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Forging Frontiers: EVE's Future

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If there was a subtext to the announcement that development on CCP’s World of Darkness was being stopped, it is surely that CCP has learned what it is good at – and that may not include vampires. “That was a big part of the keynote this year,” says CCP’s Torfil Oloffson. “And [CEO] Hilmar [Petursson] has said this a few times: CCP is now an EVE company. We will make other games and other products of course, but they will be set in the EVE universe.”

New Eden is a big place, of course. But just how big?

Torfi Frans Ólafsson is a CCP veteran of fifteen years, and now creative director for IP development for the EVE Universe. “I have a really long title, “ he laughs. “I used to be the senior producer on EVE, which is a very process-driven thing, and I was always in meetings talking about technical things and code re-factoring and things. I wanted to get back into working with the universe. I was also creative director for a time where I was able to help make some change, but there’s only so much you can do within the EVE client at the moment. I guess my interest is in the stories, that’s where I get my kicks.”

And to this end Oloffson is now in charge of how the EVE is extended – something that in other companies might be called a brand manager, but here is a mark of how invested he is in what players of CCP’s games keep producing. EVE Online’s future is one thing (and we’ll go into detail later), but the most interesting ‘extension’ of EVE to most of its current players will be Legion. The obvious question is what distinguishes Legion from Dust 2.0?

“Legion is an evolution,” says Oloffson, “and the fact it is on PC makes a lot of sense to us. I’m a PC nerd and I think a lot of EVE players are PC gamers, and if you enjoy FPS games there is something better about PC controls. And obviously Legion is not a port of Dust, they share some DNA of course but there will be different game modes etcetera.”

Why the differentiation in that case? “Well it provides you with an opportunity to iterate and our development is a lot about iteration, about reacting to feedback and coming up with something new.” Interesting in the light of the fact that one of the main pieces of feedback on Dust was that, basically, it isn’t very good. CCP do not have an FPS history internally, so how do you solve that with a satellite studio like CCP Shanghai? Is it just a question of hiring top people?

“That’s one of the things that you do,” says Oloffson. “You discover what your expertise is, and then you partner with people when you know what their expertise is. Passionate young spirits. I know this is slightly different but that was the benefit of working with Dark Horse for example on the True Stories book, they know how to do a comic.”

It is a bit of a change in tack to be honest, but let’s go with it into one of EVE’s more intriguing offshoots – a projected TV series based on what most non-players of EVE love about the game, the player stories. “So last year we gathered stories from our community,” says Oloffson. “We were lucky enough to get many from key members of our community, all very fascinating stuff of varying quality. The idea is to take that experience and use it to drive the TV series, but not necessarily just re-tell the stories straight – the player stories suffer from the fact, and I mean this specifically with regards to TV, that there are no meeting rooms for conversations, or sewers to hide in on planets, that kind of thing. And we want to tell the full story of this universe, what it’s like on the streets: what is it like to live on a desert colony planet in the middle of nowhere?”

The problem I found with the EVE True Stories comic is that the game’s complexity doesn’t necessarily translate well into a snappy narrative; that specific example loses a lot of the original story’s texture. “That’s why we wanted to go television rather than film,” says Oloffson. “We had a lot of people approaching us wanting to condense everything into a 90 minute or 120 minute film. And if you look at action or science fiction movies today they’re kind of targeted at PG-13 audiences. It is a very strong formula, I do not dispute that, but this is very frustrating at least for me – because they don’t take many risks like that. However, longform television is taking risks, telling great stories with great characters and not afraid of things like, for example, killing off those characters halfway through.”

Come on then Torfi, we’re mates – is it with HBO or what? “We’ll be using professionals of course, the director is Baltasar Kormakur, and through him and through our own network we have plenty of contacts and potential ways to go. Unfortunately I can’t give you anything in terms of specifics there yet, but we’re playing with the big boys.”

Funny phrase. These interviews were done on different days and EVE Online is a male-dominated ecosystem, yet the smartest person I find to talk to about its future is its senior producer Andie Nordgren. I’ve previously seen her talk about player-built stargates, an upcoming feature that has to have an element of accessing the unknown to make it worthwhile, and basically want to know if CCP are cooking up a whole other universe in secret for us space nerds.

“I can’t really say,” laughs Nordgren. “Because it is early days for us, and I want to be careful not to pre-empt the work we are doing internally on what it will be – but also to not have people jump to conclusions. I was trying to talk more about the type of stuff we want to give people. In the beginnings of EVE the universe felt vast and unexplored.”

It still feels that way to me “It feels that way to many people! But it is still much more known now, yeah? There are almost no corners not held by someone or having stuff there or colonized in some way, and incidentally in a much more lightweight way than I have a vision for. I want places to be more colonized, I want to make the existing universe more interesting by letting people build almost their own towns, right? Not just a big 3D model, but a combination of things with different purposes that is worth holding and defending – and of course people can come and attack and maybe not just destroy but take over and so on. This is what I’m interested in doing with the existing space.”

Does this mean, in any sense, changes to the fundamentals of how EVE Online works? The game already has Planetary Interaction, but if that’s Farmville then this sounds more like Sim City. “There are a couple of fundamental doctrines in EVE that, if we’re changing them, we’re kind of throwing out ten years of player investment and game balancing and so on,” says Nordgren. “How you fly your ship for example and how we simulate that – if we make fundamental changes to that then every module and everything in the game is then basically thrown out. And the way things like skills work, stuff that is absolutely core to the game, we like those designs.”

So if you want to give us something different you have to go elsewhere? “So if we want to give you a more visceral experience when flying your spaceship, not in the Valkyrie sense but maybe something more direct, then we have to go somewhere else to do it,” says Nordgren. “Or at the very least it has to be a cordoned-off part of the game. And maybe that’s some type of special asteroid belt or gas fields you access and you have to put your ship in a special mode – I want to clarify these are ideas to illustrate a principle, not features we’re working on. Considerations like that are the background to our wish to give people a place where not everything is known, and where they have to collaborate and compete to figure out something new.”

Saucy. But for EVE to have a future, it has to be able to not only attract but retain an active playerbase – at Fanfest CCP opnely admitted that 9 out of 10 new players simply bounce off. The game is incredibly complex, which seems to me both its greatness and an inherent problem with introducing new players.

“There’s something about how much of it there is of course,” says Nordgren. “We have a set of design principles that we’ve learned over the years work in terms of creating interesting experiences for people and sometimes… if you expect as a player that a game should give you a certain type of experience and you should be mostly in control of that, and this is about your relationship with the maker of the game – then you’re probably gonna ask for a lot of stuff we’re not gonna give you.”

“EVE is about us kind of mediating your experience with other people. Those are the amazing experiences, right? Where your actions impact on someone else’s experience. So we need to design for that, we need a design where you aren’t isolated from what other people do, which means you get some good stuff with that and also some bad stuff. So I mean an individual might have a bad experience, but hopefully that will be outweighed by good experiences in other areas – as a simple example you might get your ship blown up one day, but the next day you outsmart the attackers and get your freighter through. And that feels like a great victory. But it could never feel that way if there wasn’t the possibility you could get shot.”

For all that I agree with this, there’s a sense that new players aren’t quite ready for something like EVE – a situation that’s as much down to the lack of ambition among CCP’s competition as any inherent failings at the company. Simply put, most MMOGs limit the impact that players can have on other players to ultimately inconsequential PvP.

Let’s put it this way: if you play EVE, and a nice man comes up to you and says nice things and helps you for a while, then cons you out of everything you have? CCP wouldn’t care. “No we wouldn’t get involved,” says Nordgren. “And we get a lot of petitions and support tickets where people get angry and it’s well, ‘sorry’….”

“I think people come into EVE with expectations from other games, where your business is more with the game and thus you and the makers of the game. So people think ‘well I didn’t understand what was supposed to happen so you wronged me and you should refund or fix the problem you’ve caused for me.’ But because in our design your actions had impact on somebody else, we can’t unwind that chain of cause-of-effect rippling through the universe. Which basically means ‘sorry dude.’”

The great problem is that EVE depends on current players introducing new players – so what’s in it for them? Nordgren mentions practical improvements to the corporation UI and tooltips, but I wonder whether such activities shouldn’t be actively incentivised. “Yes I think that’s a possibility,” says Nordgren. “And at the very least it shouldn’t be punishing, and I think there are lightweight things we can build into the game that reward people for taking on and teaching newbies. Ideally from my perspective it shouldn’t be artificial rewards, it shouldn’t be CCP going ‘here have PLEX!’ It should be CCP showing how useful new players are for certain roles in the game and so it makes sense to recruit them.”

“What you’re saying about other games being designed to give you a very particular experience – they shed everything that doesn’t support and build up towards that. But EVE is more like coming into a hobby and we need to put people in the right mindset. If you pick up rockclimbing, or say Warhammer or something, you don’t come in on day one and expect to be a master. I use an F1 analogy for where people read about B-R5 and come in and say I wanna fly a titan, because it’s the same as looking at an F1 race – if you were taking up racing as a hobby in the real world that’s not how it works.”

While I’m sympathetic to the point, fundamentally EVE Online is a videogame and people don’t necessarily think of one game as a full-time hobby. “But the point of my F1 analogy is that you know it would take a shit-tonne of work to ever get there,” she says. “I think if people had more of that perspective, which it is of course our job to get across, then you would have less of these moments where you think it’s your fault for not getting it, or you’re too used to other games and the directed experience. In EVE a lot of the fun is in figuring things out. But if you don’t realise that, then maybe you feel stupid for not getting it straightaway, or just feel lost. You sit there looking at your ship in the station and don’t know what to do.”

The obvious finishing point is that mission statement, which seems so small but the more you think about it gets bigger and bigger: CCP is now an EVE company. This is in marked contrast to the situation in 2011-12 when the playerbase was basically in open revolt against CCP over things like a cosmetic item store and a lack of focus on EVE Online’s core game. So what changed?

“There’s a lot that could be said about it,” says Nordgren. “I think there was a bit of us taking EVE for granted maybe, that we as a group of people overestimated the shape the game was in and how much people enjoyed it and tuned out a bit maybe from the feedback we were getting. We were basically off by an order of magnitude in our noise-tuning apparatus. We have always had huge ambitions for EVE and wanted to bring in a lot more people and that was where this idea of avatar gameplay felt strong – as a portal that would be accessible to many more people – so we kind of set off to kind and build that, and left the existing game people are playing now to rot a little bit.”

“And what we had to come around and realise was that no-one’s gonna stick around if they don’t care about the game we have. And the game we have is really good and everything is there on its own merit, but it should then be developed rather than being ignored for something else. Realising that was the big turnaround, and going back to the roots because there’s good stuff there.”

So EVE is everything, but everything is not EVE Online. “We can still have this broader vision for an EVE universe where we can let you experience as much of it as possible,” finishes Nordgren. “But now rather than trying to add all of that into EVE Online the game, we’re making new games – we can take a couple of these dreams we have for what you should be able to do in this universe, and extend them out.”

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