EVE Evolved: EVE Online’s free-to-play upgrades are pretty damn generous

You’ve probably heard by now that EVE Online is giving its free-to-play alpha clone characters a massive boost in power in December about a month after the launch of the Lifeblood expansion. The news has been spreading through the gaming media since it was announced last week at EVE Vegas 2017 and the reception online has been generally positive. Some existing players are worried that the change might even be too generous, with fears that veteran players may let their subscriptions lapse and play for free, or that the new skills might be abused to create an endless army of ganking alts.

There’s no doubt that the changes will help to close the power gap between subscribers and free players and will open up new avenues of gameplay. Free players will finally be able to fly tech 1 battlecruisers and even battleships, and cross-training for multiple races will unlock multi-faction ships such as the Sisters of EVE exploration ships. Alpha clone players will also finally be able to use tech 2 weapons and fly many of the ship setups flown in massive nullsec wars, though the way that the new skill limit is being implemented may actually benefit old and returning players more than new ones.

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I dig into the free-to-play changes, briefly examine the power gap between free and subscribed players, and look at who will benefit most from the change.

Summary of the changes

Alpha clone characters are currently limited to a mix of tech 1 and tech 2 equipment and a single race’s tech 1 frigates, destroyers, and cruisers. The final skill list for the December alpha clone overhaul isn’t public yet, but the announcements at EVE Vegas 2017 were pretty extensive. Free players will soon be able to fly tech 1 battlecruisers and battleships, and will also be able to train multiple races of ship on the same character. This helpfully opens up the possibility of flying ships that require multiple race skills to fly such as the powerful Angel Cartel pirate ships or the Sisters of EVE exploration ships.

Alphas will also gain access to tech 2 small and medium weapons, which is an even bigger deal than it sounds. Not only are tech 2 weapons slightly more powerful than their tech 1 counterparts, but they can also use specialised tech 2 ammo such as the long-range Scorch crystals for pulse lasers or Tremor ammunition for artillery cannons. These ammo types are essential for certain ship setups and not having them limits the tactics free players can employ, restricting them from using many standard solo and fleet PvP fittings. The new alphas won’t get access to tech 2 large weapons for their new battleships, but this is unlikely to make much of a difference as standard battleships aren’t very popular in PvP today and most alphas will probably use them for PvE.

What’s the catch?

The new alpha clones will have access to up to 20 million skill points that would take over a year to train, but the catch is that you can technically only train up to 5 million skill points for free. Once you hit that number, all skill training will stop and you’ll have to subscribe or buy skill injectors from the market to raise it further. No matter how you get the new skills beyond the 5 million skill point limit, you’ll retain access to those new skills whenever you’re a free alpha clone player.

The good news for prospective players is that it’ll be possible to cram some very powerful sets of skills into the free skill training limit with the help of focused training plans, especially if you deliberately limit yourself to one race or play style. Player-run training corporations will often produce skill plans for new players to help them maximise their time in-game, and I’m confident that we’ll see some killer 5 million skill point training plans when the changes go live.

Interestingly, CCP is considering adding a new microtransaction item to the store that will let alphas train beyond the free training limit for a period of time and give them double skill training speed. That would put players on par with omega training speed without them giving access to the omega skills. This item would be considerably cheaper than a full subscription and players will inevitably re-sell them on the in-game market for ISK, so the average free player should be able to buy their training boosts for an achievable amount of in-game ISK. Having access to these new ships and tech 2 weapons also means alphas should be able to farm for that ISK a lot faster, making it more feasible than ever to be a purely free player.

Examining the power gap

I examined the power gap between max skill alpha and omega clones back when the free option was first released, and I found that the difference between similar ships and setups was a maximum of around 25% on paper in stats such as effective hitpoints, active tanking, and damage output. The difference depended on which ships you compared and came mostly from small bonuses from support skills alphas can’t train to max level and from being forced to use tech 1 weapons and ammo.

I originally reasoned that this discrepancy wouldn’t be such a big deal in PvP where individual ship stats don’t matter so much, but it turned out that restricting alphas to tech 1 cruisers or below severely limited the types of PvP and PvE they could do. Just giving them battlecruisers and tech 2 guns is going to be massive for opening up those opportunities, as most large PvP alliances run battlecruiser fleets and the power gap in these fittings between alphas and omegas will be pretty marginal.

Alphas will be to fly tech 1 battleships (including faction battleships) capable of doing level 4 missions with relative ease, and they can use the Sisters of EVE ships for exploration (albeit without cloaking devices). CCP has also hinted at the possibility of allowing them to fly tech 1 mining barges, but they’ll be able to mine nearly as much in some battleships as they could in a large mining barge anyway. Taking the updates into account, the power gap between a year-old omega character and a fully trained alpha in everyday gameplay is going to be very low and players will be able to do a lot more of EVE‘s core gameplay without subscribing.

Who will this help most?

While new players will get a lot of increased use out of free accounts come December, the people who will benefit most from the upgrades might be veteran players who already have the full alpha skill set trained. Old lapsed accounts will now be able to take their places in PvP roams with battlecruisers, and some people who subscribe just to farm PvE content can probably drop their subscriptions altogether now and just fly something like a faction battleship.

There are some compelling reasons to stay subscribed though, such as the fact that you can’t log into an alpha clone account at the same time as any other account. Anything you can do with a free account, you can do a lot better with multiple subscribed accounts. Alphas also have no access to Planetary Interaction and extremely limited access to manufacturing and the new reaction lines in Lifeblood‘s refineries that are sure to provide some great passive income. Alphas also have no access to t2 and t3 ships or cloaking skills, so they’ll be at a distinct disadvantage when taking on wormhole content or exploration in lowsec and nullsec.

“Whenever a mechanics change is proposed on behalf of ‘new players’, that change is always to the overwhelming advantage of richer, older players.” — Malcanis’ Law
There has been some concern from players that giving alphas access to battlecruisers will lead to rampant suicide ganking, but CCP claimed at EVE Vegas that the stats just don’t support that conclusion. Free players can already fly gank destroyers dealing over 500 DPS and yet gankers still prefer subscribed accounts. The new alphas will of course be able to deal over 1,000 DPS with a more expensive gank battlecruiser, but you can still only log in one alpha account at a time and gankers obviously prefer to multi-box accounts for maximum damage. If people didn’t roll endless disposable gank alts with the first incarnation of alpha clones, the risk added with this update would appear to be pretty low.

The original intention with alpha clones was that a certain proportion of the playerbase would remain as free players indefinitely, but that never really happened. CCP’s stats show that most people treat alpha clones as a free trial and subscribe soon after starting if they’re interested, and the plan to fix it is to make the set of available skills less restrictive. This will open the free option up to a lot more of EVE‘s core and even endgame PvE and PvP gameplay, while the login limitations for alpha players should avert the large-scale abuse current players are worried about.

I think this is definitely a positive step for EVE, but the fact that alphas train skills at half the speed of a subscriber still creates an opportunity cost that grows the longer you wait to subscribe. It remains to be seen whether CCP can solve this with new skill-training microtransactions and create a new class of permanent free players as originally intended. It’ll also be interesting to see whether a large number of veterans will opt to cancel their subscriptions and become free players. Either way, we can only hope that corporations continue to invite alpha clone players into their ranks and EVE can continue to thrive for years to come.

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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