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EVE Online Interview: Finding Balance In EVE's Economy, Ecosystem

An Interview With Lead Producer of EVE's Ecosystem, Snorri Árnason

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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EVE Online is known for quite a few things in the gaming industry. It’s known for the great battles and massive alliances that make up the populations of New Eden. Whenever the major powers in EVE go to war, whether you play the MMORPG or not, you’re likely hearing about it from gaming news sites and more. Many games nowadays, though, are trying to emulate something that feels wholly unique to EVE Online even today: a fully run player economy and, at large, in-game ecosystem. 

The economy is just one part of the greater EVE Online ecosystem, something that CCP reiterates to me in my years of covering the Icelandic studio that they feel they are caretakers of the great New Eden sandbox. As such, figuring out the ways to improve the sandbox and make it a better place for all capsuleers is something that is always ongoing for the studio. In a blog post posted to the EVE Online website earlier today, the team behind EVE Online detailed some of the ways they are looking to improve the current ecosystem of EVE Online, most notably the state of the game’s economy. 

As the studio sees it right now, the state of EVE’s economy is “unsustainable” in its current form. This isn’t something the studio says lightly either, and many capsuleers over the years have levied comments at the Reykjavik-based creators that this is not a situation they take seriously. However, after speaking with Snorri Árnason, Lead Producer on EVE Online’s ecosystem, it’s something the team is looking at very seriously. 

“The blog is pretty blunt,” Árnason told me via an interview last week. “It’s something that we want to kind of get across that we are aware and we are taking it very seriously. And I think that it’s kind of more like a reassurance because people have - the CSM, the community - have complained, I guess, that we’re not aware or we don’t realize things or we’re out of touch, I think.”

EVE Online has always been about risk versus reward. You shouldn’t undock from a station without being willing and able to lose what you’re flying. However, nowadays in New Eden, parts of space that are supposed to be the most dangerous - Nullsec specifically - are now some of the safest spots in known space. However, the issue, as Snorri sees it is two-fold - helping newer pilots escape the dregs of super poverty in their first voyages in New Eden, as well as tapping into the ultra wealth sitting in Nullsec where right now there is little risk to those capsuleers, but amazing rewards.

“Overall, our faucets are not balanced. And it ties into the old diagram of it being super difficult to get into the game. And then, once you’re at the top, it’s fairly easy to stay rich or the rich get richer. There’s two reasons for this: basically our progression and guidance at the beginning doesn’t really help you get into this. There’s not an obvious way to increase your ISK making capability. So your progression isn’t supported with guidance from the tutorial and career agents and those kinds of things because they’re not really teaching you how to make money. They’re more teaching you how to interact with the world. 

“And one of my focuses has been to shed light on this to developers to show there’s people still doing level three missions and they make no cash and are constantly poor. They’re in this kind of poverty trap. And there’s a million other things they could be doing, they just don’t realize or don’t know. 

“And then there’s the other hand, which is completely untapped, mega rich avenues that are being farmed by veterans, and with no risk and amazing rewards. And those faucets are the ones we need to bring into line. And we are tackling it really, like basically through a risk and reward, and I keep talking about this internally, it’s my favorite [phrase]: risk and reward.”

For Snorri, and many EVE players as well, the risk is no longer a factor in EVE Online, especially in pockets of Nullsec where the great empires of EVE tend to have their bases. Capsuleers in these Corps can essentially fly, mine and so on in relative safety thanks to what Snorri calls a “Super Umbrella” where there is no longer any risk. 

“There are no deaths in multiple Nullsec systems,” Snorri tells me, which I was actually surprised to hear. “PvP risk exists everywhere, but it still doesn’t exist everywhere. So we have industrialized this Nullsec, and it just means that there [are] no deaths, there’s no risk.”

Snorri acknowledges too that the state of things is somewhat due to players making the pockets of space they inhabit safer in order to reduce the risk to themselves. But conversely, he says that it shouldn’t be this super rewarding either. So the team is trying to pull these two forces into line - reintroducing the risk factor into EVE Online again to balance out how the world of New Eden should function. 

Currently, according to the team, EVE Online is in an “abundance state” - there is plenty of everything and everything can be replenished. Large corporations can build a titan in a day or anything really within its time frame, all within their own systems and relative safety thanks to how Nullsec currently functions. According to Snorri, there is “no trade necessary, they can just sit there and build” to their heart’s content. 

“If you lose that Titan, it’s just ISK, like, nothing happened. It’s just seven days. It’s math. It didn’t used to be, and we want to bring that feeling back. We want to reduce this self-sufficiency.”

One way to do that is to make trade either among the corporations or Highsec ports more desirable - or even make it worthwhile to fight over certain areas and resources again. Snorri’s team wants to bring back that interaction between capsuleers which economies rely upon. 

However, there has been push back from the community according to Snorri when moves have been made by CCP in order to encourage these types of interactions. The team has introduced scarcity to Nullsec, most notably back in December when CCP removed Tritanium from Nullsec as part of its Resource Distribution update. This was meant to ensure that super corps and the players in Nullsec could no longer just sit behind their super umbrellas and mine the tritanium needed for Titans, that they would have to go to Highsec and trade in a port, such as Jita. Or even trade with a Highsec corp they are allied with - something to spur along the economy and have ISK flow to other sectors of space. 

“Immediately people said, ‘Well then, we’re not going to undock because you forced us to, like now we’re scared of loss,’” Snorri recounted. “But you weren’t undocking when you were rich, and now you’re not conducting trade because you’re poor. There’s a middle ground somewhere, but we need to figure out where that middle ground is [at.] You’re either too bored or too scared, But we have to fix that.”

One move the team is considering doing is moving some of the minerals needed for high-value trade to Lowsec - quite possibly the most dangerous pockets of known space in New Eden. By doing this, the team can reintroduce the type of risk that is still there for those pilots who choose to fly solo - bringing many capsuleers into what can simply be called the frontier - a Wild West of EVE Online certainly. 

However, after all of this, when asked if Árnason’s team knew today what a healthy EVE Online economy looks like, the answer was simple: “No.”

“There’s no number line or anything, there’s an equilibrium we want to achieve. But ultimately we’re just looking at engagement. If we have more engagement across the universe, across our features, if we make all the things that we can do lucrative and interesting - and that’s one of the first things I saw when I started doing this, that there was so many things that people could mine, but chose not to because there’s no value because there’s no demand. 

“So one of my key rules was to start identifying things, not introducing new things but identify underutilized resources and underutilized features and give them value by increasing demand for them through blueprints or whatever. So I think that people have min-maxed the game right now. [...] But I think we need to incentivize people to do way more types of activities.”

It’s interesting to hear all of this as well, especially as someone who does struggle a bit to earn money in New Eden. I don’t play Nullsec or belong to a large corporation, and I’ve only just started mining in my newly fitted Orca. But this concern about what is essentially a wealth gap between the super rich and regular Capsuleers and new players is something I’ve heard concerns within the community going back as far as conversations I’ve had with players at Fanfest 2018. It was especially talked about during one of the first mornings of EVE Amsterdam I remember vividly, many players feeling as though CCP was simply “complacent” to allow this to continue. 

Many capsuleers over the years have speculated too that the perceived complacency is due to the fact the studio was bought out by Pearl Abyss and the Korean company doesn’t want to shake up the status quo. However, Snorri rejects the idea that PA is involved in any decision making - a theme I’ve heard constantly from both CCP and Pearl Abyss employees every time I ask the question at events or within interviews. 

“There’s a lot of anti-Pearl Abyss, this kind of ‘new owner vibe’ in the community as well, kind of like ‘Oh they don’t care because it’s all gonna be dead in two years. They’re just milking it.’ That kind of stuff is also something we want to combat also.”

Snorri tells me that he’s never actually even spoken to a Pearl Abyss employee since the actual aquisition - and EVE’s Head of PR George Kelion reminded me on the call that CCP operates as a wholly independent subsidiary, referring to Pearly Abyss as more an “investor” than an active and micromanaging owner in CCP’s affairs. It’s something that will always be hard to shake off, this perception by some fans, but it’s a feeling the team is consciously aware is floating out there in the forums and on Reddit and such.

At the end of the day, Snorri’s team is doing more than simply tweak the economy for the better - they are looking at the whole of the EVE Online ecosystem and iterating and improving in any way they can, one of which is cutting down on botting. Snorri’s team sees the cut down on bots in New Eden as a real win here - something they have been hard at work on for over a year now.

“A year ago I started deep diving into anti-botting stuff, and we’ve made a lot of improvements. Obviously there’s a lot of automation going on that we knew of. But discerning botting behavior versus someone who’s watching TV and who’s a bot - it’s not trivial. There’s minimal input as a miner in the game - you select the new asteroid and you move, and then you select another asteroid and you move, and if you do it regularly every 20 minutes, the cycle time or whatever, you can kind of keep in sync for a long time and look like a bot. So we have to be careful when we ban a bot. 

“However, when the Blackout went live, we learned a shitload of what botters do and what they don’t do, and what normal people do and don’t do. So since the Blackout, they obviously used local to avoid trouble. So they stopped being out there, we banned a lot of them who stopped because it was then obvious.”

The widespread banning of bots and CCP’s conscious efforts to combat this problem points back to another dispelling of a narrative floating around its community: that CCP keeps bots alive in game in order to inflate its Peak Concurrent User count, or PCU, to show people that EVE isn’t dying. However, Snorri mentions that the last six months have seen a slew of new players in the game. In fact, George shared a statistic that January was the 6th best month in EVE’s 16 year history for new player activations - and “represents a 100% increase year on year for the month of January.”

At the end of the day, everything here is meant to improve EVE Online not just for the current players, but to keep it healthy for the foreseeable future. As EVE moves into its 17th year in operation, the team is still looking ahead at the idea of EVE Forever - that this sandbox and secondary world this tiny studio in Iceland built will outlive us all. And while the growing pains now might feel too much to bear, everything is done from the stand point to keep the sandbox going moving forward. 

“We are coming out with this strong message to tell you guys ‘We’re on it.’ We are making sure that we’re doing the right things, even if it's gonna hurt, we’re doing it for the same of the economy for years to come.”


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore