If a newbie is lucky, they find a group of people willing to help them out. Throw them a line. Be patient with them. Answer their 8000 questions.
More often than not, they're left treading in the weeds, always struggling to stay afloat.
EVE Online might benefit from a newbie starter zone. Every other MMO has one. And, yes, there's something to be said about a game so cruel and unforgiving, that it's left to chance whether a new player succeeds and stays, or is frustrated and quits. EVE Online is an old game though, nearly a decade old. It needs new players to survive for yet another decade.
Now, before you get all out-of-sorts, I am not suggesting a safe starter zone. Simply a starter zone that allows newbies to make their mistakes alongside people of similar skill level and/or experience in the game. (Always the former, not necessarily the latter.)
The Starter Zone PocketThe starter zone would be walled off from regular New Eden. It could be in it's own pocket of developed wormhole space. I would suggest that there be one pocket for Minmatar/Gallente and another pocket for Caldari/Amarr. Or there could just be a single pocket, if there's a desire for increased population, leading to more player-to-player interactions.
Each pocket would consist of fifteen systems. seven highsec systems, five lowsec systems, two nullsec systems, and one w-space system. The normal rules for each type of system applies. No secstatus loss in nullsec. No local in w-space. CONCORD in highsec.
One of the highsec systems should be an island, only accessible via lowsec. The nullsec system should be a shortcut between the lowsec systems (to teach players about chokepoints.) The w-space system should be accessible from highsec (this would be something players have to scan down, during the scanning tutorial, and considering how difficult scanning is for new players, allowing them to do it in relative safety is important.)
I would also suggest placing two permanent bubbles on the gate-to-gate warp in the nullsec system. This, to teach players about bubble mechanics, and let them discover methods of avoiding gate-to-gate bubbles.
The Skillcap and Leaving the Starter ZoneThere will be a skillcap for playing within the starter zone. Perhaps 2.5 million skillpoints. Perhaps 5 million skillpoints. When players reach the cap, they are immediately transported out of the starter area to one of the traditional racial newbie stations. All of their collected items (no matter where they are located in the starter zone) are "hauled" to their new station. (There could be hard caps on certain types of items transferred, especially those mined and manufactured, in the event players find "get rich quick" loopholes.)
Players can, of course, elect to leave the starting area at any time. An option to do so would appear in stations.
Players can elect to stop their training so that they can remain in the starting area indefinitely. Perhaps because they want to engage in PvP with newbies. Perhaps because they want to act as recruitment for their alliances and corporations. It doesn't really matter the reason. Sure, there will be gankers, but that's okay. New players still need to be introduced to the harsh realities of EVE. In the starter zone, they get to do so with characters near their skill level. It is far easier to get retribution upon a ganker if he too has the skillpoints of a newbie.
Interactions with New EdenThe only way into the starter area is via a new character. Once a character leaves the starting area, there is no method to return.
Interactions between characters in the starting zone and characters in New Eden proper should be kept to a bare minimum. Given that the area will mostly be limited to T1 items (see Market and Industry below), the opportunities for getting rich would likely be low.
Really Tailoring the New Player ExperienceThe new player tutorials can really hone in on specific aspects of gameplay, because of the diversity of systems, and the limited area of play. Perhaps one mission teaches players how to run a faction warfare plex in lowsec, while fighting rats. Perhaps another mission teaches players how to scan down a wormhole, enter it, and then complete some objective.
All areas of the game can be taught, without sending players on lengthy suicide runs. The starting zone can teach the fundamentals of lowsec, nullsec and w-space. Players can learn, through the starting zone, what areas of the game most interest them.
Industry, manufacturing and mining can and should be taught as well.
The Market and IndustryThere should be a fully functioning market in the starting area, but distinct from the New Eden markets. A number of items should still be seeded, but blueprint copies should be available, so that players can manufacture, creating and affecting certain sub-markets themselves. Certain items should be restricted, such as interdictors and bubbles, for instance. Maybe all T2 ships in particular are restricted. (Of course, certain types of gameplay will be restricted due to the skillpoint restrictions.)
Players don't need to learn everything in the starter area, and there is the danger of experienced players creating newbies with very specific skill plans, the aim to dominate certain aspects of the zone. So some care has to be taken in seeding the blueprints for manufacturable items.
All of this should be relatively easy to tweak, though, if problems arise.
Opportunity for RecruitmentOne of the real benefits of the starting zone is as a recruitment tool. Major alliances and corporations can set-up recruitment alts in the newbie zone, to help new players along, and to eventually recruit them into their organizations. It will help alliances narrow-down their search, to locate players that may be of value to them, and who demonstrate specific skillsets.
ConclusionThe newbie starting area is not a panacea for the new player retention problem, but I believe it would help greatly. It's far easier (and less frustrating) for new players to learn a game on a more even playing field with those around them. And it allows the tutorial system greater flexibility and a wider range of options on what can be taught. Currently, the tutorial system teaches highsec, because every other area of space is simply too dangerous for a newbie. The starting area as described allows new players to explore more of what EVE has to offer in an environment where they're more able to defend themselves, in an environment where they should feel less helpless.