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The Icelandic Model of MMO Development

May 19, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[While most MMOs concentrate on developing linear content, EVE Online follows a systems-based design which allows for sandbox gameplay and player agency -- and this article, from EVE expert player/spymaster 'The Mittani', outlines why he believes its subscriber base continues to rise.]

The MMO industry has changed dramatically from its infancy in the Ultima Online era. With the accelerating proliferation of MMO gaming into the mainstream of the global entertainment industry, the revenue expectations from these exceedingly complex titles has spiraled out of control. It is no longer enough to pitch a MMO with the end goal of merely turning a profit; comparisons with titles that have the GDPs of small nation-states are inevitable.

After I gave my talk at GDC discussing EVE Online's metagame, I encountered a number of developers who were disheartened by the dominance of the blockbuster business model -- its incredible cost, its astonishing risk and rate of failure, and the linear content-based gameplay it has engendered.

Yet there is another model of MMO development, and one that's already proven successful in the industry. Both less risky and less glamorous, the "Icelandic Model" of MMO development offers salvation to aspiring developers who don't have $75 million in startup capital at hand.

Blockbusters and "Big Content"

Launching a MMO isn't an easy business. The vast majority of subscription-model MMOs fail, with the signature "death spike" of a surge of players at launch and reciprocal mass exodus once the first free month of playtime ends, followed by a humiliating and slowly declining subscriber plateau.

Corporate resources are re-allocated away from the ailing title, and eventually the plug is pulled on the servers. As the market has become increasingly competitive, the life cycle of MMOs has grown ever shorter.

The ultimate question of survival for a MMO is exceedingly simple: what makes the gameplay a continuous experience for the player, rather than a linear path with an endpoint? A vast oversimplification, some might say, yet it is precisely this question which is too often put off or ignored in the preparation of a title for launch.

A game with a certain amount of content and a linear path leaves a player with nothing else to do once the end of the path is reached except re-treading it with a new character. By contrast, a game which has planned for and emphasized the endgame from the outset ensures that its players have a motive to stick around after the first free month.

As more companies attempt to emulate the success of World of Warcraft, "big content" as a design model has come to reign supreme. The idea here is essentially that other MMO launches have failed because they didn't provide enough content for the players. BioWare's upcoming The Old Republic project is an excellent example of this; they have boasted of having created thousands of hours of fully voice-acted plot.

This is certainly one way around the problem of players "running out of game" inside of the first month; however, it requires a tremendous amount of capital and pre-launch investment. I intend to play TOR and expect to enjoy the hell out of it, but most aspiring developers simply do not have the money to follow BioWare's lead.

MMO launches have often skimped on content at launch to their detriment. It isn't a shock that this happens because content (be it in the form of quests, raids, dungeons, or whatever) is extraordinarily expensive in both man-hours and creative spark. Boring content is often just as expensive as engaging content, which requires the kind of narrative genius that can't be easily recreated.

Stopgap methods for plugging content holes, such as randomly generated quests, have been attempted but these have proven a failure; the most common complaint of players in such games is that the random content ends up being repetitive and stale.

If you are attempting to create a blockbuster MMO, your greatest difficulty is creating enough engaging content, and your worst nightmare is the endgame when that content runs out.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Haig James Toutikian
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Great Article!

Funny, I just read the June edition of PC gamer. It had a long article about CCP (the creators of EVE) and how they have a yearly event that invites elected members of the community to come and present the top 10 demands of the community to the developer. They then prioritize the demands, debate about it, then incorporate them in the patches/expansions.

I highly recommend the read, it complements this article wonderfully! :)

Jason Attard
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Every time I read something about CCP I find myself compelled to watch their music video again.

Warning: Contains some explicit lyrics

Thomas Eidson
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Many recent MMO's may seem to ignore or not have end game content. It's not that end game has been ignored or put off, but that it was done poorly. I understand the gist of what you're trying to say with this article, but I think the flaw is more along the lines of focusing on too much up-front content. Your character growth and content path for that growth makes up a large part of your demonstrations to keep your budget available (impress your executives/investors). You can make systems that are broad for end game content, which is a good point. Large systems do not necessarily have to be for a sandbox.

Sandbox games typically lack direction and have a hap-hazard storyline that the player does not get presented well. This is the case with Eve Online and many other sandbox games (Ultima Online, Second Life). You may or may not experience parts of direction and story in sandbox games. A new player does not get engaged and impressed to play them long. These are some of the (many) reasons why those types of MMO's do not have a higher player base. Lack of direction and story are crucial issues to address for an MMO, though.

My advice to overcome huge budgets and massive amounts of features: Do not do it. Make your games small with a core concept and grow them over time (Eve Online has done well with feature growth). You can end up with a concept that you learn early that does not work with a small team and a small budget. Or... You can end up with massive amount of concepts that did not work and cost your company a fortune.

Christian Nutt
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@Haig, Petur Johannes Oskarsson, one of the CCP guys, gave a talk on that -- the Council of Stellar Management -- at GDC Austin last year, and I wrote it up for Gamastura:

Anybody who's curious ought to read that.

EVE is one of the most fascinating games around right now, IMO, and I don't play it.

Chris Howe
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I find it amazing that it runs on a single server. I wonder how big their user base can get before they have to buy a second.

Andrew Grapsas
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It doesn't run on a single server. It's a single continuous universe. Each sector (is that the name? I don't play EVE) has its own server node. I don't have the links, but there are some great talks about how they do it all and about their utilization of stackless python.

Bart Stewart
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Leigh Alexander reported here ( in 2007 that CCP was using a cluster of more than 420 CPU cores in IBM System x and BladeCenter servers to process over 150 million database transactions every day. (All housed in London, if I recall correctly from other stories.)

I shudder to think what they're up to now....

But the single-universe architecture of EVE Online raises an interesting question: is that another design feature that's required for "start small and grow" MMOs to be successful?

Kevin Kissell
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I have played EVE online for a few months, and I really like the fact that one person out of 350,000 player can affect the universe.

Simon Ludgate
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I think Chris means that it runs on a single "server" in the sense that you only log in to one "world" or "shard".

However, I do wonder a bit about the original author's wider scope of sandbox-style end-game content. Aside from PVP, what else is there? When I think of the strong end-games in online games, they've always been PVP or content blockbuster: Planetside and it's endless battles for Auraxis, Dark Age of Camelot and it's old (and new) frontiers, or Everquest and World of Warcraft with expansion after expansion of raid content.

Alexander suggests smaller devs focus on end-game, but what exactly can devs do other than PVP? He mentions A Tale in the Desert, but I don't recall that game having any end-game at all; it was just a series of tasks and the server reset; wasn't it? I've been struggling with this question myself, but I can't really come up with any viable way to keep players playing other than having them mindlessly shoot each other.

Matthew Woodward
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The critical thing is not to have the shooting(/hacking/whatever) be mindless. The thing that really drives a sandbox endgame is co-ordinated, goal-driven conflict at as many levels as possible. This does not mean that every player involved is actively involved in direct combat; rather, it means that every player involved is actively working towards a goal that is defined relative to the performance of other (groups of) players.

In, say, a hacking MMO, this could mean gaining control of, and holding onto, the largest or most valuable servers - but an individual player could simply be churning out optimized code without every directly competing with another player. So long as that code is being used in the greater struggle, the player is involved in the group goal, and shares in a group victory. This gives them motivation to continue to do what may, in this case, amount to a reasonably engaging minigame, because the context it's set in is sufficiently powerful to motivate that work.

I'm not sure it's possible to sustain that kind of goal generation without competition between players at some level.

Joshua McDonald
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Good question/comment, Simon, and I believe I have a partial answer: The key is to look at non-MMO games that offer long-term playability without PvP. There are a few ways I've seen this done:

1. Deep skill-based mechanics with great challenge potential: Games like Unreal Tournament or DotA are known as multiplayer games but both have huge followings that play primarily against bots and have done so for a long period of time. I plan on writing a blog post within the next week that explains my opinion of the "why" on this, but for now, the fact that these groups exist shows that this is an effective method. Another example is in games that offer survival modes, which often get a lot of life out of very little content.

2. Mechanics to make leveling a new character more interesting/rewarding: Best example I can think of is actually the SNES brawler: "Knights of the Round". Killing the same type of enemy in sequence substantially increased the XP gained for each one. You probably wouldn't implement this mechanic exactly, but creating a deeper sub-goal dramatically increases the enjoyment of playing through the same content again.

It's actually sad that WoW has simply accepted that leveling is boring, so instead of trying to make it more interesting, they just give you stuff to make it faster (heirlooms, refer-a-friend bonuses, nerfing enemies, etc.). Considering the amount of time people spend repeating the end-game content, the lifespan of a game could be multiplied greatly if people enjoyed doing the same thing early-game.

3. Tangible benefits to having multiple end-level characters: Imagine if a super-cool item could only be made by five different classes controlled by the same player working together. As long as this was combined with item #2 above (so that leveling the additional characters wouldn't be a chore), it would greatly enhance game lifespan.

4. Good randomization: We just had an article on this. It primarily talked about rogue-likes, but the principles found there apply to a lot of other games, as well.

5. Achievements/Collectibles: I hate suggesting this, but by all evidence, it certainly works.

I could go on, but I think this comment is already long enough.

Robert Gould
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As they mention at the end, Steampunk (still no real successful game), and Cyberpunk games are still open for the grab. Especially Cyberpunk. Hope one comes out sooner or later.

Anyways with current tech and cloud services you could easily roll out a niche game like the "initial EVE" (unpolished) in a year or less. Problem is marketing vs. clout, and building up a critical mass of core fans (1000+), in this day and age when people's attention spans are measured in minutes or seconds

Mike Engle
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Well the core of what holds players' interest is typically summed up as "varying the pattern". PVP games hold players interest simply due to how dynamic an element human interaction is -- a human opponent isn't wholly predictable. PVE coop leverages this dynamic too, so it's not like PVP is the only popular mechanic (far from it, there are certainly more WOW PVE'rs than EVE PVP'rs.)

Joshua's "randomization" is merely one of the more efficient ways of varying the pattern. More efficient than creating new content (which also varies the pattern.)

Designing the systems which cause this randomization is therefore incredibly important, and the one part where the articles "design systems, not content" is totally correct.

However as a player EVE's systems felt incredibly lackluster to me. I was discouraged from a potentially fun activity (PVP) because I was a newer character, because PVP was about numerical superiority, because new chars only have one apparent playstyle in PVP, and because PVP incurred substantial costs (at least to a new player.)

I was profoundly disappointed by the crafting system. Products being consumed? That's great! Consumption creates economy. But to have virtually no interesting gameplay at any point in the process of gathering resources and turning them into products (and in fact, to have resource-gathering be one of the single dullest activities in any game ever)? Not so great.

So while I agree that designing systems (both the core systems, and the dynamic elements which cause those systems to remain interesting in the long-term) is way more efficient than creating content, inevitably I feel that EVE didn't offer interesting systems to engage with. (But kudos for having perhaps the best artistic aesthetic in the entire industry! Seriously, the visual design of EVE has been staggering from the start, and has only improved with age.)

Andre Gagne
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The thing about EVE online is that it tends to draw the hardcore crowd only. I wonder how many people are actually behind the 300,000 players quote? or people usually don't talk about the 95% male player statistic.

I wonder if you could classify Facebook games as system based games? Their problem is that without PVP (which I wager draws more males than females) they have crap tonnes of churn.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I tried Eve Online. While certain things amazed me at first, like the fact that they managed to create a true "society" in the game, where almost everything is regulated by the players, its the lack of content that killed it for me. Almost everything is automated. When fighting you cannot see you're enemies most of the time, so you're just watching numbers. Weapons fire in any direction so people either chase or circle each others. So combat gets dull really fast. And then travelling/exploration is also very tedious. Sure, the screens looks gorgeous at first. But every system is the same, every enemy the same. Everything is generic. Everything. Honestly I ended up browing the web 90% of the time when playing.

Funny story, most of the people I know who play Eve are young parents. The game is easy to play with 1 arm while feeding a baby or rocking him to sleep. As everything is automated it requires very little attention.

Kevin Carpenter
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It's a cutthroat pvp game wrapped around an economics simulator with a very unforgiving cost of failure, as even though you can prevent all your effort from being wiped out for a relatively small cost (cloning yourself), even insuring your ships doesn't do you much good at a certain level, since you won't recover the costs for the higher end materials.

Some folks (a small number of them) really dig that high cost of failure, since I guess they need that to validate the time they spend on the game, which contrary to some of the comments can be very substantial.

However, even though it's not my cup of tea, I wish there were dozens of niche games like this out there, since this is exactly the sort of thing that the industry needs more of. Rather than some one size fits all monstrosity like WoW (which I play), go for a game that does a very specific number of things very well, and you'll get your loyal playerbase.

Joe Random
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Surprised noone has mentioned Darkfall yet -- it's a sandbox fantasy title along the lines of how EVE was at launch (minimalistic content, friendly-fire, full loot, no safe zones, single server shard per continent), and in the year since its release has managed to attract a small, devoted fanbase. Will be interesting to see if Aventurine (developers of DF) have the smarts to evolve their sandbox in the same manner.

Shava Nerad
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@andre Actually, we've been talking a great deal about that 95% number this past month -- the very active Eve blogging community has been actually running a contest asking how to get more women interested in Eve.

As one of the women who loves Eve because of the depth of the economic/political game (and well, yeah, I like to blow sh*t up) and the requirement for consistent cooperation in large corporations/alliances, I think a lot of the lack of female players has to do with CCP marketing it as a space PVP game. There's a lot more to it than the pew pew.

@kevin There isn't an unforgiving cost of failure. Just don't fly what you can't afford to lose. Unless you're a corporation fielding capital ships in null space (translation: you've got the Death Star and are planning to dominate the universe), you're probably flying something that you can refit with less than an evening's income. If you aren't, you need to figure out a way to make more ISK (in-game currency) or lower the cost of fitting your ships.

Bigger is not better in Eve. Small ships are agile and hard to hit. Big ships are tough nuts to crack. But a skilled pilot in a cheap ship can take down a much bigger, more expensive ship.

@matthieu I bet those young parents are carebears (or maybe mission runners). You can't dandle a baby and fight in Eve. But one of the great things about Eve is that industrialists (miners, manufacturers, researchers,...) are not only respected and useful, but venerated by the PvP pilots. Having a good mix of industrial and military folks in a corporation is cost effective, and Eve is all about what you can do within time and money budgets.

Finally, this is the best skill system I know. You train in real time, and I seem to remember it would take something like 50 years to learn all the skills. Next week, we get a whole new series of skills for planetary interaction with the Tyrannis release. There are pilots who do just one thing -- say, explore remote systems, or mine specialty minerals. And then there are a half dozen PvP roles (interdictor, tackler, tank, sniper,...) with various gradations. A player who's been in game for a while can have a lot of latitude to swap roles on demand, just by jumping to another fitted out ship in her hanger.

In my opinion, anyone who hasn't spent 3-4 months in a good corp in a good alliance has no clue what the game really is. Much like real life, if you don't study the politics, the science, the subtle things of how things work, you can be a grunt forever and not know there's anything more to it. Eve isn't for everyone, but it would be for a lot more people if there were some way to get the message across in a flash banner on a game web site.

Bart Stewart
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"[EVE Online] would be for a lot more people if there were some way to get the message across"

I'm not so sure. As with other examples of the belief that "people would love X if they knew about it," this ignores the real possibility that they do know about it and have rejected it.

Although EVE is not entirely pew-pew, that's what everything else is wrapped around and it takes virtually no time for new players to correctly realize it. The obvious attention given to combat over the indescribably dull experience of mining is just one clue.

New players are also capable of learning quickly that while some casual solo play is possible in EVE, it's not really supported -- the only way to see most of the game's content is to join a corp. EVE's problem is that not everybody finds enjoyment in gang-related activities.

I think it's very possible that people come to EVE, learn a few skills, try mining and get bored, venture into low-sec space and get pod-killed, realize that ganging up with a bunch of strangers is the only way to survive long enough to see the game's high-end content, and then rationally decide that kind of thing isn't for them. As in hardcore Ultima Online, perhaps there's just a upper limit of people who are ever going to enjoy games that permit random PKing.

Please note that I'm not blindly bashing EVE. I think it's a Good Thing that there are games that provide real alternatives to the increasingly stale conventions of the MMOG genre.

But I would say that the core design of EVE as a non-consensual PvP game, as well as EVE's relatively hard science fiction setting, complicate the thesis that starting small can work for anyone. It's hard to know the amount to which the SF setting and the free-for-all PvP have contributed to or hindered EVE's commercial success, versus its start-small-and-grow-carefully business model.

Even so, I support the start-small model since by limiting financial risk it should increase the number and variety of MMOGs available for consumers to try. It's great that EVE has done well under that model; I hope it inspires other developers to give it a shot.

(Side note: I actually wrote an article on this subject of launch-big-and-start-dying versus start-small-and-grow back in 2007:
iption-curves-for.html , so I'm definitely on board with the start-small idea.)

Alejandro QuanMadrid
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I found this article ( that sort of responds to this EVE Online article and I was wondering everyone's thoughts. He mainly says that instead of creating additional content, developers should just work on a way to make a game really social and interactive for the players so they can create their own content. What do you think?

Michael Wenk
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I don't know if I would say that the CCP way of making an MMO should be emulated. The main reason that EVE has survived as long as it has is that there's no real competition. Also, I have to wonder how profitable EVE is. Sure its subscriptions have increased, but I wonder how much revenue has. What I mean by that is CCP has been running promotions for extra accounts. They basically give you about 100$ worth of game play for 50$. It also causes an individual player leaving to have a relatively high cost to CCP in terms of revenue.

The biggest problem with EVE's sandbox model is that only a few players really participate in directing the sandbox. So if what you find fun is empire building, you really are out of luck. It will take years of hard work, or incredibly good luck to be able to make any lasting changes.

Another problem with EVE is that the fun to work ratio is tilted entirely in the wrong direction. Taking something as simple as gathering a resource takes a ton of logistical work, and then ends up being akin to watching paint dry. Or playing a WWII sub simulator w/o the ability to compress time. It is like real work in that it is for the most part not enjoyably.

Say what you want about WOW, but it for the most part makes the grinding of leveling up and acquiring stuff fun. I think that is the primary reason why it has been so successful. And I don't think that's all content. WOW's game systems are for the most part a pleasure to use. I cringe at some of the crap CCP has put in EVE.

So I would say that unless you have a niche with little competition, and you can come up with a game system that caters to shall we say the less noble in people, I would not emulate CCP in the least.

Avguste Antonov
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I agree with the author.

Not only that, but Eve has the best devs and as far as I am concerned, the best customer service in the business.

Mark Harris
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CCP's business model is intriguing, and the game itself is fascinating. It's not for everyone, sure, but the human interplay is fantastic and complex. I played very briefly, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.

I agree with Bart that it would be great to see more companies adopt this kind of sustainable business model for niche MMOs that service a certain fan base. Not every game needs to be WoW sized to make money and bring countless hours of enjoyment to a certain gaming population.

Shava Nerad
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@bart -- warfare is all about pew-pew if you are infantry. To get to strategy, you need to study and gain rank. This is why players who start Eve on the 15 day trial fall away -- to a grunt, it's just another pew-pew game. This is, unfortunately, realistic. Feed them BS and keep them in the dark?

On the other hand, what CCP proved was that, at least at a certain point in early MMO history, a horribly steep, REALISTIC, sometimes unfun learning curve that lost lots of new players made a stronger organically grown large sustainable community.

It could never have happened with venture funding, but there it is.

@julien I sometimes wonder, honestly, how intentional this was in the early days of Eve. But then, look at Face of Mankind who is trying to follow CCP's path, letting the players create a true society, and not gaining critical mass (IMO) in a competitive market.

It may be that Eve, like EQ, is a product of a certain stage of evolution of the market. IMO CCP's change Eve to fit the times far more aggressively than SOE updates EQ, but in both cases, a strong community has kept a game going that probably *couldn't* get started today due to market pressures.

CCP is probably my favorite game company out there, too. Responsive, adept at social media before "social media" became a real term, experimental (and willing to back out or fix mistakes).

And, this year, a woman is chair of the CSM, the player-elected advisory to CCP's Eve team. She and nine others will get flown to Iceland (from a half dozen countries, as I remember) to consult on upcoming releases.

One CSM delegate has even been banned from the game for using his CSM confidentially revealed info to manipulate in-game markets. How true to life is that? :)

A friend of mine and I were talking at a SF con, and I said, "Why is it that all these folks who read these elaborate world-building SF series aren't getting involved in the RL politics around them? They obviously understand and enjoy the strategy and story in these books..." And my friend, a grizzled Vietnam vet who had been (as I have been) active in RL politics, said, "They are all afraid of what they might do if they got involved, and what the real world might do to them."

Truer words may rarely have been spoken. There are a lot of refugees from RL business and politics in the high levels of engagement in Eve -- some fleeing RL engagement, and some seeking to employ their extensive talents in management, business, markets, and politics/organizing in their off hours, in an environment where it gives pleasure but has little RL risk.

Another friend of mine, an accounting professor, defines virtual world economies as "toy economies." To paraphrase him, you can play with a toy train, but any mistakes you make will not kill anyone in the real world. These are learning toys, but also toys for experts who just like to play in a safe sandbox with the things they know and love.

And sometimes, blow sh*t up...:) It's therapy.