Today the twentieth free expansion to Eve Online goes live. There are tweaks and balances, new units and changes to the interface, but when you give something a name that means 'a point of no return' and then, in case anyone missed that, add the tag line "There's no turning back" there's cause for a closer look.
"Rubicon is an important moment in Eve. It's the beginning of a vision we articulated at Fanfest in Reykjavik earlier this year - the idea of going forth and colonising space," CCP's chief marketing officer David Reid tells me. "It continues this idea here of giving the players more and more control over the Eve universe. Our designers aren't the gods of the Eve universe, they're the janitors. We build tools, we clean up messes, we keep the lights on and we allow the players to go be the stars and figure out how they want to do things."
The name Rubicon is the expansion's statement of intent. "It was not a name we chose by accident," says Reid. It refers, in part, to Caesar leading an army across the Rubicon river in an act of insurrection which marked the beginning of a four-year civil war. "At some level it's a story of the capsuleers and the Dust mercenaries [from Dust 514 - the massively multiplayer shooter set in the Eve universe] taking control from the empires but it really is an allegory for how we at CCP as the developers are going to give more control over to the players."
Eve is inching towards giving its players full colonisation capabilities. Rubicon allows players to start gathering the blueprints, implants and resources with which to construct their own stargates and head off to colonise new galaxies. "It's not clear what they're going to find on the other side," says Reid. "There aren't a lot of surprises these days in videogames where people have their YouTube walkthroughs and their deep reviews of how to finish quests x or y. But we know we can do something very special here."
But what will lie beyond the stargates? The subject came up again as we talked in more depth about creating these new galaxies. Reid wouldn't confirm anything, but he threw out a few ideas:
"A lot of what we're thinking about is what is going on in the universe outside of the known areas of high security, low security and null sec. We have a fifth race that players aren't part of - the Jove - who are technologically more advanced than the rest of the players. They are very melancholy and there aren't very many of them in the Eve universe. Are the Jove on the other side of these stargates? We're not telling yet but we're certainly thinking about that. What else might be there? There have been existing civilisations that people have found as part of the wormhole techs... what was that civilisation, what did they do?"
Ghost Sites are a significant part of the expansion. Armed and heavily secured, they appear across all areas of space and contain resources used in stargate construction. The Ghost Sites are designed to set players down the path of expansion and exploration. Reid cites them as emblematic of what Eve is trying to achieve - "It exemplifies the Rubicon moment and sentiment better than anything else."
Beyond the stargates and the blueprints, there are other indications of the shift towards the grand upcoming colonisation metagame. There are high security customs offices which players can now take over and run as economic endeavours of their own, and disruptive mobile siphon units which steal resources from player-owned structures and encourage a greater degree of management of your immediate area.
"Eve has been marked by these giant levers - it's time for a war and four thousand people in a fleet fight twenty thousand people in a corporation and if you aren't part of that you may not feel like you're really doing anything interesting in the sandbox. A lot of what Rubicon is about is allowing these microsystems which will ultimately become much bigger systems ... I guarantee you at some point a giant war is going to happen because two guys just needle each other a little too much - it's going to be amazing."
The Eve universe will obviously be expanding as a result of Rubicon but the tonal and ideological shifts it will involve make "expansion" label feel inadequate. I ask whether CCP were tempted to call it something different.
"That's an interesting way to think about it," says Reid. "Every expansion brings new features and tools for how players interact with each other for good and for ill. Rubicon is filled with that but there is a decidedly different bent to what Rubicon begins. I think, in many ways, other games might think about what we're trying to do in Rubicon and subsequent expansions as almost a new game - ultimately an Eve 2. But that's just not the way we think about it.
"It's very much a universe that's been running ten years. We've got people who have been playing Eve longer than I've known my children and it's important to maintain the integrity to that. The signal for these veterans, whether they've been playing for ten years or they're relatively new, is that Eve continues to be a sandbox where any player can have a huge impact. I think to characterise it as something different might not be the right message to the player."
In terms of the future of the Eve universe in general, Eve Valkyrie, CCP's dogfighting game for Oculus Rift, is being developed by the company's Newcastle studio and further expansions for the main game are works in progress.
"The focus right now is to keep growing Eve, tie Eve and Dust tighter together, get Valkyrie polished as a session-based experience and then add it to the Eve universe - we will keep growing from there," says Reid. "In parallel we continue to work on our second universe - World of Darkness - but it is really important for us to be focused on getting these things in the Eve universe right. These are not small tasks we've set and it's not a small debt we owe to our community to get this right."
In PC Gamer's 100 Greatest Games of All Time 2013 feature we placed Eve at number 12, just above Arma and just below Deus Ex: Human Revolution. "We were gratified at some level to see Eve at number 12 because years past it would be been much lower," says Reid. "But at some level we look at that and say okay, we've got 11 more to go. We're not in a hurry but we're going to keep moving up that list, we're going to keep improving this game and adding to it.
"That's part of the magic of PC gaming. You're not locked into this hardware that doesn't change. Yes, every few years there's a new console launch but the PC gets better and better every single month and year. Eve is only going to take advantage of that."