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Lords of War: EVE Interview, Part Two

From Star to Finish

We're catching up with our favourite, maddest, favourite and most mad MMORPG, EVE Online. If you missed part 1 of our interview with EVE's Lead Game Designer, Senior Producer and Community Developer, click right here. Then you can blast on through to part 2, featuring player-run universities, Nicholas Cage, and an answer to the taxing question of how one runs the largest-scale arms race videogames have ever seen.

RPS: Little expresses how rich the world of EVE is as much as CCP's employment of their own economist, Dr. Guðmundsson, to monitor their virtual world. I was wondering whether you guys, as designers, ever get told that you can't implement a feature because you'd cause terrible damage to the universe's economy.

Sveinn Kjarval (Community Developer): Ahh, we had a chat yesterday. I have a monthly meeting with him, in his position as the central bank director. There's a fair amount of interaction. We actually make a lot of changes based on what we get from him.

Right now we're nerfing a few of the income sources, because there's too much money coming into EVE. We've made some changes to incursions [invasions into EVE from a hostile NPC culture]. We've also noticed that mining hasn't been too profitable for some time, so we're putting bounties on NPC drones [found in asteroid fields], and we'll have to deal with the result of that this winter.

It's a jigsaw. We need to either limit people's ability to generate goods, or increase the number of sinks [transactions which permanently take money out of the game, like buying from NPCs]. For example, up till now datacores had been tree. Now, every time you take out a datacore you have to pay a small price. That's a new sink.

But for example, anomalies in 0.0 [PvP] space are a great source of income, yet people are getting faster and faster at using them, because we have power creep. Before, people were running them in battleships. Now, people are running them in carriers. So the rate of income is increasing as well.

We're getting to the point where we have to look at people using capital ships and supercapital ships, and slow that down, maybe. There's regulation going on constantly.

RPS: But this is a nightmare, surely. You're a game, which means players always have room to grow, but you're also trying to run an economy?

SK: Well, you can expand upwards, and sideways. And I think we're pretty good at doing sideways.

Jon Lander (Senior Producer): Also there's a very big sink, which is people blowing shit up.

SK: Yeah.

JL: So we just have to encourage people to get out there. A big metric we look at is the number of PvP kills per thousand users, per month. And we were looking at that, and it was just going down, and down.

RPS: You're meticulously watching a kind of... murder-index?

JL: Yeah. And when you add a new feature, it's like throwing a stone into a pond and you can watch the ripples go out.

Introducing tier 3 battlecruisers recently was a massive thing. People were all buying blueprints for them, which is a huge hole in the financial bucket, and then people were all fighting with them because they changed how warfare worked. We just have to keep people active.

SK: And also when we nerfed capitals and supercapitals, we saw PvP go up. Because as much as they're a cool in-game thing, they also act as a barrier to anyone that's not inside them. So the more we take them off the field, the more regular people can participate in battles.

RPS: Supercapitals have been a bone of contention for a while, haven't they? People were upset when they were first introduced.

SK: It really broke with the release of Dominion in 2009. That's when things went pear-shaped.

[Space-footnote! Death Star-sized ships equipped with doomsday weapons might sound like the coolest feature ever, but the reality of them was a big, fascist boot-print on the EVE landscape, despite them taking months and thousands upon thousands of man-hours to build.

Never mind how little fun it is to be one ship in a fleet of hundreds, sundered by a doomsday device. Titans were too big to travel through warp gates, and so operated as their own warp gates, tearing up the rulebook of gate warfare that many EVE players enjoyed.]

RPS: The nerf is happening now? Why did it take three years?

SK: ...I think it might just have been different priorities.

JL: Plus there's a shitload of stuff in EVE to balance. And actually, I'll be honest, I hate balanced gameplay. People just find out what the best set-up is. With EVE, we've always had something that's unbalanced, and then gone on to change it, which mixes it up.

We've got... 301 player ships? 600 in-game, 300 of which are flyable, there's all of the systems you can equip that must be balanced. This is another problem with an ever-growing, ever-expanding game. You just always have more stuff that you've gotta balance.

RPS: Speaking of expanding, EVE Japan launched recently? Is that on the same shard?

SK: Yeah.

RPS: It's only China that has it's own shard?

JL: Yeah. Because of the business model, and all the rules and regulations that form part of the great internet wall of China.

All we did for Japan, which was a significant undertaking, we localised the client. Adding universal search engines, and so on.

For example, the star system “Jita”. We translated that into Japanese. But what we don't want is to shard our player base by language, so you can also right-click on it to see what it is in English.

RPS: And has there been any consequence of, uh, releasing the Japanese into space?

SK: No, it's too new. It's too new.

Kristoffer Touborg (Lead Game Designer): We're seeing the numbers go up, but they haven't formed any power blocs yet.

JL: We reached out to Japanese players who were already playing without a localised client, encouraging them to set up forums for each other, wanting to give them the opportunity to get in contact with each other. And of course hoping they'll form another power bloc that'll want its own bit of space and, y'know, go on to annoy people. [Laughs]

RPS: The Chinese shard/galaxy is quite different from the global one, isn't it?

SK: I haven't followed it in a while, but the last time we looked at it there wasn't really the same conflict element.

So like, 0.0 space was super fractioned, fractioned into all these groups that were fighting each other, but as far as I know there was only one Chinese alliance that ran everything. They had everything working together in a sort of peace and harmony... ish.

RPS: Like a mafia?

SK: Um.

RPS: A utopia?

SK: More like, the Chinese government takes care of you. An odd, odd set-up. I'd love to look at it more closely because they must be entirely different from what we have here. It must be interesting.

RPS: Do you put EVE's creeping growth in subscriber numbers down to the fact that there's nothing else like it?

KT: It's just really good.

SK: It's great.

RPS: …

SK: …

KT: ...

JL: ...I mean, there's nothing else like it, but I think EVE offers something in addition to that. There's a growing trend in tough games. Games like Dark Souls.

KT: Uhuh! Dark Souls!

JL: It's like, people want more consequence from what they do.

RPS: We've had a decade of being treated nicely, give us something new.

JL: Exactly. I mean, we've got a single shard. And everyone says “Ooh, single shard,” but what that actually means is that there is a meaningful history. There's one continuum. In some games, it's like, “I killed a dragon! Woohoo!” But there are twenty other people killing it in different shards. EVE gives you the opportunity to actually get your name in lights, if that's what you want to do.

I think people like that. Making their mark on a history.

SK: And like I said, EVE is a better game now than it was last year. You can look at our subscriber numbers in terms of what expansions we've done. Incarna wasn't very good and people left, and now we're doing something good and people are coming back. I think we had a really strong release with Escalation and Crucible, I think Inferno's going to be even better, and so long as we keep doing our job and launching stuff that the players like it's going to keep going.

RPS: So what is the way of getting past the learning cliff? So many of my friends want to play EVE, but the reality of playing the game is so different to what people are hoping for.

JL: So the way I did it, and I honestly think this is the best way to get the most out of EVE, as quickly as possible get in touch with people. Find a good corporation, a good group of people.

There are corporations out there that have built themselves up as education establishments that teach people how to play EVE.

RPS: Yeah. EVE University, right?

JL: Yeah! Honestly, you will not get the most out of this game if you play it on your own. And it's hard! It's so complex, and it's so big. Even when I started playing in 2005 when it was a much simpler game, you had to have somebody explain to you that “If you get this close to a guy, and you're going this fast, you're not going to do any damage.”

And you think about it, and... well, of course you're not going to do any damage. That's just gun tracking. If you're going that fast and the turret can move that fast. But you don't /think/ the game's going to be that deep.

So I say, if you want to get over the learning cliff, just have someone else pull you up it.

KT: And kill someone as fast as possible, too.

SK: Steal someone's money! You'll feel great.

The flipside is, while it'd be really nice for us to get a ton of subscribers, EVE /isn't/ for everyone.

We had a girl do a presentation on EVE's user experience yesterday. She'd spent a month playing around with it, but she was so far removed from what we have as a typical EVE player. She was a mum of four, late forties, who didn't really play games. And she told us that she'd gotten blown up and she just didn't log on again.

Now, there's tons you could do to get her over the learning cliff. But realistically, is this a game for her? Is World of Warcraft a game for everyone? I'll only pick that up every few years. You can't cater to everyone.

JL: You could try and make EVE a game for everyone, and you would break it horribly. You could, say, try and put a first-person shooter into EVE, just because there's a huge FPS audience out there.

/Or/ you could make a dedicated FPS like Dust, specifically for those people, and let the crossover happen naturally. Let the strange group of masochistic wheeler-dealers play the “other game”.

RPS: You mentioned before that as a result of seeing less PvP kills, you add content to mix things up. Does that mean that if you didn't actually touch EVE, it would slowly start becoming a more peaceful environment?

JL, SK, KT: (Together) Noo.

SK: I think it would stagnate.

JL: (Pointing at Touborg) Was It you? I think it was you. Someone came up to me the other day and said “Jon. We need to find ways to engender hate between people. People don't /hate/ each other enough right now.”

I mean, Goons [the corporation of SomethingAwful.com] said that on the 28th of April they were going to burn [star system] Jita, just suicide a load of ships and try and shut it down as a trade hub. And I heard this and thought “Brilliant! Let's put it on a really big server and see what happens.” Because it'd piss somebody off whose brother is in some alliance, and madness would begin.

KT: Maybe somebody else would take the opportunity to attack Goon space while they were killing traders in Jita. Who knows?

SK: There's no new ship or higher level cap that's going to keep people engaged the way that conflict between people will. We have people that have played EVE for years and years and years, just because of these other people that they really wanna fight.

The rivalries drive the game. And more than anything, if we can just inherently have social systems that encourage shared trust, because inevitably at some point, someone will break that trust, then that's much more valuable than a new ship of some sort.

I don't mean that in an awful way...

RPS: No, it's fine! Mistrust is the engine that powers EVE. It's fine.

/[Space-tangent! Here's a true story I heard at the 2011 EVE fanfest.

So I was talking to this guy who leads a mercenary corporation in EVE. His wife didn't understand his obsession, which was a shame, but he's hooked nonetheless. He's also spent almost his entire in-game career battling a rival mercenary corporation. Real blood feud stuff.

Grudgingly, his wife agrees to go to an EVE fanfest. So they're out there in Iceland, in this bar, drinking with a bunch of space-mercs he knows from the game. Suddenly he can't find his wife. He left her drinking with some friends of his, and now she's gone. Then he sees her, at the bar, being chatted up.

By the head of this rival corporation.

So of course he bursts out laughing. Then he swoops in, shoos the man away and tells his wife who that was. That same night his wife turns to him, and she tells him she gets it. She gets the game. He never has to explain away his passion again.]

JL: Really, all we need to do is keep the arms race going.

We are the Lords of War. We are Nicholas Cage in that movie.

With Inferno we're about to chuck out... how many new modules?

SK: Uhh, a load.

JL: Yeah. So many modules that will completely change how people fight and fit their ships, and everybody's going to be looking to min-max out on those things. We haven't had any modules for a long time, so everybody now knows that “I'll put these in my hi-slots, these in my mid-slots, these in my low-slots.”

RPS: But you have people on the test servers working these modules out already, right?

SK: Ahh, it's never the same. People will be in the test server and working stuff out, but it's never the same when you use it against a real enemy.

JL: And people put themselves in weird situations. They'll put themselves in a Tempest with 10 tracking disruptors on it, or something, and suddenly that'll wipe the floor with everything.

We saw that with Microwarp Jump Drives. People began really using those, and other people found counters to it. So just modules alone is going to completely mix up how people play the game. It's gonna be great.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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