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EVE Online: The Next Steps

March 11, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[Running a game with a powerful and engaged fanbase is tough, and improving it and making it more accessible while attracting new users is even tougher -- and in this interview, EVE Online lead designer Noah Ward explains how he balances these influences.]

EVE Online lead designer Noah Ward has a tough job. Not only does he have to keep hundreds of thousands of players who enjoy the service happy by constantly updating and improving the game for them, he has to try and expand its audience -- while also not ruining the game for its existing fans. He has to figure out how to get the online console shooter Dust 514, under development in CCP's Shanghai studio, integrated with the main MMO without disrupting it -- in fact, make it additive to the experience.

CCP's EVE Online Fanfest, which takes place in Reykjavik, Iceland, is coming up soon, and the team has been working extremely hard on all of these fronts and more. In this extensive interview, the lead designer speaks to Gamasutra about the influences that are leading to changes in the game.

It's important to Ward to make sure he balances out relations with EVE's player government, the Council of Stellar Management, with the need to attract new users.

He also talks about how the company is doing research and metrics-gathering on both player and economic fronts, which is impacting the design of the game, and how social games are influencing his decisions on the design of EVE.

Where is EVE Online right now in terms of expansions?

Noah Ward: So, what just happened -- Incursion's gone out. And at CCP, we're running enterprise Agile. The whole company is pretty much on the same sprint cadence right now, which is pretty good.

Slightly staggered, and when the releases start and finish, but keeping everybody on the same sort of cadence really helps just for organization across the whole company. If you need to move someone at a team, it happens at a boundary.

So, all the things are running full steam in that sense. We're putting that out. Now we're just jumping into the next year of stuff there. And EVE does two big expansions a year, but this year, since Fanfest is in March, we've split this first release cycle up into four sprints and a hardening sprint, then Fanfest and four more sprints and a hardening sprint, then it's the summer expansion.

If we have stuff that's ready to go out, we can put it out at Fanfest and wow the players with it, but that's not necessarily a requirement of this first release cycle. Then we have the other expansion we do in the winter. So, we're just pretty much ready to do that.

The whole agile process has different things. We've done release planning, which is a big meeting where everybody goes in the same room and puts stickies on walls and decides what we're going to do or the first part of the year. I mean, now is a crazy time. We have no idea what's going to happen. You can make plans, but... What is that quote. "Plans are worthless, but planning is essential," or whatever. And they never survive first contact with the enemy.

So, yeah, we've got big plans. We're just going to have to see. Come March, when we've done the first part of this release, we're going to be able to have a lot clearer picture on what we'll be able to do.

Is that because you'll see what you have achieved via player response?

NW: No, not so much player response, just see how far we are on the technology. So, we're building a lot of stuff for Incarna right now. We've got the awesome-looking characters. We've to a lot of environment art. But the layout of how stuff is and how you interact with it and all that stuff is still yet to be made.

And there's a quality bar that we want to hit, and we don't know where we're going to be, so it's really hard to say how that's going to work. One of the main things that we want to make sure that we really nail is the new player experience, because if we don't nail the new player experience, then it's going to hurt us more than help us to do this whole thing.

We'll say, "Yay, you can walk around," and people have been hearing this for half a decade or whatever, and then this thing comes out... If it falls on its face, then people aren't going to give us a second chance. So, we're cognizant of that, and we don't want to screw that up.

Is that the real goal of Incarna? What is the goal?

NW: Well, our goal for EVE is to be the ultimate sci-fi simulator, and you can't be the ultimate sci-fi simulator if you can't go into dark seedy bars and make shady deals in back corners, if you can only fly around in a space ship... So, you know, there are a lot of goals.

The other thing is we've got a strong message from players, specifically ones who came and went, that didn't like see themselves as a spaceship. I used this example earlier; they wanted to be Han Solo, not the Millennium Falcon. So, we want to let people to do that.

And it's going to be an iterative process, and it's not going to be the perfect ultimate sci-fi simulator on the first go. I've almost been thinking in the very first release, it's almost like an extension of character creation. So, you make your character, your character is awesome, and now you can walk around in a little bit of a thing, and we're going to have to expand on throughout the coming years as we make more and more.

Your game is always touted as unique because unlike many MMOs, it's continuously expanded its audience and continuously expanded its gameplay -- sort of systematically evolved. They're intertwined obviously, in a way.

NW: One of the things that we're really turned on by in the future is just being more introspective and streamlining and improving on the systems we already have. So, EVE is a really complex game with a whole lot of systems. We can only go so far with adding more and more systems before we have to start looking at this and smoothing things out. So, that's what we've been talking about a lot lately.

Of course, you're not going to see that [in Incursion], but this is going to be like our new theme. We've talked about it a bit. We've mentioned it to the CSM [Ed. note: Council of Stellar Management, EVE's player government], and we've mentioned it to players.

And it's always a thing that players are telling us. They want us to start improving older systems, so that's something we're going to focus on in the future. Not dumbing EVE down -- that's not what I'm saying -- but simplifying and removing user pain, taking things and figuring out like the goals of the user and the process they go through, and trying to make it a nicer experience.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Greg Meurders
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I'm not sure how the statements made in this interview can be understood, in light of discrepancies with recent live dev blogs or the recent PC Gamer interview.

It's been nearly 4 years now for Incarna, from the path of Walking in Stations to what it was presented to be, to the limited fallback implementation now presented. With the first delivery of one room. These statements of "Come March, when we've done the first part of this release, we're going to be able to have a lot clearer picture on what we'll be able to do" worry me to no end. Sure, no plan survives contact with company or customers, but considering the hyped expectations we should all be thankful that CCP had the vision to be challenged by their Council of Stellar Management.

The Planetary Interaction case was vastly different from what is presented here, but at least for the first time customers were provided with an iteration on the feature - fortunately, as both deployment as well as adoption was a well demonstrated and absolute failure. I'm unsure how OLAB fits in with the voluntary state of documenting or knowledge management that has been reported by staff?

"But, I mean, at least we're getting in a stage where EVE trailers are played before Tron. I mean, that's a step in the right direction." I apologise should this be misunderstood as a personal engagement, but in light of the impending struggle between the environments of EVE known as spaceships and incarna, the enormous divide between message, presentation and effective deliveries, I'm not sure that is where the attention should be in this year.

Greg Meurders
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Ah, I forgot. The statements of mentions to the CSM, are unfortunately incorrect. It has been the other way around, as visible in the meeting minutes from the sessions between CCP and CSM.

Also, I am unsure where the link to comes from, as that is also incorrect. That is an old customer site, neither accurate nor up to date, as these weeks the elections are taking place for the 6th Term of the Council Of Stellar Management. If one were to provide a link, it would be more suitable to provide a few for insight that are relevant and part of the EVE website. The Jita Park section of the EVE forums are probably the best in that regard.

On another note, I am sorry to notice another possible disconnect. "It's important to Ward to make sure he balances out relations with EVE's player government, the Council of Stellar Management, with the need to attract new users." The CSM as well as most of its members have been instrumental in efforts towards attracting new users, so if it were to be implied or misunderstood that the CSM goes against interests of existing new players and attracting them that should probably be clarified. It should be noted for example that members of the CSM even outside of their interactions with CCP are driving members behind many in game organisations which specifically cater to attracting and guiding new players, like EVE University.

I could understand it in a light of sales versus retention, but considering the impact of the June Summit between CSM and CCP it is safe to say that both were instrumentally served by the CSM more than by CCP, which acquired a better grasp of retention focus in the lessons learned of that summit.

Since CSM was established by CCP as a stakeholder, it has evolved from an experiment, via marketing instrument to now an effective business instrument. Introducing previously unknown concepts such as workflow, accountability, integration in communication, and even examples of collaboration by means of CSM driven crowdsourcing ventures resulting in what is known as "Team Best Friends Forever", a CCP team tasked with building on the fruits of that labour to engage on issues, polishing, minor but deep impact fixes, and more.

It is an interesting use of business instrumentation to follow I must admit, it speaks for CCP that they took the risk, but it is already visible among customers and customer prospects that it is very much worth it. As CCP's CEO Hilmar said "we want the CSM to challenge CCP". That is courage, but also vision, and trust in what CCP built and the potential of that and its customers combined.

Christian Nutt
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You're right that the link is outdated -- it's also, unfortunately, the top Google hit for the CSM, so without closer inspection it seemed to be the correct link (especially given its URL.)

Surprised there isn't a more publicly accessible and obvious "official" web presence.

As regards the intro on the CSM vs. new user issue, that was inelegant phrasing. The point was more about balancing the needs of experienced users with new users. Of course, attracting new users is a need of experienced users.. so they're not mutually exclusive concepts.

Greg Meurders
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Ah, that explains the link. Agreed there should be some sort of landing zone for the general concept. But I imagine that is something for CCP to consider.

Inelegant phrasing, can happen. Is understood. Not mutually exclusive concepts indeed, yet unfortunately it is a bit of a convoluted topic in the CSM / CCP interaction. Suffice to say there is a misunderstanding present, within CCP in regards to both CSM interaction and argumentation on the matter.

Christian Nutt
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As an outside observer (who hasn't devoted a lot of study to the issue) the intricacies of relations between the CSM and CCP are quite opaque. It'd be really quite something to report on actually.

Carole Pivarnik
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A portal page on the EVELopedia has in the works for months now, but that is being created by volunteers from the YARR team and while we've provided design and content feedback, the CSM has no oversight for such a page. Back in June, we suggested a revamp of the poorly structured CSM pages on the EVE O web site so that they contain static baseline CSM information. That request gained no traction.

Unfortunately the transitional membership and voluntary nature of CSM makes it unfeasible for individual CSM members to develop and maintain such sites. It is really CCP's responsibility to do this.

Carole Pivarnik
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Unfortunately, Mr. Ward talks the talk, but does not walk the walk when it comes to the CSM. As CSM5 Chair, I feel compelled to observe that outside of communications with CSM in a few sessions at the October and December Summits in Iceland, he has not had a single meaningful dialog with the CSM on Incarna or any other issue related to EVE features and direction. Many of his statements in this article address process changes that were in fact heavily influenced by the CSM.

For example, in a lengthy dialog with EVE Online’s senior producer, Arnar Hrafn Gylfason, the CSM advocated strongly that Incursions be released in stages, despite initial reluctance by CCP to take that approach. When it proved to be successful and resulted in praise from both the CSM and the players, it was adopted for Incarna.

CSM5’s key message at the June Summit was “Commit to Excellence”. We implored CCP to focus on fixing existing content rather than continue pursuing “new, shiny.” The fact that they are showing more and more commitment to doing so is a direct result of the extreme dissatisfaction with CCP demonstrated by their customers in response to the June Minutes.

Related to having perspective on new players’ needs, new players have a voice on the CSM if they choose to vote for people who are committed to representing them. Two members of CSM5 held leadership positions in arguably two of EVE’s biggest “new player training” corporations: EVE University and Agony Unleashed. The potential impact on new players has always been part of game change discussions with CCP. Unfortunately, being a productive CSM member requires a lot of game knowledge. You can’t have insightful discussions about the impact of prospective game changes without it. There is simply no getting around that fact, and no way to realistically coach less experienced players through such discussions. This may be frustrating for new players, but it does not have to be isolationist because most CSM delegates would welcome the assistance and support of new players, and that is a good way for new players to integrate themselves into the CSM process.

Mr. Ward confusingly lumps the roles of focus groups, stakeholders and product/feature pilot tests into his response on page two of this article. The CSM is a stakeholder group which represents the interests and voice of the community. That is very different from a focus group brought together to … well … FOCUS on a single topic. It is also different from pilot tests conducted to stress test or user test features for playability, stability, or other reasons.

The CSM has evolved markedly in both approach and scope, particular during CSM5’s term. The CSM is the only stakeholder that works on behalf of the players, and it is commendable that CCP has been willing to continue to support the CSM “experiment” despite some CSM asking and insisting on answers to some very tough questions. There is no doubt that players are beginning to realize that the CSM is their voice. Roughly 40K votes were cast for CSM5 candidates. Already, three days into a two week voting period for CSM6, 25K+ votes have been cast. Whether this election’s vote totals exceed that of CSM5 remains to be seen and is of interest related to observing whether EVE customers have moved further away from EVE as an immersive environment and emerging dynamic or not. However, it is going to be interesting to watch how CSM6 continues the work as tasked by Hilmar (CCP’s CEO) and whether they will have better success in engaging certain sides of CCP. After all, we are all part of the same emerging dynamic.

For some idea of what CSM5 accomplished and did during their 10-month term, click the following link:

Rob Allegretti
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CSM is a goodwill gesture from CCP. Before discounting how they implement suggestions from the council, people should note that there is no requirement for a game to take any action to give the users a voice.

I agree, CCP should smooth out some things. Jita markets, jump lag, huge fleet battles, they all cause issues. I've had ships lost in completely empty systems because I apparently chose the wrong millisecond to click 'Jump'. There is a robust petition/grievance system in place, and it has yet to let me down(though it's anything but speedy).

I've been playing since 2004 and I don't see myself stopping anytime soon. Can't wait for the DUST to settle!

Greg Meurders
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There are substantial differences between instruments like a focus group and an integrated stakeholder.

In the case of EVE there is a requirement for the game to take action in giving the users a voice: commercial interests.

Not a goodwill gesture :P But smart business.

Rob Allegretti
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I don't care how much complaining there is from the peanut galleries, EVE is still the shizzle when it comes to MMOs.


Greg Meurders
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Excellent message to CCP yes, agreed. Let's hope for less monkey behaviour from them =)

Joshua Popkes
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While being a member of the Eve community myself, I must point to the fact that you're statement was ultimately biased. Eve is a niche MMO, niche in the complexity, niche in the 'learning cliff', niche in the theme... While I can't agree wholly with your post of Eve being the "shizzle" I can give you the fact that it fits a specific persona very well.

As long as CCP slows down and actually takes the time to listen to the people who pay their salaries Eve will continue to maintain it's steady hold on the "internet spaceship" market.

The main sticking point with CCP that I've run across in my 2 years in Eve is CCP's complete disregard for what the players are asking for. To show an example... the CSM and just everyday players have been asking for less lag in the large fleet battles (and they jump through hoops letting CCP know when the majority of these are going to happen) from my understanding CCP is working on it, but they haven't figured it out yet. In the meantime they persistently keep pushing this Incarna thing. I'm just one guy, just one player, and not a devoted 50 hour a week player, but before you continue to push the envelope with what you're game can be, why don't you make sure the existing seams of said envelope are still intact?

Greg Meurders
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Sadly that is the one example which remains hard to quantify, and which over the years has been shrugged off as irrelevant whining.

Which is a shame. Still, thanks to CSM5 CCP was able to understand that not only was their perception partially incorrect, it was also partially incomplete. Something which until that point was written off publicly as "doesn't matter, customers always whine, nobody quits anyway and if they do they are bitter anyway and we can replace them". It should be said that this was never stated by the company however, just by select devs "done" with EVE (and in some ways I can understand them, EVE does have a very tough customer crowd and you need to be pretty communicative and fearless to deal with that). The recent formation of a team specifically investigating lag issues from several angles was a direct consequence of that.

So that is good. It shows that not only is it helpful to engage with a CSM as customer and company, but also that CCP can listen. Yes, 4 years too late on the topic of Incarna, 3 years too late on the topic of abysmall performance perception, but they do listen. And that does say something about them. It takes something, to open yourself up as a company to outsiders looking in.

But, it's worth it.