The Forbidden Comparison: EVE Against Conventional MMOs

2021-09-27

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?

Final Thoughts

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.

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Comments

  • In comparing EVE with FFXIV I think you are missing the huge play style gap between those titles.

    For all of its flaws in both game design and developer relations, I would argue that EVE Online is the longest running, most successful Western PvP persistent world MMORPG.

    No safe zones, no PvE only servers, no flagging; you undock somebody can shoot you. And that is kind of a big deal. because PvP is pretty much anathema to a lot of MMORPG players. I think a PvP title has a natural limit on it when it comes to player base, and other titles that have gone the full PvP route have either flamed out (see Darkfall) or have had to split their path and cater to PvE players with their own servers (The Ulitma Online story).

    At its peak back in 2013 CCP said it had 500K users, and they had to count the Serenity server in that number (and some people claim they counted DUST 514 players too, not that those amounted to much). Now, eight years down the road, the game in decline can still muster 300K. Not bad relative to the genre where some younger titles would love to have 100K players.

    Which isn’t to discount much of what you have said. I was motivated to start my blog back in 2006 to complain about the new player tutorial in EVE and have complained much about CCP and their handling of the game over the years because there has been much to complain about.

    But for all their foibles, missteps, and misunderstanding of the game and its players, they have created something unique and special that has yet to be duplicated. And other devs recognize this. EVE always comes up when somebody wants to make a PvP MMORGP. I remember the Crowfall Kickstarter. They were going to be “EVE Online meets Game of Thrones!”

    September 27, 2021 at 2:32 PM
    • Guilford Australis Wilhelm Arcturus

      All good points, and the things you describe are why I still love EVE despite its blemishes. It’s irreplaceable.

      I did note that the comparison wasn’t one of playstyles, but rather the relationship between developers and players, and it seems we’re mainly on the same page about that.

      As always, thanks for your thoughts.

      September 27, 2021 at 2:54 PM
      • I keep asserting that “most successful PvP” thing about EVE Online waiting for somebody to challenge me on that. Am I actually right? Might be a decent article for somebody.

        September 27, 2021 at 3:13 PM
        • J Moravia Wilhelm Arcturus

          “Most successful game where any player can kill any other player at any given time” is objectively true by any metric you might want to apply, I think. World of Warcraft has PVP servers, but Alliance members can’t attack other Alliance members, only Horde (unless they’ve changed something major since I last played). EVE is in a class all by itself.

          Unrelated sidebar: this is why EVE’s focus on new player retention is kind of a red herring. As you pointed out, unlimited PVP 24/7 isn’t for everybody, so EVE’s retention is always going to suffer compared with WoW or FFXIV. There will always be people who join the game not realizing that they could get vaporized the moment as they undock in Jita 4-4, and quit as soon as they lose their first million ISK.

          September 27, 2021 at 8:10 PM
        • If you include the the “Western” qualifier, then the only game that may challenge EVE is Star Citizen, at least financially. It’s been making more in sales than EVE the last few years. With the introduction of local inventory in patch 3.15 in a few weeks, the game is evolving into a full loot, FFA PvP game. Of course, we won’t know for sure until CIG finally figures out how to have more than one system active at a time.

          September 29, 2021 at 9:59 AM
          • I can’t speak to what goes on in China, which is why I injected “Western,” but there have been games in the past that have tried to go that route, Darkfall and Shadowbane being two examples, and fell apart because their mechanics basically let the games eat themselves.

            Star Citizen is still in alpha and is getting a pwipe, so “may challenge” is a future scenario we may not live to see.

            September 30, 2021 at 2:14 PM
    • Commander Ted Wilhelm Arcturus

      “In comparing with I think you are missing the huge play style gap between those titles.”
      I think you missed the point of the article. It isn’t about the game, it is about the relationship between the devs and the players.

      October 6, 2021 at 9:14 PM
      • And yet the play styles have a big impact on those relationships. They cannot be separated.

        October 13, 2021 at 3:40 PM
        • Commander Ted Wilhelm Arcturus

          Everything good and unique about EvE has been there since the beginning, the game still works in spite of the devs constantly implementing half assed systems they create then ignore, and do balance passes that nobody asked for and ignore the consequences of for years. Seems to me it’s similar to the core issue that WoW has, the devs don’t play the game and have different priorities than the players, and from their point of view they know what the players want better than they do.

          CCP may be significantly more conservative than other MMO devs because of the nature of the game, but the point still stands.

          October 14, 2021 at 1:18 PM
  • Alaric Faelen

    One thing that sets Eve apart from most games is the level of ROLES there are to fill within the game. Because the resource, manufacturing, and market are so incredibly deep- it gives players a mountain of ‘jobs’ to choose from.
    In many MMO’s the roles within a guild are very limited. Someone might run the shared loot bank, someone might be designated armor crafter and another the potion maker. But in Eve there are jobs down to fueling POS’s and jump gates, hauling and cyno lighting, SRP pay out team, fitting specialists (who also have to know if the market can actually bear their brilliant fits), FC’s, Diplos, people that run fuel contracts, and literally dozens more depending on the size of the organization. Many of these jobs are essentially second RL jobs for people.

    While the number of roles within a fleet might be comparable to common fantasy MMO’s with tanks, healers, DPS, AoE, and other roles. It’s the sheer depth of Eve’s economy and player run organizations that make it unique.
    Also the level of scale matters. In most MMO’s there is a cap to how much a group can do regardless of how many people are in it. Beyond having the people in-house required to run raids and share resources- there is a hard ceiling for what a large group can accomplish regardless of size. But with Eve the ceiling is whatever the servers can handle for any given battle. The more players you have, the bigger ships you have– the more you can do, the more aspects of Eve you can control from the lowest end of resource gathering to the highest end of dominating the trade markets and military supremacy.
    In fact, the player run alliances have long since eclipsed the power of the great NPC empires themselves. That’s the direction I’d like to see Eve move– the empires set aside their differences and turn on the obvious threat of null sec. Pivot FW to be the ’empire loyalists’ and null the breakaway upstarts. Aim the two largest PvP groups at each other with low sec being the main battlefield.

    September 28, 2021 at 12:18 AM
    • Garreth Vlox Alaric Faelen

      “In fact, the player run alliances have long since eclipsed the power of the great NPC empires themselves. That’s the direction I’d like to see Eve move– the empires set aside their differences and turn on the obvious threat of null sec. Pivot FW to be the ’empire loyalists’ and null the breakaway upstarts. Aim the two largest PvP groups at each other with low sec being the main battlefield.”

      *Paging CCP* random players are doing your job again. Why is it they only take the shitty suggestions from reddit and use them when we have ideas like this?

      The suggestions that lead to the poverty era they were all over like stink on shit, but the, what 10 fucking years? Of suggestions about making lowsec useful just get passed over repeatedly until they suddenly decide to make lowsec the … drumroll here…. MINING space for much needed ores.

      I honestly want the idiot in Iceland who dreamed that up to be put on stage at fan fest and handed the mic, with no back up, no power point, no fellow GM’s to bail their ass out, and told to explain on the spot how they thought that wasn’t the dumbest idea in this game’s developement in a decade.

      September 28, 2021 at 2:37 AM
  • Elithiel en Gravonere

    One of my more favourite PvP gaming environments outside of Eve would be the alliance war in ESO. It too faces developers doing ‘constant balance passes’ but the fast paced action and real time decision making and tactics and counter tactics and so on, make it a much more enjoyable mass combat environment in many ways than tidi EVE. Eve is like a cricket match compared to ESO, which is more like a rugby union match. If only ESO could do what EVE does and allow for at least hundreds of players on each side, we’d have the perfect game.

    Many of the tactics I developed in EVE, I brought back from ESO. Random and fast paced attacks on multiple keeps at once, we did in our ihub skirmishes. Burning the backfields (attacking the smaller keeps deep behind enemy lines), we did often out of Stain and then later on everywhere else. Setting up ambushes and chokepoints, etc… That’s one good thing you can learn in other MMOs, you can learn tactics and strategies and then see if they can translate into EVE.

    The Ball Group tactic is similar in many ways to the Brawler strategies of punching in hard and close range, whilst picking off the enemy with archers. The barrage of ultimates in ESO, are sort of like the bombers in EVE.

    Eve fails in so many ways compared to the beauty and amazing PVE experiences in ESO but it’s unique experience makes it worthy of still playing. It’s crafting system is very extensive and unique and Eve is probably the best for industrialists/crafters.

    September 28, 2021 at 3:29 AM
  • Kyeudo

    Perhaps if it was more clear to the playerbase what conditions CCP considers to warrant balance changes and market interventions, the players could see why CCP decided now was the time to roll out a nerf or buff.

    Personally, I think the goal should be “every ship is useful for something” and “every ship has a counter”, but that’s not how the game has ever been and the way that capital and supercapital ships are, it likely never will be.

    September 28, 2021 at 8:53 PM
    • J Moravia Kyeudo

      Long ago CCP’s philosophy was “every in-game activity has a counter.” High-sec mining was countered by suicide ganking. Hauling was countered by gate camps and contract fraud. It was a good philosophy.

      But then a decade went by with no counter for cloaky camping, purely because mar5hy and others were responsible for hundreds if not thousands of subscriptions between the lot of them, and we could all see what CCP was really made of.

      September 29, 2021 at 11:30 PM
  • I kind of disagree with the premise of the article: fan-service also makes for shitty content, because the average player just wants as many tasty treats as possible for the least amount of work. Fan-service leads to dumbed-down gameplay and a heavy focus on micro-transactions.

    CCP’s problem isn’t that the developers do what they want without catering to every whim of their lowest-common-denominator subscribers– it’s that the work done by the game design team is often objectively not-good. They’re constantly designing mechanics in order to address specific trends that they don’t like in a reactive manner instead of deciding what they want the game to be and then designing a game that funnels people in that direction. They often make successive or concurrent game design changes that directly conflict with one another or with their stated goals. As the customer, the end experience is one of standing on the deck of a rudderless ship, watching in horror as good and bad things happen to you at random.

    October 1, 2021 at 3:19 AM
  • Libluini

    I feel a healthy meta-ecosystem of MMOs needs both games like FFXIV (developers nice to players) and EVE (developers fight against the players). Sure, it’d be nice if CCP were less dumb sometimes, but I think it’s adding to EVE’s dystopian charm to have the developers actively making the player’s lives harder. And if that gets too much, well if you’re lucky you also like fantasy, and there it is: FFXIV and more.

    Sadly though we aren’t quite there yet to this mythical meta-ecosystem of MMO-gaming, as there is no comparable spaceship-oriented SF MMO around. There are SF-MMOs, but they all concentrate on you running around shooting SF-guns and shit. Only EVE does this weird (but good) thing of saying “OK, you’re immortal now so you can be blown up constantly, also this SF-capsule is you, you’ll never leave it while logged in.”

    It’s astonishingly hard SF, especially if you compare this shit to other SF-MMOs, where stuff like nanotech is used less like tech and more like magic spells. Anarchy Online, Warframe, they all look more like someone zapped FFXIV with some sort of genre reversal gun. From a gameplay standpoint, Anarchy Online and FFXIV are far more comparable than EVE and any of both.

    In conclusion, I think this article is basically the equivalent of a D-: Technically it passes the bare minimum, but man, could this have been better. Next time, try to at least find a game in the same genre for your comparisons. Like, Anarchy Online is of a similar age, it’s SF, that’s at least two full steps closer!

    October 9, 2021 at 1:34 PM