EVE Online Interview (PC)

It’s not been an easy 12 months for CCP. Incarna, and the controversy of the summer of 2011, followed by mass unsubscribing and walkouts, cost CCP 20% of its workforce (from projects like the World of Darkness MMO, mainly) and showed them, at the very least, that they can’t just do whatever they feel like with their own game. A harrowing thought to be sure, but the team seem to have rebounded from that rather well and the Crucible expansion seems to show them going back to their roots when it comes to expanding on that game about internet spaceships (that are serious business).

Coinciding with the recent announcement of the Great British Pound being available for use as currency in EVE, Senior Producer Jon Lander (CCP Unifex), Lead Game Designer Kristoffer Touborg (CCP Soundwave) and Community Developer Sveinn Kjarval (CCP Guard) were in town, and took the time to talk to us about, well, everything:

Strategy Informer: So, let’s start off by talking a little bit about Inferno, your upcoming expansion... looking at the feature list, it seems a little light compared to the last one, doesn’t it?

Jon Lander: We’ve concentrated on the lead items – there’s actually a hell of a lot of content if you look at all the bullet points when the patch notes come out. But I guess the thing for me is that we’re kind of going a bit old-school on this one – we’re delivering a set of features where it isn’t necessarily an entirely new system, we’re going back and working more on the framework features that players can make their own content out of. I want to move us away from completely scripting what we want players to do.

So there’s going to be a new War Declaration system, as well as Factional Warfare… we’re going to put things in place so that being a real mercenary is a more viable mini-profession. The players will be the ones who work out how best to play around with it. Some of our best features have actually been fairly light, because they haven’t been the ones that have said “Right, now you must do this!”

It’s a key tenant of what we’re trying to achieve with the game, where we want to create a sandbox environment where the players create their own future. But that’s really hard – the temptation to dabble is just so strong.

Kristoffer Touborg: Not having the full patch notes out is part of it... we’ve been stressing all the big features, but when it comes to showing everything that’s been done; you’ll see this expansion is fairly massive. It might not be as wide as Crucible, but that’s because Crucible was “as much as humanely possible”. In Inferno we’re concentrating on bigger things, so there might not be as much, but in terms of the amount of effort put in there’s a big difference. Crucible was 1-2 months’ worth of development work, but we’ve been working on this one since January.

Jon Lander: One of the key things with Escalation as well, it was a massive, massive change, we completely re-wrote the backend when it comes to aggression mechanics as a system. It’s a system called CrimeWatch, and it basically says this guy shot you, so now you can shoot him and it involves the NPC’s as well... and it’s just been brutal on our servers for years now, ever since it was first implemented back in 2003. The guys completely re-wrote the backend, so whilst the players won’t see any functional difference, in actuality we’re now able to squeeze a hell of a lot more out of our servers because this process is now more optimised. There’s a hell of a lot of work going into just improving our own technology and making sure it’s able to support future developments.

Kristoffer Touborg: If you’ve ever had poor performance in high or low sec, it’s most likely been CrimeWatch. This overhaul that Jon mentioned is something that’s going to continue by the way – for Inferno you’re getting the ‘first half’, which is the back end, and come winter we hope to implement the second half, which will be the front end. Clearer aggression notifications, real timers etc…

Strategy Informer: It’s going to be your tenth anniversary next year… got anything special planned? How big is the cake going to be?

Jon Lander: Secrets! We’re actually pushing FanFest back a bit, so it’s more in line with the actual anniversary… but yeah, two games live, ten years of the same universe… FanFest next year is going to be epic. We’ve got a few things up our sleeve.

Strategy Informer: You also recently announced the inclusion of British Pounds as a valid payment option… how big is the UK market?

Jon Lander: It’s our second biggest group outside of the US... I think they’re pretty close to Germany & Russia, but still in the lead. But what we’ve seen is that the [British] market hasn’t been growing at the same rate as our other ones have overall, and we tried to look at the feedback to try and find out why, and one of the big things was value for money. If you look at the UK pricing of other MMO’s, and then take into account exchange fee’s etc… the cost mounts, and it was just the right thing to do. The UK has been a fantastic market for us for a long time now.

Strategy Informer: DUST was first announced back in 2008/09... is it turning out how you thought it would?

Jon Lander: I’ll be honest; it’s a hell of a lot better than I thought it was going to be. There are layers of interaction... so the most obvious one is – ships in EVE can shoot down onto the planet at the request of the DUST Mercs, DUST mercs can fire the other way… so that’s something the players on both sides can get involved in. But it’s also a fully paid up member of the Tranquillity cluster – people can be in the same chat rooms together, people on the PS3 can talk to the people on the PC, you can be in the same social organisations… so there’s the organisational side of things.

There are also big Strategic pieces as well though – so Factional Warfare is being redone as part of the Inferno release, and DUST will have a big impact on Factional Warfare, so those things will start tying together. I know it doesn’t sound that ‘light’ but we consider those things to be fairly light touch, what we don’t want is for either game to be dependant on the other. You can just play DUST, or you can just play EVE, but you’ll have a more meaningful experience if you engage with the other side. We have to consider that carefully though, our market is very delicate.

People in EVE have large amounts of money because they’ve been playing it for a very long time, so how is that going to affect DUST’s economy? So we’re doing it baby-steps, this is stage one, and we’ll see from there.

Strategy Informer: Will Dust be iterative like EVE is? Can you add and improve on DUST ad infinitum like you do with EVE?

Jon Lander: Yeah well that’s the plan. It’s a big plan. The team have a backlog of items that they want to put into DUST… a long, long long list of features. It’s not going to be a ‘ship-it once’ and forget about it kind of thing, we want it to live like EVE has lived all these year.

Sveinn Kjarval: It has to grow with EVE.

Strategy Informer: Let’s talk about Incarna last year… big controversy over Avatars and the Avatar store and everything… but I personally was surprised to learn that you guys then had to lay off 20% of your staff. Surely a couple of thousand players leaving the game can’t equate to that many job losses?

Jon Lander: Yeah… it was interesting times. The big problem really, I mean there were a number of things that went wrong, but the biggest thing was we tried to do too many things on too broad a front… our focus was split and we just got it wrong.

We had to take a look at things and really start to focus, as we couldn’t keep that pace so it was a question of scaling back and focusing on things. I’d say the benefits are there to see - DUST is getting ready to launch and it’s playable now over the PSN in closed beta, and EVE is going back to its roots and going in the right direction. We had to take stock of all these wonderful projects that we’d love to do… and we just grew up a bit. We realised that sometimes you have to say no to things.

Strategy Informer: Let’s talk about what happened at FanFest. The Mittani did something that wasn’t cool, and there was an investigation and everything… what did you guys think of that? Do you think the amount of power EVE players have goes to their heads sometimes?

Jon Lander: I think it was a case of a guy drinking too much and making a mistake… and a lot was made of it. We looked at the situation, and I mean we put him there, we gave him that forum and we took the right action. We probably should have done something a bit sooner, but to be honest we didn’t know much about it until it was brought to our attention.

The players being important and having a lot of influence is a key thing. We have the CSM, and their input, and that’s what makes EVE great.

Kristoffer Touborg: I think it was blown a little bit out of proportion. I mean we have a EULA, we have our Terms of Service, and I don’t see this as anything more than what other people do in-game every day, and we ban them for it. It was a customer service case where someone did something they weren’t supposed to do, and we punished them.

I would have hoped it would have stayed as that, but it being on a big stage a lot of stuff happened around that. But at the end of the day, this is the internet, people say bad things about each other all the time, and just like in EVE we’ll punish them for it and move on. I don’t attribute too much to it really.

Strategy Informer: Let’s talk about some other minor points quickly – a big thing for Crucible was the war on lag and the introduction of Time Dilation. Do you think you’ve won the War now? Obviously lag will always be a problem, but for now, are you happy with what you’ve done?

Kristoffer Touborg: It’s great on the server side, but we’re doing a lot of client optimisations at the moment, because that performs ungratefully from time to time, but I think it needs to be an on-going project. We’re constantly releasing new features, constantly updating old ones.

Sveinn Kjarval: The more we fix lag, the more ships players bring to a fight… which I guess is a good thing? I mean unless something dramatically changes about how the internet works, this is a ‘war’ we’re going to be fighting forever. I also want to see a 10,000 player fight.

Jon Lander: We’ll never win it, although the way you phrased the question was correct. For now? Yeah, other things that are bigger bottlenecks can now be worked on. But in an ideal world we wouldn’t need time dilation… we should find a way. EVE is a single player game based on how it was made 9 years ago… but one of the things I know that the GRIDLOCK guys are working on right now is how do you offload things onto multiple threads so you can scale much better on the hardware that you have today. We’ve got a ton of tech we want to work on as well as the feature road-map that we have for the next several years.

Strategy Informer: Just touching briefly on the New Player Experience then… it’s been a bit of an in-joke with EVE for years now – the learning cliff – there doesn’t appear to have been any major work done on the NPE for a while now. Have you given up on it? Is it something that’s also on the back burner?

Jon Lander: Well we’ve actually had a team looking at this for a couple of months now. Firstly, EVE is not a linear game, so why have a linear tutorial? So we’re looking at whether or not there is a better way of doing that, which is obviously a fairly major project, so they are also looking at the smaller things to make the NPE less painful. The Second thing we’re looking at is pushing players more towards the player-run organisations, to help people learn the game. Looking at our metrics, the biggest thing that effects how long a player sticks around is whether or not they get involved in the player-run corp.

The minute you stop trying to play EVE as a massively SINGLE-player game, and start getting involved with others, the better your experience will be. If you try and learn EVE on your own, you’re in serious trouble.

That’s also something that I’m actually not that bothered with. I’d like to make it as easy as possible o help people learn this hard game, but I don’t want to make the game itself any easier. I want the game to be hard, but right now we just have some silly things that stop players being able to enjoy it to their fullest… I just want to push people. I don’t want this to be one of those other MMO’s where, sure, you have thousands of players in the same universe but you don’t really do anything together.

Strategy Informer: To finish off, I’ve gone through the FanFest coverage and tried to compile a list of all the ‘promises’ that were made in terms of features you guys said were coming. What I’m going to do is simply throw out a ‘promise’ or a feature, and I’d like you to come back with a reasonable timeframe as to when we can expect it.

First up: The new CREST interface which will allow more interaction with third-party software and give them complete control over the game and all your moneys.

Jon Lander: *laughs* well we can’t go that far, but DUST will be using that interface, as that’s how DUST actually communicates with Tranquillity, so it’ll be there in DUST, and then it’s just a case of rolling out more and more functionality over time. So this year. Now, even.

Strategy Informer: The video of really really cool graphics at FanFest, where you asked the community if they wanted CCP to start working on that… how long will that take?

Jon Lander: When we did the Trinity 2 update, it was fifty man-years to update all the graphics, assets etc… and that didn’t even include the engineering effort on the rendering engine side. That’s going to be a huge, huge push… I mean how many games update their rendering engine twice, as well as making sure all the content you’ve ever made, ever, still works as intended.

Yeah… that’s a non-trivial task, which is why I asked the fans whether or not they wanted us to spend time doing it. We’ll have to work out exactly where that fits in… it’s definitely not going to be this year.

Strategy Informer: Google log-ins was thrown out as a wish, is that already in the works or what?

Jon Lander: We’ve been seriously been looking at it, as well as Facebook login and all that… we’ve been doing some work around the launcher at the moment. It’s all a bit up in the air but I’d like to think we’d be in a position to take advantage of that later this year.

Strategy Informer: How about the improvements to low-sec and smuggling things.

Kristoffer Touborg: Well low-sec will get improvements with Inferno – I mean all Factional Warfare is in low-sec and we really hope that will revitalise the area… there’s not going to be ‘a low sec overhaul’, but a lot of features we’re working on right now will impact low-sec. And if that’s your only source of data-cores right now, I suspect that will live-it up a little for you. There’s going to be some benefits to living there, cheaper medical clones, transaction tax deductions, things like that. Hopefully we’re going to do a lot of low-sec with Inferno.

Smuggling? Yeah… can’t really put a date on that.

Jon Lander: Yeah it’s one of those big epic-y things we’ve got on the backlog; we haven’t scheduled that in yet. It’s something I’d love to do though; I’d love to be Han Solo.

Kristoffer Touborg: I’m super-reluctant to tackle smuggling, because it basically happens in Empire, and Empire is not very flexible in terms with what you can do with PvP. So being able to actually catch smugglers is a lot harder than you’d expect. Most ships will align fast enough so that they can’t be disrupted, and there’s the fact that you can’t have bubbles in Empire… It’s a bit of a tricky situation.

I’d say if we did tackle smuggling, it would have to be part of a big re-work… maybe increasing the time it starts to warp or something like that. But if we implemented it now, have you able to scan people’s cargo holds and tag them, it would be impossible to actually catch anyone and it would just be a bad feature. There are a lot of details around it we need to solve first.

Strategy Informer: There was also the mention of an Industrial update? Including Ring Mining, POS modulations and pushing more production into the hands of the players?

Kristoffer Touborg: Next Year?

Jon Lander: Yeah next year: We’re going to have some teams working on it after the summer, but we looked at it… I would have loved to have gotten it in for winter, but we just looked at everything we had to do and thought “Well, we could either do a shit job and rush it out, or we can take our time with it”. I much rather we did it properly, so whilst people will start work this year I imagine it will be early next year.

So, CCP seem to be keen to put the troubles of last year behind them, and I think it’s safe to say they’ve learned their lesson. EVE is now going back to its roots, and even the integration of DUST into the universe seems to be going better than they could have hoped. Once more it’s an interesting time to be a citizen of New Eden, so keep your eyes peeled for more news. Thanks to the guys for taking the time to talk to us.


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