Torfi of EVE Online talks about their space fighting game
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Interviewer: I’m at Austin Game Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Torfi: Hey, I’m Torfi Frans Olafsson. I’m senior producer of EVE Online.
Interviewer: And what’s EVE Online about?
Torfi: So, EVE Online is a space fighting, trading game. It’s an MMO. It’s been out for six years. It’s produced by CCP Games based out of Iceland. We’ve learned a lot since 2003 when we released it. It’s quite a successful MMO. It’s subscription based. We have approximately 300,000 active subscribers at the moment. We’ve been growing constantly since 2003, and we have a very strong community and a loyal fan base and we try to be loyal to them.
Interviewer: Sure. And how did you grow during that time when you first got up? How did you get the word out, and how did you promote your MMO?
Torfi: Those are really very interesting. Like I said, we’re a small – well, we were. There’s about 400 people that work at CCP today. Back then we were a very small studio working out of a house in Reykjavik, Iceland. Nobody knew who we were. That’s like when we started, it was just seven guys in the Arctic with a dream.
We really capitalized on the part that we were web savvy and small. We used it from very early in our development. So, this is before… Early on we had pictures on the forum where we had massive discussions about what the game should be and what the game should be about on our forums which we really enjoyed. We hired people from our forums to come work for us. Some of them are still working for us.
So, we used the Internet, of course, to promote us. Then we actually signed on with a publisher, Simon & Schuster, and published our product in a box that went into stores. As it turned out, our launch wasn’t that successful. We only had like 20,000 subscribers or less, and the word wasn’t getting out. I traveled the world, and I couldn’t find the box in any store wherever I would go. People would be like, “How can I get your game? I can’t download it”. “Well, you have to buy the box”. “Where can I buy the box?”
So, eventually, we cancelled the subscription deal with Simon & Schuster and started to publish ourselves, only digitally, so no box any more. So, that’s actually when our game took off when we were in charge of our own destiny. Something that we were really afraid to do in the beginning, but that’s what we should have done. So essentially, ever since then we’ve done our thing. We do our own marketing. We do our own promotion. We do our own publishing.
We actually did an exception to that last year where we re-launched the box, and we’re working with Atari which was good. It was getting it back into stores, and we began to face more customers that were in the past web savvy. With a MMO your fan base, your customers, where are they? They are online. They are on websites. They know what’s going down.
Interviewer: Sure. Let’s see, when you first started out though you said you had that forum and people were saying this should be in the game. Did you have a downloadable at that point where people could download it and play the game, or was it more just you were at the design phase?
Torfi: Absolutely not. We only had a few 10 second long videos of stuff blowing up and flying around and words about all the amazing things that were going to happen. But, no, we didn’t have a downloadable until we were picked up.
Interviewer: When did you get to Beta? So, you started in 2003. How long did it take?
Torfi: No, we started in 1999, I think.
Interviewer: Oh, really. I didn’t know.
Torfi: So, I think it went in Beta in 2002 and we launched in May of 2003.
Interviewer: So, that’s when people were posting on the forums: it should have this; it should have that. I’m trying to clarify because it sounds like you would have a downloadable at that time, too, just for people to download and play it because it would be easy to download or something else.
Torfi: No, no. By that time we were in crunch, and we didn’t hear anyone, and we were working 20 hours a day trying to get this thing done. Since then, we have a very close relationship with our community.
We hire a lot from the community, but the majority-not the majority-but a large portion of our game designers, programmers and even artists are EVE players that we’ve gotten to know and people who are really passionate about the game. And that’s really great because they come into the company, and they have both a passion and a vision and often have contributed a lot to the game, much more than we actually anticipated when we were first designing it.
Interviewer: That’s what I’ve noticed with MMOs is that for a lot of this stuff it’s just better to get players who have already played the game because they’re just already motivated for it, so there’s really no external motivation.
Torfi: Well, pay them and feed them.
Interviewer: Sure. But, they’re still going to go above and beyond someone who is just some person you’re just going to hire off the street who isn’t necessarily even interested in your project.
Torfi: Well, yeah, often. But, of course, people who haven’t played can be excited about the product, absolutely. For example, when we launched, it was 150,000 lines of code. Today it’s around 600,000 lines of code. When we launched it was like 500 megabytes to download. Now, it’s at 2.3 gigabyte.
We’ve taken out all of the content, all of the 3D stuff and we remodeled it. We’ve rewritten a large portion of the code and literally changed the content so it’s more like a living entity where its cells are just constantly renewing than the piece that we made back in 2003.
Interviewer: Let’s go back to when you said you were finally in charge of your own destiny. How did that feel, and what were some of the challenges you guys faced because it seems like it’s actually worked out much better for you guys because you don’t necessarily have to use the revenue split with other people? You don’t have to rely on their older marketing techniques as compared to what seems to be working now on the Internet.
Torfi: It’s totally scary. We can’t do this. We’re not big publishers. We’re not like a giant. How will we ever get somebody to listen to us? But the thing is we are at the junction in time where mass media and publishing is just changing rapidly, year after year.
And the large media companies, they are like an oil tanker. It’s so difficult for them to change and adapt to an environment. A small agile company is like a guerrilla unit. It’s much more easier for us to adapt to the environment and change rapidly and also just to realize what’s going on out there.
So, I think that’s partly what made us successful, but it was really scary. But at the same time every inch of success you own that inch of success. You, it’s like your responsibility, not some other guy in some office in a company making money. It’s yours to own and be proud of. So, that’s great as well.
Interviewer: So, when you started putting it online, did you immediately know it was going to be a success in terms of: hey, people are downloading it and playing it, or did you still have to do anything different to market and promote it?
Torfi: No, there were a few moments. Like I said, it wasn’t a massive launch. So, there was a rush of people that came in that had been in Beta that were really excited, but then it pretty much flat lined and it plateaud and pretty much nothing happening for months and we were really scared.
Once we started doing our own marketing and our own publishing, then it actually started taking off again. I think EVE grew like a socialization website grows. It’s a network effect. It was like, a friend tells a friend who tells a friend. That’s how it grew.
Interviewer: You know, while you are doing all this, the World of Warcraft becomes big and some of these other MMOs are coming out, and they have new business models. But you guys seemed to have stuck to just being hard core and being very focused on your vision, not even necessarily going to browser based games or some of these other things that are kind of picking up.
What’s your motivation for doing that, and do you then keep up with some of the other things that are happening in games, or do you just have that primary focus of just a hard core game?
Torfi: So, as a company we’re also looking at the emerging markets, and we’re looking at other projects, of course, constantly, and we’re coming out with other products. But EVE, I think if you compare it to, let’s say, the music industry. Some people would like to take a young farm girl and train her to be like a good singer and teach her thngs and write music for her and make her a star. That’s cool and she’s going to be a pop icon, and she’s going to sell tons of records, but not everybody is into that.
We never wanted EVE… She isn’t that particular girl. We are the alternative rock band, and we’re not going to sell out. So, we are a hard core game. Granted, I think there is another misconception though. It is more accessible than people think. It was really hard to get into years ago, and we still have negative reviews that were written perhaps four years ago, but that’s kind of about a totally different product because the world has changed a lot, in particular, new player experience. And we really opened it up. I think we’ve made it much more accessible to people, so it’s never been easier than it has been today.
Interviewer: It seems like you guys are focused on quality and unique execution, specifically you have a guy who is dedicated to the economy. You gave a talk last year about just running all the players on one server. What’s the motivation? What’s the culture behind all those decisions because starting the servers or something else like that would have been, I guess, easier. I don’t know if it is easy to run it all on one server.
Torfi: I don’t know if it’s stubbornness or perfection. We just do what we think is cool. I think I really enjoy that because we’re also making a game that we want to play.
Torfi: When we add something to the game, would I want to do this? Do I think this is cool? Does this like amuse me? That’s what we ask, and we set these goals because we have really ambitious engineers. We really have ambitious artists, and they just do really cool stuff.
Interviewer: The other question is you have a space theme, and that appeals to a specific demographic, but your excellence and your perfection could actually work for a whole bunch of players outside of that space theme. So, why not change the space theme to something else and apply that perfection? I don’t know even know if that’s your goal. This space theme may be perfect for you guys, but that’s something that I’ve seen with a lot of other MMO companies. They focus on a specific niche, and they may miss out or then again they may work, I don’t know.
Torfi: Right. Well, like I said, we are developing other products and other games using the same technology. And that’s actually part of our strategy is if we have a perfect technology that we have developed and if we make a big effort in making the technology that we use to build EVE modular so that it can be used for other games which do not happen in space.
Interviewer: Sure. The thing is when you work on other games, is that going to take away focus from your current game? It’s not, like you said, these games are services. So, is it challenging or is it even a risk? Maybe, it’s worthwhile to just ride EVE all the way out because if you have one successful MMO that’s usually enough. And it seems to be growing, so…
Torfi: Well, yeah, you could do that, but what we’ve done is actually grown the teams. In the example of EVE, there’s more people working on it now than have ever been. There’s more programmers. There’s more designers explicitly working on EVE making features, making it cool.
So, that’s also, perhaps, different from other MMO developers. They would launch, plateau or just have a live team running on it, doing expansions. We do expansions, but expansions are not sold separately. They’re just passed on. If you’re a subscriber to EVE you get the expansion. Also, they’re developing these other ideas and just building teams for that.
Interviewer: What would you say are the biggest surprises that you’ve had while you’ve been through this whole experience of running a MMO? What are the most compelling or interesting things that have surprised you, that would be useful for other developers who want to start their own MMO?
Tori: Well, actually, for me the biggest surprise was that at launch it wasn’t finished. I was going to take a holiday, but when you launch a MMO that’s when the worry starts. That’s when you start reacting to the hordes of people that are using your software in ways that you didn’t even or couldn’t even imagine.
So, if you are developing a MMO and you haven’t launched it yet, prepare for launch. That’s where you will separate the men from the boys, trust me.
Interviewer: What are some of the surprising things that your players have done since you’ve launched? There must have been some things that you could never anticipated. What are the interesting things that have been totally memorable that your players have done?
Torfi: It’s been six years running, so there are countless stories. Of course, all these stories about the economy, the people, totally without any support from us. They’re just borrowing and earning the money and running away with the money.
But also, a lot of cool stories about people that have made lifelong friends, marriages, the things that happen in a community that really go much further than the game, just enrich people’s lives. It’s really cool to have been a facilitator of that happening.
Interviewer: You know, when you see some of this user behavior that you didn’t anticipate, then do you actually just provide formal structures for that. For example, with the banking and the borrowing of money and stuff like that. Now, do you actually have a formalized structure so that players can do that?
Torfi: No, we don’t and that’s the cool thing about it. There is no mom to go to, to cry when things go bad. It’s an open game system. It’s a very open world. People can do whatever, so for example, those banks, those institutions that you mentioned, they were totally played on. There was no mechanism in the game that support it. They just came up with it. That’s what makes it fragile as well, but that’s also what makes it interesting because then it has to rely on trust.
We were really inspired by the early days of online where it wasn’t really open, and there was a lot of both trust, good and evil. There were player killers who just run around and kill people, and people hated them. But then you would find players assembling and starting to hunt down these player killers trying to enforce the law in a vigilante kind of way, and this wasn’t designed into the system. This was emergent behavior. It just emerged if you just had a cool mechanism, re-open mechanism for people to actually create their own stories and their own emergent game and metagame.
Interviewer: With that said, players creating their own stories, now do you create structure, or do you try to allow people to create new stories every three or four months in terms of giving them new items to interact with or new scenarios where they can kind of create stories with other people in the game? Is that something you actively engage or do you still leave it open?
Torfi: We do major modifications or adds to the game every six months which usually will provide you with lots of new stuff for game mechanics et cetera. Like in our last expansion, a pocket file, we introduced the concept of worm holes, really unstable worm holes, a physical phenomena that would appear randomly here and there, and they opened up into worm hole space. It was just totally lawless active regional space. You don’t know really what it is. They pass through the worm hole, and the worm hole actually may shift behind you and you will have to scram down into another worm hole space until you find your way out.
This has been a massively successful feature, but there’s social interesting stories about people going into worm hole space and actually just getting stuck there, not being able to scram down a hole. So, there’s some guy stuck in some sort of system and he has no idea where he is. He’s in our forum, offering in-game currency for anyone who can come and help him.
What we saw were people forming companies. They’re rescuing people from worm hole spaces. They would just travel around the worm hole space and look for people to rescue. And they’re like, “Are you stuck? Are you lost? Can I help you?” And this was in Norway. We didn’t plan for this or design this, but we had companies forming and…
Interviewer: So, it’s really about providing the context where people can interact with each other and, in this case, it’s the worm hole space or it’s some other part of space.
Torfi: Exactly. Context, some really clear game mechanics, good basic rules and the rest will just follow.
Interviewer: In addition to that, do you guys have any scaling issues that you guys are growing and you’re trying to fit it all on one server and how do you handle that?
Torfi: It’s been a constant engineering challenge, and the moments of our biggest success have been our most difficult moments because we changed every piece of hardware in the server as possible. We moved the entire database onto military grade. We had to get special export licenses to export them from the U. S., just constantly be reacting to whatever comes to us.
So this is a very complicated field of engineering where you actually cannot predict or anticipate what’s going to break next because you plug all the holes. You fix everything. You do it. You think it’s perfect, but then 10,000 extra people show up and it breaks in some weird and unimaginable way and you have to fix that.
So, not to belittle our engineers – they already are a brilliant group of people and they know what they’re doing, but just the sheer complexity of a single shared MMO makes it a constant challenge to scale and grow.
Interviewer: How do you then handle this whole need and demand to be consistently 24 hours / 7 running, and then being able to balance the off time and the time you guys need to re-cooperate and refresh? That’s one of the challenges of a MMO, and how do you guys address it?
Torfi: You mean for our players, too?
Interviewer: Not even for your players. Yeah that, too, but mainly for the developers who have to have some rest time. I know you guys are committed to perfection. At this same time there’s always something that can be improved and at the same time you guys need to rest and keep up on stuff.
Torfi: Yeah, so when we were developing early, we just crunched like crazy. We crunched because we wanted to, and we even had a time where the company was almost bankrupt and we didn