EVE Evolved: The benefits of a subscription

EVE Evolved title image
In last week's EVE Evolved opinion piece, I tackled the question of whether it would be possible to make EVE Online free-to-play and then devised a viable hybrid freemium business model based on other apparently successful free-to-play conversions. While this was largely a thought experiment exploring the viability of a conversion, the fact that other subscription games have made the change recently makes it more than just theoretical. The possibility that executives at CCP Games have investigated the same options makes this debate an important one to hash out in a public forum.

We've established that a free-to-play EVE could potentially be viable, but this week I'd like to take the debate one step further and ask whether EVE is actually doing the right thing with its current subscription model. Subscriptions may no longer appear to be the dominant business model in the MMO landscape, but they have some major advantages that are rapidly becoming apparent as more and more games drop their monthly fees. The sale of cosmetic enhancements will only net so much money, and if a game expands into selling convenience items that circumvent grind, there's a strong financial incentive to develop grindy gameplay and then sell shortcuts. This produces a conflict of interest between developing fun games and making money that isn't present with the subscription model.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at the benefits of the subscription model, the unique position CCP is in with its PLEX system, and the hidden dangers of convenience-based microtransactions.

EVE Evolved side imageEvolution of an MMO

MMOs are long-life products that run for years, and to keep people interested over that kind of duration, MMOs have to be extended through patches and expansions. In a subscription MMO, the main driver of income is by far recurring subscriptions, and so anything that increases the number of months a person stays subscribed for will make the studio more money. EVE Online has always had a much higher average subscription duration than most MMOs due to its incredibly involving sandbox gameplay. Those players who find their ways into tight-knit communities tend to stay subscribed as long as they feel like they have a home within the game and friends to play with.

In CCP's pursuit of higher player retention, it has introduced countless new ways for people to play together, from wormhole expeditions and nullsec territorial warfare to faction warfare and incursions. We've seen communities spring up around each new feature, giving new players a place in the world. The game has naturally evolved to be more fun because that's what increases player retention and therefore income. If EVE were to switch to a microtransaction-heavy payment system, there would be a huge financial incentive to introduce more things for people to buy instead of making the base game more fun. A great number of free-to-play games can be faulted for selling XP potions and travel items to circumvent grind and long distances and then releasing extra grindy gameplay or quests with long travel times to make the items a more attractive purchase.

EVE Evolved side imagePay-to-win

After the summer drama in which EVE players rallied vehemently against the potential of gameplay-affecting microtransactions, I tried to come up with a list of some gameplay-affecting microtransactions that wouldn't be game-breaking. Looking back, I find that many of these ideas were for convenience items to bypass grind, but it's exactly these types of item that are the problem. Any game that sells conveniences or other gameplay-affecting items for cash will run up against the same conflict of interest: The game design department will be responsible for developing gameplay that encourages the purchase of items and shortcuts.

MMO players universally just want the game they love to get better and be more fun, but ultimately companies have a higher-priority duty to make money. It's reasonable then to conclude that unless the way to make the most money is to make the game better and more fun, the game will not evolve in that direction. If access to each ship type had to be purchased separately as in my example system from last week, there would be incentive to bring out new overpowered ships every month. This is a problem currently being faced by MOBAs like League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, and it adds weight to arguments that it might constitute a pay-to-win system.

EVE Evolved side imageThe best of both worlds

Free-to-play games have an inherently low barrier to entry that is responsible for the millions of players you'll find in them, but it's not the only way to lower the barrier to entry. Free trials offer players a non-committal way to get acquainted with a subscription MMO for a few weeks before paying anything. The hope is to get players over the initial learning hump that a new game will have and make them feel invested in the game enough to pay that small monthly fee. Twenty-one days may not be enough to do that with EVE, leading CCP to experiment with 60-day buddy keys to see if playing free for longer will increase the percentage of people who go on to subscribe.

The ultimate way to remove EVE's barrier to entry without removing subscriptions as the dominant source of income could be staring us all in the face. Several MMOs, including World of Warcraft and RIFT, have released never-ending free trials that let you experience the game up until a certain point before paying rather than giving you a certain number of days. Most free trials are level-capped, but a skillpoint cap alone wouldn't be enough in EVE to prevent trial abuse. Trainable skills would have to be heavily limited, allowing trial players to get a taste of only ships up to and including tech 1 cruisers and heavily limiting industrial options.

EVE Evolved side imageDon't mess with the cash cow

Last week I showed that a free-to-play EVE would be technically viable, but ultimately I'm forced to conclude that it could be disastrous for the game we love. The sale of cosmetic items for Incarna and in-space EVE could be a massive financial boon for CCP, but stepping over that line into game-affecting sales would introduce a terrible conflict of interest between good game design and profitable game design. The possibility of game-affecting microtransactions was at the heart of the summer drama that forced CCP to let go 20% of its staff worldwide, so we can only hope that this lesson has been well and truly learned.

EVE has been successful for eight years with a subscription, even in the face of market shifts toward alternative models. The PLEX system is an innovation that effectively makes the game free-to-play as long as you can afford the ISK each month; if CCP wants to reap the rewards of a free-to-play game's low barrier to entry, it's here that developers need to concentrate their efforts. The ideal situation for removing the barrier to entry would see the average trial user funding his account with PLEX by the end of his trial period. With a never-ending trial and heavy marketing of PLEX as a way to essentially make the game free-to-play, the conversion rate between trials and subscribers could be dramatically increased without harming the quality of the game.

EVE Evolved title image
Commenter Deliverator put it well last week when he said that "with a sub game, the objective is to keep players subbed by keeping them entertained." As more and more games drop or forgo subscriptions, we're seeing questionable game design decisions that negatively affect the quality of the game in question. EverQuest II may be free now, but you have to pay to unlock bag space, sell items on the broker and even equip high-quality gear. Runes of Magic convinced us with its costumes, teleport runes and mounts, but things quickly turned sour when Frogster started directly selling item stats.

EVE Online has one of the most unique business models in the industry, and I think PLEX could be CCP's competitive advantage against a changing market. PLEX is a compromise that keeps development quality high, turns every item into a potential microtransaction, and makes the game free-to-play for those with enough in-game ISK. All CCP really needs to do with PLEX is to heavily market the system to ensure new players are aware of it and to make sales high enough to keep the in-game prices viable. The idea of breaking PLEX up into smaller day or week licenses also has some merit, as it would reduce the initial ISK investment required to start using them.

If CCP wants to chase extra income, it needs only to release cosmetic options for EVE's in-ship gameplay. People would pay good money for corporation logos on ships, limited edition skins, and custom ship themes to add more identity to alliance fleets. If EVE wanders into the game-affecting microtransaction arena again, even with purely convenience items, I shudder to think of the consequences.

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.