EVE Evolved: How would you reboot EVE Online?

EVE Online has been pretty comfortable in its hardcore sci-fi MMO niche for over 15 years now, working its way through dozens of expansions and major updates to become the complex beast we have today. Iterative development has kept the game’s visuals up to date and helped the gameplay stay fresh after all these years, but it also means that EVE can become a drastically different game every year or so. It’s not surprising then to see comments on EVE articles occasionally suggesting that CCP should develop a sequel to EVE from the ground up, launch a second server to give players a fresh start, or even release a new legacy server with the original gameplay and content.

CCP has always maintained that an EVE Online sequel wouldn’t make sense, but even CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson has admitted that incremental updates have kept the sandbox MMO afloat far longer than originally expected and that the time may yet come for a hard reboot. While I don’t expect a reboot or legacy server to happen for a long time (if at all), I’ll admit that the opportunity for a server-wide fresh start or a return to the 2003 era does have a certain appeal. I can imagine getting very caught up in a vicious arms race as corporations rush to grab power without trillions of ISK in accrued wealth interfering. But would some kind of reboot or legacy server be feasible for EVE, and what forms could it realistically take?

In this edition of EVE Evolved, I speculate on the potential for legacy servers, reboots or sequels for EVE, and consider one way that a fresh start could be achieved without disrupting the sandbox.

Getting in on the nostalgia game

It’s human nature to be nostalgic about the past, and for MMO gamers who want to return to a simpler time the lure of a legacy or progression server set in an older version of their favourite game can be irresistable. RuneScape has a thriving community in its 2007-era OldSchool RuneScape release, and EverQuest II has progression servers that slowly work their way through all of the game’s expansions. Even Age of Conan and RIFT are now getting in on the nostalgia game, and there’s been so much support for unofficial vanilla World of Warcraft servers that Blizzard is finally rolling out its own.

Though EVE Online‘s most defining feature is its single-shard sandbox universe, there may be some interest in a legacy or progression server that starts in the 2003 era and slowly introduces each expansion. But how far back should such a server start, and what would you be willing to give up for that nostalgia hit? There have been hundreds of optimisations and quality of life improvements to EVE over the years that were undeniably positive, and advancements in user interface design and game balance that nobody would want to see disappear. How old is too old for a legacy server?

Legacy servers aren’t easy

Another major issue to tackle when thinking about legacy servers is technical feasibility. It’s tempting to imagine that MMO studios must have an archive of their old server code and game client lying around somewhere and could just boot it up, but the reality is that it would be a hell of a lot of work to get a legacy server off the ground. Even if the original server code still exists, it was designed to run on the server infrastructure of the time and will need to be adapted to modern hardware, database systems, and networking requirements.

This isn’t just a one-time job, either. It would require maintaining two separate server codebases on an ongoing basis and two sets of server hardware, most likely with dedicated staff working on the legacy server. Even just integrating the old game with a modern login system can present a significant technical challenge, as Blizzard recently encountered when planning the World of Warcraft legacy server. Both the technology and laws in this area have changed considerably over the past 15 years, with today’s online services expected to fulfill some pretty strict data protection and security requirements.

Old versions of a game will also be riddled with bugs and exploits that were later fixed, a problem that has reared its head several times in Maplestory over the years due to its global version rolling out updates several months behind the Korean version. There are plenty of EVE players out there with in-depth knowledge of historical bugs and exploits, and I wouldn’t trust players not to abuse them. Ultimately, a legacy or progression server would be a huge development undertaking that could end up not being popular enough to justify its expense.

A modern reboot or sequel?

In an interview with NewsWeek earlier this year, Hilmar said that “there will probably become a time where more of a reboot from a technology standpoint will be required,” but that it probably won’t be in the next few years. CCP has been able to integrate new graphics technologies and gameplay systems into the existing codebase for over 15 years now, but this is an ongoing technical challenge and it’s conceivable that it might some day make more sense to start again from scratch.

All it would take is a major new technology or significant market trend to come along that’s too difficult or costly to adapt the current game to, one that would make it much easier to build from scratch without the weight of 15 years of technical debt. This seems more like planning for an uncertain future than something the studio is actively considering, though, as CCP’s incremental development strategy has proven very effective in the long-term.

EVE Online is also in an interesting position as its biggest draw is its dedicated community and the emergent interactions of players rather than the graphics and gameplay designed by developers. A modern reboot would have to preserve the community above all other considerations, so it would have to be less of a sequel and more of a major game overhaul. MMO sequels also often run the risk of cannibalising the main game’s audience, so I’d hate to see EVE head down that road.

While a legacy server would be a significant development project for a questionable payoff and a sequel would risk fracturing the community, the one type of reboot I could get behind would be some form of seasonal fresh start system. It would be possible to do this as a completely separate server, but I think there are ways it could be done as part of the main game and without fracturing the playerbase.

Players could send clones into brand new unexplored star systems that are cut off from the rest of the game, for example, and would then have to harvest resources and compete to dominate that area with none of their existing assets. The star system would have to reconnect to the main star cluster after a few months, and groups that have amassed enough resources might be able to build private stargates back to normal space to help bring in assets and solidify a hold on their new territory. That would be pretty cool.

So what do you think? Is EVE Online the kind of game that should just never be rebooted, or is there a way you think it could work?

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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