Apocrypha is almost upon us: the EVE Online expansion which actually expands the game's galaxy via wormholes goes live tomorrow, March 10th. Exploration will no longer simply be about spawning missions across the existing star systems; instead it will be a plunge into the unknown, and a battle against previously unseen enemies. In conjunction with this new frontier, Apocrypha is laden with improvements and enhancements designed to make things smoother for the veterans, and more exciting for the newbies who will inevitably arrive via the new retail box version of the game.
We took some time to speak to senior designer Noah Ward about what the new expansion entails, and how CCP has gone about creating it.
Eurogamer: How much of the new content is intended to make the game more interesting for first-time players?
Noah Ward: As far as content for new players; we've got a team that continuously works on the "New Player Experience" so every expansion has something in it for new players. In Apocrypha that team was focused on the very first moments, such as simplifying character creation and refining the tutorial. The tutorial is now more fun, more rewarding and leads players to career agents that teach things through interaction rather than reading. The new Skill Training Queue and Neural Remapping (attribute respec) features are also results of work done by the NPE team.
The other big thing that relates to new players, but will eventually have an effect on all players, is the Epic Arc missions. Epic arcs are cool because they are long, branching story-lines that have real effects on the development of the player. As the player makes choices and completes parts of the arc, that story is logged in a journal that players can go back to at any time to reminisce about their past adventures. The first arc we've produced is a lower-level chain of missions, but we've got a lot planned for this new feature.
Eurogamer: Apocrypha's wormhole exploration has been a major talking point for players before release - what sort of challenges will it entail? Will I be able to go in with just a couple of friends, or will it be a more significant project to explore wormhole space? Will wormhole systems differ in "true sec" status, like normal space?
Noah Ward: W-space and the things in there will definitely be a challenge. It's going to take a bit of research to find out what encounters within W-space are at a level that maximizes your profit over your risk. You will be able to solo the easy stuff if you know what you're doing, but the goal of W-space is to bring back the fear and wonder, so don't expect a walk in the park.
To really profit from what you find on the other side of the wormholes is going to take a group effort. Within wormhole space you're going to encounter the mysterious Sleepers and will need to deal with NPCs that use entirely new tactics like evasive manoeuvring, spider-tanking and switching targets based on their ability to do the most damage to the players.
The other challenge that's going to face players is balancing their group to send the right make-up of ships through the wormhole without collapsing it. The mass of a battleship is worth the mass of 100 assault frigates, for instance. Also in W-space you can expect to experience what we call "tactical effect environments" that will cause havoc on your ship, but just might be an advantage to you if you know how use it.
Eurogamer: Can you explain a little about how Tech 3 materials will be procured from wormhole space? How will industrialists make money from this process?
Noah Ward: There are many sorts of resources that players will find with judicious use of their new scanner. Harvestable gas clouds, archaeology sites and hacking sites are common, as well as plenty of salvage, so mixed groups are going to have an advantage. An interdictor or destroyer set up like a Swiss Army Knife would be a good ship to have in your fleet in order to maximize profits. Once all of those things are gathered up, they need to be transported back to a starbase or research outpost where they can be reverse-engineered into parts to actually create Tech 3.
Eurogamer: What other features does Tech 3 have? What should we expect from Tech 3 ships? Will they change the current balance of PVP?
Noah Ward: This is a really tough call to make, because the design goal for the new Strategic Cruisers is to empower the players. We're trying really hard to make each subsystem equally valuable so we don't see cookie-cutter setups. Every subsystem has its own flavour, benefits and skill bonus. The element of surprise will play a factor in PVP.
When you saw someone in an Ishtar or Drake, you could be pretty certain what you were up against, but now when you see someone in an SC there will be a new level of uncertainty. We don't plan to make Tech 2 obsolete with these new ships, but this is Tech 3 we're talking about, so you can expect them to be pretty powerful and very good at what you configure them for. Suffice it to say we will be keeping a close eye on how players use these ships.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us a little about the design process that goes into an EVE Online expansion? How do you decide on what features will go in, and how do you then go about building and testing them?
Noah Ward: We've been refining our processes continuously in an attempt to be a lean, mean space game creation machine. At CCP we use Agile methodologies on an enterprise level, and I'm actually finding working in this way to be a real advantage over the old waterfall method. You will need to look up Scrum on Wikipedia or something, because I'm going to use a bit of jargon.
The process starts with a lot of brainstorming. Once we've harvested a fair share of ideas and put them in our backlog we move into scoping. Usually when we do scoping we like to have a theme. The theme of Apocrypha was true exploration. Having that theme makes it easier for us to make hard decisions and have a laser focus on what we're trying to accomplish in the expansion.
The scoping sessions lead to a few key features that float to the top of the backlog which we can build an expansion around. The key features for Apocrypha were unstable wormholes that lead to unexplored space, Tech 3, and Epic Mission Arcs. With those features decided we start to form Scrum teams around those various features.
A standard scrum team for us consists of a Product Owner, Scrum Master, 2 Designers, 2 Programmers and 2 QA, but could be made up of just artists or programmers depending on what they are working on. A key thing that needs to happen at this point is that the Product Owners need to have an intimate understanding of the vision that the Product Managers (that's me) have for the feature they are working on.
That's so important because the real development starts on release planning day. This is a day when the entire company comes together to plan not just what they will work on in their first sprint but in all the sprints leading up to the release. We reconfigure our cantina into a war room with video conferencing to the other offices so everyone has access to everyone, and we're able to rapidly sort out interdependencies.
It works amazingly well compared to the epic fail that would result from me sitting in a room trying to decide who's going to do what and when. After release planning we pull all the product owners into a room at around 10 at night, and decide if the day's plan holds water. If it does then the next day the teams jump right into sprinting, but if it doesn't then we need to release plan the next day. After that, it's two-week sprints, with each team demoing what they have ready at the end of each sprint. Those demos keep the rest of the company abreast of the progress and allow us to iterate over the features based on regular feedback.
Sorry for the TL:DR but I get pretty excited when I talk about this stuff. Even though it took a while to explain, it's really not a complicated process, and I would recommend it to other developers.
Eurogamer: What other features should older players be excited about? Can you talk about the refreshed UI and other changes?
Noah Ward: There is a lot to be excited about in this expansion. The new system scanner is really cool. It's much more interactive to use, almost like a puzzle game. I've already mentioned the skill queue but it's worth mentioning again because it's so cool. The new fitting screen with picture-in-picture is much improved and includes the ability to save and share fittings. Overview settings are also able to be exported and shared.
The effects have been revamped and look really cool. We've got a new sound engine with new sound effects. Mac users are finally getting Premium graphics and everyone has more options to optimize their graphic performance. I'm personally really excited about this expansion because we've done so many things that I think will please players. There are little things, like the improved agent dialogue, that are just nicer.
Eurogamer: What does Apocrypha mean overall for the future direction of EVE? And is EVE, as some players have suggested, getting over-crowded? Will wormhole space alleviate that?
Noah Ward: Apocrypha is about new challenges, new experiences and giving players added freedom to make their own destiny. Giving players tools to enjoy their time in EVE is what we're all about.
This new W-space should give players a lot of elbow room. EVE isn't over-crowded though; it's just that players all flock to the same places and that's due to game mechanics. We understand this and we're doing things to alleviate these bottleneck systems. The next thing we intend to tackle is the sovereignty mechanics. That should both spread players out in 0.0 and not "force" them to claim as much empty space as they currently feel inclined to do. As we introduce the higher-level Epic Arcs, the players in mission hubs will spread out as well. There is plenty of space out there, it's our job to give the players things to do in it. We're really just getting warmed up.