The secret to EVE Online's success: It's all bottom-up

Recovering from the disastrous 2011 in which EVE Online developer CCP saw layoffs and player riots, senior producer Jon Lander discusses how refocusing on the player base has paid dividends in quality.
As the senior producer of EVE Online, CCP's Jon Lander is ultimately in charge of the direction of the nine year old MMO. "I'm the guy who sets where we're going, what we're doing, and how we're going about doing it," Lander tells Gamasutra. "Ultimately, whatever happens in EVE comes down to me." That's an admission of guilt, in a sense, as Lander has been working on EVE since 2009. CCP ran into problems last year when it laid off staff in the wake of poor management calls about the direction of both the game and the company. In fact, thanks to some of these decisions, EVE fans went so far as to riot in-game; some ultimately unsubscribed from the title in protest. The introduction of virtual goods into the game world bombed, and dissatisfaction with its Incarna expansion rose. Incarna was later sidelined in favor of changes to the game requested by the existing community. "We kind of fixated on a direction which we needed to take a step back from," says Lander. "We didn't really get the validation that we wanted to." In fact, he says, the big lesson of 2011 for the company was that hubris doesn't pay. "We've just got to make sure that we don't take our success for granted, which I think is where we ended up as we were going through last year. We could do anything; it didn't matter what it was. It would work. I think everyone in the company has learned some really, really valuable lessons about that. Now, it's very much that we don't take anything for granted." So it's probably important to change your mindset about what you do for your players, in that case. Lander has a clever way of putting it: If creating EVE is at its core, "about player-created stories," as he says, then working on it is "about us being relatively hands-off janitors of the virtual world." eve online 1.jpgNotes Lander, while most MMOs have teams churning out handcrafted content for players to consume -- increasingly more quickly, these days -- EVE only has four content developers. "But at the same time, we've got a lot of game designers," says Lander. "We've got a lot of programmers. We've got a lot of engineers who are building tools so that players can make the content, and that content is firmly rooted in interactions with each other," says Lander. The key to working on EVE is that it "isn't a game," adds Lander. "EVE is a social engine." "If you look at what makes EVE great, it's that it's brilliant to play with other people. It's not the best solo-player game in the world, but you can do so much more with it." Listening to the player base that forms that social engine, and to the designers who are familiar with the different nooks and the crannies of the world itself, is more important than driving direction from the top. "What we've done is we've devolved an awful lot of the power of the decision-making and the accountability for what we do in the games to the people who know best, which are the developers on the ground who've been doing this for a long time," says Lander. "We've got some very talented game designers who understand how to make the right kind of game for our players to enjoy," he says.

Towering Inferno

Lander's philosophy toward EVE these days is bottom-up in general. For example, his latest initiative in the game, the Inferno expansion, was to start a massive war -- one that will drive the movement of players and resources in the game, even those who don't engage in PvP combat. How does this high concept boil down to the game? "I really sort of say: 'We've got a theme. We've got some business goals.' Those get broken down amongst everybody throughout the project; it's a big project." "They come back with a whole raft of ideas which feed back up the chain, and then myself and the project management group sit down and go, 'Okay. How do we think this is best going to fit into the company? These are the ideas from the people who really know.'" And even though some players have criticized aspects of Inferno, says Lander, "participation goes up, because it's not about giving players a feature to play through; it's about giving them tools to do their own stories." "No one's yet been able to run through the human psyche and do all of that content, so we're very lucky in that." eve online 2.jpgKey to the bottom-up philosophy of developing EVE has also been its player government, the CSM, or Council of Stellar Management, which is in constant contact with the development team. No other MMO has such an integrated voice for its player base. Could CCP live without them? "I think we could," says Lander, "but I think it would make it harder; and I think we would be foolish to not have them." "It's such a big world there," he says. "They give us that external viewpoint in an environment where they're NDA'd, and we can be very open and honest with them. ... The feedback is just incredibly important. You don't really get it from anywhere else." The reason Lander thinks more developers don't take this approach is because "it's not our game anymore." But when bringing together the requests of players, the recommendations of the CSM, and the thoughts and desires of the ground-level design team, and focus on building a robust social system rather than content, the rewards are great, says Lander. "I think this is why you see a steady growth on EVE. Because the more people who are doing it, the more popular and actually the more fun it becomes. It's proven a good model for us." "We build a social engine that people actually love, hate, despise each other, love each other, backstab each other, and play the good Samaritan. People know each other, and there is this history. They feel a big emotional attachment to that, and that keeps them coming," he says. When the player base is your game's content, then it's truly a bottom-up proposition.

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