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EVE ruminations


It's been a while since I've posted about EVE Online... or, let's be honest, rambled about it. I felt like posting a new ramble because, well... mostly because I like the sound of my own voice. But also because CCP has been through a lot of ups and downs and their future, and the future of EVE, was looking pretty shaky for a while. Recently, though, it feels as if they have finally found the right track again.

I've always found CCP and EVE to be a fascinating example of game development done... maybe not "right", but at least "well". Since I've been getting hyped about Star Citizen recently, and since it is still so very far away, I thought it might be nice to remind people that there is an excellent sci-fi/spaceship MMO out there that you can play right now :) Not only is it out there, but that it seems (once again) to be getting better every day.

(random self-serving note... if anyone reads this post and is inspired to try EVE, please be a pal and use my referral link)

I want this post to focus on where EVE seems to be going and why I'm excited about it. But it's hard to do that without taking a glance at where EVE has been.

Whereupon I offer a biased and unabashedly opinion-laced view of EVE's history...

CCP -- the creators of EVE -- are an interesting example in game development and the videogame business. They are an Icelandic company with a true "garage startup" genesis story that rose to success based almost solely on the singular strength of their idea; to make a sci-fi spaceship MMO with lasting consequences and an intrinsic PvP focus where everyone is playing in the same (and only) universe/shard. That game -- EVE Online -- launched in 2003 and has been growing ever since.

Starting in about 2011 it became undeniably apparent that the growth and success of EVE may have had as much to do with luck and the power of its niche idea than with any particular genius over at CCP. Floundering and confused choices made by CCP with regard to EVE, combined with spectacular failures in other projects, suggested that many of things CCP did right over the years might, in fact, have been accidental rather than intentional.

Powerful as the niche idea was, in 2011 EVE was already 8 years old. An idea can only take you so far. There was growing concern at this point that CCP might no longer be able to replicate the successful choices that had brought the game as far as it had come, leaving the future health of EVE in doubt. Some of these great chioces, in no particular order: self-published, a downloadable game client, no "box fee", a warm embrace of 3rd party applications and openly available game data, the introduction of PLEX (a free-to-play option that dampens gold farming while avoiding pay-to-win), complete graphic engine overhauls, the CSM, hiring an actual economist to help deal with the player-driven market... the list of intriguing business decisions alone goes on. Sure, some of this stuff seems common-place now, but at the time these things were introduced to EVE they were rarely industry-standard and often bordered on revolutionary. But quietly so.

I'm not going to discuss the things that happened leading into 2011 that made it apparent to players that CCP might not actually know what they were doing. If you are not familiar with EVE you don't care, and if you are familiar with EVE then you already know about this stuff. I will, however, mention in passing that at least one event led to CCP being the only game developer I know with an Internal Affairs division.

What it all led to was a fairly simple conclusion; CCP believed they knew better than the players what EVE was and should be, and always seemed a little bit surprised when there was any kind of player backlash. The issue, however, is that many EVE players seemed to think this was a NEW problem at CCP. They looked back at previous successful choices as compared to some of the more recent disasters and concluded that something at CCP had changed. But it hadn't.

The reality is that most of the previous successful choices made by CCP were made under the same belief that they knew better than the players. They just got lucky with those choices for a variety of reasons, so things turned out OK. There is one classic example that highlights this: wormholes.

In 2009, EVE got one of the most significant and expansive universe updates it's ever seen, leading to a whole new dedicated style of small-group gameplay that revitalized the ability for the "little guys" to make a place for themselves in EVE. It was widely applauded and led to a whole new style of emergent gameplay enjoyed by many, injecting life into the game. But pretty much everything people love most about wormholes? It was a mistake.

Wormholes were essentially intended to be dangerous PvE content for groups. They were effectively a first attempt at what was later re-introduced in the form of incursions in 2011. Nobody was supposed to setup permanent residency and actually LIVE in wormhole space. The fact that you could anchor a starbase in one and create a home for a small band of misfits was entirely accidental and a mere oversight on the part of the devs; they simply forgot to turn off the flag allowing for anchorable structures. And yet claiming wormhole space was exactly what players did, in droves. It offered a welcome outlet to groups interested in PvP and self-reliance but who were simply not large enough or didn't care enough to challenge the sovereignty and political machinations of null-sec.

That is just one instance, but really you can look at the majority of their choices and find similar themes. Titans, capital ships in general, jump drives, "gun mining", moon goo, original faction warfare... the list of poorly implemented game mechanics that were badly abused by players in unintentional ways goes WAY back. That's not even including the poor business choices. Just because most of these things turned out OK prior to 2011 didn't change the basic fact that CCP always assumed they knew better than players and always reacted to player backlash with surprise and a bit of resentment.

Oh sure, they would sometimes get around to fixing things that the players had proven beyond a shadow of doubt were completely broken or imbalanced, but it was always with a tinge of resentment from the developers, and typically MONTHS too late to prevent the exploitation of these broken features from severely impacting all aspects of the game. Further, by the time CCP would wake up to and think about addressing some of these mistakes, often so much time had gone by that the players now saw the broken mechanic as part of the status quo and resisted any attempt to improve or tweak things for the better. This was not helped by the fact that CCP seemed unusually reticient to ever admit that the first pass had BEEN a mistake. By 2011 however, CCP had made a series of bad choices, none of which could be viably salvaged in any reasonable way. In short, their luck had run out.

UphEVEal (yes I know that's not how you spell it)

The realization that they had been lucky and not genius must have come as quite a shock to CCP. Sure, they had always given lip-service to the idea that they embraced player feedback, but reality proved different. They ignored all of the most requested player features, left broken mechanics in place for far too long, introduced new bizarre mechanics from way out of left field, and generally operated in a way that showed their true colors: "CCP knows best". Only by 2011 it was finally obvious to them that if they stayed that course, EVE was going to die (for real this time!)

Watching CCP struggle for the last three years to internalize and act upon this realization has been interesting, to say the least. Again I won't bore with details here; either you follow EVE and have already witnessed the earthquake that is shaking up CCP culture, or you don't care. I'm just going to talk about the result, since the result makes me excited for the future of EVE; enough so that I actually bothered to write this blog post :)

It seems ridiculously simple, but everything that was wrong with CCP and all the hope for their future can be summed up with one simple change; their new patch cycle. Until recently, CCP operated on a 6-month patch cycle, attempting to create two "major content" releases each year. These were accompanied by grand ideas, hype, trailer videos, and all the fanfare they could muster. They have recently changed their patch cycle to a 5-week one, aiming to release 10 updates a year.

It might seem like oversimplification to boil it down to this, but all I can say is that the release cycle has an incredibly insidious and far reaching effect on every aspect of development in a company. For a developer, every feature, every interaction with players, every interaction with your managers; all of it is driven in large part by how it works into the release cycle. Likewise management is evaluating every effort and tradeoff against the release cycle as well. In EVE, the 6-month cycle lead to an 11-year problem; no little features, no big features, no iteration... just "medium" features that sounded cool in trailers.

If a feature was too big to fit into a 6-month cycle, it wasn't even attempted. This led to some of the most serious long-term issues with EVE mechanics to date; null-sec sovereignty problems, poor starbase controls, a general feeling of "static-ness", and ignoring many of the most requested player features going back a decade, such as customizable ship appearances. These are things that the developers have been saying they would like to fix for YEARS, yet somehow they never managed to sort out how to start working on those things within their 6-month cycle.

Likewise, if a feature was too small to help hype up the next 6-month release, it seems to have been thought of as "wasted effort" and was never approved for work. Ditto for iterations and tweaks on recently released features from the previous content update. This led to a horrific absence in quality-of-life improvements to essential aspects of the game, such as the user interface. As for player feedback and "mistakes"; if, as a developer, you have to convince your boss to release a patch off-cycle, you are of course going to be resentful to any player that presumes to point out something broken. You might agree it's broken, but you simply don't want to face the hell of trying to get it fixed to production. So you are probably going to argue (or be dealing with your manager arguing) that it isn't "broken enough" to warrant a patch. Which leads to a broken mechanic becoming status quo, because everyone knows it won't be touched until AT LEAST the next 6-month update. And by that point it's easier just not to touch it at all. If you are an EVE player, this should sound very, very familiar.

CCP's new focus on a more frequent, less-hyped release cycle is the closest thing you will ever see to a silver bullet in development and business choices. Of course in isolation it's not enough, but taken as a whole it's proof-positive that CCP has actually had an internal revolution that it can no longer just be "lip-service" to listen to the players. They actually intend to DO it. I'm certain that the further down the ranks of CCP employees you go, the more you find people who have always wanted to do so while also feeling the futile pain of acturally trying to do so. The new release cycle gives these day-to-day developers the tool they need to finally turn the lip-service into reality. And so far, it seems to be working.

In the last year I've seen more quality-of-life UI improvements than at any point the game's history (FYI: I've been playing since 2004). And I don't mean the "let's overhaul everything UI in Trinity and then leave half of it broken for years" type of update. I mean actual, useful, small improvements that benefit everyone. Things that are finally making it into releases because there is no longer a need to tie every release to a marketing push. More importantly, these improvements have been iterated!

The tooltip update not quite what you wanted? No problem, we'll listen to all that player feedback and actually TWEAK IT with improvements 5 weeks later! I can only imagine how empowering it must feel as a developer at CCP today, being able to finally ACT on the things people are complaining about instead of simply being helpless to respond.

But it's not just little things... for the first time in, well, ever, CCP is finally making tangible progress on some of the largest features that, until now, they had only ever talked about. Customizable ship appearances, starbase overhauls, and changes to nullsec sovereignty. All three of these things had previously been projects so large that they were never attempted.

The funny thing is that at least one of these major changes has EVE players freaking out, because they perceive it as a reversion to the old "CCP knows best" mentality that has burned them so badly over the years. This is the power projection changes being introduced in the next patch cycle (Phoebe) to start working on the null-sec sovereignty issues. Superficially, these changes feel very much like the CCP of old; a set of changes that nobody quite wants or understands, fraught with unpredictable consequences which CCP has not fully thought out, all while players point out significant potential flaws on the forums that devs only seem to tentatively take to heart.

But the likeness is, thankfully, only superficial. What these players are not realizing is two important facets; one, that the devs, after literally years of doing nothing -- paralyzed by the requirement to get a nullsec overhaul done right, the first time, in no more than 6 months -- have finally actually made the first tangible progress in trying to change an aspect of the game that is widely regarded as needing improvement. It honestly doesn't matter if they get it right out of the gate. The fact that they feel the freedom to attempt anything at all is a huge improvement over the previous state of affairs.

Secondly, and more importantly, is the fact that CCP has proven over the last year that they are no longer in the "release and ignore" mentality of previous updates. They have repeatedly iterated on new features rapidly under the new patch cycle, and the 5-week timeframe allows them to do so before those changes become an entrenched part of the status quo. It's far easier as a developer to admit that something was not quite right (or even, gasp, a mistake) when you get to fix it almost immediately than it is when your ego is on the line for the next six months.

What this means for Phoebe is simple; I have no doubt the initial release is going to be not quite perfect. I don't expect CCP to get this one any better than any of the other massive, unpredictable changes they've tried to bring to EVE in the past. What I do believe, however, is that they will finally be able to adapt on the fly. When Phoebe goes live they'll be able to watch the impact and iterate quickly to tweak quickly as needed. That isn't something to freak out over, it's something to be excited about.