One of many of EVE Online's space stations.
Icelandic developers CCP are based in the northernmost capital city in the world; tiny, friendly Reykjvik, with its black mountains, expensive beer and icy seas. It's a geologically dramatic backdrop for a community whose continued success is doing much to redefine the landscape of MMOs. This is not a project that has relied on predefined templates for its success, and CCP are forthright in their opinions as to the significance of the directions their project has taken. Now independent and publishing online, CCP are writing their own future with the beautiful and foreboding EVE Online - a game whose beauty, like Iceland itself, is something of an acquired taste.
Answering our many questions on the growth of the iconoclastic space RPG was Nathan Richardsson, who left Iceland Telecom, the company that handles CCP's server hosting and customer support, to become senior producer on the EVE project in early 2004. He first talked a little about the origins of CCP's attitude toward game design – an attitude that has created a game in which real losses are possible.
“The founders had two passions which they wanted to join,” explained Richardsson. “The sci-fi feel and vastness of space from Elite and the social interaction of massively multiplayer and player vs. player gaming from Ultima Online. I should also add that they were quite active PvPers in UO and this is the main reason for our emphasis on PvP. We feel that the emotions involved with losing something of value is just as important as gaining something of value, it makes a very immersive experience. There have to be lows to make the highs more enjoyable. PvP allows us to achieve that.”
It's worth noting that EVE has two strands of character development: one that simply adds skill points hour by hour as the character gets older, and one by way of actively building up assets in game. Learning can only be erased in the very worst situations, but losing assets is all too easy. Huge losses, potentially setting back the accruement of wealth by days, or even weeks, are a regular feature of gaming life in EVE. For this reason alone, the game has seemed awkwardly intimidating to many gamers.
This interest in player versus player competition has set EVE apart from other MMOs. In terms of ruthlessness and the intensity of conflict over the game's resources, no other game comes close. A recent heist, initially an in-game grudge but escalating to a mass infiltration and betrayal in one of the game's player-corporations (guilds), led to the ‘theft' of around $16,000 worth of game assets (based on Ebay prices for traded game cash). All of this took place entirely within the game mechanics, with a touch of out of game collusion. In fact, CCP had always expected players to come up with events like this by themselves. Their faith was not unfounded: events like this are a dramatic illustration of both the commitment of EVE players and the complexity of the game world that allowed them to pull off such a plot. Player alliances, player economies and player wars have emerged in EVE since the earliest weeks of its launch, and with CCP's most recent content patches, which allow for mass player-organization and the creation of player-owned structures, these socio-political machinations have reached a new intensity.
Gamasutra: Are these events a direct result of CCP's (rather vocal) dissatisfaction with contemporary MMOs?
Richardsson: Our strong belief in PvP and a single universe is probably the main differentiator between us and other MMOs. We strongly believe that MMOs should focus on social interaction between people, but many MMOs tend to go in the opposite direction. We don't like instancing and we don't like sharding and we believe that too much focus on player versus environment is taking us more closer to the newly coined term ‘Massively Single Player Games.'
We fully understand the reason behind sharding, instancing and the PvE focus. A lot of players want this kind of experience and these tools are far more commercially viable to fully control the experience and content created. We however decided to take the more difficult path and try to take on those obstacles head-on. It certainly has a lot of unpleasant side effects and EVE will never be a mainstream game. We're complex, we're open ended, we're fully PvP oriented and you can lose six months work in a second. But we believe this is what makes EVE so unique and we're trying to follow this vision and principles as well as we can.
Gamasutra: So CCP has a distinct philosophy with regard to game design?
Richardsson: Power to the players. Nothing compares to a player that is enabled to affect the universe. We create tools for players to create content. For example, a massive alliance of corporations – our versions of guilds – with real, legendary players, leading them, controlling large areas of space and building up infrastructure is truly awesome content. We can never create that, but we can create the environment and tools enabling to happen.
We're also very iterative in our work and keep continuous feedback cycles on the features we do, then regularly improve them based on that feedback. The community is an incredible source for how to improve the game and what they do within the game gives us constant inspiration for what we should implement next. Being so open-ended means the players do what they want and we try to keep up and add support and tools to take emerging behavior further. Embrace and evolve are the keywords here.
Gamasutra: The activities of the players really do seem to have had a major effect on the direction of EVE – the loophole of ‘can mining' (which made mining asteroids far more lucrative than CCP had intended) is well documented as an unforeseen consequence of players exploring their environment – but to what extent do you think that the players actually define the developmental direction of EVE?
Richardsson: The players are the foundation for what we do next in EVE. We follow what they do and listen to their dreams and again: ‘embrace and evolve.' When playing ourselves, we try to put us in the position of “what would I really like to do here?” and then try to develop that.
We set the course a long time ago on what we wanted to do and we are very open about ideas. Openness creates a certain atmosphere where early in the development cycle you get player reactions and suggestions, which help make the feature better. It's kind of like “open source” development of ideas and as a result, players have a lot to say about the features.
Of course, it's not all as peachy as this sounds. We do lots of mistakes and in most cases we simply can't do what players ask for. We regularly have to do bad things, nerfing some aspect of the game or changing it. It's constant balancing and we often piss people off, but it's a necessary evil with PvP games, you always have to be on your guard for imbalance and as a result, we lose a lot of customers for it. But it's something we accept for following our vision.
Cargo ships shipping out into the great beyond.
Gamasutra: Many people have criticized the limited number of quests and missions in EVE. I seem to remember a few of the reviews at launch complaining that there might never be much to do in the game.
Richardsson: Yes, we're only 50 people here at CCP and we haven't had the personnel to create very much PvE content. We've also been more focused on creating tools for the players to create content than us creating content for them, but recently we've stepped up content creation and we realize that we must supply a higher level of PvE content to be competitive. It's also part of player behavior, we see that even the most hardcore PvP players want some form of PvE experience, destroying huge NPC installations or working for an NPC faction to be able to buy faction-specific equipment from them. We are however looking into creating an environment and incentive for players themselves to create “dungeons” and missions for other players.
Gamasutra: And player owned space-installations are part of that.
Richardsson: Player owned structures which create resources for a player needs to be defended. Since it's profitable, it will be attacked by players that want to either take that profit from you or own the location himself. By creating more locations where you can put player owned structures and defend it in more innovative ways, players start creating content for other players.
Gamasutra: Even without extensive PvE experiences EVE has managed to attract a large complement of risk-taking, dedicated players – there were over 14,000 concurrent users online together just a few nights ago. Is CCP surprised by this success?
Richardsson: Yes, we're always surprised with EVE. That also makes it more fun to work on. Having such a steady growth is not something we directly expected, our churn is incredibly low and our players stay for very long times. We believe that the community and large social structures within the game are the main reasons for this. Many play MMO's to be with friends and to achieve common goals with them. The original plans were off the charts of course, it included world domination, bestowing world peace, the cure for cancer and the question to the answer 42… (A reference to Douglas Adams' answer to Life, The Universe & Everything that has a special significance to EVE, since it was the arbitrary number on which the algorithm that auto-generated the galaxy structure was based.)
We quickly became more realistic as the project evolved and according to our down-to-earth version of our plans, we're above the projections. We expected growth to stop and lose a considerable chunk to World of Warcraft. Blizzard is a very strong brand with sci-fi players but fortunately we still had positive growth. However, we played WoW quite a lot ourselves and we noticed a drop in our concurrent user numbers so we think a lot of people tried it out. Now we see them coming back in droves.
Gamasutra: Of course EVE's community is miniscule compared to WoW, representing just 1% of Blizzard's total subscriber base. EVE isn't for everyone; its mix of economics and complex real-time space combat can only expect to appeal to a limited number of players, but often those are players who are likely to be dissatisfied with a simpler fantasy game like WoW.
Richardsson: We think Blizzard have considerably increased the market for people that play MMOs. We get a lot of players that now have played another MMO before that want to try it out in space, earlier it was mostly newcomers to the MMO's that were more looking for a sci-fi space games.
Gamasutra: CCP seems to have benefited from become independent, adding over 20,000 subscribers since moving to online-only publishing. But do you think you needed that publisher push to get off the ground? Do you think games can effectively be sold simply using the net these days?
Richardsson: We couldn't have done this without support from our publisher (the now defunct games wing of Simon & Schuster) and their producer, Mike Wallis. Having said that, being our own master has contributed to a lot of our recent success and we feel we are doing so many things which we otherwise could not have done if we were working for a publisher. This can range from utilizing marketing opportunities to implementing a less-than-politically correct feature, which we feel fit with the cruel nature of the game but might not exactly be the nicest thing to do.
We're more than confident in the net being a solid distribution method for games, both technically and financially. The technical aspects doesn't need to be proven by us, just look at the illegal distribution scene, they have the games even before the computer store across the street. That's what I call quick and effective distribution.
Financially, commerce over the Internet has matured very much and people are more trustworthy of using their credit cards. We're probably in a more unique situation where we have already internet-savvy people playing our game, but eventually this should spread out and be a more accepted way of buying games and software.
Gamasutra: So far you've stuck to a single game, but do you have anything else planned for the near future, or are you dedicated solely to EVE?
Richardsson: We're currently only working on EVE but we have a plans for at least one more game in the near future in addition to any sequels to EVE. That would however be a totally new team and separately funded, the EVE team will continue to grow. We have more than five expansions worth of features that we want to implement and the list is constantly growing.
I can easily see us having more than two games in commercial service. We have investors eager to participate in ventures with us and we think we have a lot of good things to bring to the table. We're all gamers and we have lots of games that we'd like to make. We often get those “wouldn't it be cool to make” moments; it's just a matter of time.
Gamasutra: So in the meantime we'll see EVE deliver ever more complex spacewar?
Richardsson: We think that constant evolution of MMOs is required. We have the full team still working on taking EVE further – and all our expansions are included in the subscription. We consider it something which should be included in the subscription, because that's what you're paying for: Evolution.