EVE Evolved: Four things MMOs can learn from EVE

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New MMOs are released every year, and we often see them repeating the same mistakes as previous games or releasing without tried-and-tested mechanics. It just seems like common sense to learn from the years of mistakes and successes of other companies and previous titles, but it isn't always clear how to apply game mechanics or lessons from dissimilar types of game. EVE Online is as dissimilar from the typical MMO as you can get, but there are lessons to be learned from its turbulent nine-year history that can be applied to all MMO development.

EVE has helped prove that you can start small and grow rather than raking in huge launch sales and then fading away. The past year has also shown conclusively that iteration on existing features can trump big expansions. EVE's market system and single-shard server have both been commended countless times over the game's nine-year history, and yet in all that time, few games have tried to replicate those features.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at four lessons learned from EVE Online that could easily be applied to other MMOs.

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An effective market needs buy orders

Auction houses are now a staple mechanic in the MMO genre, allowing players to list items for sale and search for whatever it is they need. The auction feature is typically useful only for very rare items without a set value, as most people want their items instantly and exclusively use the buyout option. But what can you do if you want something that isn't currently up for sale, and how can you figure out the value of an item if there are none on the auction house? EVE Onlinesolved these problems and others with its buy order system.

In EVE, players can set up a buy order for an item at whatever price they're willing to buy it, and other players who look for that item on the market can see both the items for sale and the buy orders. If you're looking up the price of the item before selling it, the buy orders set an absolute minimum price as you can sell to them instantly. This creates a secondary market for resale of items and lets you know how much you can sell the item for even if there are no others for sale.

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Iterate on old features

It seems like every year there's another big EVE scandal and another massive lesson for other MMO developers to follow. In 2010, players became outraged when CCP announced that only 22 developers were scheduled to work on in-space EVE features for the next 18 months, with 70 slated to develop Incarna. Fast-forward to 2011, when years with no significant iteration on existing EVE features played a major role in the rage surrounding monoclegate. The magic sauce that made EVE Online successful in the first place is iteration, and it's been a pivotal development strategy in the recent Crucible and Inferno expansions.

It seems like common sense to revisit old game mechanics and content periodically, but a surprising number of MMOs don't do any real iteration. Areas from previous expansions become ghost towns, dungeons become obsolete, and entire game mechanics stop working due to lack of interested players. As EVE Online's faction warfare proved, it's equally damning to release a new feature and then not revisit it after release to fix emerging problems and respond to player feedback. I'd like to think that most MMO developers have learned this lesson by now, but examples of this mistake still appear regularly.

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Box sales don't matter that much

Single-player games are engineered to sell as many units as possible as that's how they make money, but MMOs live and die based on player retention. Over its lifetime, a successful MMO will generate significantly more income through subscriptions and microtransactions than box sales, and yet every new MMO launches to a flurry of marketing aimed at maximising box sales. By marketing the hell out of its launch, a new MMO permanently consumes a large part of its target market in exchange for an unknown quantity of player months.

It would make much more financial sense to improve the player retention rate before making a big marketing push. EVE Online is proof that box sales don't matter that much, having flopped at launch but having since grown organically to over 350,000 players worldwide. What really matters is player retention rates, and you can't replace that with marketing. The AAA strategy of spending ludicrous development costs and recouping it on sales may turn out to be incompatible with the long-term health of an MMO. At the very least, EVE shows that it's OK to start small.

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Regionalisation and shardless servers

EVE Online's server model puts over 350,000 players in one single universe, while most MMO servers can barely house 5,000. Having that many players in one universe has tremendous benefits for the community, in-game events, emergent gameplay, and the game economy, but many MMOs release with the standard sharded server model. EVE handles such large populations by balancing the load across multiple servers so that you rarely get more than a few thousand people in one place.

The magic that makes this work is regionalisation of the game universe, splitting the game up into discrete solar systems with large travel times between them. Players begrudge long travel times in an MMO, but these travel times are necessary to spread players over large geographical areas. This could be achieved in a fantasy MMO by having lots of similar endgame areas connected by trains or teleporters that are spaced far enough apart to create an appreciable travel time. While regionalisation and single-shard servers aren't features every MMO developer will want to use, I'm a bit disappointed that only a small handful have even tried.

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Buy orders are such an obvious market feature that I'm surprised most MMOs have nothing similar, and the number of MMOs that don't significantly iterate on old content or gameplay is staggering. With server technology improving at a remarkable rate, I'd also like to think it's only a matter of time before even more MMOs start to adopt the single-shard server structure.

EVE has a nine-year history full of lessons learned and useful developments that new MMOs can definitely learn from. The lessons above are four that I would personally love to see heeded by more new games, but it's not at all a comprehensive list. PvP-based MMOs could learn a lot from the effect of EVE's death penalty and disposable item system, for example, and every MMO should look at how EVE supports community projects and emergent gameplay.

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