Eve Online has grown from humble beginnings to be one of the serious MMO fixtures in the gaming environment. Launched in 2003, it's changed significantly in the past four years, and managed to engage its community for much of that time, increasing its numbers by around 80 per cent every year.
At this year's FanFest, held in developer CCP Games' home town of Reykjavik, Iceland, more players than ever made the trip to the cold, windy and expensive country close to the Arctic Circle to mingle with other players and developers, ask questions, compare notes and drink beer.
During the event GamesIndustry.biz caught up with CCP's visionary CEO, Hilmar Petursson, to talk over some of the developments from the past year, as well as what the future holds.
On the horizon, the big news is Trinity — apart from the visual advancement, what does that represent for the ongoing development for Eve Online?
It's also a large technological step forward, because we're also at the end of how much power we can squeeze out of our existing graphics engine. It's only a fixed-function pipeline graphics engine, and there are limitations on how you can leverage top of the line hardware with such an engine.
The new engine is a next-generation 3D engine that really allows us to take advantage of the power which is out there now. So, even though it might look so much better, it will also perform much better than our existing engine.
Our old engine will still be there and work on lower-end machines, and continue to give us the reach we have always enjoyed. But when it comes to really taking advantage of modern-day hardware this is our step towards that.
So it's no only an artistic improvement, it's also a technological improvement to be able to scale on the client side.And that will be selected on the client side on the graphics menu?
Exactly, it will be precisely like that. If you have the ability, a capable graphics card, you can choose whether to use the old content or the new content.How are the numbers doing — are you still seeing almost a doubling every year?
We have had consistent approximately an 80 per cent increase every year, ever since we launched the game. There have been times when it's been a little faster, or a little slower, but it's usually more seasonal than anything else, but we're there tracking them all.
With the upcoming graphics expansion I think we will maybe see a lot of people that have played the game in the past check out the new graphics — which I certainly want to doâ¦I haven't played Eve myself in a while, and seeing those spaceships, it makes me want to play again [laughs]What's the latest concurrency record?
It's 37,200. We've almost been hitting a new player concurrency record every Sunday now this Fall.You added some new functionality for new players, a new tutorial, but it's still a self-selecting game. You're still keen not to sacrifice the existing balance for the sake of higher numbers?
For us, improving the new player experience is like trying to improve an MBA course at a university. We're trying to teach people free markets, corporate governance, logistics, manufacturing — we're teaching them a lot of very applicable real-world stuff, and the way we teach it is something we have to constantly evolve.
It won't change the game, but it will make for a better way to educate people, on those terms, which they also then can use in reality.
We've seen a lot of examples where people have played around with the theory on how to play on a market in Eve and then tried it on NASDAQ. We've seen people found corporations and be successful with it in Eve, and then they've gone and created companies in the real world.
So we feel that although there's certainly a learning curve to the game, we're teaching things that are applicable in real life — it's not a waste of time. For example, if you were playing in a fantasy setting, and you were learning about the weight of a dragonâ¦that's not a learning that's applicable in the real world.
Corporate governance, logistics and manufacturing, supply and demand — Eve to a degree is a tool to sort of learning that in a meaningful way.
Even though the new player experience will never be easy, we'll continue to make it more effective. We've made some improvements this year, and we'll continue on those lines.There's obviously a delicate balance between risk and reward — do you think that balance is right, or is there more fine-tuning to be done?
I think the balance is really in how people use it — it's almost self-balancing. If this particular activity is too easy given the rewards for it, then people navigate towards that and it devalues over time.
So I think our approach will be more about educating people about the risk and reward, and them selecting where they want to be given their capability within the game at that point.
That is more our approach, rather than to mess about with the game per se too much, because it's definitely a problem of educating, rather than there being a problem with the game.What about the concept of risk as being optional — Eve is risky wherever, is that fundamental?
That is the vision of the game. Your actions will have repercussions, and they may boomerang on the back of your head later. But that will also mean effort on their part — we don't want random violence, but meaningful consequential player interaction is very much what we're striving for.
If you do somebody wrong, they have the ability to bring it back to you ten times harder. We want to try and avoid random violence, because that doesn't really facilitate any emergence.I guess if you put in too many rules, you take away the tools for players to generate their own content in the form of politics, the economy, and so on.
Definitely, but we also strive for a sliding scale. You can start in the centre in Empire, learn the basics, and sort of select your risk level based on how far in to the outer space you want to go.You hired an economist back in May, Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, which was an interesting story. What has he brought to the Eve universe?
I maintain the theory that the core value proposition with Eve is the social equity that is built up in the game. It's the corporations, the alliances, all the politics and the economic activity within the game — that's really the value proposition.
Certainly we have built the foundation on which it can be created, but that is essentially what people are coming to experience. While it's up to the 200,000 people interacting on an open market, which fluctuates unpredictably both due to elements which we're changing in the game, and also just overall market dynamics, you definitely need a person with the tools and the understanding to watch that nothing is getting messed up in the economy.
As with the government in the real world you definitely need a third party view, an educated third party view, on what's going on. And that third party view will guide the government in not over-investing, creating inflation, not making rules that limit the emergence from the economy.
All our theories about what a proper economist would bring to the table have been validated so many times over — it's amazing the finding he's coming up with, he's validated some of our assumptions, but he's also shattered a lot too.Does he also give you an ambassador to reach out to some of the mainstream financial outlets?
Yes, he's definitely been an ambassador for that aspect of the game, and speaking to the Financial Times, and big publications, and explaining to them exactly what it is. Because players know it's a real economy and behaves like one, but it's often a bit of a leap of faith for the mainstream media to accept it is an economy.
But Eyjol with his background — he has a PhD in economics, he was dean of the economics division at the university here in Iceland — he's able to articulate it in a way that everybody gets it.
And just his involvement with it is a validation that it is a real economy, so — definitely an ambassador for that aspect.Do other virtual worlds like Second Life help that kind of awareness and understanding?
I think all of the developments in virtual worlds have helped. If you take Eve, Second Life, World of Warcraft, all the games coming out of Asia, all of this activity — overall it's definitely raised awareness in the mainstream media and just people in general.
When you watch The Simpsons and South Park and this is the topic of discussion, then you know it's hit the mainstream. I think all of these factors help to validate that real effects are happening within these worlds.How are the plans for boxed retail copies of Eve coming along?
That's still happening, we're working on a DVD version of the game which includes the new graphics, which is a bigger download than the old graphics, and we're also constantly hearing feedback from the community that they'd like to have a box.
We definitely want to provide the box as an option, but our strategy will continue to be digital download. The box at retail is a nice add-on to that — it will never be the major driver, but it's an option that some people will feel more comfortable with.And will it be something that you order online and get in the post, or will you buy it in the shops?
We'll definitely begin order online and have it sent to you. Often people want that as a gift for their friends, or just something physical that they can have to represent the game they play the most.
But retail also understands more the nature of sell-through of MMOs. Retail is often optimised for the three month sell-out big blockbuster launch, whereas the MMOs, even the big ones, they sell much more over time than those mega-launches.
So retail is understanding that more and more, and it's helping us to explain to them that although we won't sell out in three months, we will continue to sell for years. Eve has been selling more and more copies per month for the past four years, and that's definitely something to build a good relationship on.Plus there are always the play time cards that you can already buy in the shops to build on as well?
Hilmar Petursson is the CEO of CCP Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.