Ten years after its launch, Eve Online is in a strange place. It's a game with just 500,000 players, nothing by most MMO standards, yet one whose stories, heists and controversies regularly spark interest in a wider audience that would never actually dream of playing it. On Twitter, I asked my followers what would make them give it a shot at this point. "Nothing," was the standard answer. "A complete reset," answered a couple more. Perhaps most notably, "Any change that would make me want to play would stop it from being Eve."
This is not of course lost on CCP. "For a long time we've been thinking how to engage the large group of people who are fascinated by this universe, the promise of what Eve can be, but this particular game is too hard, too cut-throat, too complicated, too hardcore," former senior producer Jon Lander told me. Later, chief marketing officer David Reid was happy to admit "Eve is a hard game, and we're okay with that. Some of those people will never be Eve players, and probably never should. But it shouldn't necessarily be as hard to understand it. The gamers who made this company over the first decade are going to look a little different in the second, coming from free-to-play, mobile and tablet. A big part of our job is bringing them into the universe."
The key words there are 'particular game' and 'universe', especially at this year's Eve FanFest, where shooter Dust 514 and CCP's line "Eve Is Real" together got at least as much attention as the spaceships. I'll admit to having been a bit skeptical of Dust actually playing a big role in the main universe, but this year's announcements made it clear that it's far from just a throw-away game. Whether they work out or not in the long-term, and 'long-term' is the timeline, CCP has huge plans in mind for it. First we have the Uprising (free) expansion where Dust players can break away from the server-browser high-security planets to start actually conquering worlds.
Later, the system is intended to extend to more heavily simulated warfare, like Eve pilots having to physically bring biomass to clone their ground forces on site, and boarding parties playing a key role in space battles. Other goals mentioned over the week include planets becoming manufacturing bases capable of sending resources to Eve Online via space elevators, and arenas for e-sport purposes, run by players, with scope for betting and streaming battles around the galaxy. Dust corporations are also intended to develop into powers in their own right, rather than purely mercenary cannon fodder to get blown up while Eve Online players sit in orbit, fingers steepled and watching the ants dance to their elevated machinations.
"Just like Eve Online, there's a lot of different roles," said Brandon Laurino, Dust's Executive Producer, "In the real world, who are the different players and audiences? We're trying to make the shallow end of the pool very shallow, much more than Eve, so someone who plays shooters can just pick it up. That's very important to us. But then there's the deep end, deeper than any other shooter, with politics and all the metagaming stuff the Eve universe is famous for."
Like most of Eve Online, it's impossible to predict how this will be embraced, or in what form. Jon Lander is open about this, telling me "The one guarantee is that players will find a way to use everything we add in a way we didn't expect. I call it the Law of Unintended Consequences."
CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar has one of the best stories of this, shared during this year's nostalgia-laced FanFest keynotes. Years ago, with CCP facing bankruptcy and the team wanting to shelve Eve and move onto something else, he took some time off for paternity leave and wound up anonymously joining a small Eve corporation. While there, he saw that players had found a way of what most MMO developers would describe as abusing game systems to speed up mining, and were on course for cleaning the game out of content exponentially faster than expected. Eve's success as a game worth the world taking an interest in can largely be pinned on CCP opting to embrace such inventiveness, instead of taking the 'safe' path and locking it down hard like most others.
Is Lander surprised that almost nobody else has followed suit, and modern MMOs have actually backtracked to personal stories and ever-more scripted quest design rather than embracing the sandbox? "No, it's scary - putting your trust in your playerbase. I'm glad the founders made those decisions and not me! But it's very hard, and Eve has been very lucky."
A sandbox can only be as deep as its creators allow though, and Eve remains a world tied heavily to CCP's fiction and rules - at least away from the low/null-security frontiers. In the second decade though, the game is stable enough to get more ambitious. "[The sandbox] should go as far as players want," says Lander." So, features like designing ships instead of just using pre-built ones? Having willing players replace the CONCORD NPC police force in high-security space? Destroying the four empires and shifting the universe entirely to a corporation and alliance driven one? "Oh, god yeah," Lander answered immediately - to the concepts, not confirming their imminent additions. "A lot of Eve's restrictions, they're because we had to get it out of the door."
Ten years later though, and with a strong society in place that's proved the sandbox concept so effective, some of those restrictions don't seem as necessary. Still, there are areas that even CCP is reticent about opening up. This is after all a universe whose official most destructive corporation is called "Whores In Space" - much to the delight of the FanFest audience when revealed.
"One thing we've always been very careful of is the aesthetic of the world," continued Lander, picking up ship design as an example. "The art style between Eve and Dust is very consistent... do we want players to screw that up? I think we're at the point where Eve players understand what's there, and my belief is that they'll stay consistent. You'll get a few idiots who make a pink ship or whatever, but if you give people the opportunity to build something and offer it for other people, people simply won't engage with people who make bad stuff." And of course, if they do, it could well be in the form of self-regulation, expressing disapproval with a big gun.
Much of Eve's second decade is set to explore these issues - senior producer Andie Nordgren discussing that the design of expansion packs is more about sci-fi ideas than individual features, with the next set focusing on space colonisation. That means capsuleers ultimately building their own stargates, flying their own colours, and running empires rather than alliances. It's a path that looks set to take at least five years according to the keynotes, with no specific ETA.
At least, that's the hope. True or not though, it's arguably not CCP's decision any more. Who owns the game? "Players, easy," says Lander. "You see that from things like Burn Jita" - Burn Jita being a concerted player-led assault on one of Eve Online's primary trade hubs, which both we and CCP covered in detail last May.
Even if player ownership is pushing it a little - after all, CCP decides the direction of the game, at least so far provides all the game pieces, and has god powers if necessary - Eve Online is at least a collaborative effort between the two sides, especially with both being aware that it doesn't have a huge buffer in place in the event of something going wrong. The game's most important currency is trust, built up by 10 years of a generally great game, but not without its hits in the past.
The biggest ones have been a case of developer misconduct in 2007 that led to the company setting up an internal affairs division to monitor accounts and avoid anyone abusing their power, and the multiple problems with the Incarna expansion. This involved shelving plans to do more with player avatars, and a leaked memo about the sale of virtual goods titled "Greed Is Good" causing an explosion of anger that centred on, but wasn't limited to, an expensive real-money monocle being sold. "There was one alliance that promised that if they ever saw a player portrait with one, they would immediately put a bounty on that person's head" remembers Lander.
(Incarna's role in the next couple of years is currently in the air. When mentioned during a run through the expansions so far, it was with a literal "Ooops" by Petursson, who confirmed that nobody is currently working on its features. It was however notably brought back up in the final "CCP Presents" keynote, with a later tweet registering surprise at the audience's enthusiasm for going walkabout as their characters. Big reveal at FanFest 2014? Far from confirmed, but I wouldn't want to put money against it at this point, especially now that World of Darkness has given CCP more practice with avatars.)
What looks to make the second decade of Eve exciting though isn't any one feature or addition, even something as important as space colonisation or the opening of new battlefronts for Dust's mercenary armies. It's that ten years in, the basic concept of Eve Online is no longer an experiment - that when CCP delivers soundbites like "Eve is real", there's an objective truth behind it. The spaceships may just be pixels generated by a server full of numbers in London, but the society built with them is so much more. The sandbox works. Now it's time to see how impressive the castles within it can really be.