Eve Online will never die, says head of studio after 18 years
We spoke to Hilmar Pétursson about the space MMO's past and future
Whoever said "nothing is certain but death and taxes" never played Eve Online. The space-faring MMORPG has no central government to shake you down for road money, and space pilots are cloned anew after every ignoble death. After 18 years and countless updates, Eve is one of the longest-running MMOs in the industry. It predates World of Warcraft by over a year. It is older than Facebook. Alongside long-toothed MMOs like Runescape, it has survived where others have fallen. But surely even this infamous generator of sci-fi skulduggery must pay the final toll some time. Well, not according to Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CEO of the game's developer, CCP.
"It's never going to die," he says.
Pétursson tells me this over a call in a quiet, model-strewn office, red-haired and looking a little fed-up with internet meetings after a year of pandemic lockdown.
"The pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Bible, like, take your pick," he says. "There's a lot of things that go on forever. The concept of money, the US dollar… These are social constructs and games are no different. They're social constructs. And if they do a good job of being relevant and keeping up with the times, there's no reason for them to end."
It's a big task, to defy death. The company boss might simply be displaying the kind of hyperbole CEOs are known for. Or it might be the confidence of a man who has just received a sword to celebrate 20 years working at his own company.
"The pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Bible, like, take your pick. There's a lot of things that go on forever."
"It's a German knight's sword circa 1600, I think," he says of the large Zweihander he recently used to open a bottle of champagne. "It's two-handed, extremely big."
This is part of a company tradition. Spend ten years with the Icelandic studio and a Viking sword is smithed in your honour. Pétursson is one of the few who has reached twenty. So he gets a really big one.
It hasn't always been swords and champagne at CCP, but there has always been big talk. In Pétursson's earliest days at the company in 2001, the company had a total of 35 people (today it has hundreds). And with that small staff they set out to make an MMO in which all players could exist in one big world. No instances, no splitting the players across multiple servers. Just one galaxy, filled with scum.
"It was surreal when we shipped the game," says Pétursson. "Making a single shard MMO is a ludicrous idea, even today, let alone 18 years ago. It was sheer madness. But we thought we had a pretty good theory about how we would put it all together.
"It was in many ways impossible to get all these things to work together with a tiny team. Especially because nobody in the team had ever made a game before. It was even to the point that nobody had really even met a game developer before. We were in Iceland and there were no game developers in Iceland, until we came along."
The isolated developers decided on a space game partly because it would save a lot of work on making assets that would dominate the creation of a game set on Earth or some fantasy realm ("You don't have to make the grass and the trees and all the houses," says Pétursson.) And for the first year of development they worked on two versions at the same time. A 3D singleplayer version for the graphics and game engine, and a separate 2D version for developing "the databases and backend and whatnot", all the spreadsheety details that would later make up Eve Online's brutal network of space stations and pilots.
"Which was royally confusing to everyone working on the game," says Pétursson. In the studio, people would look at the 2D version he was working on and joke: 'Hilmar knows the game is supposed to be in 3D, right?'
"But when we merged the streams of the 3D version and… the multiplayer version, that was a big moment," he says. "That was probably the first time I really played deep. We had a big playtest at the company, and that was quite a feat."
In 2004, one year after release, Eve Online broke the record for concurrent users in a single virtual world, which Pétursson says had been held by a Korean mythology MMO called Nexus: The Kingdom Of The Winds ( incidentally this has also survived into the 2020s and calls itself the world’s longest-running graphic MMORPG). Nexus had set a record of about 12,000 users in a single shard. Eve Online soon surpassed that. By 2006 CCP had more than doubled the figure.
"That was where we felt we were the biggest," says Pétursson. "In our very small definition of a niche."
But if death and taxes are certain, so is struggle. In the late 2000s, after years of managing a galaxy of increasingly notorious player scoundrels, staff at the company wanted a break from Eve.
"The concept of working on one game for such a long time was so unprecedented that a lot of people were itchy to do something else," says Pétursson.
The company entered what he calls an "adolescent" phase. They began to concept multiple other projects. And rather than limit the scope of these new games, the studio's habit of aiming high and talking big meant that some of these games would eventually be abandoned. An unreleased MMO based on the World Of Darkness universe was cancelled in 2014, for example. A PlayStation shooter, Dust 514, was made and based in the same universe as Eve Online. It had ambitious cross-play features that were interesting but not fully readable to anyone who jumped into a gunfight upon its buggy debut. CCP shut that down in 2016, three years after its release. The studio even announced an Eve TV show in 2013, but hasn't said much about it since (Pétursson insists to me this is still in progress and when I ask if it is in pre-production he says: "I would say it's in, uh, what they call a developmental state.")
"I think it's safe to say for a period of time we were overestimating our ability based on the success of Eve Online," says Pétursson of this teenage era for CCP. "Like, when you've done the impossible once, you think that it increases your odds of doing it again. And we picked some crazy concepts to pull off."
I ask if the studio's problem has been that it always tries to make another Eve Online. It always tries to go big.
"I mean, 'bigger than Eve' is a pretty high bar to do by now," says Pétursson. "Like... tens of millions of people have played Eve Online... It's pretty big. So I don't think it's helpful to put the pressure on a new game that it has to somehow out-do Eve Online. I don't think that's a good goal per se… We have tried to set out with that. It's not really a good plan.
"But I think it was - to CCP - good to have all [those] games going. From all the games you listed out there, we have always learned something and it does make us stronger as game makers."
Not everyone in the studio made it through those years, however. Like always, the real casualty wasn't the cancelled games that never made it to digital storefronts, or the discontinued shooter you can no longer play on PlayStation 3. It's the people who worked on these games.
"If you run your game as a service, which is constantly updating, then you get a degree of stability from that."
"The biggest challenge was I would say around 2011," admits Pétursson. "When we had scaled the company up quite a bit. We had grown to 640 employees from the 35 that shipped Eve Online in 2003. We had too many games in production and it was just too much too soon. And it was extremely painful to reconcile all that, to restructure the company to be appropriate to what was reasonable at the time."
Layoffs, in other words. This wouldn't be the last time CCP went through this process. In 2014, following the cancellation of World of Darkness, 100 people lost their jobs. In 2017 there were more layoffs as the company shuttered and sold studios working on spinoff VR projects.
Throughout all those ambitious side projects and painful job losses, Eve Online remained. It is now old enough to drink, and Pétursson puts some of its longevity down to the resilience of the increasingly dominant "games as a service" business model.
"I don't think it's necessarily limited to MMOs... If you run your game as a service, which [is] constantly updating, then you get a degree of stability from that which is maybe not what you have when you're going from [standalone] title to [standalone] title."
When asked if CCP would ever limit their scope to small one-and-done singleplayer games, he says he "wouldn't rule it out" and points to the VR shooter Gunjack as proof they can do that. But, as ever, Eve Online is the focus. It has become a studio mantra to say "Eve forever", and new hires are explicitly told they will be working on this game until the end of time.
"The wildest plans for Eve Online was the game going on for five years," says Pétursson. "And that felt insanely long for us. There just wasn't any pattern or paradigm to go by…
"Now we extremely clearly say we are going to have Eve Online go on forever," he says. "I think we first started to say this concept of 'Eve Forever' in 2010. And it was even batshit crazy to say it back then. But now [in] 2021, it's something that everyone at CCP says and believes in."
As a firm believer in the laws of entropy, I am of course skeptical of Pétursson's vision of a stealth ganker's space boot stamping on the face of a noob miner forever. But the future of CCP and Eve does not necessarily have to be a bleak one. The "games as service" model that Pétursson stands by has seen studios restarting their visions from scratch. Destiny's farm-o-shoot got a refined and improved sequel, for instance. Overwatch, the popular ship 'em up with guns is also getting a follow-up. Could there ever be an Eve Online 2? Or is that a ridiculous notion?
"I wouldn't necessarily rule it out," says Pétursson. "It's one thing you learn, you never say 'never'."
But he makes clear a direct sequel is not part of any (characteristically ambitious) plan in the studio today.
"It is not a big topic at CCP right now. We are way more focused on improving Eve Online, especially for new players joining. And we have many years on that initiative, and we know from our own data... that that is an extremely worthwhile endeavor. When we are through that and have gotten that to a good place, who knows what really comes next? It is so much contingent on how that [goes], but our overall vision is for Eve to go on forever."
If this is hubris, it is at least thematically appropriate to Eve's post-death universe of endlessly resurrected space pilots with long-term plans to loot billions of space bucks from their ancient rivals. But if Eve Online will go on for eternity, does that mean Pétursson will someday earn a third sword at the studio?
"Well," he says, "I'll die trying."