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Lessons in community building from EVE Online

At Devcom Digital, CCP Games' Tryggvi Hjaltason offered advice on creating an environment that builds meaningful friendships

It hardly needs to be stated at this point, but EVE Online has one of the most extraordinary communities in the history of the medium -- a virtually peerless example of the levels of devotion and teamwork video games can inspire, and the vibrant potential of emergent, player-driven narratives.

In a talk at Devcom Digital this year, CCP Games' Tryggvi Hjaltason gave an insight into the Icelandic company's efforts to better understand what makes that community unique. In doing so, he revealed a number of ideas that other developers could use to help their players form strong and lasting bonds.

Hjaltason, who is a senior strategist at CCP, has spent the last two years researching what he terms "the EVE Effect" -- the remarkable ability of EVE Online to create genuine friendships between players. The desire to study this area, he said, was a conversation with CCP's CEO, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson about a rising trend of "social isolation and loneliness" across the world.

"Scientists that have been studying this effect are claiming this to be of epic proportions today, even likening it to a pandemic. In certain age groups -- especially in the United Kingdom and the United States -- up to 40% of people are describing symptoms of loneliness and social isolation.

"We were thinking about it in relation to all of the stories we've heard from our players throughout the years, where they've described building relationships and friendship groups through the game. We decided -- somewhat half-assedly at first -- to add a question to a survey asking if [the respondent] had made a friend as a result of playing EVE.

"What came back? 73% of our players said they had made a friend as a result of playing the game."

CCP followed up with a second question: would the player describe that relationship as a "meaningful" friendship? According to Hjaltason, around 65% of the respondents said that "friends made in EVE Online had a real impact on their lives." There had always been anecdotal evidence of these bonds -- Hjaltason offered the example of an Icelandic EVE player who moved to the US to help run a bookstore with a friend from the game, despite the two never having met in real life -- but these results demanded proper exploration.

"These two elements -- the friendships gained and the skills gained -- form something that we're calling the EVE Effect"

A third-party company was contracted to crawl through the myriad online forums where EVE players gathered. It identified two key factors that were frequently cited as the most important aspects of the game's sense of community.

"These two elements -- the friendships gained and the skills gained -- form something that we're calling the EVE Effect."

The Friendship Formula

In terms of fostering friendships between players, Hjaltason referred to an established idea in psychology: the Friendship Formula. In the simplest possible terms, it is four key variables that, when combined, lead to meaningful social connection:

Friendship = Proximity + Frequency + Duration + Intensity

The first three terms in that equation -- Proximity, Frequency, Duration -- are simple enough to grasp, but they are also less important in terms of building friendships. As Hjaltason explained, most people experience these with many people that they don't care much about in their everyday lives.

Tryggvi Hjaltason

"If you do your grocery shopping at the same place each time, you may have this with your grocery store clerk," he added. "But it's unlikely to lead to a meaningful social connection unless you add the fourth and most important variable: Intensity... The Intensity element is the great accelerant.

"When we studied these connections being made in the game... the Intensity is where EVE Online seemed to excel."

Hjaltason attributed that to two key strengths in EVE's design. First, the player is afforded a great deal of freedom, with thousands of paths available to anyone that starts playing, and a very high ceiling on what can be personally invested in the events that unfold. EVE gives its players "a tremendous control over [their] destiny."

"This leads to the second element... If you ask our players 'What is Eve Online?' the number one description they will give is 'The loss is real'... In 15 minutes of battle you can lose your ship, and you can't respawn it, you can't reload it."

While this kind of experience can happen to a player, that same player can also inflict it on someone else, or form partnerships to help others avoid that kind of loss. Along with a gameplay structure that promotes and rewards teamwork at massive scale, EVE functions as a machine for "really, really powerful bonding moments."

"When we studied these connections being made in the game... the Intensity is where EVE Online seemed to excel"

Of course, not every game is focused on stereotypically "intense" factors like espionage and space battles. For developers working with different subject matter, "Intensity" is effectively a stand-in for "meaningful."

To use Hjaltason's example, two people who have a video call for one hour each day will satisfy Proximity, Frequency and Duration -- but if all they talk about is the weather they're unlikely to form a bond. If one shares an emotional or vulnerable experience, however, and the other empathises and reciprocates, Intensity becomes an accelerant.

Helpers are happier

Hjaltason was clear that the view of EVE from the outside is not entirely different from that held by its own creators. CCP was aware that the game's reputation was for "ruthlessness" and enormous space battles, and assumptions had formed around the kind of people that would be attracted to that mix. Another survey was sent out, to ask players how they would describe their motivations.

"Most of our developers were sure that it would be people who like combat, or aggressive competition, or attacking others," he said. "As it turns out, 44% -- almost half -- self-described as 'helpers'. [Respondents] could choose up to two play styles, and the number one was 'I like to help others.'"

A fondness for combat was in second place with 41%, but that was tied with another relatively benign motivation: gathering resources. The least popular choice by far was a desire to compete with others, with just 15%.

"When we went deeper into the date of those that like to help... it turns out that the helpers have the highest engagement ratios, the highest satisfaction ratios," Hjaltason said. "In everything we measure that are positive things, they have the highest scores."

Helpers can turn casual players into lifelong fans

In addition to being the most satisfied players within EVE's community, "helpers" also create positive experiences for others -- a truth that CCP uncovered when researching the factors that turned a casual player into one that engages with the game for years and years.

In a series of interviews with people from the community, it became apparent that one factor was common to both "elite players" and "new players that leave": both were betrayed, had a valuable ship suddenly destroyed, or otherwise suffered a great loss early in their time with the game.

"EVE is basically like a university, with the complexity of the real world but the safety of a social game"

Hjaltason asked: "Why do you have two groups of people that seem to have the same event happen to them, but they have completely opposite reactions to it?"

Further research identified three variables that appeared to determine whether a player left the game in frustration, or became a longstanding part of its ecosystem: the ability to understand what happened; a clear road to recovery; and most importantly, the social connections that can help illuminate the first two.

"We decided to track down players who are experiencing this loss early on -- which we flagged as a major ship, or not a rookie ship, that they are losing for the first time," Hjaltason said. "Then, an actual human being from CCP will reach out to them before they leave the client and try to provide them with these three things.

"It turns out that the difference -- we A/B tested this -- between somebody who goes through this programme versus somebody who doesn't is monumental. It's in the multiples. They become super valuable, highly engaged, satisfied customers once they go through this path... The social connection element on this is crucial."

Put real-world skills at the heart of the experience

Another CCP survey indicated that 56% of EVE players believed that the skills required to succeed in the game have proved useful in their normal lives. The most commonly cited skill?

"[Microsoft] Excel and spreadsheets," Hjaltason said. "Once you start organising your corporation, and you want to get better prices, optimising your industrial structure, you want to organise that in some sort of way. Most people turn to spreadsheets for that, and have a really strong incentive to learn and to be more efficient."

The two most commonly cited skills behind spreadsheets were less specific, but no less important: economics and leadership. Other players also mentioned softer skills like multitasking and patience in communication.

Hjaltason offered an example as evidence of how games can have a positive influence on the real lives of players. CCP received an email from one EVE player who had become highly adept at running a corporation in the game. One day, he decided to apply the same approach to try and start a real company.

"A couple of years later, that company had an $8 million portfolio and an 87% profitability ratio," Hjaltason said. "He told us that every single lesson he applied to running a company was from EVE. He basically went to EVE business school.

"What we realised -- and the way we describe this now -- is that EVE is basically like a university, with the complexity of the real world but the safety of a social game. It gives freedom, but it demands responsibility. It requires dedication to succeed, and the skills and competencies nurtured through EVE are the same ones that people needed to succeed in real life.

"If that isn't awesome for running a video game, then I don't know what is."

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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