EVE Online's 13 year history has been remarkable. The game has preserved an incredibly solid player base through highlights and dramas, modelling an economy which has been the envy of nations, its wars being reported by international news agencies. In more recent years, Icelandic developer CCP has forged new games from its core IP, branching out into FPS and VR on consoles and mobile as well as PC. It's also successfully negotiated the introduction of a free-to-play mechanic into what is widely acknowledged as the world's most hardcore and complicated MMO. And it's making more money than ever before.
The most recent financial results, announced today, report an uptick of around 30% in revenues - up to $86,135,976 in FY 2016 from $65,703,397 in 2015. EBIDTA sits at $38,935,538 (45% of revenue). DAU for EVE online doubled during this period, ARPU is up 20%. CCP's heavy investment in a nascent VR industry is pretty much breaking even already. Not bad for a company running one of the most niche games ever created. So how does a 13 year-old, notoriously complex MMO produce figures like these?
"Eve is as much a social economy as it is a game"
"I would say it's been three milestone moments," CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson tells me when I ask what's driving growth. "It was the opening up of skill trading at the beginning of the year, then the release of Citadel, and the transition to open access, all of which were phenomenally successful. They address different aspects of the game. The Citadel really opened up the kind of higher-end gameplay, top of the pyramid aspirational goals and shenanigans that Eve is known for, while still kind of providing a bit of a spectacle for earlier players. So it's not only content for the major alliances. It goes across the whole spectrum."
Aspiration is absolutely fundamental to the psychology of EVE. In the game's new, friendlier tutorial, the very first thing the player sees is a destroyed Titan class vessel. When these monstrous ships were first introduced in 2008, they were the absolute pinnacle of achievement in the game: requiring an almost insurmountable coordinated effort from thousands of people over the course of months, with the actual building of the ship itself taking eight weeks. In fact, the scale of the task is so Herculean, the CEO says that the dev team half expected that one would never be built. Soon, player corps were building, and subsequently destroying, Titans at the rate of several per month, reaching a high water mark in Q4 of 2011 when nearly 140 were built.
"The fact that a Titan needs 4,000 people to build it," says Pétursson, pausing, "...we thought when we first introduced them in 2008, we were just like, 'Okay, maybe nobody will build one.' We took that approach of, 'Okay, we're gonna take it to the extreme,' and then the players have followed. They've taken it to way more extremes than we could ever have thought of, so we follow them."
EVE's players are nothing if not over-achievers. Since Titans became relatively commonplace in the game's universe, CCP has introduced another aspirational target for the end game audience - the Citadels which Pétursson credits as one of last year's growth pillars. These vast space cities are even more expensive to produce and maintain than the Titan-superclass warships, the new status symbols for the interstellar elite. True to form, the tutorial gives you a eyeful of one from your tiny starter vessel before you're released into the universe, letting you know that this is what you eventually own. And lose.
"I was packing up my house when the Brexit result came out, and I think I finally understood what the saying 'cut off your nose to spite your face'"
"Eve is as much a social economy as it is a game," the CEO explains. "Often the mechanisms you can use you are inspired by looking at how countries and cities and things like that are run. I mean, we sit here in London. It's a city of, what, eight million people who have very violently different lifestyles, and somehow it all kind of fits. So there's a lot of inspiration we take from just kind of deconstructing reality. What is the role of trust, obligations, contract, the concept of possessions, the concept of arbitration, transactions, and pricing, labour and work, and how do you validate work and original creations, and things like that. So a lot of what makes Eve work across these scales are social concepts where you can take inspiration from reality.
"That was then used for really sort of solidifying the aspirational target, which is kind of, 'Who doesn't want to build their own space station?' Mine asteroids, build space stations, this is the purpose of life. So that was phenomenally successful. And then skill trading opened up avenues for people that want to accelerate their investment in the game with money, not only through time, which is important for a game on its thirteenth year to have.
"People who are starting to play now, they maybe regret not having started earlier. They're potentially massively behind and want to catch up. So by opening up skills, there's another vector there. And obviously open access is something we've been preparing for for years. It's something that I think the gaming population overall is almost kind of used to, even expects, today. And the mechanic of our 40-day trial is rather deprecated today. So coming up with a way where we can kind of keep the same experience for our existing users while opening up this whole new avenue for people to go and try the game led to us doubling our daily active users, which has almost held up throughout - we see extremely healthy dynamics."
But it's not just EVE which is succeeding. CCP went long on VR, releasing multiple titles across nearly all conceivable platforms last year and investing serious time and money. It's nearly recouped that investment already.
"Gunjack now has sold over a half-million copies, which I think is a record - I'm certainly gonna claim it until somebody tells me they've sold more"
"There were a lot of releases on the VR front. And even if the VR market is in its early stages, if you're fortunate enough to have started early and really worked hard at it you can have success in the VR space. Gunjack now has sold over a half-million copies, which I think is a record - I'm certainly gonna claim it until somebody tells me they've sold more. And on Valkyrie, I mean, we see phenomenal player engagement. I think we're up to three tattoos so far. That's a measure of engagement. I don't think anyone would have thought this would be the case for VR this early. We also see very encouraging retention and engagement metrics on Valkyrie, which is kind of our first game as a service.
"I would say we're kind of break even on VR. So that's almost paying for itself. And then, I mean, the majority of the profit comes from Eve. When we saw virtual reality then it's like, 'Yes, that's us. We're gonna go in and we're gonna go long, and we're gonna learn from our own history of just making sure we take careful steps and don't try to, kind of, 'manifest destiny' it, as we've sometimes done, where we've assume that just because it's us it's gonna be awesome. We had that period for a while, but we learned from that and have taken that definitely into VR."
As an established and successful early player in the market, CCP has an enviable position on VR. Not tied to the success of any particular platform, and with a good reputation for quality and a solid IP, could they become a publisher for others looking to reach a VR market?
"I think it's a little early to go that far with it," says Pétursson. "I mean, we're mainly focused on just making our own games. That's kind of our main contribution to the effort of making VR a reality. So I think our focus is gonna be primarily there. I think when it comes to discovery and purchasing, I think it's a little different than maybe we've seen before. These are all very either curated or very established platform stores going from Steam VR to Oculus to Sony. So I think the idea of traditional publishing maybe doesn't fully apply. I think there's some innovation that needs to be happening around the social aspect, but it's not the traditional retailing of software, which I think is gonna be taken care of digitally.
"Currently good products float very easily to the top. So I think, at least for this year, and it really doesn't make sense to look much beyond that. I caution myself and others to not go into what I call 'target fixation', which is to look at your early success and then project your future success to look like your early success. I think that's kind of an innovators' dilemma. If you're very early to a movement, you can just fall into that kind of target fixation. For example, our next game coming out now over the summer, called Sparc, that's a very different experience from Valkyrie, very different from Gunjack, so we've tried to make sure we're kind of spreading out as much as makes sense without doing anything crazy, then learning from that, and then taking the next steps.
"What happened with Dust is that because we were trying to do all these things in the same timeframe, we really did none of them really well"
"I mean, there will probably be a point in time, if we continue to be as successful as we have been, where we will have a set of knowledge, best practices, training, and insights that might be a foundation to help others be successful, but I think that's gonna be something that emerges later."
There have been cautionary moments on CCP's journey, and EVE universe FPS Dust 514 was one of those rare low points. Coming at the end of the PS3 life cycle, it tried to link a console FPS into the vast and shifting corporate empires of the EVE universe, allowing players to call down airstrikes from ships in EVE Online and fight for contested planets and moons. Conceptually, it was amazing. In practice, it never really worked. But with other games in the EVE universe now succeeding, is the dream of linking games at different scales still alive?
"I think people were very excited about the concept," says Pétursson. "I see people excited about such concepts in other IPs, and in gaming overall, so I think this is an aspiration that people gravitate towards. I think where we were wrong in our approach is that we tried to do it all in one go - and what we learned from trying it like that is that first you have to establish two successful games before you start to solve for how you involve any cross-pollination between those two games.
"What happened with Dust is that because we were trying to do all these things in the same timeframe, we really did none of them really well. Dust, at least when it came out, was not that fantastic a shooter. We actually worked on it quite a bit and it was getting to be a pretty good one by the end, but then we were up against the PlayStation 3 lifecycle horizon, so it was just too late at that point. But what we learned from that is that we have to do this in a certain order. First you have to establish success. The connection to other game must not be a crutch for the following game.
"So we're doing a few games in the Eve IP. We have Valkyrie, we have Gunjack. They are pretty successful in their own right. They are established in their own community, culture, etc. We still have this aspiration. So I think as we move through the next few years we will see these things more naturally come together, building from mutual success and a genuine desire from the respective communities to connect, either because people belong to both communities or just because these are games happening kind of in the same time in the same universe.
"We've already solved a lot of the technical aspects of doing it, we have teams that have learned a lot about how you make that happen. For example, in Dust we were very focused on moment-to-moment gameplay, shooting a missile from space and it landing on top of a battle in Dust, which is phenomenally crazy when you think about it, but we pulled it off. But...sitting in Eve and waiting for an air strike to be called was maybe not the most fantastic gameplay in the world. So we've just come up with better language, better approaches, to achieve this. I hope that we'll be able to bring that to bear as we nurture the success of these new entrants into the Eve universe."
"Eve is like Facebook. It doesn't make sense to make Facebook 2. Eve is Eve"
And there are Plans. CCP is working with Ridley Scott on bringing 'true stories' from EVE to life in a television series, and Pétursson says the team is working on other non-EVE games,too.
"Of course, we're also experimenting with other IP, but making IP is very hard, so that's just too early to talk about. But naturally we have teams passionate about new things and trying stuff, and we kind of have a bit of effort on that, but obviously the main focus is on the Eve IP.
"EVE 2 confirmed?" I joke, predictably. It raises a smile.
"People always asked us, in, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 'When is Eve 2 coming out?' And then they kind of just stopped asking. I think people now get it. Eve is like Facebook. It doesn't make sense to make Facebook 2. Eve is Eve. And as long as we do a good job of modernising it, as the team has been doing, from business model to graphics to gameplay to economies, then Eve kind of constantly just succeeds itself. So that's definitely the plan.
There's time for one more question, and as we're sitting in a shiny new office in the middle of London, without too many people in it, I ask why an Icelandic company with a global audience has decided to set up shop in the UK capital during a period of such turmoil. Pétursson says the referendum gave him valuable insight into the British mentality.
"Obviously had to think about it. I was packing up my house when the Brexit result came out, and I think I finally understood what the saying 'cut off your nose to spite your face,'" he laughs. "I think I finally understood what that means. And then it was like, 'Okay, does that really change anything?', and I thought, 'I don't know. It seems like a lot of stuff to sort out, and it's gonna take a while.'
"I think London will still be London. I think London has established itself, it's in a tier with very few cities in the world, and I think it's very hard to undo that, and I don't really there's any intent to do that. That would be very strange. So we just kind of keep calm and carry on. I mean, we come from a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It's like, 'Yeah, like, whatever. Just hoping that works out for you.'"