Much has been written about how the number of EVE players has gone into a nosedive. It is said that EVE is in decline. (We can't say EVE is "dying", because that is an easily mocked cliché. It's harder to argue against the idea that EVE is in decline.) I'd like to take this opportunity to write a few words on the subject.
The source of EVE's woes can be easily pinpointed: Historically, EVE's health, whether it be good or bad, has been determined by the state of nullsec. Though most EVE characters do not reside there, nullsec drives the game's action, stories, and media coverage. To ensure EVE's success, CCP's primary responsibility must be to keep nullsec's population healthy and in the fight. That is, fighting with each other, not with CCP.
Nullsec is in rough shape. That's why the most interesting stories to come out of EVE over the last few years have been driven by the New Order of Highsec. The EVE community is obsessed with us because there's not much else going on. So what went wrong with nullsec, and why won't CCP fix it? Read on! You're only three paragraphs in!
To keep nullsec interesting, CCP must give players a reason to go there, and a reason to fight. If at all possible, the process of fighting over sovereignty shouldn't be broken and boring. Regardless of the sov system, nullsec needs to offer rewards that attract players away from empire space. This is a challenge for two reasons: Highsec offers safety in the form of CONCORD, and it's extremely convenient to do business there. Nullsec's attractions need to overcome these factors.
In years past, players lived in nullsec and made their money there. But CCP noticed that most EVE characters were in highsec, so they began to prioritize highsec dwellers' concerns. CCP continually increased the amount of money to be made in highsec. CCP chose not to balance the increased rewards with increased risks. Instead, they did the opposite. With nerf after nerf to highsec aggression, they lowered the risks associated with highsec life, further skewing the risk/reward balance.
Consequently, PvE'ers moved out of nullsec and into highsec alts. Gone was the traditional stigma associated with highsec money-making. Before, nullsec sov holders considered making money in highsec to be almost shameful. And when their space was threatened, even by small gangs who disrupted their mining and ratting, the nullsec PvE crowd fought to defend themselves. If their sovereignty was at risk, they fought tooth and nail to keep it. If they lost their corner of nullsec, alliances would often dissolve entirely.
Because of CCP's actions, the lower-level targets left nullsec, leaving behind a vacuum in the PvP food chain. On a macro level, fights over sovereignty had much lower stakes. Why bother to defend your space--or even worry about it--when you make all your money in highsec anyway?
I've said all this before, of course. Highsec money and safety have both increased over the years, much to the overall galaxy's detriment. The factor I have focused on less is the convenience of highsec life. The reason I haven't criticized it is readily apparent: CCP has much less control over it. There's not much CCP can do about the fact that highsec dwellers live close to the big trade hubs and can buy or sell whatever they want within a few jumps. It's a very big deal, but not something that CCP can nerf. And they certainly wouldn't exacerbate the problem.
Enter the recent nullsec "fixes".
CCP's system of nullsec reform had a few objectives in mind. They wanted to break up the big coalitions, they wanted people to live in their space, and they wanted people to fight each other for it again.
There are basically two ways for a game developer to get players to do something: Carrots and sticks. The nullsec changes have been criticized for being too much stick and no carrot. Partly the new six-week development cycle is to blame for this. Rather than having a big, juicy, content-filled expansion to get people excited about the game, CCP created, well, the opposite. Expansions come in the form of tiny little patches which may or may not include content. Features may be half-baked or unbalanced, but they must be released. Anything to meet the six-week deadline. The nullsec overhaul has therefore come in pieces, with the sticks being front-loaded, apparently.
First came the great jump drive nerf. There were good arguments for removing the ability of caps and supercaps to teleport. After all, big ships should be slower than small ships, not infinitely faster. Nevertheless, CCP's objective was not merely to re-balance ships, but instead to dramatically nerf travel and logistics overall. All forms of jump drives were affected. They felt this would break up the big coalitions. Regardless of the motives and merits of this decision, the effect was a tremendous nerf to nullsec. It made it much more difficult to live and make money in nullsec.
Or to put it another way, it made nullsec life less convenient. Ah, there's that word again. By its very nature, highsec is much more convenient than nullsec, but the jump drive nerf forced this difference into a much sharper contrast. More reason to make your money in highsec instead of living out in the boondocks of nullsec. And if you want PvP, why not go to lowsec or wormholes? It's much closer than nullsec.
Another nullsec stick came in the form of FozzieSov. There were many things CCP wanted to achieve with the new system. From a game design standpoint, one of the most important things they wanted to do was to make it easier to contest sovereignty. Their reluctance to curb the infamous "trollceptor" hints at this. They wanted it to be possible for a handful of players to cause trouble, even if they didn't really intend to take a system over. The idea: "If you want to keep things running smoothly, you'd better live in your space and defend it constantly." Another stick.
Once more, regardless of the system's merits, the effect was to make nullsec life more difficult. The idea of owning a system is less enticing if you have to work harder to defend it. Under the new sov system, you'll probably need to deal with more hassles and headaches. It is, in other words, less convenient.
There's supposed to be some version of the destructible outposts idea in the works, as well. Same effect. It's a lot easier to live in nullsec when all your stuff can't be incinerated. More incentive to at least park all of your important possessions in lowsec. Which, in turn, makes nullsec life even more inconvenient.
What about the carrots? CCP has tinkered with nullsec rewards, but has basically done nothing. Over the years, whenever I've argued in favor of buffing nullsec, I have said that highsec rewards and safety must be nerfed, too. How much more would nullsec PvE need to pay, to get all the PvE'ers to abandon their highsec alts and do their isk-grinding in null? Too much. It's almost impossible to overcome the benefits of highsec safety and convenience otherwise.
Even if CCP were open to the possibility of supercharging highsec PvE, the current state of nullsec makes them too afraid of the consequences. The changes they introduced were supposed to break up the big coalitions, as I've said. The biggest of the big coalitions is, of course, the Imperium. Unfortunately, the very organizational capability that makes the Imperium so big also made it the best able to weather the storms of the recent nullsec changes. Some of the Imperium's most significant competitors of have collapsed or moved to lowsec. The Imperium is still dominant, and is arguably in an even more dominant position than it was before the changes came. CCP may fear that boosting nullsec revenues would be too beneficial to the Imperium; they may feel that the hoped-for coalition breakup needs to occur first.
What about the lure of PvP? In theory, FozzieSov was supposed to provide this, by generating more content. The problem is that for nullsec PvP to function, you need to restore the PvP food chain. That begins with drawing PvE'ers into nullsec and boosting the benefits of owning the space that you want players to fight over. Otherwise, it's just RvB in 0.0 space. Some might like that, but even those players would find it easier and more convenient to look for fights in lowsec. This group includes, incidentally, some of the PvP'ers who would otherwise be in nullsec challenging the Imperium's power.
As reluctant as CCP is to meaningfully buff nullsec rewards, it's even more reluctant to meaningfully nerf highsec. Years ago, when player numbers were twice (or more) what they are now, CCP was afraid to anger the highsec carebears. There were too many players living in highsec to alienate them with a bunch of highsec nerfs. Now that EVE's subscription numbers have fallen dangerously low, will CCP be any more willing to anger what's left of their playerbase?
CCP has therefore painted itself into a corner. They have massively buffed the rewards and safety of highsec. By drastically lowering the convenience and desirability of nullsec, they have effectively "buffed" highsec again by magnifying its convenience factor even more. The only way to fix this is to catastrophically nerf highsec and buff nullsec, which they will never do, especially not now.
Now, you all know that I'm an optimist, so I'll leave things on an optimistic note. As the democratically elected leader of highsec, I, on behalf of everyone who ever makes use of highsec, urge CCP to nerf highsec. Put aside any concerns about angry carebears. I represent their interests better than they ever could. I'm giving you the green light to nerf highsec until it hurts, until the carebears scream in agony.
In addition, I would suggest that CCP strongly consider the possibility of granting me full veto power over all of their past, present, and future game design decisions.
It wouldn't make things any worse, would it?