Hilmar Veigar Petursson, CEO of Iceland’s CCP Games, sees both hardship and opportunity in the coronavirus. Demand for the company’s flagship game, Eve Online, has risen in recent weeks, with the number of people signing in at about double the number a year ago.
But his whole staff of 300 people also has to work from home. That’s not easy for game developers, but CCP has to adapt just like every other game company in the world. Online connectivity and Zoom meetings enable the company to function as normal and to serve as a lifeline for isolated players who are navigating the vast spaces of Eve Online in solitude.
Meanwhile, CCP, which is now owned by South Korea’s Pearl Abyss, is working with China’s NetEase to produce Eve Echoes as a mobile massively multiplayer online game, and it has also recently received permission to launch Eve Online as a free-to-play game in China. I spoke with Petursson about these challenges and chances in an interview this week.
Petursson will be a speaker at our GamesBeat Summit Digital event on April 28-29. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You recently got the certification for Eve Online in China with NetEase. What went on behind that? What makes that important?
Hilmar Veigar Petursson: The world knows well right now that China has been reorganizing the way they do game approvals. As a result, there has not been a lot of approvals for new games, especially non-Chinese games. We’ve been in the approvals queue for quite a while now. I think we submitted our application in 2018. We’re quite happy to have made it through the process. We’re licensed to publish Eve Online in China with NetEase, which is something we’ve been preparing for for many years. The player base in China has been waiting as well. It’s a relief to be at the stage where we can ramp up to the release.
This will be the first time we release Eve Online as a free-to-play game in China. The last time we were operating EVE in China it was under the monthly subscription model, which is not very conventional for the Chinese market. It’ll be exciting to see how the game will do under the free-to-play model, and with all the additional development we’ve done since then. It’s a big deal for us.
GamesBeat: If people wanted to play in China in the past, would they just have to do it through a VPN or something like that?
Petursson: Right. Our estimations are that when the game is up and running again, we’ll have a similar size of player bases in the west and the east. It could be a doubling of the number of users for Eve once everything goes through.
GamesBeat: What is the worldwide footprint for Eve like now?
Petursson: We always have people from almost everywhere playing the game. Right now we’re working on a few specific localizations and market entries. We did a new localization of the game for Korea in November and a big marketing push, which brought a lot of Koreans into the game. We also saw increases in other regions in Asia, such as Japan. Then we have our Russian version, our German version, and our French version. All of these localized versions connect to the same game, so while people are playing with different languages, they’re all playing in the same game with the single shard concept.
We now have a more international audience than ever, and most important, everyone is playing together, which makes for a lot of interesting political intrigue within the game. I’m sure that will only escalate now with a large part of the world stuck at home.
GamesBeat: Have you been able to measure percentage changes week to week, or from a few weeks ago?
Petursson: We started to see, as of this weekend, an increase in both daily active users and new registrations. There’s been a big boost in daily registrations for Eve this year. We have about 100,000 people logging into Eve for the first time this year, which is double what it was in January a year ago. Certainly we’ve improved the new player introduction into Eve. It’s a lot better than it used to be. We’ve also been changing our tactics in getting the message out about Eve Online. Now, in the current situation, with a lot of people at home, we’re seeing an increase again. If I look at yesterday, we had more than 10,000 new registrations for Eve in a single day. It’s quite impressive.
GamesBeat: What’s the total user base now?
Petursson: The monthly active user base for Eve is 300,000 people.
GamesBeat: It must feel good to have a diversion for people right now.
Petursson: It’s certainly interesting. Old games are seeing some of that. What we’ve noticed with Eve is that there’s such a willingness in the community to come together in times of hardship. We’ve seen that manifest in something they call “plex for good,” where the Eve community collects together substantial amounts. They collected $100,000 for the Australian bush fires earlier this year. We have a long history of people looking out for each other in the EVE community. We often say that the best ship in Eve Online is friendship.
People are calling it a social isolation effect, but–just because we’re physically isolated doesn’t mean we have to be socially isolated. It certainly isn’t the case for Eve players. They’re some fo the most socially active people on Earth. Just because we’re apart doesn’t mean we have to be socially isolated.
GamesBeat: It feels like there aren’t many things on the list that can help people feel better. You have streaming services or shopping online or social media, although that isn’t always so helpful. And then you have video games.
Petursson: I think you’re right. It’s certainly what we’re seeing. Over the past two years we’ve been running a big research product that we call “Eve: The Friendship Machine,” which is–we always knew that people in Eve joined for the game and stayed for the community. But we’re deepening our understanding of what that really means, and what’s coming out is profound insights into the kind of lifelong, lasting friendships Eve has built.
People have gone to war together. Obviously it’s just a virtual space war, but we have many people from military backgrounds describe to us how similar it feels. You have to rely on other people in Eve, because the conditions of the game can be quite harsh. You have to trust other people. That seems to build really strong bonds between our players, and lifelong friendships. It goes back to the meme about being socially isolated. It certainly isn’t the case in Eve. People are friends across borders, all over the world, through Eve Online. If this goes on for a long time and people become lonely, the Eve community is extremely welcoming. It can help people connect and be socially active, even though it’s in a virtual way.
GamesBeat: What kind of updates and improvements are you working on?
Petursson: Last year we introduced a new concept that we call quadrants. We’ve usually been doing two expansions per year, but now we’re going to be doing four quadrants per year. We’re about to announce our second one, which is coming at the start of the next quarter, in April. The first one was called Fight or Flight. We haven’t announced it yet, but there are some exciting developments in the storyline unfolding throughout those quadrants. There’s going to be some exciting activity rolling out in Q2 as part of the quadrant plan.
Already in Q1 we’ve been releasing substantial updates every week, which are affecting how we do PvP and PvE. We introduced a concept called the frigate escape bay, which is pretty cool. You can have a frigate inside a battleship, so if your battleship gets exploded you can come out in a frigate and have another chance to stay alive. We’ve been doing many cool things like this. There will be a rolling stream of new updates in the second quadrant in Q2. Already we’re getting better at it, and it will be even better in Q3 and Q4 and onward. There’s a lot of cool stuff coming.
We’ve also had a huge focus on the new player experience. Because we have this unprecedented amount of new people joining the game, like I was saying, there’s a lot of focus on improving new player onboarding. It’s already vastly better than it’s ever been. Now is the best time to go and check it out. Even more is coming. We’re polishing up the experience a lot.
Next week we’re releasing something that, believe it or not, was part of the original vision for Eve Online from 20 years ago. We would gradually reveal the user interface over time. The UI in Eve Online is quite involved, and there are a lot of things to pay attention to. Next week, the UI will be set up in a way where you’ll gradually discover the UI over time, which helps a lot with onboarding people into all the information you need to pay attention to.
GamesBeat: What has working with NetEase been like, and working with your Korean partners?
Petursson: Our big collaboration with NetEase is on the mobile version of Eve, Eve Echoes. We’ve been working with NetEase now for about three years. We’ve been doing various closed beta tests, and the plan is to release it this year. We’ll start the soft launch process over the summer. That’s coming along nicely. It’s no small miracle to take the enormity of Eve Online to a small screen. We’re already harvesting user experience and other things back into Eve Online. When you do new things like that, you pick up better ideas. There are a lot of cool solutions for Eve that we’re harvesting back, and that’s going well. Of course we’re releasing the PC version with NetEase in China as well, now that we have the license.
We did the release in Korea with Pearl Abyss. It’s the first big project we’ve worked on together, and that was an absolute joy to do. Both teams liked working with each other, and we now have a lot of good ties between the two companies as a consequence. With both NetEase and Pearl Abyss, we’re sharing a lot of insights back and forth. It feels like we’re learning faster. They’re both extremely good MMO developers and publishers. We have a lot to learn from them, and we have insights to offer ourselves from 17 years of running Eve. It’s a very collaborative environment. It feels like everyone is leveling up as a result of our Asian partnerships.
GamesBeat: How many people are working for you now? Has that changed much?
Petursson: It’s about 300. We’ve lately grown from about 250 to 300, over the last 18 months or so. We’re slowly growing.
GamesBeat: Where does your interest lie as far as new kinds of projects, beyond Eve Online?
Petursson: We have a lot going on with the mobile version, and we’re also doing another mobile project, the portal application, which is allowing you to interface with the world of Eve through your mobile device. We’re about to release the ability to trade on the EVE markets through the mobile app, which is a big piece. Trading is a huge part of the experience, enough to make the economy turn around.
Meanwhile, we’re exploring other mobile concepts. Our Shanghai team is our center of mobile expertise. In London we’re working on a new MMO in a science fiction setting. I think that’s what we’ve officially said about that. In Iceland we’re full-on with Eve Online, but we have another big project going where we’re moving CCP to a big innovation center that we’ve been building on the campus of the University of Iceland. That’s been stalled a bit now, because everyone at CCP in Europe is working at home. We’ve been having the Shanghai team working at home for the past six weeks. They started coming back to work last week. It’s an interesting timeline, given the experience in China. We feel like there’s an end in sight once this has all blown over.
GamesBeat: Do you think that people can be as productive working at home, or does it still require a certain change in expectations?
Petursson: Based on our experience with our Shanghai team, productivity was about the same. We should see something similar in Europe. Right now — we formally started having everyone in Europe work from home on Monday this week. There have been a few teething issues, VPN codes and things like that, but that’s mostly been sorted out.
The first real test of judging the output is going to be next week. We’ll wait and see, but based on the experience from Shanghai, they really weren’t affected much by working from home. Online collaboration and videoconferencing solutions and so on have become so good that it’s quite efficient by now.
GamesBeat: What sort of game engine are you using now? What kind of tools do you rely on?
Petursson: We have our own engine for Eve Online, the Trinity engine. We’re using Unreal 4 in London for our new game. We’re moving over to Unity for our mobile projects in Shanghai. That relies on Houdini and a lot of other classic game development tools.
GamesBeat: Do people have to take their workstation hardware home with them?
Petursson: The people who need full-on workstations will have a double setup. They have a workstation at home and a workstation at work. Some people have opted to take their workstations with them. We’re offering that to everyone. The people who are using the heavy-duty tools, we offer that setup.
GamesBeat: It’s a big experiment.
Petursson: It certainly is. Players of Eve Online, as productive as they are — they run massive alliances with tens of thousands of people, coordinating massive strategic moves and command hierarchies. If they can do that through Eve Online, we should be able to make it work from afar. We’re inspired by our players. If they can do it, we can do it.
GamesBeat: Is there any special communication you have to do to make sure everyone feels good when they’re working at home?
Petursson: We use Slack a lot. There are a lot of interesting Slack channels popping up. People are having lunch together on Slack by sharing what they’re eating. Our publishing team is going to “go to the pub” on Microsoft Teams later this evening and get drunk together online. We do this every week, actually. We have an hour of very open-ended AMA and hangout on Microsoft Teams where people are asking questions and chit-chatting. I always write a blog every week. I’ve done that for four years. That helps a lot with keeping everything coordinated. A lot of different teams are doing different things to stay together and keep connected.
GamesBeat: Is everyone safe as far as you know?
Petursson: Nobody has gotten infected at the company, which is good news. Hopefully it stays like that now that everyone is at home. We’ll see. The only way to beat this is some degree of community or a vaccine. In the meantime we’re doing our part to slow the spread by having everyone work from home.
GamesBeat: Have your fans been talking about the coronavirus situation a lot as well?
Petursson: Oh yeah. Every channel everywhere has been affected by discussions. Eve players, like everyone else, are talking about it. It’s maybe not a big topic in the game, though. People are looking for a bit of an escape. There’s a lot of talk about the virus on planet Earth, but 20,000 years from now, in the New Eden universe, I think people are just looking for a break from all that. They want to experience something different. It’s more about this community coming together, fighting the loneliness and isolation. There’s more of that going on.