosen space job. It’ll track player actions, provide rewards for completed goals, and let newbies try out ships in advance to discover what they enjoy. Or, as game designer CCP Nomad put it to the corp owners in Fanfest’s audience: “It creates capable Eve players who know what to do and how to do it.”
That remains to be seen. But these efforts have yielded some measurable results. In 2018, the median time for a first session in Eve was 13 minutes. Now it’s 27 minutes. “By giving people purpose, we’re actually starting to push up the sessions after the first session,” Finnbogason says. 57% of Eve Online players today joined since the last Fanfest in 2018 – a figure which certainly suggests that more newcomers are sticking around.
57% of Eve Online players today joined since 2018 – a figure which certainly suggests that more newcomers are sticking around.
Yet an Eve birth is evidently still about as comfortable as Neo’s harvesting from the fetus fields in The Matrix. If it wasn’t, there would be no need for volunteers like Azariah, whose Operation Magic School Bus began as an offhand suggestion on a podcast seven and a half years ago.
“I said we need something like a welcome wagon to help the players connect to the game more,” he recalls. “The NPC game is very sterile and mechanical, but if there was somebody there who was actually a real player to talk to them, that would help.”
In practical terms, giving new players a leg up meant heading to the rookie space systems and putting out an open call: “Speak up in local and I’ll give you a ship, fitted”. And so that’s what Azariah has been doing ever since. It’s an expensive hobby, but as it turns out, there are enough Eve philanthropists to keep the project stocked with first-level ships indefinitely.