A Look at EVE with Free Tier Option

2016-09-01

It looks like CCP is back to two expansions per year (summer and winter), but don’t hold CCP to that cadence. They say expansions arrive when they arrive. Citadels and the supercapital overhaul were released in the spring of this year, and soon a second 2016 expansion will arrive, changing the EVE subscription model that has been used since 2003 to a modified Free-to-play (F2P). The change was recently announced, and will be the tent pole “feature” of the November expansion. This access model shift has been expected for several years, but still hits with a major shock to the players and bystanders of the game.

The change will not affect current subscribers, but will open a new tier of access that is free from any subscription fees. Unsubbed accounts automatically fall into this free tier.

The two types of accounts have been given lore explanations and titles:

  • The Omega clone state – nothing changes. Requires subscription or PLEX.
  • The Alpha clone state – a slow training, limited set of skills. Free.

The lore explanation is that Alpha clones have a very limited capacity and can only hold certain skills. Skills are what allow you to use equipment in EVE, so essentially the clone limits your variety of equipment. There is no limit to what an Alpha can do ingame, so they are free to participate in any way they want with the universe. At any time, an Alpha cloned account can be changed into an Omega clone, unlocking all the skills earned on that character.

More Players in EVE

This change means more players online, and more activity overall, and this has been CCP’s goal for a while. As explained by executive producer CCP Seagull, “We’ve been doing everything we can to bring more people into our spectacular sandbox.” CCP has upgraded EVE to handle more players with new hardware, and by rewriting cumbersome code. They are confident, with the help of the player base, they can accomodate many more players.

If the transition from subscription to F2P is badly deployed, it could backfire causing the economy, gameplay, and culture to destabilize. A flood of new “tourist” players or returning players could leverage the free Alpha clones to undermine the equilibrium of the game. CCP’s job is to keep that from happening – they must keep the wheels on the bus while it picks up many more players. Still, most players are optimistic:

Fantastic idea IMO. It takes a lot longer than 3 weeks for most people to wrap their head around a game of Eve’s magnitude and I think giving people the option to play around in the shallow end for as long as they want will lead to more people taking the plunge and subbing than the current trial system.

This reminds me hugely of the way the Runescape sub model works, which has been pretty successful for that game so I’m pretty optimistic about this.

– TheOneNite, Doom Generation on r/eve

This is more than an indefinitely timed trial account. Current and returning players will no longer be barred from the game when they unsubscribe. Instead they fall back into an Alpha clone state.  Here CCP Darwin explains what some scenarios might look like:

A long-time player who’s been unsubscribed could log back on to their existing character in the Alpha clone state and play the game that way for a while, reconnect socially, and maybe buy a PLEX in-game or pay for a subscription if something exciting happens or they decide it’s worth it, and drop back to free play when things slow down for them.

A veteran player who’s paying monthly now but has to take a month or two away from serious Eve play for personal reasons could end their subscription but still log on occasionally to stay involved, then resubscribe and be back where they had been when it makes sense.

A player who would love to keep playing but can’t justify the subscription cost can drop back to Alpha status on their existing character and stay involved, remain connected with their corp, fly in fleets with their friends, and be under no pressure to grind out the ISK for a PLEX.

If clone states were just an extended trial, it wouldn’t offer these options to veteran Eve players.

Over the last two years, and especially the last few months, the Peak Concurrent Users (PCU) statistic has slid to levels not seen since 2007. Player panic has dissipated to a mild depression as they fret over the future prospects of their game. The PCU tracking is not a foolproof way to judge the overall health of any game, but it has an influence on the mood of players as the numbers go up or down. This is especially true for MMOs because of critical mass. The theory of critical mass is important to a game where other players are part of the content, so dropping numbers can be alarming.

Social Media and MMOs have a minimum critical mass to be viable. They need enough users that the costs are worth it and people want to interact with a product; imagine getting on MySpace to hang out with your friends and no one is there.

WOW had a bunch of pirate servers because you only need 5-60 people on at any time to do something. Eve online does not have any pirate servers because the entire system is designed to have a player driven economy and everyone working in the same world — the critical mass is too high for pirates.

– ARealRocketScientist

When PCU numbers increase, player confidence goes up despite underpinning factors. When the developers of a game are moving in the right direction and the numbers are increasing the health of the game feels strong, but EVE is prone to new player spikes or bubbles that are not based on game direction but temporary events in the game. Last spring, when mercenaries attacked the Imperium, a sharp increase in PCU thrilled players, in turn bringing more people back. This caused a positive trend line for a few weeks, but later collapsed as the bubble popped. That is where we find ourselves today, and why this announced change will be very important.

OPTIMISM

The MMO juggernaut, World of Warcraft, lost steam last year as they went through some changes of their own. Although the games are very different they are both considered old MMOs that have stood the test of time. WOW lost 44% of their player base last year because the game was stagnant and the previous few expansions were tacked-on content. Many players had aged out or moved on. Surprisingly it seems to be turning around. Blizzard is seeing a lot of optimism over its new Legion expansion, which largely revisits old areas of the game where players had emotional investments.

EVE is doing something similar by giving former players a way to visit old friends and homes in New Eden. Long lost inventories, years old, are intact and safe in the stations they were left in, so players can snoop through the gear they left behind. Being able to talk to and fly with old corpmates or contacts, without the pressure of sinking hours in to get your money’s worth, is an inviting prospect. In a game this old, players have moved on to new roles in real life that have different time commitments.  All the places and people that made EVE’s rich world come alive have the potential to vest without pressure.

GAME DIRECTION – PLAY TO WIN

The optimism of returning friends will only last if players have faith that CCP is developing the game in the right direction. EVE has been changing into a game where you “play and outplay each other,” as Executive Producer CCP Seagull puts it, and that is most notable in the new mechanics: Carriers must pilot those fighters. Boosts will need to be flown into combat at close range. Logistics subcaps have optimal and falloff ranges for their repairers. Citadels need to be manned to fight back. Sovereignty control now goes to active groups, not the most feared. Many past changes have been focused on making the active PVP game more fun, and the PVE and exploring more interesting. Harvesting has largely stayed the same, as has production, although Crius expansion cleaned up the UI and processes. This November will usher in a new industrial structure, adding playability to this area of the game.

The tradeoff is the “ownership” model that persisted for years, is weaker. Having multiple accounts, high skillpoints, and arcane knowledge of gameplay-workarounds is less valuable now. The long and slow training to capitals and supercapitals, that were at one time considered the end game content, is diminished. Skills can be purchased, supercapitals can be parked, and multiple cyno alts are used less since the introduction of jump travel changes in the Phoebe expansion.

However, CCP has not forgotten those veteran players. In the next expansion, titans will create racially based wormhole-like fleet boosting effects when desired. Supercarrier pilots are now among the strongest DPS dealers in the game. Triage pilots have been given specialized force auxiliary ships with great tanks and great repping ability. The only problem is, now these capitals are harder to multi box.

Ultimately EVE is now for players, not owners. There is something to be said for “living in EVE.” Rewarding active gaming shouldn’t be the only desirable result in an MMO, there are concepts of seniority, investment, and loyalty to the brand that are lost if not paid attention to. It is possible that those characteristics, not fun per hour, are what keep people playing EVE year after year.

FREE PRACTICE CLONES

I wrote an article on the tyranny of the killboard and how the fear of bad stats on your permanent record makes players more risk averse. In most cases, a good killboard record is essential for career progress in null-sec. For some practicing pvp meant creating new throw away alts, or using the empty test server to combat practice. The new free Alpha clones can provide “scratch paper” to work out techniques without wrecking your main character’s killboard. PVP opponents cannot see if you are an Alpha or Omega clone, but the T1 ship you are flying might be a giveaway, unless, of course, you are in a T1 to bait fights for your maxed out and “fully operational” Omega clone character.

Interestingly the Alpha clones have skill caps that are based on race (empire). This, along with the new titan boosting power, are signs that CCP wants to integrate more lore-based player choices.

What Alpha clones won’t be able to do is take sov on their own since it cannot use the entosis module. They also cannot boost, cloak, light cynos, or do any mission above level three. Incursions won’t be safe and Drifters will instantly vaporize Alpha ships. Alpha will be able to make T1 equipment, but not T2. They will also probably buy T1 gear, so the economy will probably look like it does now, with T1 having thin margins, and T2 being profitable at the market.

CONCLUSION

Walking in stations, DUST, Valkyrie, magazines, and books, were all avenues to bring new players into EVE. Changing EVE to Free-to-play will probably attract more new players than all those efforts combined. It is likely many of those players will visit and revisit until their ambitions grow beyond their capability, and they trade in the Alpha clones for Omegas.

The only pitfalls of this move are the possible shifts in the economy, but CCP is looking very closely at this area and asking players to help them head off problems. Culturally speaking, there may be more noise in Jita or local, but that is easy to avoid. These may be real worries, but they are manageable with good supervision.

EVE has arrived as a fully mature product now. It has beautiful modern graphics, emergent gameplay, and is now in line with most MMOs as a Free-to-play product. The influx of players will be a welcomed sight, just in time for winter, when EVE is at its best.

 

 

Update:

“EVE is one of those games that has simultaneously intrigued and terrified me over the years. If the free tier opens up (or is still open) around the time I run out of Legion content, count me in for a taste.”   – GambaKufu (Verge comments)

“My sub lapsed about 4 years ago, Ill definitely go back and fly around when this hits.”   – Duxa (Engadget comments)

“This [EVE] should be my thing, but when it was new I was clueless, and now I feel like it’s full of experts. Still, for free I’ll probably dip my toes again.”  – Tiel (Eurogamer comments)

“LFR, ASSEMBLE! I could get right back into this if we could get our little gang together at the weekends for cruiser roams, no sub required  ”  – Bedders (Eurogamer comments)

“WALL-E loves EVE. Maybe she’s worth a go…”  – ChromeMud (Eurogamer comments)

and many more

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