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."
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."
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."
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."