GamesBeat: How long has the Plex model been working for you?
Nordgren: The Plex item, that kind of trade, has been in the game since 2008. It’s not a large percentage of players that participate in it, but you have players who buy Plex from us and trade it with other players for in-game currency. Then you have players who go the other way and get to have their subscription for free because they have more time than money.
We let the market forces in the player-driven economy solve the exchange between people’s time and money, and the game maintains its integrity, because all the valuable resources in the game are acquired through gameplay. As the designers of the game, we can just make a game that’s fair, where you always play the game to get valuable stuff. Then players can trade it amongst each other and resolve any issues of supply and demand.
GamesBeat: Does it take any work from economists on your side to figure out that balance?
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Nordgren: We used to employ a PhD in economics. He’s running a university in Iceland now instead. But we do a fair amount of analysis about the different sinks and faucets in the economy and so on. We keep a good eye on all these aspects, because they’re crucial to the game’s balance and to the business side of the game.
GamesBeat: About how many players do you have now?
Nordgren: We haven’t given out official player numbers in quite some time now, but it’s several hundred thousand playing together.
GamesBeat: Do you expect an influx of new players as the game goes free-to-play?
Nordgren: I think so. It’s difficult to predict. A lot of people have an interest in EVE Online, but the combined barriers have become too high to check it out. It’s a dramatic change now, where the question goes from “Why?” to “Why not?” That’s going to make a big difference.
Millions of people have subscribed to EVE Online at one point or another, and now they can just log back in to their existing character for free and start playing. They can get back in touch with old friends in the community without having to make the payment decision up front. All those characters are still there. Someone who played 10 years ago can come right back. Maybe they’re sitting on something that’s a rare collector’s item now.
GamesBeat: In Zynga’s space, the average payer to non-payer ratio is something like two percent. For this, I’m sure it’s different. Do you have any guide posts as far as how that ratio might end up?
Nordgren: We’ve put together some scenarios internally, but I feel like it’s very difficult to judge. If we can sustain or slightly grow our population of subscribers at any given time, we have a solid business case. The rest doesn’t necessarily matter that much, as long as we have the capacity to host all the players. In our case, that can become a challenge. We’re ready for a big influx when it comes to server infrastructure and so on, but because everyone plays on the same server, our scaling options aren’t the same as most other online games. There are certain aspects where we can’t scale out.
GamesBeat: How big a download is the game?
Nordgren: It’s very small now, actually. We stream all the assets on demand. The launcher is maybe 200 megabytes, and then the initial download is very fast. You’re in the game in about 10 minutes, including sign-up and all that.
The game client acts like a web browser, in a sense. It does some intelligent pre-loading. If you’re in one solar system, for example, we pre-load all the neighboring systems. If you jump through a gate to the next one it’s already there. Otherwise, if you encounter a ship for the first time or whatever, the game client just grabs the assets for you. You can ask the launcher to download everything if you want it there, but for most players — the commitment used to be a seven-gigabyte download, expanding up to 12 gigabytes. Now the commitment to just check it out is very small.
GamesBeat: Were there any particularly strong server technologies that have come along to make this cheaper to operate?
Nordgren: Not really? We’re still running our own hardware and all that. The back end is Windows, and it runs in a single Windows executable. It’s mostly stackless Python, single-threaded. In the spring we just did a massive hardware upgrade, to the beefiest stuff we can find.
GamesBeat: Can you use something like Amazon Web Services?
Nordgren: For some of our stuff, we’ve started moving auxiliary services — things like crash logs and some of our API services that we provide for our own mobile app and for third-party developers. We have a pretty active third-party developer ecosystem that provides tools for the community. Some of that we’re moving into the cloud. But the core game back end is still running completely on our own stuff, and probably will for the foreseeable future. We’re trying to take pieces of it and push them to the cloud.
GamesBeat: How fanatical would you say are your strongest community members? Do you still have players from the very beginning?
Nordgren: We still have some sliver of the player base that’s played from day one. I wish we’d taken pictures — over the weekend in Vegas, a guy was showing me photos of his new house. He’d moved to a new house, so he had to rebuild his setup. He runs several accounts at the same time — I think 20 of them — and he has this four-by-four screen setup that folds around, this huge command center, because he helps out a lot of people. He runs some scouting accounts, ships that are out in space scouting. He runs a mining operation. He has other things going on. It’s fantastic.
On the other hand, you also have casual people who just play on their own. For some people it’s just therapeutic to undock and go flying through these beautiful space vistas. They use it to relax. We have players on all sides.
GamesBeat: Every now and then you make the news with some massive battle. How often does that happen?
Nordgren: We obviously don’t control that, but we pretty regularly have thousand-player battles. Some of the biggest ones — this here is 5,700 ships in total. It’s a battle that took place earlier this year, or possibly late last year, in an unregulated region of space.
A thousand-player fight is considered a bit small nowadays. I don’t think there’s any other game out there where you get nearly that many people in the same engagement.
GamesBeat: How many players do you see joining up in these guilds, the corporations?
Nordgren: Some of the biggest groups are around 10,000 players. I think 12,000 players is the biggest one. Some of the leaders of these groups have more staff than I have. Of course they’re volunteers, other players, but they have really serious operations. Some people use it on their CV applying for real-life jobs.
GamesBeat: So you create new content, but you don’t necessarily stir up trouble between these groups.
Nordgren: No. We try to populate the world in such a way that it pushes encounters to happen. One thing we’re releasing in the same update where it becomes possible to play for free, we’re deploying new NPCs with more interesting AI. They behave more like players. You can encounter these mining operations with much more complex behavior.
We’re trying to design them in such a way that multiple types of players will have different reasons to engage with these NPCs. Some players will try to help them. Some will try to attack them. Once our world manages to bring people together like that, they have to figure out, “Okay, why is this other guy here? What should I do with him? Is he a friend? Can we collaborate, or should I start a fight?” All these dynamic decisions come up, where other players impact you and you can impact them. We’re trying to stage that for people.
That’s the type of content we want to make. Not necessarily content where you’re just going on a ride at Disneyland. We want to inspire encounters where you have deeper interactions with other people. There’s a challenge in figuring out what they’re going to do and what you should do.
GamesBeat: That naturally sounds intimidating to people who are starting out, though. What do you try to communicate to those people?
Nordgren: The thing to know — that’s a word people often use to describe EVE, “intimidating.” I totally understand why people feel that way, but it helps to know that you can completely decide on your own how deep you want to get into the game. There’s totally a place where you can tinker on your own. Playing solo in this shared universe is still something unique, and very different from a single-player game.
Even though you’re not on comms with people — say you’re transporting valuable goods, and you’re trying not to be found out because there could be other people around you. That experience, flying trade routes from one system to another, is completely different from doing the same thing in a single-player space sim. You can decide how deep into that level of dedication you want to go and still take part in what’s unique about EVE. Nothing requires you to immediately join some big player group and fail in front of everyone.
GamesBeat: You’ve also created a lot of related works, like EVE: Valkyrie and so on.
Nordgren: We’re trying to get the world in front of people in different ways, in different media. CCP as a company is doing a ton of work with VR. We’re exploring all avenues there, both with EVE Online as an IP and with some other stuff like the Arena project, this TRON-like thing where you’re throwing discs at each other. We’re jumping into VR completely.
GamesBeat: Are players in EVE Online related to any of that directly?
Nordgren: No, there’s no direct impact between these experiences at this stage. We might be able to do something like that in the future, but for now — the communities do overlap. We just had a player event in Las Vegas this weekend, with about 800 people buying tickets, where we had a tournament in Valkyrie, the dogfighting game. Some people who play EVE Online took part in that.
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