Eve Online recently hit 130,000 subscribers, which is about 1 percent of the total MMO market. Even as a regular space-pilot I find it a bit difficult to reconcile the obscure and anti-populist game model with its ever-increasing success. People really do seem to want something beautiful but unforgiving. Eve originally evinced such groans of disgust and disbelief from my gaming peers that I expected it to fail utterly... It didn't. It has simply become more popular and more versatile. Eve grows bigger, stronger, more terrifying, and routinely pales even the mightiest of MMOs with its creative achievements. It is a game that does not seem to have made any concessions to tradition, and somehow that tenacity has paid off.
The Icelandic space MMO looks set to expand even more rapidly with the launch of a second Chinese-language shard, which already boasts 30,000 concurrent users in its Beta stage. (The 'Western' shard has managed a peak of about 25,000 concurrent users in the three years since its launch.)
I had these thoughts in mind (as well as some stuff about remembering to buy even bigger lasers) when I spoke to CCP's executive producer, Nathan Richardsson. He is at the heart of Eve's development and will be responsible for coordinating the Reykjavik team in the next phase of the game, a massive multi-patch expansion known as 'Kali'. I began by asking Richardsson how it is that Eve seems to have evolved immeasurably since its launch, and yet manages to keep the core aspects of the game intact. Planetside and Star Wars Galaxies, launched at around the same time, are now comparatively messy affairs, riddled with disparate and ill-conceived elements. Eve meanwhile has carefully constructed a world of vicious PvP combat and intricate trade - ideas that were articulated from the outset and then slowly etched with detail as the game evolved. How could Richardsson account for Eve's clarity of vision?
"We believe it's a mix of a lot of factors," said Richardsson. "The major factor being that to begin with, CCP was quite a small team and it was easy to maintain the common vision of what Eve is. That team is still here and they are quite opinionated about what to do. After growing, we have safeguards in place, production pipelines of sorts, where we have multiple points that we can review what we're doing before something is deployed. It's a healthy mix of internally having very open designs so we can spot early on if something isn't in the spirit of Eve."
"We also believe it's due to the fact that Eve can be developed so modularly and therefore quite iteratively, that you could evolve core systems slowly, but surely, without affecting too many other core systems. In the case of the change being in the wrong direction, we could easily revert or address that."
The forthcoming Kali exhibits that modularity to the full - promising to plug into numerous aspects of the game's design, with ramifications in everything from combat to trade, from personal professions to player-interaction. It represents a kind of mature phase for Eve, a period where CCP can take stock of what they've created and begin to remould it in the light of lessons learned. As Richardsson explained, the scope is huge and will leave few aspects of the original game untouched.
"Kali is something which was has been talked about for quite some time, growing to a size where we were of course going to conquer the world - and then some. We've now cut into more manageable and frequent releases. This not only prevents a lot of features from getting stagnant on our test servers, but also decreases risk for each of the deployments. The risk applies to both gameplay, where a feature can be too disruptive or simply not work, or in the worst case scenario, cause direct harm to the universe if it turns exploitable."
But even when direct exploits are ruthlessly excised, the universe is not one without danger. And harm arrives in degrees: the new modes for players to interact - essentially generating their own content via missions - means that Kali could produce new ways for in-game entrepreneurs to use the people around them, and to out-compete their rivals.
"The first Kali release will feature player Contracts," Richardsson explains. "Where you can now create enforceable contracts and practically create simple missions for your corporation or even outsource some parts of your operation to outside parties. It features Auctions, Escrow, complex Item exchanges for 'Bring Your Own Materials' deals and so forth."
"We're also improving combat organisation, with better situational awareness with our updated seamless zoom map (think Homeworld with more levels) and of course EVE Voice (real time voice comms) tightly integrated into the new gang hierarchy."
Kali also intends to make Eve a richer world to play in. While player-combat and socio-economic machinations appeals to most of Eve's players, the missions and quest environments have never quite satisfied. It is CCP's intention to change this, and create a world where the inquisitive can be catered for...
"More rewarding Exploration is being implemented," says Richardsson. "Where you can hack your way through, perhaps find bookmarks to new locations, find rare resources or ancient sites of lost civilisations. This is all done within the new seamless map in which we have updated the solar system scanning to include these new hidden sites, in addition to improve the scanning itself to find your enemy's ships.
"Invention is also coming in, where you gather knowledge and tools to acquire blueprint copies of items you either want to manufacture or sell, new ship upgrades called Rigs which ingredients you acquire through salvaging the shipwrecks all exploded ships now leave."
Salvage expertise will now be a potential career, and there will be new toys too for the older professions:
"Lets not forget eight new ships, a battleship and battlecruiser for each race, Combat Boosters (space drugs which leave players debilitated after getting pumped-up for a fight), acquired through Gas Cloud mining in unique 0.0 COSMOS regions and processed in player Starbases and a boatload of improvements to our current systems. We should see all this in the September release if everything goes according to plan."
Kali will also expand the space within the game. Players have long wondered about the immense swathe of stars that they can see on the map, but cannot reach. These eight regions will be opened up, enormously expanding the potential space for players to build their own empires. "With the growing population of the EVE universe, more and more people venturing - or wanting to venture - into 0.0 space, we felt we needed to open up this virgin territory, which requires players to build up from scratch," says Richardsson, referring to the way in which players eventually feel the need to leave the controlled 'safe' areas of the core galaxy venture out into the combat-orientated periphery, often building their own space outposts along the way.
It's a big step for new players to leave the safety zone of core systems, but one that CCP is trying to encourage through creating interdependent processes between the two modes of play. "We like that people are afraid to go into 0.0 space (the dangerous peripheral area), it's supposed to be that to a certain extent, but we believe we need to introduce these players to the gameplay happening there and at the same time adequately balance the risk-vs-reward of the inner-systems vs. 0.0, so that even though they suffer losses, the reward is worth it."
The content-driven Kali ideas aren't the only changes that are taking place in Eve, it is also being affected by real-world changes, such as the arrival of Microsoft's new Vista operating system. CCP are developing a version of the client specifically for the software, as Richardsson explained: "We have a good partnership with Microsoft and we've wanted to overhaul our graphics engine and update our graphics resources for quite some time. We saw an opportunity after seeing where Vista was going, or more correctly where DirectX 10 was going, and decided that we wanted to utilize a lot of that stuff, both to create visual effects we've wanted to do for a long time and hopefully having a framework that can run it. But at the same time, we're quite aware that any serious penetration of Vista gaming platforms isn't going to happen overnight, and we aren't stopping our non-Vista client development at all. The current version is getting its own batch of optimizations, tweaks and new features that are possible to do while at the same time retaining the performance and compatibility we have in our current client."
Richardsson is keen to point out that Vista's bonuses are purely cosmetic and won't affect those 'left behind' by being on XP: "It's also important to point out that the Vista client has the same gameplay and content, the difference is it will look much better and the 3D models are far more detailed. The Vista client is entirely optional, but we want you to know that the day you go over to a Vista gaming platform, there will be an EVE client waiting for you. As long as people play EVE, we'll keep on developing it and this upgrade is part of that long-term vision."
This long-term vision potentially stretches way off into the future, and ideas for Eve's development go way beyond the coming Kali patches. I asked Richardsson about player infrastructure, an aspect of the game which is becoming increasingly important as players build their own structures and space-stations in the void. His reply was quite in-depth, and suggests some of the depth of complexity that Eve's empire building will stretch to in the coming years.
"We've slowly been approaching an escalating model, where you start off with achieving solar system sovereignty with deployment of Starbases, sovereignty then enabling you to deploy specialised Starbase structures and even building your own Stations."
"We'll evolve this model further, adding more structures that require certain pre-requisite infrastructure to be in place, maintained, fuelled and of course defended before you can deploy even more massive and advanced infrastructure."
"We'll also be adding structures below the current level, like more personal housing, other structures which don't need more than a Starbase, such as twinned jump-drive portals between Starbases and some more industrial structures like an Outpost link or a Freighter dock."
"This will then start to involve planets, probably with an Outpost being deployed at the planet as the pre-requisite for terraforming or directly settling that planet. We'd then like to see a hierarchical model, where you have a governor over some form of capital, with adjoining territories which can build up separately yourself or simply rent out the territory for others to utilize."
"If we're thinking more about infrastructure in-space we're seeing Constellation sovereignty being a good justification for more automated solar-system defenses, jumpgate control, multiple Outposts and even full stations within the same solar system; allowing you to fully colonize more planets within a single solar system in your constellation."
Finally we had to ask how that Chinese launch is going. For original Eve players it's a weird process of our private world restarting from scratch, with events taking place along a timeline vastly different from our own, Western Eve. (I've been in conversations with Eve players who wonder whether the political conflicts in a Chinese Eve will be very different from our own hugely anarchic world of intrigue and betrayal). "It's going quite well," Richardsson says, rather tentatively. "We have a lot of people in the open beta and now we're simply waiting to see how many convert to paying customers. We won't see that until in a couple of months, where the beta testers convert to paying over time, marketing kicks in and the world infrastructure is built up. The thing with EVE is that it needs players in the world, to have established alliances, an economy and infrastructure to receive players. A fresh world doesn't have that. Time will tell, we just launched a couple of weeks ago and eagerly await to see what happens."
Eve's first Kali patch arrives in September.