EVE Online has a mile-long list of unique features that set it apart from all other MMOs, including being the only MMO with a constant and ever-increasing player base. WoW grew faster and bigger than any MMO before or after (in terms of profits anyway, other games hold the honored records for most pink bunnies clicked in a month, or total number of identical twins to download the app on a Thursday), and UO is the longest running major MMO (M59 went down and back up), but only EVE Online has recorded grow since its launch, and now sits within the top 5 subscription MMOs in terms of overall population.
In many ways this defies the normal trends we see in the genre. It’s the only truly successful Sci-Fi MMO among a slew of failures (SWG is debatable based on expectations vs reality), it’s a sandbox game in a genre that has all but declare sandbox games a one-way ticket to niche status, and unlike everyone else in the top 5 it’s endgame consists of negative sum PvP where 99% of the participants are little more than foot soldiers in the grand war. Top it all off with a steep learning curve and brutal punishment of mistakes, not to mention gameplay being called “Excel in space”, and on the surface its amazing EVE is still online, let alone thriving.
Part of the explanation for its success is certainly due to how involved and active CCP has been through the years, releasing free major expansion packs regularly and going above and beyond with a major graphics overhaul. Certainly another reason would be the overall solid design at the games core, and how the multitude of features all come together to create the most dynamic and interesting virtual world in the genre. No game has had as many truly epic stories as EVE, and it’s unlikely anything currently out or in development will challenge that.
Yet great design and top-notch support are not what this post is about. (I know, it’s only been three paragraphs and I’ve yet to get to the point, bear with me) I believe its EVE’s horizontal character growth and self-regulated pacing that is the true reason EVE is able to not only draw so many people in, but also keep them around for so long. As many of you know, ISK and skill points are the only two real measures of your progression in EVE, and out of the two, a player is only really able to influence the growth of ISK. Skill points are gained in real time, whether you are logged in or not, and no amount of grinding or casual play will change when a skill is complete (implants aside). This not only limits how fast a hardcore player can burn himself/herself out, but also provides a huge incentive for older players to keep playing. Unlike in a themepark which resets every expansion, any skill trained in EVE is a permanent improvement to your character regardless of what future patches may bring. Along with regulated and constant skill gain is the fact that you can NEVER have enough ISK, no matter how rich you become. This factor acts as the ever-enticing and never reachable carrot, a key factor used to keep players interested. You might not always be trying to collect ISK, but how much you have is always relevant, and the methods to gain more are incredibly varied and challenging. (mining, market, PvE, PvP, spying, theft)
Those two factors act like a vice to keep you going. The more time you invest in your character, the harder it is to give up that huge pool of skill points you spent all those months/years training, and the more skill points you have the more varied your options are in the game. It’s a slowly unfolding puzzle, and CCP continues to add more pieces before anyone ever fully completes the previous version. Toss in the fact that certain activities, primarily skill training and market activity, can be done without a huge time commitment, and it’s easy to see why a good number of players might be paying their monthly fee while not really playing the game. Many call this a problem, but since CCP is still collecting your money, and with a one-server world making player population a non-issue, it’s more of strength than a weakness.
Replicating what CCP has done is clearly far more difficult than trying to reproduce WoW, as evident by the amount of WoW-clones in the market compared to the lack of any challengers to EVE. The fact that until recently EVE was firmly in the niche is also a major factor, but soon that will no longer be the case, which makes me wonder when we will start to see EVE-clones. DarkFall certainly takes some of its design influences from EVE, along with UO and SB, yet while perhaps the best example it is still not all that close.
Being able to replicate WoW’s success would be the top goal of any studio, but as I don’t believe we will ever see another WoW sized success in the genre (including whatever Bliz is currently working on), the next best thing would be to follow EVE’s pattern, and collect the type of long-term profits CCP is enjoying now and for the foreseeable future (hopefully launching a bit bigger/better than EVE of course). I don’t believe any themepark-styled MMO is capable of this due to the linear nature of that design and the lack of long-term hooks to keep players going. As good as WoW was at release, even it has reached its peak and is now starting the inevitable decline, following the similar pattern of EQ1 and all games after.
Of course the other option is to create short-term properties that peak and die, hopefully capturing enough players during their prime to give a nice ROI, but what fun is the genre going to be if we can only live in our virtual world of choice for a year or two before the lights are turned off?