CCP Games: Embracing the Law of Unintended Consequences
Jon Lander and Kristoffer Touborg on a tumultuous year for EVE Online, and the giddy promise of the year ahead
Bioware's decision to capitulate to the demands of consumers over Mass Effect 3's ending has been rightly divisive. Next week, the Canadian RPG specialist will release free DLC to fix a problem it didn't believe existed in the first place, and very few outside of a relatively small sliver of the audience will regard it as justice being done.
The simple fact is that our contract with Bioware extended only as far as the delivery of a third game, the resolution of a story arc, regardless of how good or bad. Granted, there are aspects of Mass Effect's approach to storytelling that make its final chapter a unique proposition, but no game should be held to the standards that Bioware now lays prostrate before.
No game, that is, but EVE Online.
"It's not our game," says Jon Lander, EVE's senior producer, as he readies himself for yet another boozy meet-up with the game's famously intense fanbase. "We're the janitors of it; we sweep up and make sure the power's still running and whatever, but it's their game. EVE is the sum history of their personal interactions, and we don't own that. We just look after it."
The last 12 months has been as tumultuous as any period in EVE's nine-year history. Last year, a leaked internal document discussing the introduction of micro-transactions in rather bald terms lit a fire of righteous anger in the EVE community, leading to a series of protests and walk-outs. Incarna, an expansion pack released just before the leak, was subject to a furious backlash from the fans.
Lander and EVE's lead designer Kristoffer Touborg are very clear on their view of these controversies. Lander insists that the reaction to the leaked document was, "people on the internet getting the context wrong." When questioned about whether the leaked document was the cause of the Incarna backlash, Touborg answers before I even finish the question: "Absolutely."
"It's not our game. We're the janitors of it; we sweep up and make sure the power's still running and whatever, but it's their game"
Jon Lander, CCP Games
From the outside looking in, dealing with such a spiky and demanding group of players would appear to be hugely frustrating, but for Touborg and Lander it's a necessary side-effect of everything that makes EVE so singular in the MMO market, and gaming in general. "We embrace the law of unintended consequences" Lander says with a grin.
"I quite like it," Touborg adds. "It's a largely positive experience with the community. When the leak hit, for me at least, there wasn't any bitterness towards the players. We fucked up, and if they need to be angry then we should just let that be angry because they're probably right in this case."
But the community isn't always right. At the end of March, an otherwise successful EVE Fanfest in CCP's home-city of Reykjavik was marred by the actions of a community figurehead known as "The Mittani" - Alex Gianturco to his now somewhat reduced number of friends. Participating in a panel and rather the worse for wear - EVE's fan events tend to involve a tipple or three - Gianturco mocked an apparently suicidal EVE player, and encouraged others to do the same.
This is the third event in a trinity of major black-marks on CCP's year, but it stands apart for being absolutely and categorically not CCP's fault. Indeed, while Lander and Touborg would never admit as much, it demonstrates the dark flip-side of the clan-mentality that defines the EVE community. The reaction to Gianturco's actions was negative from both CCP and EVE players, but the condemnation was not absolute. There were still a defiant few, egging Gianturco on from the sidelines.
In an ideal world, this ugly turn of events would protect CCP from another Incarna-style backlash; irrefutable evidence that, hey, sometimes the most dedicated EVE players make bad calls too. But that won't happen, and Lander and Touborg don't expect it to. They pay attention to the forums, of course, but only 11 per cent of EVE players actually look at the boards, and around half of that number ever leave a post. They are the minority of the minority, and Touborg believes that EVE's development team is getting better and better at communicating the thinking behind its design choices to the fans. They may see EVE as the players' game, but there's a tacit understanding that the players don't always know best.
"When the leak hit there wasn't any bitterness towards the players. If they need to be angry then we should just let that be angry because they're probably right in this case"
Kristoffer Touborg, CCP Games
And it certainly isn't all doom and gloom for EVE Online. The coming year will be one of the most significant periods in the game's history, due in no small part to the launch of DUST 514 - a free-to-play first-person shooter for PlayStation 3 that will enact the battles caused by the decisions made in EVE's ship-based MMO.
The scale of CCP's ambition is staggering, and DUST 514 will be the richest and most interesting free-to-play shooter on the market almost by default. The concern among players over the free-to-play model is that the game ultimately becomes a thinly disguised revenue generator, every facet of the design subservient to the need to make a penny here and a penny there. With EVE Online as a backing-band, however, such concerns are moot; DUST 514 will provide a peerlessly epic sweep and drama for those that want it, and, as Lander delicately puts it, "fifteen minutes of shooting people in the face," for those that don't.
It will also be another compelling argument for EVE's reputation as one of the most fascinating emergent gaming experiences available. In truth, that has been the case for years, but in 2012, with the vast majority of MMOs making the blind leap to free-to-play and even the likes of World of Warcraft struggling to stop the steady leak of players, EVE Online is perhaps the only game that still justifies a monthly subscription fee.
"There's an awful lot of formulaic MMOs out there, which I'm glad we're not really a part of, and there are some other games going on out there that are fantastic. Look at World of Tanks; it's completely different to what we're doing. Look at League of Legends and what's going on with that," says Lander.
"So there are some really interesting things going off in their own direction, but the key thing for us that enables so much is the single-shard. Because when you have the single shard history begins to happen, and it only ever happens in one place.
"People who say the subscription model for MMOs is dead, I think they're wrong. If you've got a really good product that people want to play - not just for a month or two or three, but three or four years - they will be able to see that what they're doing has left a mark in the world."
"Free-to-play is actually a great business model, it has a place. But for us, going free-to-play it would be a sign of desperation"
Jon Lander, CCP Games
The problem, then, is growth. The strengths of EVE Online, its definitive aspects, are equal parts compelling and intimidating. The majority of MMOs are turning to free-to-play to boost their user-bases, but EVE requires a degree of investment from its players that such a low barrier to entry would surreptitiously work against. EVE officially launched in Japan last month, and other territories are surely on the horizon, but the pleasures and pains of EVE will remain unchanged.
"Free-to-play is actually a great business model, it has a place. But for us, going free-to-play it would be a sign of desperation," says Lander. "You can't retrofit it onto the game. What are we looking for: the most people who could possibly play EVE Online, or the most people that are having some kind of meaningful interaction in the EVE universe? It's the latter.
"We're going to continue to grow EVE by recognising what it is and not ruining that. We can knock the rough edges off a number of areas, but we want EVE to be a hard game that requires investment from its players."
Lander flashes that grin again. "And if we suddenly want to bring in a shit-load more people, well, we could just do a free-to-play first-person shooter on PlayStation 3."