CCP chief on layoffs, mistakes: "We had the mindset that we could achieve anything."

Rob Zacny

EVE - Fleet in space

Last week, CCP announced major layoffs and a significant shift in priorities away from Vampire: The Masquerade-themed MMO World of Darkness and back toward EVE Online.

We had a long chat with CEO Hilmar Petursson about the changes, and where they leave CCP. He explains why CCP is narrowing its focus, and says that it was "hubris" that led CCP astray.

PCG: I know a lot of people are curious about where this leaves World of Darkness. You're a little vague in the press release. What's the plan for that project moving forward?

Hilmar Petursson: We as a company were trying to achieve many impossible things at the same time. We were fighting on many fronts, and that has now resulted in us not really being able to get through [all] that. We need to focus more. So now CCP becomes much more focused on the more classical aspects of EVE Online, and getting Dust out there, and working the connection between those two games so that they add value to one another.

WoD development will definitely slow down during that process. We have a team in place which will continue month after month on that project, but it's still becoming less of a priority for CCP overall. And I am not sure, really, how much of a delay for WoD it really is, because the way we were going about this was also a very long road of getting WoD out to market. We were developing a common platform and re-integrating it into EVE and WoD at the same time. It was just a very ambitious plan.

So it's difficult to answer at this moment. The team is definitely going through scoping WoD and seeing what makes sense to make as a plan for WoD.

Like a lot of PC gamers, when I think of EVE Online, I don't necessarily think of it as a fictional universe so much as a community of players. Superficially, it would seem that CCP is an MMO company, and many of your strengths would have pointed to making a game like WoD rather than moving into a console shooter like Dust. Let's say you came to this crossroads a year and a half ago, and you had to choose which of these projects to focus on. Would you still choose Dust?

HP: That's a very hypothetical question. I'm not sure I have a good answer to that.

Dust has a lot of MMO components. It has a lot of persistence and character progression, and elements like that which are born out of EVE. Dust is much closer to EVE Online than we ever thought we would be able to do. So you could say that Dust actually adds tremendous value to EVE Online in terms of the connection between the two games.

So we look at it as there is one EVE universe that has many approaches to it.

What kind of involvement do you think EVE players are going to have with Dust? Certainly many of the EVE players I know have practically married to the game. DO you see many of them crossing over and becoming a part of the Dust community as well, or do you see them as being two separate communities that will exist in the same universe?

HP: I think initially, it will be separate communities just because the audiences are different. But we have also seen a lot of interest from EVE players, current or previous players, on trying out Dust. But after the release of Dust the game will continue to become closer and closer. So I think over time, the communities will become closer and closer. But it is also to be said ...[that] even the EVE community itself is many different things.

Have you given serious thought to an eventual Dust PC release?

HP: We can't really comment on that at this time. Currently we're just super-focused on making an awesome PS3 experience. That's really our priority right now. Part of our mission now is to just focus on fewer things and doing them well.

A couple weeks ago you wrote a rather personal post to followers of EVE Online explaining your own role in some of the problems you've encountered with your community. When you wrote that, did you know you were probably going to have to shift focus as drastically as it seems you did the other day?

HP: I think ever since we released the [Incarna] expansion over the summer, we have had a process of introspection and analysis of how we are doing as a company. We're now really coming to the end of that process with this restructuring.

So you have an insight into my thoughts at the time in that letter. It was mainly about me and my involvement in all of this. I am very much accountable for what we have been doing as a company and where we are today. You see that in the letter. So that was sort of me owning up to my part in this.

In the wake of all this, what kind of changes are you making over at CCP? How has this changed you culture, how has this changed how you will run things going forward?

HP: I think it's very hard to predict how it will change our culture. That's an interview could have half a year or a year from now and we could reflect on that. Certainly going through such a large change will always have an effect on culture. It's just very hard to predict.

But I would say, going through this, that everyone at CCP is really focused on making a stronger company that is more able to go after its goals. And that's something that shines through.

So I think we will have a stronger culture, we will have more of a culture of accountability. That is something we have lost as a company as we have grown from success to success for the past eight years, since we achieved EVE Online, which was frankly almost an impossible achievement.

Having that game grow consistently for almost eight years, which I think is almost unheard of in our industry, we just had the mindset that we could achieve anything. We put in motion a very ambitious plan which we were not able to pursue. So I think I certainly have become less arrogant and more humble about what we can achieve, and focused the company on doing things we can achieve. And I hope our culture will align more with that, making sure we are accountable to our goals, to our customers, and to ourselves.

I'm interested to hear you say you'd lost a culture of accountability. Looking back, do you feel there were errors you were making along the way that your overall success was insulating you from understanding?

HP: Yeah, I think there were. Also, the company has grown very organically and it's grown very fast. We have had people move around in positions and situations where job functions have changed very rapidly, and it's been a challenge to maintain a very good structure. So a reorganization like this is very much to address what we could perceive as growing pains.

But when everything you do sort of pans out no matter how impossible it looks, that also just makes people less focused on making sure that we deliver on what we say, rather than just sort of trying to achieve it all at the same time. If that makes sense.

It does, but to play devil's advocate for a moment, couldn't you also say that hubris is also what enabled CCP to enjoy this string of unlikely successes and growth? Are you at all concerned that having burned your fingers these last months, you might over-react and become too cautious, and betray the values that got you here?

HP: That's absolutely a risk in this, but it's still -- I --

Having gone through this path, we just became way too confident in ourselves. To the point of me calling it hubris and arrogance. And that's not a good place to be in. It's fine to be fearless, and doing things which are intrepid and pioneering, as we have done, but we just took it too far. And obviously the challenge is that we might pendulum, and go too far the other direction. But I don't think that's going to happen. We have learned our lessons.

We are going to restructure the company and make it stronger. And we will still do amazing things. But we just won't try to do three amazing things at the same time. And you could even argue we were doing four amazing things at the same time. That doesn't mean we won't achieve amazing things. We will just go about them in a more sensible fashion.

Just to clarify, what would you say is the fourth amazing thing?

HP: So at the same time we were making Eve Online, Dust, WoD, and we were making a core technology platform powering all of this, which is seen in the form of Incarna, which you have seen with the character creator we released in January. It's an amazing character creator and a lot of people have applauded us on having achieved the impossible with that.

But then we had to cut corners when it came to the June release of Incarna, where we released one room instead of releasing everything that was planned. And that is just because executing on such a big plan in such a big way made it difficult to predict timelines and deliver on targets. We were not as laser focused on it as we should be. That's really the realization.

I know over these last months your fans have had an increasingly contentious relationship to a lot of the moves CCP were making. You put that down to poor communication and perhaps rolling things out before they were ready. As strain formed between you and your community, was division forming within CCP as well? Was morale starting to become an issue?

HP: Well, there were certainly a lot of disconnects within the company, where people had information but they were not making the decisions. And people making decisions did not have information. And as a result, we've gone through this restructuring to make sure we don't make those kinds of mistakes again. So there certainly, people were not agreeing with the direction of the company, and they were not really being heard on that. And CCP was, frankly, more preoccupied with executing on a big strategic plan than on adding product value to EVE.

And now we're correcting that. Our core business has hurt for our ambitions on other fronts, and we need to rectify that. A lot of the disconnect you were seeing over the summer was the company having a large strategic ambition and being more focused on that rather than adding value to EVE. And that's really what we're going through now.

You said that people with information could not make decisions and people making decisions lacked information. Can you give us an example of a disconnect that in retrospect you should have resolved?

HP: Yeah, I think ship-spinning is a great example. By introducing Captain's Quarters, and basically forcing that to be enabled, we basically removed a feature which is referred to as ship-spinning: being in your hangar and watching your ship. And people warned us about this. Both inside the company and in the Eve community. And no one really perceived the emotional connection that Eve players have with that feature of Eve. And I think that's a great example of disconnect which we have now corrected. We released ship-spinning back to Eve this week, and we have seen a lot of positive reaction to that going out. So even though it seems like a small thing, it is not.

And there were people at CCP who knew that. And there were people in the community who knew that. But the people making the decisions still made that decision. So that's an example of disconnect.

In many ways, CCP is once again becoming "the EVE company." Once you're through with this phase of retrenchment, how will you diversify? What will you differently next time?

HP: Well, what we will do differently is not to make three games at the same time. When we get to WoD, then we will be focused on WoD and we will then be working on WoD and EVE. Dust will obviously still be on the development roadmap, but once it's out to market, that's a different situation. ...When we start to focus on WoD again, then we will not spin up another game at the same time.

You've put so much emphasis on Dust for PS3, which is not exactly a stronghold of EVE fans. What do you think is going to make Dust a success on a console platform that's already crowded with shooters? And what is CCP's position if Dust is not warmly accepted by PS3 players?

HP: Even though Dust is an FPS, it's very much a different FPS than you've seen before. There's a lot of meaning and consequence to the outcome of battles, and there's a lot of MMO features and character development. We brought successful things in from EVE into Dust, and in our internal playtests that is something people speak very highly of.

Even though it is a shooter, it feels like a very different type of shooter. With much more meaning and consequence than shooters tend to have today. Their battles might rank you on a leaderboard, but they don't have an impact on the universe.

As we say in our title, "A single shot can topple an empire." That's something that people really feel inspired by. That is definitely the differentiation that people are going for.

The other part of my question was: you have a great deal invested in Dust. What is CCP's position if this launch on consoles does not go well?

HP: We are self-funding the project. It's never good to release a game that does not do well. But CCP will do fine even if that is the case. But by focusing on these things and prioritizing around that, we're making sure that that doesn't happen.

What can EVE Online players expect to see over the next several months as you begin to put things right?

Well, you will see much more focus on the sort of classical EVE Online, the flying in space. We will be back in the spaceship business from now on, more so than ever before.

People have often looked at expansions like Apocrypha, where we have added fundamentally exciting things to EVE, so you should expect something like that. But also there's a lot of just little, simple things which have been left in the game un-fixed, and there will be much more focus on making the game stronger and better by completing some of the things which we have added to the game but not followed through on.

What is the one last thing you would like to have gotten across to readers?

HP: We have grown really fast as a company. We've had many issues to address as a result of that. As we have gone from success to success, we have extended what we are trying to achieve. That has resulted in execution which is not what people are used to seeing from CCP prior to us embarking on such a big plan.

Now we are more focused, and you will see things that you used to see from CCP come back. You will see our tone change as a result of our realization of where we are. You will see us more focused on adding value to the product that people have spent so much energy and so much love on. Throughout all of this, they key takeaway is how much people love EVE Online. And their basic criticism is that they have not been feeling the love from CCP for EVE Online.

We will now really demonstrate that we really love EVE Online as the players love EVE Online.

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