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Q&A With Nathan Richardsson

Richard Cox Posted:
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EVE Online Q&A With Nathan Richardsson

EVE Online Producer Nathan Richardsson joins our Richard Duffek to answer some questions about the popular online space MMORPG. Occasionally joined by lead man Magnus Bergsson, Nathan goes above and beyond to deliver complete answers to our questions.

MMORPG.com: EVE is a well established game, but in a market dominated by WoW, EQII and the recently launched Guild Wars, what would you say to the fan who has never tried it? What makes you different and a valid alternative to these games?
Nathan Richardsson:

Besides the obvious that there are no elves and wizards in EVE, then the biggest difference is the free form game style EVE offers the player, and there is no leveling and therefore no leveling grind. Then it's the share size of the game. EVE is a massive single shard game where everyone plays on the same server, no matter where they are located. This increases the interaction points for every player and is one of the reasons why EVE is so active.

In gameplay terms the main difference would be that EVE is a long term affair for the player, so much focus is around tactics and strategy. You don't just jump in, but you evolve in EVE, which is the main reason players stick with the game for a long time even though they might not play every day. This excludes of course the intense PVP combat in the game. EVE is a very PVP focused game and the death penalty can be quite severe, which we think adds that extra excitement to the encounters!

MMORPG.com: Let’s start off with a hot topic in the industry as of late. SOE recently announced their plan for a “Station Exchange” which would basically embrace the secondary market of buying and selling ingame currency and items for real world money. How do you feel about a company that over the years has been so adamantly against such actions now embracing it?
Nathan Richardsson:

Everybody has their reasons for buying “stuff” and we can certainly sympathize with SOE’s argument that it causes considerable grief to current (and potential customers) when they are scammed. That is also the majority of cases we encounter in customer support. Not only that, these cases almost never end happily.

We certainly understand the more casual player wanting to get a head start and wanting to participate with the big boy´s. People have different amounts of time on their hands with girlfriends, wifes, kids, work, more work and then some work, and of course the wife. In cases like that we can see the point in allowing a user to get some wind in their sails, and we believe that this is main driving force for a user to buy "stuff". It’s not to get the “win button” but just make life a bit more easier.

However, as with everything where real money is involved to get ahead in a game, it gets exploitable very fast. It’s simply not as black and white as one would want it to be.

We are following closely the community response to the StationExchange and other methods that seem to be working in Asia. This includes exchanging game time for in-game money, which might strike a good balance of neutralizing demand while keeping super sellers in check. At the end of the day we want to service our customers in the best way possible and therefore we follow all developments closely and keep an open mind.

MMORPG.com: How do you handle this situation in EVE?
Nathan Richardsson:

Early on we created an official character transfer mechanism which cut down a lot of problems involving account trading. Most people just wanted to give their friend their character or move them between their own accounts. We needed an official handover mechanism for moving characters between account and we also realized the fact that we would never be able to prevent a number of scenarios with switching accounts. To date, this mechanism has prevented far more grief than it has caused.

Characters can only be “sold” for ingame ISK, a stance we took early on where you trade ingame items for other ingame items. We also allow players to buy a limited amount out-of-game services for ingame ISK such as hosting Corp (guild) websites and Teamspeak servers. Many of our players have access these services and want to provide them to fellow corporations or Alliances. In general, we allow tools that do not directly affect the characters advancement in the game. There are even websites run by ingame corporations which charge ISK for their services.

Currently however, under no circumstances is it allowed to sell ISK, Items, Characters or any ingame entity for real money and we frequently close down accounts that breach our EULA by doing so.

MMORPG.com: Sometimes a feature the developers think is wonderful gets lost or overlooked by the playerbase. Are there any such “hidden” gems in EVE you wished more people were aware of?
Nathan Richardsson:

We have lots of those, probably a byproduct of the constant development of EVE. We have always had our full team dedicated to EVE, with a yearly expansion where we just have fewer patches coming out while developing it.

Our player run economy could be considered such a gem, most of our players are of course well aware of it and certain part of the playerbase live on it by playing the market. It often gets lost as a “feature” when talking about EVE, but then again it isn’t really a line of code either, it’s the players that make this one.

The awesome underlying dynamic which it creates really gives purpose to a number of other features within the game. Research, Manufacturing and resource gathering are all far deeper and more involved due to the player run economy.

This is where we want to expand EVE, utilizing this dynamic by adding more regional and unique resources which give you that certain edge in some area of modules or ships, which leads to conflict over those resources - which in turn affects the manufacturing and research which in the end all affects the player run economy.

If the supply of type X dwindles, prices go up and buyers seek out the alternatives. Not only that, a shift in researchers, manufacturers, resources gatherers - and therefore conflict – move between areas. Suddenly new areas become more worth than they were before and others fall. But the best part? It’s up to the players! We just have to provide them the tools and the "landscape" to do it in. That is definitely the way to go in our opinion.

MMORPG.com: Are there any thoughts or plans at any point down the road to add actual player avatars to the game, even if in a strictly trivial sense such as leaving your ship and hanging out at a bar with other pilots as a sort of social gathering spot?
Nathan Richardsson:

No, not at this point in time. We think that being able to walk around, whether on a planetary surface or inside a station, would really require us to go all the way. In our opinion, if you can walk around somewhere, you have to be able to shoot them! And that in itself is whole new game.

So for now, we’re going to stick with space because we have so many things to improve and far more things to add before we get to the point of doing avatars. But we definitely have the storyline, background material and universe to base it on, That’s probably why we’re asked so frequently about it :)

MMORPG.com: Every review or article I’ve ever read has praised EVE for its amazing graphics, and I have to say from the time I’ve spent playing I have to agree with them. Can you tell us a bit about the trials and art direction that have let a small company achieve this level of artistic praise?
Nathan Richardsson:

A large part of the team came from a virtual reality company which focused on creating good atmosphere. In addition, many in-house artist have a more “traditional” art background so immediately the bar was set very high. It was a very iterative process leveraging lots of rendering experience, tons of hours and further tons of pizza to achieve our goal.

Our 3D engine, Trinity is also constructed in a way were the power is given to the artists. Our artists were constructing real time shaders in a declarative manner long before the current procedural pixel shaders were available. This allowed them to achieve graphical heights which we believe would never had been possible had they required the assistance of a programmer for each new shader or technique.

Not to mention the fanaticism of our Art Director, nicknamed the “Fuhrer” at the time, which probably describes very well his attention to detail. A good example would be the color selector in one of our tools. Choose a color which is too saturated and a picture of him appears with dark red glaring eyes. Devil is in the details anyone?

MMORPG.com: I’ve heard EVE referred to as “One of the best games ever that no one has heard of.” The ratings and reviews you guys get definitely would seem to indicate the truth in this statement. Why do you think that EVE is such a well liked game yet doesn’t the numbers of some more well known games?
Nathan Richardsson:

The community number one, two and three. We’re not only making a game for ourselves to enjoy but also for the like-minded people out there that enjoy a “Strategic-PvP-space-universe-MMO-economic-player-run-game” (That’s the express description of EVE, good for Starbucks and bars)

We spend considerable time with the community, in focus groups, on test servers and in our large volunteer network so the feedback has so many avenues to flow that good ideas spread fast. This feedback cycle has a tremendous effect on what we add to EVE .

EVE doesn’t appeal to everyone and that can clearly be seen in the numbers, we didn’t expect it to either. Those that do like EVE, however seem to love it (like us!) and our steady increase of players since launch is a prove of that. There are still many that haven’t tried EVE and we’re kind of envious that they have such a huge universe left to discover :)

In any case, we’ll be happy bunnies when we hit 100.000 players. Remember, we’re from Iceland, everything so far has been a blast and an awesome journey that is still just in its infancy! (Not to mention the dynamics of 100.000 players interacting within a single shard universe!). We are closing in on our target, but today we have a little less that 60.000 subscribers.

MMORPG.com: Now that you both own and publish the game what plans do you have to get more people interested in trying out the game and getting it to be a little better known?
Magnus Bergsson:

Alongside interviews on MMORPG :), we have and will continue to promote EVE on various gaming websites offering user the chance to try the game. We have a very good conversion ratio from these trials, so our biggest challenge is simply to get users to at least try the game out. Online advertising is the most natural avenue for EVE since all of our assets are there, including the game client itself.

Besides the standard advertising, we preparing to enter some emerging markets like Asia and Russia and some others. These are virgin territories for us, as most other western gaming companies, and we believe that EVE will perform well there with the right partners.

MMORPG.com: What freedoms have been opened up to you now that you both own and publish EVE? Most companies aren’t willing to take on both aspects, how is it helping in your case?
Magnus Bergsson:

In short, it takes away all restrictions a typical publishing contract would prevent. We can give the game, we can offer extended trials, we can pay affiliates to promote EVE, we can set our own timetable for releases, we have full control of content and direction. So basically we are only limited by our own imagination, or lack thereof!

MMORPG.com: A little while back a major expansion was added to the game. Can you tell our readers who might have tried the game before the expansion what it changed about the game and why they might want to try EVE out again?
Nathan Richardsson:

*deep breath* Player owned structures called Starbases were added, our own version of “dungeons” came into play too called “Complexes”. More intermediate ships to bridge gaps between current classes, agent missions were overhauled and higher level agents added, corporation management improved, market was also improved and player alliances were formally supported.

However, the features themselves would not be the reason to come back but rather what the players have used them for. Players have deployed almost 900 Starbases and they have created more than 30 Alliances claiming a number of solar systems (The biggest Alliance is about 2000 characters).

Complexes are a good way to do group PVE and we’re putting more focus on high level agents to be group PVE. The market is more thriving than ever and corporations are getting bigger and stronger.

We want to create tools to enable players to take the game further and our upcoming content patch will take the EXODUS expansion even further in that direction.

MMORPG.com: A lot of work has seemingly been put into improving the PvE (Player versus Environment) aspect of the game with the addition of Complexes (the equivalent to Dungeons in most other MMORPGs) and such. Is this a focal point for the team and an area of concern as far as the player base is concerned?
Nathan Richardsson:

We look at it this way; all players participate in group and solo activity to some extent. When your corp members are offline, not enough of them online or simply no leader present you tend to go towards solo content in your neighborhood. In most cases, solo means PvE rather than PvP and as such this has to be present and it has to be interesting.

Our focus on PvP - which can be done both solo and in groups - have in the long term drawn a lot of effort from our PvE work. We’ve been working on correcting that for the last months by hiring in more people from the community to create various PvE content while being able to keep our focus on PvP. This work will bring new angles to complexes, more challenging agent missions, add new environments and be putting more agents into space.

In our opinion, PvE and PvE must be present both for groups and solo activity. Our community feedback tells us that players have different needs depending on their environment, mood and friends.

Many feel group play is more fun than solo but in the end, the ultimate goal is group PvP, competing against your peers and reaping the rewards – or paying the price for trying to get the rewards. Nothing compares to that.

We will continue to cater for PvP, but invest considerably more than we have done before in PvE. In the long-term, we want players to create the “PvE” content, eliminating the barrier and bottleneck (us) from content creation. We shouldn’t be creating missions for agents, the players should be creating the missions that they directly benefits from!

Think of it this way. You create a manufacturing contract, some player later during the day sees the open contract which he deems as an acceptable reward, creates the ships with the assorted extra modules specified (like leather interior, sun-roof, some rare tachyon beams and some nice front window bling) and voila, he fulfills the contract and gets his reward.

He could of course also ask for a corpse, or a number of corpses. Heck, he could have open orders an all the corpses you can bring from a certain Alliance. Even putting up a market order requesting a rare faction ship in exchange for another rare faction ship. That’s a mission right there, the players both determine the “reward” is acceptable and both have gone through long lengths to acquire those ships.

MMORPG.com: How have the players responded to the new Complexes? Were they well received?
Nathan Richardsson:

Yes, quite well compared to that they were our first go at it. We didn’t have the luxury of walls so we had to create some new ways to compensate for having a huge open three-dimensional space where anyone can go anywhere. In many ways that was a success and we just keep improving the Complexes.

Based on these first iterations and the feedback on the Complexes we have lined up Complexes inside new environments instead of Deadspace and adding more “standard” dungeon features which we’ve found ways to implement although being in three-dimensional space. We also have some not-so-standard community requests which we’re looking into. They are as insane as they are beautiful!

Long-term we’re working on making Complexes more player owned, constructed or conquered. The problem here is the balancing the benefit of the owner having lots of people being inside them trying to shoot it up or gather resources in it. This is in-line with our long-term goals of taking us out as the middleman, we’re just the janitors.

MMORPG.com: Can you give us any hints or clues as to what might be coming down the pipeline soon in the regular monthly updates?
Nathan Richardsson:

We haven’t been able to hit the monthly schedule of late, mostly doing server side updates and other hotfixes. The reason for that is that we have been preparing a bigger content patch due for release around the end of June. It might sound strange but we have quite a lot of players during summertime and we also believe the contents of this one will stretch a bit into wintertime.

The world itself is taking a major turn in this content patch for EXODUS, tension is rising between the old factions and a number of new stargates have opened into the outer regions to enable logistics for possible hostilities. Likewise, highways between some of the empires are being shut down as a result of diplomatic sparring and other minor clashes.

It also features player built stations, called Outposts. This is a longstanding request from the community of building up infrastructure out in the outer regions. Starbases in EXODUS were the first step and Outposts go far in delivering the full fledged infrastructure but there is more to come. Alliances will also gain direct financial benefits for their Starbases by claiming the solar systems they are in, encouraging more territorial conflict to control the good solar systems.

We also launch Dreadnoughts, ships specifically made to attack player structures such as Starbases and Outposts. Also in the capital ship class, Freighters are introduced. They will solve the huge logistical problems of populating the outer regions.

We launch our new COSMOS project, an effort to make the universe more rich, diverse and valuable for those who own it. First we’ll see COSMOS constellations focused on advancing our PvE environment introducing agents encounters in space and new mini-professions such as espionage and archeology.

As always we also have a host of improvements and without going into too much detail, we improve leadership, convoys, missile warfare, combat logistics, defensive shield and armor plating, mobile warp disruptors, drones, Starbases and we did a lot of industrial and resource changes. Simple corporation tax and asset search is also in the patch along with other minor tweaks.

MMORPG.com: How about just a tiny little teaser about what the next major update, due out around Q4 2005 and codenamed Kali, might have in store?
Nathan Richardsson:

The only thing certain at this point in time about Kali is Titans and Carriers. Two new capital ships, one which has been slated for release since … well, release! We finally think it’s the right time to release them, the universe now offers an environment in which they have a real role to play and not just be “the biggest damn ship in the universe”.

What we are also very hot to put into Kali is Factional Warfare, which is a thing our players have wanted to do for quite some time. Complexes is now enabling us to deliver certain aspects of that in addition to a number of additions we have been adding over the years.

It’s basically allowing you to sign up for the major NPC factions within EVE, finally allowing role-players – and everyone else interested – in fighting for their team and participate in shaping the future of the EVE universe as a result of those battles.

We needed an infrastructure to be able to affect the universe based on the results and directions of the wars without having to put out a new patch every time. We now believe we are in a situation to do that.

The long term possibilities that Factional Warfare open up is that player controlled Alliances would be able to battle the NPC factions for resources and territory. Of course, we want the NPC factions to be as player controlled as possible while still retaining the general control of prime fiction and keeping the empire cores as a baseline.

In addition, seeing lately the success of WoW’s battlegrounds, which is a quite similar concept of warring for your faction, shows that this can be done successfully, although I would still like my Troll Shammy to be able to affect the world a bit more as a result of all those battles *hint*hint*nudge*nudge* ;)

Factional warfare would also deliver other indirect benefits to other features such as victory conditions to wars, ranking, gain military ranks, medals which can be applied to so much more than just Factional Warfare.

MMORPG.com: What is your favorite aspect of EVE, both from a Developer’s point of view and from a player’s?
Nathan Richardsson:

Uhm, difficult question because there are so many facets to EVE. I have enjoyed so many of them, but I guess participating in the birth of an Alliance and the general gameplay associated with that would be my favorite. Just the politics alone were so intense it was amazing!

As such I’d personally say that the most beautiful aspect of EVE is the ability of the player to make a name for himself amongst the whole player base and really be able to affect other players in so many ways, really make a difference, not only on his little shard but the whole game. I guess I’m tainted from that experience and so are many others within the company, resulting in our focus on enabling the player to take the universe further. Or for short, power to the players!

A big thanks to Nathan and Magnus for taking the time to do this. It is greatly appreciated!


Richard Cox