Optimists say the glass is half full. Pessimists say the glass is half empty. I’m a scientist, so I doubt the glass really exists in the first place.
Eve Online is developed in so-called "expansions", of which there have been sixteen so far, each of which added new features and fixes in a large, bulk download. While some of them were kind of like what the rest of the MMO industry calls ‘expansions’ — adding large new territories, new ships to fly, and in short adding new content for consumption, most really weren’t, instead concentrating on new features which are not actually content as such, but rather, new opportunities for player interaction.
Today, I’m going to say why I think this is a bad idea to do it this way. I certainly won’t be the first to say something of the sort, but my take on it is more radical.
I want to dispel some illusions.
Illusion #1: Expansions are good, because they cause players to return
As I have mentioned before, looping development cycles which release new content are an unavoidable feature of an endgame content game, in which players are meant to grind through the game content in a relatively short order, and social interaction is reserved as the means to occupy them in endgame stages until the next batch of content can be produced. Eve Online is an eternal subscription game, that aims to build a community of players and keep them playing in perpetuity while being mostly occupied with each other, rather than static game content. At least, it appears to be designed with that strategy in mind, and has one of the best initial setups in the industry for the purpose.
If this is accepted, expansions getting players to return are actually a mistake! If things were coming out as soon as they need to, addressing player grievances that cause them to lose interest would reduce attrition rates, and they might not have left in the first place. Spreading the features across the year would instead smooth out population waves, even out income and make it more stable, and provide for easier debugging and iteration cycles.1
Illusion #2: Expansions are good for marketing
That, once again, assumes Eve to be a looping endgame content game, which it is not. While it is not as popular as it could or should be, for reasons I have already described, it is, in the end, still a niche game, which neither needs nor will ever have more than a million or two subscriptions. As a result, the traditional marketing channels which every other game under the sun can use are not optimal, because you’re selecting from an already selected minority. You don’t market Eve Online to gamers, or to hardcore gamers, or to casual gamers, or to middle management executives, or to people living in basements, their mother’s or otherwise, or to any other well defined social group. You market it to people who love spaceships, whether they are gamers or not. This is a much wider and much looser category of people, in which one out of maybe a hundred will take the time to study it, and of these maybe one in ten will call it home, because of fitting the elusive niche qualities. While there’s only one internet spaceship game on the market,2 there’s only one internet spaceship game to market. People who couldn’t take the learning curve the first time won’t take it a second time, and the niche isn’t theirs in the first place. People who couldn’t integrate into the social environment are another problem, one which isn’t the marketing department’s to solve. But everyone else is fair game.
As it is, expansion marketing strategy fails:
- It attracts people who believe Eve is an endgame content game, because it markets like other similar games. These don’t find Eve a niche game they like.
- It is forced to disguise iterations and fixes as radical new features, which the intelligent people, exactly the kind more likely to find Eve a niche for their liking, see through immediately. Veterans who already know Eve may only become interested when a critical mass of such iterations and fixes is accumulated, so it’s not efficient to attract them either.
- Marketing Eve as if it were an endgame content game can’t follow the concept of unique selling point. Eve’s unique selling point is that it’s a spaceship game, by trying to compete with other games in this fashion it gives up that point.
- It does not attract people who have never played a MMO game before, which are exactly the people among which Eve should seek it’s audience — unspoiled by expectations of being held by the hand the entire time.
What instead works best for marketing Eve in particular, or should, is getting more mentions of Eve in mainstream and gaming media, which the players readily provide by creating "emergent content" — biggest space battle ever, biggest corporate heist ever, biggest alliance ever, biggest player uprising ever, most people online in a single gaming universe ever, etc, etc, etc. These work for attracting new players. Take these and run with them, make press releases, push videos out, these are just as much developer achievements as they are player achievements — use them. Advertising expansions at best gets veterans to come back, when not having expansions could be used to stop them from leaving in the first place.
Introducing changes throughout the year at a steady rate, instead, would allow players the opportunity to do newsworthy things more often by taking advantage of changing playing field.
Argument #1: Expansion packing makes the resulting work worse
Take, for example, the safety feature described in the recent dev blog. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, it’s actually very nice. Except that the safety gets reset to green whenever you log in, and the minute statement that there’s no time to make it stick until the Retribution expansion release date — that will be fixed in a later point release. What?…
And I would argue to delay the release until this was fixed to everyone’s liking, but that release is packaged with so many other things I’d very much like to see that I can’t. There’s no end to small annoyances like that introduced throughout previous expansions, and later fixed through point releases or, more importantly, not fixed at all, ever, because developers were reallocated to work on the next expansion.
Just look at Inferno’s inventory. Undeniably a huge step forward, despite the incessant bitching, but wouldn’t it be better if it could be released with less bugs in it? Wouldn’t there be less bitching, for that matter? In fact, what if I suggested a heresy and say that it could be released in parallel with the old inventory code, as an optional system, which, as bugs were ironed out of it, eventually became the default, the old inventory being phased out and removed completely over the course of months? Not doing that just limits feedback to people who care to log onto the test server, a small minority. Which isn’t listened to terribly well.
Argument #2: Expansion packing lengthens iteration cycles
Every minor problem Eve has only looks minor in the grand scheme of things, but to someone’s play style it’s actually critical and gamebreaking. Eve has no end to those minor problems. Actual major problems that cause people to lose hope with Eve’s future and leave en masse are rare, they get easily identified and sometimes fixed — with "mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!", which is embarrassing and does not do well for developer’s ego, but it’s the smaller problems that actually spur player attrition, every day while they exist.
Every day off that calendar is a veteran more pleased with the game, more likely to recommend it to someone, more likely to invite and keep someone, and a newbie more likely to stick, and delaying each individual piece of code until they can all be pushed out in bulk is a mistake.
I could honestly go on, but this is like ranting against the wind, nothing good will come of it. Expansions being good for marketing is an illusion. Expansions being so important for marketing that actual maintenance and improvement work has to be tailored to match them is even more of an illusion. That’s not to say that certain features can’t be worked on for years and released as something which could, in theory, be called an ‘expansion’ — a revamp of the entirety of POS mechanics would certainly qualify, or the fabled Walking In Stations3 — but the whole cycle simply needs to go.
It might well be, that there are other reasons to do it this way — technical, organizational, commercial. But until I know about them, I can’t help but ask — could we have a monthly, or, dare I say, weekly patch of small fixes instead?
It’s a given that in an eternal subscription game, adjusting the game mechanics to changing social situation is the most important tool the developer has to keep subscriptions actually eternal, it needs to be done frequently, and in quick feedback loops.↩
Star Trek Online notwithstanding.↩
But I shall have a long post on why Walking In Stations fell victim to the marketing illusion of expansions, why it could have revitalised Eve and why shelving it now so throughly and leaving the existing rudiment is a bad idea. It has to do with some fundamental sociology and social psychology, unfortunately.↩