This topic is a difficult one for me. I've thought about it in regard to gaming in general, and generally I'm of the opinion that far too many people at least in the game-playing community, if not the game-making community, think that women will only be attracted to games which are stereotypically "girly." Things like the Sims, Barbie games, or Bella Sera. It's not a very helpful angle from which to come at the question of "how can an existing game increase its appeal to female gamers?" Maybe Eve Online would get more female players if it was focused around who can dress their avatar up prettier, but that wouldn't really be anything like the current game.
Mostly, though, I think that's a load of crap. Yes, there's some things that women like more than guys and vice versa, but I think a large part of why women don't like certain games has little to do with the gameplay or the number of pink horses in them -- it has to do with how these games are made and marketed, and I think that's partly because of the fact that game development is still such a male-dominated field.
In my experience, one of the ways games can expand their appeal among women gamers is by focusing on "soft" game design issues -- specifically, increasing the strength of story and social elements in gaming, two things that Eve has a good head start on, but still has problems with.
Making the Emotional Connection
Why is storyline important? Because it adds emotional depth to your reasons for playing the game. This is something that I think all gamers appreciate on some level, but with women I think it can be a major draw to the game. I have a friend who does not really enjoy playing a lot of "hardcore" games for the most part, but who loves to watch her husband play pretty much every kind of game out there and go through the narrative of the game. The games outside the casual model that she enjoys playing tend to be those with interesting stories (especially adventure games) and those she can play cooperatively with her husband (like Civilization, for instance).
Eve already has a story which, when it comes to games, is fairly decent (and I think getting better most of the time). However, currently the storyline is rather detached from what the players actually do -- characters can't really interact with the storyline in very many ways, and generally just have to sit back and watch things unfold. Then the question becomes, what do I get from playing the game as opposed to watching the game? If CCP wants to attract people (including women) into playing the game with the story, they need to make that story part of your experience as a player.
The old AURORA events were one way this sort of connection could be made, but I don't think something like that is necessarily needed. The recent appearance of Ishukone and Mordu's Legion ships in Intaki, for instance, is one way to show this, although optimally, you want it to allow active participation, not just passive. Making the economy fluctuate in regions based on storyline activity, incorporating current events into missions...making the world feel more alive and increasing the verisimilitude, basically. I think this is a good thing for games in general (as I'm sure anyone who's read my articles on storyline and metaplot before is aware), but I think it's definitely something that women tend to find more interesting than the visceral thrill of blowing someone up. They want the emotional context that the story can provide, in order to pull them through the gameplay they might not enjoy at first glance.
The Booby Trap
However, Eve's specific storyline does have its weaknesses when it comes to women. Those of you who have read my review of The Empyrean Age can already guess where I'm going -- and to be fair, this is hardly a problem that Eve alone falls victim to. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of strong female characters in the Eve storyline. Newsflash, gentlemen. Most women do not want to play tarted-up sexpots that need a big, strong man to save them all the time. What does Eve have?
- Jamyl Sarum, gets half a page devoted to her in the novel talking about how sexy she is and then at the end her suppressed "real" self begs for help from Falek Grange, a man she is hinted at having a sexual relationship with in the past. Her "strong" self is evidently an alternate personality or some sort of possession.
- Haatakan Oiritsuu, CEO of the largest Caldari megacorporation, gives up her position to Tibus Heth without a fight and can't seem to find bodyguards who are loyal enough to protect her. Since then, she's been co-opted by the same man that forced her out of her position (which, to be fair, could be an improvement).
- Karin Midular throws a tantrum in a government meeting and nearly gets raped by (yet another) poorly-chosen bodyguard, only to be saved by Shakor.
- Mila Gariushi (aka Kinachi Hepimeki) runs off after her brother is killed and lets the man that stands for everything her brother hated push Ishukone (and the State) around with nary a peep, despite being his heir apparent.
I am not saying that you can't have strippers or prostitutes or sex or whatever in Eve -- for the most part, we're all adults here and we can handle adult subjects. But for once, I would like to see a female character get the upper hand in a big way and behave like a strong woman. Recently, I finished watching the Rome TV series. That's a show that takes place in a time where women were legally subordinate to men in almost every way, which was rife with nudity and sex, and yet I still thought that nearly all the main female characters were strong, well-developed people who did not exist simply as things for the men to have sex with or collapse into tears whenever things didn't go their way. They had as much of a role in the events that unfolded as the male characters, even if they did it in different ways. That's the sort of thing that will open up the appeal to women.
Expanding the Social Sphere
This is something that Eve already does well, I think, but maybe doesn't promote as much as it could. I think women gamers tend to be more attracted to "social games," where the game is as much about interacting with other people, often in a cooperative way, as anything else. A lot of the marketing for Eve in the past has focused on the shiny ships, big fleet battles, and its wide-open, often cutthroat nature; for sure, these are things that are definitely strengths of the game, but not necessarily the most appealing to women. However, one of Eve's other big strengths can be the extent to which it encourages cooperative effort; CCP has highlighted this somewhat with their "Butterfly Effect" ad, and it's part of this Goonswarm recruitment poster too, but I'm still not sure it really gets played up as much as it could be.
Incarna may help with this, but it's not going to be the secret key to opening the floodgates to women. Adding some dress-up minigames and social spaces is not going to keep female players, although it may be a good way to get them to dip their toes in the water. In order to retain those gamers they are going to need something more than what they can get from free games or games geared towards that kind of thing more specifically (like Second Life, for instance). Retaining those players will require making those social spaces meaningful within the context of the rest of the game -- something I'm not sure is possible with any sort of game mechanic, but which will only happen if Incarna is seen by the majority of the player base as a valued addition to the game rather than something tacked on or seen a separate game in and of itself.
I also think that Eve's marketing needs to promote stories of cooperative, constructive social play in Eve over the kinds of stories that seem to make Eve's big press -- the GHSC heist, the EIB scandal, and the collapse of BoB and GoonSwarm, for instance. While there's no doubt that those are possibilities that are unique to Eve's single-server universe and they are extremely impressive (and interesting) in their own right, women seem to be much more drawn to constructive, rather than destructive, social events. Things like the ongoing mission of Eve University or the Providence effort (prior to its recent collapse) might be good examples of that. Certainly, to some extent, CCP can't do anything about what outside news organizations choose to cover, but they can at least try to counterbalance it.
The Learning Cliff and Fumbling in the Dark
I think by now everyone has probably seen the Eve "learning cliff" graph. Certainly, Eve has suffered in the past by perhaps not being the most accessible game out there, but they've recently made big strides in revamping the tutorials -- if you haven't seen CCP Eris' presentation from FanFest 2009 about that, it's worth seeing. However, I think Eve is still very intimidating for new players to just be dropped into -- and CCP knows this, which is why when I see them at various gaming conventions they are always trying to get people to start playing with a friend. This is an impediment for getting new players of all stripes, but especially women.
A lot of the material I've read on game design indicates that men and women tend to want different ways to learn new tasks -- men tend to like fumbling around in the dark, so to speak, until they figure them out by doing. Women (including me) tend to like reading the manual, getting coached through things, and then doing them. Eve has come a long way from where it was, but it is still, to some extent, a game where you learn by fumbling around in the dark. The new tutorials and the Evelopedia have done a great job providing documentation for new characters, but the high-level game of Eve is far different from the high-level game of other MMOs. I have never seen the kind of basically scientific research used to determine the boundaries of game mechanics and out-of-the-box thinking for other games that I have seen with Eve; the example that sticks in my mind is the Goonswarm grid manipulation guide.
To some extent, this is never going to really be presented in an easy to learn form (at least, until it is already in wide use). That's something I don't think is likely to change with Eve, especially as CCP often goes back and revises game mechanics fairly often. Personally, I actually see that as a good thing, but this is going to be an impediment as long as things like that exist. Promoting corporations like Eve University is probably the best antidote to this sort of problem, but then CCP gets in the trap of showing favoritism to one alliance. That's a trap they are understandably wary of falling into.
Note that I'm not saying women can't figure this stuff out too -- but I think they tend to be a little more intimidated than the guys, especially when you take into account the culture of the player base, which brings me to my next point....
This Place Smells Like A Locker Room
Possibly, at the highest level, the biggest obstacle to getting more women to play Eve is simply that there aren't that many women playing Eve right now, and the culture is a bit on the intimidating side. When you join a Ventrilo server and three guys tell you "pics or stfu," you kinda just want to reach through the internet and punch them in the face, not hop through seventy jumps to blow up the opposing alliance with them. To be fair, a lot of the women I've known in Eve can give as good as they get, but I think that's because we're a self-selected group. I work with a bunch of guys at work and am used to the same sort of attitude (though to be fair, the folks in CAIN have never treated me -- or any of the other women in the corp -- with any less respect than the guys, for which I'm thankful).
It can get tiresome to deal with that kind of crap if you have to put up with it on a regular basis though, and after dealing with guys making dick jokes and remarking on co-eds' boobs all day, I have to say I think I'd rather not deal with it when I'm in my off hours. That sort of attitude can be hard to avoid sometimes, especially if you deal with the bigger alliances. One of the reasons I was happy in a smaller corporation or alliance was because there was a much friendlier (and less anonymous) atmosphere. Guys seem less likely to let out their inner dumbass when they are more familiar with the person whose tits they are demanding to see. :)
However, this is something that's not really anything CCP can control -- aside from doing what they can to encourage women to play in other ways, so that we aren't such a curiosity. That's something the players are going to have to do if they want to see more women in the game -- which, honestly, I'm not sure a lot of them do. I think that by and large, most of them would be happier if more women played, but they don't really have any interest in doing anything to actively promote more women players in Eve.
Does It Really Matter?
In the end though, so what? So Eve's player base is 95% male. Is that actually a problem? In the grand scheme of things, I have to admit it's probably not. Until CCP has 50 million subscribers, there's probably going to be plenty more guys out there to pull into the game that are more likely to enjoy it and stick with it. It's not like "men 18-34" is a small demographic. They can probably survive just fine appealing to that market.
On the other hand, for a woman who does like Eve, it matters a great deal to me. It does get a little lonely out there being the one woman in 20 players. I'm not going to quit Eve because of it, or throw myself a pity party, but it'd sure be nice to go to FanFest and not have it be a total sausage fest. :)
Edit: In the interest of full disclosure, after reading some of the other blogs on this topic, I have to admit that I originally picked Caldari for Svetlana because Civire appeared to have the best hair. However, that is not what kept me in the game for 5 years, nor what inspired me to write so much on Caldari society and history. Cheap tricks to appeal to girls might get them in the door, but it won't keep them here.
Highlights of the Banter so far (according to me):
The Girls Who Fly Spaceships
Space Boobies Are Bad, Mmmkay?
New Eden Doesn't Need To Change For Eve -- Adam Needs To Get Over Himself
Eve Online and Women (sorta)
Think Outside the Spaceship
Don't Change Eve For Me
Where Are The Laydeez of Eve?
Where Are All The Wenches?
Evequality: The Rise of the Female Gamer
Women? IN MY SPACESHIP? Is She From Mars As Well?
The Female of the Species
Eve and the X by X Genetic Succession Unit
What Women Want In Eve
Getting In Touch With Our Feminine Side
It's a Woman's World (They Just Don't Know It Yet)
Women In Eve -- Can It Be Done?
You'd Rather Be Playing The Sims, Right?
Women In Eve
EVE: WTB Girls?
All About Eve
Hell Hath No Fury
The Ladies of New Eden: An Analysis Of How Men Are Not From Mars, and Women Are Not From Venus
The Ladies of New Eden
Eve vs Women
Gender Inclusiveness in CCP's Eve Online