In the past couple of years Eve Online, developed by Iceland's CCP Games, has cemented itself as one of the most important - and enduring - MMO titles in the West. While it can't claim a subscriber base of anything like the size of World of Warcraft's 10.9 million, it's almost 300,000 players all live on the same, unsharded universe, making it the largest MMO single community there is.
As a result the game's been able to develop intriguing social, political and financial structures. Here, Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson - CCP's chief economist (formerly of the University of Iceland) - explains the importance of those structures, and discusses some of the resultant effects of managing such a large body of players.
Q: You gave a talk at Leipzig this year on the importance of the social structures within Eve - why are they important?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: There are two parts to that. If you want to have a vibrant community, that community by itself must interact and communicate to make the entire experience interesting. People are the best fun that you can have - artificial intelligence can only get you so far. If you want to create a good environment, it has to involve people, and the more, the merrier.
That's the key answer to the question on why it's important to have a large social structure emerging. Why is it possible with Eve, and why is it so important with Eve? That's the single shard. Being able to have everyone in the same universe, allowing you to make a market order - then you go out of the game, your market order is still there. Somebody else logs in and you are actually interacting, even though you're offline, because you're interacting through your business.
The same goes for the guys that are participating in the alliance wars. They log off, then they communicate in the meta-game, on MSN or wherever, about the strategy - they need to have this many ships, we need to have this much ammunition, we need to upgrade our skills to this level in order to beat them by 1 per cent.
So the communication become the most important thing, and since you're all in the same world, you'll understand what's being talked about, and you'll know what's what.
Q: Why aren't the creators of other games doing the same?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: It's a real technical challenge to have a single shard up and running.
Q: The Eve community is very passionate about the game, and can be pretty vocal too - they give you quite a hard time most days of the week...
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: [smiles] They give us a challenge most days of the week. If they didn't, Eve wouldn't exist now in the form that it does.
Q: Since Eve launched the MMO market has developed significantly, but for a company to launch a game with the same early-days philosophy that CCP had doesn't really seem to be possible. If Eve launched today in the same way that it did in 2003 it would survive?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: I honestly believe so, because the mission of the initial designers was very, very clear. They knew what they wanted, and they knew how they wanted to reach that goal. They didn't bow to any request to change that - so if you're true to your vision, and it's a vision that others believe in, then it will work.
Probably the biggest problem is to get it going initially, and we had our problems when we started, definitely. We changed the business model to distribute the game online, and to distribute all the expansions for free. It was quite obvious that it was going to work, and I think it would work today.
If we had split up the universe into separate shards because there were too many people in Jita [the game's key trading hub] then we would have destroyed the original design, the mission. So you really have to keep to your mission, and stick to it no matter what.
Q: Eve is very much at the sandbox end of MMOs, but despite it's attempts at realism, you still have to apply certain game mechanics to keep it playable - how is that approached?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: That comes down to our game designers finding the right balance, so that everyone can enjoy the game. You have to make sure there is room for the business traders, as well as the PvP players, the mission-runners, the diplomats. Even those players that have built up trust over the past five years, so that they're even given the keys to large alliances in order to make changes and then go back out. They could just run off.
Q: And some of them have...
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: Some of the have, but that's just part of the game - you never really know. Just like when you're flying around, you never really know. I think that's a big part of the excitement.
Q: Isn't there a bit of a problem with the trust concept though - in real life there are laws, corporate governance, and so on, but ultimately if you do something bad you personally are answerable. But in Eve, while there are situations where you want and need to trust people, but there's no reciprosity.
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: That's really a question you should ask the Council of Stellar Management, because we're immersed in this social institution where people of all play styles come together, and we can't really have a definite answer to that.
Should we provide more security, more traceability - that would help it out, but it's definitely a game design and balance question. For us we see the universe as it is, we don't see that need... at this point at least.
But if the society grows, that might be a request from the player base itself. And an alliance could take over a territory, and implement its own rules.
Q: That sounds very interesting, but hard to implement.
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: We provide certain technologies that allow you, as a player, can give others access to certain details about your player - how old it is, how many skillpoints it has, which skills and so on. So if you allow others to have that information, they can also see where you are coming from.
Of course the nature of the game is such that you never know really if it's a trustworthy person, or not - and it's quite an interesting social theory that we create a super-competitive world and at least part of that world is asking for more governance.
Q: How much of the population is involved in the no-security "zero-zero" space?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: We estimate that about 20 per cent of the player population is actively involved in zero-zero space.
So as the player base grows, while proportionately the more secure players might still be 80 per cent, the actual number of people seeking greater assurances could be higher - going back to the Council, if more people are voting for that sort of thing, is there a risk that the "carebear" voice gets so loud that the long-time players get fed up and leave?
I don't see it as a risk, I see it as an interesting development within a community that is growing. We'll just have to see what happens. In the end I think people like knowing about the possibility of the risk, specifically that you can go there if you want to.
[Higher security] Empire space is still big enough for hundreds of thousands of more people to distribute within that space, and I don't see that anything that will happen on that within the next few years. But Eve is forever, so it might later on.
Q: Is it going to be forever?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: I believe so.
Q: Eve is a dynamic universe, whereas most MMOs are static worlds. Could Eve, ten years after launch, be a fundamentally different place to what it was in the beginning? The actual ideas?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: I don't think the actual ideas will change. The basic idea is that everybody is in the same world, it's a dynamic place, and a competitive place. Those are the three basic design rules. I don't seem them changing, because they create a dynamic, vibrant community, and as long as we keep upgrading in terms of people seeing more beautiful things, having new ships to access and so on.
As long as the game is dynamic, it's interesting, and it will continue by itself. We've seen it with alliance warfare, the map is constantly changing over time, going backwards and forwards across the months. One big alliance has gone from controlling two thirds of the universe to having just a little corner.
Q: Over time you've given players more and more tools - whether it's adding corporation and alliance functionality, or moving from an NPC- to a player-driven market. What other tools can you give them?
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson: From my own personal perspective I would like to see advance financial tools evolving, and stuff like that.
Dr Eyjol Gudmondsson is chief economist at CCP. Interview by Phil Elliott.