Creating content for most MMOs is a fairly simple task to understand. You take your setting, and you develop quest and dungeon content for the various level track throughout your game. It’s a time consuming process, but it’s a relatively easy one to map out.
In the case of a sandbox game like EVE Online, on the other hand, the waters get a little bit murkier. The goal of any sandbox game is to create an environment for players to interact with, but on the whole, leave the bulk of the action in the hands of the individual player.
“We want to create an immersive back story, establishing the setting for the characters that allows for player interactions,” said CCP’s Tony Gonzales, the man in charge of the EVE Online IP during a presentation at this past EVE Fan Fest. It is from these interactions that EVE Online derives most of its overall tone.
Part of that job is to identify the overall themes of the game and the overall theme of the game is most heavily influenced by good old fashioned human nature. “EVE is a dark universe,” said Gonzales, “full of moral shades of grey.”
The moral shades of grey that Gonzales refers to come as a result of creating a world, through the use of the sandbox, single-shard development style that really “allows people to be people.”
In discussions of EVE’s content, Gonzales was quick to point out that while they do exist within the game, that “heroes don’t make headlines in EVE Online.” Instead, it is the betrayals or failures of trust that are given the spotlight. In the past year, the developer points to the three biggest EVE news making stories of the year:
First, there is the collapse of the mighty Band of Brothers alliance, brought down (or so they say) from the inside by one specific individual’s actions.
Second, he points to the scandal surrounding one of the members of the Council of Stellar Management who took “insider” knowledge from his meetings with CCP employees for his own personal benefit.
The third involves E-Bank and the theft of 200 billion ISK. Because EVE Online’s banks are player-run and not CCp-run, these risks always exist. Embezzlement and theft isn’t restricted to real life banks.
In any case, this is the kind of content that gets the most attention from outside the game. Still, building content by “letting people be people” doesn’t always bring about the worst in players. Developing with this philosophy encourages leaders to emerge from within the community, friendships to be made, the economy to thrive and much more. The every day decisions of each individual player ends up shaping the content for everyone else.
“[The game’s] features are just facilitators of interaction,” said Gonzales. In other words, aside from a few quests and the newish epic story arcs, the real content of EVE Online is entirely player driven.
The fact of the matter is that the EVE Online’s content is constantly shifting, whether it be in players skillfully navigating and changing the open market or large corporations and alliances of players battling it out for control of the vast EVE universe.
You don’t, however, have to take my word for it. Below, you will find a video that shows the evolution of the EVE Online universe over the course of a year:
That isn't to say that there is no developer content in the world at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. Like most MMOs, EVE Online has missions that NPC characters ask players to run. They have also recently branched out into larger, epic missions that allow players to run through a series of missions, making choices along the way. Then, there's the factional warfare and other developer controlled elements of the game.
While these may seem like more generic standard MMO conventions, the difference is that, as Gonzales said, all of this developer designed content is designed with the larger, player-controlled game in mind. All of this is done with thoughts of: "...establishing the setting for the characters that allows for player interactions."
That, in a nutshell, is what separates good sandbox content design from good theme park design. It is the job of the content developer to design content that is complimentary to the content that the players create for themselves, not to design content to replace said content.