At war with fans: EVE Online's fall and rise from infamy

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EVE Online developers speak out against the Peter Pan syndrome that almost crashed the studio.

Three things followed the year-long tug-o-war between the developers of EVE Online and the infuriated fan base the studio says turned the Icelandic MMO into a "meta-gaming pit of evil weasels": Denial, near self-destruction, and then finally a moment of clarity.

Last year at the height of events that turned EVE from a niche MMO into a nihilist warzone, CCP producer Jon Lander says the team had an epiphany that led them from going off-the-rails and headed toward success. The solution they found could be summed up with one key phrase, as repeated by Lander: "You know, we should probably just grow up."

Just one year after CCP stumbled into the biggest crisis in the massively multiplayer studio's history, Lander, creative designer Kris Touborg, and community developer Sveinn Kjarval explain what went on behind the scenes that began a war between a developer and its fans.

How EVE began

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Eve_225EVE Online concept art

Lander calls it the Ivory Tower, an office mentality that developed through a period of over a decade in which a group, formed from the upper crust of CCP development, began making decisions that ignored what made sense for the game they'd spent years cultivating.

CCP's halcyon days as a group of mad Icelandic MMO fans in the late '90s were lost on the studio, which by the latter half of the '00s had exploded in size. In 1997, the company came together under the banner of "the Crowd Control Productions company" to design what was to be the catalyst for EVE Online: a board game called Hættuspil - that's Danger Game, to you. Plans were in place to use its success to secure investments for another, bigger project: an MMO where hundreds of thousands of users would play together on a single server with a single player-driven economy.

"WE STARTED GOING OFF IN A DIFFERENT DIRECTION. OUR EYES WERE A BIT TOO BIG FOR OUR STOMACHS."

Lander himself is a Brit displaced in Iceland. In 2009 and after 12 years of working for IBM, he entered into CCP and began working with offices in Reykjavik, Atlanta, and Shanghai. This involved moving his family to an apartment in Laugevegur, a commercial artery of downtown Reykjavik, and beginning a new life as senior producer - the guy ultimately in charge of what happens in the universe of EVE.

It was very different back then, he says. Lander describes a group of developers who in the beginning were fuelled by "crazy Icelandic madness," before the madness was unmanageable.

It began as a meditation on "spaceships, intrigue, giving tools to the players so they can make their own history," Lander says. Compared to the MMO endeavours of Blizzard or ArenaNet, EVE Online existed (and still does) on the opposite end of the spectrum; a sandbox game designed around the pitting of players against players, merciless griefing, destruction, and, well, mining. It's a solid if anarchic formula that its fan base passionately held onto. But Lander says things were beginning to go awry in the game just as the company began to grow.

"We started going off in a different direction," he says. "Our eyes were a bit too big for our stomachs."

Eve_online_300EVE Online concept art

Expanding and exploding

Over a decade after the company was first born, it tripled in size. CCP merged with American games publisher White Wolf, it opened an office in China, and with no publisher to dip into the studio's profits, money continued to be re-invested into expanding. The team began building the game using development methods that worked when it had 30 people. EVE was a project of over 200, within an organization of over 500 employees and international offices.

What resulted was "an ivory tower of people saying 'We shall do really cool looking characters and they shall have no point in the game,'" says Lander, engendering a belief among designers that any development choices decided upon were always the right move forward.

WHAT RESULTED WAS "AN IVORY TOWER OF PEOPLE SAYING 'WE SHALL DO REALLY COOL LOOKING CHARACTERS AND THEY SHALL HAVE NO POINT IN THE GAME.'"

Community developer Sveinn Kjarval looks back at the studio's boundless self-confidence before last year's drama as a bittersweet time.

"I remember thinking just a few years ago," Kjarval explains, "I personally had the feeling that we just couldn't go wrong. Everything we did kind of worked! We'd beaten the odds, ridiculously, like so many times. And we were always doing these new things that nobody else cared to do - and they worked! I remember just thinking 'we can't fail!'"

Eve_online_1_-_300Inferno is EVE Online's 17th expansion pack Eve_online_2_-_300
Eve_online_3_-_300"I THINK IT'S KIND OF HEALTHY TO EXPERIENCE A LITTLE BIT OF FAILURE AND REALIZE THAT YOU'RE MORTAL."

But EVE Online was making a transformation into a game that felt unfamiliar to long-time fans thanks to a radical shift in strategy. It started last year with the release of a content patch that added high-priced vanity items - some priced up to a baffling $68 U.S. - to the nine-year-old game. Then came the internal CCP newsletter leak - "Greed is Good?" - which outlined initial plans for the introduction of pay-to-win microtransactions that would change the way the game would be played entirely.

What followed was a war, stemming from a breakdown in the relationship between users and developers. Players began rioting in the game. Some users planned direct in-game attacks on popular trade hubs throughout the EVE universe in an attempt to negatively impact the game's economy. Other players began signing petitions vowing to cancel their subscriptions if microtransactions were introduced to the game. In the trading hubs of Jita and Amarr, thousands of players fired upon memorial statues, clogging trade hubs and crippling the in-game economy.

"I think," Kjarval admits, "it's kind of healthy to experience a little bit of failure and realize that you're mortal."

Making it accessible

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The Ivory Tower of CCP started crumbling as the studio began refocusing its efforts. Growing up, for the studio, meant realigning itself with its audience. CCP would try to prove its years of aimless growth and misdirected expansions were behind it.

"What we have done is we've said, 'Alright let's look at what made us successful; let's look at what we're actually trying to do,'" says Lander. "And it was very much along the lines of: 'Let's go back to making a spaceship game. If we want to make something that's cool and different then let's make another different game instead of [mixing] it into this thing that works well the way it is.'

"If you look at a lot of things that we've done, a lot of people said 'Don't do that; that's the worst thing you could possibly do.' I think after eight years we have gone too far the other way and gone 'Naw, fuck it; we know better than you. Let's just do it.' ... But for me, now, I think we're a slightly more humble organization."

"IF YOU END UP NOT PLAYING EVE, THEN IT WOULD BE REALLY NICE IF IT WERE JUST BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T LIKE THE GAME."

The team would go back to basics, in a decision that would lead to major balancing improvements, changes to the user interface (UI), and gameplay tweaks. This meant making the niche MMO accessible, according to Touborg, who says "there's a load of stuff in EVE that's just silly."

"Like if you end up not playing EVE, then it would be really nice if it were just because you didn't like the game and not because the UI is like a jungle you can't understand. I don't think there's any dumbing down in making UI that you don't have to be a software engineer to understand."

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Still, Lander was worried. Despite the new humble attitude, even inside the studios there were detractors who wanted to keep the game as it was. He describes an undercurrent of dissatisfaction from members of the development team who were hardcore EVE players themselves. Employees were starting to question why the studio was changing the game at all. When Lander walked across the office in late 2011 he began to see even members of CCP had moved away from EVE in their spare time.

"With various other games that were released around the same time we were obviously looking at our numbers and going, 'Oh my god; is this idea actually going to transform into a successful business?' And it's tough when you're going around the office and everybody is playing a different game and you're like, 'Come on - gotta have faith; gotta have faith.'"

Lander paraphrases the sentiments of his colleagues: "'Why are we changing the game? Why are we changing this game that I love? That I work on?'"

"Well, 'we need to change it,'" he remembers saying. "'There's still stuff that needs to be improved and we can throw stones into the pond and balance everything; we can make it exciting for people again. But that's not forgetting that it's about spaceships and it's about this hard, brutal, frankly dickish game.'"

"And," adds Touborg, "you can be a hard, brutal, dickish game with understandable UI."

The turning point

A turn-around came in 2012, following the release of EVE Online's first major patch in the new era of CCP. Touborg was visiting the website Something Awful, whose forum kept strong ties with the game since its launch. For years, he says, forummers drowned each thread for the game with a barrage of insults. But months after Incarna, the in-game riots, a few public mea culpa's from the development team, and headway in the re-focussing on the game, this changed.

"In thread titles on the forum they would somehow always have 'EVE Online: A Bad Game'," says Touborg, remembering back. "Then sometime around January I skimmed over some Something Awful and they changed it to 'Holy Shit EVE Online Is A Good Game.' And that's like the first time in like eight years."

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Touborg makes an expression of pure joy.

"That was the first time I really felt we had turned a corner."

Lander now says the team is looking forward to the future of EVE Online, which is taking its first step forward with the release of the cross-platform console game DUST 514, described as a representation of what is possible to do with the EVE universe. DUST is the studio's upcoming console-based first-person shooter set within the EVE universe, which will allow console players to interact with those within EVE Online through political and economic actions, as well as strategic orbit-to-ground combat. DUST, he says, is one of a number of windows into the EVE world which will be made available.

"We can continuously create new content forEVE," he says. "I'm looking forward to whenEVE is 20."

The team expects to have over one million subscribers by its 20th anniversary, believing the release of DUST will draw more players into the universe without tainting the original product.

"I have the sneaking suspicion that EVE will be the end game, the game that people aspire to being able to be good at, but there will be a ton of other ways to interact with the universe which will lead you into it," Touborg adds.

"You look at people like [EVE's most famous and infamous player] Mittani; you look at the big names in EVE right now and those guys will be like the president of the EVE universe. And that for me is just incredibly exciting. It also means we don't have to screw up EVE."

Somewhere in the evolution of CCP, EVE Online's original driving force changed course. Now grown up, the team behind the MMO acknowledges it can no longer be the company it was in 1997.

"We should stop thinking 'it doesn't matter what we do because it will be awesome, so we can just do anything and it will be fine,'" says Lander. "EVE's been growing year on year for nine years now. It's a game that's still growing after nine years. It's a big deal so treat it like that. But don't stop being a little bit bonkers as well. For me I think we're a slightly more humble organization. We don't assume that everything we do will be gold. We're no longer these lunatics."

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Image credits

CCP