Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Align To Gate: Another Revamp To EVE Online's New Player Experience

Yesterday CCP released changes to the skill training interface and New Player Experience under the umbrella title of "Align to Gate!". While the main article does not state so, both the dev blogs for the news skills plan feature and new tutorial will come to Tranquility in the September release.

The first change, the introduction of Skill Plans, will affect new players and veterans alike. CCP explained the Skill Plan feature as follows:

With the Skill Plans feature, you will be able to build a list of skills without needing to buy and inject them first. A Skill Plan is an ordered list of skill levels with specific goals, which you can create and keep track of to follow your training.

The unrestricted planning of your character development is only one of the reasons for this feature. Another reason for its inception is to enable players to share lists of skills with each other. It is often difficult even for seasoned players to pick the right skills for their goals, and the number of player-made lists of skills on the forums and wikis is evidence of that, as well as the dedication of the creators of third party tools like EVEMon. Now, the possibility of sharing and interacting with such plans in the EVE client has been opened up. You will be able to share any Skill Plan in a chat, EVE Mail, corp bulletin, etc., just as you can share ship fittings. You will even be able to leave a link to a corresponding Skill Plan in a ship fitting description.

Every one of your characters will be able to save up to ten Personal Skill Plans that you will be able to track, edit, and share with your friends (or your alts!).

You will be able to start - or continue - training a plan by moving its contents to your training queue with one click of a button. Similarly, the buying of all missing skill books and application of unallocated skill points will be able possible with one click, for each individual skill or for all of them.

The user interface will also change.

Skills can be seen as the primary progression system in EVE Online, and are an important element for new players to understand. As such, it is important to ensure that they are more prominent in the game, so with the introduction of the Skill Plans feature, the skills window will be changing as well. The skills window will be removed from the character sheet panel and be given a new, fully separate window, accessible directly from the NeoCom. It will be divided into two main sections: Skill Plans and Skill Catalogue. While the first section will contain the whole interface related to Skill Plans, the other one will show all skills and the level you have trained for each, similar to how the current skills panel does. If you don't plan on interacting with the Skill Plans, they won't be in your way and you will be able to train skills as you do today. One thing worth mentioning is that there will be a return to the horizontal arrangement between the skills catalogue and the training queue. Your requests for this have been noted, and the hope is that the new skills screen will be easy and enjoyable to use.

Perhaps the big news are the changes coming to the training queue in September. The maximum number of skills one can place into the training queue will increase from 50 to 150. Perhaps bigger, Alpha players will no longer face the restriction of only allowing the addition of skills that would start training within the next 24 hours.

When I tried using the new interface during the new tutorial, I had a lot of problems. I managed to train something applying skill points, but the problem may have been a bug. On the new character, I found the new system confusing. When I switched to an existing character, I needed a few minutes to figure out the system. I did not find the interface user friendly, but I've played EVE Online for 12 years. The system is really different than what CCP has done before. New players may not have as many problems as I had.

The other dev blog concerned what CCP is calling the AIR New Player Experience. AIR is the acronym for Association for Interdisciplinary Research and has its own backstory. The dev blog listed these features as improvements over the old system.

  • More immersive experiences and faster iteration: All of the content in the AIR NPE is built through a brand new nodegraph editor, meaning that every single battle, direction, player activation, proximity trigger etc. is visually mapped in a nodegraph editor that can be monitored live while playing through the new content. This means considerably better tracking, quicker and clearer iteration capabilities, and in time, a bank of templates that can speed up the process of building new content, and overall a much better development environment to create new dungeons, fleets fights, or simply any interesting scenario that requires any scripting in the game.

  • More dynamic visuals: One of the key elements required to create a modern new player journey is increased cinematic power. To put greater focus on scenes, enemies, ships or landmarks, or heighten the drama, action points or set pieces, brand new cinematic camera tools have been developed. Action scenes now take on a much more dynamic life while the beauty of New Eden has a chance to truly shine. The power of the weapons systems and the grandness of ships and fleets can be displayed more prominently and with greater diversity.

  • Gradual UI reveal: The UI in EVE is a lot to take in, so to begin with players will get maximum exposure to space with no UI elements. Those UI elements are then gradually revealed as the story progresses, anchoring each section of the player's display in contextual story beats.

  • Improved UI highlighting: UI highlighting works. It always scores well with new players and has made a big difference cutting through the clutter and improving direction. Now, UI highlighting can blink, take on more colors, have more versatile placements and clearer guidance in many forms.

  • An integrated intro video: A new intro video will ground players in the story while highlighting the rich and vibrant tapestry of EVE Online's many possibilities. New video scenes integrated into the gameplay showcase the boarding of your new ship. The video will be officially released with the feature, but savvy players will get a sneak peek at the work in progress during testing on Singularity.

  • Beautiful visuals: Several art assets were built for the AIR NPE with the aim of making it the most beautiful and immersive experience possible. This includes several assets such as a massive station wreck, new types of explosions, background, ship SKINs, and more.
Excluding first-person shooters, the AIR NPE is the worst new player experience/tutorial I have encountered in a video game, and that's taking into account the bugs in the current iteration. That includes Perpetuum and all previous iterations of the EVE Online NPE I've played. Yes, even the version that stuck me in space, threw me a Rubix Cube, and said "Go fuck yourself".

My biggest complaint is I encountered two or three spots where I just sat in space wondering what I was supposed to do. One of the spots of inactivity occurred because the tutorial ships did not originally appear on my overview. Thankfully CCP utilized the gradual UI reveal because I wound up clicking on everything I could trying to do something. Early on, the NPC fleet commander was going to warp the fleet, including me, into warp. But I still don't know if I needed to click on the NPC and select align to in order to trigger the fleet warp, or if I just needed to wait. I eventually warped.

A big complaint I have is the lock time for the Astero I was given. Locking a frigate should not take 15 seconds. Even worse, locking a battleship shouldn't take 10 seconds. 

The pacing of the dialog between the NPCs and Aura was poor. At one point, I thought the game bugged out, but I just needed to wait longer. I understand some text windows are on a timer to ensure players don't click through all the instructions, but some of the pauses are too long.

I do have one final complaint. In the final battle with two battleships, the new player in an Astero only takes fire from the battleships. The battleships took so long to kill me. Then, when I was podded, I was podded by the battleships. Getting podded took way too long.

The NPE did have some good points. The gradual reveal of the UI was a good idea. I liked the explanation of electronic warfare and how jamming works. Aura was amusing. But some of the good parts, like the new art assets, were pushed into the background because the frustration I felt with trying to comprehend the mechanics. 

Honestly, the only reason I completed the NPE was to write this blog post. Even then, I almost quit the game twice. If I were trying out a new game with no intention of blogging about the experience, and I ran into a first five minutes this bad, I would just uninstall the game.

I wish I had a better opinion of the latest efforts. But after playing through the NPE and the skill training changes on Singularity, I'm not a big fan. I'd prefer CCP take another month to polish the features and release both features in October. Something tells me that's not an option, so I'll just keep my fingers crossed and hope the developers only need a week or two to iron out the issues before the September release.

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