EVE Online is alive. That idea formed the basis for Hilmar Petursson's invigoratingly far-reaching talk at DICE Europe earlier this year, and it peppers our conversation now as we discuss the change that CCP Games believes will prepare its flagship product for the years ahead.
It isn't the first time I've heard such a claim applied to game, and it can generally be dismissed as hyperbole or spin, but EVE has long been the most compelling proof that an interactive world can 'live' in a way that transcends sandboxes, dynamic weather systems and day-night cycles. EVE's history is, in a very real sense, the history of its players; every scheme, skirmish and epic battle etched into the game's single shard, with the barest minimum of its fiction authored or guided by Petursson and his team. It was a remarkable game ten years ago, and it remains one to this very day.
"We've been fortunate to keep EVE somewhere around the forefront of where we can take gaming until now - for thirteen years. I hope we can enjoy thirteen years more," he says, stating unequivocal pride in the unique legacy that EVE and its players have built. That legacy would also make its loss uniquely painful, he admits, but for Petursson there is a fate worse than the game reaching its end. "There's the danger of it just fading into obscurity, becoming smaller until it's irrelevant. It's on us to find ways to to unlock the next stage of the game."
"There's the danger of it just fading into obscurity, becoming smaller until it's irrelevant. It's on us to find ways to to unlock the next stage of the game"
CCP announced the next stage in September. After resisting a genre-wide shift towards the freemium model for more years than anyone would have dared predict, EVE Online has introduced a free tier to entice new players. "We knew we would have to evolve the game and ourselves more in this direction," Petursson says, though he claims that figuring out exactly which approach to take has been a long, steady process. "We didn't have a specific idea of what it would look like. We knew just generally we'd have to evolve the business model. We could see the market. We could see customer expectations changing. If the game is to outlive itself, it has to evolve - like any living being, in a way."
While Petursson claims it took time to arrive at CCP's eventual formulation of Alpha (free) and Omega (subscription) players, he traces the road there back to the introduction of PLEX - a form of virtual currency that can be earned in-game and exchanged for play-time - in late 2008. Since then, CCP has frequently experimented with adding virtual goods and cosmetic items, making and correcting mistakes as it went. The final preparatory step arrived in early 2016, Petursson says, when it started allowing "the skill points of the game to be tradeable between players," unlocking "all aspects of progression and possession." By that time, the addition of a free tier was far from the radical change it might have seemed to the casual observer.
If CCP manages to avoid alienating its core players on this occasion, Petursson says, it's because the company has done exactly that in the past through other decisions. "We've done our fair share of that," he says, indulging in the luxury of smiling at what, at the time, must have been trying times for CCP. "But we've been calm and developed a lot of processes around communicating with our players, working towards things in a collaborative fashion. We have a very open approach to this; we're massaging and fine-tuning, and we're announcing this early to be able to do all that.
Not only was there no great surprise within EVE's community that CCP was introducing a free tier, Petursson claims that subscribers were actually "accepting" of the change. "I think there's a general sense within the EVE player-base that new blood is a good thing," he adds. "And I think the EVE community, for all its reputation, actually does a good job of embracing new players - more so than people think.
"There's a lot of dynamics to work out, of course, but it's not like we're taking a gamble. It's a calculated risk - that's a great way to put it - and from that we'll get some results. We'll have to tweak and tune, just like with everything, but I think we're well prepared to respond, and everyone is deeply and genuinely convinced that this is the right step for us to take."
"I think there's a general sense within the EVE player-base that new blood is a good thing. And I think the EVE community, for all its reputation, actually does a good job of embracing new players"
The biggest remaining question is whether the aspects that make EVE Online unique will make it uniquely difficult to accommodate a free tier. Specifically, one could make a reasonable case for EVE's players being the most sincere and heavily invested of virtually any game out there, coordinating vast conspiracies and harbouring grudges across months and even years. This influx of new players, who can pick up and drop the game as quickly as any of the dozens of other free-to-play MMOs out there, surely pose a threat to the beguiling way that EVE's lore builds over extended passages of time.
Petursson is certainly alive to the possibility, but it's clear that he regards EVE as being idiosyncratic enough to never be a mass market proposition, exactly. The emphasis for CCP, he says, is to make "pretty serious investments" in the new player experience so those who are intrigued can understand what EVE offers more quickly and with greater clarity.
"We're getting people of a different frame of mind into the game, when they're starting it as a free experience," he says. "We know that we'll have to adapt that front end, and also just gamers' expectations of a what a new player experience is has changed. We need to take a really solid look at it now, and the team is doing that."
As with any change to EVE, though, the community will have the final word on its success. For now, CCP appears to have the support of the majority of players, and if I seem a little surprised by their acceptance of the coming change, Petursson is anything but. For most MMOs, these transitions are couched in the language of preservation and familiarity, all the better to persuade players that the driving idea is to keep everything the same. EVE, Petursson says, is different, and that difference can be summed up in a single phrase, widely used within its community.
"Adapt or die," he says. "EVE has changed every year it's been alive, and it will continue to change. Right now, we're going through this business model evolution. At some point we'll reach a good stage on that front, and then the game will continue to evolve for as long as it lives.
"If we do a good job of this, EVE might even outlive us all."