Longevity is a funny thing in the realm of video games. There’s always going to be an enthusiastic core that pines for retro play, but by and large, most games are fire-and-forget propositions. You come, you see, you conquer, you look to what’s coming out on the next week’s release calendar. Even service-based games operate under this principle. Call of Duty is a yearly exercise and most of the audience moves to the latest update, while the almost decade-old World of Warcraft is losing subscribers as new business models pop up to compete with its subscription requirements.
How then is CCP Games EVE Online still growing? The space-based MMORPG celebrates its 10th birthday today, and while the subscriber count of roughly 500,000 is nowhere near the 12+ million that played WoW at its peak, these are some dedicated fans. That half-million is also not alone in the game’s galaxy of New Eden; the PlayStation 3-exclusive free-to-play shooter Dust 514 caters to a different audience entirely, creating a new entry point into the established universe. In truth, EVE Online steps into decade number two in a stronger position than it has ever been.
“This is a game that is still growing, and it’s growing well. It’s defying the odds of what a subscription model game is supposed to do these days,” CCP Games Chief Marketing Officer David Reid tells us in a chat at EVE FanFest 2013. “A lot of what going into the second decade is about getting people to realize this is not some other game’s 10th anniversary where they’re mourning the days gone by. This is a moment of things are going to be bigger and better. Our best days and our best work are certainly in our future, not in our past.”
EVE Online on its own continues to keep up thanks to bi-annual updates that add new content, balance old content, and improve the overall technical execution. The updates are comparable in some ways to the sort of expansions that you’d see from competing MMOs, only they’re completely free in EVE. The launch of the Dust 514 open beta earlier this year took it a step further, with its focus on appealing to a different audience and its built-in gameplay connections to EVE.
“EVE is a hard game, it’s a complex game. There’s a lot to it. Not everybody that will be a member of the EVE universe ultimately wants that levels of complexity and intensity and depth. You see it in Dust,” Reid explains. You see people who are thrilled about Planetary Conquest, the meta-game [that connects to EVE Online]. Getting in there and building a corporation and mixing it up with EVE corporations and tinkering with what’s going on in Null sec.”
“Then you see guys show up who just want to shoot a couple guys in the head for 10 minutes. This is a world that needs to accomodate both of those players. How do you message those things to different groups if they’re all in the same place at the same time is exactly the interesting thing about the games as a service idea.”
Reid stresses the importance of not adding more complex mechanics just for the sake of it, a lesson that a much younger EVE Online would have done well to keep in mind. The game got bigger and it got harder, and it eventually reached a point where it was too much. With Dust, as you can see in things like today’s Uprising update, there’s a real push toward creating more of a pick-up-and-play experience for the players, while in the process also creating new hooks that peer into EVE broader take on New Eden.
EVE‘s second decade is bigger than the addition of a free-to-play hook for shooter fans. It’s a nice complement to what previously existed in New Eden, but CCP made it abundantly clear at this year’s FanFest that the next 10 years will be defined in large part by a push to bring the fiction to a wider audience. For the first time, third-party creative forces will have an opportunity to work with the IP, as evidenced by CCP’s new Dark Horse Comics partnership and the in-development TV series.
Thor Gunnarsson, CCP’s vice president of business development, sets the scene for how this new push toward other forms of media came about.
“It was at E3 last summer. Over the years we’ve taken some very expensive lunches in Hollywood. We get approached by people that want to option our IP and create films or TV. We decided last year [to] line up some meetings and go around, meet some companies that we respect, and creators,” he explains.
The pitch started off in a very straightforward manner: the CCP guys told those they were meeting with about EVE Online‘s science fiction setting and the video game that exists within it. It wasn’t working though. Raw description isn’t adequate for capturing the essence of a fictional universe that is built entirely on the concept of player-authored narratives. It was CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson who saved the day.
“He started riffing,” Gunnarsson says. “And he came up with this tagline [that answered the question of] what is EVE at its heart? It’s a collection of true stories set 20,000 years in the future.” The tagline survives, and it exists now to drive CCP’s multimedia push as the second decade dawns.
“Everything in EVE is driven by our players. It’s all made by our players. At that point you started to see people [we were meeting with] light up. We just started expanding on it, and explaining that core of what this game is. This actually resonates with people in adjacent media. They understand that this is something unique and faithful to the IP. Video game companies that have attempted to re-tell their stories in other media have not often succeeded, particularly in filmed entertainment. So we felt that we had to approach it differently.”
This is where the seed for what we now know as True Stories from the First Decade was planted. The actual idea came from Torfi Frans Olafsson – the former EVE Online creative director who now serves as CCP’s creative lead on the EVE universe as a whole – as an inspired response to one of the key issues that the studio has tried to crack over the past 10 years.
“One of the problems that we’ve always had… is what is the history of EVE Online? Who is empowered to tell that history? Not us. We can’t tell that history. But our players can,” Gunnarsson explains. “They’ve been doing it for years all over the Internet. If we can bring it together in one place and then have them tell us what the best stories are, and then take that forward into other media… that was a concept that we just loved.”
Now that True Stories is established, CCP has an ever-growing library of player-provided narratives to draw from for the coming comic book and TV series projects. It’s still early days for these projects, but a few of the important details have been mapped out already. You won’t see any direct translations, for one. Gunnarsson stresses that CCP’s creative partners will be given the latitude to take some license in an effort to tell these stories in a compelling way. That doesn’t mean players will be forgotten, however.
“We probably won’t tell a story where we have the name of a real EVE player. We might change the name to protect the guilty, but visually, you might recognize that guy,” Gunnarsson explains, going on to offer up an example. “Remember the film Argo. It’s a true story about this crazy CIA guy that goes to Iran to rescue people by pretending to film a sci-fi film.”
“You couldn’t make that shit up. What was awesome to watch was how Ben Affleck, in the credit roll, actually had the actors [pictured next to] the real people. We love that concept. That’s just awesome. So that’s how we kind of hope to honor the actual true story and point back to the founding story that then inspired the fictional treatment.”
Gunnarsson also stresses the importance being placed on one of CCP’s fundamental ideals, that EVE is real. The dedicated players that occupy the game’s single-shard universe have a huge sense of investment in what they’ve built. Therefore, one thing you won’t see any of the various non-gaming adaptations do is pull back out of the fiction to present the reality of gamers playing games.
“It’s unlikely that you’ll have a story that starts with this fictional science fiction universe that suddenly dials back out of the matrix and you realize that you’re sitting in a basement in Wisconsin, playing a video game. We don’t think that’s the approach. This is an incredibly potent fictional setting that our players are immersed in. I think staying in character and not breaking the fourth wall is the direction that you see us going.”
It’s one of the few constraints being placed upon CCP’s creative partners in these projects. The comic and the TV series will stick to the True Stories and remain in-character, but the creative vision built on top of that is being left in the hands of the people adapting the stories. “We’d love to see a writer and an artist riff on the universe. Come up with something unique and compelling that stands alone as a creative project,” Gunnarsson says.
“Whether we get it right or not coming out of the gate, I don’t know. This is a new journey for us. If it works, we’ll obviously keep on doing it. It’s exciting, and getting it to click is going to be an interesting challenge.”