EVE Evolved: Will Star Citizen or Elite harm EVE?

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EVE Evolved: Will Star Citizen or Elite harm EVE?
EVE Evolved Will Star Citizen or Elite harm EVE
Publishers haven't been willing to put a lot of money behind a sci-fi sandbox for some time, but upcoming games Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous seem set to revive the genre thanks to the power of crowdfunding. Star Citizen in particular has collected a world record $19.6 million in pledges so far from almost 258,000 individuals, eliminating the need for publishers and heavy investment entirely. Though both games are designed to be a primarily singleplayer or small-scale multiplayer adventures, their respective developers have already promised shared online universes and sandbox gameplay that could give EVE Online a run for its money.

The past decade has shown EVE to be one of the most resilient MMOs on the planet. It's survived several major scandals, barely noticed the release of giant World of Warcraft, and has somehow maintained its subscription-based business model in a market rapidly being overtaken by free-to-play titles. Even at its lowest point, the game managed to survive the 2011 monoclegate scandal and the subsequent fallout that saw CCP Games lose 20% of its staff worldwide. EVE's subscriptions and concurrent user numbers have historically been unaffected by the release of new MMOs or sci-fi titles, so why should Star Citizen be any different?

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at how EVE Online has lived with very little direct competition until now and ask whether Star Citizen and Elite could be among the first games to directly draw players from EVE.

Game side imageLack of competition

EVE Online has long dominated its particular niche in the MMO market, but it has enjoyed an almost complete lack of competition. Only a few major space MMOs have actually been released, and the past decade has seen many close their doors or cease development mid-way through production. Earth & Beyond was EVE's direct competitor at launch and could possibly have grown organically to this day, but publisher EA pulled the plug on it in 2004. It had an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 subscribers at the end, and EVE absorbed a portion of them by running special deals. The same happened in 2005 when Star Wars Galaxies shed thousands of players after its controversial New Game Enhancements update.

Those two notable examples of other games' failures benefitting EVE, but they aren't the only sci-fi MMOs to fumble this badly. The company behind Stargate Worlds went into liquidation in 2010, Jumpgate Evolution's entire development team was fired in 2011, and Black Prophecy flopped and was shut down in 2012. Vendetta Online and Perpetuum Online both failed to gather enough interest to compete with EVE, but as independent titles they lack publishers to pull the plug on them. The only sci-fi MMOs to successfully break into the big-time in the last few years have been Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic, both instanced themepark games not directly competing for EVE's playerbase.

Game side imageWhat if there were an alternative?

I've quit EVE a few times since starting in 2004 and had periods of low activity between expansions, but somehow I always find myself being drawn back to it. The truth is that there's just no other game that can scratch the itch I have for meaningful spaceship PvP with tangible assets on the line, one that lets players to set their own goals and fight wars for their own reasons. But what if that's exactly what Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous are planning to do too? If they can scratch the same itches that bring many of us back to EVE time and time again, both games could be the first real direct competition EVE has had since Earth & Beyond.

Game publishers have been largely shying away from space games and sandboxes for years, and that has left EVE Online relatively alone. There are plenty of people out there who would play a new Elite-style sandbox, and developers itching to make them, but no publisher or investor will dare take on the risk of such a game after all the huge failures and mediocre successes this subgenre has seen. The advent of crowdfunding has now allowed developers to eliminate that risk and finance game development directly with pre-orders. As a result, Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous both have sizable audiences, and their development costs are covered before release; they aren't going to fizzle out and disappear like Black Prophecy or be axed mid-way through development by the publisher like Jumpgate Evolution.

Game side imageBut EVE has ...

The argument could be made that EVE is dissimilar enough from Star Citizen that the two games won't be directly competing, but the more I read about the direction development is taking, the less sure about that I'm becoming. Chris Roberts claims that Star Citizen will have "one persistent universe server that everyone exists on" but that there may be multiple instances of the same area to handle the load, and players will be dynamically grouped with those of similar skill levels. It's not the same as EVE's non-instanced single-shard universe, but since the transitions are all seamless and hidden, many players probably won't see or care about the difference.

Chris has also revealed that star systems will have varying levels of law and order in the same way that EVE systems have security status ratings. PvP can be switched off in safe systems, such as those under the banner of the United Empire of Earth, but the big money will be found in the dangerous outer systems where the PvP slider must be turned up. "I kind of see it like a swimming pool with a shallow and deep end," Chris explained in a recent interview, clarifying that players "aren't thrown in the deep end at the start, but they also don't have to stay in the shallow end if they want more of a challenge." This sounds an awful lot like the risk-vs.-reward system that lies at the heart of EVE's design.

Game side imagePersistence and war

The one itch that it seems Star Citizen won't be able to scratch is the ability to hunt down vulnerable players or take part in massive territorial wars. PvP will occur within small battle instances that are dynamically created at jump points and sort players according to skill level, so it's not clear whether pirates will be able to actively track and target specific ships. Developers have also announced plans to have a limited number of space stations that players can compete to own, but it's difficult to see how that will work with the game being so heavily instanced.

We still don't know the extent of Star Citizen and Elite's death penalties, whether something is on the line in PvP encounters other than just your pride or whether many ships can realistically be involved in a battle. It's also not clear how large guilds will function in the game and whether there will be any goals for large groups to work toward. Belonging to an organisation with goals, purpose, and a known status in the community is one of the things that keeps EVE players logging in year after year, and fighting to defend your way of life is a powerful motivator that Star Citizen doesn't appear to be poised to capitalise on.

Game title image
Ultimately, Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous are both still too early in development for us to tell whether they'll appeal to EVE players any more than previous games that have hit the market. They might represent competitive threats to EVE Online when they're released, but right now both games are likely several years away from completion, and EVE has a 10-year head start on development and community-building.

It's my gut feeling that some of the more casual EVE players will switch games but that nullsec players and those in well-organised corporations will stick with EVE. It may be the PvP and shiny graphics that attract people to EVE, but it's the single-shard sandbox and cohesive in-game communities that make them stay. And no matter what Star Citizen or Elite does, it can't take that from us.

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.
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