Two weeks ago, a mathemagician over at The Nosy Gamer published some interesting calculations showing that EVE Online‘s subscriptions may have dropped by around 18% in the past two years. CCP has always prided itself on the fact that EVE has grown year-on-year since release, but the last official number we heard was when it reached 500,000 subscriptions back in February 2013. Players have taken the company’s silence since then on the matter of subscriptions as an admission that subs have been falling or at least not growing for the past two years.
So where did this 18% figure come from? It was extrapolated from estimates of player participation in the last two CSM elections, and the reasoning behind the number seems pretty good in the absence of any official announcement. It will probably not come as a shock to anyone if this calculation turns out to be accurate, as EVE‘s concurrent player numbers have also seen a roughly 20% drop since 2013. As development on EVE has been very well-received over the past two years, I’m inclined to believe that the drop in activity has more to do with trends in today’s gaming habits and purchasing choices. Online gaming seems to be going through an evolution, and the mandatory subscription model may be becoming obsolete.
In this edition of EVE Evolved, I run through a set of calculations to work out how many subscribers EVE really has, determine where the reported 18% drop is coming from, and ask whether this is a trend CCP can fight.
The latest three official data points we have for EVE Online show that it passed 400,000 subscriptions in March 2012, went on to hit 450,000 subs in December 2012, and finally reached 500,000 in February 2013. The last two of those numbers included subscriptions from the game’s relaunch in China, and CCP hasn’t released any official numbers since then.
In the absence of official figures, players have turned to a little piece of mathematical wizardry involving the CSM election results: By dividing the total number of votes cast by the percentage participation, we can see how many accounts over 30 days old (and thus elligible to vote) existed on Tranquility during each CSM election. The numbers obtained using this method for the CSM elections from 2008 to 2012 match up within a few percent of the official sub numbers, the difference being due to inelligible accounts under 30 days old.
The participation percentage was omitted from 2013’s election results, but CCP did release a breakdown of voter countries as a percentage of subscribers, which was enough to calculate that turnout was around 12.13%. Extrapolating from that number proves that as of April 2013, there were just under 410,000 voting-elligible accounts on Tranquility. There were also an unknown number of accounts younger than 30 days (possibly a few percent), and up to 90,000 active subscriptions on Serenity. This is the last piece of concrete subscription data we have.
EVE blog Jester’s Trek estimated that EVE lost 5% of its 500,000 subs by May 2014, but that was just an educated guess based on the fact that CCP didn’t release new figures at Fanfest. CCP’s PR department confirmed in an email to me at the end of January that global subs actually grew by a small amount between February 2013 and 2014. The press releases throughout that entire year even read that EVE was “celebrating an unprecedented eleventh consecutive year of subscriber growth,” but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that subscriptions dropped after February 9th when the game hit peak concurrent player activity for the year.
Another potential data source is the number of names on the EVE Online monument, which were collected from active subscribers on March 31st 2014 (originally March 1st, but was apparently changed). A developer reportedly confirmed at Fanfest 2014 that there were 480,000 names on the monument, which includes players from Serenity but excludes any names found to be offensive or inappropriate. Assuming fewer than 1% of names were rejected, that means there were at least 480-485k global subscriptions at that point, which is a drop of up to 3-4%. Some of those accounts may also have been registered or resubscribed solely to get onto the monument and allowed to lapse before the CSM 9 election, so the real drop could be a little worse.
A 4-5% drop for February 2013 to May 2014 looks like it’s about the right number, which would put the final total of eligible voters in CSM 9 at 389,500 to 393,600 for a percentage turnout of 7.95% to 8.03%. The Nosy Gamer’s estimate of the 2015 subscription numbers was based on CCP Leeloo’s statement that turnout for the CSM 10 election was 3% higher than last year, which by my numbers would be a 10.95% to 11.03% turnout. That produces an estimate of 335,170 to 337,731 eligible voters, which would be a drop of 17.6% to 18.3% since April 2013 and puts global subs at around 410,000. Unless CCP Leeloo was mistaken about the 3% increase or someone has his wires crossed, it looks as if EVE may have lost up to 18% of its subscribers over the past two years.
That may seem like a huge loss, but the latest financial projections on the worldwide MMO market actually predicted an 18% drop in global revenue from pay-to-play MMOs over this two year period. That means EVE Online has the exact same market share as it always had and still dominates its particular niche, only now the global market for subscriptions is shrinking and squeezing EVE as it does so. It’s interesting to note that EVE‘s player activity graph began to plateau around 2009 right when the subscription MMO market levelled out; EVE‘s success in 2013 and 2014 was actually bucking a significant downward market trend. That makes the recent drop an understandable rebound effect and gives me some hope that EVE can beat the market trends again in the future.
As tempting as it is to assign blame for a subscription drop to a particular update or an unpopular change, it may simply be the case that fewer gamers are willing to pay for mandatory subscriptions now. Today’s PC gamer is also bombarded with cheap Steam games and free-to-play titles and is starved for time to play them all. It’s no surprise that games like EVE that require a great deal of time investment per session are being squeezed while more casual games like free-to-play MOBAs continue to grow.
Only time will tell whether EVE Online will defy the current downward market trend in the subscription MMO sector or CCP will have to adjust to an ever-decreasing revenue stream and push more new projects like EVE: Valkyrie out the door. With any luck, the upcoming nullsec changes will help revitalise EVE and bring back a lot of old faces to take part in a new type of territorial warfare, and we may see EVE go through its own virtual renaissance.