In Spaaaace!

In Spaaaace!
Development in a Vacuum

Shannon Drake | 18 Jul 2006 08:04
In Spaaaace! - RSS 2.0

Forgive us, Father, for we have sinned and written about EVE Online again, earning more accusations about illicit activities and shifty exchanges involving space bucks and haulers full of exotic dancers when our intentions are pure. Despite my hilarious antics crashing our first corporation into the metaphorical sun, every single one of us has returned to the game, and on any given night, you'll find us shouting obscenities at each other on Teamspeak as we play Internet Spaceships. We talk about EVE because we, as a collective hive mind, feel CCP is one of the few companies that get it. We talk because we love too much.

But what is their secret to wowing a group of jaded gaming hobos? We have a theory. CCP is about as far from the norm as you can get, as it would be hard to find a point farther from the Los Angeles Gaming Industry Mothership than their headquarters in Reyjavik, Iceland. I put it to Magnus Bergsson, CCP's Chief Marketing Officer: Does developing in a vacuum - far from the rest of the industry and its conventional wisdom - influence the way they design their games?

"Being stuck on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean definitely carves deep markings into the way we approach game design," he responded. "CCP's goal is to create games that are different, so I must say that being in Iceland is an advantage for us." EVE definitely doesn't bow to convention. Skills train over time, even while logged out, rather than on a per-fuzzy-animal-whacked basis. Instead of being locked into a specific role from character creation, players can learn any skill and fly any ship in the game, provided they are willing to spend the money and time to learn it. The majority of the game is free-fire PvP, and roving bands of pirates frequently penetrate into "safe" space to destroy the peaceful miners and haulers other games are built around.

He credits this approach for EVE's rising subscription numbers, just about unheard of for a three-year-old game, saying, "The players have a much stronger sense of reward for their actions in EVE, as it is simply harder and more complex to [succeed] in EVE than in most other games. EVE is a game where the strong survive, and the players know it and value it. On top of that foundation is a game that is simply getting better with age and not the other way around. ... [And] with more users, the game simply gets more dynamic and fun." Nightly numbers on the Tranquility server range from 17 to 20,000, with a current record of over 25,000 people playing at once.

Players coming from the "whack fuzzy animal, get better" world are often flabbergasted staring at the austere space station, wondering how to get better at the game without an experience system. The tutorial is rudimentary and covers maybe a 10th of the game itself. Have they ever considered making it easier? "We will never water down EVE simply to accommodate the new players, but we of course are trying to make it a bit easier for them. The first version of the new player experience was released in Exodus (EVE's first expansion), and we have a team that is working on version two that will take that concept further. EVE was never supposed to be a six-million-subscriber game, and we are perfectly happy with how things are right now. Personally, I will choose a rapidly expanding core of loyal players rather than the more supermarket style of newbie churning."

Those who venture beyond the station and the advancement model find a wide-open world awaiting them, one where they can blow up NPCs, try to become the richest miner in the universe or become a roving trader and builder. Or, given the game's freedom, they can do all of that. One recurring theme in talking to Magnus and the rest of CCP is freedom. I asked why they push for openness when many developers build a world first, then try and cram players into the molds they've built.

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