EVE Online! Since the servers first rumbled to life nine years ago the deeply political, single-shard MMO has been a source of endless fascination for RPS, on a par with helicopters. How do they stay in the air?
But what's happening in EVE? Last we heard, some of its most famous chaps were grumbling or rioting, followed by something that continues to feel like a controlled peace. We needed an update, and so it was that CCP sent over a crate containing Senior Producer Jon Lander, Lead Game Designer Kristoffer Touborg and Community Developer Sveinn Kjarval. Together, we would get to the truth.
RPS: Let me get you out of that crate, there.
Jon Lander (CCP Unifex): Thanks. Ow.
Sveinn Kjarval (CCP Guard): Can I have some water?
RPS: No. So, usually with EVE expansions there seems to be a focused vision or theme, whether it's bigger ships, walking in stations, new careers, wormholes or anything else. This year's Inferno and Escalation look a bit more like a smorgasbord of new features and tweaks. Do they cohere into something bigger?
JL: Yeah, so when we came out of Crucible last year we thought exactly that. “What are we gonna use as a rallying cry for the players, what are we gonna do in 2012?”
We had a whole load of ideas around... well, blowing stuff up, really. Which is really where Crucible came from. We added T3 Battlecruisers and that kind of stuff. It was basically “Right: WAR!” Let's just say to the designers and developers, “WAR!” And see what they go away and make.
...without going crazy. Let's just use what we've got to promote people blowing each other up. Because if people blow each other up they need to build more things, and to build more things they have to go and get things. It fuels the entire game. So, WAR!
RPS: How many of the coming new features have come from, or been suggested by, the CSM?
[Space-note! The CSM is EVE Online's unique council of player-elected representatives, who travel to Reykjavik multiple times a year to discuss what they see as existing issues within EVE, as well as possible solutions and more besides.
Our interview with Goonfleet CEO The Mittani last year took place 48 hours before he was elected to the CSM. He had the following incendiary stance on the council.
"In the beginning the council was mooted as a PR move to deflect criticism from the Band of Brothers corruption scandal, and it accomplished basically nothing. We still had a member on there in case it wasn’t useless. …by the fifth CSM, everyone who played Eve at a level which was not drooling retardation had lost interest in the CSM as being a paper tiger, so most recently all of the null sec power blocks have spent the last year watching the idiotic ideas of the CSM with mounting horror, and saying “Well, fuck”, because now CCP has made them stakeholders in the company, and we’d lost interest in it and hadn’t voted."
"The CSM is a dirty election. It’s a third world election. Anything that’s allowed under the EULA in Eve is allowed in the election. You can buy votes, dead people can resubscribe and vote, you can scam people for votes, so it’s hardly an iconic democracy. So, this coming election, almost every major candidate you will see on the council will have been backed by a null sec plot. In advance, we’ve all met and spoken to one another to decide on the issues of the day."
It's also worth noting that in public channels The Mittani has referred to the CSM as a "metagame", and that following a drunken misstep at an Alliance panel at the last EVE fanfest, he's since resigned.]
SK: So the CSM doesn't really pitch us features as much as we use them for early feedback. So when we have a design, or a concept, or even just the development blocks, they go up on the CSM forums and they give us quite good feedback. We usually make a host of changes after that. It's a very nice way to get quality feedback from some of the most dedicated people in a... fairly controlled environment.
RPS: But they do bring stuff to the table in Reykjavik, don't they?
SV: They do. Last year they were adamant that we look at stuff like killmails, but they don't come to us and say like “We want asteroid mining!”
Kristoffer Touborg (CCP Soundwave): It's more nagging issues that they ask us to fix.
RPS: But it's taken you a while to iron out the exact format and role of their duties.
SV: Yeah. I feel like the last CSM, CSM 6, very much found their place. There weren't a lot of guidelines as to what their responsibilities were or how they were to interact with us, but it was very smooth working with them. This [coming] one I haven't interacted with yet. It usually kicks off when they come to Reykjavik and we have a week of just sitting down and talking, finding out who they are and what they care about.
KT: Some of the same members of CSM 6 are on CSM 7, though, so a lot of their experience is going to carry over.
JL: Yeah. It's going to be fresh faces to mix things up, while more experienced heads can stop them from stepping up.
RPS: I was curious as to how CSM 6 would go, since the elections last year saw a frustrated Mittani mobilising the large player bloc behind him in order to win in a landslide.
SV: So the voting system they use is actually one I designed. The thought was that if you have X voter blocs then you could mobilise to elect X number of candidates. The Goon bloc has internal elections to elect two candidates. After that the entire alliance is split into two camps, and when you log in a messageboard tells you who to vote for for CSM. So they always have two candidates on the CSM, because that's how many players they represent.
The Russian bloc has something like that as well. They're not as formal, but they have some internal bloc leader who everybody votes for.
RPS: But that's a problem--
SV: Oh, no. That's great. That's pretty awesome.
RPS: But I mean, to have groups get automatic CSM placement when they work together because of real-life geography--
SV: A lot of the communities do inherently. I mean, that's part of being a global game with one server. You play at a certain time, and you have people who have the same play time and cultural heritage, and stuff. So a lot of corporations do have some sphere of operation as to where they are in the world. And I think that's alright?
KT: Apart from what they like to do in the game, it's basically time-zones and language barriers.
RPS: What else have you learned from the process of having player-elected advisors? Hypothetically, if another MMO was doing this, what words of advice might you give?
SV: Good luck!
JL: Honestly though, we're a single shard so everything every player does matters. We, as a company, need this sounding board, and we're actually more than willing to listen to it. I'm not convinced all companies have that culture around them.
RPS: On the subject, the upcoming features list seems entirely related to flying-in-space; a lot of stuff the community would be quietly happy with. Have CCP's ambitions been tempered by some of the community furore in 2011?
JL: [Laughing] I don't think we're less ambitious. We're about to ship Dust in the same universe on two platforms!
In terms of EVE, I don't think our ambitions have been tempered. I think what we've done is we've grown up a lot, and gotten better at recognising what we can do in any period of time. We've learned that we must make other things in addition to this spaceship game, rather than instead of, which I think is where we went in 2011.
We were essentially building an entirely new game, and I think we forgot where the core of our spirit was. Does it mean we don't want to do groundbreaking new things? No, absolutely not. We just have to make sure we're not doing it at the expense of our supporters.
RPS: Is it frustrating to want to build this universe laterally rather than vertically, with Dust and Incarna [player avatars], but to be held back because your community pay for a game about talking spaceships?
SV: I think it's a lot about how we look at it, and how we work with the community to build these things.
JL: If we kind of take a step back, there's a really good way to look at this, which is that we're bringing Dust out on the same cluster, and that's going to be a massive, massive thing. So, it's within the same universe, and we've expanded what you can do in /EVE/, by expanding onto a console as a first person shooter. And what's to say those same gamers won't be running around, taking over spaceships or stations one day, way down the track?
What we've done with Dust is create completely new gameplay by creating a completely new project team in a completely new location. What we did with Incarna was try and create completely new gameplay by taking people off the core team.
It's absolutely possible to expand this, and present new views on the universe. We just can't forget that we've got this new game over here and it's really, really good, so how about we don't forget about that?
RPS: Does that mean you look at Dust in the same way you look at EVE? As something to be expanded?
JL: Oh god, yeah. You should see the five year plan they've got for it.
RPS: That's interesting. Because... it's an FPS. So you'd assume CCP would be treating it like an FPS.
JL: No, it's part of Eve. Eve will be 10 years old next year, and we might think of it as just this spaceship game, but it's a world. What that means is that we can't release Dust and then just forget about it. It becomes part of the Eve world, forever. A brand-new entry point into the universe.
RPS: Right. So, something I've been wondering- the thing about EVE is that there's nothing else like it, unless you count Perpetuum Online.
JL: Yeah, I gave that a go. I played it for the two week free trial.
SV: But at the end of the day, you don't want to train the same things you've already trained in EVE, where you already have a good character.
RPS: OK. So, unlike other MMOs, for players who enjoy EVE there is essentially no other option. CCP has given birth to this unique alternate reality, the likes of which the world's never seen before. Do you feel there's a moral obligation to keep it running?
JL: I... don't think we're doing it because of that. We'll keep this running forever, because it's just awesome.
SV: It's the best game!
JL: I mean, you look at all these sci-fi IPs. You wanna be Boba Fett. You're desperate to be in Star Wars. And we've got this amazing world that you can just... be somebody different in. We'll keep running until Iceland blows up due to a volcano.
SV: I think EVE gets better and better as well. I think EVE in 2012 is a better game than it was in 2003, or 2011. There's a lot we've re-done so it's in better shape, a lot of features we've iterated on, and of course we've expanded a lot, but... some of it is just a better game. And I see no reason why we shouldn't be a bigger, better game next year.
RPS: But can this continue FOREVER?
SV: Yes, probably.
I mean, we have a universe that we already think is pretty cool, where you can do stuff you can't do anywhere else, and we're plugging Dust into it, and in 10 years we'll have 5 others products plugged into it, all of which will contribute to the strange reality that it is.
RPS: It's heartening that your subscriber numbers are still going up. Especially so considering, whether it's the better game or not, it's inexorably growing in depth and complexity.
JL: And I think that's something we've gotta be careful of. The thing it always comes back to is “the learning cliff”. EVE is a tough game to get into, and a brutal game if you've grown up on what I call regular MMOs... it's tough, it's niche.
But we are broadening the appeal of that world with Dust. I think one of the things we've got to be really careful of is that we must find ways to introduce a slightly broader group of people into the game, because our world thrives because of the people in it working with each other or against each other.
SV: It's a social game more than anything.
JL: Exactly. So we need to have that, but we've got to make sure that we don't dumb it down so much that it's no longer EVE. So with Dust we've shown that it can be a 15 minute it game. Pick it up. Bang bang bang.
It's a difficult tightrope to walk... we have to smooth the cliff off, without changing the game.
RPS: It would be fantastic if Dust existed as this bombastic backdoor into EVE.
JL: We were already seeing it at the EVE Fanfest this year. People who'd only ever read Playstation magazine finding out about Dust, and then discovering that Dust is set in this whole other universe that they give a try. How many of them stick will be interesting to see, but more people coming to look is always good.
[Time of a breather, I think. Stay tuned for part 2, in which we cover hate, love, more hate, titan-class ships, and the difficulties of being the janitors of a universe founded on hate.]