Today, gritty science fiction MMO Eve Online is famous for many things: its player-driven, emergent gameplay, its complex virtual economy, and, perhaps most of all, its daytime telly quality drama. But nine years ago today, Eve Online was famous for nothing. It was a fledgling persistent world made by a little known Icelandic developer with big ideas but no guarantees. Since then, every year, it has grown. And now, Eve is on the cusp of becoming something even greater: a PC MMO that interacts with a console first-person shooter spin-off.
How CCP has maintained its nine-year old MMO - and keep veteran players interested - is one of gaming's most compelling success stories. At a time when publishers are struggling with subscriber numbers after pumping hundreds of million dollars into high profile alternatives, Eve's slow but steady rise continues.
Here, in this detailed interview, Eurogamer talks to senior producer Jon Lander, lead game designer Kristoffer Touborg, and community developer Sveinn Kjarval about pissing players off, the upcoming Inferno expansion and the state of play in 2012 - the most pivotal year in Eve's history.
Eve Online is a virtual playground in which players pretty much do what they want in. This sounds great in theory, but in practice it must be pretty scary for you as developers.
Jon Lander: I don't see it as scary though. It's easy.
Sveinn Kjarval: It's comforting in a way, because you have all these expert advisers telling you what you should do and giving you all this great feedback.
Jon Lander: I would be much more worried if I woke up every morning thinking, s**t, what have I got to do to entertain these guys now for the next six months? I was having a chat with Hilmar [Veigar Pétursson, CEO] the other day, and, as ever, he came out with one of these great sound-bites, which was, we're the janitors of Eve. We gave up being in charge of Eve a long time ago, like when we first let the players in. So, it's the players' game.
This is why you see such strong reactions when people play it. They are the owners of it. They're the people who create all the good stuff. They're the people who are massively invested in this. All we do is provide some good content, throw a stone in to muck everything up every now and again with a new release, and we enforce real world legality, the terms of service and the EULA.
As we got to the end of last year, you could see Eve had started stagnating because we hadn't messed up the balance. You could see the number of PvP kills per person per day was tailing off. It was going down. People weren't engaging in the game any more. So we did Crucible, which was to throw in some new ships to change the mix up and fix a whole load of stuff people had been telling us about.
We did that, and then we saw the PvP kills start going up again. Escalation [the the recent update that prepares the game for the Inferno expansion], has thrown a big stone into the pond, and you can feel the ripples already happening. The reason we called it Escalation was it's destabilising the Eve universe for 22nd May, when the big Inferno release comes out.
We're changing war decs, we're making Mercenary being a more viable profession to be in Eve. We're throwing in a ton of new modules. We haven't thrown new modules in in about eight years. It's going to change everything. Everybody will ask, how am I going to make the best out of these things, as opposed to us saying, you now have a gold shield and everybody shall have one. People say, I don't want that. I'm going to use this and use it in a really weird way no-one else has thought of, and that will be brilliant, and then everybody will be talking about it on the forums, and they'll all copy me, and then they'll all come up with a counter.
So all we do is keep things ever so slightly out of balance, make people think and let people make the content.
Do you deliberately go out of your way with new content to try and create issues that will revitalise the player base?
Jon Lander: Absolutely. If you sit down and play Eve you'll never play all of it. I've been playing since 2005, I've played about half the game in terms of things you can do. So we don't need to make a ton of new stuff. All we need to do is keep mixing that stuff around. There's more content in this game than in most other games, and you could constantly be playing it, because it's not level capped, or it's not, this is inappropriate if you're a level 60, this is only for level 10. That doesn't exist in Eve. There's a huge amount of opportunity for us to mix it up.
Dust 514, coming in later this year, that's the biggest expansion we could do to Eve. All of a sudden there's a free-to-play first-person shooter where these guys are running around on the planet, and I'm in my spaceship up here, and they can call in. It's not like in Call of Duty where they say, air strike, bang. They go, are you up there? Yeah I'm here, but I'm getting shot at by a load of other people because they don't want me to air strike you, so, can you get a move on please? You have a real interaction.
So the biggest new thing we've done and will do this year is Dust. But then all we need to do is add all of this additional stuff. It's easy for us to keep mixing things up.
You launched the Escalation update last month. Some players have noticed the economy has been changed as a result to loot changes. Have you analysed player reaction?
Jon Lander: We watch all that very closely. Our chief economist did a dev blog saying, this is what's happened to mineral prices. You can see it start spiking up. It's funny, up until Tuesday [when the update launched], we hadn't made a single change. For the last two months, ever since we started talking about this, saying we're going to change rogue drone drops and whatever, people have been speculating on the market. People have been hoarding certain minerals and the prices have been going up. We haven't made any changes. This is good content. People love playing Gordon Gekko.
Sveinn Kjarval: The average prices of ships in one of the main trade hubs the other day was up from 150 million to 250 million. It's a 100 million increase just because of speculation.
So this is the players' own fault?
Jon Lander: It's people enjoying playing that part of the game. I've never done the trading thing, but there are a lot of people, they log in, they're at work, they alt tab onto their Eve account, and they're playing the market.
There are some seriously pissed off people in the drone regions, and while I... actually, no, I don't apologise for it at all. It's great they're pissed off - senior producer Jon Lander.
But the changes, they will have a big impact. We're saying, you know what? Things were stagnating. Things were boring. Things were exactly the same. There are some seriously pissed off people in the drone regions, and while I... actually, no, I don't apologise for it at all. It's great they're pissed off. If they're pissed off they have this visceral reaction to it. They have this, I am really unhappy about this. But they care so much about the game that they're telling us they're unhappy about it.
Nobody ever quit a game shouting and screaming. People went, f**k it, I don't want to play this game any more. And then they disappear off. People who shout and scream, how dare you do this! Damn you, damn you, damn you! They care so much about it. It's a great thing.
They're also very loud, so we have to balance carefully. A lot of the feedback we get are people who say, you are nerfing my favourite ship. Okay, that's you, you're a tiny proportion. We will listen to you and see if you actually have a sensible point you're making, and we change stuff. Titan changes we made, we listened to feedback and thought, okay, maybe we shouldn't do that, and we should do this.
But people, when they care deeply about something, get pissed off when it changes. People hate change. People absolutely hate change. We love it, because it forces people to get back engaged with the game and start thinking again and to get involved in it. Eve is a game where it's hard and it's difficult and there are consequences to it. It doesn't appeal to everyone. In many games you die, you respawn. A lot of people, that's what they want out of their gaming experience. People who play Eve care that when they die, some guy is laughing because he killed them, and you've genuinely lost something. People go, ah! I hate this! I absolutely hate it! But they then come back and play because it's something meaningful for them.
Last year, pissed off people said, we don't like what you're doing with our game. People said, it's our game, what the f**k are you doing to it? Stop messing it around. And we went, you know what, that's a really good point. We've done some stupid things, let's refocus and do good things. At FanFest last month a ton of people came up to me and said, thank you. What do you mean, thank you? Thank you for just doing the right thing for Eve.
So we always listen to pissed off people, but sometimes being pissed off is a good thing. They just don't always realise it. It sounds dreadful, but...
What's the most important thing Inferno will bring to the game?
Kristoffer Touborg: For me it's not a single thing. It's more we're taking a principle the players really like. When we did Crucible, we had a lot of small fixes they were asking for forever. We're now doing that with bigger things. It's exactly the same concept except the issues we've been tackling are bigger. That's going to be really important, showing the community instead of just pushing a new feature out, we can go back and redo the features they already like, but they don't feel are as polished as they could be.
Can you give us an example?
Kristoffer Touborg: Faction Warfare. Faction Warfare is a feature we've wanted to redo basically since the day before we launched it. It came out in a state no-one liked, and we've wanted to do something about it, and we've just never done it. And now we get a chance to. It feels good to go back and say, this is a quality feature we can be proud of. Faction Warfare, I'd love to build more on it, and make it a bit more of a dramatic, social thing as well.
Kristoffer Touborg: We're redoing parts of the UI. I really like our new approach to simplifying it. We've been talking a lot about Eve as a hard game, and Eve might not be for everyone. But if we lose people to other games, hopefully it's because they don't like what Eve is, and not because our UI is stupid and unintuitive. I don't think there's any shame in losing players for the right reasons. I think we're losing a ton of players for the wrong reasons. Redoing some of the UI that people can't ever figure their way out of is going to be cool.
Eve is billed as an inaccessible game. It's hard to get into and hard to understand. But conversely if you do get into it you know you've mastered something worth mastering.
Jon Lander: One of those hard things is, we don't have a, if you're this class, do these things. It's very much for people to find their own path. A lot of the stuff we're doing in Inferno is around giving tools for people they can use in probably ways ways we've never dreamt of.
People will go in with Faction Warfare and they will find ways of exploiting that system in ways we never dreamt of, and that will be great. You've then got the new war dec mechanics. War decs have been a joke in Eve since the day I joined. So we're making that a framework so people can have some meaningful fun out of it. They'll find a way to do it. We're giving some tools so people can meaningfully be a Mercenary. People always want to be Boba Fett. They want to be Nicolas Cage's character in Lord of War. They want to be the arms dealer. It's cool. People want to do that sort of thing, so now we're giving some tools so people can do that.
They can be the guy who gets a great reputation of being, I will take your mercenary contract and you know I will follow through. And there will be other people who say, I will screw you over. There will be people who build these reputations, and that's what the players are doing. The Mercenary stuff in Inferno is going to be great.
We've got a ton of new modules coming out. We will change how people fit their ships in the most meaningful way in about six or seven years. People will look at this stuff and think, how will I use this to screw someone else over? How do I get an edge by using these new things? Right now, everybody knows that for every ship, there are two or three fittings you put on it given the situation. Everybody knows that's what you do. We're going to mix that up. We're going to completely change that around. People will say, do I put the micro jump drive on? They'll have all these different things.
Really, Inferno is a hell of a lot of new content but none of it is this sort of brand new feature. It's taking features that don't work any more and making them into brand new fantastic features people will now want to use. It's working on things we already have in the game. It's a nine year-old game with a ton of stuff in there. We've got enough foundations to build on. We don't constantly need to be building something brand new.
Would you say Inferno will make Eve more accessible, or is accessible a dirty word for Eve?
When Eve came out it was a little bit cowboy. Whenever there was an error in the client there would be a pop-up saying, there's an error, but there were so many they just disabled the pop-up. I don't think it's dumbing the game down to fix some of those things - lead game designer Kristoffer Touborg.
Kristoffer Touborg: When we use accessible sometimes our customers will say we're dumbing down the game. But I don't think that's the case. When Eve came out it was a little bit cowboy. Whenever there was an error in the client there would be a pop-up saying, there's an error, but there were so many they just disabled the pop-up. I don't think it's dumbing the game down to fix some of those things.
But we do run into this issue with our community. They're like, we're going to get a thousand 14-year-olds from World of Warcraft. That's not really what it's about. The game in some senses, just doesn't make sense.
Doesn't everyone want more people to play their game?
Kristoffer Touborg: From a design perspective I try and stay away from stuff like that. I don't want to have to worry about numbers. I want to worry about the state of the Eve universe and whether or not we're a good game. So whether we bring in a thousand people through an ad campaign is really none of my business. As long as we have a product that's in really great shape then I'm happy. And I want a product that makes sense.
If that translates into a ton of money, that's fine. But I don't want to sit down and say we're redoing this UI because 5000 people will resubscribe.
Jon Lander: We took a long look at ourselves at the back end of last year and we recognised one of our failings was we were trying to make Eve everything to all players to try and capture that broader market. One of the realisations we've come to is Eve Online is a hard game and it doesn't appeal to everybody.
It appeals to more people than we have now, but those people often can't get into the game because of things like UI issues and new players experience. But that still doesn't mean we're going to have 20 million subscribers, because it is a fairly pointed, difficult game that not everybody will enjoy. We've now realised that again and embraced it.
One of the things we are doing though, in terms of getting 10 million subscribers or whatever, is make a free-to-play first-person shooter. We can go in different directions in the same universe, it's still within Eve, but it's a different game built from the ground up to appeal to a different group of people.
That was the driving thing for us on Dust originally: how do we target this completely different demographic rather than try and make them play Eve? So Dust enables us to broaden that reach of this amazing IP. You look at the sci-fi, dark gritty Eve IP, who wouldn't want to make a ton of games in that? Who wouldn't want to just live in that world? So rather than just try and make Eve everything, we're saying, yeah, it's hard, it's difficult and a lot of people aren't going to like it. But you might like this, so why don't you go and play that?
Let's talk about the recent controversy around The Mittani, which transcended the typical Eve Online dialogue. This story was about more than just the game. Now the dust has settled on what happened, what's your verdict on the whole episode? Was it overblown, or was it a genuine issue?
Jon Lander: It's been an issue of much debate. I was the guy who ended up speaking to The Mittani and going through all of this. Eve is a game about players and the content they create. We're the janitors of it. We just sit around and make a nice framework for people. If that spills out into an area we need to take a stand on, we will. But we do it only when it's the right thing for us to do. We don't want to interfere in the game.
But there are some times when stuff happens on our time and in our forum, in effect within our game, where we have to take responsibility for it. And this was one of those. People say stupid things to each other a thousand times a day in Eve. But it doesn't always happen in our public forum. It doesn't happen on our sponsored event. It doesn't happen streamed on the internet. If something stupid like that happens then we need to take a stand and deal with things.
We went through, okay, over the last nine years, what are all the precedents? What kind of things are close? We looked at all of that and we came up with what I think was absolutely the right response. We're also saying, okay, we're a big company now. Can we do all of these mad crazy things? Yeah, most of the time we can. But we'll look at, should that event at next year's FanFest be live streamed onto the internet? With a ton of alcohol? No, it probably shouldn't. So we're going to look at a few bits and pieces like that, but one of the things we don't want to do is muzzle what was 99.9 per cent of that session, which was all good stuff.
One guy stepped over the line. We slapped him for it. He understood it. He completely owned up to it. He took the responsibility on. He apologised. He did all the right things. Line drawn under it.
Kristoffer Touborg: I thought it was terribly overblown, not in terms of that people thought it was an awful thing to say and the uproar about that. It was a dumb thing to say and it happened on a ground where we can't really just ignore it. Conversely, I'd say it's one of those situations where we should have just stepped in, punished him and moved on. It turned into much more of a circus than it needed to.
When you look at how people interact not just in our game but in gaming in general, this is day to day business you should just go in and punish and move on. It did turn out to be a bit too much of a circus - Kristoffer Touborg.
When you look at how people interact not just in our game but in gaming in general, this is day to day business you should just go in and punish and move on. It did turn out to be a bit too much of a circus.
What's the status of Incarna and walking in stations? Is that feature dead?
Jon Lander: It's not dead. One of the problems we always had with Incarna was it was a great idea, but there was no real reason for doing it. Why do you need a character walking around in Eve? There are probably a million different reasons. We didn't have a very clear idea of what we wanted to make a game out of. It sounded cool, but then you realise you have to have a game behind it otherwise it's a waste of time.
Right now we've got a team of guys who are all very passionate about it. We staffed up quite a bit for Incarna. We've got some people who are big into this sort of area. Right now they're doing prototyping to find out what the game is. We'll see what it is, and we'll work out how that fits into Eve. But if you start thinking about avatar gameplay, Dust gives you avatar gameplay. So what are you going to do in Incarna that you couldn't do in Dust?
But the plan is for it to still happen?
Jon Lander: We're going to see if it makes sense. We've invested a s**t load of effort, time, blood, sweat and tears into it. It would be incredibly stupid of us to just throw that away. So we're going to work out, what makes sense in terms of the game, and then, what's the right way to develop it?
The mistake we made last year was, we took everybody off spaceships to make people walking around. Obvious backlash from the players. So whatever we do with avatars, when we go with it, we'll need to staff up accordingly, not taking away from Eve. We'll do it as well as, not instead of. And that's a big difference to what we were thinking about last year. Last year we did Avatars instead of the spaceships, and it showed.
Kristoffer Touborg: Also, we decided we'd ship avatars and we did. But now it's more a question of, let's see what this team come up with. Is it worth investing in? There's not a guarantee we'll do it. But there's not a guarantee we won't do it, which is good.
Jon Lander: One of the things I've brought in is, if you want to do a big new project on Eve, you've got to get it greenlit. It's got to have a business case and a gaming case. I need to look at it and go, is this a sensible use of 30 people's time? Coming through Crucible and now, no, it wasn't a sensible use of most of our developers' time. Our developers should be working on Eve the spaceship game. So when we go through it, I'll go, okay, so we need to hire X number of people in order to deliver Y, and that will bring in Z. And most important of all, it'll be a really good gaming experience.