The recent announcement of arcade shooter EVE: Gunjack for the Samsung Gear VR has prompted some pretty interesting negative responses from gamers this week. There’s obviously still a lot of ill will in the air over the cancellation of the World of Darkness MMO, and people have been a bit skeptical of CCP‘s plans since Monoclegate and the underwhelming reception of DUST 514. Many of the comments on Massively Overpowered and other sites suggested that CCP should release Valkyrie before starting work on yet another title, or that the studio should stick to EVE Online and stop wasting money from EVE subscriptions on side projects. People are honestly suggesting that CCP should keep putting all of its eggs in one big (and slowly shrinking) basket, but that just doesn’t make business sense.
Nobody should be surprised that CCP wants to develop several new games or that it’s failed to replicate the success of EVE Online. EVE activity seems to be on a slow decline, and the truth is that very few independent game studios strike it big with even one game. Previous success is not necessarily an indicator of future success, and it’d be naive to think one game can support a large studio indefinitely, so CCP naturally has to keep working on new titles just like everyone else if it wants to survive. If we want EVE Online to still be around a decade from now, it may depend on experimentation with new games and emerging trends such as VR today. There may even come a time when CCP won’t revolve around EVE Online but around whole collection of titles spanning the EVE universe and beyond, and it won’t get there without taking some measured risks.
In this edition of EVE Evolved, I look at why CCP can’t just focus on EVE any more and why developing lots of small experimental games could benefit EVE Online in the long term.
EVE Online subscriptions and PLEX sales still account for most of CCP’s revenue today, and there’s definitely evidence that they may be on the decline. Some have argued that CCP should focus all of its efforts on stabilising EVE again before spending money on anything else, but this assumes that EVE can even be stabilised and that it’s just a matter of money or dev time. This worked in the past after the events of Monoclegate, which reportedly saw an 8% drop in subscriptions and was due in part to the fact that CCP had been ignoring broken parts of EVE for years. Developers turned things around and got subscriptions growing again by refocusing on current EVE players and releasing several expansions that revamped and fixed all the old and broken parts of the game.
I recently estimated that a much bigger subscription drop of around 18% has occurred over the past two years, but this time development focus on EVE isn’t the problem. EVE has had plenty of updates fixing usability issues throughout the game, rebalancing practically every ship and module, and revamping core features like criminal flagging, travel, manufacturing, and territorial warfare. The game is in the most polished and playable state it’s been in for years and is getting more new features and content now than ever before. We even have an active and evolving storyline with in-character news report videos and in-game events. If we find that EVE still sees a drop in player activity or revenue in the long term after all of that, development clearly isn’t the cause, so throwing more dev time at it won’t magically make the trend reverse itself.
Given the fact that the latest MMO market research predicted an almost 18% revenue drop over the past two years for subscription games, I think it’s safe to say that any downturn in EVE activity is primarily due to trends in the games market and gaming habits. The market is clearly still pulling away from a strict subscription model, and the aging EVE playerbase likely now has more real-life commitments and so less time to spend in-game on average. We also now have many other compelling online games to play for shorter durations, and there are several sandbox games and space games on the horizon that could take a slice of CCP’s pie.
The smart thing to do in the face of these kinds of changing market trends is to adapt to them, either by modifying existing games to fit current or upcoming trends or by building new games that cater specifically to them. The latter seems to be exactly what CCP is doing with EVE: Valkyrie and EVE: Gunjack, which are both aiming to capitalise on the possible future trend of VR gaming by being premium launch titles on their respective platforms (The Oculus Rift and Gear VR). If VR gaming takes off, projects like Valkyrie and Gunjack could generate a lot of revenue for CCP and the relatively small risk of developing them will have paid off.
I’m sure this all just seems like common sense to anyone in the industry, which is why it comes as a surprise to read so many gamers complaining about CCP’s smaller game experiments. Following the cancellation of the monolith that was Project Titan, even Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan commented on the the runaway success of the relatively simple Hearthstone, saying that the company learned that “not every game can be World of Warcraft” and that “sometimes it’s OK to have a smaller, self-contained game.” It’s this philosophy that spawned Blizzard’s upcoming online FPS Overwatch, and it seems to be the same approach CCP is taking.
CCP really caught lightning in a bottle with EVE Online, and over the years it’s developed into a very well fleshed out universe filled with established lore, landmarks, player stories and art assets. It’s become a very recognisable intellectual property that the media responds to, so it’s ripe for the rapid development of new games that may not actually connect in with the MMO at all. Valkyrie takes many of its art assets from EVE Online and its storyline uses locations and factions from the EVE lore, for example. Gunjack similarly looks as if it uses ship models and other art assets from EVE Online and Valkyrie, so it looks pretty visually impressive for what is essentially a casual Galaga clone on Android. In fact, most of the hate for Gunjack online seems to stem from the fact that the trailer convinced people that it must be another hardcore game like Valkyrie.
Setting new games in the EVE universe provides a wealth of existing assets that can cut down the development time extensively, which should make it a lot cheaper to develop new games like this and so reduce the associated risk. The dev teams working on Valkyrie and Gunjack aren’t taking dev time away from EVE, and the fact that they’re launch exclusives on their respective platforms hints that they may be part funded by Oculus and Samsung themselves. Going forward, there are plenty of other genres of game that could be set in the EVE universe or on its planets, and maybe even opportunities to use the World of Darkness IP. If the devs at CCP can leverage their experience and capabilities to make money with smaller titles instead of pinning all of their financial hopes on one big success as with EVE and DUST, why shouldn’t they?
Gunjack has been pretty harshly received online, and I think it’s because people didn’t initially realise that it’s just a casual mobile rail shooter. CCP is expected to build big grand games like EVE Online or the original plans for DUST 514 and World of Darkness, not casual games for mobile devices, but if it makes money and EVE isn’t being neglected, then this is no less valid a direction. The alternative of focusing a lot of development time and money on a few big projects is incredibly risky and didn’t work out so well in the past.
Even though I’m never going to get Gunjack and probably wouldn’t play Valkyrie unless it had a non-VR version, I’m perfectly happy that they’re being made because they’re a lot less expensive to put together than another DUST 514 scale game and they could not only bring in funds but also potentially introduce some new players to the EVE universe. In the future, one of these experiments may end up keeping EVE afloat rather than the other way around. The only thing I’d love to see done differently is for each of the other EVE universe games to be available on PC and launchable from the EVE client, preferably taking the same character identity seamlessly through each of them.