EVE Online’s Andie Nordgren: “When People Are Talking A Lot About CCP That Usually Means Something Is Wrong”

Andie Nordgren (she's the one on the right)

During FanFest 2015 I sat down to talk with EVE Online’s executive producer Andie Nordgren about communication and EVE Online. It’s a game with a reputation for being hardcore. As Nordgren puts it herself later in our chat, “You have this idea that people who play EVE are some weird spreadsheet masochists, right?” So, with that in mind, how do you go about attracting and keeping players? How do you teach them to play in a way that’s actually useful and doesn’t involve a wall-o-text? And who do potential players listen to anyway?

As a starting point I asked about a recent talk she had given called Remembering To Get Over Yourself. It was inspired by a blog post from Kathy Sierra who advised that instead of caring what users think about YOU, you should care what they think about themselves after interacting with whatever it is you’ve created. Success is when “users will talk about themselves, instead of talking about you”. It’s a philosophy which underpins how Nordgren is approaching the growth of EVE Online and informs the company’s interactions with its playerbase.

“It’s kind of a test we have now when we’re putting out some designs or some systems and people talk about themselves or how they want to use it,” says Nordgren. “When players are talking to each other and about themselves and each other that’s when we’re doing a great job. When people are talking a lot about us that usually means something is wrong, whether it’s praise or critique. It’s just the wrong focus. I think this FanFest has been more and more about us [offering] staging for players to talk to each other.”

The change to how EVE Online releases updates has been mentioned often this FanFest – it’s a shift from big expansions released at intervals months apart to a steadier drip feed of content. I ask whether it’s an approach which taps into the desire to play down developer ego. “It’s not coming directly out of that but it has to do with it,” clarifies Nordgren. “We come out with a new approach which is less thinking that to grow the game we have to make all this noise.

“It’s a reflection of how people choose what games to play or what products to use today. You don’t necessarily listen much to press releases and formal reviews from, say, magazines – you go and read reviews or the comments or you go and see does it have a good Reddit community. That’s how you evaluate today and there’s no hiding.

“Either your game and your community is in a happy state and they will tell people who show up to check it out or it doesn’t matter what you do in terms of banging the drums of ‘something new that’s gonna be amazing!’ If people say genuinely that something’s amazing, that’s when you trust it and when you go for it. It’s much easier to work like that when we also are releasing much more frequently. Then we can trust that continuous change is good for the health of the game and if the game is in a healthy state it spreads itself.”

Onstage during the EVE Online keynote

Related to this observation, in an earlier conversation Paul Elsy, CCP’s community manager, had let me know that the company is planning to extend its fanside activities over the coming months. Player involvement and evangelism is part of bringing players to EVE, then. But once those players are through the door the issue of keeping them arises.

As part of the keynote Nordgren talked about the game’s Opportunities system. Since February CCP have been providing half of newcomers with seven opportunities to aid them in finding their space legs while the rest get the 78 Aura tutorial steps and thousands of words of the older system. Each opportunity consists of a set of completable tasks but the player can decide how to fulfil those themselves.

As CCP Rise explained at the time, the idea was to “encourage and inspire new players to set their own goals and objectives by gently hinting at the opportunities available to them in the world, as goal setting is perhaps the most important part of each pilot’s EVE journey”. According to Nordgren the Opportunities idea has been a success and is being expanded to cover a number of other aspects of the game. Continued success will eventually see the new system replacing the old.

“Because EVE is a game so much based on you taking initiative, what our job becomes in the tutorial is to explain to people what kind of initiative it is that you can take. To teach that is something different than teaching someone how the game works. It’s a different perspective and an interesting challenge.” The question here is how you teach people to act.

But there are also big changes being made to how Nullsec Sovereignty works. There are extensive dev blogs about those plans which you can read if you’re curious, but the basic idea is to combat stagnation in Nullsec and to make the regions more accessible to players not attached to mega corporations.

“We have to take responsibility for getting people into the basics of the game and orientation but then we know how it works – the most powerful way to join EVE Online is when someone who is already on the inside takes you under their wing and guides you into the game,” says Nordgren. “In a sense all of these changes we’re making for existing players are also for new players because then you have something to join. Maybe the thinking in the past has been more that there’s a choice – either you make stuff for new players or you make it for old players but I don’t think like that. I think making stuff for old players is, by extension, making stuff for new players.”

Ye olde EVE roleplay
As the interview continues we get to the subject of Andrew Groen’s book, A History Of The Great Empires Of EVE Online, which covers the escapades of a great number of old players during the game’s first decade of warfare and politicking. CCP aren’t involved with the publication of the book beyond helping Groen try to contact former players but Nordgren is excited to read it. I tell her that one of the things which has stood out to me in talking to Groen was the roleplay focus in the mid-2000s. I ask whether that’s something she wants to cultivate more in the current game.

“As executive producer now I’m certainly bringing that back,” she says. “Not because I think everyone wants to cosplay or roleplay but because I have this view on EVE as the world’s largest living work of science fiction and the amount of effort and ambition that we put into crafting that world is really important for the experience people have there.

“No-one has to roleplay EVE, you can still experience the world as you’re right there looking at the ships and so on, I just know that if something is well-crafted you can feel it. When the ships look different based on the races and classes it’s not just a jumble of whatever, there’s a direction to it and an ambition to it. Even for people who say they don’t care it matters.

“I sometimes take about it as the Lord of the Rings effect where, even for those who just watch the movies, you know that the pattern on someone’s armour or if there’s text on a sword it means something. There’s a whole language behind it. You don’t need to learn Synderin Elvish to appreciate that it exists. That’s what we’re trying to do in the world now – really make sure that EVE is coherent, ambitious, beautiful. That really reinforces and validates the time people choose to spend in it. I have a lot of respect for people’s time and I want that time to matter. This is one of the ways we do that.”

Examples of the disgn work which goes into EVE Online - these are from the official art book

One of the methods Nordgren mentions is that they now sometimes make changes to the game without explaining them upfront. “Like, there’s an explosion that has happened somehow in one of the regions of space the players can access – over in Jove space. We didn’t tell anyone upfront, we didn’t go ‘Something’s going to happen!’ We just deployed it in secret and set it off and people still don’t know what it means exactly but there’s a plan behind all of that. It’s going to keep unfolding and people will experience it as it happens.

“If you tell people upfront you take all the magic out of it and I think there’s an appreciation for that. Even the people on the Council of Stellar Management – they come to summits in Reykjavik and we pretty much tell them all of our plans except for these plans. I was in the meeting saying ‘We’re just not going to tell you. We’re going to show you some of the tech behind it but we’re just not going to talk about the stuff.’ They were like, ‘Yes! Don’t tell us, we don’t want to know.’ Why would you want to know up front how the book’s going to end?

Between Groen’s work and the acquisition of EVE Online by the Museum of Modern Art’s design department I ask whether Nordgren has ever considered employing an official archivist at CCP – someone to keep track of the game’s various iterations and associated information.

“We do have a lot of data for the whole history of the game but most of the stuff that Andrew’s doing now for the history book – we don’t know these things. I don’t think we could have done what he’s doing because none of this we can see in the logs of the game. Of course we write stuff down and capture it in one way or another… ” Like the art book? Yes, like the art book.

At the end of the interview I ask how the switch to executive producer has been and the conversation circles back to marketing – that idea of a happy community seeding itself.

“This is Eve [above] is a trailer that came out of that new strategy, for example. How can we equip our existing players with something that helps them explain to other people why they play? You have this idea that people who play EVE are some weird spreadsheet masochists, right? It’s thinking ‘How do we help people show others what the game is and help them not look like hopeless nerds, but rather like the coolest gamers on the planet?’ That was one of the huge perspectives that went into making the video.It was a very different direction in terms of trailer making.”

I’ve teared up while watching that trailer – I say as much, although I leave out the fact that I’ve also teared up over mobile phone adverts, sad-looking birds and the idea that no-one came to the birthday party of a bear I had imagined. Instead I ask whether, in holding the related player trailer competition, CCP got any emotional gut punches themselves. Her response highlights one of the difficulties in trying to tinker with an established pattern.

“A couple of them, absolutely, but there’s such an established format for a game trailer that we also had a lot of submissions that were going back to a more traditional trailer style, trying to go ‘This is why EVE is awesome’ with all the trailer checkbox stuff around it. That’s what people think when you say ‘trailer’ and we were trying to do something quite different with This Is EVE, There were some really cool submissions but also a lot of videos that showed me how strong the idea of how you’re supposed to market games is.”

35 Comments

  1. jasta85 says:

    I was seriously into EVE back in collage, around 2006-2008. The game has made huge strides since then, however I do remember that if you wanted to have fun you really need to be part of a corp. I don’t know if they improved the missions but they were incredibly boring after a while and rolling with other players was where all the excitement came from. I also remember i being an incredible drain on my time and I don’t have all that much free time anymore or else I might be tempted to jump back in.

    • Distec says:

      Missions still operate the same way, largely. In that they suck. They have added new “Burner” missions which are basically advanced missions for frigates. I haven’t tried them myself, but I bet they beat the shit out of slowboating through deadspace with a battleship. And the glue is still player corporations.

      I know she has some naysayers, but CCP Seagull has been a boon to this game if their recent developments are anything to go by. I hope she sticks around for as long as possible.

      • ThomasHL says:

        It feels like Seagull understands that this is an MMO which has been around for a decade. You’ve got time, you don’t need constant injections of hype and prepackaged content. If you just focus on making the game better for players to play then in the long term EVE is only going to grow

    • Cropduster says:

      Yeah, pretty much all pve in eve basically amounts to what would be daily quests in other MMOs. Repeatable and forgettable, and a means to an end (money) rather than an end in itself. You really need to break out of standard mmo habits and get involved in the wider game and the communities around it, and find the people and play style for you.

      Once you’re there you suddenly have access to some of the intense and memorable moments that can be achieved with a computer and screen (as well as the most rage-educing and frustrating with no added cost)

      • lordcooper says:

        While I agree for the most part, recent updates have added in a form of smarter, roaming NPC called Drifters that have proven fully capable of taking down even capital ships.

        • Cropduster says:

          They’re pretty cool i must admit, but as of now they’re more of an event rather than content. But it’s true things are moving forwards on the pve front.

  2. ATwig says:

    Small typo (or Seagull miss-spoke):

    “Like, there’s an explosion that has happened somehow in one of the regions of space the players can access – over in Jove space. […]”

    Players can-not access Jove space. It’s part of the mystery behind the explosion!

  3. Mr Coot says:

    I played EVE for a while and being around sparky thinking people was energising. In the end I didn’t make enough connections with the right sort of people to stay long term. That’s prolly the key to the keeping bit of “how do you go about attracting and keeping players”. Imo, tho, it wouldn’t hurt to hang about in the rookie and standard help chat for a few days. Log and purge the actual anti-social personalities and weirdo pathological repeat in-persona players (sockpuppets) who get pleasure from exhibiting in and disrupting the shared help space.

  4. SaintAn says:

    Well duh. And CCP deserves all the hate. You mistreated the fans of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines who you gave permission to to work on a mod to overhaul it with new graphics and bug fixes, then a long time after they had been working on it you send them a cease and desist and shut down their project while doing nothing but sitting on the beloved WoD IP for no other reason to be shitty to its fans. And you completely mishandled the MMO because you are an incompetent company with imbeciles in charge.

    What’s not to hate about this awful company and their on rails spaceship game? There’s way better spaceship games out there and coming soon, so there’s no need to support CCP.

    Hope they go under.

    • Distec says:

      WoD was unfortunate, but I think we’re getting a little too emotional if you think they mistreated fans they never really had to begin with.

      Also not sure how Eve qualifies as on-rails, but oh well.

    • Kala says:

      On rails? What?
      It’s a sandbox mmo. It’s the precise opposite of that…

      • meloncrab says:

        I’d suspect the “on-rails” comment refers to the submarine physics of the game.

        • Kala says:

          Oh, as in the combat not being twitch based? Or something?

          • jellydonut says:

            Yeah, how dare they not let me pilot my 3 kilometer long carrier with a joystick.

            Some people really miss the point here..

  5. rexx.sabotage says:

    hahahahaha

    … coolest gamers on the planet

  6. Kala says:

    Encouraging interview. Some attitudes expressed that sound well thought-out and insightful. There was a period where there was so much ego, so much LOOK AT THIS AWESOME THING HERE and Team Awesome. She’s absolutely right. While I can understand the desire to make something cool and show it off, that shouldn’t be what it’s about. The focus needed to shift; which, in fairness, is more in-line with the ethos in the game which was perhaps…lost sight of somewhere along the way, so perhaps ‘the focus needed to shift back’ would be more accurate.

    EVE has always been a toolbox of sorts. It’s what you do with it, what the players create within that space, within that universe; and the freedom they have. So yes, while the earlier model of chucking you in space and saying “cope” was (arguably, I quite liked it) a bit much, a lengthy prescriptive tutorial goes too far in the other direction. This ‘Opportunity’ system sounds (in principle) a perfect compromise; teaching you how to use the game but also preparing you that this is a game where you set your own goals and do things you’re own way; you won’t be told. (especially important when there are now certain things associated intrinsically with MMOs, such as instances, level cap, ‘end game’ etc and their absence can confound people when they first play EVE)

  7. racccoon says:

    The reason why Eve CCP changed the updates of large content to small snip bits is, one they don’t want to caught with their pants down and two so they could keep stealing ideas from the now rampant oppositions.
    After all, CCP is just a copy and pasting business.

    • FireStorm1010 says:

      Hmm what? You can say a lot of bad things about Eve, but its the only one truly revolutionary MMORPG out there, so your comment is ridiculous

    • jellydonut says:

      That’s the most idiotic criticism of CCP I have heard yet. I am the first to call them out on bad game design, but copycats?

      Name *one* competitor to Eve. Just one.

      No, Star Citizen is not an MMO, and not even a game yet. It may be set in space but it has nothing else in common with Eve.

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        One could make the case that Eve Valkyrie is riding the same wave of space combat games as Star Citizen and Elite, but Eve the MMO? Nah, it’s pretty unique.

  8. Snargelfargen says:

    there’s such an established format for a game trailer that we also had a lot of submissions that were going back to a more traditional trailer style, trying to go ‘This is why EVE is awesome’ with all the trailer checkbox stuff around it. That’s what people think when you say ‘trailer’ and we were trying to do something quite different with This Is EVE, There were some really cool submissions but also a lot of videos that showed me how strong the idea of how you’re supposed to market games is.”

    A pity this was snuck in at the end of the interview. It would be interesting to go into depth about this.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      I’m attempting rather ineptly to quote Andie, please don’t mark me down for plagiarism!

  9. airmikee says:

    “So, with that in mind, how do you go about attracting and keeping players? How do you teach them to play in a way that’s actually useful and doesn’t involve a wall-o-text? And who do potential players listen to anyway?”

    You stop endorsing, condoning, and participating in the games serious theft and dishonesty problems. Personally I’d prefer an actual, literal nest of vipers over the snakes found in EVE because the real vipers are honest about their intentions.

    • Gibs says:

      IMHO that is not the reason many try and leave EVE. It’s for several reasons they dont seem to have any willingness to fix, for them it’s working as intended. Reason why I left after having invested considerably in it.
      PvE is shit: obviously PvE is not the focus of the game (it’s PvP yes), but it’s in the game isnt it? And it’s what people are expected to try with the tutorial and many do it cause if done right it’s good ISK and yeah… it’s shit.
      The skill queue sucks and encourages gerontocracy every day a little bit more. Most of the people in the game remain for that fact, hard to give up the power gained with time. And the longer you stay and the harder it is to give up so much invested time and money. Sure you can optimize for just a certain ship, but I assure you that even after months you wont even remotely have the perfect all 5s stats many characters have.
      And the gameplay simply isn’t fun, the terrible physics mixed with the space clicking mechanic…mixed with the super-boring time spent going say from a region to another, even with good logistics (bridges, clones, your ships parked all around the cluster that you tend to forget about ofc), it still sucks and it is in no way fun. Most of the game has no real depth, it’s just overly convoluted…which isnt the same thing as having a deep gameplay I’m afraid. It’s designed for time sinks right from the beginning, time sinks for this, for that, time sinks for everything. All MMO have some timesinks, most have moved on years ago from using those so heavily, but EVE…does it egregiously. Ofc CCP or other old player (those I was talking about above that have invested so much, I know, I was one of them) will explain why this is like this or that, sure if the reasons I can give you can be make-believe, I could justify anything. /end of rant

      • Gibs says:

        BTW you dont have to believe me. IMHO the real good thing EVE has are its players. I mean literally. Lots of bright, clever dudes…many of them bloggers writing some brilliant stuff and a joy to be with… unfortunately once they realize like I did that the game is 95% boring crap, they leave, so if you dont believe me, believe them.

        • Gibs says:

          Or but BTW, dont think it’s just CCP that needs to get over itself, it’s the players too. One thing some guy once said that stuck around even after years “Every time someone leaves Eve to play Wow the average IQ of both games rises.” or some version of that. I think that gives you a good idea of the “internet spaceships are serious business” crowd.

      • FireStorm1010 says:

        Well I have played Eve for 10 years with breaks so I would assume i have known the game and your rant would be imho more believable if you added all the positive sides of the game. The one of akind inanse pvp, he one of a kind player controlled space, the player driven market etc.

        YEs i can agree everything takes long in Eve. In the end all the few last times i resubscribed i quit again because:
        1-As for you to much slow boring stuff before the insane fun stuff pvp. And yuo never know if all the 4 hours prepearations for the big battle wont go to waste as you got to go to sleep. and the battle will start exactly 15 minutes after you left.
        2-Everything has become to big for me. In begining of Eve,when 5k was max players, a 30 man fleet was considered a blob , 2-3 ships fight were most common. Also to have a top of the line ship you just needed a well fitted battleship, so with some risk and skills you could earn that in a few hours. Now blobs are in the hundreds of palyers, to matter in big fights you got to get a insanely expensive mothership, and everything in that scale takes a lot more time. It isnt its bad per se, it doesnt suit me. ITs a bit liek wild west skirmishes us later civilized mass warfare:)

        • Gibs says:

          I was focusing on what’s not working in EVE and said just the first things that came to my mind, I tried to avoid going in depth, so that people not knowing EVE would understand. Ofc there are aspects of EVE that are fun, they are just too few though. Player driven market? You mean the player’s scripted macro driven market I’m afraid. Some dude are positively pathological, staring at their market bookmarks and updating orders constantly the whole day. Big battles? Time fucking dilation (non EVE players, look it up). Big nullsec sov (sovereign) corps? Real money trading… plus all of the above. Believe me, RMTing is a thing in nullsec. CCP tries but, too widespread. Many EVE players are more tech savvy then CCP devs themselves, I’m not shitting you. So go figure.

        • Cropduster says:

          Honestly though there are still plenty of groups that fight that way, there’s not much incentive for it in the big alliances.

    • Cropduster says:

      Well actions and mistakes in eve have actual consequences, which are essentially absent from any other mmo. The fact that the game mechanics even allow for theft, or advantage through dishonorable actions is probably the main reason it made it past 2005. Player interaction, good and bad, fuels everything.

      There’s a consequence for the minority that steal and grief too, it’s one server with a tight knit community and you can’t escape your reputation. There are indeed ‘snakes’ but for the most part it’s a pretty amazing group.

      CCP just need to get new players engaged with the wider universe, and get them off the arbitrary progression treadmill they tend to wind up on.

      • Gibs says:

        IMHO they did a huge mistake choosing a boss from inside the company. They needed someone from outside the company, someone who can see through EVE’s cliches, someone who can think outside the box. And instead.. they made the Politically Correct choice. >_>

        • Gibs says:

          …and even with all this bitching, I still feel the pull to resub the damn game :P

        • Kala says:

          “They needed someone from outside the company, someone who can see through EVE’s cliches, someone who can think outside the box. And instead.. they made the Politically Correct choice. >_>”

          Really? As it sounds from the interview, she’s doing just what you describe.

        • Cropduster says:

          IMO Seagull has been great so far. I was as skeptical as anyone else when she took over from Unifex/Lander but as of now I’m feeling more optimistic than ever about the future of internet spaceships.

          Game design teams have more freedom and flexibility than I’ve seen since I started playing in ’08, big changes are coming faster, and being swiftly iterated on following player and csm feedback. All it would take is an autocannon buff to make me a satisfied customer.

    • jellydonut says:

      Or you could stop being a baby about it.

      The cutthroat environment is what makes it interesting to most people. I’m sure there are more bland games with less risk for you out there.