Interviews & Opinion

EVE Online evolution: insights from CCP Games' CEO on the future of the iconic space MMO

EVE Online evolution: insights from CCP Games' CEO on the future of the iconic space MMO

EVE Online needs little introduction. Created by Icelandic studio CCP Games, for over 20 years it’s been the poster child for the immersive, community-driven MMO scene.

Tons of development is taking place in the EVE universe now, with Project Awakening adding web3 components, and Vanguard taking players down to the planets’ surfaces for on-foot shoot-outs.

We sat down with CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson in San Francisco at the end of GDC week
for an in-depth chat about his philosophy and strategy, and where the company is headed.

Our chat covered everything from updates to EVE Online, the company's commitment to its long-term success, the development of Project Awakening and the incorporation of blockchain technology, the philosophical vision behind company decisions like open-sourcing their game engine, opportunities in the games industry generally, the challenges of onboarding new gamers, and loads more.

An action scene from EVE Vanguard. Screenshot provided by CCP.

Please tell us about Project Awakening, your blockchain-enabled project. A few years ago you said you wouldn’t add blockchain to the Tranquility server. What’s changed about blockchain now?

Well, nothing has changed. We’re not going to add it to TQ! We also said, specifically, we’re going to have a small tech team experimenting. If you go back to the announcement, it literally says that. We were doing experiments.

It was more on the eSports side in ’21. We were working with the team behind Tezos Blockchain. We were very impressed by the tech – and the tech is still impressive. And we were doing something to build an eSports experience on EVE that we were going to have XR and blockchain features. We were experimenting with these two things.

We aim for everything around EVE Online to go on forever. [Blockchain] is a good way to store value in a very anti-fragile way
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CCP

At the time, of course, there was a lot going on in blockchain. Let’s call it a mixed bag of stuff! And it made EVE players very angsty that we were going to change it all. That’s why we put out the statement. It’s like, “We hear you. That was never the plan. There’s no reason to change the database as it is (it’s actually a major surgery to do that). But we will continue to explore, and we have a small team which are going to carry that forward.”

And then last year we announced that that small team is now funded by $40 million. So no pressure, Small Team [laughs].

If you go to where the story started, it was in 2015. We actually did seriously take a look, for experimentation, at the Bitcoin blockchain. The Bitcoin protocol is quite flexible. You can use it for many different things. The Lightning network is built on top, because of the fact that it is extremely flexible.

There were games being made on Bitcoin as early as, I think, 2013. So there was a bit of a budding game scene there. We were taking a look at whether that would make sense. We have been interested about the persistence of virtual goods in the grander sense, obviously, for decades.

We aim for everything around EVE Online to go on forever. Having a database owned by a company located somewhere in the Docklands in London is not a bad plan, but it’s always good to hedge your bets. There is another plan, and obviously the blockchain choir has been yapping about. This is a good way to store value in a very anti-fragile way.

There are also technical pieces around blockchain that are quite interesting from a computer science standpoint. As we went deeper and deeper into this, we saw more and more opportunities to do something super-unique. So we started playtesting. The first playtest was December ’22. We had 2,000 people play for two weeks. And now we’re announcing that we’re inviting 5,000 people to play for six weeks on May 21st. We will also concurrently hold a hackathon while the playtest is being orchestrated, so people can extend the experience on their own, permissionless, completely free, as the game is running.

Project Awakening concept art provided by CCP.

We believe we have created the physics where this is going to make sense, where it’s not required to be an engineer to play the game. You can still win this game just through being very socially capable, as you see in EVE Online. That takes enormous leadership skill, and communication, and conflict resolution, and strategic planning, and grit.

If you look at the average EVE alliance, they practically already have an IT department to run their infrastructure, which are often run from a database, working with an API gateway into the database for Tranquillity, the main server for EVE Online. But now you can develop all those alliance infrastructure tools, basically on-chain, through smart contracts, and through UI frameworks that we’ve added.

This is one of the learning points we have from EVE. There’s so much development that takes place around EVE Online, which is not orchestrated by us, and we don’t really provide extremely good tools to do it. They’re okay, but they could be better. Blockchains are very good at organising distributed development. I mean, what else are they good for?! We’re still figuring that out. But at that, they are provably good. People have been building on Ethereum without anything really blowing up.

And, concurrently to that, to make that even more efficient, we’re open-sourcing our Carbon engine, which we’ve updated to be able to do all this.

Bits and pieces of the engine will now emerge as open-sourced models so that people can just see how it works
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CCP

But that engine is also shared with EVE Online. So bits and pieces of the engine will now emerge as open-sourced models so that people can just see how it works. As they are developing in Project Awakening they have the full context of how everything works, which makes everything way more efficient. We’re doing a big push into this. We want a lot more people to participate in the creation of the world.

What philosophical vision is driving these changes?

In this concept of “forever”, you have to de-risk everything that causes fragility in the “forever”. I think we’ve shown over the past decades that if a project is open-sourced, it has more potential ways to live on than if it is locked inside of a company.

I have also seen it personally, now that I’ve been running EVE and CCP for 20-plus years, that people come and go that are working on the technology you build, and that’s the nature of life.
Generally you share, in order to maintain a stable brain trust around projects which are open. So we believe that we will eventually unlock a superpower, both for longevity but also for community contribution into improving the experience. And open source is a great way to do that.

Project Awakening logo art provided by CCP.

When we were deciding to do this, we actually ran the movie backwards. We thought, “What is the value of having it locked away?” We’re not selling it as middleware – and security by obscurity is not really security. So what really is the value of having it locked away?

We kind of just thought about it like that. It is more valuable to have it open. There really is no value in having it locked away. And I think we are seeing this more and more. Even on Unreal Engine, the source code is out there, even though it’s not an open source project, per se. Having the source code is hugely useful.

The games industry is facing many challenges. Are any of those affecting you? What are your hopes and fears for the whole industry in the future?

I think the games industry is reaching the end of an era, in a sense. There is a lot of fatigue with the way that games are done, by both [players and developers] I think. There is a call for innovation without anyone having any real specifics. There are a lot of games out there. Some of them are amazing, but a lot of them are very similar. We see major franchises stumbling. These are signs that something new will emerge.

What Epic is doing with Unreal Engine for Fortnite is quite an interesting take on it. And then you look at what’s going on with Roblox, and you see what’s going on in Minecraft and the extended Minecraft ecosystem, which is a formidable phenomenon.

EVE Online has built an online community for over 20 years.

We might have been, in many ways, way ahead of our time in this element of building a sandbox, and people are literally going to build the game with us. At EVE Online, we’re extremely proud of that being a valiant attempt at figuring out that format. It was made 20 years ago! There’s only so much you could push the envelope 20 years ago.

When we’re thinking about Project Awakening, we’re thinking, “How can we tap into this human creativity and potential that players bring to the game?” We’re thinking about how we can make them a bigger and more inclusive part of the business of the game. Because when players are contributing so much more than just the dollars they provide so that the company can run – players are building the relevant things when it comes to the game experience. Most games today are multiplayer games, and if you make a multiplayer game, the game is more about the players than the game. For example, poker is not about the cards. Nobody cares who made the cards when you’re playing poker. People care about the people playing the poker.

We’ve gone from like “games are like solitaire” to “games are like poker”. And now games are like poker, players are after a meaningful experience. Game providers try to provide a platform for players to play together, to build something amazing, and to find ways to include them in the business model.

What’s happening with Vanguard?

We did the fourth playtest on that yesterday. We’ve been running these five-day events since December. This is our way of doing “friends and family” if you think about it like that; the friends and family are EVE players. We’ve been testing it out with EVE players.

We are constantly evolving the game mode. With this playtest, we’ve added mining. The game is very much in its early stages, but we’re making sure that we nail the gunplay, and the feel of the game, and are taking a lot of learning from tests where we got a lot of the meta gameplay economy and things correct, and some of the progression.

The gunplay of EVE Vanguard. Screenshot provided by CCP.

The game mode currently feels like an extraction shooter but we foresee it having many modes, and many levels, and evolving more into a sandbox shooter. The plan is to be working on this for decades to come. So we make it as meaningful to stop around planets as it is to fly around in space.

But, right now, we’re in that “friends and family” phase with our best friends, the EVE players. If you have a subscription, you can join in. And that’s been extremely useful for the team in London to learn how to interact with the community. This is new to the team which is building it. And so far, so good. We really have nailed the gunplay, and now we’re building out the rest. We’ll be continuing these events throughout the year; every month, there will be an event and they will increase in length. In June, we’re aiming to add another level.

With such a strong existing community, how do you find and bring in new users?

There is a challenge to onboarding new people. But, interestingly, bringing more people in is not as much of a challenge as you would think! We often get people who worked on other MMOs come and join the EVE Online team, and they are staggered by how many people are trying to play EVE Online for the first time every year.

We have, on average, up to a million people log into EVE Online for the first time in their life every year. There are not small numbers. The world is very big. I mean, we’re from Iceland – these numbers make no sense to us [laughs].

AI is like rubber ducking, but it can talk back! And these are great tools
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CCP

The promise of EVE Online is super enticing. We’ve come up with several strategies to link these two things together: the extremely high-end gameplay that some people engage with, plus the people who are just starting out. None of them have been super successful, if I’m being honest. We have a bit of success in leveraging the EVE community, and giving them better tools to embrace people into their social constructs, with their alliances and corporations. We released, in the summer of last year, a feature called Corporation Projects that basically allows managers of corporations to create almost a mission system for new joiners into the corporations. That has created a more scalable way for corporations to onboard new players.

So we’re seeing a lot of smart behaviour from EVE players where they are onboarding players, and they are frankly much better than us through the game! There’s nothing better for success in EVE Online than finding another person to connect with.

We will continue to refine and build on those ideas, because out of everything we have tried over the years and decades, this has shown the most promise in being more effective at onboarding up to a million people every year. And the 400,000 that have played EVE Online for decades...

What about other new technologies. Are you looking at generative AI, which is the other hot topic in games?

I think that everyone is organically using generative AI in life. It’s not only me that’s curious about new technology. This is the culture of CCP. We want to live on the edge. I don’t know if it’s the “Iceland” in us – we live on a volcano. If you going to make a game, you want to find where the lava is fresh.

People are using it a lot as tools to be more effective at their job. Obviously, we have co-pilot features which engineers use a lot, and get a massive productivity boost from, and it takes some of the drudgery of programming away. In a past life I was a software engineer, and I wrote the first 3D engine for EVE! And there’s just a lot of boilerplate meta work you have to do; co-pilot tools help you focus on where you truly have a value, and where you’re not just servicing a framework or a system. So we’ve seen massive boosts in productivity from engineers who learn to use that.

EVE Vanguard screenshot provided by CCP.

On the art side, image generation tools help a lot with exploration and inspiration – you can test ideas quickly, throw them out. None of it is ready for being final in a game. But these are very much tools on the front of the game-making pipeline. We’re seeing a lot of improvements in speed and quality on that front.

I personally use ChatGPT a lot when it comes to thinking about strategy, framing things, communication. I never take it like a cookie-cutter, but sometimes you’re stuck in a rut, and you’re like, “Hey ChatGPT, I’m trying to make this happen. Here’s what I have so far.”

It’s a little like what they call “rubber ducking”. Trying to prompt ChatGPT to solve a problem will often mean you solve it yourself...

Yeah, it’s very much like rubber ducking, but it can talk back! AI is a rubber duck that talks back. That’s precisely what it is. And these are great tools.

And obviously, like any MMO game, we have a lot of AI NPCs – but really they are more like decision trees. They’re not generative AI in that sense. But our games have been pioneering AI since the dawn of time.

All this focus on AI is making AI tools better. I think it’s still very early days. They always say, “This time it’s different! This hype cycle, we’re doing artificial intelligence. It’s different. It’s more fundamental.” And I’m like, “Okay, I’ve heard this before. I’ve heard it’s going to be different so many times.” And, of course, these things go so far, and then they kind of fall down into some rationality, and slowly they’re built into something.

We are allowing things to happen organically. We embrace this element of blockchains because it relates to persistence. It relates to economy design. It relates to all of those things which are very much areas we have kind of developed some expertise in. And we use a lot of AI. People are very curious. So it’s just happening very organically. And it’s just a productivity boost, I would say, over and over.

Spaceships and space battles are a feature of EVE Online.

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COO, Steel Media Ltd

Dave is a writer, editor and manager. As our COO, he gets involved in all areas of the business, from front-page editorial to behind-the-scenes event strategy. He began his career in games and entertainment journalism in 1997 and has since worked in multiple roles in the media. You can contact him with any general queries about Pocket Gamer, PC Games Insider or Steel Media's other websites, conferences and initiatives.