Torfi Frans Olafsson, the creative director of EVE Online, doesn't answer to a board of a dozen faceless suits. He answers to 330,000 paying subscribers and their elected representatives, the Council of Stellar Management.
EVE Online stands alone in the MMO world for a variety of reasons: its Council of Stellar Management, its obtuse design, its microcosmic politics, its gigantic umbrella server and its rock-solid community, which has been playing since 2003. But Olafsson's creation is far from untouchable and EVE Online has suffered under harsh player scrutiny due to features that don't work - fleet battles that don't do what they say on the tin, and developers who don't listen.
To appease them, CCP will launch a new expansion this winter called Incursion. It's stuffed with fixes suggested by the Council of Stellar Management. But that won't satisfy the hungry belly of the community for long, so it's lucky Torfi Frans Olafsson has a feast of features waiting in the wings.
Eurogamer: How big is EVE Online?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: We sometimes consider it a problem how vast the game has become. We have to remember that it came out initially in 2003, but of course the game then was a mere shadow of what it has become.
Every six months we've had expansions - some of them smaller, some of them larger. We look at it much more as a world than as a game - a combination of multiple interconnected systems.
People often complain about the steep learning curve of EVE. I agree it's steep if you're trying to learn the entire game, but you can play parts of it and be happy for years.
Eurogamer: How many people are playing?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: There are 330,000 or 340,000 people, roughly, that subscribe to EVE today. Then we have a large number of people who are trials, of course.
Eurogamer: There have been complaints that fleet battles don't work. What went wrong?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: Fleet battles have existed since the birth of EVE and they've always grown larger and larger. Because the game is so open-ended and we don't put a cap on how many people assemble in one space - the cap is around 1200 or 2000 players in one solar system or something like that - the players assembled in bigger and bigger groups progressively as the game advanced.
Some years ago, fleet battles could only have 200 or 300 players before the server started lagging out or graphically the machines couldn't handle it. But in recent years these numbers have been growing to 500 and up to 1000, 1200.
I can't imagine any other game that does this. These are real-time, really strategic engagements between a fleet of 1200 actual players; there's no drone NPCs, it's just players in a very structured and organised manner fighting out battles.
What happened is that we had performance problems. In our past couple of expansions we did changes to the server code that resulted in degrading of performance, meaning that these players experienced some circumstances that we found very hard to recreate internally: lagging out and some performance problems.
We had a large group of engineers focus-fired on isolating these performance problems by doing mass tests and logging into EVE in the middle of the night to monitor a fleet engagement in real-time, write code and make changes and deeply analyse the service.
It is very complicated to deal with these problems; one of the most complex computer-science engineering problems you might find. We are rolling out a number of fixes leading up to new expansion Incursion and in Incursion itself.
What I predict will happen is that players will experience improved performance and then they will go away and start assembling groups of 4000 and 5000 and start complaining. People want strength in numbers, and it will be an ongoing battle for our engineers to support these large-scale engagements.
These, for our players who participate in them, are the finest gaming moments you can ever have.
Eurogamer: Are you changing server hardware to ensure fleet battles will be fixed?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: We have mostly been focusing on software. We are experimenting with installing new IBM hardware and we will be putting several solar systems on to these new blades to see what improvement that gets you.
Switching hardware can improve performance by five per cent, by three per cent - something like that. You very rarely double performance or triple performance or do anything serious by upgrading hardware a little bit.
However, with major architectural changes to your algorithms and scattering functions and networking functions and so on, you are actually able to fix things by an order of magnitude [more]. Those actions we are focusing on.
Eurogamer: These 1200- or 1500-player fleet battles will work in Incursion, then?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: I'm saying that we have reason to believe they should work better. I'm not going to make any promises because we don't really know.
We've put them under serious strain and engineers have isolated a number of isolated fixes and improvements that they are progressively rolling out. But improving the service is an ongoing struggle. I hope, and I think, it will improve.
Eurogamer: Incursion promises improvements to character creation, NPCs, graphics and planetary interaction. How much of an overhaul is the EVE Online engine getting to cope with this?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: The engine is constantly undergoing some improvements. The new graphics that you refer to: we're not introducing any major graphical changes to what you see in space. However, the new awesome graphics are mostly focused on our characters.
A couple of years ago we released an expansion called Trinity, which updated all of the ships in game; we remodelled all of the ships using the latest standards and upgraded the textures and future-proofed the space part of the game. Dominion did [the same to] all of the planets. But the characters have stayed the same since the game launched in 2003.
We have assembled a team of world class artists both in-house and contracting to build totally new heads and bodies for our 24 different races, bloodlines and genders. And we've created a world class character customisation system on top of that, which really empowers you to create strong, archetypical characters rooted in the IP of EVE.
Now what that means is people who have grown attached to how their characters look will have to suffer, because they will change. We're taking them of the cartoony and caricature, and deeper into reality, which follows EVE mood of a dark and gritty hybrid.
All existing players will need to update their characters, but with the technology and the options available, I think they will enjoy it - and I hope they will be happy with the changes we've made.
Eurogamer: Will existing players be taken to a character creation screen to rebuild their character, then?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: Yeah.
Eurogamer: Planetary interaction is set to become "more dynamic and simplified". What's happening there?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: We didn't give ourselves enough time to implement planetary interaction the first time around. We didn't undergo proper play-testing before we launched. What we discovered was that it required a tremendous amount of mouse clicking to maintain your planetary colonies: it required more clicking than thinking. You did all your thinking upfront, and then there wasn't any cerebral action required.
We've optimised it and reduced the amount of heavy clicking and maintenance that you need to do. We've also added elements of gameplay that can really maximise your production and your output. These are usability improvements based on the feedback we've had from our players.
We will continue to iterate on planetary interaction for a while, actually, alongside everything else, because it is preparing the road for the EVE-DUST connection, where fights are going to happen down on the planets.
Eurogamer: Incursion is bringing about changes to the EVE online portal EVEGate, too, such as a new forums to aid organisation. What other changes are coming?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: We're hoping to put in image uploading from within the game. Also, you will be able to broadcast from within the game, essentially tying the game and EVEGate closer together.
Ultimately we want you to be able to play parts of the game through EVEGate. When you are not at your client you will be able to log onto the web and access elements of the game, not only to see what the status is but to interact. But right now we are focusing more on the social features.
We can't promise what will be in an expansion because we might find that item two on the list took more time than we thought, so we just don't do item three. But one item on the backlog is the ability to use EVE Voice on the website; to have conversations with people in the game through a plug-in on the website.
Eurogamer: The Council of Stellar Management seemed to have a lot to do with the features within Incursion. Paradoxically, however, the same community that elected that CSM complains that CCP takes no notice of them. What's going on?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: Like I said, EVE is a massive game. It has so many features that have been added over seven years that not everybody agrees on the exact function and the exact quality of each of these things.
The CSM is a tremendously valuable tool to help us figure out priorities: which of these systems and items and modules we should be fixing or improving at any given time. But there are only so many EVE developers and only so many months in the release cycle.
We work closely with the CSM, and we've taught them about how we work. They provide us with prioritised lists, and I hope people appreciate the items that get fixed.
It would be impossible to please all of the voices, because with a large community of players like this - 330,000 players - and a developer team, which is not made of 330,000 developers, it will be hard to accommodate everybody's needs in a release cycle.
While the feedback is really important, and we understand that some people feel their issues and concerns are not being addressed, I would say we are doing the best that we can to accommodate them, and we will continue to do so.
I'm just really happy that we have this relationship with our players, even though it means opening us up for a lot of criticism and showing them into the kitchen and how the hot dogs are made, which we do - we have them over here and we walk them through the office and tell them exactly what we're doing.
I would say we're doing the best we can and we hope to improve in the future. People don't feel it's good enough.
Eurogamer: I asked some of our readers what they'd like to ask you, and this is what they said: Are we ever going to see an overhaul of low-sec space?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: We have a number of developers, me included, that really want to push low-sec, and we are looking at a large number of opportunities to do so.
Incursion will involve one good tidbit for low-sec, which will make it more valuable and interesting to people, and we're really curious to see what the effect that will have.
Eurogamer: What is that, can you say? Or is it a secret?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: It's a secret.
Eurogamer: The same reader asked when engine trails are coming back - "Please!"?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: Hopefully next release. We are talking to the graphics programmers about it. But first we will be introducing turret graphics on all the ships.
Eurogamer: That same person asked if they could have a job.
Torfi Frans Olafsson: Sure. Apply on the website.
Eurogamer: Also: when are we going to get that incredible atmospheric flying demo implemented into the game?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: Haha. Do you mean when are we going to lynch the people that fooled people at Fanfest by mocking-up that atmospheric demo?
I guess the right answer to it is that DUST 514 involves vehicular combat on planets, so that will be the first implementation of ever seeing it. The spaceships in EVE are actually not fit for atmospheric flight, and we don't have any immediate plans to allow you to go down to planets.
Eurogamer: You've revealed that Incarna - what used to be called Walking in Stations - is playable internally and will be released in summer 2011, and that the foundations for Incarna will be laid in Incursion's character creation overhaul this winter. What's more, you said Incarna itself will only be the start. So, what's the overarching goal of Incarna - just how much of a change to EVE will it make?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: The end-goal, which will take a number of expansions to realise, is that players will find it unthinkable that this game never had avatars; that the experience of flying your spaceship and entering a space station.
Walking inside an abandoned site the middle of nowhere, walking inside a space station on the surface of a planet - this experience is seamless, and adventures happen in space and in avatar mode. That they're two different modes of the same thing.
Eurogamer: Presumably that goal will mean avatar versus avatar combat at some point. How's that going to work?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: It will never become an FPS. DUST 514 is the FPS in the EVE world. We're not planning to run down corridors with plasma rifles in non-fibre armour.
EVE is a more strategic, slow-paced game than Team Fortress 2, and it will always be that way. But that does not mean there will be no conflict or combat. It just means we are not aiming towards doing an FPS within EVE itself.
Eurogamer: Business models in MMOs are changing. Are there any plans to use micro-transactions in EVE to allow people to re-map their skills?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: Yeah, we are looking at introducing virtual goods within the game, but we feel those things should be vanity items rather than those that give you a clear benefit over other players in-game.
That said, we are introducing a feature this expansion [Incursion], that does allow you to re-map your attributes using Pilot Licence Extensions, which are bought both in-game and on our website. PLEX represents 30-days subscription within the game.
We will evolve just like everyone else. We will certainly not become a dinosaur. That has not been our style.
Eurogamer: How long until you pull the plug on EVE and launch EVE Online 2?
Torfi Frans Olafsson: We've seen other MMOs try to make sequels of their own games with very different success ratios, to say the least. I don't see any purpose in rebooting EVE or doing EVE 2. We have a magnificent community, we have a devoted player-base, we have a vibrant economy, we have the ability to update graphics and game systems and software and hardware - and have been doing so progressively since launch.
There's no way of knowing for how long EVE will survive. It will survive for as long as people are willing to play it and pay for it.
EVE Online Incursion will be released this winter. EVE Online Incarna will be released in summer 2010. EVE Online is, of course, out now. The EVE Online website offers free trials.