EVE Online interview; what’s your anti-WoW?

Remember GDC 2007? I don’t. I recall having a conversation with Adam Sessler, then some darkness, then looking for my pants in Dyson’s apartment, then more blurriness, then maybe a bear. Honestly, I’m not really clear on that entire week.

One thing I do recall vividly, though, is the impression made by the people at CCP Games. Not only were they co-responsible for the finest party of the entire week, they were also just intensely cool people, and fans of Destructoid. Since I had always wondered what I was missing by not immersing myself in the open-space-simulator MMO that is EVE Online, I jumped on the opportunity to interview the Senior Game Designer, a Mr. Noah “Hammerhead” Ward on the ins and outs of what makes the most compelling anti-WoW tick.

If you think this is a shameless plug, you get a gold star! Since the final day of GDC, I’ve been splitting my time rather evenly between my infamous addiction to the wilds of Azeroth and my new heroin: EVE. Hence, follow the jump, read the interview, see what you think, then hit up this public fourteen-day free trial, if you’re so inclined.

[UPDATE: Header picture courtesy of Crazykinux. — Nex] 

Nex: Obviously, there is a ton of space-centric Sci-Fi you guys could have drawn on for inspiration for designs and quests and, really, most of your game. Can you cite any source that played a large part in the design of the game? Star Trek? Star Wars? Babylon 5? BSG?

Hammerhead: Reynir Hardarsson, CCP’s creative director and the creator of EVE, has cited Privateer and Elite as games that influenced the original concepts. We’re now a pretty large company, and we’re focused on making a quality Science Fiction experience, so pretty much any brand of SF you care to name – be it TV, films or books – will have at least a couple of ardent fans somewhere in the office. In terms of overall design ethos, we’re aligned most closely with the slightly darker areas of the genre such as Bladerunner, the Alien series, The Empire Strikes Back and so on.

Nex: Please explain the skill system so that a person who has never played EVE could grasp the fundamentals of it.

Hammerhead: Your skills advance in real time, 24 hours a day, regardless of what you’re doing or whether or not you’re online. New skills can be acquired in various ways – buying them, finding them, trading them with other players – and there’s a deep, multi-layered skill tree which would take something like thirty years to “complete”.

As a result, the best option is usually to specialize in the areas where you want to excel and focus your training along certain paths. Each new level of a particular skill gives the same bonus as the previous level, but takes five times as long to train, so you end up getting diminishing returns as you advance your specializations further and further.

The criticism that’s often raised concerning the EVE skill system is that “you’ll never catch up with the older players,” and in pure “number of skill points gained” terms that’s true. However, you can train up skills to be within five or ten percent of more advanced players fairly quickly due to the diminishing returns, and most advanced players tend to end up spreading their skills around a bit; they can fly more types of ships than newer players, but they won’t be that much more effective in combat.

At the end of the day, newer players in frigates can easily bring down a three-year veteran in his pimped out battleship if they know what they’re doing, and you’re never going to be out-skilled by people who started at the same time as you but play the game 18 hours a day.

Nex: How/why did you guys decide to use such a passive skill-training scheme?

Hammerhead: The beauty of the system is that it puts casual and hardcore gamers on a comparatively level playing field. Even though someone might only be able to play a couple hours a week, his skills train in the same amount of time as the player who spends 50+ hours a week actively in-game. This means there’s no need to grind your skills and playing the game, particularly at the early levels, stops being a chore and starts being enjoyable much sooner. It lets players direct their playtime in a way that they want to without feeling forced into any particular activity.

Nex: Obviously, the learning curve in EVE is much greater than that of your chief rival, WoW. Do you find that that puts you at a disadvantage in the marketplace, or does that simply shift you guys into an entirely different demographic? The hardcore MMO-ers, maybe?

Hammerhead: The thing about our learning curve is that it isn‘t steep but long. The various aspects of our game tend to be very deep in comparison to others. What that results in is a very intelligent playerbase that is prepared to play a more open-ended game, stick around to see long-term projects come to fruition and aren’t interested in chasing level caps.

Nex: Your economy is almost entirely based on what your players create. Can you explain how that works, and, more importantly, why it works? Ie: is it that specific group you guys attract that makes it happen, or is it inherent in the design of the game (and could occur with any audience)?

Hammerhead: Production in EVE is more akin to “manufacturing” rather than “crafting”. Actually making the items is pretty straightforward: acquire a blueprint (basically a recipe), collect the necessary materials, stick it in the factory and wait for it to finish building.

The challenges come in sourcing your materials, maybe negotiating a supply contract at a reduced price, doing research on your blueprints to increase their efficiency, working out your exact costs and profit margins, identifying profitable markets, getting your product in place, making sure your competitors don’t undercut you and all the other wheeling and dealing that you’d expect in a cutthroat interstellar market.

Add to this the fact that the more advanced items require multiple stages of production and that key materials are found only in lawless space – the same space that is host to huge alliance wars involving thousands of people – and you begin to get a picture of how the whole web of manufacturing fits together.

Nex: When I started playing EVE, I spent a good 45 minutes getting through the tutorial. I can’t imagine people trying to play the game without it, so, how do you go about creating a tutorial that lasts that long, and has to be able to bring totally new players up to speed? Also, how much of your development cycle is dedicated to the tutorial?

Hammerhead: There is a balancing act between giving players all the information they need to be effective in the game, making the tutorial fun so players don‘t quit it before they finish and making it as brief as possible so players can get on with playing. We make use of metrics and play-testing to try and reach the correct balance.

When the game was first released, you started in space with a drone shooting you, a little bit of text and that was it – everything from there was left up to the player to figure out. We‘ve come a long way since then and now we have one developer dedicated to working on the tutorial full time. He gets a lot of assistance from the rest of the team to make sure all of the info in the tutorial is up to date and that its the right infomation for new players. Our customer service team is great help in that regard since they get to hear first hand where players are getting stuck or confused.

Nex: Windows Vista is the operating system of the future, whether we like it or not, and obviously you’ve had to have some dealings with EVE on Vista and DX10. Any opinions on the new OS, API? Positive, negative, how might they effect EVE?

Hammerhead: We like a lot of features in Vista and DX10 — virtualization of texture memory, removal of device caps, geometry shaders, graphics drivers that can be rebooted on the fly if the worst happens and a draw call overhead 1/10th of DX9 to name some of the more exciting ones. There’s a number of shakeups in there with how things work in the DX10 API, but we’re very happy with the direction that Microsoft is taking the Direct3D API and cleaning up and standardizing it. DX10 is looking really good to let us get on with working the GPU as hard as we can in the engine rewrites, which should open up many opportunities to work on new graphical features and push the envelope in the future. That said, we’re not going to stop giving full support to XP any time soon.

Nex: What are you guys working on next? Another MMO?

Hammerhead: As we announced at Fanfest last year, CCP has merged with U.S. pen-and-paper developer White Wolf.  Drawing from the additional pool of talent and resources available to us through that relationship, we do plan to take on new projects though it’s much too early to discuss them now.

Nex: Your game has some of the most intense PVP combat available and a tremendously harsh death penalty. With such “realistic” issues as permanent item loss, how much flack does your Customer Service department receive when a major coup, or huge space battle occurs, and people lose uber-rare ships/items?

Hammerhead:  By and large, our players understand the nature of the game and are prepared to roll with the punches and, as a company, we’re aware that if we start softening the blows too much we remove a big part of what makes EVE such a compelling game in the first place. The possibility for real loss, not just of ships but of stations, areas of space and indeed entire empires, is a motivator like no other for players to join forces, stake out their turf and really fight for it.

Nex: Every MMO lives and dies by its content, since most of the content in EVE is player generated, does that lessen the impetus for CCP to create new “expansions” for EVE?

Hammerhead: One of the great things about EVE is that we continue to release major expansions throughout the year at no additional cost to our customers.  These expansions introduce improvements to existing features as well as new content. With each release, we always work towards improving the “static” content in some way because even though EVE has a large PvP population, there is also a large volume of players who really enjoy running missions and so on. In addition,  a lot of the work for each expansion goes into creating new tools and improving existing ones, giving players fresh ways to create their own content,  which is vital to the success of EVE.  As we keep pushing the frontiers of what is possible within the game, the players naturally keep asking for better tools to expand their empires, run their businesses and improve the overall gameplay. To maintain that dynamic, we have to continue developing the game’s capabilities to keep up with whatever the players want to do next.

About The Author
Earnest Cavalli
I'm Nex. I used to work here but my love of cash led me to take a gig with Wired. I still keep an eye on the 'toid, but to see what I'm really up to, you should either hit up my Vox or go have a look at the Wired media empire.
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