EVE Evolved: Bring on the big expansions again!

    
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When EVE Online‘s development switched from two major expansions per year to ten smaller releases, the benefits were pretty difficult to argue with. EVE had garnered a reputation for pushing out new features before they were ready just to make the expansion deadline and then moving swiftly on to the next big idea. Moving to smaller but more frequent releases means a missed deadline is only a delay of a few weeks and completed features don’t sit in limbo for up to six months until the next expansion window. The results in terms of gameplay are pretty hard to argue with too, as EVE has seen more updates and content in the past year than in any previous year.

Dropping expansions hasn’t been a wholly positive change, however, and in the long term I think it may have actually harmed EVE‘s player numbers. The smaller updates don’t make much of a splash in the media and don’t seem to make people excited to play or resubscribe in the way that a big blockbuster expansion does. Some big expansion-worthy features have been deployed in the dozen small patches released over the past year, only to slip silently under the radar of past and prospective players. Executive Producer Andie Nordgren recently announced that EVE is switching back to a standard expansion model next year, but with the twist that expansions will be released when ready rather than forced out the door for an arbitrary six month deadline.

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I discuss some of the problems caused by smaller updates and why I think big themed expansions are an integral part of EVE.

expansions-1Big expansions hook people in

I wish I could say that the negative side-effects of switching from big expansions to smaller releases were unexpected, but the truth is that some of them were predictable. When the plan was first announced back in Fanfest 2014, I penned an opinion piece on why expansions and overarching expansion names are important for creating a cohesive media presence and generating anticipation. Massively-of-old’s EVE coverage actually got a lot of its hits from people googling for the name of the next expansion to find out what’s in it and maybe discover a reason to resubscribe. After an expansion’s release, people would then use its name to search for updated guides and ship setups that were proven to work after the update.

The Crucible, Inferno and Retribution expansions were laden with small changes to practically every area of the game, and that made sense then because there were hundreds of small things to fix that had piled up in the game over the years. These expansions were delivered in stages by necessity, and 2014’s switch to a faster release cycle just made that CCP’s ongoing policy. The smaller releases we’ve received since then have been less searchable and poorer drivers of web traffic than expansions of the past. Anticipation for each update can only be built up for about a month or two before it’s released and we start talking about the next one, so each release fails to reach critical density in the media. News posts, opinion pieces, and especially guides are also at risk of becoming obsolete a lot sooner, which is problematic for a difficult strategy-heavy game.

expansions-2Expansions let the dust settle

I used to describe EVE as “a new game every six months,” as almost every expansion changed the game in some fundamental way that required you to adapt, often making your ship setups obsolete and presenting new challenges to figure out. CCP essentially threw some new toys into the ant farm every six months, shook it up, and watched players scramble to rebuild and re-assert their dominance. It’s all part of the darwinian nature of EVE‘s core sandbox gameplay, and those who adapted quickly to new game mechanics always had a distinct advantage until their secrets became public and everyone else caught up. The important thing to note here is that everyone did have time to catch up before the next expansion came and changed the rules again.

That dust-settling period after an expansion has always been one of the things that made EVE so appealing to me, but the more frequent updates have kind of robbed us of it. It took my friends and I about 6-12 months to fully explore the limits of Faction Warfare PvP, and it took most corps almost two years to completely unravel the secrets of wormholes and figure out the optimum strategies. Big expansions used to feel like an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something big and maybe become one of the best in the game at it, and since it’s all new to everyone it could even help level the playing field between veterans and newbies. Expansions created natural jumping-on points for new and returning players alike, so it’s no surprise that player activity has been on the decline since their removal.

expansions-end2Switching from big blockbuster expansions to smaller and more frequent releases made a lot of sense back in 2013 and 2014 when there were still hundreds of quality of life and balance issues to tackle. Today’s EVE is vastly improved on both fronts, and development has definitely shifted toward big features again recently. It makes a lot of sense to collect big features together and deploy them all at once as a single themed expansion again, and hopefully this means we’ll get a bit more time for the dust to settle between major updates.

Most EVE players go through periods in which they get bored and go inactive while waiting for the next big thing to come along, and we need big blockbuster expansions to pull those players back in. The slow trickle of new gameplay and content we now receive just isn’t cutting it, and delivering something as big as the Citadel structures in bite-sized chunks could cause it to lose impact both to players and in the games media. A ton of features have already been announced for the Autumn and Winter periods, and we’ll be getting our first taste of a new expansion with the introduction of Citadels and the capital ship rebalance in Spring 2016.

EVE Online expert Brendan ‘Nyphur’ Drain has been playing EVE for over a decade and writing the regular EVE Evolved column since 2008. The column covers everything from in-depth EVE guides and news breakdowns to game design discussions and opinion pieces. If there’s a topic you’d love to see covered, drop him a comment or send mail to brendan@massivelyop.com!
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vargata77 Boardwalker PurpleCopper Hey, I’m a guy. And I live in Texas. And I play EVE. Could I be one of those “texas boys” that you’re referring to?? If so, rest assured, I have no plans to quit EVE and will continue supporting it, quite happily.

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Boardwalker PurpleCopper you wish…. EVE is up and running only from the money of some texas guys who buy plexes to sell ingame… sure they wanna feed them. eve subs are about 1/4 1/8 of the online players, the rest are alts. and when small not paying players will be gone, these texas boys will be gone with all of their alts too as there will be nobody to shoot at

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Loopstah Panserbjorne39 and this is the bs “the big old hardcores” try to claim… there could be content created for newbies, plenty, but CCP is relying on the vegas boys who buy 100 plexes a month to keep their megalomania up and running and they completely shit on small new players… thats EVE

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Panserbjorne39 Unfortunately that’s the nature of the beast. There is no “content for new players” because content is created by the players. And with that being said, there is nothing CCP can do to entice players to join, unless it’s some sort of hand-holding framework which goes against EVE’s core philosophy.

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I’m a new player and have gone over the plan for EVE for the rest of 2015 and early 2016 and I’m just like, “OK, what’s here that I can participate in or that interests me”? ” From my outsider’s perspective, it seems as though these tweeks and additions are all aimed at keeping vets happy. What is EVE doing in the next six months to attract new players or give content to new players? Citadel Stations hmmm they look cool and also look like something I have no way of enjoying as a new player that hasn’t found a corp yet and may not join anything other than a small gang pvp one if and when I do.

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SallyBowls1 That’s a very good point! CCP will need to make a significant investment in and committment to QA if it intends to pull off this plan.

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SkyyDragonn The fixes, improvements and content additions will still be happening on the same schedule and deployed in small regular updates. It’s the big overarching features like the upcoming player-owned Citadels and the capital ship rebalance that will be packaged together as one big expansion. We’re told they won’t be releasing features half-completed just to hit an arbitrary six-month release window. But with expansions a deadline is a very important part of the media messaging and building anticipation so I do hope we’ll still get firm deadlines announced months in advanced.

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9thLEGION I wrote about this before ( http://massivelyop.com/2015/04/19/eve-evolved-how-many-subscriptions-does-eve-have/ ) , but I honestly don’t think EVE’s shrinking activity and subs are any fault of the game or its developers. Rather, I think it’s a simple convergence of market forces that EVE can’t really fight against. Since 2008 we’ve seen free-to-play business models come to dominate the MMO market, competition for our gaming time has increased by a huge factor, and other games such as MOBAs have taken over online gaming with shorter play sessions that better suit the decreasing time of the gaming population. We’ve also seen traditional marketing lose effectiveness and next-gen media gain more effectiveness, so games that look great on stream or in a short let’s play videos do very well with those media audiences while slow games like EVE do poorly.
EVE’s activity levels have been closely correlated with the size of the global market for MMO subscriptions for as far as we had reliable data for it. EVE’s subs grew year on year initially because the sub MMO market was growing year on year and EVE was able to retain its relative market share. After all of its media and development missteps over the years, EVE began shrinking not because of those mistakes or any other missteps but because the global market for subs itself began shrinking. EVE was a sailing ship pulled along in a hurricane, and now that the winds are dying down, redesigning the boat won’t help.
I’ll agree though that CCP as a company failed to fully take advantage of its success though. DUST 514 wasn’t the success anyone hoped, WoD was cancelled and its IP is woefully under-exploited, and tons of work went into Walking in Stations and the Carbon engine tech that could have been used on another game or even licensed out. The company also failed to put together a financial buffer to secure jobs in the case of a significant drop in EVE subs, and so was forced to lay off 20% of its staff worldwide after monoclegate. The effect was to tell staff who expected they had jobs for life that they should start looking elsewhere, and so in the past few years the company has seen a lot of key staff jump ship to Riot Games.

In short, EVE was exactly the right game just when the industry was exploding and it got a huge push as a result of it, but CCP has yet to adequately capitalise on that push in the long term. There’s still plenty of time and the company brand is still very strong, but if its investments in Valkyrie and VR don’t pay off then the company will need to try something else. For the record though, CCP didn’t pay a lot of money for the WoD license or anything like that. They acquired the IP in its entirety when they merged with White Wolf in 2006 so it’s only cost them the running costs for their Atlanta office, which actually generates a lot of money each year by selling a film tax subsidy.

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PurpleCopper As I pointed out in my article on EVE’s sub numbers, the EVE activity graph (used because we don’t have a reliable sub graph and they tend to match up closely enough) very closely matches the graph of global subscriptions in the MMO industry. This means EVE isn’t failing and it isn’t shrinking through any fault of its own, it’s occupying roughly the same relative market share in the market that is shrinking. In fact, right after the sub market shinkage began, EVE continued to buck the trend for about a year before finally collapsing down to market norms and causing a lot of undue “eve is dying” panic.

You can credibly blame a lot of different things on the slow drop in global subscriptions, such as the rise of free to play as a business model, the oversaturation of the MMO market, or more probably MOBAs and other online games offering smaller play sessions. But you can’t blame EVE’s gameplay on that global trend, and and you certainly can’t credibly claim EVE’s core gameplay is a problem when it’s been running successfully for over a decade with that core gameplay.
You’re right about the smaller updates being perceieved as too little meat & potatoes though. We’ve actually been given more meat & potatoes over the past year than in any previous year with the possible exception of 2009’s Apocrypha expansion, but it’s been presented in ten small courses rather than one or two big meals and I think that’s why it seems smaller. Hopefully the switch back to big expansions resolves that perception issue and helps the new gameplay make a bigger impact, but in terms of global trends we shouldn’t expect EVE to be growing significantly in a market that was at last check still shrinking.

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9thLEGION theeknighthood 
After Incarna failed they only listened to the worst part of the playerbase and their council of Stellar Douchebags. I am glad I left.