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Hilmar Veigar Pétursson has worked at Eve Online maker CCP Games, Iceland’s biggest game studio, for 20 years, and he has been CEO since 2004. For the service, he gets the honor of getting a big Viking sword.
To date, CCP Games has given out 80 swords. Pétursson takes pride in that because CCP Games has built a game that has persisted through the years, always managing to remain relevant despite changes in the industry.
“We’ve been doing for 20 years what people fantasize about doing today,” Pétursson said in an interview with me.
And Pétursson is not done. Eve Online has a few hundred thousands subscribers, more than the population of Iceland. But it is a kind of prototype for the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. That’s the potential of Eve Online, to bring us into a world where we’d rather be instead of in the real world of the pandemic.
And it will be interesting to see how CCP takes the lessons of Eve Online and broadens its appeal to the masses, while still keeping the core audience happy. CCP has more resources now, as two years ago Pétursson sold CCP to Black Desert Online creator Pearl Abyss of South Korea for $425 million. Pétursson also spoke about his views of the metaverse at our recent GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse event.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How does it feel to have stayed with this for 20 years?
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson: There’s a lot of different feelings around it. It actually happened last year. This year I’ve been working for 21 years. But we’re locked away from having any anniversary ceremonies. We just couldn’t do it. We’re doing them now because Iceland is basically virus-free. You can do things again.
When I was getting the sword, it kind of dawned on me in a different way than I’d thought. It pushed me to think about what’s next. It feels like, after 20 years, preparing for something. I felt this push of, what should I do now with Eve and CCP? Twenty years is a lot of training for something. It felt like that. That’s the only way I have to describe it. It’s not a great description. But I felt this pressure to use all this experience I’ve gotten from doing all the things we’ve done at CCP for some next level. “Next-level shit” is a phrase that comes to mind.
GamesBeat: I can see why you would have stayed around for that long, given how ambitious the goal of Eve Online and CCP is, creating connected worlds.
Pétursson: That’s the push I feel. We’ve been doing for 20 years what people fantasize about doing today. But it’s still obscure. It’s relatively obscured inside a game experience that was put together a long time ago. It’s improved somewhat, but you have to know what you’re looking for to be able to see it.
I feel like what we now need to do is take it out of the shade and into the light. It’s hidden away. You have to go through a lot of imperfect user experience to find the magic inside Eve Online and take part in it. We can make it much better without affecting the soul of the game, the magical properties of Eve Online. I’m both holding it back and it’s my job to let it out. It’s hard. As I say, people are still fantasizing about doing it. It’s not like it’s easy to do. We’ve already done part of it. But there’s this second part of it. It’s easy to talk about taking it to a wider audience, but I don’t think it’s just that.
Right now the only way to participate in the magic of Eve Online is to play it within the PC client for years on end. Then you fully get it. You’re part of the community, the metaverse, the economy, the social economy, all these wonderful things. The game has had a tremendously powerful impact on people’s lives. We’re most proud of that experience. Eve Online has been a very positive change in their lives. It’s allowed them to really progress in being the best version of themselves, realizing their potential, self-actualization. But it takes a very long time to get to the moments where that starts to build up.
I’m constantly thinking about ways to allow people to experience maybe not all of it, but parts of it, without having to dedicate so much to it. Without obviously reducing it for the people who really want to throw themselves at it.
GamesBeat: The effort to go free-to-play, it felt like that was an opportunity to do some of what you’re thinking about now. Were there some lessons in that transition that made you think about how you can push further in this direction of making it more mainstream?
Pétursson: We picked up a lot of lessons from that. It was a very important step. We were hiding the game away behind the subscription, in a way, and that was disengaging a lot of people off the bat. It’s much better to at least get the people who are curious inside the game without putting up a paywall before you even start. That was an important aspect.
What we’ve been doing since, and it’s sometimes gone well and sometimes gone not so well, is to manage the challenge and the skill level as you progress through the stages of the new player experience. That’s something that lasts for a year. You’re a new player in Eve Online for the first year. It’s like studying for an MBA. But it shouldn’t feel like going to university as a 6-year-old. We need to find a better way to onboard people into that journey.
For the longest time we thought that was a part of it. We thought that making the game hard to get into and hard to figure out was part of the magic. But it just isn’t. We look at the people that do make it through the learning cliff — let’s just call it what it is — and the ways they got through it are usually very random and anecdotal, involving other players that help them get through the experience. That should not be the plan. The game should be able to do that on its own. That would increase the exposure pattern, where you’re more likely to meet someone who will help you get the second part of the way.
We’re now, and we have been for years, working to change the culture of the company away from this idea that you have to prove that you’re worthy to play Eve Online. So many people have, and I did when I was starting to play Eve Online. That was something you heard inside the company. It’s taken us a long time to change that. I had to change that myself. I thought that was just fine. It was a part of weeding out the people that didn’t want to be a part of it. But when I looked at the people that made it, they often didn’t even go through the learning curve. They just had someone help them out in a very random, circumstantial, non-scalable way. A lot of Eve players basically cheated. They had a friend help out. Which is obviously also part of what the game is about.
There’s something about this. We’ve been here for 20 years, and we still haven’t addressed the new player experience in Eve Online. Now I can have that be my job for the next 10 years, to make Eve Online an awesome game to start, not just an awesome game to play for decades.
GamesBeat: In Eve’s defense, I looked back at the book Empires of Eve, and there aren’t many games out there where the wars that happen inside them are memorialized inside a book, because they became such an important part of people’s lives.
Pétursson: I know. I don’t think there’s any game that has two history books about what happened inside it, books that were written by the players themselves. Eve needs no defense, in a way. It stands on its own. It’s a monumental piece of human achievement, from both the company and from the players who created the majority of the interesting things in it. It just should have a higher ability to embrace all the other millions of people who want to take part in that, without having to feel like they’re a 6-year-old in an MBA class.
GamesBeat: Judging by the popularity of the conference we just threw, it feels like a lot of people want this now. They don’t know they want Eve Online, but they want this experience.
Pétursson: Right. They want to have purpose. They want to have friends. They want to have social goals to achieve together. They want to do something that matters, that leaves a mark, that has persistence, that goes down in eternity. Eve Online has all these things. Maybe we were just ahead of our time. Maybe the world is slowly catching up to Eve Online, us included. A lot of it was intuition and timing, and not fully thought through.
GamesBeat: I do wonder how you’ve seen technology change the game and the reach of the game, where if you had infinite technological capability available to you, would that enable greater mainstream interest? I think about how many people you can get in the game at once playing together, without bringing it to a halt.
Pétursson: Technology is an enabler, for sure, and also an inhibitor. A lot of the time spent on creating Eve Online was spent creating technology, which meant we had less time to create the experience of Eve Online. So much of the energy and time went into creating the technology just to make it work. Now, today, we have almost infinite technology available. If we were to make Eve Online from scratch today, it would be a much smaller technological task than it was 20 years ago. We’d have more time and energy to dedicate to making sure the experience is phenomenal.
We obviously have already created the technology, but we’re making huge investments now into modernizing the technological foundations of Eve Online, so that less time is dedicated to that in the future, and more time is dedicated to the product experience. Every year we have more options to strengthen that part.
GamesBeat: You’ve mentioned that in some ways, if you started over now, knowing what you’ve learned, it would be much easier. I guess that becomes a question. Is that an option? Can you start something new to try to get to that mainstream audience, or do you think what you have now can be evolved?
Pétursson: What we have can evolve. That’s why I’ve been here for 20 years. It’s because I believe that. It doesn’t mean–we’ve certainly done other games in an effort to try other things, and those have taught us about the good and bad aspects of Eve Online. It’s an important part of the journey of understanding what Eve is. We’ll continue to do a bit of both. But we can absolutely evolve Eve to reach beyond its current numbers.
GamesBeat: What were some things you think Eve has solved already when it comes to fundamental challenges of the metaverse?
Pétursson: What Eve offers the most into that discussion is the economy. The economy in Eve is extremely robust. Part of that is the market system. Part of that is how things are created in the world, how basic resources become components, how components become more complicated components, how those components become spaceships, how spaceships take part in acquiring core resources or fighting against people who would take those core resources from you. The fact that we’ve built a coherent, natural resource economy, and it’s been proven over 18 years now — it’s imperfect, but we’ve been fortunate to catch it when it goes off the rails, fix it, and enhance it. That’s the most obvious contribution.
There is another less obvious thing, which is Eve is a very harsh environment. It’s the ultimate survival game, in a way. Coming into something where you feel so small and alone, where the world is out to get you, and it seems like all the other players are out to get you as well — when you find somebody who’s not like that, who reaches out to you, that creates true friendships. The fact that Eve Online is such a harsh place is an important ingredient in the way that people take so much energy from their friends that they make in the game. The game offers an opportunity for those friendships to be tested and built upon.
There’s something about the fact that the world is a dangerous place that gives meaning to failure. It gives meaning to trust. These words — failure, trust — are keys to learning and growth and development and building relationships. Forging relationships. Forging relationships is a very interesting concept. The hammer and the anvil. Eve is like a forge for building stronger relationships that you can rely on. They stand the test of time, the test of the elements.
GamesBeat: I liked the insight you had about the idea of connecting worlds in the metaverse and the problem of connecting the different economies of those worlds. It reminded me of the SimCity game where I was raising my taxes as much as possible on my city. I’ll just get more money to spend that way, right? But when your city is connected to four cities around you, everyone leaves for those other cities.
Pétursson: The labor in a computer game is extremely mobile. Other games are just one click away. It’s not like moving to another country. The reason why there’s labor migration on our planet is because the price of labor varies according to region. People want to be in regions where their labor is highly prized. That’s why they have the challenges we’re living through today, with the arbitrage that exists on our little globe, where labor is more or less valuable based on the economy you live in. This is a fundamental thesis of economies. You can’t get away from it.
This idea of having a universal game currency for all games is as ridiculous as having a universal world currency. It just can’t be done. You have to be able to price economies based on their performance.
GamesBeat: You found that when you do have more than one world, though, you can have some control over this. If you’re one company and you have multiple worlds, you can figure out how to manage that correctly.
Pétursson: When we did it with Eve and Dust — we knew going into it, and we managed that to some extent. We mainly just didn’t allow it. But there are many ways you can mimic reality in this. There are some interesting concepts like the open tax, which is a way to manage counter-pricing between two different economies. But mainly currencies are priced in a market where market values aren’t designed. What’s the value of the Icelandic krona to the U.S. dollar? It’s based on supply and demand. As anyone who lives in Iceland can tell you, when you live in a very small currency system like the krona, small currency systems are easy to manipulate. Then you can flip that over to cryptocurrencies. We now have a thousand cryptocurrencies, and some of them are very small and easy to manipulate.
GamesBeat: It feels like being in Iceland was good for Eve in the beginning.
Pétursson: I will say that when you live in a very small economy, you have a lot more clarity as far as how it really works. When you try to take your money, your Icelandic money, and use it somewhere else, you realize that you could just as well be holding Monopoly money. It has no value to anyone else. You viscerally feel the way in which money isn’t real. It’s just real to the people that believe in it. It’s why the dollar bill says “In God We Trust.” It’s based on faith. Literally stated on the actual currency.
GamesBeat: I probably should have asked at the beginning, but what was it like 20 years ago, when you were just starting?
Pétursson: I have memories of it, obviously, but — the feeling was a bit like this. We knew this game needed to exist. It was going to work if it existed. Whether it would work was still a bit of a bet, but we believed in it very strongly. But we also knew that making it was impossible. We were at this dichotomy. We’re here, 30 of us in Iceland, practically teenagers. We’ve never made a game before. We hadn’t even really met anyone who’d made a game. Nobody in Iceland had made a game. There were stories of one guy who went to EA, maybe, something like that. But that was about it.
But we had this sense of duty to make the game. We just worked like maniacs. People were pulling hundred-hour weeks. That’s insane. Not even surgical interns do that. We did it for three years. It’s madness. Somehow we willed it into existence. Once it was out there and it worked, we were in a state of PTSD, kind of, without realizing it. Just the shock of making it and the fact that we were able to.
Even today, when you look at it, the reason why people haven’t tried it — it’s only in recent times that other people are trying to make something like Eve Online. It’s nearly impossible. Through some, I don’t know, refusal to accept reality, we got it done.
GamesBeat: That refusal to accept reality, it feels like the whole “Glitch in the Matrix” thing. That Philip K. Dick speech about living in a computer simulation.
Pétursson: It’s a glitch in the matrix, indeed. It should not have been possible to make Eve Online when we did. It just shouldn’t. The servers behind Eve Online were dual CPU Pentium III computers. That was the cluster. You can barely do anything with a Pentium III compared to what we have today. But we got it to work. And then nothing really approached — nobody tried for single shard. People are barely trying it today. Some people talk about it, but nothing really came together.
And obviously we took shortcuts by doing a space game. It’s easier than doing a game where you have to make grass and trees and so much animation and whatnot. But even just getting the economy systems, the manufacturing systems, the email system — it has everything. It’s a society of components that were all pieced together.
GamesBeat: Where did the sword come from? Did the rest of the company buy it for you? What happened there?
Pétursson: You get a Viking sword when you’ve been working at CCP for 10 years. That’s something we started a long time ago. I’ve handed out 50 or 60 swords now. It’s a lot. But only three people have been here for 20 years. We wanted something special. One guy wanted a shotgun. One woman wanted a trip to Italy. But I really wanted the two-handed sword.
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