Why your MMO is dying, and EVE is still growing

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?

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Darkfall Online, EVE Online, MMO design, PvP, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Why your MMO is dying, and EVE is still growing

  1. Bonedead says:

    My head hurts.

    Here’s the one thing I have a comment on!

    “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.”

    I wouldn’t say that skills limit how fast a player burns out. You don’t have to do anything for them so you wont really ever be doing anything skill related that you could burn out on (lolwut?). Killing rats and minin’ rocks however, burn me the crap out. The game is what you burn out on, things that you actively do and end up doing over and over. Maybe that’s just me, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem like skills really limit that.

    In fact, I know they helped me burn out if anything. I can’t do these harder pirate missions until i wait a few real time days for this crap to be done so I can equip this thing, but then I’ll have to wait for this 3 day thing so I can equip this crap. But I want to play now, I already mined rocks last week, and I was killing easy pirates at the start of this week. Now the easy pirates are boring and I want more of a challenge but these higher tier pirates tear me apart. And I wanna play now! /quit

    But I’m me so, yeah.

  2. Tesh says:

    EVE is unique at the moment, because its adoption curve is longer than that of a typical DIKUMMO. It *does* seem that a nicely designed horizontal progression model will have that effect.

    It is baffling why more devs haven’t tried to emulate that design ethos.

  3. evizaer says:

    The problem isn’t the means of advancement. People who like a style of advancement will play games with that style unless the game does a poor job of it (Darkfall and a skill-based system, for example), of course.

    It’s all about incentivizing behavior that has upside, is as unique as possible, and engages the player. If the game only provides incentive for doing a small set of mundane tasks (like killing ten rats repeatedly, as most theme parks are prone to do), the game is a grind. If designers focus on incentivizing players performing high-risk (though high reward), high engagement activities and let the players either automate the grinds or do them offline (ala skill points in EVE), you enter the hallowed ground where I believe MMORPGs must go in order to find sustainable success.

  4. Thoms says:

    I think EVE’s unusual higher number of accounts per player also explains at least some of its growth. When EVE gets a player really hooked that player opens 1 or 2 additional accounts. This means that when a “new” player burns on the mining/mission grind (excel in space or whatever) CCP only looses 1 account, but when they truly hook a player they gain 2-3 accounts.

  5. skarbd says:

    When a old friend many years ago explained how skill was accumulated in EVE, I said it was mind blowingly brilliant.

    When he pointed out the game basically encouraged multi accounting, then I thought, brilliant again.

    However I never realised how cunning those couple of decisions would prove in the long term.

    Regardless of that, they need to be doing so much more right, for the figures to be going up in the way they are. To be honest, good for them and long may Eve continue.

  6. Bhagpuss says:

    I have one major problem with EVE that means I’ll almost certainly never play it. It’s spaceships. I don’t have any interest at all in spaceships, space battles or anything else space. Which might seem ironic, considering I’ve read science fiction since I was twelve years old and love good space opera.
    Nevertheless, I find actually simulating that environment on a computer screen just stultifyingly dull.

    Then again, I’m not much of a gamer either. I can’t fathom the attraction of any kind of sim, from flight sims to The Sims, and I would quite literally rather lie motionless in a darkened room than play any kind of “asset management” game. Yet these ineffably tedious processes have made many game designers rich and no doubt their MMO analogs will go on to do the same.

    When you talk about the success of EVE, though, what success is that scale on? How many subscribers has it now? And surely the model for the future is exactly what you throw in at the end – lots of new MMOs coming out regularly that have their brief day in the sun and then fade away. That’s how pretty much all fields of entertainment have worked for the last century or so.

    Of course, nothing in entertainment ever actually dies. Comics started in the 1940s are still being published now. People still make new Sherlock Holmes and Dracula movies. I listen to a radio show that’s been broadcast daily for over 50 years now. MMOs are quite new. Give it a couple of decades and not only will several of the current crop still be with us, but we’ll be seeing the revivals of supposedly dead franchises, repackaged and sold back to us as nostalgia.

    The modern world is everything forever. The only thing that actually goes away is us.

  7. mandrill says:

    EVE currently has over 300k subscribers and they are all on the same server, there are no shards. Whilst this may seem like peanuts compared to the likes of WoW it still ranks it in the top 5. EVE’s success however is, as Syncaine points out, its continued and sustained growth. No other MMO that has been around as long (6 years, or thereabouts) can claim to have had uninterrupted growth over that length of time. And the scary thing is that there is capacity on the server for 3 or 4 times the number of players that there are now. (The max they’ve had online simultaneously is around 50k but that is also nowhere near the limit of the server’s capability)

    I hope EVE continues to grow and doesn’t feel the need to dumb down to do it. I’d hate to see the sandbox get paved over and built up with rollercoasters.

  8. syncaine says:

    @Bhagpuss: Exactly, EVE is growing IN SPITE OF being Sci-Fi, which just further shows how far good design and cleaver hooks can go.

    As for the future of the business model, the best ROI is with a game like EVE, any not any other MMO save WoW. MMOs require a lot of up-front investment, with the idea that over a long span of time, that somewhat slow trickle of $15 adds up, as after release your costs are significantly lower. Any company that truly believes in the design of their MMO knows they are in it for the long haul, and not to make a quick splash.

  9. AnkleBiter says:

    I’ve been hooked on EVE for over a year now. I have only 1 account, and really only 1 character (I did fill the other 2 character slots, but they’ve been “asleep” practically since the day I made them). I would love to see EVE stick around for decades, long enough for me to be retired (21yrs to go :( ), ‘cuz then I could play even more :D

    I know this is unlikely… and hey something else may come along and usurp EVE’s position as my favorite “time waster”.

  10. Centuri says:

    I think you are doing EVE a disservice stating that the endgame is 0.0 POS warfare.

    Many players have no interest in that at all. The greatness of EVE is that the “endgame” is defined by an individual player. For some it’s low sec pirating, others run high sec missions. And still others are into research and production. The game supports all of these players play style and continues to provide new goals for all of them.

    Also the beauty of EVE is that even a 90 million skill point character in a pimped out battleship still has to watch out for the three week old player under the right circumstances. I don’t think any other game really offers that.

  11. Letrange says:

    Two other things that are possibly a factor to consider:

    Very early on in it’s life CCP got full 100% control of EVE (The publisher closed it’s games division and sold the rights back to CCP). This means that CCP gets 100% of the revenu from subscriptions, it’s not split with a publisher. This allows them the luxury of plowing back more cash into future development and surf the bleeding ragged edge of server development. (Question at fanfest: “since you guys are doing stuff that no one else is, do you take interns”, Answer: “yes we do, from University of Rejiavik and MIT”). It also means that they can resist the watering down of their vision.

    The other is the networking effect of the single server population. When you run into another EVE player outside of EVE, not only can you trade stories and what not you can also make plans and deals and pass on knowledge. This factor probably makes for 90% of the retention factor of EVE. Most of EVE pilots life cycles go a bit like this:

    Newbie – just signed up and busy learning the hard lessons (basically the first 2 months). This the most vulnerable period – you need to handle the learning cliff, develop a bit of a thick skin and learn not to emo-rage-quit.

    Midlife – Up to about the first 6-7 months. Once over the initial learning period this is the point where most players play “on rails” they are good enough to contribute actively but are still learning the subtleties of the game. It’s during this period that one slowly starts absorbing the fact that there’s a whole metagame in eve that you’re not quite plugged into yet (except occasionally as a cog). A lot of players quit for a while at this point (or slow down their participation and only skill up).

    The Lost phase. It’s at this point where a lot pilots go thru a bit of a “mid EVE life crisis”. They may take a break for a while, play other games and what not. But eventually all the unique features of EVE, that they have experienced and suddenly can’t find in other games come back to haunt them.

    Senior pilot. They come back, refreshed, knowledgeable and possibly with different plans than they had when they started. They realize what EVE is and most importantly what it isn’t. They settle in for the long haul of whatever they decide to do and realize that that may change over time, but that’s ok, EVE is like life that way, things change over time.

    Another effect of this pattern is that you don’t loose track of your old corp/alliance mates even after they move on to other aspects. Corps keep public channels open so others can keep in touch with them. I can remember when changing guilds/linkshells in other games, one lost all track of what was going on in other guilds/shells. When moving on you tended to cut all ties with the previous entity. That happens a lot less in EVE.

  12. Melf_Himself says:

    “including being the only MMO with a constant and ever-increasing player base”

    Um, hi, ever heard of WoW? Sub numbers still on the increase.

    Also, Eve is boring.

  13. syncaine says:

    WoW peaked at 12m, and that includes China. US/EU numbers (the actual full price customers) have been declining slowly, offset by WoW launching in Russia and other countries. Not to mention WoW is trending down, while EVE is trending up at an ever-faster rate.

  14. WG says:

    Letrange, your life cycles description was scarily accurate for my experience in EVE. I quit during my “Midlife” last fall because of RL work requirements, but things at work have slowed down now and I feel the tug returning.

  15. The Claw says:

    “WoW peaked at 12m, and that includes China. US/EU numbers (the actual full price customers) have been declining slowly”

    Evidence for that, Syncaine? Not saying you’re wrong, just that I’d like to see some backup for such a confident statement.

  16. syncaine says:

    Both the 12m and the fact that Asia pays pennies per hour are in their financial statements, since Bliz is now a public company.

    But to keep it simple, have you seen the 13m press release?

  17. Kessiaan says:

    I don’t trust ‘official’ numbers anyway – you know Blizzard will try to spin them so it makes them look good. This has been discussed to death so I’m not going to go into a ton of details.

    I do trust the WoW Census website, not to give actual numbers but to provide a realistic reflection of in-game trends.


    You can see a spike when WoTLK was released, with a subsequent (and surprisingly rapid) decline back to where the numbers were a year ago.

    My personal observations are that virtually everyone who played release WoW (including myself) has quit, mostly due to side effects of Blizzard’s continual pandering to casuals, and the game today seems to be populated almost entirely by casual players who have been subbing for less than two years.

    Right now I see two very different MMO models emerging – the way WoW is doing it, where there seems to be a lot of churn and they try to continually attract casual players to the game to replace all the people who are leaving, and the way games like EvE and FFXI do it where most new players get weeded out but vets stay for years and years. I think they both have a place and I hope both continue to be successful at what they do.

    This isn’t the Highlander after all – there CAN be more than one.

  18. Melf_Himself says:

    To ‘keep it simple’, you may as well just provide the link syncaine. I’m quite certain that if WoW being on the decline for the first time was public knowledge, it would be kind of all over the internets, you know?

  19. Andrew says:


    “EVE currently has over 300k subscribers and they are all on the same server, there are no shards.”

    Semantics are important. EVE has 300k subscriptions, but perhaps half that in subscribers, as a conservative estimate. I know people with 5 accounts.

    Hell, even EVE “casuals” have multi-accounts…. my buddy who plays maybe 4 hours a week has two accounts so he can keep training skills on multiple pilots.

  20. Drogo says:

    What I absolutely love about EVE is the fact that you can train your character, walk away from the game for a week, and when you come back, VIOLA, your character has skilled up. All other MMORPGs are a mindless time-sink. The other thing about EVE is that unlike other MMORPGs, EVE has a player-friendly economy so there are other ways of earning money than just blowing crap up. EVE’s notoriously hard learning curve also weeds out the boys from the men, meaning a better online experience. You can also buy a subscription using in-game currency, something missing in most other MMORPGs, so in a way you can actually earn RL money by playing the game. EVE serves its segment of the market well.

    Also, I’ve noticed that CCP regularly offers free subscriptions for players who’ve quit EVE to entice them to get back into the game. Pretty good customer service IMO.

  21. mandrill says:

    @Andrew: Semantics are all well and good but there are 300,000 doses of 14 euros going into CCPs bank account every month. It doesn’t matter to them whether each subscription is from a different person, its still money in the bank. Allowing them to plough funding into improving the server hardware and bringing us 2 expansions a year. This also allows them to improve the game and bring in more new players, which keeps the population growing. Still all on a single shard. How many of WoW’s subscriptions are duplicates? How many WoW players have more than one account?

  22. Justin says:

    spot on. Very nice write up.

  23. Centuri says:

    Based on the number released from CCP for the last CSM elections the EVE numbers are interesting. There numbers are all current as of the end of May 2009.

    Some facts:

    EVE has 285,913 accounts over 30 days old.

    Only 29% of all EVE players have been playing two years or more.

    Only 4.5% of the population is female.

    Clearly EVE is growing because there are no girls allowed.

  24. syncaine says:

    Only 4.5% of the pop being female is somewhat amazing. I would expect it to be low, but not THAT low.

    The 29% number is actually very high, and I would bet its a much higher % than in WoW or other PvE games. Two years playing ANYTHING is a long time, and just reinforces the point that the original MMO business model is built around supporting those players who are willing to stick around and continually pay for your product.

  25. Centuri says:


    Link to the press release. It also breaks down subs by country.

  26. Marlenus says:

    In three years playing EVE, I’ve only heard four different female voices over my headset. We’ve actually got almost five percent women in the playerbase? I’m astonished it’s that many.

  27. Gedrin says:

    The world is rich and deep…but only in the way that a guy who can spend six hours telling you about his D&D character has a rich and deep world to play in. The fiction is full of things like wormholes and wars, but I’ve never been able to find them in game. As a new player you might get some involvement with some intrigue over soft drink formulas as part of a random pre gen’d mission. On the web site there are all sorts of things about the world and new and cool stuff that sounds very interesting. I’ve found none of that after three or so months of playing. It appears that all that stuff is just fan fic and has no bearing on the world.
    Ships large enough to be seen durring a battle are not for you as a new player. They’re not for you if you’ve been playing for 3 months. Your ships as a new player (I’m 3 months in at this point) are pretty much invisible on the screen. If you want to look at your ship and a target at the same time, don’t expect more than a reticle around a tiny dot. In fact, once you do manage to invest the months needed to get a ship of any significance, you’ve still got weeks more before you can equip it properly. You can litterally spend months in your cruiser before finally getting something bigger, only to find you don’t have skills needed to equip any gear for the ship. There is nothing you can do to speed this up. There is nothing you can do to catch up to the other people who’ve been playing for a while. The best way to handle this seems to be to continue paying for the game, but just log in to cue up skills and then log off. Not playing the game is a perfectly valid plan for learning new skills, and is actually suggested by other players.
    If you want to explore the world of EVE, you should pretty much give it up. Most of it looks pretty much the same. Again, in theory there’s other stuff out there, but I’ve not been able to find any of it after a few months. Oh, and it can take hours, lilterally, to go anywhere. So maybe the stuff on the website isn’t just fan fic, but I’m not seeing any of it.
    I keep thinking that I’m going to find some key to where the game is supposed to go or some sort of context, but it’s not there. It’s really just a big PVP sandbox where you’ve got no chance of ever catching up to the established players. The best description I’ve ever read for it is that it’s a great set of mechanics and a potentially interesting world, but someone should really make a game of all this stuff.

    • Zohl says:

      NECRO but omg the last post is ridiculous. This part made me say WTF (“It’s really just a big PVP sandbox where you’ve got no chance of ever catching up to the established players”) Eve is the complete opposite of that. What makes eve amazing is even if someone who has been playing for years and has 100million or more skillpoints goes out to Pvp in a big ship like BC or BS, a 1 month old player flying a frig with the right tactics can win in a fight against said 100million sp player. Im srry either that last post is a troll or the person is just plain dumb cuz he has NO IDEA what Eve really is.

      • Steve says:

        Which is a disingenious argument as in most (vast majority) cases it is untrue, a 1 month player will lose (even if they are actually the better player, provding the other guy is not utterly inept).

        The OP poster is also correct you will never catch up, you can catch up eventually in speciic areas, but that is it.

        Eve like most MMO’s provides a second rate PvP experience, because essentially the MMO notion of progression be it skill poiints, levels, gear or ships creates such an unbalanced playing field that gives you a lot of uncompetitve, dull PvP where skill is secondary.

  28. Carnia says:

    The game is not that good. Is way to borring. If you play this game like world of warcraft 12 uur a day this game is to boring. If you like to start a party it can take a while before you can play togetter. This game is just to boring for regulare hardcore players. Nuf say.

  29. Gavn says:

    Hmmm actually Eve is experience player loss this past 8 months. And at only 300,000 subs they can’t afford that.

  30. Lulzor says:

    Eve is growing only in alts….

  31. Steve says:

    Perhaps this article needs an update Eve is struggling these days, they cut 20% of their workforce the other day.

    The problem with sandbox games is they are only as good as the player base and Eve seems to attract an astonishingly high number of a-holes, then when they get together cough… goons… they can make the game pretty crappy for others.

  32. Gavn says:

    I’ve played off and on for a year. When I first started, EVE Online seemed to be growing. But over the year, things began a steady downward trend. Most of the people I knew no longer play the game, and a lot of “veterans” have quit. EVE Online is slowly dying. CCP has dropped the balls on numerous issues over and over the past year, they have lost massive subscriptions numbers over the summer, and to top it off the GMs are becoming abusive bullies. My accounts were banned for no reason and no explanation and CCP is refusing to acknowledge my petition. Confirming that EVE is not worth the time or MONEY.

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