Q&A: CCP On Keeping EVE Online Fresh And Growing

CCP's Ryan Dancey talks to Gamasutra about what sets intense MMO EVE Online apart from its competition, and the decisions the developers are making to continue to drive the game's growth.
CCP's EVE Online is that rare thing in the MMO world -- a game that has steadily gained in players and profile since it first launch. Originally launched in 2003, the monthly subscription-based space trading and combat game stands out from the pack given its focus on simulating a stellar society -- and as its user base has grown, its simulation has gotten more robust and realistic. One of the most fascinating aspects of the game is its Council of Stellar Management, on which the company's Petur Johannes Oskarsson delivered a compelling presentation at this year's GDC Austin. The CSM is a player-elected body of representatives who work with CCP and even travel to its headquarters in Iceland to discuss in-game policy. Here, CCP's Chief Marketing Officer, Ryan S. Dancey, talks about what sets the game apart from its competition; he discusses the decisions the developers have made and will have to make, as they continue to push for growth in the game and its universe. CCP has said that the plan is to increase EVE Online's user base to 340,000 by the end of 2009. Very few MMOs, I think, actually have a growth curve or targets to grow their audience in that way. Exactly. Most MMOs have a spike. They hit their maximum growth, and then they try to manage their downward, their decline. Although, it's funny you mention that because we were just talking about this last night. It will be interesting to see in 2010 for Conan and Warhammer if they start to grow again. They've been through their initial spike, they seem to have leveled off and now we're going to watch and see if they have a rebound or not. We never really had the spike. We just had the growth. Well, you guys have a way different approach and it was in a way different time in the market. Absolutely. EVE launched with 20,000 to 30,000 players. These guys launched with a million players. So, of course they have a spike and we didn't. Like you say, it's really about timing in the market and evolution of the business. It's been said that it's really crucial to have all the players on one server rather than split it up, as it allows for emergent gameplay. That's a real priority for you guys, isn't it? It certainly is for EVE, yeah. EVE was designed from the ground up to be a single server game. There's a whole bunch of underlying psychology, and political science and economic theory that says that you have to have a certain critical mass of people interacting with each other before certain kinds of emergent behavior can appear. I tell people all the time that the economy in most MMOs is a simulated economy. It doesn't actually behave like a real economy behaves. The economy in EVE is a virtual economy. It's completely fake in the sense that it's not real objects. But, it behaves like a real world economy would really behave with real money and real tangible goods. Do you worry, then, that you could in some ways lose control of it in the way that no other MMOs can maintain control of their simulated non‑real economies? There's certainly a delicate balancing act and we watch constantly to see what players are doing to try and keep situations stable. Stability is more important to us in that sense. We don't want to see a huge swing in market activities that's driven by some loophole, or an exploit, or something the players have figured out to do that they're just doing because they think it's interesting to manipulate the market. But, for the most part, all we really have to worry about are the faucets, the amount of ISK [currency] that gets generated through NPC drops, and mission rewards and the ISK drains, the amount of money we charge for certain things that just take cash out of the game. Just by manipulating those two variables, we're usually able to target a fairly stable marketplace. So, our economist acts like a central banker. His objective is price stability, not regulation. Do you have a lot of problems with RMT? ISK farmers? Sure. We do. I think every MMO does once they reach a certain critical successful point, when it becomes valuable enough for those guys to pay attention, they pay attention. We fight it in two ways. We have a very engaged and very active anti-RMT team that just completed a really big product we call "unholy rage", where they identified, through log analysis, about 10,000 accounts that we believe were engaged in either RMT activity or precursor activity -- macroing to farm resources -- and banning those accounts had a reality dramatic effect on the server. Those 10,000 players were logged in 23 hours a day, and the way that the played the game was very resource-intensive. So, even though they only amount to three percent of the player base, they were really accounting for 10, 12, 14 percent of server capacity. So, getting them out of the system was actually really good for everybody else in the game just because it freed up server capacity. The other thing we do is we have a program we call "PLEX" -- pilot license extensions. PLEX is designed to do two things. It's designed to let people who generate a lot of ISK in-game play EVE for free, and for people who are entering the game, or want to experiment with things that they're not really good at managing yet, we'll ask them to buy ISK for real money. They can buy a PLEX, a pilot license extension, for real money on our website and they can trade that in-game for ISK. It has a couple of really nice benefits. The first thing is that there's no cash transaction between players. So, there's no monetary incentive to do it. It's only about activity in the game. The other thing is that what it really does fundamentally is it gets more people to play EVE, whereas RMT ends up with fewer people playing, because you allow people to use their real money to get leverage, or an advantage in the game, with no benefit to the community. What PLEX basically says, "Hey, if you're willing to pay to have two people play, you and somebody else, we're happy to let you do, that because it just contributes to more players in the game." So, it sanitizes the downsides that RMT has on a lot of MMOs. The Council for Stellar Management is really interesting. The player representation and the fact that they're so tied into the player base, is quite interesting, and that they also fly to Iceland to work with developers. It's the balance of powers is what interests me -- the balance of how much power and influence they can actually bring to bear. Well, it used to be that certain individuals through their own actions, or through CCP's unthinking actions, had too much ability to influence the development because they were either the noisiest people, or they had a friendship with a dev, or they took extra efforts to try and make sure that CCP knew what their concerns were, and it was unfair to everybody else in the game. One of the great things about the Council of Stellar Management is that if you really have an issue, you just run for the Council, on the one hand. Or, you know that there's nine people, so make sure those nine people know what your issue is. So, just pick one of them and make sure that one person knows. You'll have a much better chance of having that directly communicated to CCP through a process, as opposed to through an accident. I think what distinguishes EVE is its natural evolution toward mirroring the real world, in terms of a lot of different things. It's interesting to try to figure out how much of that was by design and how much of that was not by design -- but then you can latch on to it and enhance it. It's all by design. The fundamental underlying concept at CCP is that we want to create virtual worlds that are more meaningful than real life. Since the conception of the company, even before EVE shipped, the focus of everything that CCP is worked on is encouraging human interaction. So, most of the stuff, the macro stuff you see in EVE, was designed into it from the beginning. Things like the Council of Stellar Management were evolutions of things that were there to start with. But, the kernels have been there almost from the start... there may be five kernels and one of them seems like it's working, so we put resources on that one thing, and make it grow up and become really effective. But, those other four things are still waiting for players to find them and become interested in them. What I think is interesting is the conversion from NPCs selling items to a player‑based economy. That is an interesting conversion and that didn't, obviously, get touched on a lot during the presentation yesterday. But, that was always the goal of the game. Absolutely. In a perfect world, there wouldn't be any NPC goods at all. We think that we can't do that right now because it would be too easy to manipulate [some] things. But, we'll get there eventually. It's really a question of size. The bigger the market becomes, the more difficult it is to manipulate it for purposes of economic warfare, or for purposes of griefing, or just out of simple ignorance. As time as gone on, more and more things have gone into the player driven economy because it's been "safe" to let them go in without risking the fabric of the rest of the player's experience. You find this in many MMOs, but EVE seems to have more room for it to flourish. People have defined roles for themselves that aren't necessarily based on the explicit gameplay structure of the game. Most MMOs, when you really rip them apart, are mostly PvE experiences. The way you get ahead in most MMOs is pretty easy to see. You can figure it out after maybe a month of playing the game ‑ very clear paths to success. EVE just doesn't have a lot of PvE content that's relevant. It's mostly just the way the game is so you can do something more fun. That opens the door for people to engage in a much broader range of activities than you would bother seeing in other games. Other games might have them, but nobody does it because it doesn't really have any long term vital impact on their play experience. But, you can be a space trucker in EVE and be really contributing something really important to an alliance, for example. Somebody's got to move those goods from place to place. I was talking to someone about EVE about one of those corporate takeover scenarios, where people slowly infiltrated a corporation and suddenly launched a takeover. That stuff is fascinating. There's a lot of real world behavior in EVE that you don't see in a lot of other MMOs. You see a lot of fake world behavior. People are really good Paladins. But, not really good corporate saboteurs -- because there's no point to it. I recently met someone and he was like, "Oh, yeah. I have four EVE accounts." He pays $60 a month to play it. I'm like, "You go." Well, I will say that's one of the really nice things about EVE is that from a monetization standpoint, we have one of the games where it makes sense to have multiple accounts, and not for any nefarious purposes. But, just because different characters on different accounts working together can sometimes have a synergy that a single account with a single character can't get to. Does that ever concern you? On one hand, obviously, it's great to have a game that requires a commitment from your players. Do you ever worry that the commitment level in EVE can get too intense to keep players from getting frustrated, or fed up? Twenty percent of the people who played EVE the first month the server was opened are still playing EVE today, five years later, six years later. So, I guess my answer is "no" in the select sense of saying we like that fact that have really committed players that play a lot. In the much larger sense, "yes", we worry about it every single day -- which is how to keep EVE fresh, and compelling, and interesting and make people who have been playing EVE for six years want to come back and play it for seven years. It's absolutely a part of our focus. Can you fill me in on the status of White Wolf, the physical game company CCP acquired in Atlanta? It's just an imprint... White Wolf used to have a fairly large staff. It doesn't anymore. It's focusing primarily on the World of Darkness RPG products. It's not doing some of the things it used to do; board games and other card games and things. The focus of the company [CCP] is on making MMOs and our legacy table top business is a legacy business.

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