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Ghost Training Interview

By Jon Wood on October 21, 2008 | Interviews | Comments

Ghost Training Interview
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A lot of news has come out of CCP over the last little while. Not only did the company’s CEO come out and let fans know that while the Icelandic economy might be faltering CCP is still going strong, but the studio also announced the launch of a new major content update called Quantum Rise for EVE Online, a staged delivery update that will see the additions of the certification systems, the new Orca class capital ship and more.

While these announcements are all interesting and exciting in their own rights, the focal story for CCP’s EVE online over the last week has been the company’s decision to remove the Ghost Training feature from the game.

For those who might not be familiar with the feature, and what exactly its removal will mean, a quick recap may be in order:

EVE Online is a skill based game meaning that characters advance through the training and upgrading of skills over time. This training is real-time based, whether a player is logged in or not, their character continues to grow in the game’s universe. The time to train these skills varies and can actually take quite a while at the highest levels. Ghost Training made it possible to actually train skills with a dormant account. For example: You could set your long term skills to train, un-sub from the game, re-sub some time later and have your training completed when you came back.

The announcement alone got some players up in arms, but the problem was compounded when an apparent internal miscommunication led the game’s Senior Producer to refer to the Ghost Training feature as a long-standing bug while company documentation on the website described it as an intentional game feature.

Late last week, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to speak about the issue with Torfi Frans, the Senior Producer in question.

EVE Online Screenshot

The first question that I asked revolved around the original decision to cut the Ghost Training feature:

“When we originally programmed the training system, it was an oversight on our part not to put in the text to see whether the account was active or inactive back in 2003. We have patched a lot of issues since then and this particular issue wasn’t addressed because it wasn’t considered that serious… It never got bumped up our list of bugs because not too many people were making use of it. It wasn’t really on our radar.”

“A couple of weeks ago, we were doing some research on our database and running some queries as we do frequently… and we noted a big rise in [the use of the system]. So, what we were seeing was like a recurring pattern. People were using Ghost Training to advance their characters without paying a subscription. So, they were building fairly strong characters without paying a subscription. Which, to be honest, didn’t seem fair.”

“At the end of the day, it wasn’t fair and we decided to shut it down. We anticipated that people might be upset about it. We did not anticipate such a big uproar about it.”

Frans goes on to tell me about the confusion that led to the bug / not a bug fiasco:

“We announced it as a bug, which it was to a lot of us old devs, but as it turned out, our website listed it as a feature because we had outsourced the writing of our career guide to someone who was not knowledgeable about the code itself, years ago back in 2004… It was like a virus waiting to get out and nobody had really given it much thought until it was pointed out when the whole debate started.”

From here, I asked why this discrepancy wasn’t caught when the manual was originally submitted.

“It was a general oversight on our part,” Torfi admitted. He went on to remind me about the company’s origins as a smaller company. “Back in 2004,” he said, “we were a company of 40 doing what companies of 80 or 120 were doing… struggling to keep EVE alive. Back then, we had a lot of challenges, a lot of things we were doing and this slipped between the cracks. I’m not saying that this makes it right, but in the larger perspective, it’s just one of those things that happened.”

Next, I asked how many people were using the feature at the time of the announcement. The answer was 10,000. So, let’s do some arbitrary number crunching: 10,000 people out of the roughly 240,000 subscribers in the game means that in the end, about 4.16% (or 1/24 for you fraction buffs out there) of EVE’s player base were using the feature.

That being said, Torfi told me that the numbers were beginning to surge and that it was a “playstyle pattern that was becoming more frequent.”

EVE Online Screenshot

This whole story becomes a little bit more convoluted when you add in the fact that when EVE launched in China, the bug was actually patched out of the game. It seems that their partners in that region felt that the ability to advance without payment was a bit out of the ordinary. At the time of the Chinese launch, CCP did not see a large number of people making use of Ghost Training in their original market and so did not see a need to correct the problem.

“At the time,” Torfi explained, “we had not introduced EVE time codes. Everyone was using credit card subscriptions so it was more of an effort to un-subscribe and re-subscribe than it is today. That’s why it wasn’t such a common play style back then.”

I asked whether the company was concerned that some players would not re-subscribe to the game because of this decision:

“Probably some.” He answered and acknowledged. “Probably some who have become accustomed to it, and I realize that. Because if they’ve grown accustomed to it as a feature of the game and now we’re taking it out, but I genuinely hope that they’re going to come back. We’ve got an expansion coming out called Quantum Rising and we’ll be making an announcement at Fanfest regarding stuff that’s coming very soon in the future which hopefully will make our players come back in big numbers because we’re putting things into the game that a lot of people have been waiting for for a long time.” Don’t get too excited though folks, he was also quick to point out that walking in stations is still in the longer future but that an announcement regarding in-space gameplay would be coming at Fanfest (which MMORPG.com will be covering).

“Going back to your original question, do we feel that less people are going to come back? We don’t think so. We hope that we are going to counter the kind of negative impact that this change made by improving out game in general and making it cool from a gameplay perspective and putting cool stuff in it.”

Finally, I asked if there was anything else that we hadn’t touched on that he wanted to say:

“I truly hope that people still realize that we’re just gamers like them, trying to make a game and making a living off of it. It was not out of pure money, greed or lust that we did this. It was a balancing act and a fairness act toward us as a company moreso than the gamers, but I honestly can’t think of any other company that allows you to skill up your character when you’re not even paying for it.”

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