Header art by Cryo Huren
The headline of this article is slightly misleading, but we’ll get to that.
Certain individuals, primarily lurkers and bittervets on the r/EVE subreddit—but also some prominent individuals within the game’s community, and even journalists—argue that comparisons between EVE and other online multiplayer games are inappropriate. They characterize other popular MMOs such as Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft as “theme park MMOs”, supposedly in contrast to the more PVP-oriented sandbox of EVE, which they believe is driven by a player-created economy and an extraordinary level of freedom. A common narrative is that EVE is a completely unique game, a one-of-a-kind experience. (Incidentally, every game is a one-of-a-kind experience, so we’re dealing with tautologies at this point). All of these claims certainly have a degree of merit.
But we have a few problems here.
EVE is not a Sandbox
CCP Games describes EVE as a sandbox in which players drive the game’s content and direction. And it is true that all activities allowed by the games mechanics and EULA are permitted, in many cases with minimal interference from the developer. That is admirable and contributes to EVE’s sense of freedom. CCP allows players to claim space and fight over it, anchor their own structures and control who can use them, scam each other, commit market fraud, suicide-gank hapless miners and haulers, casually saunter into a combat site just as another player is completing it and steal the final loot despite having done none of the actual work to complete the site, band together to obliterate smaller groups over petty grudges or old hatreds, grief and troll other players incessantly, create their own corporations and alliances, and shape the direction of EVE’s politics and balance. Those are many of the things that make EVE great.
But the game is not a sandbox. A sandbox, as described by former senior developer CCP Greyscale, involves “making a game open, giving players control.” According to CCP Greyscale, the developers view this primarily as a function of the social element of the game, though they also claim that the economy is “completely player driven.” But is it?
CCP constantly monkeys with the economy of EVE, manipulating a broad spectrum of game mechanics they characterize as “ISK sinks and faucets” in an endless, futile effort to micro-manage and control what they mischaracterize as a “completely player driven” economy. CCP actively nerfs any game activity or resource determined to be too profitable, such as by nerfing one of the most popular ships used for killing NPC pirates for ISK, making combat sites and ore anomalies both less common and (in the case of mining) vastly less profitable, nerfing the damage platform of one of the most common capital ships used for nullsec ratting, nerfing the game’s most popular capital mining platform (as well as rolling out subsequent moon mining nerfs and massive industry nerfs), doubling tax rates in NPC structures on one occasion only later to steeply reduce them seemingly in a hammy attempt to mess with one specific player-created trade organization, periodically discounting the only in-game commodity that can be purchased with actual real-world money, and a million other ways of ensuring that players do not “drive” the economy.
Moreover, incessant balance passes to ships, modules, and mechanics create an environment of heavy developer influence on the ways that players can enjoy EVE. The Drake was once a favorite battlecruiser for nullsec alliances. It was nerfed into the dust and is now so useless that it is only used as a meme ship. The Ferox followed it, until it too was nerfed. The Moros used to be a powerful Dreadnought until CCP stripped its drone bay, and now it is the least popular ship in its class. The Proteus used to be an extremely popular platform until CCP nerfed it into one of the slowest Cruiser platforms in the game. Meanwhile, the developers push players into the ships they would prefer to see us fly by buffing them (Assault Frigates, Marauders, etc.).
That is not a sandbox. That is DVP—Developer Versus Player. Any time players discover some clever way to use something to their advantage, CCP swoops in to nerf it straight to hell. If CCP truly wanted a sandbox, they should have created the environment, set the rules, let players decide how they want to play, and left us alone. Instead, CCP betrayed its sandbox claim by deciding to sit in the driver’s seat, speeding down roads they know the players in the passenger seats of their fake sandbox didn’t want to take.
The Forbidden Comparison
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. But I did promise I would circle around to this topic, so here we are.
The most significant difference between the relative success of EVE and other MMO games like FFXIV and World of Warcraft is related to development philosophy, not game design. I have played FFXIV since its rerelease in 2013, and the contrast between the way its developer Square Enix treats its players and the way CCP treats its players is extraordinary. This is not about gameplay differences. It is not about the relative quality of the PVP or the level of influence players have on the overall balance of the game. It is about the relationship between the developer and its customers.
A Tale of Two Games
Square Enix released FFXIV in 2010, to severely negative reactions from players. The developers were so alarmed by these reactions that they pulled the game from distribution for three years to completely rework it, fixing all its problems and eventually rereleasing it. Its director was so thankful for the players who gave him a chance to fix the game that he cried during the rerelease announcement. Following the release of its new version, A Realm Reborn, in 2013, the game’s frequent expansions and updates have been tributes to the players who stuck with the game as its developers lovingly crafted the best version of the game they could create. Square is palpably delighted by the enjoyment of its players and makes its decisions based on what will contribute to maximum player enjoyment. Since the rerelease, this game has been a nonstop gift of gratitude from Square Enix to its customers.
Now think for a moment about CCP’s relationship with its customers.
I have only played EVE since 2016, but during this entire time, with rare exceptions such as certain Triglavian content and the Assault Frigate buffs, every time CCP released an expansion, update, or balance pass I found myself wondering “why are they making my life worse?” Why does CCP work so hard to make EVE as miserable and unrewarding as possible? Why do they mumble about “the health of the ecosystem” to justify making development decisions they know players will hate? Why do they do this crap constantly, only to undo it when login numbers plummet exactly as they should have known would happen? Why do they call this game a sandbox when all of their development efforts are specifically targeted at preventing players from playing the game the way they want?
CCP has become notorious for its acrimonious relationship with its customers, with even mainstream journalists taking note of the uniquely awful interplay between the developer of this game and its players. Why would any company want to be known for that? Why not give customers what they want and try to make them happy?
The CCP apologists of course will point out that Square Enix has 5,500 employees, whereas CCP only has 250, so we shouldn’t expect the same level of development bandwidth. Well, that argument cuts both ways. Hilmar Petersson, the CEO of CCP Games stated two years ago that EVE has 300,00 active user accounts. FFXIV has two and a half million active accounts, and Square releases and maintains many other games each year, unlike CCP, which effectively has two products to manage, both EVE-related. Is it possible—just possible—that EVE could become more popular if CCP didn’t give every indication of resenting its own customers?
It doesn’t have to be this way. If CCP wants EVE to be a sandbox, the developers should take their hands off the steering wheel and let players create the balance of the game. They should stop nerfing everything that becomes popular into oblivion. They should stop faffing around with the economy. They should leave us alone to play in the sandbox.
But if CCP is determined to meddle with everything players do, particularly in ways they know will irritate us pointlessly, then we need to give up the illusion that EVE is a sandbox. CCP can’t have it both ways.