It is now apparent that CCP has done something very right with the strange alchemy that makes up an Eve expansion; where Inferno was underwhelming and didnt seem to increase player interest in the game, Retribution has been a smashing success, rocketing the peak concurrent user (PCU) level regularly past the 40k mark. The re-release of Eve in China, along with the success of Retribution, inspired a rare moment of braggadocio from the oft-besieged developer; CCP announced that they had broken the 450k subscription mark. This is significant; during the worst arc of the Tyrannis -> Incarna period, it seemed that Eve Online was plateauing in the face of mediocre-to-awful expansions and at risk of terminal decline. Yet on its face, Retribution appears to be among the most modest of expansions in terms of features and gameplay changes. Why did Retribution succeed, and what can we learn from it?
What was Retribution, exactly? A grab-bag of tweaks. The flagship feature was the revised Bounty Hunting system; five new hulls were added, sounds were improved, the UI received more polish, a whole pile of ships had their stats rebalanced, some ship models were updated, and the Crimewatch mess was streamlined with the introduction of the Safety system. By contrast, Inferno totally revamped Faction Warfare, the inventory system and wardec mechanics. Inferno, put politely, failed; each of these major features was broken in some critical way at release and took months of patching to sort out.
Retribution resembles nothing so much as Crucible, the post-Incarna expansion which saved CCP from itself. With the exception of Time Dilation (a herculean coding effort by CCP Veritas and CCP Masterplan), Crucible was also a grab-bag of important yet small tweaks and improvements rather than massive feature revamps. Inferno was worrisome because it seemed like a return to the Incarna, Tyrannis and Dominion style of expansion: big features which promise the moon and deliver bugs. With Inferno, we worried that CCP had written off the lessons of Crucibles success and were back to their old War on the Impossible ways. Given the sheer number of people playing Retribution, however, we can hope that CCP takes the value of polishing existing features and iteration to heart: the subscriptions and PCUs speak for themselves.
Three specific aspects of Retribution deserve particular focus, however: the bounty system, ship rebalancing, and UI/sound polish.
Bounty Hunting: The scope of the social impact of the new Bounty system is easy to underestimate; in fact, when it was first announced, I myself wrote it off as a mere gimmick. I could not have been more wrong: the Bounty system is the biggest change to the social dynamics of Eve in years.
The Retribution system has brought about a social revolution in hisec: it has given players an easy mechanic to effectively mess with each other in safe space using isk, rather than blasters. Previous bounties could be ignored because they could be cleared by podding yourself with an alt. In Retribution, the victim of a bounty has no easy way to escape the price on his head, and the new system incentivizes hunters to suicide gank or wardec in order to collect.
Until Retribution, one could effectively play Eve as a single player game and never be at any risk of being attacked as long as one took sensible precautions, safe under the watchful gaze of Concord. With the new Bounty system, this veil of isolation has been torn away. If you annoy someone in local, if you compete with them economically, or even if you merely make bad posts on the forums, other players can finally reach out and express their approbation - even if a player lives only in safe space and never joins a wardeccable corporation. Regardless of Concord, it is now impossible to isolate yourself from other players in this MMO.
One could argue that the core appeal of Eve is that it is a sandbox game based around messing with people, and those people messing back. Most of the games narratives and press involves players interacting with (molesting, attacking, ganking, thieving, scamming, ransoming, rubbishing) one another, yet in the heart of this game about social interaction was a demographic that eschewed all interaction and was virtually untouchable. With Bounties, you are a part of the mess that is New Eden the moment you log in; there is no more safe space. Its a tiny change of game mechanics, yet a massive social and psychological upheaval.
Ship Rebalancing: In theory, Eve got five new ships in Retribution: four destroyers and a mining frigate. In practice, Retribution added more than forty ships to the game, because the Tiericide changes took ships which were so suboptimal as to be effectively useless and elevated them to viability. Frigates and Cruisers were ships used only for novelty, newbies, or in Red vs Blue; after Retribution fleets of Cruisers have taken down equal-size fleets of T3 ships, something that was previously impossible. Crucible lifted many ships out of the muck with the changes to Hybrid weapons, and Retribution expanded significantly on that. The lesson of the Incarna crisis was that Eve is a game about spaceships, and if there are not enough spaceships the players will abandon the game; Retribution has proven that an existing hull can be made new even without a new name or new art through rebalancing.
General Polish: UI tweaks, redesigns, and new sound effects dont seem like much on their own, but Retribution included enough of these improvements to give the Eve client what feels like a fresh coat of paint. Making a ten-year-old game seem fresh is an impressive feat; when you load up a game like SWTOR it feels like youre slumming in 2004, yet Eve looks thoroughly modern (except for the dreadful overview). Also important from a quality perspective, Retributions features all worked at launch; there were a few post-patch hiccups and tweaks, but nothing significant.
Putting it all together, the lessons of Incarna, Crucible, Inferno, and Retribution are stark and obvious - thus are the player frustration when CCP forgets them. Players prefer polish and iteration in an expansion over grand new features, which historically are delivered in a broken state (Incarna, Tyrannis, Inferno); players respond well to new methods of messing with each other, and players want spaceships, spaceships, spaceships. Its gratifying to see CCP get it again, and to see Eves subscription and PCU numbers resume their rightful steady upward climb.