So. EVE has been "dying" as long as it has been around. It's always easy to predict it's over.
I'm calling it here, though. EVE will perish sometime in late 2020 or early 2021. The handwriting is on the wall.
CCP has finally managed to get some other properties going that actually make money. Valkyrie is doing well enough to get an expansion and support for more platforms. Gunjack 2 is (to my mind inexplicably) selling well enough to pay for its relatively modest development cost. CCP can see a future without their (formerly) flagship property. This is the first time in CCP's history where there has ever been so much light at the end of the tunnel.
There's a whole lot of brand-burning available to CCP, and they're jumping on it. Measures that will likely reduce the long-term profitability of EVE but make short-run profits have sprung up like crazy. Skins, skill injectors, and notably Alpha clones have been really successful marketing ventures, and to some extent all three have been at the expense of good gameplay and overall fun.
Skins are hurting gameplay? Surprisingly I think they are. They have become the default reward given by CCP on special occasions. The hype around IGC skins at AT XV emphasizes this point. The problem there is that previous rewards affected the gameplay in interesting ways: skins don't at all. They are stupidly cheap to produce (given that they are all just color changes) and don't give game designers any opportunity to practice their skills.
Skill injectors have hurt the game. The stupidly wealthy can recover their lost T3 Cruiser skill, for example, by just dumping ISK into injectors. The rest of us have to wait a week or two, missing valuable training on other skills. The demise of the Character Market can be directly traced to skill injectors: why buy a clone when you can build your own — except to harvest its tasty skill points. Most importantly, that sense of accomplishment that one gets by patiently training an expensive skill is undermined by the fact that everybody else just got it by paying ISK, probably from their IRL wallet. At least that's a reasonable perception.
Alpha clones are a textbook brand-burning exercise. I predicted before they came out that they would have no long-term impact on PCU, and while it took longer than I thought for it to drop back out we're now back to below where we started. Worse yet, quite a few of those logged-on players are now paying nothing: not cash nor even ISK. CCP's EVE revenue has apparently been affected by this already, and likely will be affected more.
EVE development has found a new equilibrium in which many changes are being made, but most of them are inexpensive and kind of worthless. This is classic brand-burning: give the appearance of vibrant development while cutting development costs dramatically. The only major change in terms of coding effort is Citadels, and these likely will pay for themselves even in the short run by reducing the CCP support costs associated with the POS nightmare.
The UI has always been EVE's weakest point by far, and what was maybe acceptable in 2002 looks just ludicrous in 2017. CCP has chipped away at it a screen at a time, but only an Augean Stables effort led by an experienced and skilled UX team could give the client the kind of facelift it really needs. The nightmare of right-click popup menus needs to go. The proliferation of hidden UI features needs to go. For example today I learned, after three years playing the game, that you can launch drones by simply dragging them out of the drone window into space. I learned this not by any in-game resource or official documentation (hah) but by watching a Wingspan video where he did it.
The weak CCP commitment to UX improvements has produced fixes for some of the longest-standing sore spots, but this just emphasizes how bad things are. I can now jump clone without pausing my skill queue? Hip hip hooray, I guess. Again, the brand-burning plan is to try to fix the worst things with minimal possible development effort.
A significant client feature is being removed: a good sign that EVE is in trouble. I refer, of course, to Captain's Quarters. Removing it supposedly "enables development of a 64-bit client," but (a) in that case it could surely have waited until said 64-bit client was on the horizon, and (b) the technology of the Captain's Quarters is not all that advanced by 2017 standards and could have been replaced by more modern code with a reasonable expenditure of effort.
Captain's Quarters is not important to gameplay per se, but the fact of the matter is that many people in my corp are demoralized by its loss, and my aspiration to someday buy decent pants for my character just evaporated. In space, nobody can see your pants.
A whole series of generally-hated game design changes have been introduced over the past couple of years, and there's no sign that any corrections are incoming. The implementation of Jump Fatigue is just dumb and discourages gameplay. Citadels are undeniably broken in their invincibility and spammability — a terrible combination. Aegis Sov is so bad that a lot of folks wish to go back to Dominion Sov even after several years of getting used to the new system.
EVE is insanely complicated, and game design is really hard. Honestly, EVE game design should be done by a team of experienced game design professionals — not video game design, but game design — led by someone with impeccable credentials. That would be really expensive, especially if you required them to live in Iceland. Which brings us to…
EVE's technical debt is not only large, but is concentrated across the game in ways that are not easy to fix. Stackless Python is just not efficient, but rewriting it all would be nightmarish. DX11 or even DX13 is not a viable long-term graphics platform, but without significant help for Wine even removing DX9 support loses most of the Mac and Linux players. Perfectly reasonable-looking integer field sizes for ISK in the database are hitting their limits.
CCP is using its new games as opportunities to offload game development to more reasonable places. By keeping EVE development in Iceland, CCP makes the Icelandic government happy and allows the core management to keep their homes. By developing their other games in more appropriate locations, they allow the development of those games to be done by better and cheaper personnel.
This split development plan is unsustainable: at some point, all it does is guarantee retirement of the existing executives and offshoring of new management. I'm betting on London. CCP clearly wants to sell the EVE property to somebody, and if they find a buyer I can pretty much guarantee that they will move the game out of Iceland. If CCP doesn't find a buyer (which seems to me more likely) then…I don't see any good thing coming of this.
EVE is an expensive game to run, even compared to other MMOs. The infrastructure is quite expensive to operate and upgrade, because single-shard single-instance. The support costs are huge, because extremely complicated game with lots of legacy code and other bugs, and because extremely open sandbox gameplay leads to a lot of hurt feelings and complaints, and because the complicated market economics mean constant dealing with real-world money issues.
All of this can pretty easily limp along for another couple of years, barring another Incarna-level game dev fiasco or another
BOOT.INI-level technical screwup. Sure, potential new players have the uniform feeling, in some cases supported by actual trials, that EVE is not a game worth playing. Sure, existing players are slowly bleeding off in disgruntlement. Sure, there are several promising new space shooters on the horizon: it will take them a few years to compete for EVE's playerbase in any serious way, but one of them is likely to make it eventually.
I'd guess that peak PCUs of about 8,000 is where CCP will pull the plug. That looks to me like late 2020 or early 2021. So that's the time-frame I'm going for. We'll see.