Much more interesting was the talk from EVE Online’s Hilmar Petursson. Admittedly the content was very close to my heart – massively multi-player virtual online worlds, but as I mentioned to some other delegates, sometimes it’s good to hear from a developer that made a good game, made it well, and has done well out of it. There are too many ‘fluff’ talks here, about things which might be, or projections, or spin on developers/markets that aren’t quite as good as they are made out to be. And given the current disenchantment with MMOG developers in the games industry, it’s good to hear that if done well it can be profitable.
Anyway, Hilmar told a story of a rocky start, with a long pre-production time for EVE, including a period of a good 6 months where they ran out of start-up capital and relied on the goodwill of their staff to keep working for free essentially, entirely based on their faith in the product. After their rocky start, and some publishing woes (they sold the rights to a book publisher which then decided to neglect it entirely in favour of their book business), they eventually started to self-publish EVE, based on an entirely digital download model (no boxed game = no distributors). With a solid core of 30,000 players, they’ve grown their player base continually (and sometimes exponentially) since then. The amazing growth of the player base is matched only by their loyalty and immersion in the game, to the point at which they now have over one hundred thousand subscribers, and are on track to hit 200,000 before the end of this year. Soon, it seems, they will be the first developer to have more subscribers than the population of their home country (Iceland only has 300,000 residents)!
It’s this massive player-base, all sharing a single virtual universe, which leads to the parts of the game-play which captivate the players. Simple but solid core mechanics, closely modelled on their real-world equivalents (markets with bid/buy/sell systems, corporations with management structure, etc.) provide a framework on top of which the players operate rich social structures. It is these social structures which provide the real interesting play in the game; very much an example of emergent game-play.
Hilmar differentiates between two different styles of MMOG – the ‘theme-park’ games (EverQuest, World of Warcraft, etc.) where play is rich, but tightly scripted and given to the player in neat, measured doses; and sand-box games (EVE, Ultima Online), where a virtual world with some basic rules and mechanics is presented to the player, and they are free to create whatever interesting systems within that world that they like.
My favourite part was some video and concepts of the upcoming revisions to the game, which extend it to allow users to walk around inside space stations as a 3D character avatar – a vast improvement over the user-is-a-ship mechanic currently employed. CCP feel that it is this limiting factor which is skewing the player-base massively in favour of men (95% of the players), and hope that the new focus on personalisation in the game will redress that balance. Certainly this means that they are one step closer to my own vision of a virtual universe which scales from the personal scale to the universe scale, although I can see the technological challenges remain massive. It seems like they are feeling their way gently towards that system, with the personal avatars initially being limited to wandering around some lovely interior environments and chatting. They hope to eventually move to allowing indoor combat, but I think it is wise to work out the teething problems with the system first! They are also re-visiting the graphics of EVE – always one of its strongest points, to scale it up to current hardware levels.
Regardless, I think it may be time to re-visit EVE once again – the last time I played was a couple of years ago, with a much smaller player-base, and fewer features. Certainly the growth of the player-base makes me think that it is worth another try.