At the recent EVE Fanfest, PC Gamer had the opportunity to sit down with CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, who since the company's founding has been something of a presiding spirit over EVE Online. Pétursson has helmed CCP through good times and bad, contraction and expansion, but from the outside this looks like a time of rude health for CCP and EVE, with this Fanfest seeing the announcement of new FPS EVE Vanguard alongside the Havoc expansion and a new mobile title. We began with the shooter, before branching out into everything else.
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: I think we have been very open about all this. There are names like Phoenix, Legion, Nova, Dust… I think that's it. And we like naming things [laughs] you could say this is all the same thing. The idea is boots on the ground, but we have tried many ways to find the thing that really fits. And we believe we have it now, Vanguard's coming in December but the journey to get to that was not a straight line. With the players in First Strike [the Vanguard public test] we'll get a lot of feedback for that, then continue for decades to come.
It's obviously a vision CCP is committed to, what have you got wrong in the past that Vanguard will hopefully get right?
Pétursson: I think maybe the large lesson is the initial scope: making a AAA FPS with great gameplay, graphics and scope at the same time is a lot, it's a lot to do. People have set some high bars when it comes to all that. So this idea of starting more focused when it comes to scope, and development alongside the community, is a unique path to take in in a very competitive space. That has informed a lot of what goes into Vanguard. It doesn't have to be all things to all people. It just has to do what it's aiming to do very well. And then we expand from that with the community.
Obviously, we've been developing with the community for decades. But just looking at Baldur's Gate 3, for example, they've done a great job of demonstrating the power of that approach. And I think it's very validating that they're coming with such a fantastic game after three years of Early Access, that has bolstered our confidence in this being a great path to fully realize this ambition of boots on the ground.
What's the importance of the new Carbon Engine to EVE and CCP's projects more widely, when your latest announcements are on third party engines?
Pétursson: Yeah, so when you make a game, and then you make another game, and then make more games, you start to notice some of the things you're always doing again and again. An engine is born from this idea. Unreal Engine is a good example; here are generic pieces of code people can use and build on and we are using Unreal to make Vanguard. Carbon is similar but a bit different from Unreal because it's more focused on spaceships, space, massive scale and MMO tech and stuff like that. But in principle, it's a similar thing. So Unreal for Vanguard, Carbon for EVE, Unity for [mobile game] Galaxy Conquest. It's absolutely choosing the right tool for the job but also the right tools for the place: there are more Unity developers in China than Unreal developers [Galaxy Conquest is being developed by CCP Shanghai]. London I don't know if there's a ratio, but there are plenty of Unreal developers in the UK [Vanguard is being developed by CCP London].
What did you think of the recent Unity mess over pricing and the company having to walk it back?
Pétursson: I think it's very unfortunate. I think some of my good friends in the industry came out and shared a similar sentiment, it seemed a clumsy way to communicate the plan. The thing itself didn't seem that important, since they changed it. So it really seems to have been the communication over what this is, even if this plan is the final version, it's unclear. I have not been able to fully pay attention because of Fanfest and whatnot, but I saw the backtracking so they have got the message. I think this is a case of unfortunate communication that has caused a lot of anxiety, and a loss of trust.
The cheers during the Fanfest keynote are never where I expect: this time the biggest one seemed to be sparked by changes to corporate bureaucracy in EVE. Why did that get such a reaction?
Pétursson: Operating an MMO is a little bit like operating a city, and imagine how a little thing in your city life can really frustrate you. Like, it really frustrates me that I can't use my bank card everywhere, and okay I use it on the trains and the tube in London but if the trains go a little too far, then I need different tickets and whatnot. Why can't I use the same card? It's very frustrating even if it's a small thing. You look at it and think 'why can't you just talk to each other and fix this?' So if the Mayor of London announced "Now you can tap in everywhere" it would release a massive frustration, even if many people in the UK think it's not touching their lives.
So to go back to EVE, when you run an organization there are a lot of micromanagement tasks you have to do. So every time you take that frustration away, there are big cheers because people feel immediate value to their life in the game. When you look at something that is a new thing, the reaction is more "Oh that's cool." But with a change like this, it's "Man, I'm so happy: You took the pain away." It's that list of frustrations that gets the biggest cheers [when you fix them], it's always been the case with EVE.
Much mainstream EVE coverage focuses on the big fights. What's the stuff that doesn't get noticed but is equally consequential?
Pétursson: I think what that doesn't get enough press is that often there are corporate heists and betrayals and things like that, and if they happen every few years they get massive press. But the story is actually every single day that it's not happening. In a game where there is a massive upside in scamming and backstabbing people are behaving and, when they don't, it's news. That is the story behind the story.
It's interesting to hear EVE players characterized as behaving themselves, because from the outside that doesn't appear to be the case at all.
Pétursson: It is a game about collective group warfare, great fights, and death and destruction. And I'm sure as you walk the halls here, you'll see EVE players are some of the most well-adjusted and nice people because they seem to air their frustrations out in EVE Online. And there's more well-adjusted people on planet Earth as a consequence. I would worry more about the people that have no outlet because EVE players get their grievances squared in space and leave the violence on the screen.
There was an incident in EVE this year where players collectively decided to take down a Keepstar, and formed some alliances you wouldn't expect in order to do this. They decided to destroy something CCP had put in the game because they didn't like it. What do you think of things like that, where the players are essentially saying the game got this wrong?
Pétursson: I mean, we in many ways agree with them. This particular [structure] is, I don't know, a little bit like an offshore island or something, a tax haven, which is not exact but I'm trying to express it in language people can understand. So here's an offshore island where people are doing things you don't agree with. The fact that you can just go and take it down is a very high amount of agency. And the players colluded together to express their scorn, their opinion, and that's a beautiful thing when people are cleaning out the sandbox on their own.
That's something that didn't work out. What's been the most pleasing success for CCP in recent times with EVE?
Pétursson: It was a big bet on our part to deliver all these changes to faction warfare in recent expansions, which was done under this banner of 'Future of War', and it was a big hypothesis on our end: we are going to improve the tools of waging war through faction warfare, which is kind of like a play fight between the Empires. And we're doing things within that like frontlines and corruption and whatnot.
There was a controversy within the company and within the player community, people saying 'nobody does faction warfare why are you doing faction warfare when there are more important things'. And then as the guys were showing in the data during the keynote, it's been thoroughly embraced and the amount of engagement and fights and all that was very high, the highest we've seen and the year isn't even over. That was a great relief that faction warfare is doing well, and now we're doubling down on it with the corruption mechanic, and all of this, while we do it, will create better tools to organize warfare overall. And eventually, we'll open up these new tools to the alliances to play around with, maybe not the exact same tools but tools inspired by the learnings we're getting from this. That has been very rewarding to see, this big and somewhat controversial change pan out well.
I spoke to someone who's been playing EVE for 21 years, since the second beta when he was a teenager. One of the remarkable things about it was how he related his life, the difficulties and successes he's had over that time, to EVE Online and the things he's learned through the game. Do you often hear such stories?
Pétursson: Yeah we hear them a lot. And they feel, I would say, validating? I believe it is a good thing, and playing EVE Online brings people good things. And the research we've done into the friendships in EVE shows concretely that EVE players have made a lot of new friends, even to the point where the average EVE player has more friends than the average person on planet Earth. As a consequence we have these stories where people have mastered themselves, learned skills, and had success in their professional or personal life.
And I fundamentally believe that a game that doesn't cuddle you but is brutally punishing develops grit in people, and grit is a valuable skill. Anything that develops grit is a good thing and just imagine developing EVE Online requires a certain type of grit. So this might be sort of self-aggrandising [laughs] but I believe EVE is a good thing and benefits the world. And every time I see stories and anecdotes and data that supports that, it increases our purpose in terms of EVE's worth to play, so it's worthwhile to spend our lives taking care of it.
EVE had a massive Russian player base, but the war in Ukraine has meant you can no longer sell subscriptions there. I know the immediate impact was a jump in PLEX prices [an in-game item that can be used for subscription time]. What wider effects have you seen on New Eden?
Pétursson: Well, some went away. But we are not taking the stance of banning Russian players from playing, and the game ultimately is free-to-play. Obviously we do not accept any payments from Russia, we are implementing all aspects of the sanctions as painful as it is. And it does affect us as a business even if it's the right thing to do.
But… life finds a way. I think the overall dynamics haven't changed that much. And we generally believe it's better that everyone gets to believe, regardless of where they come from, that they're at least connecting to all the people on planet Earth. And how can that be a bad thing? It doesn't make any sense to me that it helps to disconnect. People in Russia might not be really directly involved in anything, so why is it a good thing to disconnect them from the world? I would rather have them play EVE and learn about the world through different eyes. We believe strongly in that. And you don't have to pay to play the game, it does certainly help but you can play it without pain.
As far as the politics certainly there were many beautiful moments with people in EVE protecting what they knew to be Ukrainian assets inside EVE Online when Ukraine frankly just didn't have an internet connection. And there were many very complicated stories inside CCP like we have people from Russia and Ukraine, Ukrainians from Russia and whatnot, we had all flavours of heightened impact on top of just what we all felt in the world. I think the political situation within EVE itself often has a lot more to do with what's going on in EVE than what's going on in the real world.
The Chinese Communist Party is having an ongoing crackdown on all areas of tech, and we've seen big MMO companies like Blizzard have troubles there: have you felt any impact?
Pétursson: No, not really. I mean, we changed publishing partners in 2018 or 19—actually, we're on our third publisher now in China. It was a bit of a challenge to get a new publishing license, but that was mainly due to the internal organization of the process by which China does the licenses, and we got the license eventually. And our Chinese publisher has been great to work with. There are rules about things you can do in China, but there are also rules about things you do everywhere in the world: Germany has content rules, the UK has content rules, age ratings, and so on. There are rules you have to operate under everywhere, and China generally hasn't been a problem. I mean, obviously, we are operating a separate server in China. It would be nice if everyone was just playing together but that's how they want to organize things. And that's fine. I mean, China alone is bigger than Europe plus the US.
The unique selling point of EVE is it's a single shard MMO, but now thanks to EVE China you've seen two shards develop separately. Can you speak to the differences between EVE Online and Eve China and how they've developed over time?
Pétursson: There are two things I would bring up. First is that China's one timezone so the shape of the play is a lot different. With [EVE Online server] Tranquillity the whole world is playing so there is ebb and flow in concurrent users, but it's way more exaggerated in China. EVE is kind of organized around the fact that the sun moves around the Earth. So a big part of gameplay is covering timezones. Obviously, that is not the case in China as much, it's very clear how the ebb and flow is even more exaggerated.
Then EVE has this War of the Worlds aspect, but it's all different cultures around the world coming together. And there's a lot of cultural clashing, where some of the alliances in EVE Online have cultures that originate from the leaders or from the majority of players. And that is fertile ground for conflict generation. China is one country so there's less of that kind of a thing.
Then there is maybe a third aspect I would bring in, which is that in EVE there is this tendency where everyone wants to have their own Corp and their own Alliance. And there's a more sort of individualism, and you can have your own values in Texas on collectivism versus individualism, but in China it is more collectivist. So there's this element on the China server: there's one very dominant Alliance. And there is this tendency that people want to align with the strong instead of being an upstart and trying to topple the establishment.
So they haven't had something like their Goonswarm moment, basically.
Pétursson: Yeah or their Goons are dominant to a place where they've become the collective. So there is one very dominant Alliance in China that creates very different dynamics than in Tranquillity.
Last time we spoke I asked about my dream for the old folks' home: I want a full immersion EVE bodysuit with a food and waste pipe, then I will say goodbye to the world and my failing body with good cheer and spend my dying days in New Eden. You promised me this Hilmar, but I'm getting older and you haven't done it.
Pétursson: How long have I got?
Thirty years? If I'm lucky?
Pétursson: [laughs] OK, you got it.