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Life after EVE Online: From intergalactic warfare to "elegant, cosy" card games

CCP Games co-founder Ívar Kristjánsson talks starting a new studio with his brother to fill a niche in the digital card game market

Since first launching 16 years ago, EVE Online has made a name for itself as a game which pushed the boundaries of what a game can be.

Known for its massive wars, complex political and social structures, in-game heists, grand betrayals and elaborate revenge plots, EVE Online ignites unparalleled enthusiasm from its dedicated audience.

When CCP Games co-founder and CEO Ívar Kristjánsson announced his departure from the studio around four years ago, there was a certain anticipation that something special must be in the works.

Last month, his new studio 1939 Games finally revealed what it was working on: Kards, a World War II-themed collectable card game, designed by his brother and fellow CCP alumni Gudmundur Kristjánsson.

GamesIndustry.biz caught up with the brothers at GDC to discuss the gear change, and find out what was special about Kards that it would see the CCP co-founder move into such a radically new direction.

"In my heart I'm really more of an entrepreneur," says Ívar. "I really like to be more involved with the early stages and build something up from scratch. We did some attempts at CCP to create new games, but nothing really became as big a success as EVE."

The studio's most notable attempt at creating something new was Dust 514, a free-to-play first person shooter directly connected to EVE Online, which CCP shut down in May 2016 after three years.

Ívar and Gudmundur Kristjánsson at GDC

Ívar and Gudmundur Kristjánsson at GDC

After 13 years at CCP however, Ívar said it was time to get out of working in a large business environment, which can distract from the creative process.

"It becomes like an old freighter with a big engine, but it's really difficult to make changes," he continues. "You set a course and if you come up with an idea it takes half a year to implement. Now we are a very small team, it's basically like being on a speedboat. We can go full throttle, and we can slow down."

Additionally, Ívar says, the smaller company means a handpicked team and it becomes much easier to "just enjoy ourselves."

Ívar made the decision to depart CCP after Gudmundur "came to me with a problem" -- that problem was he had applied for and won an innovation grant worth around $70,000 to make Kards a reality. While this left him in the position of being able to move beyond cardboard prototypes and into full production, he wasn't necessarily going to be able to finish it without further backing and support.

"I really saw great potential in it, and really got fascinated with it," Ívar continues. "There was nothing out there [like it]. This market is a decent sized market -- a $1.5 billion market -- but there was no World War II card games out there so it was a great option. He has a strong vision for the game; he had it all in his head. He had part of it already on the table in front of me, but I completely aligned with this vision and said let's do it."

That clarity of vision is obvious when Gudmundur speaks about the game.

"We're going in a different direction with the art of the game -- a subtle, powerful way of showing things"

Gudmundur Kristjánsson

"We're going in a different direction with the art of the game -- a subtle, powerful way of showing things," he says. "A lot of these games are really colourful, a lot of the cards are animated, but we're really going for this vintage feeling. To feel like this elegant, cosy feeling, like you're sitting at the table playing cards and there is a little radio in the corner that is playing 'We'll Meet Again.'"

Ívar wasn't the only person who saw potential in the idea, and 1939 Games recently attracted $3.6 million in funding led by Tencent. While the Chinese internet giant has invested billions of dollars into more than 300 companies over the last ten years, it's no less a vote of confidence from the largest game company in the world.

"We wanted to attract some really strong international players to the table," says Ívar. "We're a born global company, we're based in Iceland but we're producing this for a global market. Getting an investor like Tencent... these are really specialist gaming investments. It really helps a lot. I'm a board member of the Icelandic Game Industry -- there are 18 registered companies there -- and I see some of the companies only sought investment in Iceland and they are struggling a bit because they might not get support in the second round."

However, the World War II theme does invite certain criticisms. As with any game set during the period, developers should be asking themselves difficult questions about how best to represent the Nazi regime. But it's also often a prickly issue for developers that just want to use the war as a staging ground, rather than diving into the political machinations of the era.

"There is a long tradition of games where you can play as the German side, I don't think that is considered controversial," says Gudmundur. "On the other hand, we are using a lot of the artwork on the cards, we took a lot from propaganda posters. We kind of had to use a little less of the German ones. There are no politics in the games -- it's just about this abstract warfare. It's about the military movements and tactics... and I think as long as you're sensible and careful with how you do it, I don't think it's a problem."

Ívar chimes in, adding: "The game is abstract. We're not playing World War II. You can act as different nations together, so you can actually make a deck with the Brits and Germans together and play like that. We tried to stay away from politics and focus on the gameplay."

However, as Paintbucket Games recently highlighted during a talk at Ludicious Game Festival, even this stance runs the risk of whitewashing history. Tangential learning is a powerful thing though, and has long been part of the appeal for many gamers when it comes to the Total War or Hearts of Iron series for example, and it's something Gudmundur hopes to achieve with Kards.

"We have this historical flavour to the game, and historical info that you can look up on the cards," he says. "I think for a lot of players, maybe younger players playing our game, it sparks their interest in World War II. If they start reading up about it, they will probably realise a little bit more. I think it's really important that this area not be forgotten."

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