How do you keep a nearly 20-year-old game fresh and relevant? According to the team behind the colossal, space-based MMO EVE Online, you do it by constantly reinvesting in your infrastructure and by working to keep your new player experience–those early hours that introduce newcomers to the basics of the game’s mechanics and fiction–relevant and engaging. The latest effort along this line of thinking, called EVE Evolved, was deployed to the game’s servers a few weeks ago. I asked a few friends of mine to try it out, to get a sense of whether the result really is a better, more welcoming experience for new players approaching the famously dense, intricate game.
The EVE Evolved update is twofold in its efforts to refresh and revamp EVE Online. On one hand, there are the visual and audio improvements, the introduction of DirectX12 and new shader and ray tracing technology to push EVE’s graphics and sound into the game’s third decade of life. And then, there’s the completely revamped new player introduction. Accurately or not, EVE Online is seen by many as a notoriously tough game to come to grips with. Perhaps in an effort to make it more approachable, the game now integrates the newly renovated AIR Career Program (ACP), a guided tour of three of EVE’s main career paths, into the introduction experience. This interactive tutorial walks players through roughly their first ten hours of the EVE experience.
Every iteration of the New Player Experience (NPE) makes me want to revisit the early hours of EVE with fresh eyes and see what the experience looks like for those who are coming into the game for the first time. However, at this point in my EVE “career,” it’s hard to detach my knowledge of the game from my experience, hard to avoid shortcuts, hard to not splurge on better ships and bigger guns to make the experience more familiar to myself, and it kind of puts a damper on what the game is trying to show me. Fortunately, I have quite a few friends who have never played EVE in any real way, so I decided to recruit two of them to run through the newly renovated gameplay and try it out for me.
Subject number one, NoobOnTheRun, told me he’d played 3 or 4 hours of EVE in the past, probably at my urging, but the game never really clicked with him. Subject number two, Archigos, had played EVE a bit more seriously than Noob, but he never really had the time to dedicate to the game, and drifted in and out over the years, always having to relearn it every time he went back. I asked both of these players to attempt to get through the introduction scenario, and the newly revamped ACP experience, without my help, and to let me know what they thought of it afterwards.
First impressions are very important. EVE’s NPE seems to understand that, and tries to make a major impact. “As soon as I loaded up the game for the first time, you’re just a little human in a little pod,” NoobOnTheRun explained to me over Discord. “Behind you is this exploded space station, and a giant fiery looking star cluster of a ‘sky box’ behind that. It’s kind of incredible honestly. I love awe-inspiring views like that and EVE seemed to be full of them. You really are just a speck in that game, and it’s a hell of a way to start off.”
After introducing you to the astounding vastness of space and having you flee the destroyed installation’s wreckage, the game leads you through a brief tutorial. How to control your ship, what the different user interface buttons do, the basics. You’re then ushered into a small storyline.
“I never felt lost,” Archigos told me, “The UI is better than I remember it being, and the little skill booster they give you to unlock better skills when you’re starting out is great.” He’s referring to the “Expert Systems” EVE added a little while back, items that temporarily unlock skills for players, giving them a bit of a boost, or allowing them to fly ships that they otherwise couldn’t. Once this introduction is over, players are led toward the newly improved AIR Career Program.
The ACP is a set of missions meant to introduce players to different aspects of the game, and it serves to demonstrate three types of player paths that EVE advertises: Explorer, Industrialist, and Enforcer.
“I’m usually an explorer type in MMOs,” NoobOnTheRun tells me. “I immediately went after the exploration agent but it wasn’t really for me.” The missions in the Explorer path provide players with scanning equipment to attach to their ship. When activated, the scanning equipment launches a probing mini-game which lets players find hidden relics, or enemy ships in space. According to NoobOnTheRun, this is one area in which the new tutorial was lacking. “Scanning for areas with like the treasures or whatever was very confusing and not at all explained, but once I watched a video of it, it was easy to get.” He told me that he looked up a YouTube video made by another EVE player explaining how the scanning interface worked, and after that he was able to successfully scan down the hidden relic sites in the game, and loot them for their “hidden treasures.”
Archigos had similar reservations about the exploration path, explaining to me that “exploration does a good job teaching you some things but I don’t recall it ever actually showing you how to use the probe launcher or the UI to increase/decrease the radius and scan down things afterwards.” He said that the previous time he’d played EVE, he’d had to do a similar thing as NoobOnTheRun and look up a video on exactly how the scanning minigame worked, to be able to successfully navigate it.
As much as the Exploration path seemed to fall flat for my two subjects, the game’s Enforcer path, which guides players through outfitting their ships and then sending them to do battle with NPC pirates, drew them in. “I found the combat super fun,” NoobOnTheRun told me. “I was pretty much constantly trying to load my ship with any little thing to give me an edge in battle.” Outfitting ships correctly for the job can be a tricky thing in EVE, and even veteran players can spend hours theorycrafting what loadouts to put on their ships to eke out the maximum amount of power from them, without creating any glaring defensive weaknesses.
“I like that one of the agents just sends you to die a few times so you get it into your head that dying isn’t a big deal as long as you only bring junk,” NoobOnTheRun said. Two of the most important lessons EVE players have to learn are, “Ships are ammunition,” and “Don’t undock what you can’t afford to lose,” and the Enforcer missions do their best to reinforce that. In EVE, losing a ship can be a costly mistake and any time you decide to take one out of the safety of its hangar, the risk is very real. The ACP highlights this by sending players on a mission they’re not expected to escape from. In fact, their ship exploding is the entire point of the mission.
Neither player had all that much to say about the NPE’s efforts to introduce them to the Industrialist path, which tries to give a very basic overview of EVE’s incredibly complex crafting system. Players are instructed to harvest asteroids for minerals, or buy raw materials off of the marketplace, and then craft a few simple ships and some weapons. “Sitting through an hour wait time on a ship being built for a tutorial was not the most fun,” NoobOnTheRun lamented.
Archigos had a complaint in a similar vein. “One annoyance with one of the industry quests was making rockets or something. I used the blueprint to make the max amount of runs which made me miss the completion timer bonus completely.”
Industry is one of EVE Online’s most complex systems, and therefore very difficult to fully explore at small scale. Expecting brand new players to farm all of the required materials, or even buy the materials off of the market and then sit around and wait while the items are created, can lead to them being disengaged during early hours of gameplay. NoobOnTheRun even admitted to me that, instead of finding something else to do in the game while he waited on the timer, he simply left the game to do its thing and went to make dinner for himself.
Despite the qualms about how Exploration and Industry are introduced, both of my subjects seemed to enjoy their foray into EVE, and have played a bit beyond what I requested of them. I asked them if they felt the ACP left them equipped to play EVE further and not feel lost in the massiveness of the sandbox.
“I do feel very much equipped,” NoobOnTheRun said. “The first time I played EVE, maybe two or three years ago, I got my hand kinda held by people who had played before. When they weren’t around, I was just totally lost. Now, I feel like I at least have an idea of what’s out there for me, what the main tracks of the game are. I’m sure there’s more out there but it’s comforting in a way to know I at least have rails to follow, agents to report to, and things I can be doing to further myself.”
He also told me that he had an experience with one of EVE Online’s Game Masters, members of the game’s staff who help answer player support tickets, enforce the rules, and moderate the game, while he was playing. Brand new players will often have a member of the GM team reach out to them to give them a helping hand in their early days in the sandbox. “They gave me a ton of materials and a pretty chunky mining ship that I used for most of my non-combat trips. I know a lot of MMOs mail you a bunch of stuff like that at the start of things, but it’s nice to actually get it from a person,” he told me during our recap of his time in EVE.
“I’m still playing!” Archigos told me. “For the experience I made my first Caldari [one of the player factions] to play with rockets/missiles. It’s been fun! I just got my first Caracal!” Caracals are mid-level cruisers in EVE that are well beyond the scope of the ACP’s tutorial missions, and Archigos has even asked my advice on other missions and fittings for his ships as he continues his journey in EVE.
Both of my friends enjoyed their time with the new ACP missions introduced in the EVE Evolved update, despite one or two of the paths falling a little flat. A lot of people have tried EVE over the years and come away lost and confused. The new ACP missions are a huge step in fixing that issue, so if you’ve ever considered EVE, or failed to thrive when giving it a shot before, this could be a chance to take another look.
I also played through the ACP alongside my friends, without interfering with their experiences of course. While I didn’t learn as much as they did, I did take the time to notice the new environmental effects added to the game, as well as the graphical updates introduced with the EVE Evolved update. Just looking at EVE, you would never know it was entering its third decade of service soon; the game looks as new and fresh as any contemporary MMO.
The latter half of this year promises even more exciting updates, all outlined during EVE Fanfest back in May. The first massive EVE gathering since the pandemic shut the whole world down for a few years promised massive updates to the games Factional Warfare system, new achievement points in the form of “InterBus Credits” which players will be able to spend on unique cosmetic changes to their ships, and a massive new story arc that has been organically starting to show up on live servers in the past few weeks. EVE Online’s developers frequently point to “EVE Forever” as one of their guiding principles, and updates like EVE Evolved show that they mean it.