EVE Evolved: Development on EVE in 2012

EVE Evolved title image
Following the summer drama that came to be known as monoclegate, the past six months have been challenging for EVE Online's players and developers alike. When players learned that cash-shop clothing was priced higher than its real-life equivalent, the quirky story of the $80 monocle swept across gaming blogs like wildfire. The story's tone soon turned a great deal more sinister with the leak of an internal company newsletter titled Greed is Good, and a second leaked memo from CCP's CEO added more fuel to the flames. Ultimately, players spoke with their wallets; subscriptions fell by at least 8%, and with no financial backup plan, CCP was forced to lay off 20% of its staff worldwide.

The staff members who remained were faced with the task of turning things around, and with the feature-packed Crucible expansion, they did so spectacularly. In just a few short months, hundreds of high-profile features, graphical overhauls, and quality of life improvements breathed new life into a neglected universe. I think most players recognise that this has been a genuine turn-around from within CCP, but some are still skeptical that the company has really reformed. The question on everyone's mind is whether CCP can really keep up this quality of development in the coming year as it delivers two full expansions and integrates EVE with DUST 514.

Perhaps nobody is better qualified to assess that than CSM delegate and former CCP game designer Mark "Seleene" Heard, who recently attended the December CSM summit and witnessed first-hand the aftermath of monoclegate and Crucible's development.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I delve into Mark's CSM Summit report to find out how development at CCP has changed, what we can expect in 2012, and how monocle-gate has affected CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson.

side-imageNo silver bullet

One of the most interesting parts of Mark's report was how candidly he spoke about development at CCP. He has never been shy about his time with the company and is uniquely qualified among the CSM to criticise CCP's development style. A surprising revelation is that game designers were never really involved in deciding on features. While designers often wanted to revisit old features that required iteration, they would be stuck implementing the next big headline feature decreed by middle-management. Mark calls it the "Stone Tablets from the mountaintop" development model, and I think it's led to a constant search for the next breakthrough feature to bring players flocking to EVE.

According to Mark, since Crucible, this is no longer the case. "It became increasingly obvious," he writes, "that the people working on the future of EVE are not following any Stone Tablets." It seems CCP has finally gotten the message that breakthrough features do not exist and that there's no silver bullet for the problem of maintaining subscription growth. The Crucible expansion, with its hundreds of small improvements, was the result of this new development process of improving the game one step at a time. While Crucible delivered mostly the "low hanging fruit" in a two-year backlog of features, there are plenty more improvements where they came from, and CCP now seems able and intent on delivering them. That alone should have players excited for 2012's two upcoming expansions.

side-imageThe next expansion

Given the fact that DUST 514 is scheduled for release in around six months during the summer of 2012, I think it's safe to say that EVE's summer expansion will focus on territorial warfare and preparing to tie EVE wars into DUST. Mark worked on the first territorial warfare revamp in the Dominion expansion under the name CCP Abathur, and he regrets that much of the work scheduled for later iterations on Dominion was scrapped in favour of the next big headline feature. With CCP's new approach to development, he hopes that "maybe some of the cool stuff that was supposed to be in Dominion might actually get into the game" in 2012.

The issue of destructible outposts raised its head again at the summit, this time receiving a positive response. When outposts were first released, they were a massive financial and logistical investment undertaken at the alliance level. Today, they're cheap enough for individual players to fund, so space is littered with them, many captured as part of some war but left disused. CCP had previously said that outposts couldn't be destroyed due to technical limitations, but at the summit, the team revealed that complete destruction is now technically possible. That doesn't guarantee that the feature will make it in-game, but it does keep the option open.

side-imageOther upcoming changes

Fans of faction warfare will be pleased to know that it really is high on CCP's priority list. It will be getting some minor tweaks before new elements are added that should "breathe new life into the feature." Those cryptic words are all we'll have to go on until a devblog is released on the topic over the next few months. Wormholes and incursions will both get some love in 2012, though the exact details are still covered under NDA. Recognising that a lot of the high-level EVE metagame isn't even conducted in the game client, the EVE web developers have also been giving serious consideration to web and mobile apps that allow players to modify market orders, set skills training, or chat with players in-game.

The CSM was shown new models for the rookie ships new players start in and some apparently very impressive new Battlestar Galactica style graphical effects. Mark hinted that the art department showed off new graphics that literally made his jaw drop, but he was bound by NDA not to reveal any details. Hopefully CCP will release a devblog on it soon so we too can hunt around on the floor for our missing jaws. The UI will be getting some big updates in 2012, with new features like the ability to stack active modules of the same type other than weapons and attention given to meeting the needs of the colourblind. The CSM saw countless other features that will make their way to EVE players this year but currently remain under NDA until official devblogs on them are released.

side-imageA chat with the CEO

When the monoclegate scandal broke last summer and a global memo to employees from CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson was leaked, he became the target of player anger. The CSM met with Hilmar to ask him the questions everyone was thinking at the time: "How did you miss what was going on? Were people not talking to you? Were you not listening?" To his credit, Hilmar seems to have responded honestly and directly. As the company grew, it moved from smaller scale work on the game to bigger and bigger headline features. CCP has always had a reputation as the company that does the impossible, and evidently it didn't expect to fail in delivering on the promise of Incarna.

Hilmar made a few very important promises at the summit that should be enough to give even the most bitter player hope. Having been forced to lay off 20% of his staff, Hilmar has shifted his focus to keeping the remaining developers happy and fixing the problems that led to the layoffs in the first place. "The main focus over the next year is fixing the project that is EVE," he told the council, specifying that what would make the people working on EVE happy is "more Crucible work and fixing what is broken in the game." Mark believes this means we can expect a year of full-speed high-quality development on EVE before developers decide what to do next.

Final Thoughts title image
As he worked in CCP's game design department as CCP Abathur for several years, Mark Heard always has a unique perspective on the CSM summit. Although much of what he and the other CSM members saw was under NDA, his full report on the event is well worth a read. The full minutes of the summit should be out in a few weeks so we can judge it for ourselves, and devblogs should start coming out soon on upcoming gameplay features that the council got to see first hand.

Can we expect CCP to follow through for a year of solid EVE development in 2012? Mark believes so, and he makes a damn good case for it. "With the amount of resources that have been refocused on EVE, [there] is the potential for an 'Apocrypha' every 3-4 months," he writes, adding that "there are literally five times the number of teams working on EVE today as there were three months ago." If that doesn't make you hopeful for development on EVE in 2012, I don't know what will.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.