The developers at CCP aren't like other boys. Neither are the fans of its space MMO EVE Online, which we would probably describe as "cult" if a quarter of a million subscribers worldwide didn't make it a bit bigger than that.
EVE's Fanfest, which took place a couple of weeks ago in CCP's hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland, makes BlizzCon look like Pride. The developers and fans alike are serious young men, dressed in serious black clothes, who are serious enough about their game to attend an economics lecture at 10am on a Friday morning.
Don't think we're being rude - it was a fascinating event, in a beautiful country, attended by an unusually friendly, passionate and knowledgeable crowd. And as with BlizzCon - if on a more intimate scale - an amazingly frank and humorous exchange between developer and fan was the heart and soul of Fanfest.
For much of the event - especially the presentations of the blockbusting next expansion, and the slightly further-off paradigm-shift of Walking In Stations, the voice of EVE to fans and press alike was its senior producer Torfi Frans Olafsson, who everyone just seems to call Torfi Frans.
An earnest Icelandic technocrat with rimless glasses, a dry sense of humour and a nonchalant manner - when the Walking In Stations client crashed on its first public outing, he simply said, "oh f***" - Olafsson spared us some time to answer questions at Fanfest after the Walking In Stations demo, but before the announcement of the expansion and the publishing deal with Atari. He toyed distractedly with a small pistol-grip Nerf gun throughout.
Eurogamer: How do you feel Walking In Stations went down?
Torfi Frans: It went well. I really just want to communicate that the expansion is about growing EVE Online as the general-purpose science fiction simulator out there, and in our game design we've taken great care not to take existing gameplay and make it more complex or irritating just for reality's sake. The whole idea is just to deepen the experience. I think we've communicated that well. And to the new player, it's showing what the potential of EVE Online is. I mean it's a five-year-old game, how many five-year-old games out there look like something that's going to be out in two years - look next-gen and have all this stuff in it.
It's really what sets us apart from a lot of other MMO companies - many of them have huge budgets to begin with, they have massive development teams, then they release and switch over to a smaller skeleton live team. With CCP the experience has been the reverse. There are actually ten times more people working for CCP today than there were back in 2003.
So our capacity to deliver a compelling product has grown tremendously, and it's thanks to the players who pay a monthly subscription that makes that possible. So it's a self-feeding cycle, you know. And we made it a very strong decision to never leave it at that. We never feel that EVE's development is done.
Eurogamer: There must be a risk involved though - when you have a successful game that's still growing - in making as radical a change as Walking In Stations? We've seen with other MMOs like Star Wars Galaxies that major changes to an established game sometimes don't go down at all well.
Torfi Frans: No, and I think the entire MMO development community learnt from [Sony Online Entertainment's] experiences really well. And therefore, when we release Walking In Stations, its impact on the existing gameplay will be negligible. It will be merely an addition that will be optional for you to participate in. There's nothing in there that compels you to go there or that you need to find in there in order to succeed in the game as it is today.
However, we plan to build it gradually, iteratively, just as we've developed and built EVE Online and systems within it gradually and iteratively in close collaboration with the community, to make it a more and more integral part of the overall EVE Online experience. So my vision for the next three years on is that somebody starts playing EVE and he doesn't even realise that he never had an avatar, never had a body. Just like now people can't imagine how the game was without agent missions or without alliance warfare or all sorts of things that we brought into the game as it progressed. All it had in the beginning was just mining and being killed.
Eurogamer: There is a concern among some EVE players that, with Walking In Stations, they're just being used as a test-bed for World of Darkness.
Torfi Frans: As guinea-pigs... But the inverse has actually happened there, because with the office in Atlanta that has been built up by CCP to develop that particular MMO, CCP has hired a great amount of programmers and game designers who are working within our shared codebase, and their work actually contributes to Walking In Stations. So just as much as they're leeching off us, we are leeching off them.
So, true, the same technology is used for representing the avatars and the characters in the game, but to look at it as a beta test and players as guinea-pigs is a gross misinterpretation of the situation, because we would never abandon our strong player community of roughly a quarter million people who pay for our meals just to have an affair with another IP, it you catch my drift.
Eurogamer: In a lot of other MMOs, you find that social spaces like bars tend to be quite empty, and people congregate wherever's functional. But Walking In Stations seems to be designed almost entirely around social spaces. How do you expect to be able to turn that trend around?
Torfi Frans: We feel that by "marketising" the entire social experience within the game, we will alleviate some of that problem. My experience with places like Second Life and other virtual worlds that have been built since the mid-90s is that you would go into these spaces, and they would all be empty. You would roam around for hours and you'd see tons of custom-made content, you know, silly little houses that somebody built some day and they never came back. It's just swathes and swathes of emptiness. The social MMO game that was supposed to bring people closer to each other just does the inverse, and you never feel as alone as when you're in there. That's my experience in Second Life, plus that nobody wants to talk to me. Cos I'm not, like flirting with them. Anyway.
The way we try to mitigate that is through content - you can build your own bar, you can run your own corporation office, you can have your own facilities, however, you must pay upkeep on all of these things and you pay rent for them. The rent is determined by the location of the service, so if it's in a popular and common system that's frequented by thousands of players every day, the rent is going to be much, much higher there than out in the border regions. And there's also a limited amount of sockets for the establishments.
If we did not have this system, every player in EVE would have their own bar, so we'd have 260,000 bars, and who would go to these bars? No-one. However, by using the free market and using rent, there's not going to be an incentive for someone to pay rent and pay upkeep on a bar that nobody every visits and they don't take any profit one. But those who have successful bars with popular games and events, in popular locations, they're going to be making money out of it.
Torfi Frans: Hmm, I think that's got negative connotations if you just say that, that we're feature-creeping engineers. However, I see technology in games as a tool to empower the player - be it fancy graphics, or a complex market system, or whatever. So our approach to game design has often been one more towards systems than story.
So we build systems rather than linear storyline flows that the player progresses through - although as we've moved along our missions and our PVE environments, we have made it less sandboxy. But As game designers and players ourselves, we find non-linear gameplay so much more rewarding and exciting. So we try to focus on systems that allow emergent gameplay to happen, rather than dictate what it's supposed to be.
Eurogamer: How have the changes you've made to the starting experience gone down? Have they really made EVE more accessible?
Torfi Frans: I think it made it better, but we are working to make it dramatically better, and that's actually going to be announced tomorrow. We are dramatically going to change the first experience when you're popping the cherry as a new player, to partly alleviate the steep learning curve of EVE.
However, the game is complex, there is no way around that. It is a complex game, our players are a stratgeically-thiking, intelligent, clever bunch of people who like to be challenged by a game like that. I would never want to dumb it down just to get more bodies through the door. Sure, I want to make it easier for people to understand what's in there, but I think it would be very counter-productive and not what our players want and not what we as developers want to make, you know, Hello Kitty Online.
Although we play Hello Kitty Online. Or somebody was playing it the other day.
Eurogamer: There seem to be a lot of capital ships, and even quite a few Titans in the game. Is it healthy to have that much high-end content? Isn't it just too easy to make money in EVE now?
Torfi Frans: That's more of a question for Dr Eijor [Gudmundsson, CCP's chief economist], actually... I just want everybody to be happy and make money and kill people.
It's a balancing question, it's a question of politics. Let's say we make it harder to make money and harder to make capital ships, that means less crafting for those who enjoy it; if we make it easier then it's an inflation of technology and currency. It's just one of these endless balancing issues and questions that we take, working closely with our research and statistics division, led by Dr Eijor - and by interacting with players on the forums and monitoring play styles. There's no simple answer to it. It's such a non-linear, complex, intricate system, it's just like a regular economy of a country.
Eurogamer: Can you give any indication when do you expect to deliver Walking In Stations?
Torfi Frans: No actually, I can't. It's closer than it was at last Fanfest. We have an internal date, but we don't want to release it until we're happy with it. However, we're going to release it before we start feature-creeping on it. So we'd like it out the door sooner, to get people's reactions then iterate on it, than over-engineer it and have it come out in ten years and then be perfect.
Eurogamer: So. Next year?
Torfi Frans: Possibly.
Eurogamer: Although EVE isn't the biggest MMO in the world, it's known for steadily growing its subscriber base ever since it launched. Will you ever reach a point where it plateaus?
Torfi Frans: Well, theoretically of course there is a ceiling, because there's a limited amount of people in the universe. In the known universe. But I think if we continue to reward the players with new features and functionality in the same manner as they reward us with their subscriptions, then there's no end in sight. I don't see why it's not going to live for another five to ten years.