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Playing Among the Stars - Part Two

Nathan Richardsson on agile development for EVE, and how CCP Games helped its staff through Iceland's economic meltdown

Following on from part one of the interview with CCP Games executive producer Nathan Richardsson, here the EVE Online overlord explains how the company's moved towards a more agile development structure to manage the work of its 400 staff.

Plus he talks about how CCP was able to help its staff through Iceland's financial meltdown, why the company still wants to expand its workforce by 25 per cent and how the community tools are set for expansion.

GamesIndustry.biz CCP's become a huge company now, as an independent developer?
Nathan Richardsson

Yes, it's 400 people now, and we're trying to hire 100 more.

GamesIndustry.biz Given that there's been plenty of press around regarding jobs that are being cut, obviously you wouldn't be looking to add those roles if the company couldn't handle it - the company's grown within its means?
Nathan Richardsson

And we still are.

GamesIndustry.biz You're working on the second MMO, which is targeting a female audience - what positions are you still lacking in that 100, is it the new game, or still on EVE?
Nathan Richardsson

It's across the board, basically. For example, the EVE team will now be four times the size it was at launch. We're putting quite a lot or those positions into EVE, and this is more organic growth. It requires more attention and has bigger plans, we're simply putting those in motion.

But in terms of what we're still looking for, it's really all disciplines. We're trying to create small cross-discipline teams, which have artists, engineers and so on all within a small entity. Those can then really take a subset or feature from A to Z and power to finish it within their own team.

So we're trying to increase the number of teams, and also the size of the teams for some aspects, to really be able to do more in less time - but also allow us to iterate more of what we're doing. So every two weeks we have a regular slice of what we're trying to achieve, we try it out, then the goal is to improve or be bigger, or more elaborate, or more complex.

Of the people we're hiring this year, most of them are engineers, and we're seeing that with the change into more agile development we increase the efficiency and throughput of those individual groups a lot. There's headroom, because there's so little management overhead and thrashing in communication, so we can put more engineers on each solution without it being disruptive, or it having diminishing returns.

GamesIndustry.biz You've had multiple studios for a while now - how have you found that complexity?
Nathan Richardsson

What we try to do, and the direction we're going in now is using these agile development methods, which really focuses on these small teams, and means they can become more autonomous - and more focused on what they're trying to do as part of a large division.

So you take this team, you press play and you see what comes out of it every two weeks, and the value at that point. As a result there's much less requirement for the higher level organisation. With EVE you might have ten or twelve teams, and you just make sure that each of the teams has a high level objective in terms of what they want to achieve. That's instead of having 120 people that you're trying to manage - so you decrease the complexity many times.

It also allows you to have teams working and contributing across the continents - there again it's more problematic to have contributions from multiple offices to the same project, but we can do it to a certain extent. It is more wasteful working remotely, but the increased development velocity you get from using that methodology in the first place makes you win in the end, regardless.

It's really that you can leverage the different domain expertise quite easily - now with Apocrypha, we had a lot of domain knowledge applied to the difference aspects of it in terms of the graphics engine all the way over to the UI. We worked on every aspect of EVE with Apocrypha, whether that was simply fixing and refactoring or rewriting code, or whether we were actually adding new features, we touched on a lot of stuff.

So it's still challenging, but we've come to a point where relinquishing control is really the key to making it happen to a large extent - just making sure that the vision is clear and can be followed in the first place. If you get that wrong to begin with I think you'll have bigger problems.

But there you have a much more structured environment that really empowers the team and allows them to have a stronger sense of ownership - and in the end they make better features, since they should be able to iterate more and bring more feedback into the loop.

GamesIndustry.biz CCP seemed to be in the eye of the storm late last year as the global economic crisis hit Iceland in a big way - have things calmed down a bit now?
Nathan Richardsson

It's cooled down, and there are more answers now than there were some months ago. CCP isn't anything to worry about, because we're in multiple locations and our revenue was all in foreign currency anyway...

What really was the problem for us was how many of our employees were hit by the crisis, so we tried to leverage some of the strengths of CCP to help them through the turbulent times.

We're not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, but at the very least we could leverage part of CCP's infrastructure that you wouldn't normally think would benefit your employees - allowing people to be paid in foreign currency, for example, makes it much more stable for people looking towards the future - when being paid in Icelandic Krona was still fluctuating by a few per cent here and there, it was very volatile and you can't really work with that kind of currency.

So small things like that - small things from a company point of view, but the impact was really massive with these changes. That was a positive aspect at least of the entire crisis.

Other than that, the crisis has been positive for computer gaming in terms of attention - since people have fewer options, or want to be reserved and careful, do you take a week's vacation somewhere abroad or stay home? So if you stay home on vacation, what should you do? Play games, watch movies...

I think that's part of the reason why the industry isn't being hit that hard - at least that's the going theory, and it sounds plausible.

GamesIndustry.biz Did you ever have the conversation with Dr Eyjo about simply absorbing Iceland's economy into EVE?
Nathan Richardsson

Yes.... It won't be long before we have more people using the in-game currency for EVE than we have using the actual ISK in Iceland. I think that they could benefit from having Eyjo on their team [smiles]

GamesIndustry.biz EVE has a special community... If I'm ever having a bad day it always seems to cheer me up to go and read some of the posts on the EVE forums. But that's probably easier for me to do, externally, because they're a vociferous bunch - do some of those posts ever get you down?
Nathan Richardsson

Of course, that's part of being a human being. It's not all positive... I think there's a trick that you have to apply for the feedback to be valuable and meaningful - you have to take a certain stance on all the feedback loops that you use to make decisions. The forums are one of those, but it's one of the many still.

It's how you process that feedback - we have everything from people religiously reading everything that goes on there, to having more processing of what's happening. Maybe that's taking the hottest topic, and that's being processed into an archive - following those topics between months and having a more digested form.

Then bringing more options and tools for communicating - whether that's trying to communicate to us, or to the entire player base, or whoever they want to reach with their opinions. There'll simply be differently-structured feedback and information gathering which will, over time, give some avenues a stronger signal-to-mass ratio.

For example, when all corporations have their own newsfeeds and blogs, and pictures and video streams, over time you'll see some kind of gravitational force pulling blogs into more than ranting, putting news into really in-game stuff.

In a way you'll simply have a choice of what kind of feedback you're looking for. When we have those tools up and running it's going to be interesting to see the balance between negative and positive.

I also think it'll be good to see more voices, because in general I think the percentage of contributors to the forums of the entire player base is just the most vocal - which means at the same time they're the minority. I'd like to hear more opinions, and the Council of Stellar Management is an attempt to do that - although of course many of them are quite vocal in the first place... but I think we've gotten a very good mix of people on the council over time. There are champions for many aspects of EVE, which you wouldn't have seen in the first place, or those opinions would just have been burned.

Making the information flow more structured and manageable is the next thing that we should really do in terms of structuring the feedback, and selecting which kind of flaming and trolling you want to have today.

GamesIndustry.biz And what of the future to the end of this year?
Nathan Richardsson

Well I can't talk about much, because we're actually in the planning phase right now. The guys are going between offices - in basic terms we'll of course have an expansion coming up, which we do twice a year.

We have a lot of core technology which we're moving forward, for example, aspects of Walking in Stations - it's more that we're taking a close look now, every three months, and adjusting our priorities according to that. Which simply means that we can respond faster to what's happening... or that's the theory I guess. You know how that goes...

But at the same time it means resources are being shifted faster between projects, so now we have much more conceptual work happening in terms of art and design, for example, while we have more engineering power working on Walking in Stations, on some of the more fundamental systems of EVE that we'll replacing in the next three-to-six months.

So it's back-and-forth - but the future's bright. We'll see more happening within EVE, we'll see it with more quickly, and I also think that you'll see us respond faster to something that needs addressing.

Nathan Richardsson is executive producer at CCP Games. Interview by Phil Elliott. Part one of this interview is also available.