EVE Evolved: Has EVE Online boxed itself in?

EVE Evolved title image
When I was first introduced to EVE Online in 2004, it was an empty shell of a game. There were only three classes of ship, no alliances or starbases, and neither exploration complexes nor level 4 missions existed yet. EVE consisted of 5,000 systems of almost completely empty space populated by less than 50,000 players. The user interface was an order of magnitude worse than it is today (if you can imagine that), and the tutorial just dropped you in the middle of space with the ship equivalent of a pea shooter and a less-than-enthusiastic "good luck!"

Though much of the game was empty, it sat before players like a blank galactic canvas. Not only could players paint their own stories into the game world, but EVE's highly active development team was updating the game at lightning speed. Players instinctively filled the voids in the game with their hopes and dreams, projecting all the things that EVE could be into the gaps. People shared ideas on the forum directly with the developers, and practically anything was possible. Things aren't quite the same today, as new ideas have to be compatible with over nine years' worth of updates, and developer CCP Games really can't afford to rock the boat and potentially lose subscriptions.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I consider whether the past nine years of development has boxed EVE in, forcing the gameplay down an ever-narrowing branch of choices.

EVE Evolved side imageA game full of potential

The huge content void EVE saw at launch was oddly a boon for the fledgling title; in the absence of things to do, players were forced to come up with their own ideas. For some, that meant inventing themselves as a Ferengi-like businessmen, corporate leaders, or just plain old miners. Others turned to politics and war because in the absence of interesting NPCs to shoot at, your neighbours start looking pretty tasty. Mercenary, spy, and countless other emergent professions bubbled to the surface and forged stories that made players want to tell their friends about the game.

For more players still, EVE was a game of exploration, discovery, and research. People explored not just the far-reaches of the New Eden star cluster but the limits of the game's design. Ship setups were tested and tweaked, market orders were scrutinised, and every in-game mathematical formula was extrapolated and analysed. Players volunteered their time to work out all the problems the game had and develop solutions, and the fact that CCP actually listened to players made supporting EVE with a subscription an easy choice. The message was clear: You could be anything you want in EVE, and you should get in now to be on the ground floor of a game that's destined to be huge.

EVE Evolved side imageThe early years

EVE was practically a new game every six months in its early years. Even if it wasn't currently entertaining for you, it was easy to just stay subscribed for a few months and train skills while waiting on the next expansion or game-changing update. EVE continued to sell based on the potential of future updates, but over the years that potential diminished. EVE's early expansions, from Castor through to Revelations, each touched on practically every single aspect of the game. We got dozens of new ships and modules in every update and game-changing new features for every type of player.

Nullsec empire-building was developed through the addition of a few conquerable outposts and then player-owned starbases, player-built outposts, jump bridges, dreadnoughts, carriers, titans and eventually a full sovereignty upgrade system. Highsec players were treated to new corporation tools, market tools, contracts, updated war systems, mining barges, tech 2 Invention, and COSMOS constellations. Explorers got their hands on level 4 missions, salvaging, hacking, archaeology, hidden NPC military complexes, escalating encounters, and eventually a full-blown game-changing wormhole exploration expansion. EVE was growing at a rapid pace, and players had to continually adapt to keep up.

EVE Evolved side imageBoxing itself in

In some ways, that rapid pace of development has hindered EVE's future growth. Old gameplay systems and content are rarely removed as it's hard to justify throwing away six months of work. New additions to the game have to be compatible with everything else currently in-game, and many areas of the game are fine the way they are. As a result, every expansion since Dominion has contained fewer and less impactful gameplay changes. This may not be something CCP even has control over; it could be a natural part of the life cycle of an MMO that it will eventually saturate with gameplay that doesn't need to be significantly iterated on.

Tyrannis brought us a planet-based industrial minigame that was more FarmVille than Master of Orion, and the expansion didn't fundamentally change how the rest of the game was played. Incursion was an absolute gem of expansion, but it still had a limited impact on how the game was fundamentally played. Its impressive group PvE gameplay was well-received by highsec players, but lowsec and nullsec players didn't really bat an eyelid. Finally, Incarna delivered practically no major changes for any type of EVE player, with just the cosmetic captain's quarters and a handful of gameplay tweaks.

EVE Evolved side imageDon't rock the boat

In the olden days, CCP was a small, independent developer with a laser focus on EVE Online. Subscriptions were funneled back into the company, letting CCP move to a larger building, hire new staff to work on EVE and kit out its office with new toys. Development of the World of Darkness MMO began some time after the 2006 merger with White Wolf, and the studio opened an office in China soon after to prepare for 2007's Chinese EVE release. The China office scaled up to develop console MMOFPS DUST 514, which was first shown off in 2009 and is about to release on PS3.

CCP even bought up failed studio Midway Newcastle to become its office in the UK and more recently posted PR and copy-writing jobs in a previously unheard of San Francisco office. There are now a lot of jobs resting on EVE Online's subscriptions, and that unfortunately means developers can't take the same risks with game development that they could in the studio's pre-2006 era. The company will be spread very thin until DUST 514 starts producing revenue, a fact we got a sobering reminder of last year. Following a reported 8% drop in subscriptions due to player outrage surrounding the monoclegate scandal, CCP had to lay off 20% of its staff worldwide.

EVE Evolved title image
EVE's first few years saw its biggest and most fundamental updates that kept the game interesting and fresh for everyone from pirates to traders, but with each new addition to the game, the list of potential future updates is shortened. It could be the nostalgia in me talking, but I long for the days when EVE was a shapeless entity to be moulded and every part of it hadn't yet been explored with a fine-toothed comb.

There was so much potential in that emptiness and unknown, and though it's been incredible to see much of that potential being realised over the years, it's diminished the sense of wonder for what the future could bring. Crucible and Inferno have returned to the original strategy of making changes to every aspect of EVE, but most are understandably little things. Maybe all the big things have already been done, and it's just part of the MMO life cycle that changes eventually become constrained and small. Or maybe CCP just can't afford to take the risk of shaking things up now that hundreds of employees rely on EVE subs.

EVE isn't perfect by a long-shot, but I think even the parts that are complete and adequate need to be fundamentally changed from time to time just to keep the game fresh for all players. At the time of Incarna's release, EVE hadn't fundamentally changed for a lot of players in over two years, and peak concurrent players coincidentally plateaued over the same period. EVE stayed largely the same for two years, and its active community just stopped growing. There's a lesson in there for sure, and I think it's that there's no such thing as a finished feature in a sandbox MMO.

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.