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‘EVE Online’ is now free, and even its creators don’t know what’s coming next

The creators of EVE Online don’t really know what to expect from their game for the next few weeks and months.

And that’s the way they want it.

“We usually have it as a hallmark that a good change to EVE is when neither we nor the players know exactly what’s going to happen, because it’s kind of up to the emergent behavior of many human beings who are making, to them, rational decisions,” said Andie Nordgren, EVE Online’s executive producer. “Or sometimes irrational, but it always makes some sense to the person making the decision.”

The change, which launched on Nov. 15 as part of the game’s “Ascension” expansion, will up-end EVE’s long-running subscription model by adding a free-to-play option. Since 2003, the MMO — in which players explore a galaxy to gather the resources (and steal them from other players) to build space ships and bases, create alliances, and often engage in huge ship-to-ship space battles — has required a subscription to play.

More: Eve Online introduces Clone States, free-to-play expansion coming in November

The biggest challenge developer CCP faces with EVE is, and has always been, explaining what EVE is all about. Development on the game is mostly about giving players the tools to do cool things, like explore space, build bases and gather together in fleets, and fight over the universe’s vast resources. a book about some of the game’s biggest battles

While the system can lead to amazing experiences, the game is so massive and player-driven that it can be a hard for potential players to wrap their heads around.

In true EVE fashion, though, the addition of a free-to-play option could create some pretty wide-reaching effects, and CCP doesn’t necessarily know what they all are yet. With EVE, that’s kind of the point.

Attack of the Clones

EVE Online has garnered a die-hard fanbase and the attention of media onlookers because game is not only affected, but oftentimes defined by player behavior. Much of the experience that makes EVE unique derives from players forming official corporations or other alliances, and waging war over resources. All of the best stuff is dependent on interacting with other players, and that means what happens in EVE remains pretty unpredictable, even to its creators.

With its new expansion, EVE adds a new mechanic to get players into the game for free, called “clone states.” The in-universe explanation is that every player in EVE is a clone, so if they’re killed, they just get transferred into a new clone body. With new clone states, players can create characters with less capabilities — “alpha clones” — for free, or go with the traditional paid model and get a full-fledged “omega clone.”

As you might expect, alpha clones can’t do as much as omega clones. For instance, they’re stuck flying some of the more popular, but smaller, spaceships. Their resource-gathering capabilities, a big central pillar of EVE gameplay, are stunted compared to paid players. But Nordgren says that apart from unlocking benefits through paying the subscription fee, whether you’re an alpha clone or an omega, you’ll be able to experience all that EVE has to offer. Clone states are determined by your account status, so once you’ve paid in, your characters automatically get upgraded.

Even for players who don’t want to pay, there are ways to get access to paid game time. EVE Online includes an in-game item called PLEX, and it creates a unique system in its in-game economy. PLEX is basically paid game time that players can buy and sell inside EVE. It’s a big part of how the economy ebbs and flows in the game — and CCP isn’t sure just yet how an influx of free players might affect the supply and demand of PLEX.

More: Eve Online players are battling it out in the largest conflict in gaming history

“It all depends on how many people are going to show up for this, and how big the demand is going to be for subscription,” Nordgren said. “We think it’s going to be pretty steady. We’re pretty sure some percentage of players are going to drop out of subscription, because for them it’ll be okay to play on the alpha clone state, but then we’ll probably have that outweighed by more people showing up and deciding that they want to join into the subscription service.”

As with every big change to EVE, CCP will be paying close attention to how players respond to the update.

“We’ll be glued to our screens, I think, to watch what’s happening with the game,” she said.

Getting players into space

It’s not hard to see that the many changes in the new EVE Online expansion are geared toward dealing with declining subscriber numbers. While CCP doesn’t release those numbers, statistics about the number of concurrent players —showing how many players are playing the game at any given time — are available, and Nordgren acknowledged that they have been declining. CCP sees those drops, and the institution of the free-to-play version of the game, as a reflection of changes in the games industry at large.

CCP’s focus on the new player experience was in teaching players “how to EVE.”

“I think in our main assessment, it’s really that the expectations that the gamers have today are just completely different from what they were just a few years ago,” Nordgren said. “The payment of a monthly subscription has become a much bigger ask than it used to be. Like, it used to be just completely standard to pay up front for games, and EVE Online was once radical for having a free trial, you know? Those were the days, huh? So we just think that people expect different things today, and you need to viably be able to participate in EVE Online for free, and then you can decide how deep you want to go into it.”

EVE faces a few other unique challenges, too, when it comes to getting new players into the game. The expansion offers a revamped version of the “new player experience,” the opening moments of EVE. Nordgren said CCP had been reluctant to make that portion of the game too tight or controlled, because so much of EVE is about player freedom to wander around, getting into trouble and addressing problems as they see fit. At the same time, though, the developer is aware of the perception, even among its own players, that EVE is dense amd difficult to learn: CCP’s focus on the new player experience was in teaching players “how to EVE.”

In the new version, a story scenario puts players into a number of different situations, showing them the ropes, but then encouraging them to find their own solutions and to drive their own experience. It all starts with the player waking up after a battle that has wiped out the fleet they were previously a part of, with the player the lone survivor. Missions get increasingly difficult as you learn the ropes of the game, Nordgren said.

CCP is making it easier for new players to join the game and to do it at low cost, and it’s also mobilizing its most important asset: its players. In recent years, the developer has focused on letting players tell their stories from within the game as a means of introducing it to other players, through trailers that detail crazy moments and EVE’s famously enormous battles. Nordgren said CCP also has plans to make it easier for players to recruit their friends, and get rewards for doing so.

“We have a recruitment program into the game today, where if you recruit someone who becomes a subscriber, we give you free subscription time or PLEX,” Nordgren said. “We’re actually going to extend that to corporations so that corporations who are willing to recruit brand new players, we’re going to give them basically a way to create a special recruitment link that will lead to a website that we host that has the corporation’s information on that, and a sign up page. And if you sign up through that, you get some of the bonus starting skill points that you get in the normal recruit program. And if that player stays around and later becomes a subscriber, the corporation gets the rewards.”

Galaxy at war

EVE’s newest expansion is aimed at getting new players into the game, but CCP’s best recruiting tool all along has been the amazing things that can happen within the game world it created—especially the massive fleet battles that can include thousands of players. 

“We’ve learned a long time ago that we can’t control any of these big events…”

The trouble is, across a 16-year lifespan, there are inevitably lulls.

EVE often gains visibility from its huge, player-driven events, which undoubtedly lead more players to join the game, but CCP has no control over when or how those things happen. Nordgren said CCP engages its players and tries to put out their stories with trailers. As such, the developer hopes to give the community with more tools to tell their EVE stories, like an annotated screenshot feature the developer.

“We’ve learned a long time ago that we can’t control any of these big events happening, but what we can control is to keep nurturing the community that we have and listening to what they’re doing, and try to put interesting challenges in their way, such that they have something to fight over, for example,” Nordgren said. “And usually, these changes, they take a long time. We released these new player builds, space stations, called Citadels, in the spring this year. And now we’re starting to see them like fully established as something that players have big fights over. So some of evolving this player-driven emergent universe, you have to have a long view. So that’s what we do during quiet times, we keep working on our long-view changes, where we’re trying to equip players with more and more interesting tools and mechanics to play against each other with, basically. And then suddenly the next big war is there.”

Ultimately the nature of Eve Online forces CCP to constantly take the long view on the game, rather than worry about short-term ebbs and flows. CCP looks to create elements of EVE that players will find interesting, and then has to wait to see how its community will use them.

“It is a really unique challenge. We’re constantly learning how to do it, as well,” Nordgren said. “It’s an ongoing, kind of beautiful collaboration with the player community that has been going on for 13 years now, where we put things out, the player community responds to it, and then they do things that we respond to. And it’s really this kind of beautiful interplay where we riff off of what the community is doing, and sometimes we put out completely new things, and then we find out that they were smart changes or they were not so smart, and then we kind of come back to them and try to make things better.”