Interview: EVE Online's Kristoffer Touborg

Nathan Grayson

eve_online_1

Note: This interview was conducted right before CCP's recent lay-off announcement . We're currently seeking comment from CCP on that unfortunate turn of events.

In this age of being everything for everyone and attempting to one-up competitors by continuously lowering the barrier to entry, it's rare that you encounter a game with real focus. For a while, EVE Online was that game. Players, of course, absolutely adored it for that. But then CCP charted a new course, and things got downright ugly .

There's something to be said, then, for a back-to-the-basics approach. After a heartfelt apology , CCP has set its sights back on the final frontier. But is it a matter of too little, too late? And is this the real deal, or merely silver-tongued lip service? I sat down with lead game designer Kristoffer Touborg during GDC Online to find out, as well as discuss the current state of the MMO scene, the stigma against virtual item sales, the rivalry between console and PC gamers, and tons more.

PCG: CEO Hilmar Pétursson recently took a high road many developers don't: he actually apologized to his players. Obviously, though, that came after months upon months of barely contained rage. What was the breaking point? What finally made CCP collectively decide “Yeah, we should probably turn this ship around and steer away from the giant iceberg”?

Kristoffer Touborg: Getting to that point... we've been in operations for eight years. It's an old game. At some point, you have to stop giving people the same [things]. You have to move on and try something new. For us, last year we said “What's the biggest change? What's the new direction we can take this game in?” So we had the flying in space part, but we wanted to see if we could build other parts onto it.

Avatar and virtual goods were the things we wanted to branch out into. And we said “We're gonna do this and see how it turns out.” It didn't turn out well. Games are games. I like playing Poker, and if you have a bad hand, you have to throw it away. That's what we did. We did an expansion into the new universe, and it didn't fare as well as we thought it would. So we're just gonna move back to focusing on spaceships.

PCG: How long ago did you actually conceive of the winter update? Was it a complete spur-of-the-moment reaction, or did you lay the groundwork a couple months in advance and then spring into action when you were good and ready?

KT: It was completely reactionary. I mean, this was us just seeing that our customers didn't like the direction we took, so we sat down and said “Let's go another way.” We had a lot of people dedicated to Incarna and virtual goods, and we sat down with them and said, “We're going back to spaceships.” And that's pretty much it.

The winter expansion that's coming... we've been effectively working on it for a few weeks. Not a few months. We threw away all the stuff we'd planned and just said, “Let's make a list of what our customers like and make it.”

PCG: Do you have any plans to use the slogan “Winter is coming”? Because I imagine there will be absolutely no negative repercussions if you do.

KT: [Laughs] I see a lot of players using it. We're putting in a few nerfs, and I've seen “Winter is coming” pop up [in relation to them]. But then there's the other people who are playing the other ships who are like “No, no. This is summer.”

PCG: So why exactly did you think that virtual goods were something that EVE specifically – of all games – needed? I mean, EVE's not a garden variety MMO. So why try to shove a square peg into a round hole?

KT: I think it's just becoming such a common part of gaming. We see a lot of free-to-play games. A lot of other MMOs are free-to-play now. Virtual goods and character customization are just becoming very standard parts of gaming. And we thought that they'd kind of enrich the environment. And I think they could. The problem was that we were doing it for the first time, and it just didn't go as it well as it did for some companies who've been at this for years. We didn't have the experience to do it properly.

We screwed that up a bit, but we just see so many games where people react positively to being able to customize their character. We thought it'd be a natural fit for the Incarna expansion.

PCG: So you followed the crowd, basically. Is this a cautionary tale, then? Is it good example of why the gaming industry is headed down a dangerous road if it keeps sticking to “me-too” mechanics and ideas?

KT: I think for us, the devil was in the details. Like, we're doing Dust, the shooter. And one of the things that's really apparent for us is that we've benefitted from having EVE people come work on it. But also, we've brought on FPS people, because building an FPS – if you're used to making a slow-paced space MMO – is a massive challenge.

We might have taken it a bit too lightly with the virtual goods [in EVE proper], because it's actually the same. If you don't know how to do virtual goods well, you have people who are kind of just guessing. And, of course, we had surveys made and we talked to some people; we kind of tried to bring people in. But at the end of the day, I don't think virtual goods are inherently bad. I just don't think we did the implementation well enough.

PCG: That seems to be a common trend with hardcore gamers, though – this hostility and cynicism toward the idea of virtual goods. And obviously, the fear of “pay-to-win” schemes bleeding them dry is a big part of it. But it seems to run even deeper than that. Why do you think they're so afraid to spend real money in these virtual worlds they otherwise value – in some ways – more than real life?

KT: I think a lot of it comes from expecting to pay for something that's otherwise free. I think it seems like that very much when you're a player, although a lot of this stuff wouldn't actually exist if we didn't have a revenue stream to make it. So, when you have people that do clothing and all that stuff, you don't hire them because you have an abundance of money. You hire them because you're hoping that will keep itself running. And I think a lot of players expect that clothing would be made free, but the truth is that the five-to-ten artists you hire for this actually get paid through [virtual goods sales].

I think some people also feel that the subscription is enough. Even though buying virtual goods is strictly voluntary, they kind of feel like it's something they should be buying. And they've already spent their 15 bucks, so they're like “Why am I being forced to buy this?” I completely understand that sentiment. I think if people have complaints you should listen and respect their opinion.

PCG: For now you're cutting your losses and refocusing on ship content, but what about after things have settled down a little? Does the team still believe EVE can – and should be – something more? Is this just a temporary re-focus?

KT: It's definitely not a temporary re-focusing. If I were to give an example – and I'm just making up the numbers here – we imagine that 80 percent of the guys working on EVE were working on Incarna and 20 percent were on flying in space, we swapped that around. The large majority of people are working on flying in space, and there's no real plan to change that.

We haven't taken people from the Dust team, of course, because they're developing that product. But it's an internal shift. Flying in space is the core of the product, and we realize that shouldn't just change. There's of course a small team working on Incarna, so at some point, it'll have a future. It just won't be the overwhelming focus of our development.

What we want to bring is lifetime to EVE. At some point... like in World of Warcraft, how long can you keep stacking levels? Or, for EVE, how long can you keep producing spaceship content that's interesting? So inherently, I don't think that Incarna is at all bad. It just gets us the depth and quality we really want out of the game. I think it'll be good at some point, but right now, the realization is that it needs be on the backburner to give players what they want.

PCG: So, in essence, you asked players to take a leap of faith. They not-so-politely declined. A lot of developers, though, can get away with that based on past accomplishments alone. Like, take Valve, for instance. Players will say, “Man, I'm not so sure about this... but it's Valve, so it'll probably rock anyway.” Why didn't your fans give you that kind of creative leeway?

KT: I think it's because we screwed up. There are a lot of players that don't trust us in the community. For some of them, I'd say I disagree. But for some of them, I'd say they're right. I mean, we haven't been delivering the stuff we've been promising players. So, if anything, I hope we can regain some of the trust by doing all the spaceship stuff.

You know, there are some people who said, “We'll be quiet and trust you guys and give you whatever time you need to make Incarna good when it comes out.” And it wasn't. So there aren't any illusions at CCP that we've been delivering what we want to.

PCG: Ultimately, though, is your goal to bring EVE – the main game, not just Dust – to as many people as possible?

KT: I don't know if that's a goal, but I think if you ask any game developer “Is it your goal to have people play your game,” [they'll absolutely say yes]. But there's not a stated goal to just get as many people into EVE as possible.

PCG: Seeing as Dust is sort of a side door into the EVE universe, do you think there's a contingent of EVE fans that fear an onslaught of “unwashed masses” dirtying up their perfect space paradise?

KT: Absolutely. It has the same type of “outside-of-my-comfort zone” issues that Incarna has – maybe even more, because you have all these people that are perceived to be completely different. You see people on the forums going “Well, I don't want some 14-year-old kid who plays on a console to ruin our game.”

I think it's probably kind of unjustified. I mean, I know for a lot of players – like myself – when I get home, I have a desktop with all my PC games. But I also play Facebook games and games on my phone. I also have a PS3. I play tabletop games. So the notion that someone is either a PC player or a PS3 player is a little bit ridiculous.

Like, “Oh, we're gonna have an influx of strangers and they're gonna destroy our game” – I think it's a bit ridiculous. Cross-platform, cross-genre, I bet that a lot of people are going to play both games. At the end of the day, we kind of need them to tie them together. So they play the games together. And that will hopefully come through features that will make them mutually beneficial for each other.

PCG: Sure. And it's simple to break it down into “Nah, there's no such thing as console or PC gamers; we all just play games.” But the issue – as I see it – is that EVE is a type of game that very much typifies PC gaming as it is now. That is to say, it's very complex, in-depth, and slower-paced. Dust, meanwhile, is a rootin', tootin', 'splodin' shooter. Whether correct or not, that lumps it in with games like Call of Duty. So there's this natural night-and-day opposition there. That in mind, is making a shooter such a good idea?

KT: On one hand, I think you're right. I mean, Dust is gonna have some instant gratification. If you want to play Dust for 15 minutes, you can go on, do some random matchmaking, and just play. But we're really hoping to build a new tier of competitive gaming. I mean, people in EVE Online feel hardcore, but if you've seen a top-tier FPS player, they're not f***ing around either. They're really good at it. We hope we can bring those guys in.

So a lot of the similarity isn't really in whether it's complex or simple, it's that EVE is a game people take really, really seriously. And I don't think there's that much of a difference between hardcore EVE players and hardcore FPS players in terms of how much time and effort they put into it. So the EVE players may not like the kind of casual guys, but I think a lot of the hardcore EVE players will bond with hardcore console players in terms of reaching goals together. I think it'll turn out all right.

PCG: What's the current status on Dust? Are there plans for an open beta any time soon? Where is it in terms of nearing public release?

KT: So it's pretty far ahead. We just had an internal competition in all the offices where we played Dust for a week, and everyone had 15-man teams. Of course, my team won [laughs]. It's pretty far along. The basic run-around shooty functionality is in. Our beta is gonna be this winter. EVE players will have first dibs on it. And then, sometime next year, we're gonna ship it when it's done.

So we're starting with the beta this winter, and then we'll hopefully keep it going until it's actually release ready. And then we'll just go. And we have a long list of features we want to put in after it's out as well. We're gonna keep marrying [EVE and Dust] post-launch.

PCG: Anything new happening with World of Darkness at the moment?

KT: No. That's kind of on the backburner in favor of the other two games. I mean, development's still going on. But EVE's EVE, and we'll just keep doing that. And Dust is getting so close to open beta that it's kind of our big focus right now. But we're still doing World of Darkness.

PCG: So, Star Wars: The Old Republic's about to use Force Subscription Fee on PC gamers the world over, and – after all the money EA pumped into it – I imagine it actually is EA's only hope. Meanwhile, WoW and Rift are built on a similar combat and quest formula. As someone who runs such an atypical MMO, is it disheartening to see the biggest kids on the block continue to rehash the same old ideas? Is the MMO genre in dire need of some creativity?

KT: Yeah, the MMO genre is horrifically boring. I used to play a lot of different MMOs. Like, if anything came out, I'd play it. Today, I can't really be bothered. Like, when I look at the first MMOs I played, those are the three most different ones I've ever played. I started out playing Ultima Online, then EverQuest and Asheron's Call. They're all so radically different. Back then, you tried to do something else. And now it's kind of just become the same stale type of MMO.

I like the different ones. I'm a big fan of Planetside. I can't wait for the new one. For all the crap SOE takes sometimes, if you look at how different they are – you know, you had the old EverQuest games, you have Planetside, you have Pirates of the Burning Sea. They have a lot of different kinds of projects that are really interesting. I'm really looking forward to Planetside 2. I'm a massive fan of Darkfall. That's the game I'd play if I had time.

So I can't really pick up the level 1-50 games. I just can't do it. I've been through it too many times, and I really hope that there's gonna be some change or some revolution. That's one of the things that I liked about World of Darkness. We had a nice internal test and I sat down and said, “The only thing I don't want is to play WoW.” I played for three hours and I came away having played something completely different. That was wonderful. So let's hope there's a few titles before World of Darkness, because I'm getting a bit bored of the same-old, same-old. I hope something happens. Definitely.

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