BB52: Casualties of War and Industry

Go to the always useful EVE-Offline.net (http://eve-offline.net/?server=tranquility) and take a look at the All Time (weekly average) graph for concurrent accounts logged in.

For the past four and a half years, the graph has hovered around that 30,000 mark; it is, for all intents and purposes, a plateau. But everything must come to an end sooner or later and that is what this blog banter is about. 

What’s on the other side of that plateau?  

Is there any path for CCP to follow to raise those numbers upwards for a sustained period, or is EVE going to enter a decline to lower logged in numbers from this point? How soon will we see an end to this plateau? Months? Years? Or will you argue that ‘never’ is a possibility? Or you can look at the root causes of the plateau and tackle the question if it could have been avoided or shortened if CCP had taken different actions in the past. 

Also, what would EVE be like with an order of magnitude fewer or more players?

*** 

This graph is a wonderful discussion piece. In my nearly 6 years of playing… wow, I just had to stop and think about that. Six years is by far the longest I’ve ever stuck with one MMORPG. That in and of itself should blunt some of the anxiety many (most?) feel when they look at the above graph. Regardless, once again it’s time to discuss this issue, and as I was going to say, in my 6 years of playing I cannot remember a time when this was not a topic of conversation in the metasphere of the EVE Universe. It’s the invisible elephant in the room whenever we discuss the future of EVE Online. Does it mean EVE Online is dying? Has EVE Online stopped growing? Is the golden age of the empire over?

Those are the questions most want answered before the questions actually asked in the banter are answered. Because of that, this could get a little long. The tl;dr is yes, EVE Online is in decline, but it’s not the game’s fault. EVE Online will likely not die – at least not straight away. It’ll continue for quite some time (and by that I mean years) in this state. But CCP and we it’s loyal subscribers need to prepare for a future where EVE Online may have to be very different in order to survive. Ultimately it will be up to us subscribers to decide its fate.

So, that out of the way, why would I say EVE Online is in decline but not dying, or at least dying a very slow death? It’s because this plateau we all see has a couple of causes, and none of them are a flagging interest in Internet spaceships. To make my point about this I am going to lean heavily on two well known bloggers who have way more authority on this subject than I. The first is Nosey Gamer. The second is Ibe Van Geel of the recently shuttered MMOData.net. Interestingly enough, Nosey’s latest piece is about MMOData.net closing. Synergy, you have to love it.

So first, let’s talk about what Nosey does. Nosey is our BOT and RMT expert. If you don’t know what those things are and why they are bad you should read his blog. It’ll educate you better on the subject than about anything I can think of. In his 2013 recap of CCP’s efforts in their war on bots and RMT, he posted this chart.

He then goes on to explain the drop around March 1, 2013 is, “Partly as a result of Team Security’s increased anti-botting measures.” It was an 8.2% drop. That’s significant. Now, part of that drop has been recouped, but not all of it. CCP’s anti-botting measures are working. However, the are directly reducing the number of concurrent sessions running on Tranquility. This has been going on for some time. In fact, you can go back to Team Security’s own posts and see how they’ve had a “negative” impact on log in numbers since they began. That’s what banning does.

This has not hurt the game though. It has actually strengthened EVE Online by getting rid of those who use the game but do not play the game. However, those losses are reflected in the plateau so many are concerned about. Keep that in mind as you evaluate the plateau. There is a keen difference between a subscription and a good subscription – that being someone who plays the game for the game’s sake. For the most part, we have just about as many of those good subscriptions as we’ve always had.

That does not mean there is not a general decline in overall good subscriptions. I am certain there is. I can be certain of that because of MMOData’s charts for one thing. MMOData used to get hard subscription numbers from many MMOs. These came straight from the companies, and it was a great way to track the growing prosperity that was subscription based MMOs in the first decade of the 21st century. And even though the site is now closed, all that data is still publicly available. Have a look at the historical chart from MMOData that includes EVE Online.

This chart goes right up to the time that CCP stopped providing subscription numbers. Do you see what I see? No, it’s not the steady growth in EVE Online up to about 2012. Look at ALL the lines. Are any of them growing at the point this chart ends? The short answer is no. This is what the decline of the subscription model looks like in real data. There are three other subscription charts in MMOData’s archive. Have a look at them too. Every single subscription based game on those charts is in decline except for a select few. That select group is led by EVE Online. That’s a win for CCP when you look at what’s happened industry wide.

Still, it’s not good news. It just means CCP has some time to do something about the decline. But the issue isn’t EVE Online itself. It’s the subscription model that EVE Online functions under. That is why the log in numbers have plateaued. People just don’t want to pay a monthly fee any more. In the fast paced, get it now world we live in, having to setup a payment for every month is just more hassle than most want to deal with. I know I pay for my account a year at a time because I just don’t need another utility bill. It’s the state of the world, not just EVE Online.

Now we can get to those questions asked in the banter. What is on the other side of this plateau? Well, if current industry trends continue, and EVE Online does not change from what it is today – a subscription based service – the other side of this plateau will be more plateau in the best of circumstance. In the second best circumstance there will be a steady but shallow decline that goes on for years. In the worst situation, a non-subscription competitor emerges that does everything EVE Online does but is free to play (F2P.) Which of these is more likely in my opinion? Well, to be honest with myself the last one is the one I see as most likely but with a twist. That emergent new game everyone flocks to has every chance of being EVE Online.

Unfortunately the biggest obstacle to that happening is the current player base of EVE Online. We proved that with the Summer of Rage. We flat out rejected Incarna and with it the model CCP intended to use (IMO) to transition from a subscription based game to a F2P model. With that rejection, CCP had to scramble in a new direction, one that it wasn’t wanting to take and for which it was frankly unprepared. That has caused an issue for CCP ever since.

That direction was Dust 514. They had to rush it to get their foot into the door of the new F2P business model. That created a game that debuted to lackluster reviews and poor player participation. And what’s worse, it has tarnished the reputation of CCP as a company that does the extraordinary. I can’t help but wonder how many potential investors walked away from CCP because of this. What business opportunities never presented themselves? At a time when CCP could have used those opportunities the most, did they not appear because of what we the players forced CCP to do? I honestly don’t know. You can’t prove an absence of fact. That does not stop me from wondering how it could have all been different though.

These past three years have been difficult for all of us. As a player I wonder if there will be a future. I wonder because CCP is loath to discuss plans because they were burned so badly before. It’s a terrible loop to be stuck in. Their reluctance to talk feeds our anxiety. Our anxiety expresses itself as dissatisfaction. We express that dissatisfaction by acting out. That feeds CCP’s fear of another player revolt. It makes them more inclined to keep quiet about everything. Rinse, lather and repeat. Yes, that’s a nice vicious circle and we players can take most of the responsibility for it. We started the cycle, even though we tried to warn CCP. I don’t like it any more than you do, but there you have it.

So what do I see as the way forward? Well, many of you aren’t going to like this but too bad: you’ve had your say starting three years ago and we all know how it’s turned out. What CCP needs to do is join the rest of the gaming industry by turning their company finances into one based on the F2P business model rather than the subscription model. Notice I did NOT say they had to turn EVE Online into a F2P game. More on that in a minute.

I think CCP understands this. They are savvy game industrialists. But knowing it and making it so are two very different problems. One is easy to see, and one is very, very hard to do. CCP has had a hard time of it developing Dust 514. It’s been a growing experience for them to be certain. After years, it’s finally showing some glimmer of being a solid game people will want to play. From that CCP can build a micro-transaction income model for the game. Once that income model is in place and generating revenues, they can turn their attention to the other things.

But before I say that other thing is EVE Online, I have to stop and write one more word: Valkyrie. You know, sometimes the card you need most does show up on the river. There was a tweet two weeks ago from CCP Karuck which I’ve placed to the right here. Yesterday there was this twitter thread,

https://twitter.com/CymaticBruce/status/420702814386417664

Valkyrie is getting some excellent press. It is generally felt in the gaming world Oculus Rift will release this year. They are very close to their specification goals now, as indicated in this article out yesterday: http://www.joystiq.com/2014/01/07/testing-the-huge-breakthrough-in-new-oculus-rift-vr-prototype. With all the positive buzz and barely constrained enthusiasm from hardcore gaming industry experts to the average player-Joe, Valkyrie has taken CCP from being practically ridiculed for Dust 514 to being lauded for their Valkyrie vision – pun intended. In this new technology, and the game they so quickly “threw” together, CCP may just have given themselves the breathing room they need to make the transition they must make.

And that leads us back to EVE Online. EVE Online cannot live forever in it’s current subscription model. It will eventually die. To believe otherwise is to live in denial about what is happening within the gaming industry at large. The cards are quickly stacking up against the EVE Online method of doing business.

The inescapably problem for CCP is EVE Online keeps the lights on today. They tried making the change to a more F2P model and got slapped hard. I frankly don’t think they are willing to put the entire business at risk by trying it again. If nothing else ego will prevent it, but their message has been very firm on that topic for years.

If I were in CCP’s shoes, I would reduce the business risk by supplanting their dependance on EVE Online subscription revenues. Dust 514 is one column in this new financial spreadsheet. Valkyrie will be another. I will be very surprised if they ever come close to considering a subscription based model for it. There may be other projects in the wings of which we are not aware. I hope there are, but CCP won’t say – loop again. With any luck, in total they will match EVE Online’s revenue stream before subscriptions drop into financial red ink. When the do match the revenue, then (and I believe only then) will CCP attempt to “fix” this problem that is EVE Online. Perhaps we’ll see Incarna, or the future Incarna Plus. Whatever we see, know it will be pushed onto the player base from a position of strength that allows CCP to say, “Take it or leave it.” At that point, they will not need EVE Online to survive as a company.

What would EVE Online look like on that day? My divination spell does see walking in stations, but that would only be the vehicle to the revenue generators. There would be stores for in-game micro-transaction purchases. Space stations would be a virtual mall. The stores would have not only clothes, tattoos and other character adornments, but also ship skins and special implants to change the color of your pod, or your contrails, or your blaster bolts. Custom graphics would proliferate everywhere as players gobbled them up. Riot Games proves how lucrative that can be. There would also be tie-ins to real world businesses. There could be casinos for instance, and I don’t mean Somer Blink. I mean real, online casinos where players could gamble real money for real money. The house (CCP) takes a cut of course. Oh sure, players could agree to play for ISK, but the house should still get a cut. Could this lead to legal problems? Sure, but there is great reward in great risk. That applies to the real world as well as the virtual. So long as the future of CCP the company is not in jeopardy, why not? Amazon dot Amarr anyone?

I’m sure Incarna Plus isn’t the only thing CCP could do to morph EVE Online into a F2P model. But here’s the key ingredient, it will be done once CCP has new revenue streams ensuring their future as a business. Then they will turn back to EVE Online. They won’t abandon it: not unless we do. But they will make the change, and they will give us no option. They won’t have to. Then it will be up to us to decide if EVE Online lives or dies. We can either rage quit at that point, or embrace the change as inevitable and enable EVE Online to live on another decade. The choice will be ours. Won’t that be an interesting day?

Fly Careful

7 comments on “BB52: Casualties of War and Industry

  1. The point of “all MMOs losing subscribers” can be seen best in another image of mmodata: http://users.telenet.be/mmodata/Charts/TotalSubs.png – around 2010 the market stopped its rapid growth and now is on a slow but steady decline. Sure, it may be dominated by WoW losing subscribers, but obviously not to the competing MMOs.

    Considering a lot of MMOs in those graphs are F2P already, it offers an alternative reasoning to your F2P argument when even F2P MMOs are losing active accounts. So my impression is more that MMOs as such can't catch as much attention as before. Like browser games were the new thing once but aren't anymore. With games as EVE and WoW existing for a decade they experience the generation changes. Like the current trend from desktop to tablets.

    As a side note, while “[EVE] will eventually die” is a correct statement, “eventually” can be 5, 10 or 15 years in the future… considering that's longer than most subscribers have played until now, it's not really something to be concerned about. Oh, and since EVE acutually manages to defy the trend – it's only stagnating, not shrinking, I wouldn't be suprised if it will be around rather long.

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  2. If I were an investment company, based on that MMO chart, EVE Online is the only game I'd have any confidence to invest in.

    Secondly, do we really want EVE to grow? (Yes we do, but:) I have no interest in every fleet battle turning into a 10% tidi blobfest. How can EVE be changed to handle or prevent this?

    Subscription fees vs free to play, F2P would increase player numbers, but would that improve the game? Would it add revenue for CCP? What would a F2P model look like?
    The first thing that comes to mind is that F2P would mean subscription/PLEX could be used to activate training time for SP or such a thing. New characters would then need to start out with 10m SP to cover some basics so that F2P would be possible at all.

    I do hope that WoD technology can be used to improve WiS. Because WiS is the biggest possible 'Jesus' feature that targets possible new players. A new POS system could be another one but would entice bittervets to return, not open up new player markets.

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  3. A very good (and long) post you did there Mabrick. Great work and a quite visionary view of the current state and its future.
    In the a long term view, subscription based entertainment might be dieing indeed. On the other hand, there are many entertainment offers which are subscription based and use a good mix of free to use and premium subscription, so maybe it isn't dieing completely but at least it can't stand alone.
    For the current state I think Seismic Stan from Freebooted is right with the diagnose that the current plateau is a healthy balance. But where will it lead to? You got some very nice Ideas there. Eve Valkyrie will be a big part in the future business of CCP. And John Lander is leading the mobile gaming development, haven't seen a thing from there yet but I can imagine mobile games that populate the eve universe.
    Games to build cities on the many thousand worlds in new eden, improving local space with increased population. Or ship crews micro management games. In a few years CCP will have more than just Eve Online to pay there bills and than we may see a transition to f2p / premium and IMO if it is done right it can be something many will enjoy and I may be among them.

    On the upcoming Fanfest we hopefully get news on WoD. If that game manages to get a solid working Avatar based game play with a good social / political mechanic I think it will work fine with Eve too. We, the spaceship loving eve gamers, will have to learn that non spaceship based game play will interfere with our sand box. If we deny that to CCP, Eve will die a pretty fast death. But if we embrace that change and support CCP with helpful feedback we may finally get our all round Sci-Fi Emulator.

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  4. Very very good piece Mabrick.

    A couple of thoughts. 1) There's absolutely no reason to Incarna-ise Eve. They can add all that walking in stations and socialising in bars as a separate product. CCP Unifex hinted they were looking that way for future developments. Maybe it could even be a phone game, you could chat up the Mittani on your way home from work while riding on a train, then get home undock your titan and doomsday him.

    2) You missed out WoD. The tech from that is a logical starting place for Incarna type features (originally it appeared that Incarna was a prototype for WoD).

    3) Eve is not exactly a classic subscription game. For many of us it is and always has been F2P. When I started playing my first goal was to be able to generate enough isk that I could pay for Eve by playing and move my sub money to different MMOs. Plex completely changes the business model as compared with 2004 era classic sub mmos like WoW. Both people who want to play for free and people who want to throw cash at the game so that they can be better than the run of the mill pleb are catered for.

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  5. Damn, thats a fine and interesting analysis, makes you wonder !
    A lot of new stuff for me, you have my gratitude, love it when i have to raise my eyebrows and are forced to think in new lanes

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  6. I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees the influence of the War on Bots 🙂

    There is one thing the could develop that would make WiS really come to life. That's if World of Darkness is not vaporware. Since both games use Carbon, tech developed for WoD could be used to make WiS come to life.

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  7. You do raise some interesting and seemingly valid points.

    What the future holds us is uncertain but that money grab of “TripleTrain” is where they want to head out and down that road only F2P is the option.

    I suddenly have the urge to sell all my in-game possessions, damn you! 🙂

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