CCP Games: Risk vs. Reward
After a decade of constant growth, CCP is doubling-down on EVE's success. David Reid guides us through its bright, uncertain future
In the console world, the biggest games are supposed to hit the ground running. They're supposed to land with an almighty crash, propelled by the force of months of careful marketing, expo appearances and pervasive ad campaigns. With the new hotness seldom more than a few weeks away, every moment in the spotlight is a precious commodity. They must be fought for, curated and protected.
But what about when you're giving your game away for free?
The notion that free-to-play gaming will be a common feature of the next generation of consoles has been discussed for so long that it already feels like a reality. Perhaps that's why the pioneering first-person shooter Dust 514 has more crept into view than crashed loudly through the front door. CCP Games' PlayStation 3 exclusive is without question the most high-profile free game ever released for a console, and yet grass-roots excitement is hard to detect.
"It's very important for CCP right now to make Dust 514 a success. It has a lot to do with the long-term trajectory of the company"
Is there room for another multiplayer shooter on consoles - even a free one? When it comes to challenging the eminence of Call of Duty and Battlefield, it may not be possible to even give it away.
David Reid, CCP's chief marketing officer, wrinkles his nose at the comparison. Dust 514 is only the second game in the Icelandic studio's 15-year history, and it ties directly into the first, EVE Online. With the launch of Dust, the sweeping narratives and epic battles generated by EVE's fiercely loyal community will be played out on virtual battlefields by a very different sub-culture of gamers. The biggest picture in gaming just got a little bigger.
"The idea is to find a way for a different kind of gamer - with a different sensibility about what moment-to-moment experience they want - to be a part of that sandbox," Reid says. "The first thing is, that sandbox is pretty overwhelming. But if I'm a shooter guy, giving me a free-to-play shooter on a console is not a hard concept to get excited about."
Well, yes, but with some fairly significant caveats. It hardly needs to be stated that 'shooter guys' play shooters, and it logically follows that many of them will have a range of popular titles, already purchased, at their disposal. Free is a powerful idea at the point of purchase, but several months after the fact even Black Ops and Borderlands 2 will no longer feel like $60 propositions to their regular players. It is a strong possibility that, at this point in time - with free-to-play more a part of console future than console present - Dust 514 will need to earn its seat at the table through quality of experience, and right now, the tepid reviews suggest that CCP has a few tweaks to make.
Harsh truths, perhaps, but Reid and CCP have no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead. Right now, life at CCP is all clover: EVE Online marked its 10th consecutive year of growth by reaching 500,000 subscribers, its annual Fanfest event was the best attended on record, and the company posted $65 million in revenue last year. Next year, Reid hopes it will make, "materially more than that." Of course, that may well depend on the fortunes of Dust 514.
"The second product is often the big product," Reid says. "Anybody can have a hit, but can you have two? It's very important for CCP right now to make Dust 514 a success. It has a lot to do with the long-term trajectory of the company. We're definitely thinking about that."
The key to it all remains EVE Online, the legacy of which is at the very core of what makes Dust unique. If all the player wants is 10 minutes of fun, they can have it, and they can have it for free. If the player wants a persistent experience where they can create and develop a character, they can have that, too, with the opportunity to spend a little money to make the whole experience that little bit more personal. And if they want more than that, well, that's when Dust reveals itself as quite unlike any other shooter out there.
"There's certainly a minimum level of quality we need to reach. Below that you're not a fun game and you're not worth anybody's time, let alone their money"
"From there you let them peek into the rabbit-hole," Reid says, grinning, "and let them know that it can go very, very deep if they want it to."
This highlights a paradox that CCP must find a way to resolve. To a large degree, the goal of Dust is to create an experience that doesn't require its players to have a deep understanding of the context EVE provides to enjoy. And yet that context is Dust's most distinctive characteristic, the very reason why any player would invest their time and money in its world. If CCP can't get them to the lip of the rabbit-hole, it may lose them altogether.
"There's certainly a minimum level of quality we need to reach," Reid agrees. "Below that you're not a fun game and you're not worth anybody's time, let alone their money. But it would be a mistake for CCP to invest all of its money and effort against what the titans of the industry have been doing far better for a long, long time.
"The thing about Dust is not the shiniest guns or the perfect shooting mechanics; it's about this meta-game, and the persistence, and the customisation, and we do think that we're doing that better than anybody else. It won't be for everyone. It won't be the EVE learning curve, but it certainly won't be the Call of Duty learning curve, either. It won't be everyone that figures this out right away, but it doesn't have to be either."
Like EVE, Dust 514 will require time to fulfil the potential of its audacious concept, and Reid claims that CCP is well aware of that fact. Indeed, their long-term vision for Dust is identical to that for EVE: "A service that starts at a point and grows from there, with content added in sync with the community. EVE will receive its 19th expansion soon, and we see the same thing happening for Dust.
"On some level Dust is a bit of a tracer bullet. A very big tracer bullet, a big investment, but it's a test bed. This could be the beginning of a much more interesting strategy of lots and lots of things joining into Tranquillity [EVE and Dust's single-shard server], and all being part of that shared economy, those shared politics and that shared universe."
When discussing the possibilities for CCP's future, Reid's already infectious enthusiasm attains a physical quality - his face becomes more expressive, he shifts excitedly in his seat. Reid is an MMO veteran, with experience at both NCsoft and Trion, and an intimate knowledge of the genre's typical pattern of player engagement: beta, launch, huge spike in interest, then rapid decline to a hardcore few. One gets the impression that Reid has spent much of his career fighting this pattern, devising strategies to slow or subvert that inevitable decay. With EVE, and its emphasis on persistence and player-agency, CCP has effectively reversed the trend, plotting a line on the same graph that has done nothing but rise - up and to the right, year after year. Reid is no longer fighting entropy. He's helping to orchestrate an explosion.
"All of these things are intended to be commercial ventures. These aren't art projects or vanity projects. They need to make money for the company"
"Every other game, you really are just playing some designers story. They may give you multiple endings, they may give you the illusion of choice, but at the end of the day you're not really changing that story in the way you can in EVE," he says. "Our big challenge is to crystallise that and make it the tip of a spear to get into the brains of millions of new gamers.
"CCP almost has a cult-band appeal to it, y'know: critical acclaim, passionate followers, but they've never had a - for the lack of a better term - a top 40 hit. That's never been their thing. Like a U2, right? A cult band in its day, and then The Unforgettable Fire comes out, they're on the radio, and everybody's listening."
Images of EVE Online in wraparound sunglasses, lunching with Nelson Mandela and bothering the Pope flash through my mind. Perhaps not the best analogy. I grimace.
"Yeah, you could argue they went in a bad direction later," Reid says, laughing. "But there is that moment of realising that there's something here that's more interesting. CCP has never embraced commercialism for its own sake. It has always been very true to the vibe of its community."
And all of CCP's future plans hinge on that community, elegantly side-stepping any concerns of 'selling-out' in the process. At this year's FanFest, CCP launched an interactive timeline that will preserve that decade-long legacy. It is also working with Dark Horse Comics to create a run of EVE Online comics based on events from the game's universe. The players will vote on which stories to include, and the players will, in turn, be immortalised in the plot. Most impressive of all is an EVE television series, also hewn from the ample raw materials of the game's universe. It is currently in development with the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, who has found considerable success in Hollywood, working with marquee actors like Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. After a decade of patient growth, the time has come to double down on EVE's hard-won success.
CCP now has an entire team solely focused on pushing these and other projects forward. In every case, it is interested in only the highest possible standard of execution. It doesn't want to be responsible for another Super Mario Bros. The Movie - out of respect for its fans, and for the future of the business.
"Now is the time to really step on the accelerator, and this feels like a way to do that," Reid says. "It will start to cement for people all of the things that they've heard about EVE.
"All of these things are intended to be commercial ventures. These aren't art projects or vanity projects. They need to make money for the company. But they are also all very different in terms of what the company needs from them to become going concerns. EVE as a business has funded everything that CCP's done for 13, 14, 15 years now, right? And that includes not just the development of Dust, but all the pre-production work on [new MMO] World of Darkness. We know we've got this universe that's very compelling, and there are more way to make it not just a bigger commercial success in terms of revenue, but to find more ways for players to engage with it. These projects are largely things they want."
More than anything, though, these new projects - from Dust 514 right through to the EVE TV series - are risks. Creative risks and commercial risks, and risks that CCP doesn't need to take. Simply maintaining EVE Online until even its most faithful players moved on would be the easiest thing in the world; a highly lucrative way of running down of the gas-tank. But that, Reid tells me, would be anathema to a company like CCP, a pioneer down to its very bones. There are ideas rattling around the company's hallways that could keep EVE fresh and relevant until well past its 20th birthday.
"CCP is a very ambitious company in terms of that core mission: to make virtual worlds more meaningful than real life. It's not something we just say. It is something we're actively trying to do. There's a big story here, and to make a big story bigger you kind of need to plan. We're not just going to have these concepts lingering for months and months and months.
"We're freakin' gonna do it, and we're gonna do it well."