Reynir Harðarson, (pronounced “Hardarson” or “Hartharson”? the jury is out) who was one of the key imaginations behind Eve Online and the original art director, is now working on the World Of Darkness MMO in Atlanta. He talks quietly and rapidly, making transcribing and interview like this one (conducted in a noisy conference hall) incredible painful. Nevertheless it’s worth doing because he is articulate and incredibly astute, and I think this brief conversation captures a fragment of that. It staggers me each day that his work, and the work of CCP as a whole, gets ignored and over-looked by the industry.
Frankly I don’t give a crap whether you liked Eve, or found it boring, or unplayable or anything else: what you need to understand are the principles that are at its foundations, because they’re principles that can be applied to stop MMOs becoming stale and inflexible in the future. The number of people I’ve encountered working on MMOs who don’t really know anything about Eve Online is shocking, and I regard that lack of knowledge of the work of people like Harðarson as one of the key reasons why MMOs are progressing so slowly, and regurgitating the same tired, tiresome ideas over and over again.
Anyway, let’s get down to the interview.
RPS: So you’re moving from Iceland to Atlanta?
Yes, I’m helping with the design of the World Of Darkness game, which is now in production. I’ve moved my family out there, bought a house, and so on.
RPS: A pretty big move. And you’re setting up your second studio – what’s that like?
Well it’s actually our third studio, we have one in Shanghai as well. Well none of them are quite complete, but we’re building that studio in Shanghai and also one in Atlanta. [Where White Wolf are based] We’re now in the process of locating the right people, and we’re going to have about seventy people in Atlanta. What’s nice about that is that we already have quite a strong foundation already having merged with White Wolf, so it is about turning White Wolf into a game development company which has many challenges. But it’s different this time around, of course. When we started Eve we were virtually green, complete beginners, and now it’s… very different. We already have the technology, we already have a rolling start. There’s so much we’ve already achieved.
RPS: You and I have discussed, on many occasions, the difference between Eve and more, shall we say “classical” MMOs… Are you going to apply the principles of Eve in your new game design?
Yes, the key, we still believe, is human interaction. The World of Darkness game shares that vision. We wouldn’t really be in this business if it wasn’t for those principles…. I want to say so much, but I really can’t at this stage. But it’s about being real in the way that Eve feels real. People should really feel it: they’re not just playing a game… you know what I mean by that.
RPS: I do. Eve is real because it’s processes might be abstract but they’re still analogous to the gains and losses of real life. It’s a far more natural system than most games, which you see in the economy and the combat. And it makes me wonder why people haven’t copied Eve’s model. Why haven’t people tried to steal your ideas?
Well you say that but I think the zeitgeist is moving this way… human interaction. If you think about the websites like Facebook, YouTube, they have similar human input, and they’re much bigger than the MMOs. People are paying more attention now and realising that the point about MMOs is that they are about human interaction. The first couple of generations of MMOs have been single player games with lots of people in them, and there’s not much of a fundamental difference in the game design philosophy. There needs to be, and we can learn to do that.
RPS: And you think MMOs need to consider themselves to be more like Facebook?
They are more like Facebook, or should be. They share the same technology, and they have to be considered as a social technology if the genuinely massively multiplayer gameplay is going to emerge. People interacting is all that matters here. We are going to stick to this vision with our games. It was what we believe in some form back in 1997 when we formed the company, and I think we demonstrated it with Eve. It really works. People like Eve and play it. They kept playing it. Twenty five percent of people who bought the game on day one are still playing it now [That number includes me – Jim] and I think that is because of how the game is structured.
RPS: Is there more to do with Eve?
Absolutely. Yes, we will continue to build on top of Eve, just as we have always done. This is how we think about massively multiplayer games: we don’t think they have a lifespan. If you run them correctly, keep updating the technology, keep it fresh, there’s no limit to how old it is. There’s no “product” with “shelf life” it’s a system, an experience, that you log into and play with. I find it strange that with so many games that they create it, launch it, perhaps create a couple of expansions and then work on the sequel. These games do not grow. We don’t want to think of it that way, we want to keep evolving. With Eve there’s no indication of “shelf life”, I don’t see why it couldn’t run for fifty years. We put a lot of development into Eve and we’ve overhauled the 3D engine, included all new ship models, and that process will continue. In June we’re going to add more… factional warfare.
RPS: I thought that was a myth? [Meaning that factional warfare has been “coming soon” in Eve for about two years]
Haha, I know, it’s always in the next patch. But it is coming.
RPS: Are you still learning from the players?
Yes. They’re the reason the game keeps changing. We are absolutely learning from them. That will never stop.
RPS: When I spoke to you a few years ago you had some other MMO ideas that you said you’d like to work on. Is that something you can do now, or are you sticking with these two projects?
We don’t want to expand too fast. The reason for expansion can never be expansion itself. Right now we want to make sure that we can run two massively multiplayer projects and so that’s what’s on the table for the next three or four years. Planning beyond that is impossible. Of course I still have those ideas, and I will be developing games for many years, but I can’t say what I will be doing in five years time.
RPS: Going back to Eve again, what’s happening with your launch of the Chinese server? I heard it was rather less of a success than the Western server?
It’s not really that big. The players don’t seem to enjoying it and there aren’t that many of them.
RPS: Isn’t that because so many of them are playing on the Western server already?
It might be. I really don’t know, but importing games to China was difficult, there were many cultural barriers beyond even language. I think it’s true even of bringing Eve to the US, there were barriers. The game is so /European/, in many ways, that there was resistance. The US is now one of the biggest market, but bringing it to the US, explaining it, that was difficult. Eve is a special, complex game, and that creates problems. In China too. And China is a big market, hard to get noticed in. I don’t know how many gamers there are there now, but it is a huge number.
RPS: 58 million online gamers by the end of 2008 was the most recent estimate.
Really? Okay. Yes, well we are still interested in getting into China, and we’re doing a lot of work now with Chinese companies to get our technology across and strengthen us. The game is complex, and hard to deliver to new players.
RPS: How are you finding working with White Wolf? CCP have been so used to having their own way with everything they’ve done, is it difficult to adjust to someone else having lots of input in a project?
Absolutely not. I mean we sensed it before the companies joined, but we’ve found that we have a very common vision. We have many of the same ideas, the same feelings about game vision…
RPS: How did your two companies even cross paths?
It was at GenCon 2005, I think, or 2006… Anyway, we were going the Eve card game and we wanted to show people, to show to publishers. We went to talk to a lot of different publishers and role-playing developers and during this we met with White Wolf. It turned out that they were very interested in moving the World Of Darkness IP into the massively multiplayer space, and we were already fans of that world, we had even played the games. It made a lot of sense to keep talking.
RPS: Is World Of Darkness exclusively CCP’s IP now? Can there still be other games as there have been in the past with Masquerade and Bloodlines?
We’re exclusively massively multiplayer, but it doesn’t mean there can’t be single player developments. We’ll concentrate on MMOs though, because that’s what has been successful for us. I mean, it really has been successful. We’re independent, we’re not relying on a publishing company, we can make all our own decisions. That is so good for us.
RPS: How much have you had to rely on external investment, I seem to remember you talking about wealthy backers in the past?
Very little really. Eve has supported us financially most of the way.
RPS: Do you think developers could set out to “Do a CCP?” Could there be said to be a CCP development studio model that others could copy?
Well the difficulty in conventional game development is in finding that initial investment to support your product. Games are super high-risk, so venture capitals aren’t going to invest. That is a little different in the massively multiplayer game, because if you are a small MMO you could still make a niche for yourself and make a successful game. It changes the dynamics of how games work as products. In our case we’ve had a regular income, and a single game that evolves over time. You watch other companies go bankrupt and close down because they make a couple of failures. It’s just incredibly difficult financial model to support.
RPS: Also you neatly sidestep piracy. And no cloned servers for you – the human interaction basis for Eve sees to that.
Well yes, but also the server simulation itself is a tough nut to crack. The technology on the Eve server is so complex, I don’t think it could be replicated easily.
RPS: A super-computer for a virtual galaxy.
Yes. I don’t know the statistics, but it is very complex.
RPS: Do you think there should be more, smaller MMOs? “Boutique MMOs?”
Yes, of course. We’re already seeing these trends with browser-based MMOs. Things like Runescape are very important to the future of games. The success of these games shows that people can operate independently with simply technology. I mean originally even we didn’t want to go that way, we wanted the support and infrastructure of a publisher, but when our publisher shut down its operation and made us “free” we internalised all their functions and became a kind of micro-publisher, just putting out one game.
RPS: Customer service is a unique problem for you too, one that many developers simply haven’t had to deal with.
Oh yes, it gives us a very close proximity with the playerbase, and we wanted to do that, rather than hand it over a publisher.
RPS: And you’ve had to deal with some unprecedented situations, such as the scandal over a developer helping our player factions… do you think that kind of conflict was inevitable?
Yes, it was, especially in a game as competitive as Eve. With so much PvP, so much politics, it’s unavoidable. It’s very different to other MMOs – no one cares if a traditional MMO designer gives his character a level 60 sword, because he’s not really affecting anyone beyond a limited personal sphere. In a game like Eve, on the other hand, a developer abusing their power… well. There was a lot of suspicion and some accusations. In most cases there is nothing to it, but in one case there was something to it, and we had to respond to that.
RPS: You feel happy about how that was dealt with?
Yes, we needed to create the policies that would avoid this in the future. We can’t afford for suspicion to turn into truth. Say something often enough and… well, you know how people are.
RPS: When do I get to see the World Of Darkness MMO then?
Haha, well. We’ll show it when we show it. You know, of all the things we thought about following up Eve with, the idea of a vampire game was a powerful one. It’s so ambitious, and it’s what we’re doing now. That’s incredibly exciting… I can’t really say any more. Soon, soon.
RPS: Thanks for talking to me. And take a look at this guy. He’s pretty interesting.
I will do, thanks.