EVE Evolved: Eight years of EVE Online

In last week's EVE Evolved column, I celebrated the third anniversary of the column with a competition to win one of three prizes worth over 500 million ISK. Congratulations go to Uniqdragon, mdubs28 and Thorium88, who will be contacted via email to arrange receipt of their prizes. In a bizarre twist that I can't believe I haven't noticed for three years, it turns out that the anniversary of my column occurs just over a week before EVE Online's own birthday on May 6th. With that in mind, this week's column is dedicated to the game's anniversary and to looking back at another successful year.

The past eight years have been a wild ride for EVE Online and its developer CCP Games. EVE has grown from a fledgling niche game with under 40,000 launch subscriptions to a global melting pot of over 360,000 actively subscribed accounts. The company itself has seem similar expansion, starting from humble beginnings as a small independent studio in Iceland and growing into a multinational monster with offices in China, Iceland, North America and the United Kingdom.

In this huge two-page anniversary edition of EVE Evolved, I look at how EVE Online has kept up with the industry over the years and then go on to examine this past year in detail, from the highs and lows to all the scams and awesome events.

Keeping up: Graphics

In the past eight years, development budgets for MMOs have grown exponentially. Studios now pump millions into making new games in the hopes of claiming a portion of the fast-growing MMO market. We've seen several MMOs close their doors in recent years, and for the first time since the genre's formation, we've seen high-budget AAA MMOs from top development studios fail to meet expectations, sometimes completely shutting down. It's a competitive market, and to keep up requires ongoing development.

Rather than releasing a sequel as several previous MMOs had done, CCP opted to keep EVE current through incremental updates to its gameplay and graphics. The Trinity graphics engine upgrades overhauled ship appearance, Dominion came with a complete revamp of planetary graphics, and Incursion hit the net with a brand-new high-detail character creator. At Fanfest 2011, CCP showed off new turret and nebula graphics that will help keep EVE looking awesome for years to come. At the very least, these changes help keep EVE from looking outdated or being graphically outclassed by new titles.

Keeping up: Gameplay

As the MMO genre has evolved since its creation, new ideas have been continually created and tested against a growing audience. In a very Darwinian manner, gameplay that proves to be popular tends to proliferate in new and current games while unpopular gameplay dies off. When EVE launched in 2003, it had very little gameplay beyond mining and ratting. Since then we've seen the introduction of level 4 and 5 missions, countless new ship types, stealth warfare, exploration, starbase industry, tech 2 industry, invention, reverse engineering, wormhole exploration, faction warfare, epic mission arcs, COSMOS constellations, tech 3 industry, and a hundred other things.

There are now more ways to play EVE than ever, but the core gameplay has very much stayed the same. For better or for worse, EVE is a PvP sandbox based on a simple model of putting a lot of players in one world with a limited resource-gathering rate. Unfortunately, things haven't turned out so well for every major change to EVE's PvP gameplay. Faction Warfare was left without updates for over a year, at which point a lot of the key players left it for something fresh and interesting. When changes did come, the blind addition of monetary incentives just turned the entire system into a farmer's dream and so disincentivised PvP.

The nullsec sovereignty overhaul that was the focus of the Dominion expansion has seen its own issues, forcing players to farm ISK to pay upkeep, altering the offense-vs.-defense balance of territorial warfare, and ultimately decreasing the amount of PvP going on. As long as CCP isn't afraid to scrap ideas that didn't work out and come up with alternatives, EVE can really only improve in the long term. Getting time to iterate on old features is the main issue here, and it's certainly something EVE players will be hoping for in the coming years.

Keeping up: War on the impossible

When EVE launched in 2003, the server could only handle a small number of players gathering together in one place. As the game grew in popularity, CCP eventually began to push against the limitations of current hardware. Rather than release separate instances or shards, CCP held onto the idea of a single-server sandbox and rushed to upgrade the server ahead of player demand. Through continual hardware upgrades and software optimisations, CCP has fought an ongoing war on lag. Recent efforts to combat lag have seen remarkable success, and technology continues to advance ahead of the expansion of EVE's playerbase.

RMT has plagued MMOs since as far back as any of us can remember, and EVE Online is no exception. Several years ago, CCP introduced the PLEX system as a way for cash-rich players to buy ISK legitimately without supporting the negative elements of RMT such as account hacking and information harvesting. Conversely, the system allows cash-poor players to play for free by spending in-game ISK on their game time. The system has even been used in several disaster relief drives, allowing players with no real-world cash but plenty of in-game ISK to donate usefully to charity. Eight years ago, many of us wouldn't have accepted the idea of microtransaction-supported games as a serious contender for the standard subscription model. Today, the idea of buying ISK through PLEX is perfectly acceptable to most players. CCP has stated that its business model will continue to adapt to the changing market, including the introducton of gameplay-neutral microtransaction options.