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Space Race

Part 1: CCP's Hilmar Veigar Petursson talks EVE Online.

Established in 1997, CCP is one of Iceland's leading developers and one of the most important pioneers in the MMO field. The company's sci-fi themed PC title, EVE Online, now has more than 170,000 players - and that number is growing all the time. sat down with CCP boss Hilmar Veigar Petursson at the recent Nordic Game Conference to find out about the company's latest plans for EVE. Part one of the interview is published below; part two will be on the site next week. What are you showing at Nordic Game?

Hilmar Veigar Petursson: We are showing our usual stuff, but we're also talking about our expansion that will come out in the middle of June. But the biggest element on the horizon is the new graphics engine update. We've re-written our whole 3D engine and remodelled all the content of EVE.

We're very excited about that. It's a totally new game; like a Pimp My Ride version of EVE. Then I'll also show a little bit of what we're going to do next year, where we'll have people walking around space stations.

A very early version of that was shown at GDC. How has the news gone down within the community? Are they excited about it? Obviously, it's going to drastically change the game...

Everybody is excited about it. We've heard from many people that they haven't wanted to try the game because there's no character representation in it; you can only be a spaceship.

Because we're going very lightly on the gameplay elements, it's more for socialising. People aren't worried that it'll change the game as it stands today. You'll still be able to play the game as you like to, and have done for years. This is just another dimension that's added as an option. It's in no way a requirement.

There are dangers when you add such big elements to a mature game that people think that what they like will go away, but we're making sure that it doesn't. You can play EVE Online as you've always done and you don't have to bother with the in-station things if you don't want to participate in it.

CCP as a company is growing very quickly. You have a loyal user base of around 175,000...

We now have 170,000 subscribers and we have another 30,000 on trial, so there are 200,000 people playing EVE today.

If you have 170,000 people giving you 20 euros a month, that's an awful lot of euros. How are you managing the expansion of the company?

Well, last year we merged with a company in the US, White Wolf. That gave us an office in the US. Previously that year we opened up an office in Shanghai. We're trying to balance the growth of the company by dispersing regionally, so that each office isn't too big.

We now have 130 people or so in Iceland. I don't see us getting too much bigger than 200 people there. There aren't that many people in Iceland [laughs]. I guess at some point that becomes an issue. But we're lucky that a lot of people have moved to Iceland to work on the game. Especially from the UK; we have a lot of people from England.

How have the regional versions been going?

Hilmar: We released the German version in August last year, and we're sort of going down the list of countries based on how many subscribers we already have, using that as an indicator of cultural affinity with the game.

We're hoping to released a French and Japanese version this year. Our Chinese version has been running on its own server since July last year and it's been a bit of a challenge to manage two servers. We're so focused on running this single community that it's been a challenge for us to run two communities that are perfectly disconnected. And it has given us some insight in how much strength there is in having everybody playing the same game.

Add on top of that that we have a partner in China which operates the game in collaboration with us. So, we have about a quarter of the people playing here in the West playing in China; about 40,000 people or so. That's okay by our standards, but by China's standards it's tiny. I was watching the guy from Nexon presenting yesterday and they have 350 million people registered, 23 million people from Korea.

Leading on from that, figures like 150,000, 175,000 are good for you and it's a great business for CCP because it's almost seen as a premium rate MMO. But doesn't it concern you that someone like Blizzard, for instance, could come along with a very accessible space-based MMO and effectively destroy your business?

Not per se. If Blizzard were to make Starcraft the MMO and make an accessible game similar to WOW, I think it would actually add to our subscriber base rather than retract.

People who are currently playing the game have come to like what EVE has to offer. It's very difficult to replicate what EVE has to offer because it involves four years of history and 200,000 people building that history. EVE is much more what people have done inside the game, rather than what we have done to it.

You cannot create four years and 200,000 people. You can make a game that might go there, but if Blizzard were to make a more widely accessible game, I think they would just widen the scope for sci-fi games. We saw it when World of Warcraft came out. About six to eight months after it came out we saw people coming to EVE, because they had played through WOW and they were looking for the next thing to do.

And if EVE is anything it's a game to migrate into from a separate game. So, I'm not too worried about that. We've also gone through the launch of Earth and Beyond, and we've been through the launch of Star Wars Galaxies; it created more opportunities than issues for us.

Why do you think you're still alone in the space genre? Why do you think there's no serious competition?

It's very difficult to answer that. I just don't understand why people would do yet another fantasy game. It's mind-boggling to me. Why? Why do it? Why make a clone of World of Warcraft? World of Warcraft is the perfect implementation of this. It's been done. Do something else.

Do you think EVE is the perfect implementation of a space-based MMO?

Not necessarily. Maybe it's a perfect implementation of a hyper-capitalistic, economically driven gaming environment. I'd say we're more of a perfect implementation of that rather than sci-fi per se.

There are certainly barriers within the sci-fi concept that we have not yet implemented within the game. For instance, there is no ground involvement, there are no cities; there are various opportunities still in sci-fi. We only do spaceships flying around space stations. It's a fairly limited aspect of sci-fi.

I mean, think about it; compare it to movies. Sci-fi movies have usually been much more popular than fantasy movies. Who remembers a fantasy movie? You have Aliens, Star Trek, Blade Runner... There's an endless array of sci-fi movies, so you'd think that the genre in itself its bigger than the fantasy genre.

I think maybe this might have something to do with the fact that the birthplace of massively muiltiplayer games is in the MUD, and the MUDs were very fantasy-driven, and the whole sort of level treadmill and all these things - the attributes of the characters, the armour, the swords and shields - it's so ingrained into the people developing it that people always fall into the same traps.

In our case, we'd never made a game before. Not a single person on our team had ever made a game. It's unique because of that. We had no pre-conceived notions about what it should be.

Hilmar Veigar Petursson is CEO of CCP. Interview by Patrick Garratt. Part two of this feature will be published on next week.