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As ‘Eve Online’ heads toward decade two, CCP talks about the future

EVE Online Odyssey

EVE Online is the most amazing game the majority of gamers have never played.

Halldor Fannar CCP Games

Halldor Fannar, CTO of CCP Games

In a massively multiplayer online gaming space that is frequently built out around the concept of expansion rather than innovation, CCP Games’ dizzyingly complex, shared universe stands out as a notable point of interest. The game is about to wrap up its tenth year of existence and its popularity has reached an all-time high. At a time when you’d expect EVE to be winding down as CCP starts considering how to sequelize its hit, the opposite is happening: there’s a sense at the end of decade one that the plans for decade two are intended to take things even further.

CCP’s free-to-play PlayStation 3-exclusive first-person shooter Dust 514 crossed over into open beta in January 2013 after spending much of 2012 in closed beta. Even now the developer continues to draw points of connection between its boots-on-the-ground approach and the parent MMO’s universe of corporate intrigue and high-level planning. The first major expansion for Dust 514 is due out on My 6, which will only strengthen the relationships between the two game. EVE shows no signs of slowing down either: Odyssey, the first of two annual, completely free expansion packs arrives on June 4, and the subscriber count just hit 500,000 in January 2013, the highest it has ever been.

Dust 514 Uprising

So far decade two is looking bright for the 10 year old franchise. Part of that comes from the growing scale of the game(s), but equally important is how CCP’s leadership understands the fundamentals of what brings people to EVE.

“It’s pretty obvious that people are drawn toward the large-scale interaction of being a part of  [our universe]. Just being able to say, ‘I was there when that big thing happened.’ That’s our value proposition,” CCP chief technology officer Halldor Fannar tells Digital Trends.

That basic level of understanding about what people gravitate to in its games helped CCP’s assorted developers understand both where and how Dust 514‘s dramatically different approach to gameplay fit into the larger MMO landscape that it created.

eve-online-main“We always knew that we would have to provide a core shooter [in Dust 514] that was fully competitive, felt good, good framerate, and delivered the basics of what people are expecting. It’s a pretty competitive landscape,” Fannar explains. “Our whole thinking is that once they’re comfortable with those mechanics… then they realize the depth. There’s all this generation of content happening [authored] by other people. We’re hoping that [Dust 514 players] get the sense that this really matters. We want to slowly introduce… the first-person shooter crowd to battles that have a bigger blast radius.””We need it to be a gateway. It can’t be a firehose where we introduce all this complexity. It’s just too much.”

“…a portion of playing this game is actually outside of the game.”

The coming Uprising expansion for Dust injects a little bit more of the aforementioned complexity. When the game that launched it set some basic ideas in motion, giving players on both the FPS side and on the MMORPG side the tools that they needed to interact with one another. This translated to everything from corporation-sponsored in-game contracts to mid-match orbital bombardments. There’s a staggering amount of cross-platform communication involved here, on a scale that the console space just hasn’t seen before.

We’ve reached a point now where Dust players can join up with an EVE alliance or even create a shared corporation in partnership with a dedicated EVE player. This is where CCP sees an all-important point of connection being established.

Dust 514 Battle for Caldari Prime

“You start reading the special forums that our players have built for their corporations,” Fannar says of Dust players who start to investigate this wider virtual world. “You realize that a portion of playing this game is actually outside of the game. That’s always been a big part of EVE. It’s incredibly important to create those bonds and get them talking to each other.”

Uprising attempts to improve the challenge of improving the Dust 514 experience on two fronts. On one side is CCP’s push to make everything matter that much more for the players. Orbital bombardment and the potential to form alliances are a nod in the right direction, but the DLC update also introduces some functional enhancements such as an improved map interface that gives players a better sense of the wider universe and newly simplified to armor and skill management.

“The console is interesting in the sense that it’s a clearer break [from one generation to the next]. There’s definitely a completely new set of hardware.”

The second goal of Uprising is to improve the overall presentation in Dust. On the player side, that means updated looks and improved textures for character models. Battles will also now play out in a wider range of environments, with each map informed by the EVE planet that the battle is unfolding on. Foliage, atmosphere, weather effects, and day/night cycles are all components of the graphics-oriented improvements. Enhancing an existing product with new tech is something that CCP is uniquely skilled in, thanks to the way EVE has grown over the past decade.

“We’ve actually gone through some pretty radical transformations on the technology through [EVE‘s first] 10 years,” Fannar explains. The PC MMO has transitioned over time from DirectX 9 to DirectX 11, which CCP has up and running in-house. “Those are sea changes in terms of the technology. So we already have experience with actually moving from, effectively, one platform to another.”

EVE Online big battle

CCP isn’t thinking ahead to future console generations yet, at least as far as what they’re telling the public, but the PC upgrade path that the studio has followed with EVE has just as much bearing on the future of Dust beyond this Uprising expansion.

“The console is interesting in the sense that it’s a clearer break [from one generation to the next]. There’s definitely a completely new set of hardware. Whereas on the PC we’ve had to thread an even more difficult path where some people have the old and some people have the new,” Fannar explains. “We have experience with actually maintaining two versions of the game at the same time. So if it comes to that, we’re ready to do it. But we’re going to see how things evolve. We believe that having a free-to-play game on PlayStation 3 at this time is great.”

EVE Online confusion

Sitting across the aisle from Uprising is Odyssey, the first of two annual updates that are coming to EVE Online. The two-updates-per-year strategy is nothing new for CCP, at least with regards to EVE. The hope with Dust is that the dev team can eventually start putting out even more than that on the console side, though only Uprising is confirmed for now. CCP isn’t saying a whole lot about Odyssey at this point, saving bigger reveals for this month’s sold out EVE Fanfest, an annual gathering in Iceland that sees prominent players sitting down with CCP team members to talk and learn from one another.

The big goal with Odyssey is to bring EVE Online back to its basics and begin carving a path into the game’s second decade of life. It’s a first step toward something bigger, perhaps something more accessible. A step away from the “spreadsheets in space” characterization that has dogged EVE for most of its life. In the simplest terms, this involves building a graphical interface around existing systems. Creating a point of entry that even a newcomer can understand, simply by looking at it.

Eve OnlineThere’s more as well. Odyssey rebalances the vast library of existing ships – while adding an assortment of new ones – with the goal of making everything have some sort of purpose in the continually growing EVE Online universe. The thinking is that many of the older models and designs simply aren’t useful, so there’s a push to change that.  The presence of Dust as a living thing within the larger space is a factor as well. Fannar describes a possible scenario, an example that simultaneously speaks to the technical growth while demonstrating the unique qualities of the single-shard focus that so appeals to fans.

“In EVE, you will be able to fly close to a planet and notice that there are explosions on the surface of the planet [from a Dust 514 battle]. You may decide that there’s nothing there for you to investigate, but just to know that there are people on the PlayStation that are fighting down there? It just makes it so much cooler. Rather than it just being some sort NPC mechanic.”

Inferno_ThumbnailThis says nothing of CCP’s vision for the future of EVE Online. Specific plans will be revealed at a later date, but Fannar is well aware of the opportunities that exist in gaming. Not just with next-gen hardware either; tablets and other touchscreen devices introduce a range of new interface possibilities, and CCP is already considering what that might mean. 

“You’ll see more of that from us as the second decade kicks off,” CCP’s VP of business development Thor Gunnarsson tells us. “We’re just following our players where they are. At this point, it’s all about PS3 for us. It’s about really getting this experience nailed. It’s our first console game, we’re going to get it right. That’s our mission for PS3.”

Fannar grins and chimes in here. “Before we start spreading it out to other platforms.”