EVE Evolved: Fixing EVE's player activity

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It's been a sort of running gag in EVE Online throughout the years that players spend inordinate amounts of time docked in stations and spinning their ships around in the hangar, but this is oddly close to the truth. Those of us who have been hooked to EVE for years know just how intense the game can get at its most frantic and how incredible it is to be present for historic events and important PvP battles, but those moments are rare, and there's typically a lot of downtime between periods of activity. For every PvP battle fought, incursion fleet formed or wormhole op organised, players often have to spend hours in stations or in space amusing themselves or doing busywork.

With gamers now spreading their increasingly limited free time across a growing catalogue of online games, some EVE players log in for only a few minutes per day to queue skills, chat with corpmates, and see if anything interesting is happening. The recent announcement that the upcoming Phoebe release will contain infinite length skill queues has some players concerned that people will lose the motivation to pop their heads into New Eden each day and see what's going on. Since the best sandbox gameplay is emergent in nature, just getting players to log in so they're available to take part in something awesome when it happens is extremely important.

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I ask whether EVE is in trouble due to its recent decline in player activity, look at the impact of people with just a few hours per week to play, and suggest a new app idea that could help solve all of those problems.

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Is EVE in trouble?

It's no secret that EVE's average activity level hasn't increased for the past few years. The average concurrent user graph at EVE Offline shows that numbers plateaued around 2009 and have been on a downward trend for most of this year. If CCP's claims that subscriptions have risen year-on-year are valid, then the average amount of time players spend online has been steadily declining since 2009. That correlates well with the increasing stagnation of nullsec, the lack of huge content-rich features in each new expansion since Apocrypha, and the general trend for subscription MMOs in the industry.

The rapid decline in player activity this year has some players worried, but it's hard to tell whether this is anything other than EVE's typical annual cycle and the effect of increasing PLEX prices making people drop extra accounts. If subscriptions really have increased year-on-year since 2009, then a significant number of players must be keeping their accounts subscribed to train skills even though they're actively playing less. It's these people who log in for an hour or so per week that CCP needs to win back, but with an infinite skill queue we may see even less of them than before.

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Budgeting time for PvP

Players living in high-security space and focusing on PvE have perpetual access to both solo and group gameplay, with level 4 missions on tap and at least one highsec incursion running around the clock. By contrast, being in a PvP gang requires a commitment of at least a few hours and may not even yield any good fights at all. Unless you're in a faction warfare militia or a highly active PvP training corp, there's also no guarantee that a fleet will be running on any particular night or that it will run into a hostile gang. The best you can do is goad another alliance into picking a fight it thinks it can win, which can rapidly devolve into capital ship escalation.

If CCP wants players to log in more, it needs to reduce the time commitment of small-scale PvP. When the sovereignty system is iterated on, a system similar to faction warfare's complexes could give small gangs obvious targets to hit that should provoke fights of the same size. Small changes like boosting escape pod warp speed, boosting jump clones, or reducing the most expensive clone costs would also cut down on the time wasted flying home in an escape pod after getting killed. And when the corporation overhaul is delivered, additional tools to let corporations and alliances subsidise ship and pod losses would help reduce the time spent grinding up ISK for PvP.

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Connecting people from outside EVE

Perhaps the most effective way to increase activity in players who rarely log in would be to allow them to participate more from outside the game. The only way to know that something interesting is happening in your alliance in EVE right now is to be logged in, but that doesn't have to be the case. Some alliances already use external messaging software to put out a call to arms when a major fleet is forming, so why not make that official? Part of the reason for League of Legends' initial popularity was that it separated the game client from its lightweight social network and group lobby client so that players could keep the lobby client open in the background on their computers.

Having a separate social client makes players more available and lets them know what their friends are up to in-game, similar to how the Steam client operates with its friend notifications. EVE is essentially a massive social network with spaceships, and I think it would be the perfect candidate for a social client. The launcher application could be turned from a clumsy intermediate step in opening the game into a taskbar application that we can run in the background and log into and that also functions as a chat client.

The app could be integrated with EVE's new notification system so that we get popups of whatever events we like from within the game, and players or alliances could use it to notify people that fleets are forming. The information could also go the other way, allowing fleet commanders to see a list of offline players who are ready to jump on if something interesting happens. It could be possible for a third-party developer to make this if EVE's new notification system and chat channels are opened to the API, but an official app bundled with the game would ensure it gets used.

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With the average concurrent player graph for EVE showing steady decline, the old joke of players spending more time spinning their ships in station than actually flying them doesn't seem so funny any more. A significant number of EVE's playerbase can spare only a few hours per week to play, and for a lot of EVE's current gameplay, that just doesn't cut it.

While I think EVE is currently in the most playable and polished state it's been in its lifetime, more needs to be done to cater to those with less time on their hands. More small targets for territorial PvP would allow those without much time to form up gangs and participate in the war effort without advance planning or large numbers, and new alliance management tools could streamline the ship replacement process.

What I'd really love to see, however, is a way to let players stay connected to the EVE universe and on standby to log in if something interesting happens. A new application that shows EVE notifications, fleet requests, and chat outside the client could be the game-changer CCP needs to reverse this year's unhealthy player activity trend.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the bi-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