In Spaaaace!

Development in a Vacuum


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.

“Simple,” he responds. “We just thought that the free-form approach of EVE would be more fun, more rewarding and more challenging. It is the game mechanic that we wanted to play, so we just did that.” This is a common theme when talking to everyone at CCP. They sound like one of those “We should make a cool MMOG!” teams so common among fans of the genre, but in this case, they actually did it. “We believe we should provide tools for players to mold the world, for them to tell the story and control their destinies. This can’t be done in a guided approach.”

“How can you tell someone that he should start an alliance with 3,000 people and conquer the outer regions of space? Or that he should be the leading trader of [cruiser class ships]? Be a mercenary? Then, add that all together multiply that by about 120,000 times. It just doesn’t work. We can’t create heroes; only the player who has the passion and willpower to become a hero can do that. Whether he’s being his own hero or for everybody else in the universe doesn’t really matter, as long as he’s satisfied with what he’s achieving.”

I asked if they’ve found the holy grail of many MMOG developers: Player-created content, rather than developer-created content, using the guys at The Escapist‘s triumphs, tragedies and successes as an example. “Absolutely. The players should be in charge of their destinies and the actions of the players should have a major impact on the game. That is our vision for gameplay and that is what we will continue to do.”

But a vision has to come from somewhere. I asked what some of the team’s influences were. “Ultima Online was certainly one of the most dominating factors, in addition to Elite. In fact, you could say that it started out as a mix of those two,” and the conversation wanders toward business, as we talk about the other games the CCP crew plays.

“We have people that play almost all of the big MMOGs, but I can’t really say that they have had a direct effect on EVE, since the setting and framework of MMOGs hasn’t really been a revolution, but more of an evolution.” There’s the all-but-obligatory tip of the hat. “This isn’t a bad thing – we strongly believe in evolution and consider World of Warcraft as a prime example of how MMOGs have evolved into mass appeal.”

“The really revolutionary stuff is happening in the smaller games, which can allow themselves to experiment. Puzzle Pirates, Second Life, A Tale in the Desert, and, of course, Ryzom with their Ring are all good examples of MMOGs taking another path, while games like City of Heroes/Villains, Auto Assault and Pirates of the Burning Sea are trying a more evolutionary approach to trying to do something other than fantasy.”

Like any industry watcher, Magnus also has his eyes on Asian developers. “The big Asian players are also coming in full force with new games and genres, and there is some really amazing stuff happening within their walls.” He continues, saying, “They already have the funding and solid operational ground to experiment on, so watch that space (no pun intended).”

“It’s too early to tell,” he says, assessing the industry as a whole, “but these are certainly interesting times, and now is the opportunity to revolutionize the future of MMOGs. Fantasy games have established MMOGs in the minds of many gamers, but we’re nowhere done yet, and the Western market hasn’t come close to what’s happening in Asia. World of Warcraft is the first true global MMOG success, but they certainly won’t be the last.”

Defying just about everyone else in the Western MMOG space, CCP doesn’t rely on boxes for sales. There’s no wailing and gnashing of teeth about the death of retail from CCP’s end. “EVE was initially distributed in stores,” he says, referring to a launch-time partnership with Simon and Schuster’s game publishing division. However, “When CCP acquired the publishing rights back, we then decided that model was a dying one, and have stuck with a pure digital distribution strategy. Digital distribution allows us to be in control of our own destiny, much like the players in EVE, and that is what we value.” They also don’t charge for expansions, possibly the biggest cash cow for MMOG developers. This is because, he says, “We simply believe that charging for expansions and then for a subscription is double-charging the player, and therefore, we don’t feel we should charge for expansions.”

That’s not to say they’re sitting around flying their spaceships. CCP is actively working to expand. “We will be going directly after some new markets very shortly with localized versions of the game client, and the next one will be a German version,” Magnus says. Following that will be other languages and linked marketing campaigns. “We will maintain our single-server design, as that was our vision and there is no reason to change from that.” With one exception: China. “China is a special case, due not only to rules and regulations but also internet connectivity issues.”

Existing EVE players will also find themselves drawn further into CCP’s web. They have plans for a handheld client for portable devices, so players can work the station markets from work, school or possibly the Moon (assuming they get reception). “It started as a test which grew into a much larger project when we realized the potential of it. Basically, we want to give players the ability to access their accounts remotely. You will, of course, not be doing any fleet battles on your mobile, but you can access skills, markets and other station services from your phone. This is, of course, the first version, and we will continue to expand on this in the future.” We also saw some artwork and cards for the upcoming EVE CCG, and they are absolutely beautiful, though combining the addictive potential of MMOGs and CCGs might be more of that Icelandic evil.

Shifting the conversation to the setting, I ask why they chose space. After the demise of Earth & Beyond, EVE is the only large-scale, space-based MMOG on the market. The answer is, partly, business. “Fantasy has in the past been the safe bet for game developers and, with the high cost of development of a new MMOG, this is where investors want to put their money,” Magnus says. “It is clearly much more challenging to create a sci-fi MMOG than a fantasy-based MMOG. Fantasy has been the traditional form for this genre and amazingly enough it continues to be so, even though sci-fi has been traditionally much more popular in other mediums.”

Earth and Beyond wasn’t for everybody, and EVE certainly isn’t, either. There are upcoming space titles which are slated to be more mainstream and have more mass appeal and it will be interesting to see how they fare.”

In the end, though, it’s not all about EVE. “CCP has very ambitious plans for the future and, of course, we will not be a single game company. Still, we are dedicated to continue at full force developing for EVE and its brand name. It would be foolish for us not to use all the talent and experience we have gathered to create other games. That is about as much as I can say as I know my fellow CCP’ers will read this, and, I didn’t like the last tar and feather treatment I got!”

Shannon Drake likes commas and standing out in the rain.

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