EVE’s Free-To-Play Model Is A Blessing And A Curse


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.

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  • Do Little

    When the Alpha model was first introduced, I thought of it as an extended trial. If you’re still here by the time you reach the 5 million SP cap – you likely enjoy the playground vs theme park model of Eve, are part of a player community and will subscribe. The subscription fee is pocket change in the developed world, you’ll pay more for a restaurant lunch. If you don’t see value in the subscription, you probably won’t be here for long anyway. By not placing a time limit on the trial, CCP encouraged more people to give it a try.

    It made sense and the community as a whole seemed to agree – there was very little resistance to the idea. But Alphas turned out to be exploitable with economic consequences. I’m not sure increasing Alpha capabilities was a particularly good idea – I’d rather CCP offered a discounted subscription model, perhaps a Beta clone, that provided the ability to train and use the additional skills. There should be a point where people need to make a commitment – put some skin in the game.

    If the main purpose was to increase population density, the same goal could be achieved by closing a few regions and forcing people to live closer together – which is pretty much guaranteed to create friction.

    March 15, 2019 at 9:04 AM
  • Reality Check

    I think it’s brilliant. Eve is a harsh mistress. Free to play lets you get to court that mistress and see if you are into pain. It’s not for everyone. But who it’s for? That person finds themselves on an impossible to avoid path to Alpha, and becoming a profit maker for them. Simply put, the model weeds out those masochists that love Eve. It also lures in the weak with promises of free. Folks that didn’t know they’d do terrible things for plex. Folks they’d not have gotten otherwise.

    March 15, 2019 at 2:57 PM
    • EVE had a two week trial since the beginning of time. Two weeks is plenty of time for people who won’t like EVE to realize they won’t like EVE– IIRC even by CCP’s own estimation, most people who bail on the game bail within the first couple of days, and many don’t make it past the first few hours. A trial period (maybe even an extended, 30-60 day one) should be more than adequate to perform this function.

      March 17, 2019 at 4:22 AM
  • Axhind

    Which games exactly would you consider harder and more complex than eve?

    March 15, 2019 at 3:14 PM
    • J Moravia Axhind

      I think we need to distinguish between two varieties of “hard.” Some games are hard because they are random (such as certain match-three or bubble-popping games, in which you may be given an unwinnable starting position and have to restart before you even play a move to get a new random starting position); in those games, the difficulty is artificial, and is introduced in order to mask the fact that the game is not very complex. Many board games use dice rolling to add an element of randomness to what would otherwise be a very predictable, bland, and boring game (and as a result most serious board gamers avoid games with dice, preferring to win or lose on skill, not on luck).

      Whereas those other games are hard artificially through randomness to hide their lack of complexity, EVE is hard naturally, as a result of its complexity. Theorycrafting fleet compositions is incredibly hard precisely because there are so many different ways you could get countered off the grid. Making money in industry is incredibly hard precisely because there are so many economic factors in play that could increase or decrease your profits.

      So when you say “hard,” I assume you mean hard in the sense of “requiring significant skill and experience to get good at, but that excellence through skill is possible” and not games which result in losing outcomes more frequently but only due to randomness.

      March 15, 2019 at 6:53 PM
      • Javert En Challune J Moravia

        Exactly this.

        March 16, 2019 at 8:47 AM
      • FunkyBacon J Moravia

        As an Orlando City supporter, you also may have a higher tolerance for hardship than most.

        March 16, 2019 at 1:27 PM
        • J Moravia FunkyBacon

          *checks the score of today’s game*


          March 16, 2019 at 9:52 PM
  • F2P is toxic and should be eradicated from this game. I don’t mind having a cash shop for cosmetic stuff– especially if it significantly boosts CCPs revenue– but I hate basically everything about F2P and the ability to buy skillpoints and ingame currency.

    Look at CCP’s own posting for a perfect example: in their recent devblog regarding upcoming ship balance changes, they intimated that their new Triglavian ships represent an excellent example of well-balanced content. I’m not sure how anything could be further than the truth– ships like the Kikimora are absolutely blatant cash-grabs on CCP’s part: the ships outperform other ships in their size class by a large margin, they’re expensive, and they require skillbooks that CCP went to deliberate lengths to ensure would be incredibly pricey. It seems to cost almost as much to buy into the Triglavian subcap line as it does to get into capitals, and I ~*highly*~ suspect that the reason for this is to bolster CCP’s PLEX sales. You see the same phenomenon in other “Free to Play” games– the developer release new content (ships, champions, whatever) that are overpowered, cash in as nerds shell out real money to fast-track into the new content, and then nerf the content after a few months once the cash influx dwindles. It’s fucking toxic bullshit.

    The best part is, of course, that we haven’t even traded this BS for a game that’s actually free to play. All you really get is a free demo / trial account: alphas are pretty darn limited in terms of what they can do, and the fact that running an alpha account disables your other accounts– even omega ones– makes using alphas utterly impractical for any kind of long-term play. EVE is a game that more or less demands that you use alts.

    I absolutely loathe CCP’s F2P model: it’s ruining game balance, it offers absolutely zero benefits to me as a veteran player who’s been paying subs on four accounts since 2006, and it doesn’t benefit new players for more than a month or two. They could’ve achieved the same result with regard to new players by upping the trial time to 30 or 60 days. Ugh.

    March 17, 2019 at 4:20 AM
    • Carvj94 Ganthrithor

      Except you can’t buy in game items with real money or PLEX. Those Trig ships you mentioned can only be bought with isk. Regardless more isk doesn’t buy you a win anywhere in EVE unless you have a couple hundred billion and dedicate mercenaries. EVE requires real life skills to be a strong player.

      March 21, 2019 at 7:31 PM
      • Please explain how you can’t buy ingame items with PLEX / real money. I’ll fetch some popcorn.

        March 24, 2019 at 11:42 PM
  • Well by that standard almost no games have cash shops for items: you almost always need to first buy some kind of game-specific “currency.” Riot Points, Station Cash, whatever. Then you buy the items with the game currency.

    I know it’s still possible (maybe even probable) for credit-card warriors to lose fights in EVE. Nobody is arguing that it isn’t. But it’s also stupid to argue that being able to spend more money on better ships (and characters, for that matter) doesn’t confer an advantage.

    March 25, 2019 at 3:57 AM
  • Yeah it’s not so much that individual players can purchase a small advantage in small-gang fights that upsets me– it’s the way CCP make major game design changes with the primary motivation of getting cash that irritates me. It encourages design decisions that create imbalances in order to keep the playerbase perpetually cashing in on the flavor of the month.

    It’s especially annoying when the game isn’t *really* free to play. I still have to pay my $15/mo because I want to be able to run more than one account at a time and/or use relevant ships. So I get to put up with their rolling “balance” circus AND pay for the privilege. All while they continually nerf risk out of the game and dilute the gameplay… not a compelling trajectory for the game.

    March 26, 2019 at 6:05 AM