Interview: EVE Online's Kristoffer Touborg


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.