No, it’s not the rampant suicide ganking, security status mechanics, boring and broken PVE, unbalanced nullsec, wardec mechanics, sov mechanics, the failed ecosystem of lowsec, the misdirected development of features and unfixed bugs, it’s not the unfinished Incarna, not the Inferno inventory system, not the unbalanced ships, not the screwed new player experience.

Neither those, nor any of the other problems I will touch on at a later date. It isn’t even that Eve is too hard,1 otherwise, you would find much more people who can spell in it, and I’m not talking about English.2

Many games suffer from problems like these, but still grow stronger by the year. There is, instead, one core problem that makes every one of them threatening for the entire game. It always existed as far as I can remember Eve, but over time, it has been steadily getting worse, and the introduction of PLEX, which accidentally greatly facilitated it’s proliferation,3 has made it what it is today.

Eve is naturally slanted towards group playing, whatever you do. It’s considerably more effective, and usually more enjoyable, to PVP in groups, PVE in groups, mine in groups and there are actually very few activities truly meant to be done solo. The only real exception is station trading, but even that is better with a cartel. It is like this with just about any other MMO,4 most are strictly geared for group activity, and this is in fact the way they make money — they rent your friends out to you for monthly payments.5 This is normal and to be expected.

The big difference with Eve is that it’s harder to make those friends than in any other MMO. Once you make any, they’re probably more solid relationships than those you make in most other environments of this kind, but it’s harder to get started. Anyone who fleets you might shoot on you. Anyone whom you see is not just a competitor who can prevent you from progressing, but a direct threat who can knock you back by weeks of playing, rather than just hours. Every activity requires aggressive cushioning against risks.6 Social consequences of scamming, griefing for lulz, betraying trust are pretty much nil, and these activities are in fact encouraged, when not simply ignored. For many of them, no effective preventive or punitive measures even exist, because of unavoidable metagaming mechanisms.

This much has been pointed out so often, it can be considered obvious. The aspect of continual betrayal has typically been ascribed to Eve being fundamentally a PVP game with all the implications, and sometimes celebrated explicitly as such. But the devil is, in this case, in the long-term consequences, which are only brought up sparingly.

Gaining friendships in Eve is, in fact, so hard, that people will gladly pay for extra paying account alts, just to compensate for this, when the job in many cases would be better served by real players — often, new ones. Every cyno alt, or refiner alt, or scanner alt, or logistics alt in truth just displaces a player out of an in-game role. Yet, pretty much everyone has at the very least a neutral hauler alt on the same account, and the average number of accounts per user appears to be at least 3.7 That’s not really because these are jobs nobody would do,8 but because a cyno alt can’t drop you into a trap, a refiner alt won’t steal your stuff, a logistics alt can be sacrificed for you to get your killmail, a scanner alt won’t leave you stranded out of your home WH, a hauler alt won’t take your money/items and run. Trusting yourself is magnitudes easier. With PLEX, this has become even more common, as now excess income in ISK can be turned into extra paying accounts at the expense of someone else, who is, more likely than not, a newer player wishing to compete on a more equal footing, and therefore, in need of ISK.9

The newly arriving players get wind of this fairly quickly. While their own gameplay is chiefly limited to shooting up red crosses, the moment they veer away from it, they are faced with the world full of established corporations that don’t trust them, or corporations that trust them, but only to exploit them10 — even if those are the exception to the general rule, they simply cannot tell in the absence of any objective information. Trying to create a corporation of their own, if they trust anyone, they’re quite likely to meet someone out to exploit that trust and their inexperience in securing corporation assets. If they don’t veer away from shooting the red crosses, they remain alone for even longer, because the atmosphere of paranoia permeates even off-world news — grand alliance betrayals are widely publicised, and so are events like Burn Jita.

That leaves those that stick around congregating in the new player havens for much longer than they would (or should) otherwise, waiting out until more trustworthy company finds them. This produces the mindset of the solitary Empire carebear, who remains in an NPC corp, (because he’s afraid a wardec might come)11 runs missions alone (because he still can’t find enough people who definitely aren’t out to screw him) and never goes into lowsec, let alone 0.0 (because to mitigate risk around there you really need at least a scout) — in effect missing out on the great majority of Eve. They continue feeling this way even when part of an Incursion fleet. That’s not because they don’t feel safety in numbers at all, and not really because the above beliefs are explicitly true — though some of them are quite justified.

The attempt to get new players to switch to player-run corporations by chasing them out with tax rates12 did not actually have a positive effect, but instead, produced numerous one-man corporations and corporations full of alts of the same player, further isolating prospective new players in an universe out to eat them while they’re small. While the new recruitment system is actually much better than what was available back when I started, it still fails to address the core problem, as with no social memory, every corporation is effectively anonymous, there’s no reputation markers.

Beyond the initial new user attrition within the first few days, which filters out the people who simply don’t like the gameplay, and the later attrition of people who can’t take the learning curve, who mostly drop out well before trial expires, there is a substantial attrition of fresh paying accounts who would have otherwise stayed if they found themselves a social niche.13 They instead get stuck with the niches of solitary miners and agentrunners, from which they are actively displaced14 by established players, who seek to destroy this gameplay for one ideological reason or another, or just for lulz, without actually offering anything in return,15 except the dubious advice "tank your hulk better" or "watch dscan".16

CCP’s own promotional video "Butterfly Effect", which was so loved when it came out, actually starts the whole story by getting a lone player to assist a miner under attack, which starts a typical MMO cooperative relationship that leads to further adventures. Whether it’s a shallow friendship or not is beside the point, the good part about it is that it leads to mutual enjoyment of the game. Can you imagine that actually happening? It would be a nice thing if it were actually common, wouldn’t it? Well, it definitely isn’t. The only way it could even start is in low or null sec, otherwise, protecting the miner by shooting his attackers would get one concorded. A miner alone in low sec or null is in itself uncommon, and would be far more likely to dock up the moment any non-blues show up in local, which includes both his attackers and his would-be saviour. If he didn’t, it’s very likely instead, that he’s actually bait posted by a blob waiting next door. Not to mention that the miner would probably be dead before you’d have time to interfere if he really were a miner, as tanking a solo mining vessel requires it to sacrifice it’s yield. As a result, even if you decide to interfere at all, whoring in on the killmail right now and killing the attackers immediately afterwards confers greater killboard status, an immediate benefit, much preferable over the highly risky cooperation. Yeah, "we call it the Sandbox."

This brings us to formulating the fundamental problem with Eve that affects and permeates everything in a concise definition:

Gaining trust in the atmosphere of total paranoia is too hard for an average new player.

The basic level of trust you have in Eve for anyone is far lower than what you get with a completely random person on the street in any country Eve is played in. If it isn’t, you are taught otherwise sooner or later. There’s people who consider it their duty to do so, in fact, and they do it by providing examples why you shouldn’t trust random strangers. This paranoia leaks into absolutely everything else, and while in general it’s nothing but normal, in the degrees present in Eve, it just causes people to go look for methods which don’t involve having to trust anyone else. These cultural barriers to forming groups result in overwhelming advantages for sufficiently large groups based on off-world entities, where trust is available on that basis — like Goons, who’s core is selected exclusively through their off-game community, or the Russians.17 The most successful small corps are the small corps exclusively populated by people who directly know each other from somewhere else. And their alts. Can’t forget the alts.

As it stands now, Eve is fundamentally self-destructive. That would only really be a problem in the long run, as many years will pass until the stream of new players will properly dwindle, and until than, niches new players can occupy can come and go many times over. However, it makes the community dangerously unstable right now, as while the number of online players remains steady, with it’s ups and downs, the proportion of actual people playing among all the online accounts, instead, is very slowly receding over time, as more alts are created by veterans. Every major misstep by CCP immediately reflects in the online numbers, as veterans protest — but since each veteran is disproportionately represented in multiple accounts at the same time, angering a sufficient number of veterans can result in decimating18 the game almost overnight.

Even that doesn’t spell death for an online game if it’s sufficiently special and populous, which Eve is. However, certain other special circumstances may make it even more unstable — and these are nearby on the horizon, a done deal, and I shall touch on those a few posts later.

Can this problem be solved? Definitely not in one fell swoop, it’s root cause is a design decision that cannot be changed without destroying the game entirely. But with determined, subtle changes, it probably can be. Communities are hard to change, communities paranoid about any change19 are even harder to alter. The obvious improvements that are sometimes suggested — reducing skill training times, improving the tank on industrial and mining ships,20 et caetera — will definitely not have the desired effect due to Malcanis’ Law.21 Whatever you do to make new players reach relevance among the veterans faster will only make it more practical to replace them with newly manufactured alts, just like removing the learning skills did.

There is one postulate that is commonly believed to be true that actually is not. The developer intention that you shouldn’t be safe anywhere in Eve, which creates it’s constant-PVP aspect, translates into not being safe from anyone, ever. Everyone seems to believe it’s an inevitable consequence of that praised design decision. It is not, however, actually inevitable. Not being safe anywhere is perfectly OK, as long as there’s someone you’re definitely safe from — your chosen group. As long as randomly selected new players can form groups where they can easily acquire and keep each other’s trust, and these groups can stand up to veterans,22 everything will work out.

But as long as neither is achievable, measures taken to increase the number of new signups will just increase the number of signups, but won’t do anything for new player retention.

  1. Though truth be told, some things in it are pointlessly hard, mostly because of interface or design relics that go back all the way to 2004, or even straight to Beta. With grand scope of Eve come unending lists of things that weren’t touched since they were introduced.

  2. I see Russians who can’t spell Russian just as often. A random side observation is that the level of linguistic competence online is the best indicator of intellectual maturity, but by far not a perfect one — I’ve met lots of smart, nice people who couldn’t spell or type for one reason or another.

  3. Let’s not forget the power of two offer, which did that quite deliberately for a reason I still can’t fathom.

  4. Naturally, exceptions exist, though they are extremely rare. Star Trek Online is really much more of a single player game. It’s a fairly decent one, at that.

  5. But the nature of relationship between the community and the game developers will be a subject of a later posting…

  6. "Never fly what you can’t afford to lose."

  7. Which is quite a conservative estimate. I really have no data on the account-per-user, and I wish I did, so I have to go by eyeballing it, but it appears that just about any bitter vet typically has at least two accounts, four accounts are much more common, and people listing as many as ten are clearly not the exception either.

  8. Though, I must say that if people genuinely can’t find anyone to do these jobs for them even when discounting the trust aspect, it is in itself an indication that the game is not growing fast enough to support itself. I am, however, making a case for the game actually slowly shrinking here, which is worse.

  9. Or a hardcore PVPer out to get good fights who finds that PVP is an ISK sink necessitating such income. Most of these appear to be fairly solitary as well, come to think of it…

  10. To quote a random comment elsewhere, Most corps I’ve been in have usually been 3-5 people that have been e-friends for years that wanted to fill out their fleet roster so they could do bigger/better stuff (i.e. they needed a Logi/Hulk/Hauler/CovOps Bitch to help them get more ISK/KillMails). Then there are the 3-5 buddies that build an entire missioning corp around them so they can PVP with the tax revenue. Or the 3-5 buddies that start a Worm-Hole corp so they can steal everyone’s T3s a few months after their "recruitment drive." That was fun… I’d go on, but you get the idea. Couldn’t put it better myself.

  11. Or creates a one-man corp for tax evasion and immediately destroys it upon wardec.

  12. I still remember when Eve didn’t have those NPC corp tax rates. It should be noted that the listed developer motivation for introducing them was to counter the highsec carebears wardec immunity, which, in the light of the current Inferno wardec debacle, is quite amusing. Before that change, new player corporations were very good help channels, which, while proliferating the culture of Empire carebears, at least served to keep people in the game. I don’t see them doing anything of the sort now, the channels are eerily quiet…

  13. As a side note, I’m willing to bet that a great many of them are here because of fantasy poisoning, not because Eve is a PVP game. It just so happens that it’s one of the very, very few internet spaceship games as well. But I’ll talk about fantasy poisoning later too…

  14. Not necessarily successfully, but actively, oh yes.

  15. To be fair, if they said instead, "Come fly with us and PVP the guys next door," or even "Come mine and build ships for us, we’ll protect you," few people in their right mind would trust them, so it’s not like they can offer any gameplay in return, certainly not any cooperative gameplay.

  16. Notice that "tanking a hulk better" or "watching dscan" implies that the miner will still be mining alone in it — unlike the far less common advice, "use multiple hulks to web each other and mine aligned while moving at negligible speeds". In fact, defensive advice which would recommend people band together is in general uncommon in Eve — because even the people giving advice are typically thinking in terms of paranoia.

  17. Unlike most Western Europe players, Russians are not just maginalised by their language, which nobody else normally speaks, but also rarely speak English well themselves. Those that don’t have this problem tend to prefer communities that don’t make the language a required building block. I imagine Japanese have the same problem, but there aren’t yet enough of them to make a significant national enclave. By the time there is, though, we should expect to see another Red Alliance.

  18. "Decimating" means "removing 1/10th" — of the population, in this case. Summer of Rage did pretty much exactly that.

  19. Many of the forum rageposts about this or that proposed change are really because of worrying that someone else is trying to destroy their hard-earned social niche through metagaming. Not that some people don’t try to do exactly that.

  20. Even though this is exactly what CCP Ytterbium has announced they will be doing.

  21. "Whenever a mechanics change is proposed on behalf of ‘new players’, that change is always to the overwhelming advantage of richer, older players." Whatever serves the needs of new players to become more relevant or successful, will just as readily affect the newly created alts of older players, if it doesn’t affect their main characters directly. Since they no longer have the learning curve problem, they can the advantage of a mechanic change before the real new players can, competing them out of the picture again. Sidestepping this is possible in theory, but rarely done in practice.

  22. I don’t think the mindset of the existing veteran groups regarding trust can actually be changed regardless of what game mechanics can be introduced to prop it up.