Richie Shoemaker flew over to attend Eve’s 20th anniversary celebrations in Iceland, to see how plans for the game’s everlasting afterlife were coming along.
Speak to any games journalist attending an Eve Fanfest for the first time – or after any number of times for that matter – and the consensus is that CCP Games isn’t your typical game developer.
The reason for the distinction is twofold. First, despite being a global studio with established outposts in London and Shanghai, the heart and soul of the company remains in Iceland. It’s a remote and friendly country that culturally and economically (and geologically) punches way above its weight. The other is that for all its incomplete or unsuccessful experiments over the years, CCP is utterly committed to ensuring that Eve Online persists. As the game settles into its third decade and as it was on the cusp of its second, the motto at this year’s Fanfest remained ‘Eve Forever’.
If you’ll forgive the ascent into strained metaphor; if games are like rocks flying through space that due to blind luck or divine intervention generate interest, then the most successful are the ones whose increasing mass make it more and more difficult for their creators to escape from. Not that every studio wants to leave its games behind, of course, but most would at least like to get above the clouds to see what’s out there.
The problem for MMOGs that is different from long established franchises (and I’ve just realised here’s where the metaphor burns up in the atmosphere), is that there comes a time when the popularity of a game wanes and there becomes an imperative to either turn things around or get the hell out before things collapse in on themselves (I should have gone with stars). It’s a stage that for most western studios – perhaps with the exception of Blizzard, which will no doubt be celebrating World of Warcraft’s 20th this time next year – CCP appear to have been phenomenally successful at staving off.
It’s hard to say what the secret formula is, but keeping Eve Online updated through regular updates and expansions has helped a great deal, not just with fixes and new features, but renovations that ensure that Eve looks far, far younger than its calendar age would suggest. This is a game, it should be pointed out, that went into full-scale beta a full-year before the first Call of Duty was even released.
MAKING IT SO
Part of the appeal of both Eve and CCP is the latter’s approach to development, which CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson has characterised as a form of janitorial oversight. It’s a Star Trek ‘Prime Directive’ approach, basically; to not become entangled in the machinations of the masses, and to only step in when there’s a breach of protocol or there’s a proverbial tear in the time-space continuum – i.e. something breaks (which for a game closing in on it’s 50th major update, isn’t entirely uncommon).
Less evident, though not entirely camouflaged, is the studio’s once-puppyish eagerness to please. This was characterised best of all by a feature for planetary flight that was demonstrated at the very first Eve Fanfest in 2004. Despite expressly saying it was created out of curiosity and shown for fun, for years the inability of Eve’s spaceships to wage war across mountains and seas was cited as evidence that CCP was failing to deliver, if not on what was promised than certainly on what was possible.
“We certainly had a tendency of announcing every single idea we had in our head and making PowerPoints for Fanfest and talking about it ad nauseam,” says Pétursson, putting it down to a collective form of imposter syndrome, where, because the studio from a different country had found success with a different game, CCP somehow felt they had to do everything else differently as well. “[These days] we have less of a need to yap about every single thing we are doing to somehow justify our existence.”
And yet, despite CCP being tighter-lipped, Fanfest is still the best place to yap, or rather, to listen in on the yapping of others. Curiously, the main forum for this isn’t the keynote stage or the panel discussions, but the Dev Pub Crawl, where small groups of players and developers head into the night and where the subject of EVE is always at the heart of every conversation. Tough questions are asked, honest answers are given, and because both have invariably been lubricated with alcohol, any uncomfortable or compromising truths usually dissipate by the morning.
FROM DUST TO DUST
In the group I was part of, there was a lot of talk (instigated by me, admittedly) around Vanguard, CCP’s second stab at adding a first-person shooter element to Eve Online. Dust 514 was the first. Released ten years ago, it was essentially CCP’s take on Battlefield and a game which allowed Eve players the dubious ability to fire blindly into planetary skirmishes. Despite being a ground-breaking game in that and other respects, it failed to find an audience large enough to sustain it, not least because it launched exclusively on PS3 three months after Sony had announced the PS4.
Vanguard has two things going for it that Dust 514 didn’t. One is that it’s bound for the evergreen PC, and the other is that it’s considerably less ambitious in terms of scale, being more recognisably an extraction shooter and not a battlefield simulator. The “module” (CCP is hesitant to call it a game), will be played between small fireteams or squads rather than platoons or companies (sans vehicles), with the aim to get in, find whatever it is your team needs, and get out. There will be a link to the main Eve game through something called ‘Frontline Corruption’ (a feature of Eve Online’s just-released Havoc expansion), with new content and interoperability promised for the future.
In short, after years of teasing a number of FPS projects (‘Legion’ in 2014, ‘Nova’ in 2016), Vanguard appears to be a safe bet, although Pétursson bristles at the suggestion that CCP is taking a more cautious approach. “More deliberate,” he says sternly.
WHEN WE AWAKE
Whether Vanguard succeeds in bolstering Eve’s player numbers for another five, ten or even twenty years, what Pétursson seems more interested in is much more long-term; ensuring the survival of an Eve universe that isn’t merely persistent, but perpetual. The apparent need to leave a legacy has facilitated the development of another internal project, dubbed ‘Awakening’. CCP has said next to nothing about it, only that the game will be separate from Eve, while being set in the same universe, “leveraging smart-contract blockchain technology”, and backed by $40 million of venture capital investment. In the announcement back in March, Pétursson talked about forging “a new universe deeply imbued with our expertise in player agency and autonomy, empowering players to engage in new ways.”
It’s not a game that many in the Eve community are excited by. Quite the opposite, it seems, which is why CCP is keen to make sure players know that Eve development resources have been ring fenced and nothing is being syphoned into Project Awakening’s development. It may have taken a backseat to AI over the last year, but blockchain games are still reported on in negative terms, so it’s easy to see why CCP are being very caut… deliberate about what it says. It all goes back to that demonstration of planetary flight almost 20 years ago. “We do have a lot of amazing ideas,” says Pétursson. “It just doesn’t help anyone to always put them on stage. That is not our job [to say] ‘Look how creative we are and how many amazing ideas we have’. We’re not a think-tank. We should deliver real products to people.”
NEW NEW EDEN?
My hunch (and it is just a hunch) is that Awakening is intended as an Eve sequel. Nothing so crude as an ‘Eve Online 2’ that will require the first game to be shuttered, but akin to a new galaxy that might exist simultaneously alongside the current New Eden reality, until such time as its population has either died out or migrated over. That being the case, given Pétursson’s interest in securing CCP’s legacy and New Eden’s longevity, Awakening must in some form be a continuation of Eve and a repository for all that’s been achieved, in-game(s) and out, over prior decades; recorded and tracked in perpetuity thanks to the possibilities of decentralised blockchain technology.
Assuming that’s what Project Awakening is conceptually about – and it’s a big if, of course – having a framework that might allow Eve to become a sci-fi universe that spans not just decades, but generations – perhaps even independent of CCP control – is genuinely thrilling even to a die-hard blockchain agnostic like me. It would mean that today’s in-game characters could attain the immortality the lore of the game allows for, maintained by the descendants of today’s players and embellished by their own endeavours.
Whether the great-grandchildren of today’s old Eve farts will be just as invested in the game is perhaps irrelevant. It’s about Eve attaining the characteristics of a virtual city state, one where CCP may have shaped the land, erected a few monuments and written the constitution, but where the players must learn to govern. Whatever your opinion of that as a workable concept – and regardless of how many Fanfests you’ve been to – you have to concede that CCP Games isn’t your typical game developer.