Character Creation & the EVE New Player Experience
This dev blog is dedicated to the character creation part of the second of a total of three major upgrades scheduled for EVE’s new player experience – The basic tutorials and introduction being the first, the character creation and the first batch of informative tutorials being the second and the COSMOS project and the second batch of informative tutorials being the third (slated for 2007).
1- The Character Creation
There have been a number of misconceptions floating around, as well as some actual issues, particularly how we will treat characters that have already been created and have less skill points than new characters after Revelations.
I will start by cutting to the chase and tell you exactly as clearly as I can, the core of what we are doing in Revelations. Then I will and follow up with elaboration on the issues, reasons behind them, reflect on the whole New Player Experience package and finally (for the ones that like to dig deep and really pick our brains) I’ll go through the groundwork we went through. That’s where the real reasons and methods lie.
1.1- The core of what we are doing:
- Every new character will get between 800k and 810k SP. No more, no less.
- Players can choose between 4 races, 12 bloodlines, 42 ancestries and in all 24 new very different career specializations (4 races x 3 careers x 2 specializations).
- We are not touching the basic attributes – They will remain as they have been.
- Characters get skills that strictly originate from their cultural background – Amarr and Gallente are armor oriented, Caldari and Minmatar shield oriented, etc. – Any cross-cultural overlap is as EVE design dictates.
- We provide detailed and summarized descriptions of the options in each step, and weave them together so that players can create a character quickly and impulsively or take their time contemplating the options as they desire.
- We reduce the number of steps a player has to go through to create his character.
- We add roleplaying information to the existing and new character creation steps.
- Use the last step of the character creation as a “Confirmation” page, where every choice can be reviewed.
The layout of the character creation is vastly improved so that…
- People that have seen nothing or heard nothing about EVE except possibly the introduction movie, are reasonably aware of the impact of their choices.
- A summary of all options within the current step will be visible simultaneously.
- Those wanting more than a summary are provided with detailed information upon request
- A human voice recites all the detailed information for increased clarity and understanding (will be implemented in Revelations 2nd phase).
- A progress bar makes it easy to jump back and forth in the character creation, reviewing and changing individual selections.
- We compensate characters that have already been created (using the old system) and have less than 800.000 SP. Characters with more than that will not be affected. This will happen when the servers go down for the Revelations patch.
2- Elaborating on the points and reasons
The question “Why change the character creation now?” is the first one I want to address. Partly because it’s a derivative from the original one that we had to ask ourselves: “Should we? Do we dare?” Obviously, since it’s being patched in a few days, the answer is “Yes!” and hopefully anyone consuming this devblog will agree when it’s done.
2.1- The overriding reason - The skill point difference
Until now, people have been able to create over 1.400 possible character combinations. Thereof, 126 characters yielded under 6000 SP, but a player who got lucky (or knew the game enough to know what to pick) could get over 303.000 with one of the combinations. Furthermore, hundreds of combinations resulted in less than 20.000 SP, while only about 20 resulted above 275.000 SP.
A player realizing 4 weeks into the game that they could have started with over fifty times more SP with a few different choices (perhaps made in ignorance or by mistake) is bound to become a little miffed.
The new character creation does not punish those that are unlucky or don’t notice or realize the importance of SP this early on, since the maximum difference between the high and low of 800-810.000 is close to 1%. It is in line with the EVE vision that the gamers should be minimally subject to luck and maximally subject to skill. And it is not reasonable to assume that every potentially skillful pilot gets exposed to the correct data before booting the game up for the first time.
Of these 800.000 skill points, 512.000 are derived from two level 5 skills of rank 1 (or one skill of rank 2) that each character gets as a part of his school’s career specialization.
Essentially, we are shaving off what has been considered by subscribers and the media alike, to be “mandatory training time” during which there is little people can do, and allowing people to start doing something sooner. This criticism has been consistent and as it has played out (and I will get into that later), it has become at least partially true.
The amount of skill points allotted to new characters will now become comparable across the line, but the skills themselves will be vastly different between careers, specialization and races. Each race will now know much more about its special weaponry and ship technology than the other races do except where they overlap, (like Cal/Min & Am/Gall do with shields/armor). Amarr characters will therefore get more out of fitting Amarr ships than others to begin with, making the choice of race much more relevant than it was before.
One concern people have displayed on our official boards is this will not be a one-time change – that we’ll keep on going until we “dumbify” the game. That is absolutely not the plan. The reason is that we simply know better now, 3 years into the game, what we actually did when we made it and with the experience we now have, it is much easier to read the future.
Probably everyone that reads this knows how much fun EVE becomes when you can start using equipment that allows you to do at least one single thing relatively well, even though you don’t know the first thing about the next piece of equipment. This NPE upgrade will simply move this fun factor for new players from four weeks in the future to the front of the line. Everyone reading this probably also knows full well that nobody is “uber” or even close to it with only 800.000 SP. It just enables you to do some of the real stuff.
2.2- Operation: Revelations compensation
The Mission: To compensate people that have less skill 800.000 skill points when we upgrade to the new character creation.
Every character that has less than 800.000 SP will receive skills until he has more than 800.000 SP. Characters created a week before we patch will thus have the same amount of SP as new characters, or more. They will naturally also have the advantage over completely new characters of more ISK and of course experience.
The upside of giving every character this treatment (including inactive characters sharing accounts with a “main” character) is that everybody feels the love. Players that have been playing for a while will always have an advantage on freshly created characters, be it in ISK or simply in gaming experience.
2.2.1- How we will do this
We have made a list of the primary skills of each school existing characters graduated from when they were created (Hedion University, Royal Imperial Institute, etc.). When we patch, we will go through them in order with each character and add skill levels to the skills listed in the order specified until the characters end up inside the 800-810.000 skill point range. There is some possibility that some old characters might go above that - It'll be like winning a lottery and we'll let it slide.
220.127.116.11- Cycling through the skills
If a bump would take a player past 810.000SP, say from 790k to 830k, then that skill level is not added, but we look at the next skill in line for that school/race. This will be repeated as often as necessary or until the skills allowed have been depleted.
In the improbable thing happens and the player has depleted the skills allowed (per school, per Race) and they have been cycled through, the pilot will still be bumped up a level so he is not left below 800k. Again, there is a slight chance that some character will get a bit more than their share, but we'll live with that.
18.104.22.168- How we determined the skills
The system we will implement is based entirely on the skill hierarchy of the new careers and specializations (that are again tied to the schools), built on top of what the character already had. Difference in emphasis between skills and similar schools is reflected in the current character creation.
Upon creation, all existing characters graduated from a school that the user selected. That school, and through it the cultural background of the character dictates what skills are given. The exact list will not be revealed before we patch because it has a slight risk of being abused (even though time is limited).
3- “I need to blog this!”
A wise man (on our message boards, no less) once told me that he thought it was reassuring when devs were not posting a lot on the boards, because then there was a slight chance that they were fixing something. I thought that was quite clever, but a couple of threads with a lot of questions prompted me to start scribbling down a defense for the EVE New Player Experience (NPE) which developed into this blog when emotions began rising over the character creation revamp.
As a result, I treat the whole thing more or less as one package because that’s how my experience of it has been, working on it from start to finish, so bear with me.
3.1- EVE New Player Experience
A proper NPE for a MMORPG like EVE is very complicated. EVE old-timers know that the original approach was quite stripped leaving players with plenty of questions about core mechanics, the user interface and the world in general.
As a result, while making the first stretch – creating the basic, big tutorials – we wanted to tell people something about the world they were entering, give them enough information to make enlightened choices about the character they would be playing, and introduce them to the game well enough for them to make an informed choice within a reasonable time span whether they want to play it or not.
It has been commented on many occasions that the tutorial we released in 2005 is very thorough but also long-winded, but I would rather say that it is slow burning, which is also a true reflection of EVE. Making it was an endless string of decisions about where to set the standards for speed on one hand and thoroughness on the other, while being fanatically pedagogical in deciding the order in which to introduce game elements and concepts, as they rely on each other.
The way I see it, introducing a MMORPG to a person has developed into something completely different from any tutorial task before attempted. Culture, language, age, political views, emotions – basically every non-corporeal thing that we call human – is thrown in a single massive melting pot and EVE is by far the biggest single one in the world. Realizing, or admitting that we know more now than before is a part of the answer to the “Why…?” because we needed to rationalize this to ourselves first and make sure we weren’t pissing into the wind.
We want to make everything fun, and speed tends to be more fun but thoroughness serves better the purpose of tutorials, and that usually takes time. We can say that it’s better not to bother making a superfluous or insufficient tutorial and that is even more true if the tutorial is too damn long for anyone to play through. This was a massive headache, but the bottom line was that a tutorial for EVE simply had to contain a lot of information so we tried an unusual approach by creating Aura, the ship’s computer, and developing her character. Creating Aura was the only way to meet the demand that the tutorial was a part of the game lore. She is the only entity that is believable when she talks to pilots regardless of where they were – She simply had to be inside the pod.
Roleplaying and background story issues blended into the script for Aura and of course coherency with the vision.
Anyway, server statistics soon showed that 90% of players that didn’t shut the tutorial down on the first two pages, finished Aura’s entire Station Tutorial. The players that undocked and completed the first two pages of Aura’s Flight Tutorial a great majority made it past the deadspace complex tutorial, at which point most of the critical basic elements about EVE have been taught. We accept that we will never get absolutely everyone to run through game tutorials, and this result is very satisfying. Particularly when it is kept in mind how long that thing is.
We believe our novel approach improved everyone’s gaming experience and the mindset we had when we set out to revamp the character creation in 2006 was to continue with that.
3.2- Creating a character in EVE
I like to think of the character creation is a part of the journey into EVE. It is a journey you only take once – you can relive it but the virgin experience is a one time affair. EVE as a living story and as with any good story it is the beginning that captivates and arouses the desire to want to enjoy the rest of it. A story is not a string of quotations, or read just because of the ending, or everyone could just skip to it. It is enjoyed because of the entire experience and every chapter counts.
A new player experience does not always conform with this metaphor. The first “chapters” (like our introduction movie and the tutorials) are frequently skipped over. But the ideal is that they are a part of everyone’s experience and that must be a designer’s goal. The entire experience is more fun if you know what you are doing and how to go about doing it from the get-go. Just like the book that makes more sense because you did not skip the first chapter or the movie is more fun because you did not miss the first ten minutes and have to spend half of it piecing together what you should already know.
Generally, creating a character in a MMORPG needs to take into account a great amount of issues that do not burden games from other genres. It is a young genre and because of how cumbersome it is dealing with the great amount of people simultaneously prodding around in the world and the limited number of games around, its new player experience “science” is far from established.
EVE is built to be immersive and believable and we took care not to compromise that at any point. Following an introduction movie, which we are quite satisfied with as an introduction to the game, the character creation step is of course very abstract, and tricky to make believable. Creating a well rounded, fully educated and experienced space ship pilot in 5 minutes is in itself unbelievable, but given some background and thorough overview of available choices and the difference between them, it can be an immersive process and even believable. Like a summary of a lifetime – A prologue to life.
Confirm these choices?
The main strong point of the old character creation was how stylish it was and graphically coherent with the rest of the game in the sense that it took place in space literally. The main drawback was that it left so little behind and the impact of available choices was abstract and unclear. Usability testst showed that it even became a “Whatever... left-click” experience, and people frequently had no idea what they were doing.
EVE set itself clearly apart from the rest of the genre when it came to the game system and how characters are built. We felt it demanded a new fresh approach, setting our NPE apart from other games also. Or maybe we’re just cocky and like to do things our own way.
4- The Groundwork
As I’ve detailed, the old character creation looked stylish, everyone agreed on that, but it was neither as balanced or as transparent as we would have liked it to be. Usability tests showed on one hand that that people had generally no idea what they were actually choosing in the character creation and unsure when it was over and they were in game. There was also some frustration when it was over because some choices were made as a test or a joke, like the name.
EVE has enjoyed a steady growth over an extended period of time, and is one of only a few games to have found the magic dust needed for that. The safe approach would be to use a “status quo” approach and there are a number of sayings that encourage that: “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it!” and “Don’t rock the boat!” being good examples. But then again, everyone knows that a shark that doesn’t swim will drown and CCP is a company situated in the capital of a rock in the middle of the Atlantic, so...
4.1- Defining the Challenges
Realizing the seriousness of our challenge was the first order of the day. Improving the first steps that new players in EVE have to take is clearly a delicate and difficult subject. A lot of emotion is involved at every stage, and every conceivable point needed to be argued, modified and re-applied. It became clear early on that it would be a literal tightrope-walk between EVE convention and history, progressive and conservative expectations. It had to be justifiable to the existing playerbase and required us to look into what playing EVE in the first stages is really like and compare it to what the plan we had for it to be.
4.1.1- Stay true to the vision for EVE
EVE is a slow-burning game that is about forging your own destiny in a virtual world. It should be fun and involving from the start. As it played out, it has projected the image that it requried players to sit and do nothing but train skills for weeks before being able to enjoy simple aspects of what players eventually find attractive about it. This image was unfair to those that played the game when it came out in 2003 when nobody had resources to do anything, but it had become more of a reality.
The vision is as always that every character should be able to learn anything he likes, irrespective of choices made during character creation. That is what “forging your destiny” is about – Being able to completely change course whenever you like. This is vitally important and one of the things that set EVE ahead of other MMOG that are for the most part tied into the rigid feudal structure of warriors, clerics, wizards etc.
The third issue that stands out about EVE and we needed to preserve was that advantage in EVE is not about luck but skill and conscious choices. That called for a character creation that was user friendly, descriptive and understandable. And classy, of course.
Lastly, the EVE character creation was not meant to be restrictive, but supply variety. But as it turned out, one character combination was far ahead of the rest, yielding over 303.000 skill points, causing everyone that knew anything about what he was doing to choose that combination. That was against the original intention, and created one “super combo” making it silly to start out as anything else.
4.1.2- Use History and background
There is extensive background information to every race and bloodline. But it was used ineffectively in the old character creation. For example, it is natural to assume that the foremost schools of every civilization strive to imprint the best knowledge available to its students and teach it thoroughly. This underutilized element was something we felt we could easily implement without going against the vision of not restricting players to one thing more than the other.
So we used history and background as a compass in deciding what to change. For example, the pilots in EVE are supposed to be the best and brightest students to graduate from the foremost universities in the galaxy, but what did they get? For the most part, the difference between character A and character B could be compensated in 1 to 3 days of skill training. We felt that a couple of days’ worth of skill training advantage was hardly sufficient. The task of universities is to specialize people so that they excel in the tricks of their trade, they do not strive to make everyone generic.
This helped us to come to the conclusion that the right thing to do was to give people one to two level 5 skills (depending on the rank of the skill) and a decent spread of level 4 skills, appropriate to the specialization that the player chooses. This background element played a huge part in this decision – Schools are only believable when they teach something of significance, and now ours do.
4.1.3- Supply equal footing
Creating a character in the old system could result in about 1.400 playable characters. But only about 3% of the skill combinations were clearly ahead of the rest skill-point wise which means that 97% were left behind. New players, particularly those approaching the game to “give it a shot” normally do not realize at the outset how many more skill points they could have had, why they are important or simply what attributes do, could become disheartened and felt cheated in a few weeks when it dawned on them. We do not want anyone to have to fall into a pit in order to know it’s there. We wanted to change this.
Obviously, creating a character just before we release Revelations would lead to the same kind of frustration for players with less than 800.000 skill points at patch-time. To maintain equal footing at the outset was instrumental in helping us making the decision to compensate disadvantaged characters, because we really considered everything seriously, ranging from doing nothing but to warn people, to slapping 500.000 SP on every character in the game.
Since I bring it up, I must stress that it was also important not to mix “equal footing” with the notion of “boosting everyone in the game”. It is as far from the right thing to do as not to compensate anyone.
4.1.4- Make the NPE for true newbies
A new character creation is first and foremost intended for those people know nothing about EVE. It is amazingly easy to lose sight of this seemingly obvious goal. There are a lot of alts in EVE sharing accounts with mains or located on alternate accounts, and both numbers are set to increase with increased subscriber numbers. The challenge was to focus mainly on the people that try EVE casually in the future and then focus on what impact the desired changes would have on existing characters and how we can be fair to them as well. For example, players that have been around for the longest time dealt with all the really hard-to-understand issues that are being ironed out now, but can we allow that to require the same of everyone in the future? No we can’t. What we need to do is to take care that they are not set at a disadvantage now. This challenge is about concentrating on the present moment, not on a situation that was three years in the past. EVE evolves, that’s the key. And isn’t it the very thing we are so proud of, EVE is the player’s world, and has simply been pushed it this far.
It is clear that when creating a character in a world as exotic and foreign to us earthlings as EVE is, there is a lot of context that a typical user is bound to miss or misunderstand. While it was not plausible to assume that every bit of useful information could or should be conveyed it was clear that we needed to give people more leads on understanding what being an “Amarr fighter pilot of the Khanid bloodline” or a “Gallentean miner” actually meant. Not only that, but what, for example does “Charisma” mean for a pilot, locked inside his pod? How is “Memory” useful in there? Asking an individual who has, say, just downloaded the client from the internet to give it a try would probably result in a “Huh?”
To make an informed choice means one must have a clear idea about the difference between the choices before making them. Inexperienced players or players that have no guidance from more experienced ones - real newbies – deserve to start on equal footing with everyone else at this point.
4.1.5- Increase Understanding and Overview
We had to re-evaluate how we used the interface. For example, a number of the old character creation tooltips were actually not tooltips at all, but contained information that was crucial for the user to be able to make the informed choices at that step in the character creation. The main drawback of that was when there were four or more choices to be made in a single character creation step, the difference between choices was quickly lost because as soon as the mouse is moved, the information it displayed was gone.
Jumping between steps is easy
Usability tests showed that frequently people read the tooltips and revisited the old ones, and failing to remember all the information there while reading the next tooltip, they chose just something in the end. We responded by creating three desicription levels. A general description detailing the choices available in broad terms, short descriptions to all options for ease of comparison, and detailed description that really strips the choice to the bone. Then, we added proper tooltips that explain the function of each control.
4.1.6- Provide Immersion
The key element in most forms of art, be it literature, cinema or music is to touch a string in the heart or mind of the person enjoying it. We constantly need to be mindful that we are not only running a magnificent social experiement, but EVE also supplies people with the venue and tools to entertain each other.
Immersion allows for more thorough and heartfelt entertainment. Two years ago we implemented the introduction sequence and the station and flight tutorials to consciously help to create a solid and believable world for a new player, carrying him into the history of the world of EVE and then bring him gradually into this foreign and dangerous world now exploding with life and activity.
In short, our challenge with the new character creation was to maximize the immersion during the transition from the history lesson that the introduction movie provides, to the moment when the pilot is floating in his pod in the station where Aura greets him.
4.1.7- Prevent abuse
It is a challenge to take care that trial account abusers (macro miners, ISK farmers and such) do not profit from a modified new player experience. That challenge is twofold though because we must not let the abusers hold back our improvements to the game, or dictate our direction. That would be the ultimate abuse. There has been some concern over this because clearly, higher skill points give trial account abusers and ISK farmers more opportunities. But that is a seperate problem to be solved on its own, and has nothing inherently to do with an improved character creation.
4.1.8- Deal with the severity of the change
This is the final challenge I wish to bring up. To realize that whatever we implement will be experienced by literally everyone that tries our game out and criticised by every single player we already have, and rightfully so. They have all gone through the good and bad of what we are revamping. As improvements come, this kind is of the highest severity – It directly affects every customer. The thought of this is no slight pressure to endure I assure you all – And to be independent and responsive at the same time is a real challenge in this situation.
5 - In Closing
The first thing we went for was to define the challenges, gather all available data we have on the subject and then apply it to every gaming angle. I have now gone through these steps in reverse order, touching on the context with the surrounding NPE elements, and we certainly hope that everyone will come to approve of the results.