Improving the Free-to-Play EVE Online Experience Will Be Great for Everyone

During EVE Vegas 2017, developer CCP made a major announcement regarding their free-to-play business model. Players of the incredibly popular EVE Online are currently divided into two tiers, Alpha, which is free to play, and Omega, for those that pay for a subscription. CCP announced that they would be expanding what Alphas can do without paying a dime, the first being training up to twenty million XP, which is a darn sight more than the original five million limit from before. Among the largest changes, Alphas can also work their way up to owning a limited selection of Battle Cruisers with the ability to use Tier 1 and some Tier 2 guns. Set to begin in December, these expanded abilities was met with mixed reaction as the news sunk in for the title’s most stalwart audience.

To give an idea, I sat in on a roundtable session where players could interact with a pair of developers about this precise topic. It started out well enough, with plenty of well-meaning players supportive of the idea and giving suggestions on how to improve the acclimation process for the new players, including streamlining and simplifying the process for training skills and planning out progress well in advance to minimize frustration and encourage a deeper investment in the game, and hopefully, conversion to Omega status. Most in attendance, however, seemed to lose their galldurned minds at the prospect. They seemed to believe that this will effectively break the game that they love. I feel these folks are misguided for numerous reasons.

An overwhelming undercurrent is the feeling that Omegas are inherently superior to the Alphas and these improvements will change that; a situation where the haves will be forced to deal with the unwashed masses. They seem to be forgetting that EVE Online has developed a serious reputation for being one of the most complicated games on the market, with myriad interwoven systems of charts, movement and upgrades navigated via the dense and occasionally confusing network of menus. This isn’t even taking into account the politics of the game, famous for backstabs and wars that can be started from something as innocent as a player warping to the wrong place.

The addition of the Alpha status allowed players to jump in and start to learn the mechanics and world at no monetary risk. They could and would, however, bump into the limitations sooner than expected before making a decision to stay. Raising these limits will give the Alphas more of a chance to become a part of this world, and hopefully, decide to become a fell fledged Omega. One cannot discount the fact that, even if they won’t come close to the training limit during their time as a free player, a new player looking at trying this out in their spare time will see that they can own some of the cooler big ships in the game, giving them something to work towards and enticing them to download the title. For a less benevolent take on the idea that attracting new players is a good thing, remember that more players in the game equals more people to gank. That’s always a good time.

A more understandable point of view is that the expanded Alpha limits would open up the game to exploits. Having low ranked alternate characters to handle keeping the resources flowing in is incredibly common. These tend to also be in Omega status as the training needed is just above the limit for Alphas and Alphas don’t have access to the most profitable skills. The concern is that lifting the restrictions will mean less alts, which means less money for CCP. There is a legitimate fear that this move would cause the developer to collapse under their own generosity. Dismissively, I could counter that a developer wouldn’t be able to keep a popular MMO running for fifteen years if they were prone to make stupid decisions. There is a genuine concern from the fan base because they care, however, and that isn’t something to be taken lightly. Fortunately, CCP had the same thoughts. Mining is gated off away from the free-to-play folks. They won’t be able to break the economy nor will an Alpha alt be able to feed an Omega’s insatiable cash flow needs. Those that want to roll in the Isk and Plex currencies will need to go Omega. That’s not even accounting for the fact that Alpha training takes literally twice as long as their subscribed counterparts.

One particularly intense fellow believed that this system could be used to wage unfair wars by parking an untold number of Alpha ships at opportune places, ready to strike or defend at a moment’s notice. This might actually have some validity, but one must keep the aforementioned limitations. This chap’s concern was that the warships would be disposable, allowing for the worst among us to basically Zerg rush an opponent corporation. The ships will, however, still take a long time to earn. The ability to use them would require months of training. Alt character or not, that is a hefty investment to make across multiple accounts. This isn’t to argue that it cannot be done; EVE Online players are known for engaging in the long con, playing out nefarious schemes and brilliant heists over the course of years. However, to say that such a strategy would require no true investment on the perpetrator’s part is missing the point of the game of what the game has begun. There is nothing stopping this same angry fellow from engaging in the same plan. One thinks it won’t be as beneficial as he believes.

Finally and as a side note, there was one supposed corporation leader that wanted an easily recognizable tag to tell at a glance if a player is Alpha or Omega. His reasoning is that it would help him “better guide the training of a player” that he is supposedly in charge of. CCP’s counterpoint was that this is account level information, a seal that they don’t want to break. The subtle subtext being that, as enthusiastic and dedicated as their players are, the developer wouldn’t trust them with a Popsicle stick if there was a chance that the player could use that to decimate an opponent. On and on corp leader went, arguing that it’s a binary distinction and he really needs this information to be a better leader. There was a question that I wanted to ask this fellow, but I didn’t want to interrupt as a member of the press. It seemed that the developers had the same question but wanted to be respectful. It was: “If your protégé actually wanted your input, couldn’t you just ask if they were Alpha or Omega?”

One particularly telling conversation I had with a random fan on this topic came down to one question and answer. I pointed out that there was a smattering of applause and enthusiasm during the keynote speech when this enhancement was announced, but I was seeing more negativity about it as the weekend went on. He pointed out that, with the initial announcement, it appeared that they had whole new avenues to abuse the system. As time went on, the news sunk in, along with the realization that it was locked down better than they initially thought. As such, the mood swung harshly on the idea. Really, though. Giving Alphas more to do and more ways to explore this world will only be good for EVE Online as a whole. This move is an open invitation to a fresh generation of players to explode or teach. To the EVE grognards I say: give this a chance. I think you’ll be happy.