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On May 6th, EVE Online will celebrate its fifth birthday. If it were a child, it would be getting ready for its first year at school, but five years is an eternity for a virtual world and CCP Games has definitely already received an education. WarCry spoke to Public Relations and Communications Director Valerie Massey (no relation) about the game, the company behind it, how it got where it is today and she even let us in on a little scoop about this summer’s expansion.

“For a game that’s five years old, to get the amount of attention that we do and just be continually growing I think that’s a testament to how good the game is,” said Massey.

It’s true that EVE Online has occupied a unique space in the MMO scene over the last half decade. Most games launch and grow for a few months, then taper off slowly over a number of years. The trend is almost identical from game to game, unless there is some catastrophic incident. With EVE Online, their growth curve is shaped not like a curve at all, but a hockey stick. They began rather flat, even had a small dip, then at about the one year mark, they turned it around and have been steadily climbing ever since.

Today they’re over 230,000 subscribers – which does not include trial accounts as some games do – which is up nearly 30,000 in 2008 alone (at Fanfest in November they were just about to hit 200,000). CCP Games are unique in that they’ve never been shy about that number. With other games, you’d need a meeting in a dark parking garage to get a rough estimate, but it’s easy to be vocal when the number keeps climbing.

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That’s not to say that everything has always run perfectly for CCP. The game has attracted more than its fair share of drama over the years and they have learned some tough lessons. Most notably, there was an incident last year where a developer was using his powers inappropriately in the game world, the cardinal no-no of virtual worlds, and just this last week a story circulated that their “source code” had been leaked, which raised security concerns around the web.

The source code leak, according to CCP, is a big story about a rather small event, since it is the client source in question, not the game itself. As online games where the integrity of the gameplay is paramount operate primarily on the server-side and without access to this, there is nothing a player can do to influence the game. The client powers things locally on each machine and incorporates elements like graphics, not game mechanics. As such, while no doubt CCP would prefer the source not be leaked, but it should have no adverse effect on much of anything to do with their world.

Nonetheless, each time a game comes near the smell of scandal, especially one that seems to have led as charmed of an existence as EVE, one begins to wonder if it will hurt their bottom line and hockey stick-like growth curve.

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“I won’t say it didn’t have any impact on us – certainly as far as the dev misconduct, it was a hard lesson for us – that’s one thing I’ve always admired about us, if we mess up, we fess up,” said Massey, before adding while growth did slow, new subscribers more than offset those who left during the trouble spots and the climb continued.

To Massey, it seemed only a short time ago that she touched down in Reykjavik, Iceland for the first time at 6:30am to attend the grand launch of EVE Online. It was May 2003 and the whole company, a shell of the 300 plus behemoth it is today, had crowded into one conference room to watch the game launch on a big projection screen.

They turned the servers on and looked in on the game, read the chat and saw EVE Online born. She remembers to this day how their biggest fears were character rollbacks and server crashes, but one of the earliest lines uttered by a player in EVE Online let them know they were on the right track.

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“Usually players complain if you take the servers down on launch day, but one of the players said, ‘I hope they take the servers down so I can go get a shower,'” she told us.

Within the first year, their original publisher Simon & Schuster Interactive would go down and CCP Games bought the rights of their own game back. While it was a sad day, their publisher had opened a lot of doors for the little Icelandic company, this marked the turning point for CCP Games.

“The online download was a huge difference for us,” Massey pointed out. Under their own leadership, they were able to get the game into the hands of more people and not just rely on the box copies. From that point forward, the game began to grow. It’s still no World of Warcraft, but 230,000 people is easily among the biggest Western MMOs not created by Blizzard.

The MMO marketplace has been unforgiving, especially to the inexperienced. So why, then has a company from a small rock in the North Atlantic succeeded where so many others have failed?

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“Honestly and truly, this is what I believe from my heart,” said Massey. “It’s the leadership that we have. It’s [CEO] Hilmar [Petursson] and the other guys like [Creative Director] Reynir [Harðarson] and [CFO] Ívar [Kristjánsson] who started the company. [Petursson] believes so strongly that’s his daughter’s name is Eva.”

“What happened was the game and the baby were supposed to be born at the same time,” she explained. As EVE approached release in 2003, Petursson – who then served as the Chief Technical Officer – was hard at work on the game, while his wife was expecting a child. Eventually, the couple named the child after the game he had worked so hard on. For the record, EVE is a few months older than Eva.

“This is something he believes in strongly, it’s the heart and soul for him. His approach to it is just infectious,” she added.

With five years under their belt, most MMOs would be getting into old age. Not EVE, they still have aggressive plans to grow their game. This summer, they plan to launch yet another free expansion and that’s where the aforementioned scoop comes in.

The title of the next expansion – revealed here for the first time – will be “The Empyrean Age,” the same as the EVE novel by Tony Gonzalez also slated for the summer. The reason is simple, this is the first EVE Online expansion where the story of the game and its universe will play a key role, a lot of it based off the novel.

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“The universe of Eve has always had this fragile peace between the races and now that’s going to end,” Massey said. This means war and that is the core new feature: factional warfare. “People can actually take an active role and choose sides for who they want to fight for and who they want to fight against.”

More details on this expansion are going to trickle out over the coming months, but it marks – at long wait – the culmination of the plan that was once upon a time called Kali and has now turned into not one, but four epic expansions: Revelations I, Revelations II, Trinity and now The Empyrean Age.

For five years, EVE Online has been a strange and unlikely journey. It’s a company few thought would succeed with a product few still even understand, but those who play it swear by it and it seems to have a legion of fans who do not even play, just follow the twists and turns. Whatever the lightning they’ve harnessed, it doesn’t seem to have dimmed. At Fanfest each year, they outline five and ten year plans that they believe will keep EVE Online relevant and cutting edge well into the next decade.

For the video interview with CEO Hilmar Petursson, click here.

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