The primary issue is less “what is wrong with EVE” (although there’s plenty there to deal with) and more one of “what’s the missing element”?
It’s not a question of balancing mechanics or tweaking the numbers. The primary difference between a young new game and an old developed one is the sense of possibility and potential.
When a game isn’t completely mature, gamers have this sense of optimism and exploration that leads them to gloss over the problems and strike out in some direction, hoping to find the mother lode of gaming satisfaction.
At that stage of the game, you have a bunch of innovators, explorers, exploiters, adventurers, empire builders and dreamwreckers all seeking their potential future and learning how to master these “strange new worlds”. People of this nature tend to be a bit more creative, a bit more daring, a bit more interesting, a bit more flamboyant.
So new games enjoy a honeymoon period where the best and the brightest they’re ever likely to attract are all in the game doing new things in new ways. It leads to that nostalgic era everyone refers to as “back in the day” when they’re talking about how can-flipping, or PKing, or awoxing or wardecs or fleet battles in cruisers “made EVE what it was”.
It wasn’t really any of those things… it was just the “new car smell” of a game that hadn’t been solved to several decimals of accuracy.
What would bring people back? Take a look at what has stirred interest the past 5 or 6 years (either positive or negative). Alpha clones, Citadels, Triglavian Invasion, Blackout, Era of Chaos, Scarcity etc. Yes, those things mostly didn’t achieve much in the long run (various reasons), but they sparked a lot of interest because they held of hint of “something new, something different”.
The primary thing that’s missing in EVE, that would bring people back or make them stay, is this sense that EVE still has new directions to explore and that CCP has a vision for opening new vistas on the horizon.
People are inherently driven to conquer new territory (metaphorically). Once it’s all been mapped, the drive turns elsewhere.