EVE Spotlight: An interview with CCP Zulu

EVE Spotlight is a new bi-weekly feature in which we interview prominent members of EVE Online's player community or development team. Twice each month, we'll be shining the spotlight on a player or developer who has a significant impact on EVE to highlight the efforts of EVE's most influential people.

It's almost an unwritten rule of game development that someone from quality assurance should never be promoted into a game design role. Game testing and QA are said to be so fundamentally different to design that it's argued the roles require incompatible skillsets. Arnar "CCP Zulu" Gylfason has definitely proven that this isn't the case, successfully migrating from QA to game design and finally being promoted to senior producer on EVE Online. Taking over from CCP T0rfifrans, Arnar has become a very public figure for CCP in the EVE community.

Older players will remember Arnar as CCP Zulupark, that horrible guy who nerfed their carriers back in 2007. Alternatively, you may remember a fantastic forum thread from 2008 in which he personally answered countless player questions on game design and balance issues. Since becoming senior producer on EVE, Arnar has been a strong advocate of this kind of heavy communication with players. Through devblogs, interviews and interactions with the Council of Stellar Management, he's helped to fill the information vacuum players have become accustomed to.

We caught up with EVE senior producer Arnar "CCP Zulu" Gylfason several weeks ago at the EVE Fanfest. In this EVE Spotlight, I ask him about communication with players, the role of live events in future expansions, and other topics.

Most players will only have heard of Zulu as a name attached to some devblogs. Since assuming the role of Senior Producer on EVE Online, however, he has become a much more public figure. In the lead-up to the Incursion expansion, he participated in a series of video devblogs on various aspects of the expansion's design. Most recently, Arnar led the 2011 EVE Fanfest keynote speech, in which he wrapped up everything CCP has been working on in the past year and expounded plans for the next two major releases. In case you missed it, the full EVE keynote has been embedded below in HD:

Massively: We saw the list of small things Team Best Friends Forever has been working on. Some of those things are not so little, are they?

CCP Zulu: Absolutely. These are all quality of life fixes, stuff that's annoying to happen to you or annoying to do right now and that doesn't really add to the gameplay.

Previously, CCP said that little changes like these wouldn't be possible until CCP revisited an entire feature, because the changes touched on too many parts of the codebase. What's changed?

There are a few things that changed, obviously. There are definitely some features and some aspects of features that you can't touch without redoing the entire feature, and those we can't touch yet because they are humongous. The entire aggression system and all of that stuff, for example, is really tricky to work with without going in and just nuking it and making a new one.

And if you make a mistake in the aggression code, EVE goes to hell?

Exactly, so that's something that we really can't be touching that much. But a lot of the other things are UI improvements and functionality issues that are fairly easy to fix. And then you have others that are a balance between [the two] where it's a judgment call and we have to ask, "Do we invest just a little more time in this and get it over with, or don't we?" There was definitely a shift in mentality [at CCP]; there was a lack of communication and miscommunication that resulted in that message going out that we didn't consider it worthwhile to do that.

Would that be around the time of the 18 month thing?

The 18 month thing, right. It was bad communication on our part, something we learned from. We discussed [it] with the CSM a whole lot and with the community and now here [at Fanfest] about how that wasn't exactly what we meant even if it is exactly what we said. [We've been discussing] what we've been doing so far to correct that, both in terms of actual development and in terms of talking about it.

Whenever CCP had that turnaround, there was so much information coming out with the Incursion videos, live devblogs, and a lot of really technical devblogs. What led to that?

That was a direct result of sort of us always saying, "Here's a broad-stroke thing that we feel," without going into details, and then just realising with the help of the CSM and the playerbase that this doesn't cut it. You expect more of us, and I think that's absolutely terrific. The players have expectations of us to tell them what we're doing, and of course that's natural, and it just sort of clicked that of course we should be doing that. We agree with the players -- this is just something we should do.

This is a core corporate mentality that we should not hide things from anyone. And more than just hiding secrets, we should just openly tell [players] about what we're doing so they can understand why some things take a long time in development, instead of just saying "This is going to take five months." We can explain that it's going to take five months because there's this core technology part that needs to be fixed; we need these programmers doing this stuff, and we need this content authored on top.

What really changed was that it just snapped for us. When that turnaround happened and when we started publishing those blogs and everything, it wasn't that we weren't doing those things before; it was just that we weren't talking about them. The players can only go on what information we give them, and in the absence of information, we get wild speculation, which is understandable.

Leading up to the Incursion expansion, we saw a lot of live events and new fiction being rolled out. As a result, the game mechanics that have come in have felt more real than in many previous expansions. Are there plans to continue this for future big features?

This is something we want to do more, and I want to give a huge shout-out to our content and live event team that pulled this off because it was amazing to see how they were able to build such an immersive story about game-changing features. The players in some cases just changed the way the story was supposed to be. People also need to understand that doing something like this is a huge amount of work. Seeing how cool it was, I don't see how we could never do it again.

It's just something we have to do again. I don't know if we're going to have it on the same scale, but immersing new feature development into the storyline, absolutely. Even if it's just a chronicle or a tech document explaining the existence and the creation of the thing, that should be our baseline. We should work from there, and the bigger the feature the more immersion.

The general player perception at the moment is that there may be as many as 6,000 bots running continuously in EVE. Whats being done to tackle that?

It's hard for me to comment directly on that because we have efforts underway to analyse that. We have an entire team dedicated to client security, botting, all of those things. It's tricky to find, and the more information I would give you, the more information they would have to adapt their ways. What I can tell you is that we have a team working on this, and they are making good progress finding macros, finding botting, finding ways they are hacking the client to build macros and all of that stuff. And also tackling account hacking, like with the new [authenticator] keyfobs.

We've heard this "EVE is Real" tagline being spread around Fanfest. Can you tell me a bit about it?

There are 1200 people gathered in a convention center in Iceland because of EVE -- that's pretty real. I would say that EVE sparks real friendships, real emotions, real rivalries. There's nothing about EVE that isn't real in my opinion. It's certainly real for me, and it's real for the 1200 people out there [at Fanfest], and I think it's certainly real for the people playing on a day-to-day basis with their friends.

Stay tuned to Massively's EVE Online coverage in the coming week as we'll have a second interview with Arnar on the all-important topics of Incursion, Incarna and the captain's quarters coming in the summer expansion.
This article was originally published on Massively.