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EVE Online has been a subscription game for 13 years, but with its Ascension update being launched today, the game from Iceland’s CCP will have a free-to-play option for new players.

The company hopes that will lead to an influx from free-to-play will reinvigorate a community of hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Andie Nordgren, executive producer of the game for the past two years, told us in an interview that the new players will be welcomed into the EVE universe with a tutorial that lasts two to five hours. That tutorial, playable within five minutes of the start of downloading, is the result of many years of experimentation with how to bring players aboard.

The expansion is the second major update this year from the 100-person development team. It is aimed at keeping the content fresh for old timers and accessible for new players who are curious about why the game attracts such passionate followers who stage gigantic battles with thousands of players.

The addition of free-to-play is a gamble, but CCP has thought it through. EVE Online can still monetize players through in-app trading, dubbed Plex, where CCP takes a cut of transactions between players.

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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

EVE Online executive producer Andie Nordgren

Above: EVE Online executive producer Andie Nordgren

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Andie Nordgren: We’re trying to give people a basic orientation in how to take part in the sandbox universe through a more story-driven approach. You join the game through one of the four empires, four different races. You wake up after a battle that’s gone wrong. Your fleet was attacked by Drifters, one of the enemies in the game, and you’re the only survivor. The commander from your empire has to work with you — someone completely new — to get done what needs to be done.

This commander provides the why behind what you need to do. Then you have your ship’s onboard A.I., who’s there to assist you with getting things done. The clip here starts with you in this warp disruption bubble, which means you can’t warp out. You practice shooting the bubble generators so you can get out. Just as you’re about to shoot the last one, the first real enemy ship warps in for you to fight, and the A.I. helps with doing that. You get a sense of the interplay between these two and the way the A.I. scales back instruction as you learn things.

It’s a sort of partitioned story that takes you toward finding out where the attackers came from and then becoming part of striking back with a big fleet from your empire. The pinnacle of the experience, after you’ve prepared and gone on several sub-missions, is being part of a huge battle in the end with capital ships. Then you’re equipped with the basics of the game.

The free offering is the most dramatic change in terms of access to the game. Then, in the expansion that’s shipping on the 15th, we have a couple of really chunky features for the current community that are part of strengthening the sandbox gameplay. We have new structures to build, new stuff for the fleet combat meta, and so on.

EVE Online

Above: EVE Online

Image Credit: CCP

GamesBeat: How old is the game now?

Nordgren: It launched in 2003. It’s been 13 years now. We’ve been it updating ever since.

GamesBeat: What was the earliest user experience like?

Nordgren: Kind of…nothing? When the game launched, you were just dropped in space with nothing at all. We’ve made various attempts over the life of the game to tutorialize all of this in some way, but because there’s such depth and complexity, so many things you can do in the sandbox, it’s extremely difficult.

What we have in the game at the moment is something very open-ended, very action-based, called opportunities. We just show you things that you might be interested in doing, but we don’t really give you any context or purpose. This storyline you can take part in is our way of equipping you with the mastery you need to then become an agent in this universe. What’s a good way to teach those skills? We think that’s by letting you be a star in this little story.

GamesBeat: How long does this tutorial story last?

Nordgren: We think it’ll be between two and five hours of play time, depending on how fast people go through it. If you already know the game quite well, you can run through it fairly quickly, but if you’re completely new to it and take time to enjoy the scenery — it’s designed so you can take breaks in the middle. At several points you’re on station preparing for the next leg of the story, and you can say, “Hey, I’ll play the rest of this some other time.”

GamesBeat: How long have you been working on the game?

Nordgren: I joined CCP in 2010. I’ve been the current executive producer for about two years now.

GamesBeat: Do you regularly reinvent and reinvest in the game this way, or is this a comparatively rare event?

Nordgren: For the first few years of the game, there was an expansion every year. Then we stepped up to a few years with two expansions every year. Now, for the last three years, we’ve been in a hybrid mode. We deploy changes every month, which might be small balance changes and so on, new content, and then we have bigger expansions when we feel like we have something significant enough to put that label on it.

This is one of two expansions this year. We also shipped a pretty big release in the spring. We have a development team of about 100 people that continuously works on adding updates to the game.

GamesBeat: How did you contemplate going free-to-play?

Nordgren: A lot of the decision, for us, comes from listening to our current players. One of the biggest reasons they unsubscribe is because of the equation between time and money. That’s a big signal. The game market, what people expect, has just changed. When EVE Online launched, it was completely radical to have a free trial. Expectations were just different.

Some years ago it was still a viable value proposition to offer a subscription-based MMO. Now, with so many free games on the market, it’s a much bigger ask to get people to subscribe up front. We think there needs to be a viable way to take part in the game for free.

We’ve tried to design it in a way that it isn’t just a trial. The limitation is essentially that you have access to three sizes of ships. But with those ships, you can do almost anything. We’re not limiting any regions. We want the option to be viable for both old and new players to come in and play for free. We think that overall the ecosystem benefits from more people.

Business-wise, we don’t need to have everyone eventually become a subscriber. As long as we have a base of subscribers, that’s fine. Also, because we have this Plex model that lets players trade in-game currency for game time — that’s become a very viable model for us. Basically, we take a cut when players trade between these two things. The difference is about five dollars.

Because we have that model, we don’t have to come up with 10 new things that we’re going to sell to the free users. They’re part of the player-driven economy. They contribute to the ecosystem anyway. I love being in a position where we can thrive as a business without having to constantly chase our free players for money.

EVE Online

Above: EVE Online

Image Credit: CCP

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?

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.

EVE Online

Above: EVE Online

Image Credit: CCP

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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