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Playing Among the Stars - Part One

CCP's Nathan Richardsson reveals some of the areas under development for EVE Online

While the MMO space has proven somewhat turbulent for most entrants out there - many of which rely on a big splash launch and significant ongoing subscriber income - EVE Online has grown steadily since its launch in 2003 to become the second biggest traditional MMO game in the West with over 300,000 active subscribers.

At this year's Nordic Game conference we spent some time with CCP's executive producer, Nathan Richardsson, who updated us on some of the areas the team is currently working on, as well as finding out just what sort of impact hiring a real-life economist has had on the game's design. EVE Online's been growing consistently for several years now, with a decent spike this year so far - what do you attribute that to, when most other MMO's seem to drop numbers over time?
Nathan Richardsson

It started happening around November or December last year, basically around the financial meltdown, so maybe a lot of people are coming back to play to escape the real world?

Also we have a couple of initiatives that really opened it up, like our move into retail - it all just stacked up. It was much faster going from 250,000-300,000 subscribers than it was going from 200,000-250,000 for example. We're still seeing good growth, although we're expecting the summer to be slower - but still I think that it'll grow faster after that.

But growth in an of itself still isn't really a huge goal for us - this 300,000 number was simply a good goal-setter for the company to pull together and try and reach it, but at the same time it is that we've spent more time on EVE, and tried to fix what needs attention - plus make bigger expansions. It's basically that we've been working on all cylinders, all the way from marketing to development. The move to retail was an interesting one - EVE started life as a boxed product, but it was really the switch to online-only that proved its making... What sort of impact did the link with Atari have on the company?
Nathan Richardsson

It actually had a lot of effects. One was that we had hard deadlines, because we had to ship the CD master, and so on, when usually we have more freedom. It wasn't a restraint, but it meant that we took some different decisions based on the timeline.

But it also increased our daily acquisition numbers - they went up by about 15 per cent on top of what we'd usually find, so that was quite positive. We're more into being in retail to have a presence there, being in the stores, and preferably always have something new and different that we're trying to offer there.

In terms of numbers I think it was a big contributor, especially after the Apocrypha expansion launch, to our total numbers - but there are still units out there, so we haven't seen the full extent of how it's done. And of course people are still converting from actually buying the box and turning into subscribers. There was a sizeable expansion towards the end of 2008, and another one just a few months into 2009 - do you notice big player spikes when that happens?
Nathan Richardsson

Absolutely - and we carry out re-subscription campaigns and reach out to those that have lapsed, to tell them there's a new expansion coming, and to come and try it out for a few days before deciding to reactivate.

We're seeing a lot of uptake on that - between 4-8 per cent. The longevity of how long people stay when they come back really differs, but we see that a lot of people do come back and try. It's simple to reactivate the subscription, and people don't need to go to a store or anything, or pay USD 50-60 to try out a new expansion, so that's been really effective. Late last year there was a lot of effort put into the narrative elements with the introduction of the Empyrean Age expansion - a whole day of story build-up on the website while during the downtime for the game's upgrade, which was pretty compelling to watch unfold. How did the team go about deciding how that was going to play out?
Nathan Richardsson

That was pretty much driven by the novel that was coming out at a similar time. It was really the whole changes to the universe that followed with that. We will be doing it again, and doing it more extensively - it really comes down to the need for a vehicle to deliver this stuff outside of the game.

So we've been developing a lot of tools and communication options outside of the game itself to enable us to make it more compelling. That newsfeed back then was mainly around the prime fiction itself, but there's so much happening as well within the player fiction, that I think there's lots of room for improvement.

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