Earlier this month Iceland's only game developer, CCP, celebrated its tenth birthday. As creator and publisher of space MMO EVE Online, the company's story is a classic tale of innovating to survive, creating a unique product and delivery method and thriving in a flourishing, and depressingly inevitable, me-too climate.
A decade on from a beginning of three friends scouring ECTS with a broken prototype on a laptop, CCP's history shows a slow-burning success. EVE is now played by more than 170,000 people paying a premium rate of EUR 19.95 per month; a virtual society CEO Hilmar PÃtursson claims isn't even a game running on a super-server called Tranquility; and a product bearing the reputation as the most hardcore experience in global PC gaming.
CCP bought US developer White Wolf last November, marking the beginning of an expansion off the back of EVE's financial base and giving the Nordic company a route to both a second game in horror-fantasy franchise World of Darkness and a solid route to American retail. A World of Darkness MMO is now in development and is expected to be released in the next four to five years. CCP really isn't in any hurry.
While progress may be measured, however, the Icelanders know how to pick their moment. Marketing director Magnus Bergsson revealed to GamesIndustry.biz at CCP's offices in Reykjavik last week that USD 7 million has been earmarked for marketing EVE Online this year, the first major media push in the game's history. A keen EVE player himself, Magnus filled us in on where the money's going to go, how the White Wolf merger will affect CCP's beloved internal corporate climate, and why he loves the âevilnessâ of in-game corporation life.
Q: GamesIndustry.biz: So, how are you going to spend your USD 7 million this year?
Magnus Bergsson: Well, we're going to spend about USD 4 million on media buying. We have an ad agency in the US: they have about 10 people there working full-time almost for us. That's costing quite a bit, and it's been a learning process for us.
We're used to doing everything here, and doing it really, really quickly. Working with an ad agency... Took much longer than we anticipated to get them actually started. It took, like, three months, and three months for us is like an eternity. We were getting extremely restless.
Q: Why is now the right time to push with all this money?
First of all, we have it. Secondly, we want to go beyond 300,000 users. It is a goal we set for ourselves. If we do it this year that would be fantastic. It's not likely it will happen, but we're going to try.
There's just so much stuff now. The game is so much easier for new players to enter than ever before, and we are lucky that the gameplay is controlled so much by the players and not by us: it never really gets old. It's timeless. And as more people are in the game, [the corporations - the EVE equivalent of guilds] need more people. That's how corporations work.
It's the right time for us, we think. It's a very different growth curve from any other MMO. We know that. It's also because you don't have this leveling. You don't have a character at level 60 and a character at level one, and the character level 60's just going to pwn the guy who's level one. EVE doesn't work like that. It's a cooperation and everyone can participate.
Q: Are there any other ways you can grow the user base aside from straight marketing? For the sites we publish we use the viral aspects of the web, exclusivity of content...
We do that as well. We're actually spending quite a bit of money on our buddy program and that type of marketing as well. We're going to do both. Our best ambassadors are our users. Which is why these recent allegations really hurt us.
(CCP has been embroiled in allegations of developer corruption within the game in recent months. An employee was discovered to be using his official standing to procure advantageous items and currency for his corporation and alliance. The issue evoked high scandal in the EVE world - Ed.)
It's just amazing that such a small group of people - it really is three people - can get a whole alliance up like that and create false allegations, just because they are feeling vindictive.
Q: So you're not pleased about all of that?
I can tell you, I was feeling really depressed.
Q: Didn't you turn the forum off at one point?
We had to. They were basically attacking our website. The forums just collapsed, so we had to shut them down in order to maintain stability on the website. We don't shut things down just because we don't like what's being said. We've never done that.
Some people think we lock threads because we don't like them: that's not the reason. Sometimes we lock threads because of the language in there is outrageous. Just normal stuff. It might actually hurt us sometimes to be so open with our community.
One of the reasons the community expects so much from us is because we have a little bit of a different attitude towards the whole relationship. But in the long run, we think it's better.
Q: As you start bringing in different demographics - such as casual gamers and women - will you adapt the game in any way to accommodate them?
We will not dumb it down. We will never do that. It's not really possible. It's a big sandbox and we don't control the actual gameplay. It is a big universe. We're always going to have a lot to learn, but we're always trying to make the new player experience more accessible, and in the upcoming release we're doing more of those types of changes.
One of the biggest issues is helping people get into a corporation. That's the critical decision point. When you do enter a player-run corp, that's when you start to see what the game is about. You don't see it when you're soloing or when you're in an NPC corp. So we're going to continue doing that better and better and better.
Q: Do you think there's room in the game for an official corp manned by staff, where people can learn the game with very little consequence?
We just don't want to. It's a core of our beliefs that game developers should not be like God and try to change things in that way. We really want the players to operate the game. It would be against what we believe.
The amazing thing is that there are player corporations built just to help new players. So no, we don't want to do that. We want players to join player-run corporations. So we're going to try to help people go through the first two months, but it's always going to be dependent on you to do a lot of this stuff yourself.
Magnus Bergsson is marketing director for EVE Online. Interview by Pat Garratt. To read part two of this feature, visit GamesIndustry.biz next week.