EVE Evolved: Expansions, not excuses

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Over the last few months, the phrase "Flying in Space" has been increasingly used by both EVE Online's developers and its players to describe features other than those of Incarna. It seems like a redundant phrase as all of EVE's gameplay currently takes place in space, but the distinction has become necessary when discussing the allocation of development resources. Members of EVE's player-elected Council of Stellar Management have recently spearheaded a wave of new complaints about the level of resources dedicated to EVE's in-space features, claiming that developers have been left without the resources necessary to do a good job.

In the previous three EVE Evolved columns, I discussed the upcoming nullsec revamp scheduled to begin this winter and the incredible new gameplay players might get as part of it. Members of the CSM know exactly how many people will be working on that revamp, and although those numbers haven't been made public, several delegates have gone public with their disapproval. EVE's subscription fees are currently paying for the development of CCP's upcoming fantasy MMO World of Darkness and its ambitious console MMOFPS DUST 514, leaving few resources for new EVE gameplay and content.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look back at the success of EVE's first blockbuster expansion and ask why development on EVE Online has dramatically decreased over the past two and a half years.

EVE Online side imageBlockbuster expansions

EVE Online has always been one of very few MMOs that exhibits an organic subscriber growth pattern. While most MMOs tend to have a large influx of players after each new expansion and then a slow drop-off until the next expansion, EVE Online has typically seen slow but constant subscriber growth. This continued right up until the end of 2008, when subscriber numbers began to drop for the first time in the game's long history and developers faced tough economic turmoil in Iceland. To bring things back from the brink, CCP pooled its global resources in offices around the world to create EVE's blockbuster Apocrypha expansion.

The early information on Apocrypha released from January 2009 onward generated immense interest in EVE. I saw this myself as dozens of old corpmates who had quit long ago turned up out of the blue to prepare for wormhole expeditions. The expansion was a spectacular success, with subscriber numbers rising over 20% between January when the expansion was announced and June three months after release. The average concurrent user numbers show a similar rise in activity around the same time, followed by a drop caused by the mass banning of over 6,000 bot accounts as part of operation Unholy Rage.

Apocrypha was a colossal success by any definition, and yet since then the amount of time that's gone into developing new EVE gameplay has been dramatically decreased. As former CCP game designer and current CSM delegate Mark Heard explained in his CSM blog, the originally massive Dominion expansion was cut short in development and iteration on it was canceled. Tyrannis was similarly stunted in development, introducing only extremely basic FarmVille-type gameplay. Even Incarna, the expansion into which all the extra developer time was said to be going, was stripped back to a single non-customisable Minmatar captain's quarters.

EVE Online side image Incarna failing

A graph showing the average number of players logged in each day since 2006 has been making the rounds on EVE blogs this month, highlighting a worrying fact on the launch of Incarna. Every expansion since Revelations in 2006 has produced a spike of activity as inactive players logged in to check out the new content. Incarna was the first expansion to defy this rule, having absolutely no measurable impact on average player logins. With no new content to check out, players aren't logging in to try Incarna out, and activity is slowly falling as a result.

The aforementioned graph has been quoted as proof that Incarna has been a failure and a waste of development resources, but realistically we should have expected exactly what was in the graph. In its current one-room form with no gameplay, limited customisation and no real player interaction, Incarna is not something that appeals to anyone in particular. The possibilities brought in by multiplayer environments and player-owned establishments, however, could appeal to a lot of current and prospective players. I'd expect to see a spike of activity follow the release of establishments, but there will be a slow decline in activity until that or other gameplay features are released. How that decline will translate into an effect on subscriptions is anyone's guess.

EVE Online side imageFlying in space

When CCP instituted the player-elected Council of Stellar Management in the wake of the T20 scandal, many players considered it to be a cheap PR gimmick to keep players happy. Since then, the CSM has gone on to acquire a stakeholder position within the game design process and make itself an integral part of CCP's feedback-gathering mechanisms.

The CSM's usefulness as a sounding board for ideas and as a way to gather issues players find important has made the group a valuable part of the development process. When the CSM isn't used as a filter to test ideas out before they're thrown into the live game, issues like the NeX store pricing drama can occur. Unfortunately, the sixth CSM has found out the hard way that even if the Council is working closely with individual developers at CCP, it may not be possible to get development time on the things players want.

The latest nullsec devblogs show that the developers on the ground at CCP are very in-touch with what players want and would produce some excellent gameplay if given the opportunity. CSM chairman The Mittani believes that CCP isn't sparing enough resources to make its current gameplay goals possible and that the decision to starve EVE's in-space features of resources has been made at the upper-management level. The lack of resources for gameplay may be another symptom of the same poor strategic decision-making that prompted monoclegate.

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CCP is great at taking first steps and starting new projects but has a poor track record when it comes to finishing and iterating on existing gameplay. Dominion was supposed to be the first stage of a radical revamp of the entirety of nullsec, but no further development on that front has appeared in nearly two years. We're also still waiting for iteration on Tyrannis with its planet-based content and the link with DUST 514. The Incursion expansion had fantastic lead-up events and some new group PvE gameplay, yet even it hasn't been significantly iterated on since release.

No expansion since Apocrypha has been particularly heavy on gameplay or content, even when compared to the work CCP did in EVE's early years with a fraction of the staff and budget. I'm forced to ask where all the development time is going and why in-space EVE features have had to suffer so heavily when they're what pays almost all of CCP's bills. It feels like EVE has been operating on a skeleton crew for most of the past two and a half years, and the game is starting to seriously suffer for it. What we really need now is another blockbuster expansion or even just enough development resources to do the nullsec revamp justice, not another content-light update excused as the first step toward something awesome.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.