EVE Evolved: Bring on the big expansions!

EVE Evolved title image
I don't normally jump out of my seat shouting "hell yes!" to an EVE Online dev blog, but this week's announcement on the direction of future expansions has me a little bit excited. In two somewhat dry and lengthy posts, Executive Producer Jon Lander and Senior Producer CCP Seagull detailed the approach they intend to take to ongoing development in 2013. Instead of announcing any big headline features or making vague promises, the developers looked back at the success of 2009's blockbuster Apocrypha expansion.

Apocrypha was hands-down the best expansion EVE has ever had, adding 2500 hidden solar systems accessible only through shifting unstable wormholes. We saw a renaissance of exploration, collaborative research, and colonisation efforts that defied EVE's war-like reputation, and moreover, we saw a rebirth of small-scale PvP. The magic sauce that made Apocrypha work was lateral design: Rather than add one massive vertical feature, the expansion offered a little something for everyone. Apocrypha was EVE at its best, and hearing that developers are going back to that style of expansion honestly makes me a little giddy!

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at the future for EVE's expansions, why the Apocrypha model works, and why I'm optimistic for 2013 and beyond.

EVE Evolved side imageVertical design doesn't work

In EVE's early years, each expansion iterated on almost every area of the game, fixing any issues that arose and adding everything from new ships and modules to new features and mission content. This strategy now seems to be the prevailing design philosophy at CCP once again, but from 2008 to 2012, many of EVE's expansions were built on a single-feature vertical design philosophy. The Empyrean Age expansion brought us the highly anticipated Faction Warfare system, for example, but developers quickly moved onto the next project, and the system wasn't iterated on for several years.

December 2009's Dominion expansion contained almost nothing for anyone outside of nullsec. Tyrannis' expected planetary colonisation and domination system ended up as a FarmVille-style minigame. And don't even get me started on Incarna. With so many big features promised that fell short of the mark, the decision to work on huge features rather than iterate on existing gameplay turned out to be a big mistake. Those four years culminated in the monoclegate scandal, but amongst the wreckage were two shining examples of expansions done right: Apocrypha and Incursion.

EVE Evolved side imageWhy was Apocrypha so awesome?

Apocrypha was hands-down the best expansion EVE has ever had, and it's all thanks to its lateral design philosophy. Instead of developing one big feature for a single area of the game, developers introduced a smaller amount of new gameplay and content for every type of player. Explorers found themselves navigating the deep underbelly of space hunting for rich systems, pirates started setting up hidden waystations and supply depots, and industrialists had an entire new tech 3 ship-building industry with all-new resources to find.

The expansion also catalysed the creation of new communities and gave corporations some fantastic goals and opportunities to work together. My corp lived inside wormhole space for two years straight following Apocrypha's launch, logging in almost daily to run wormhole sites together and search neighbouring systems for PvP opportunities. We built ourselves a little empire, defended our solar system from invaders, and had some incredible adventures together. That's the core of sandbox gaming, and if CCP can replicate that in future expansions, then we have an awesome decade to look forward to.

EVE Evolved side imageThe plan for future expansions

Apocrypha's core theme was that unstable wormholes had started appearing in the universe leading to strange new systems that presented new opportunities. Every feature tied into the wormhole theme in some way, and it felt like the first really cohesive expansion in EVE's 10-year history. In their recent devblogs, CCP Unifex and CCP Seagull explained that EVE is returning to this philosophy of each expansion having an overarching theme. While previously developers would have focused on just one feature or area of the game, now every type of player will have something to look forward to based on the expansion's theme.

We got a limited taste of things to come with the PvP-focused Inferno expansion and Retribution's revenge-centric additions, but CCP Unifex believes "it is time to be a little more ambitious." We may finally see that criminality expansion people have been hoping for, one that will overhaul lowsec piracy and highsec smuggling, or wormholes may be expanded on with the ancient Talocan and Takmahl space opening for exploration. There's a ton of possibilities for future expansion themes, and developers have promised that popular themes may last for several releases. This means we might get more of a consistent storyline in the lead up to the expansion.

EVE Evolved side imageNot forgetting the little things

While Apocrypha was the holy grail of EVE expansions, Incursion was also a bit of a curve ball. It fell within the dreaded four years when developers were focused on what players call "Jesus features" but bucked the trend by not forgetting the little things. Incursion didn't launch with many new features, but the months that followed it saw dozens of small fixes and gameplay iterations as CCP Soundwave's development team worked on player-voted ideas. Over the course of around six months, every player got something new to play with, and the game felt a lot more solid.

The expansion still focused on big features like group PvE Sansha incursions and the new character creator, but smaller features were iterated on, and old things that hadn't been looked at in years finally got some attention. This has been the prevailing development style since Crucible, and EVE is in the best state it has ever been thanks to it, but not everyone has been happy with the content-light expansions. A balance will need to be struck between iterating on old features and adding new ones, and I'm cautiously optimistic that this will happen.

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The most exciting part of the recent devblogs for me is actually the promise that development will focus on making life easier for "enablers" and "instigators," CCP's terms for the leaders who build communities and give other players a place in the world. I wrote about how important it is to support these power players and investigated their positive effects on player retention in April of last year, so to get a statement from CCP that it will be paying particular attention to them is a huge step forward.

Apocrypha has long been held up as the perfect example of how to do an EVE expansion right, so I'm super excited to hear that developers are planning to do similar laterally designed expansions in the future. As Apocrypha was produced with the combined resources of the entirety of CCP, even pulling developers from other projects like World of Darkness, it remains to be seen whether the same standard of development can be pulled off with just the core EVE teams. Nevertheless, I remain cautiously optimistic.

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.