When you've got Eve Online's senior technical producer on the phone, it's rude not to ask him about his plans for that most righteous of MMOs. Here's what Olafsson had to say about Eve and forthcoming expansion, Tyrannis. We also had a few words about console action crossover, Dust 514. (Am I convinced there won't be a PC client? No, not convinced. CCP still saying it's their console game, however.)
RPS: Around 2003 there was a lot of optimism about what MMOs could do - Eve, Planetside - there doesn't seem to have been another big wave of MMO innovation since then. I wonder if we're getting back toward that now... but there's still no one copying Eve's model (aside from Perpetuum, which remains in a closed beta). Does it surprise you that no one is trying "do a CCP"?
Olafsson: Well I think plenty of people are being influenced by Eve, at least, just as we are influenced by many other games. I think the wave of optimism in 2003 had a lot to do with Ultima Online coming out and firing up the developers. Look at it backwards: consider the time it takes to create an MMO, what people were doing before that, and playing before that, it's Ultima Online and MUDs. What we can see about MMOs is the space is dominated by a single product: Ultima, Everquest, and then World Of Warcraft came and killed them dead. It makes the space difficult to get into. But you are asking about more sandbox approaches...
RPS: Well, I talk to a lot of MMO developers, and I never hear them say "oh we're trying be Eve", or "oh we got that from Eve..."
Olafsson: Perhaps people consider us too hardcore, too obscure. They may be concerned that they're never going to reach twelve million subscribers if they go the sandbox route. And it's also more challenging. It would be incredibly hard to do a big launch on a sandbox game. These kinds of games rely on social structures to work. You can't go straight to a million players in this way when there are a million strangers. A million subscribers... you need to grow from a smaller number, to grow relationships, not just the world.
RPS: Can you talk about Dust? How did that come about? [Dust is a planned crossover with consoles to create a planetary action game that is plugged in to the functioning Eve universe at an economic and strategic level - ExplanaBot]
Olafsson: It came about because we think that Eve itself is an exciting IP, and we really like that world we have created. A lot of people are excited about it - books, tonnes of fiction and so on. We wanted to capitalise on that. But secondly we as a company want to make console games, but our expertise is sandbox MMOs and larger network infrastructure. This was a perfect opportunity to go into the console space. We were not going to copy something else that had been done previously, but instead capitalise on our expertise in managing large, networked communities and infrastructure, to manifest our IP there. Rather than create something that was sideways in time, or otherwise disconnected from the original game, we decided to plug it right in: to connect this new console game to the vibrant, pre-existing economy and social structure of Eve. It's a good way to catalyse a community: to have movement already there. That's the problem with any community - if you start from scratch you will struggle. If you can plug what you are doing straight into the pre-existing movers and shakers then you have momentum.
It's a game design nightmare. An interesting nightmare. We're enjoying the technical challenge.
RPS: So anyway, moving back to Eve itself, the planetary interaction stuff you have planned for Tyrannis is presumably groundwork for Dust. How does that work?
Olafsson: Because Eve is all on a single server it is quite volatile, quite fragile. If we put out something on the server then it could break the game, the entire community, the entire economy. With this in mind we put our expansions every six months. Rather than rolling out huge expansions every eighteen months to a big fanfare, we are producing them iteratively. What we are doing next is our planetary interaction expansion, Tyrannis, which also includes our new socialisation features, EveGate. The planetary interaction feature set is the first step of many to building on planets which will lead into Dust. In the expansion right now you are given the ability to scan for resource deposits and to build infrastructure to extract them. It's just the core mechanics of planetary interaction gameplay this time, that we will then iterate on in future expansions. It will provide an excellent source of income that can make money for you while you play the rest of the game.
RPS: Can you explain a bit the mechanics of it? How does infrastructure work?
Olafsson: What is important is that this has a low barrier of entry. All a player needs to do is purchase a command-centre somewhere on the open market, a command centre for the particular type of planet. All of the 55,000 planets in Eve are available for interaction, provided you can fly up next to it. If you are deep in low security space it could be protected by someone. You fly up, right click, and open the planet in planet mode. Plonk down the command centre and you can start to build extractors, processors, factories and different things. Then you need to place the factories close to the command unit and then be strategic in how you place modules, and then set up a production chain: what goes from where to where to produce material. Finally, of course, you need to fly to the planet every now and then to pick up your produce.
The interface is interesting, because it is a hybrid of abstract and photorealistic, the planet is realistic and the pins are abstract. We decided to use that approach because the worlds are so different in size, but also in terrain: we have gas giants, desert worlds, lava planets, and so on. We had to abstract out the graphics of the installations with little holograms.
RPS: What happens if someone already has a command centre down there?
Olafsson: If he is extracting then the resources will be low. In busy systems the planets will be sucked dry by lots of players. Everyone can interact with every planet, everywhere, but the more people who are using a planet, the less valuable it is.
RPS: No destruction mechanism for planet infrastructure?
Olafsson: No, not in this expansion. We will be iterating on the concept and introducing PvP concepts later.
RPS: Okay, so can you tell us a little bit about the other aspect of this expansion, EveGate?
Olafsson: EveGate is a portal into the game. We feel that the game is bigger than the client, and we feel that interfacing with the world when people aren't in front of their regular gaming rig is important. We're doing this iteratively too, so we focused on the most needed parts. For now we focused on social aspects, so there will be ways to log on and read and send Evemail, to access calendars where you can organise events, as well as create corporation profiles and view those of others. It is a socialisation interface, but we expect to introduce actual web browser. So you will be able to interact with those aspects of the game which don't require 3D graphics, such as corporation management. But those are to come, for now it is mail, calendar and profiles. In the future I want you to be able to pick up your iPhone and interact with the game on some level.
RPS: Looking back on the last couple of expansions (this is the 13th) how do you feel about the sovereignty mechanics? Obviously that was a big change in Dominion... how do you feel about it now?
Olafsson: I think it was a good start. It's certain not finished. I think it was really successful as an expansion, because it renewed interest in Eve - we saw old players coming back. In terms of mechanics, we saw warfare in 0.0 in become more tactical, and it became more interesting as a result. I think we can improve. After watching the gameplay, the graphs, the feedback, I feel we could do more to make it interesting. We fixed old and broken mechanics, of course, and many of them had been broken for a long time. But there are few systems in Eve I regard as "finished". The whole game is in flux and is open for iteration and polish. But there are just so many systems, and so little time.
RPS: Speaking of time, thanks for yours!
Tyrannis hits Eve on May 18th.