Space trading and combat-based PC MMO EVE Online has just passed its fifth anniversary, with that rarest of things for an online subscription game, year on year growth - with 220,000 active subscribers as of the end of 2007.
The game's Executive Producer Nathan Richardsson joined developer CCP in 2004 when they were "were just about 30 people in Reykjavik" – the studio now has 350 people, with additional offices in Atlanta and Shanghai, and 50 more people expected to be added by the end of 2008.
In this wide-ranging interview with Gamasutra, Richardsson looks at EVE's progress to date, gameplay comparisons with starkly different market leader World Of Warcraft, the lack of female players in the game, and much more.
What is it that makes EVE Online specifically different from your average MMO?
Nathan Richardsson: We believe that EVE has some fundamental foundations that differentiate it from other games. First and foremost is the single-shard world where everyone is part of the same universe. This enables a player-driven economy because we achieve the world scale required to make it effective.
In turn, the economy is the foundation for all interaction -- well, mostly for conflict -- but let’s call it interaction. You need players to gather and defend resources, to process them and manufacture ships and weapons out of them which are in high demand on the market since it’s so costly to defend the resources.
With such a large world, very large player organizations can flourish -- EVE has as many as 3,000 pilots in some organizations working towards common goals against other organizations of the same scale.
There's an intense political atmosphere and social networks are an important part of the game -- EVE is free-form, you set your own goals and it’s “class”-less too.
What have you been up to recently?
NR: The summer expansion, EVE Online: Empyrean Age, will give players the opportunity to support one of the four major empires with the introduction of factional warfare - we’ve also been working on the economic and sociopolitical front by hiring an expert economist and creating the Council of Stellar Management.
So what aspects of the economy are you looking at, and why hire an in-world economist?
NR: The economy is what drives the ecosystem within EVE and the sheer scale of it enables us to view the universe in a new light.
We can apply a lot of real-world theories to what happens with EVE and our economist, Dr. Eyjólfur "Eyjo" Guðmundsson, has been using the same theories to speculate what would happen with gameplay, resources changes and introduction of new features.
It’s been more retrospective work so far but we’re now looking towards future, hopefully taking the economy to new levels.
EVE Online's economy is based on earning and trading EVE’s currency, interstellar credits (ISK). There are a variety of ways to gain ISK, including mining and offering services, and players in EVE Online constantly struggle to out-produce, out-purchase and out-procure their rivals.
The vastness of the in-game economy that fuels conflict leaves players thirsty for whatever information can lead them to smarter in-game business decisions, often making or breaking the in world corporations, and Dr. Eyjo monitors EVE’s economy in terms of GDP, inflation, demographics and general economic growth.
With such a massive economy, what's your take on the concept of virtual property?
NR: We don’t allow real money trade of our in-game assets and our customer support team is quite diligent in banning people that attempt to do that. You can certainly put a real value on items as a result of your effort put into acquiring it, but that applies to any game!
The fact that you can steal or destroy assets from someone else is part of EVE. Some cases of “crime” are bigger than others but in the end it’s about trust. You have to give trust to receive trust and that can backfire within EVE as it can everywhere else. We can’t police your trust. We do however provide tools so that you can have limited trust relationships, making you less vulnerable.
So you take a hands-off approach, but do you see any more laws or adaptations to Eve Online to stop the kind of large scale corporate heists that make headlines?
NR: The Council of Stellar Management is in an excellent position to propose changes, new tools and other measures to help players police themselves, both within and between organizations so that you can empower people in limited trust relationships without having to give away the keys to the chastity belt.
In the future, more policing or some form of “court” can certainly be investigated, but in practice that model will always be orders of magnitude more difficult and less elegant than good tools for players to successfully manage their organizations.
Along with the Council of Stellar Management, you noted plans to set up an Internal Affairs division last year after some developer misconduct. How has that progressed?
The Internal Affairs division has been excellent in improving our processes and the Council of Stellar Management has just finished elections. 29 candidates have progressed past player vote and 9 players have been elected by their peers to serve as democratic representatives for the player base.
They’ll hold their first official meeting at CCP headquarters in Reykjavik, Iceland on June 19. Then they’ll continue to hold meetings throughout their six month term.
There was also the recent theft of select source code. Does it mean anything?
NR: No, not at all. This was only the client Python source code, which we are well aware can be decompiled and reverse engineered like that.
Everything we do is done with that in mind. We don’t believe in security through obscurity. It certainly created more awareness of what the client does and in fact how “stupid” the client is - as our game logic is server based.
CCP sees EVE Online more as a "sandbox" than a "theme park" (like, say, World of Warcraft). How do you make sure players stay "hooked" without placing them on the leveling and raiding treadmill?
NR: We don’t try to make sure. The fundamentals of creating a “sandbox” game and placing it on a single-shard world, were to create strong social networks where achieving goals together can be more intense and important to the experience than what game mechanic you are using to achieve it. We believe this becomes even stronger in a free-form setting, where you are setting your own goals rather than having them handed to you.
We certainly do have “theme park” elements within EVE, and often the two are mixed together. We have an NPC presence at “resource spots”, but the conflict is about the resource these NPCs are watching over. We also have a number of other activities, such as exploration and missions.
We’re constantly working on evolving them while somehow still tying those activities to the larger scheme of things -- for example, if you do missions, you have access to certain type of resources or items and thereby you become part of a larger economic market.
In that case, in some respects you are essentially performing “PVP” on the market, competing against other players supplying those same resources in different regions and at different prices.
Should you transport it to another market region to get a higher price? Should you move it yourself or contract it out? Should you refine the items into minerals and sell them? The value chains which are created in the economy never cease to amaze us.
Do you consider WoW and EVE comparable experiences?
NR: We would to a large extent not compare EVE to WoW as the worlds are… worlds apart? We play WoW a lot and we think they accomplished perfectly what they were trying to achieve. WoW provides a guided experience for players.
We created EVE to achieve a different experience which requires you to set your own goals -- an experience which is enhanced when you are achieving it with another individual or a whole Alliance of corporations on your side. We also differ considerably in death penalty, where we strongly believe that you must experience the lows to fully realize the highs.
Pace is important to mention, where we have long periods of strategic build-up before the action while WoW provides more short-term gratification (and I mean that in a good way). The build-up period in EVE enhances the highs in between as there is significant long-term effort behind what you are doing and we believe that creates the unique experience EVE offers.
We also provide character advancement while you are off-line, allowing for breaks without getting that notion of being left behind when you come back.
So is there space to play EVE as if it were WoW?
NR: It's absolutely a legitimate way. We strive to make all aspects of EVE somehow contribute to the larger whole. Exploration is an example where you search for resources and combat the NPCs protecting it and thereby have a PVE experience while still being part of the economy.
We’re adding more gameplay like that, where we provide more structure to the experience as we believe that there are very few players that, through their entire lifecycle, haven’t tried other aspects of EVE.
Sometimes your fellow pilots aren’t online, sometimes you are waiting for your explorers to find something, sometimes you simply want to be alone in the dark (literally) and we want to provide more opportunities and variance while still be a value to the universe, be that through the economy or otherwise.
If you consume a resource that means someone else can’t consume it. It’s as simple as that really—while being extremely hard to get right.
What about gamers who like to play "solo"?
NR: Depending on the type of universe and experience you are looking for, I’d say there are more games out there that put their entire focus on solo play (to the point of “single play”) and therefore in many cases have better solutions which are purposely built for you as a solo player.
If your canvas includes a lot of other players, the rules of the game change and there is a chance that someone can come and interfere. That’s the “sandbox” and we strive to remain true to that.
Having said that, we have a whole host of successful solo players, many of them very prominent in the community and renowned for their achievements, so there is lots of room!
What about the gulf between "power-gamers" and people who can only spare a few hours a week?
NR: Our real-time skill system allows for progressing your character even while being off-line so there is ample opportunity to play just a couple of hours a week and still have fun.
There are so many roles to fill within EVE that you can always contribute -- not only that, you are always sought out by other people who want you to contribute to their organization.
Of course, there are other ways of achievement where time invested can give you an edge in other ways, but the fundamentals of EVE enable a very poor but well-skilled player to easily win against a very wealthy but poorly-skilled player in combat for example.
Additionally, the skill system inherently balances older players versus newer players. You don’t get infinitely more powerful, you become more and more versatile, being able to play more roles than before.
Do you think MMORPG addiction is a legitimate concern?
NR: I’m not aware of any specific cases, but there are of course bound to be some within a world as large as EVE. Addiction is a legitimate concern for everything, no less so for online games.
However, addiction shouldn’t be confused with time spent or any other cookie-cutter measurement which diminish the seriousness of real addiction that needs to be treated by professionals. It’s therefore disturbing to see a discussion where the measures are focused on simplified aspects in an effort to address addiction.
We won’t solve addiction by limiting it to certain ages or hours played, we solve it by educating people so that they can identify it and seek assistance.
Unlike other MMORPGS, EVE seems to have a lot fewer women playing. Why?
NR: There is a wealth of reasons -- or excuses -- for that, but we can’t really put them forth because they are such generalizations that it would always offend someone and we don’t even believe they are true.
What we can say is that the EVE experience consists of elements that cater to certain personalities and we want to cater to other personalities but have been unable to do so.
That is probably a mixture of us not reaching out properly and the team consisting almost entirely of testosterone-sweating men which somehow naturally attracted like-minded people and created the initial EVE experience. We’re now identifying how we can further evolve and how EVE can embrace new play-styles.
Any plans to develop any other titles?
NR: We have lots of plans! Our focus right now is on evolving EVE and continuing to do so for at least the next 10 years. We are however also in the early stages of development for another, unannounced title.