Two weeks ago EVE Online launched Incarna, an expansion that added human avatars to a game previously focused on spaceships. What should have been the celebrated release of another evolution in the continuing space saga, quickly turned to drama and uproar amongst the passionate EVE community alarmed by the high price vanity items on sale through micro transactions, and then the leak of internal memos. The memos appeared to present a blunt attitude of the CCP development team: EVE players were seen as the "golden goose", and they were going to be rinsed of money to help fund new projects at CCP.
In retaliation, the EVE community revolted with in-game protests and abuse directed at the CCP developers - last week at the Game Horizon event, CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson revealed that bullets and baseball bats had been sent to the company's HQ in Iceland - amongst other verbal and in-game economic mischief.
CCP called a crisis meeting with the Council of Stellar Management - player representatives who speak for the community and deal directly with upper management - to address the issues and anger, and a resolution of sorts was reached.
Last week, a day before the meeting of the CSM and under embargo until after the event, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Pétursson to discuss the extraordinary backlash, the effect it had on the talent at CCP, the shift to micro-transactions and the constant evolution of one of the most successful and fascinating online virtual worlds.
Q: EVE has been subscription based for years, why add micro-transactions on top of that now?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: I would say the main macro reasoning is that we as a company were setting out to make subscription games, we were making virtual worlds. And the most robust model at that time was subscriptions. But since then people have been doing really interesting things with free-to-play, micro-transactions, additional payments, premium services - there's a lot of stuff out there. What we have always believed is that to make it relevant for decades to come we have to innovate on all aspects of the game, and that includes business models just as much as game features. If you don't change then at some point EVE will just go into oblivion, it becomes deprived over time. That's not occurring now, so we're taking a step quite early in the process and we're a company that innovates, that's a core strength of ours, to take these leaps once in a while.
Q: Do you see the business model changing entirely over time? From all subscriptions to all micro-transactions with a free-to-play model?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: It could. I would guess that's not going to happen. A lot of it is just going to be a result of how it all plays out. What people tend to look at is what's being adopted and what's being used by companies. Often that's something entirely different from what you imagine at the beginning of the life of the product but we can't predict behaviour to come. We'll take a look at purchase transactions and what people are interested in buying. We've certainly had a lot of interesting feedback from the EVE players, obviously we listen to the feedback. This is really about taking these leaps and then iterating and refining. We're just starting that process now. It started with a bang.
If you don't change then at some point EVE will just go into oblivion, it becomes deprived over time
Q: What's the mood like amongst the developers - you've been working on Incarna for a long time and you release it to savage feedback from the most loyal of players?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: What has affected the mood of people the most has been the leaks that have occurred. Misinterpretation of internal material taken as something that it is not. For example the Fearless newsletter that's out there is an internal tool for discussion and debate, where people take very polarised views and write in a debating fashion, conflicting their own views, just to debate points. That's been taken as literal memos on behalf of the company when it's something entirely different.
We have always celebrated debate and open discussion at CCP and when it goes out in its pure form it's a lot of misunderstanding, and that's affected people a lot. All the theories about impending doom, because people are taking this out of context, that's definitely affected the staff.
Q: How do you manage that internally so the same thing doesn't happen again, when you value that freedom of speech and open-minded discussion at CCP?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: We are not going to stop it, this is part of the company DNA. But it was the first time in 13 years. We're not going to have that slay us too much. Obviously we have to have that discussion internally about how we are going to manage these things, and that they will be taken out of context. If you take internal debates out into the limelight you cant really have a debate with a group of 400,000 people. You have to have some sense of structure to the discussion and that's why we created the Council of Stellar Management. That's an important platform to resolve some of the issues we're having now. Because as I said, we can't have a debate with all those people.
We've built that platform out of the experience of trying to debate with 100s of 1000s of people because that's not very productive and nor are written words in blogs and forum posts.
Q: Can you understand how players were so upset, especially when EVE was referred to as the "golden goose" which can help fund other projects, considering the amount of time and effort and emotion that payers put into something like EVE?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: I understand it. It's not something that we refer to EVE or the player base as internally. It was in the newsletter to make a point. And that's all it is, it's not emblematic of internal dialogue. Obviously people at CCP who have been in the business of relating to EVE subscribers have developed a hard skin because the player base can be very quite aggressive. I have seen people buckle under the pressure of talking to them as a group. To clam up and not be as open as they were prior to that. And really that's the nature of the beast.
On the flip side I don't think I've ever, in the eight years I've been doing this, met an EVE player in person that wasn't fantastically enthusiastic about what we're doing. And it's been like a wonderful experience every single time. I've never met an EVE player who has been anything less than a stellar example of nice things, but when they come together they can be quite antagonistic. Which his fine, I'm in the job of having that thrown at me and that's perfectly fine. But when they are singling out individual employees of CCP that are doing their job, that's when it gets a little too much. There have been people that are being singled out by the player base as the root of all evil when in fact they are just debating a point. I would just recommend they turn their attention to the people who hold responsibility of answering to them, whether it's me or a senior producer.
The sandbox and emergent gameplay in EVE is what makes the experience. Whatever we add to it is not meant to compromise that in anyway
Q: You introduced micro-transactions for vanity items, but do you see that going further with the purchase of weapons, ships, better equipment that gives the player an advantage in-game?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: Right now it's just not something we can comment on. We've made a commitment to discuss those things with the Council of Stellar Management so me speaking out of turn would not be honouring that. Really the platform to have that dialogue is with the CSM. It's a complicated matter to define what is vanity and what is not vanity. There is a lot of vanity in society that has an impact on wider matters.
Q: When do you think you'll have enough data from the first sales to really pull it apart and analyse the stats to feed it back into the creation process?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: I would say it's a process that is never fully done, it's an endless effort and it's going to change over time. Certainly now we have some data after the first week that we can have productive dialogue about. Out of that we will formulate the next step.
Q: One of the most interesting reactions from players was that they would rather pay a higher subscription rate than pay for smaller items in-game. What was the reaction to that and have you ever considered increasing the subscription rate for EVE?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: Yes, of course we have considered that, for sure.
Q: Why didn't you increase the subs rate?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: It's like I said in the beginning, it's the evolution of the business of EVE like we've evolved the gameplay of EVE. Raising the subscription price would have been doing more of the same, it's not adding a new dimension to EVE when we see what other games have innovated on. It's not bringing the learning from the wider market place into EVE. It's our belief that to make the business relevant we need to change. Although some EVE subscribers would like to pay a higher subscription fee not all of them would. There are people that pay the subs fee and don't want to pay for in-game goods and that's perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Some want to buy the good because they are already doing it. Some want to use Plex as a means to engage more. It's really about offering these different options in a balanced way but the core foundation of the game is still strong. We're a company that knows the sandbox and emergent gameplay in EVE is what makes the experience. Whatever we add to it is not meant to compromise that in anyway.
Q: Do you expect subscriber numbers to go down as part of the Incarna backlash?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: Well, every time we've made a big change to EVE we see new players come in and other players leave. We've done a lot of changes and we see people quit, we see people come back, we see new sign-ups. It's really the state of affairs. EVE is a thing that is going to continue to evolve, we're quite clear on that. The fact that we change it every six months should be an example of that commitment. These are not always changes that everyone likes, it's not always a system that everyone is entirely happy with, but we look at the general state of affairs and trust those. In collaboration with the players, through the CSM and other feedback channels, we just take this in and refine the experience based on that.