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[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.