Stellar Relic

EVE Sovereignty At The Brink

EVE Online

Two years into its second decade, EVE Online is in serious trouble.

This is a game that, at its best, is about politics – influence, war, territory, diplomacy, tribal gangs flinging spaceships and slurs at each other. Lately, it’s about different things. Things that other games do better. And the playerbase is shrinking as a result.

The actual number of subscribed accounts is hard to determine. We do know that it is significantly lower than the 500,000 subscribers figure trumpeted by CCP in February 2013, and that number included their relaunched Chinese server. Two posts by EVE blogger The Nosy Gamer dig into the exact numbers, though he believes that subscriptions don’t matter so much in an age of microtransactions and cash shops. He may be right; subscription numbers aren’t the best measurement of EVE’s vitality, given the number of players with multiple accounts. The most accurate metric we have is the number of accounts actually logged in and, thanks to EVE-Offline.net, that data is available.

It doesn’t look great.

peep that slope

2013 was a very strong year for EVE. After a brief slump at the end of 2013, the PCU (number of concurrent players) was spurred to what would become 2014’s high point by the famous Bloodbath of B-5RB, netting CCP a massive publicity win. It has been almost all downhill from there, with the huge activity gains of B-5RB wiped out within months. (I’m not cherry-picking data here – if anything, the 5-year graph looks worse.) From 2011 through 2014, EVE averaged nearly 50,000 concurrent players. For the past few months, New Eden has struggled to draw 30,000 – a drop of roughly 40%. How did we get here?

Let’s dispense with some oft-repeated untruths. No, CCP’s anti-botting/RMT efforts haven’t driven away nearly half the playerbase. That is silly for reasons of proportionality alone. No, the banning of ISBoxer and other automation tools is not responsible for the situation. The idea that a relative handful of multiboxers and ISBoxer users was inflating EVE’s PCU by tens of thousands is laughable. Players are leaving EVE because EVE isn’t interesting anymore and what makes EVE interesting is the political narrative.

To know why EVE is struggling, we must understand the political history of the game.

Influence.png

First, let’s clarify this “politics” idea. There are of course many things that EVE does decently enough and a few things that EVE is fantastic at. But EVE’s most unique feature (and its greatest draw) is the political narrative in nullsec space, the territory conquerable by players and unpoliced by NPC do-gooders. In this space, unique among MMOs for its particular brand of lawlessness, groups of players can forge political bonds, control and exploit territory, and strive for dominance unfettered. This is the arena that produced B-5RB, Asakai, the Goon/BoB conflict (known by its participants as the Great War), spies and commanders, heroes and villains, and the vast majority of the stories about EVE worth reading. It’s what makes the Verite Rendition Player Influence map so magical – every entity on that map is composed of hundreds or thousands of people, and they all have stories.

Take any major EVE battle of the sort that occasionally leaks into the broader media. The actual fighting itself is usually only interesting in a narrow technical sense; the actual experience of a player combatant may not be particularly exciting or even enjoyable. I’ve participated in my fair share of big fights. I remember high points like magnificent bombing runs and Doomsday beams flashing across the starfield. Mostly, I remember low points: interminable waiting, time dilation, my client stuttering and choking, tediously following the fleet commander’s orders, boredom and frustration. This is not interesting. What is interesting is the battle’s consequences; in New Eden, the battles have consequences – or at least, they should.

EVE doesn’t seem to produce many meaningful struggles anymore. B-5RB is, once again, illustrative: the battle occurred only as a result of a series of mistakes and uncharacteristic moves on both sides. Players without an obscenely expensive supercapital-class ship were directed away from the battle proper by their commanders, to preserve server resources for the more useful Titans and Supercarriers. Finally, the battle’s actual strategic consequences were muted, as both sides had sufficiently deep war-chests to replace their losses in a matter of weeks. The war itself was a passionless thing, driven mostly by the need to give players something to do. No righteous fury or struggle for survival animated B-5RB.

These are symptoms of the game’s political ossification.

Shuffling the Deck

In December 2009, EVE’s 12th expansion (Dominion) was released. Dominion came with a new sovereignty system – a complete overhaul of the mechanics determining player control of space in nullsec.

It was not a good overhaul. The pre-Dominion sovereignty system wasn’t good, exactly, but it lacked the more pernicious and damaging flaws that Dominion carried. Dominion-era sov warfare was a grinding, oddly-designed mess that heavily favored the defender. The complexity of the system discouraged new blood from attempting to enter the nullsec game and conferred further power to the veterans who already held space.

The number of new alliances moving into nullsec plummeted and even alliances with terrible leadership were able to hold their space indefinitely, simply because grinding through Dominion’s legion of timers and other obstacles was not worth it. Even the conquest of uncontested space was a chore. To successfully attack, alliances needed more members. They began to merge and grow. Coalitions became less “alliances of alliances” and more autocratic.

Dotlan

As alliances bloated in size, their culture and identity became diluted. As they became richer and more well-established, leaders were less inclined to risk their hard-won gains on wars or other failure-prone ventures. The Verite Influence map started to have mostly the same names on it. For years.

These player organizations, mostly safe behind the high walls of Dominion sovereignty, evolved, becoming more Byzantine and bureaucratic. Familiarity with the mechanics bred the ability to exploit them. Coalitions developed unified communications platforms, reimbursement and welfare programs, and a whole system of internal management. Groups that were once autocracies now insulated the leader behind a wall of fleet commanders, diplomats, metagamers, and a dozen other kinds of functionaries and specialists. Some of this was happening before Dominion and would have happened without it, of course – players evolve. Dominion just reinforced the stifling effect that the sovereignty mechanics sparked.

After a few years of adjustment, EVE’s political narratives stopped being as interesting or dynamic as they once were. Everyone had fought everyone before, usually many times.  Just as a first-past-the-post, all-or-nothing electoral system discourages third parties and narrows the field of viable candidates and parties, the all-or-nothing sovereignty system discouraged smaller alliances, eventually forcing the vast majority of nullsec players into a trinary, and then a binary, galaxy.

As a member of one of EVE’s most long-lived and influential alliances, Goonswarm Federation, I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. The first half-decade of EVE was a time of consequences – dramatic upsets, narrative, clashing ideologies, space opera made real. After half a decade of Dominion all we had left was the core gameplay, and it’s not a secret that much of EVE’s core gameplay isn’t actually very good.

 

influencecropped

Fozziesov

To CCP’s credit, after more than five years of Dominion stagnation, they have finally come around to replacing the Dominion sovereignty system. Developed under the aegis of Game Designer CCP Fozzie, the new mechanics are almost universally referred to by the community as “Fozziesov.”

The way Fozziesov actually functions isn’t that important; it follows the EVE Online tradition of taking already-complex game mechanics and obscuring them further behind weird terminology. Activity Defense Multiplier? Entosis Link? Ugh. The question is: will it work? If it does work, will it be enough to revitalize the nullsec political game? Ideally, Fozziesov would shake up or break up EVE’s coalitions and lower the stakes of conflict. Many prominent coalition and alliance leaders have in fact stated that they’d welcome to a return to the freewheeling, balkanized EVE landscape of old.

It’s an extraordinarily difficult task for CCP to attempt, akin to reversing a historical process – taking EVE from coalitions down to nation-states down to tribal groups. However it is an extraordinarily difficult task worth doing; revitalizing the nullsec game is probably the only way to reverse EVE’s declining numbers.

Respected EVE politicians and alliance leaders are skeptical. Reaction to Fozziesov in action has largely been neutral or negative. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything; EVE players will gleefully attack CCP for any action they take or propose to take and it’s too early to make a definitive judgement of Fozziesov. Still, it is worrying. A failure to return dynamism and fun to nullsec could be fatal. One experienced fleet commander hits the nail on the head:

Mechanics might change, but the general vibe around Eve is that most people have been around the block so many times that they don’t want to put much effort into it anymore. Content creators of olde are largely inactive. Apathy from the old guard isn’t a bad thing – as long as there is a fresh generation to take over. But does that exist?

I hope that new generation does exist because this game is worth saving. Let’s not underrate what CCP has accomplished: more than a decade after launch, despite everything, EVE Online is unique. Games that pitch themselves as competitors to EVE tend to fail (see also: ArcheAge, Perpetuum, Darkfall, etc). Figuring out how to make PvP territorial control work within an MMO is terrifically difficult. MechWarrior Online has been putting it off for three years now.

EVE is not dying. I suspect that New Eden will be around for another decade, if not longer. It’s just becoming less and less interesting – which could be worse than death.

Thomas Howell

Thomas Howell

Traitor, hater, idiot. I write and play.
Thomas Howell

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Thomas Howell

Traitor, hater, idiot. I write and play.

7 comments
Flak Cannon
Flak Cannon

2 month old player here. I think a lot of the hawks are just people who done it all. When someone has 1000 kills and 30bil in bank nothing matters anymore.

BamStroker
BamStroker

"Players are leaving EVE because EVE isn’t interesting anymore and what makes EVE interesting is the political narrative."

I don't know how I feel about that statement as I think it conveys a certain subconscious bias on behalf of the author. If you go back to the old Quarterly Economic Reports that CCP used to produce, when the population was divided among sec levels hi-sec would account for around 80% of the population and nullsec around 10% with the remainder split between lowsec and wormholes.

Surely a significant portion of the hisec population are alts of nullsec players that exist there so they may conduct business by proxy, but I get the feeling that all the "fix sov!" "Eve is dying!" cheerleaders could be over-inflating their own significance when it comes to CCP's bottom line. It could be that the people CCP really need to focus on to get the graph creeping back up are carebears who don't care about Eve's political narrative or are barely aware that one even exists.

I think we're all projecting our own biases onto the population graphs when we look at them. We just don't hear about disaffected mission runners because they play in smaller, more insulated groups and don't complain on Twitter or Reddit or make their own Eve news websites.

Mellianah_EVE
Mellianah_EVE

It strikes me that one inherent 'failure' in EVE, is the stability of its resources. A large Empire/Coalition can become comfortably secure and wealthy 'forever', once it secures enough territory. There is no real, or at least tangible, 'scarcity' in EVE... No 'peak oil' scenario to look forward to.

IRL, all past empires have crumbled eventually, but in EVE this Era of prosperity, so to speak, can be unbearably dull.

But what would happen if the wells ran dry?

Resubbed Bittervet
Resubbed Bittervet

@Mellianah_EVE Well remember those Tech moons that everyone wanted? Yeah even at the height of their value it became a literal cartel because those who already had them shook hands and said 'we won't attack each others structures." and for a very long time those cartel members used the scarcity and the absolute demand to pour billions into their SRP and infrastructure that pretty much remain to this day. There was no coherent challenge, yes the towers were randomly reinforced even a few changed to control to outsides but ultimately only the big boys held them for more than a month.


I kinda agree to the argument that their needs to be worth fighting over but frankly I just don't see the people willing to grow their organization above the alliance level and create an actual coalition instead of just Imperium. The lesson learned from NC. complete fall apart in Fountian/Delve was that if want a 2000 man fleet to accomplish anything they all need to work together, not just throw random fleet comps with 10 different FC's and hope for the best

BoratGuereen
BoratGuereen

"It’s just becoming less and less interesting"

Sounds to me like you are one of those players that are unable to break the patterns they have chained themselves to from years of playing, and can't break their own shackles. Do not blame the game for that, blame yourself. 


dirkmacgirk
dirkmacgirk

@BoratGuereen  It's not as simple as that and I know you know that. Individuals can profess all that shackle stuff all they want, and even raise their voices against "the man", but let's not lose sight of the fact that there is something going on that isn't quite healthy. This is as reasonable a look at it as anything else out there. This isn't a critique of Fozziesov or any other individual game mechanic. This is a reasonable look at where the game has evolved to and perhaps some of the underlying reasons. It doesn't do the minority who have cast off their shackles any good if an overwhelming number refuse to do anything but maintain the status quo.

BoratGuereen
BoratGuereen

Just listened to the latest podside podcast, and I did agree with most of what you guys discussed about the current statu-quo, and the protection of established interests. 


I also understand things are not as simple but I do believe some points need to be done in a simplistic way to carry across more effectively. Ultimately a lot of players chose to chain themselves, or submit to the diktat of things like keeping killboards green, or keeping the spice flowing. 

As CCP Seagull puts it,  Eve is a science fiction experience, and I also believe it is a social experiment in its broadest sense (being one shard and having assets one can loose in a virtual very competitive world is unique).


For me, more than the issue with the game or its metagame, the most unhealthy aspect of that social experiment is that even if the players behind each pilots ought to remain anonymous if they chose too, the pilots of the same players ought to be publicly linked to each others. We as a community should look into it more closely, and truly understand its effects on the game, especially when it relates to how it affects new groups/new players and build up a paranoia from the start that freezes people in their tracks, mostly to the benefit of a few power players that get the easiest way to become master puppeteers at no or very little risk to their own in-game assets.

I believe that for the new generations of Eve players that Thomas is calling for, a sense of awe for the accomplishment of older players through a public view of all of their alts achievements is way better for the future of the game, than a sense of dread building assets to participate to the grand scheme of things, not knowing when the player you recruited will turn out to be one of these older players manipulating from the inside, dooming you to fail from the get-go.