Saturday, October 18, 2008

1st page 111 \o/

It was a long time in the brewing, but here it is: this is the ArmchairDesigner's other blog, this one dedicated to the U.F.O among big-league R-POWs: EVE Online.

Full disclosure: Around the turn of the century, I've spent a couple years working on the design of a space-flavored game not entirely unlike EVE (well, it happened in space, was heavily sandboxy and procedural, and involved some variations of FTL travel, the similarities pretty much end there).

EVE Online was in pre-production and development during the same time, as were 3rd World, Star Wars Galaxies, Earth & Beyond, Jumpgate and a couple others who fared diversely well on the market (if/when they reached it), but I kept mostly clear of those while working on our own project, to avoid getting confused or tempted to dismiss/coopt concepts based on what other design teams were about.

I got into EVE during the recovery phase following our 'abortion', a few months after both The Sims Online and SWG less-than-stellar launches gave our financial backers the cold feet, to discover how strikingly similar and different at once EVE was, compared to the design I'd spent 16 hours of my average day with for the past three years.

Playing EVE was therefore largely a case of post-trauma therapy for me, and in the fashion typical to rebound fucks, I dived deep into it, with the eagerness fueled by a desperate need for change, and the critical eye of one who hasn't quite let go of his ex yet.

Some of the defining elements of EVE Online make it — to this day — a one-of-a-kind beast among 3d R-POWs.

• Going for a niche audience of hardcore gamers with high-end PCs and broadband connections allowed to shove the graphical burden on the client's shoulders, and enabled a visually stunning experience by then-MMO*s standards, at low cost for the publisher.

• Over time, building the customer base from hardcore PvP outwards was also an uncanny move: when everybody was reaching out to the supposed mainstream to capture as many short-lived eyeballs as possible, CCP was building an incredibly faithful customer base of hardcore players over word of mouth alone, resulting in high retention rates, low customer support costs, and close to nil advertising expenses.

• Self-publishing a R-POW is another bold move for a small studio such as 2003's CCP, and although it was forced on the company by Simon & Shuster pulling out a few months after release, it granted the company unprecedented editorial freedom for a second-gen graphical R-POW. [Being an Icelandic company arguably has something to do with CCP's off-the-beaten-path design and business model, which shows especially in the most predatory playstyles the game ruleset intentionally enables and condones.]

• No dungeons (at first), little handcrafted content (the default content in a space setting is 'empty, with backdrop'), and just enough procedural NPC and resources spawns to get the ball rolling for competitive action also went against the content-frenzy that was prevailing at the time, and allowed CCP to have a game to show for a reasonably low budget in the content creation department.
In time, players's sweat equity would be harnessed to do most of the heavy lifting of content generation, ensuring available game content grew with the player base (when it's inversely proportional in PvE heavy models).

• The single-shard setup, enabled by procedural/player generated content is another unique feature among graphical R-POWs, and puts EVE Online in a class of its own, when its subscriber base ranks in the niche-to-medium games, while its concurrent connections per server run mile-wide circles around the competition.
Beyond bragging rights for CCP, this merely ensures there's always something player-driven happening on the server, and scaling up the content/playground is only a matter of widening the sandbox by a few constellations of nothingness.

• Background training, which allows players to focus on playing and exploring the game rather than grinding levels for months to reach the implausible stage where the game 'really starts', combined with a level-free skill system and heavily player-skill-centric combat mechanics, a (relatively) harsh death penalty, a (somewhat) player-driven economy, all contribute to provide players with a greater sense of achievement and purpose compared to other games.

• Toss in conquerable space full of riches, fought over actual territorial warfare (no arena/tournament competition), and you have a nice end game where players (again) take care of content production for the most part.

This list could go on for a while, but there's enough here to drive the point home: EVE (and CCP) success has relied on successfully ignoring what was "common wisdom" in the games industry about MMO*s, in favor of genuinely interesting gameplay coated with just enough eyecandy to support player immersion and provide some sense of texture to its otherwise opera-less deep space setting.

Unfortunately, CCP's unorthodox line of thought is also the root of all things pear-shaped in EVE Online: being a driven revolutionary thinker at design stage is one thing, but ignoring the multicenturial history of the service industry (including the last 50 years of mediated mass entertainment) is another, and CCP apparently can't tell one from the other.
Which is largely why EVE is broken.

This blog is about EVE Online, its players, the company that makes and breaks it, the culture that grows in and around the game, and how they all inform my views on R-POW design, production and operation.
The focus on EVE Online is warranted by its uniqueness in the R-POW market, and the fact more visible games such as WoW or EQ2 are already studied to death by so many competent people that I can be content with reading their papers rather than writing mine.

You've been warned, see you after the jump.

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