Art by Major Sniper.
Everyone on EVE is a noob or has been a noob. I am currently a noob and will probably be one for the foreseeable future. EVE is notoriously unforgiving for noobs thanks to its massive learning curve; some people who I have spoken to would call it a “learning drop.” This is arguably EVE’s biggest selling point, since there are so many different styles of play to master, but it’s also the game’s biggest downfall.
“It’s Free; Who Cares?”
I asked five good friends of mine to play EVE and, after doing some research, all of them said no but one. The others said they didn’t have time to sink into the game given its extensive mechanics. But then I said the golden words: “It is free.” We all logged on, did some mining, and I scammed them out of 50% of their profits without them knowing; however, we only did that for one night. They had moved onto some other game by the next morning. The reasoning they gave was a simple and understandable one: “It’s free; who cares?”
EVE went free-to-play (FTP) in November 2016, and that has changed EVE’s player base. We can see from player count statistics that in the months prior to November the Tranquility server averaged between 28,000 and 34,000 online players. On November 20, immediately after the FTP changeover, there were over 50,000 players online – not bad considering the game’s all-time record, according to EVE Offline, is 65,000. It is also important to note that November 20th of 2016 was the “highest concurrent player” mark for 2016, and that January 15th of 2017 recorded the highest concurrent players for that year. This indicates that, in the short-term, the free-to-play business model switch was great for boosting the player base. Now, I can’t testify to how the gameplay was, but it must have given corporations a good recruitment boost as well.
However, these numbers have since gone back down. The statistics show that for 2018 the average number of players online was just 31,000 and for 2019 it’s at 28,000 (bearing in mind we are only a few months in), just slightly better than before FTP. The player count has barely budged at all in the long term, so the question has to be asked: is free to play still a good way to go in 2019?
Good For Players? Good For Business?
As my friends showed when the word “free” changed their minds, FTP certainly seems like a good selling point. Free stuff is good because it’s free. EVE as an Alpha clone is good because it’s free. However, CCP is a company. As much as they want to please fans, they can’t do that without revenue, so while one hand gave a freebie, another hand was reaching toward our wallets. According to a GamesIndustry report in January 2017, CCP Games saw a revenue increase of 30% in 2016, earning $86,135,976. This was in the same year that they introduced free-to-play. FTP in and of itself is not in any way profitable, but before the free-to-play change, they added in this little gem called PLEX. PLEX allows you to use in-game cash to go from an Alpha Clone to an Omega clone and also allows you to buy in-game money with real cash. Not only this, but you can buy skill injectors which boost what toys you can play with. The addition of skill injectors brought significant controversy, which has not gone away even years later. However, the game went on reasonably unhindered, and being able to PLEX their accounts with ISK gave players a drive to make some money, so all in all free-to-play hasn’t affected the game that negatively.
The question of whether injectors have helped or harmed the game is far beyond the scope of this article, but it seems self-evident that the only two ways for CCP to increase its revenue are to increase player count or else give players additional things to buy within the game. (There is a third option, which is to increase subscription prices, but the market seems to have decided a long time ago that £9.99/$15USD per month is The Appropriate Price for an MMO, an if there is one thing CCP does not want, it is to anger existing customers so that they quit.)
No Cost = No Skin In The Game
There’s a saying that EVE has been dying since release, and whilst that is another debate entirely and there have been many arguments surrounding why this is, it’s clear that the free-to-play model has contributed to it. When you download a free app on your phone and get bored with it, you get rid of it. It is exactly the same with EVE, but for a different reason. EVE’s learning curve means that new players will simply leave the game after an average of three hours, eventually uninstalling it. There are way more difficult games out there with 10 million players on at every moment, but the difference between these games and EVE is that players paid an upfront amount for them. You’ll want to play and get good at a game you paid 30 quid for. You’re not going to care about a game you got for free. Having some skin in the game can motivate players to stick with it just enough to get enjoyment out of it, but EVE doesn’t require your pound of flesh, and that means that new players won’t care.
I love EVE. I love that it is intricate; I love that it makes you fearful. I love the game. However, for the game to continue on, there need to be new ways to entice people in. EVE’s free-to-play model in and of itself is not bad. In many ways its good, but it is having a ripple effect throughout the game and is impacting many mechanics, for better or for worse.