As we approach EVE Online's 12th anniversary, the speculation continues about the game's subscription numbers. Admittedly, I contributed to the guessing game with a post three weeks ago speculating on what the subscription numbers1 were as of Fanfest based on the CSM election results dev blog. My post was a response to others who were touting divergent subscription numbers. While CSM member Mike Azariah was touting growth in the subscription numbers, ShadowandLight from the Legacy of a Capsuleer podcast was participating in (if not trying to start) a nasty whisper campaign, stating on EVE Radio on 26 March that an "inside source" told him that EVE was down to "146,000 subs."2 When I took all of the best information available, I came up with a subscription range of 319,000 to 342,000 on Tranquility.
The topic has also fascinated the writers at Massively Overpowered, the reincarnation of the Massively.com site that closed in February. Brendan Drain wrote the second article on the site looking into the numbers provided by my post. While his numbers fall within the upper range of my estimation, we both come to the conclusion that the number of subscriptions has fallen 18% over the past two years.
While I only attempted to ascertain the basic facts on the subscription numbers, Drain put the numbers into perspective by attempting to compare what I had calculated and comparing the result to the industry as a whole. He pointed to a study done by SuperData, a company that provides "market intelligence covering the market for free-to-play gaming, digital console, mobile, PC downloadable, streaming media and eSports." The study, titled "MMO Market Report 2015", predicts that revenue for pay-to-play (subscription) games will fall to $2.3 billion this year, a 17.9% decline from the $2.8 billion earned by P2P games in 2013.
Comparing revenue and subscriptions is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. For example, dual and multiple character training, both introduced in 2013, had the potential of both reducing the number of subscriptions and increasing revenue. Other changes, like the institution of jump fatigue in the Phoebe release, possibly resulted in subscription losses not related in any way to a player's preference for free-to-play games over P2P games. But Drain's main point is still valid. In a shrinking market for P2P games, seeing a 12-year-old game lose subscriptions due to potential new players preferring F2P games over P2P games is expected. Seeing growth in such a market environment is remarkable.
In my opinion, CCP ended what I call the cult of the growing subscription in June 2013 when dual character training was introduced in Odyssey. In the era in which EVE launched in 2003, most games relied strictly on box sales and subscriptions for revenue, so the subscription number was a useful number for players to see if their game was thriving. After all, why invest in a virtual world that is in danger of closing? But in the modern age, with even subscription games having in-game cash shops and offering other services as micro-transactions, we can no longer judge a game studio's, or even a game's, health based strictly on the number of subscribers. For that, we know need to become accountants and peruse the quarterly, semi-annual, and annual financial statements of game companies, providing we have such access. CCP's financial statement for 2014 is due out soon and I'm anxious to dig into those numbers.
1. Some will say that accounts paid for using PLEX are not really subscriptions. For those people, replace the word subscriptions with the term "paid accounts", as paid accounts over 30 days old make up the voter pool in CSM elections.
2. ShadowandLight has since admitted he didn't know what the number he was spreading around actually meant, which leads me to believe he was just throwing mud around and hoping something would stick.