EVE Online's director has a simple message for its players: 'Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war!'

EVE Online director Snorri Arnason.
(Image credit: CCP Games)

At EVE Fanfest PC Gamer had the chance to sit down with EVE Online's game director Snorri Árnason, for a wide-ranging conversation about where the game has been in recent years and where it's going. We began by talking about Dust 514 in the context of the upcoming EVE Vanguard, with Árnason lamenting that the former was ever a console exclusive ("if we had been on PC it would literally still be alive"), before moving on to EVE more broadly: and especially the game's remarkable and resourceful players.

PC Gamer: The last time I visited CCP it was around the time that World of Darkness was canceled, and CCP's CEO Hilmar Pétursson said something I found pretty remarkable: that CCP had, essentially, realised it was not a game studio, but an EVE studio. Is that still the case?

Snorri Árnason, game director: I would say I think it was maybe four years ago, more or less, where we said, okay, this is the final straw. If I remember correctly it was part of an exploration phase for how to evolve Nova [a canceled EVE-linked FPS]. Is it another IP? Do we actually branch out of EVE? Is this the time now? And I think we ended up in a place that was: 'no, we lean into this. For us everything is about EVE Online or New Eden.' That's the universe, so we tap into it, we're true to it, and it doesn't all have to fit completely narratively, but that's what we do, that's what we know. And when we deepen that it's a force multiplier across everything. When you add for example a new faction into EVE, it deepens everything. So I think that's 100%. I know we were in that place six or seven years ago of 'we need another IP we need to broaden'. But we've decided we don't, and EVE is our strength.

What does EVE have over other virtual worlds that keeps it vibrant enough to say that 20 years after launch?

Árnason: Many of them have a silliness. That doesn't appeal to me, I'm into authenticity, I'm a Lord of the Rings type. The worlds that make sense and have a lot of things that make sense. It can be funny but if it's true to itself then that works. But if it's too silly, if it's a joke, I start to reject it: I want serious, authentic worlds like Blade Runner, those kinds of things. EVE has the militaristic part and I am an enthusiast historian, I love studying tactics. Battlefield 1942 was a game where I thought 'Jesus, this is the ultimate game, I will never play a better game' because it had everything: realistic, authentic, and played well.

In many MMOs you don't really have a strong DNA necessarily and you start having people on rocket skates and steampunk and I lose interest. I played a shitload of Diablo 2 back in the day, I fell in love with Demon's Souls, Dark Souls played all those games. I like the mood, and the NPCs convey what they feel: they don't have to tell me all their life stories. That appeals to me. And I'm so done with delivering an item for a story, you know, you go to a city to advance the storyline: I don't want to. I just don't want to deliver anything for anyone. I just want to do what I like doing.

"When the enemy shows up with something new, you have to specialise in preventing that. You don't just hope they'll stop doing it."

Snorri Árnason

EVE has its backstory of course but you're not really telling players what to do, they create the narrative. It must be an odd thing to design for: you're creating circumstances for things to happen rather than designing missions. How do you approach that?

Árnason: You really have to lean into it. One of the things with EVE is we give players tools to deal with their own problems. Just be bold, because you won't know whether you will solve it or not. But that's the angle you start from. I remember one thing when I was pretty new in [my role on] EVE, four or five years ago: AFK cloaking.

[Note: AFK cloaking was an issue in EVE whereby players in trouble could log out and the game would automatically cloak their ship so it could not be destroyed. It seemed a mechanic intended to allow players to explore space over multiple sessions without returning to base, but the players found a way to exploit it in fights.]

When I joined I wrote up a manifesto asking just what's happening right now? What are the things people don't like? And there's still stuff on that list that hasn't been fixed yet. But one of those things was cloaking was always on the reddit front page, it was in every community sentiment report, everywhere players saying 'I think cloaking is so unfair'. And solutions were always ban it, remove it, kick them, disconnect them, change the game doing it. So I said 'can we give someone else tools to find them when they're doing it?' So then players just solve it themselves.

That's been the mantra ever since: I don't like nerf cycles, the make it worse make it better kind of thing. I'm always thinking can we just give a new ship, a new thing that is meant to handle that. Like the military, you have a counter, they have very specific roles: recon, et cetera. And when the enemy shows up with something new, you have to specialise in preventing that. You don't just hope they'll stop doing it. You can't take that away from them. So that has been going pretty well, and we do trim and make soft improvements, but always try to find a natural comfort rather than the nerf. I'm hoping this is paying off a bit.

Richard Garriott when discussing Ultima Online often shares an anecdote about their dream of a natural ecosystem where rabbits would be hunted by foxes and so on, but then when players got in they just killed all the rabbits and foxes straightaway and they had to abandon that design. Do you ever encounter anything similar in EVE where you put something in and the players immediately screw it up for you?

Árnason: Yeah if you remember that thing where they effectively blockaded themselves by essentially tricking [NPC] faction agents—that is an easy example. We didn't expect that. We certainly hoped that players would like that, we gave them the agents to change the world. And we decided to see what would happen if they would do it.

We love that part. This was incredible, because it's what you want: there's no stake except to disrupt someone else's gameplay. That's a fundamental thing, is there a way for others to disrupt your activity? It's not about allowing ganking or something, but is there a way that other people can affect your gameplay adversely or positively and that's also a design thing. There's been some delicate design decisions about things like non-instancing and instancing. And I think we've probably got a happy medium, even if that clashes a bit because you want to design a fun dungeon where someone doesn't just kill the boss all the time and gank or steal your loot, so how do you do those together? That's the craftiness that's required.

(Image credit: CCP)

The first time I went into nullsec I got instantly bubbled, blown up, then the group apologised, politely called me a noob, gave me some ISK to replace the ship, and let me leave in my pod.

Árnason: That's fun! And in World of Warcraft you might have something the same, okay, I'm going from Wetlands to Blasted Lands and there's obviously something in the tone, the feeling, the enemies, it all feels worse, more danger. So there should be a tone to it that's scarier for sure. But going back to your question on giving players tools. It's just in the agility of responding: we have a tendency to overthink, worry too much about things instead of thinking about what's a really good practical solution? Let's see if it works. Don't worry about pulling it back. It's okay. I think that's overthinking and then you have the fear of pulling back because you think you failed, but I think that's the best way to manage it, give people tools.

EVE has its own fansites and forums but when you get to the more mainstream coverage it always tends to be the big battles, for obvious reasons: it's instantly interesting to read about lots of Titans being blown up and how much ISK was lost. What's the stuff that goes on you find most interesting in EVE players' behaviour that doesn't really get picked up by the press?

Árnason: Fundamentally it's the self-organisation. How corps manage themselves and how they set themselves up. It's just so practically hard often, because you're wrangling people in different time zones and that to me is the true EVE enigma: how does this happen? This is a long anecdote but I met three guys on the pub crawl [EVE Fanfest has a CCP-sponsored pub crawl around Reykjavik]. You will never meet more different people, and just hanging around together and they were telling me about how they had been evicted from their little place in null and they had to flee back to highsec, now they're building stealth bombers inside highsec secretly and trying to recruit new players to go back and get revenge. That was the only thing they were thinking about for nine months, they just want to get them, and they're gonna build and train a team to do this.

Those small stories that require people on Discord and creating excel sheets just to manage it. We're trying to pull all that in to make those stories happen more, because all of those little stories end up being the catalyst for a big battle: all that small stuff led to something. It's a double-edged sword to have the big battles because I almost want not to have them. I prefer a group of events, or multiple fronts into the fighting. But these single massive events are a strength and a weakness because it's better if we can distribute the load, because it's just a better experience for players and it's not fun enough to be in tidi [EVE handles huge fights by slowing down time's progression for all players up to 10X, which is called time dilation or tidi]. So how can we solve that but still have a great battle?

"Loads of people have military backgrounds in EVE. I even think it might be the hidden backbone."

Snorri Árnason

It's funny, I mentioned basically the brand identity is big battles, I was talking about how we can actually work with that more with the team. So, okay: we have big battles and what does that mean? How do we express the battles better ourselves? Because they're all self-reported. How can we put people into the action? How can we produce a non-tidi playthrough of the battle, a replay? How can we talk about the tactics that were happening but no one really noticed? For example no-one can understand what [a fleet commander] is doing in the middle of it. But can we look at them play-by-play? Explain what happened after: 'this is where that person reacted and called in a wing to take them down'? Those stories are super cool, but I don't think we get to know all of those small heroes in the big battles.

So I follow football and play football. Look at the postmatch coverage, the talking heads explaining what was good in this play, how did that team mess up? I would love to watch those kinds of things. The best we get is this community explaining some of those things that happen because they hear them through the grapevine. We hear from reddit about things like the Titan incident where something didn't work because the server crashed so they lost the Titans, and I'd like to know who were they? What were they trying to do? In that case they were actually trying to bait someone by doing this and then I realised, okay, that was a cool gambit. That's awesome. Hearing those stories makes you realise this is so much more complex than we expect.

And you mentioned the military background [of a player who was a Fleet Commander]: loads of people have military backgrounds in EVE. I even think it might be the hidden backbone of a lot of professions. In that level of self-organisation: you have your plan, you have camps, you have patrols, there is a military person definitely in most big corporations as far as I know.

A fleet of EVE Online spaceships in warp.

(Image credit: CCP Games)

Funny old game

Does CCP have an ambition to communicate those things more effectively itself and how?

Árnason: I want to solve it through the community. I would love to be able to let players download battles 24 hours later in some kind of format that they can use to do a timeline out of it. They can watch a replay of the battle, work out coordinates… let's see what they do. The players are better than us for this and have all kinds of skills we don't. So give them the assets, let them actually render the battles in full res with the ships, then you're just playing through that and have a floating camera or whatever. Now we can see the battle at real speed, and that is where I want to go. So does this go through the API? Do we provide all battles just as a downloadable thing? Let's just start doing it.

This is literally something that I've been talking about all year, especially in how it would make the Alliance Tournament [a yearly competitive event] more exciting as well. Give them more tools. But fundamentally also just more visibility on killmails: we have the actual data so we just give some of that data out or make it accessible to content makers, for example. And we'll see what people do then. I think that's the only way, and we can do that, so I'm trying to find a solution where we empower people

Imagine if you had a replay of a battle and ask the [Fleet Commander] on both sides to show up for a stream. You just duke it out and have fun with it or maybe, you know, there's a lot of emotions. It's like a post match interview: 'yeah, we messed up, we can do better.' The football coach saying 'the lads played well', you know?

"Havoc is basically asking what happens when you introduce chaos to an already chaotic experience."

Snorri Árnason

The new expansion's called Havoc and the big thing is adding a third group to these big two-sided faction warfare battles. I guess the clue's in the name for what you expect?

Árnason: It's a name where we all thought, yes, that's pretty cool: I reference that saying "cry havoc, let loose the dogs of war". That's my favourite line, and it just felt relevant. But we were also just trying to create an emotion. So Havoc is basically asking what happens when you introduce chaos to an already chaotic experience: the frontlines are always fighting, they've never been more active since 2008 [when Faction Warfare was added to EVE]. So chaos within chaos. This is a good start. But also the motives of the Deathless [the expansion's central character] is something that we talked about: he's not after golden glory. He's more about the anarchy, he just wants to see the world burn.

What's some piece of player behaviour from the last year that made you think "yeah, we got that part of the design right"?

Árnason: We hoped the faction warfare [overhaul in the most recent expansions] would work. It's meant to be the battleground that's the intersection between highsec and lowsec and nullsec. It's the scary place. It's a perfect place to start doing PvP, 'consensual' PvP if you like, to take part and enlist and be a part of something while you grow to become an actual capsuleer. So I've always thought it was a perfect place to do experiments and be the breeding ground and recruiting ground for capsuleers for nullsec, and corporations overall. So I'm just super happy that it worked, because we didn't know if maybe everyone would be saying "Yeah, who cares?"

So the team delivered something super cool, a new engine of war, this frontlines concept, which is fun, and has become the vehicle of change for 10 years to come. That's how we want to change how wars are fought, how you resource them, how you provide logistics, how you strengthen, move, because we can move away from that single battle into whole fronts, and I think that's very appealing. It's a super interesting thing to take players out of highsec into nullsec and make this eternal tug-of-war way more interesting. It just came together, and people are loving it.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."