I know there’s been a lot of talk about EVE Online over the last week or so, but after attending the company’s Fan Fest, I was left with a lot of thoughts in my head about not only that game, but the MMO scene in general.
This past week, I wrote an article that took at look at the Statistics of EVE. In it, the company reveals that its subscriber base has grown over the course of six years from 25,000 to over 300,000. That kind of growth is just, well, shocking when it comes to looking at MMOs. It’s very rare to see a game that doesn’t peak shortly after launch and then decline over time from there. That’s the pattern we’ve seen time and time again from just-launched MMOs and the slow decline is getting faster and faster with every new launch. Just look at Age of Conan and Warhammer Online as examples. Their falls from millions of copies sold to far less that that number in subscribers took almost no time at all.
Looking at this, I am forced to wonder if the problem isn’t that the modern MMO company has it backwards. In today’s competitive market, the rush seems to be to sell as many boxes as humanly possible straight out the door. This may recoup some development cost right out of the gate, which I realize is a top priority for AAA titles, but in the end, the appealing thing about an MMO from a business standpoint isn’t in box sales, it’s the continued revenue stream that a subscription fee can bring. Therefore, a growing player base is more desirable than a dwindling one.
What EVE Online did right was to manage expectations right out of the gate. The game was small, and independent. It launched with what is comparatively very little to do, but built up a very strong and loyal following. As time passed, and the developers were able to add more and more into the world, polishing the game as they went, they began to pull in more players. There was actually a visible correlation between the quality of the game and the number of subscribers that it carried.
With today’s bigger titles, the goal is often to hype the game up as much as possible pre-launch, convincing as many people as possible to get involved with as soon as it becomes commercially available. The problem is that the quality of the game on day one just isn’t going to be high enough to retain a large percentage of those initial players. It can’t be. I don’t care what others might say: an MMO can not be honestly considered to be a “complete” game until at minimum six months to a year into its life. That’s just the nature of the beast. The result of this is that many of a game’s initial players, feeling let down, simply quit and never look back.
The solution is fairly simple and it all lays in two things: management of player expectations and deferral of immediate gratification for financial stakeholders. If more companies would set out with the goal to appeal at first to a small number of hardcore supporters who will help to mould and shape the game as it progresses, I think that there would be two distinct results: First, they would see a gradual increase in sustained subscribers over time and second, they would develop a game that would evolve to appeal more specifically to their players.
Now here’s where my theory falls apart. I honestly don’t know if in today’s world of MMOs, such a thing is actually possible. I suspect that in the case of the large publishing and development studios that a lengthier time to wait for return on investment simply won’t fly. I also suspect that, because MMO player expectations have been so moulded into thinking that the next MMO is going to be the “greatest thing ever” right out of the box might be so ingrained that EVE’s odd kind of slow evolutionary success may simply be out of reach.