Have you ever wanted to try Eve Online but stopped yourself because there’s a subscription fee and actually it looks a bit complicated anyway?
Or did you used to play Eve Online but stopped yourself because you only want to dip in and out and can’t justify the subscription fee?
However you look at it, today’s a historic day for Eve Online. Today’s the day this iconic online space world offers a permanent way to play for free for the first time in 13 years – and a new New Player Experience with it. Eve Online isn’t suddenly free-to-play and there aren’t suddenly new microtransactions, nothing like that, but there’s a fundamental shift occurring that could alter the game’s course for good.
The free way to play refers to something called Clone States, which are new in today’s Ascension game expansion. Those Clone States are Alpha, which is permanently free, and Omega, which is for subscribers. Omega clones can do exactly as subscribers in Eve Online always have done: train any and every skill, do everything. But Alpha clones are limited to a specific set of skills and skill levels.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Alpha clones are disadvantaged. Since you can only deploy skills relevant to the ship you’re flying, you can still be competitive in a fight as an Alpha. Thing is, Alphas can’t fly everything (there’s more depth on the cans and can’ts of Alphas in an official Eve blog), so in a sense you’re paying for variety – if you want it.
“We wanted the free experience to actually be viable,” executive producer Andie “CCP Seagull” Nordgren told me recently. “It should not be a super-gimped trial version that is just designed to let you dip your toe into it and then ‘uh huh subscribe’. We really tried to give you the ability to partake in every activity in Eve Online just not at max efficiency.
“I actually expect for a lot of previous players to come back and play as Alphas, for hell of it, for the fun of it, to see what they can do or to stay in touch of the community and so on. If you’re an existing player you can even view the Alpha state as a kind of hardcore mode.
“So from that perspective it’s not a free trial,” she added, “it’s actually a new and viable way to play Eve Online depending on what your tastes are.”
But coaxing lapsed players back is one thing – getting new players to stick around is another.
Eve Online has never been starved of interest. The gaming world and wider world have long been fascinated by the great battles of Eve Online and all the spying and politics behind them. Look at the new player spikes on the excellent stats website Eve Offline: there are plenty of them and they’re massive.
The problem has always been keeping people around. Eve Online has one hell of a learning curve – and that’s where the other key new ingredient of today’s Ascension expansion comes into play: the new New Player Experience.
“Eve was created now 13 years ago in an era when the expectation was that if you had bought a game, you wanted to work your way into it. Players today are not so amazed by the existence of a video game. They really don’t want to work that hard to get into something,” said Nordgren.
“Where we have failed in the past is there’s a large group of people who could be really into Eve Online but the beginning has just been too steep. We expect that you have way too much of your own drive to learn the game.”
The answer? Stories – stories made by the game’s maker CCP rather than by players. Stories told via voice-acted mentors for each of the game’s main factions, who give increasingly challenging missions as you get to grips with the game. There’s also an on-board AI to instruct you on how to do the things you’re asked.
This tutorial of sorts lasts between five-and-10 hours, and by the end of it you should be group ready. It’s the first chapter of an idea called Inception. What comes next – because there is a plan to have chapters related to Eve Online’s career paths – depends on how this part goes down.
The hope is that Clone States coupled with the New Player Experience will rejuvenate Eve Online. The game isn’t in a bad way – a quick glance at the peak concurrency graphs on the website I mentioned above will show you that. But Eve Online isn’t in headlines like it once was; for one reason or another – and there are many – the public eye has turned away.
“You can of course look at those trends and we do too, but the primary reason is that the gaming landscape has just moved,” said Nordgren. “It’s such a big ask today to get people into something that requires a subscription before you are really able to buy it on your own terms. I really hope this change will revitalise the ecosystem because it’s better with more people. We would rather have them there and play the game than not.
“We have a lot of previous players who I think will come back; and a lot of Eve players have friends who they’ve wanted to drag into the game, but they feel the ask is too big because of the subscription; and of course a lot of people who have heard about Eve and think it’s fascinating – but are then turned off by the subscription barrier – who might come and check out the game because hey, why not?
“It shifts that question from ‘why?’ into ‘hey, why not?'” she said.
Eve Online: Ascension has significant, game-altering changes besides Clone States and Inception, too, and they’re collated on the Eve Online website.