The lead designer of space MMO "EVE Online" came by to show me the new expansion, and we talked about player scandals, the different issues dealing with the player-elected government, and how he just can't add pink elephants to the game.
Last week Noah Ward, lead designer of space MMO "EVE Online" dropped by MTV headquarters all the way from Iceland to show me the game's 10th expansion "Apocrypha." During our demo, he addressed how developer CCP deals with the player-elected government ("it has its ups and downs") and said how scandals aren't necessarily a bad thing for the game. In fact, they've seen some positive results from player corruption.
MTV Multiplayer: Recently there have been some player scandals [regarding in-game economic exploits]. Do you feel that is a natural consequence of giving players more freedom? What do you think happened there?
Lead designer, Noah Ward: Well yeah, but that was actually sort of the goal. When you give players freedom to do whatever they want, then you're going to have these sorts of massive political scandals -- and the players really love it. The largest alliance in the game was broken up by a trader on the inside and when this happened we were really worried at first because we were like, "Oh no! Everyone's going to quit!" And it was really horrible for us.
"When you beat the biggest raid in 'WoW' you don't get an interview in The New York Times but when this sort of thing happens it makes real-world news."
That was in the morning, but a couple hours later the buzz on the forums was crazy, subscriber numbers were growing, and everybody was really excited. Because everyone was becoming complacent and bored with being the biggest alliance, and then all of a sudden now there's war and turmoil. People who used to be in the alliance were re-subscribing and everyone was really excited about it so it's not necessarily always a bad thing when this sort of stuff happens. Somebody on the other side was interviewed, and he was saying "When you beat the biggest raid in ['World of Warcraft'] you don't get an interview in The New York Times but when this sort of thing happens it makes real-world news."
MTV Multiplayer: So you think when these scandals happen, it's not always a bad thing?
Ward: Yeah, I think it's what makes "EVE" so unique and what makes the world rich. We could've never scripted that; you would never be able to come up with something like that. It's what the people like, they have this freedom and that's why this stuff is happening. Even if you were on the losing side of that, in a few years you'll look back and say, "I was part of that crazy thing that happened." Another big interesting thing that happened was during the alliance tournament, there was an assassination. Somebody killed one of the guys on his own team as part of some contract. People in the gaming press were comparing that to the assassination of Lord British [in "Ultima Online"].
MTV Multiplayer: Is there anything you feel that CCP should do in order to prevent scandals like this, or is it still sort of live and let live?
Ward: It's live and let live really; we just try not to interfere at all. We let them do their own thing. We will step in if there are racial slurs going on or any real-world threats, but if it's all within the role-play and within the game, we don't change anything. We don't go in and flip their alliance back on because the players wouldn't even like that. They were really excited to see these things happening, and if we stopped them it would take away a lot from their ability to be free.
MTV Multiplayer: So the Council of Stellar Management [the player-elected government who travels to Iceland to meet with CCP] is more about addressing real-world player issues?
Ward: The CSM is really the voice of the players. It's a democratic election of a council of players that can bring the largest issues with the game to us and highlight what it is that the players feel is most important to work on and change, and what the next expansion should be like.
It's also a way for us to educate the playerbase on how game development works and how the schedule works. They can't just come to us and say, "We think you should add planetary flight." Because we'll say, "OK well... we would like to but all the art takes a long time and programming and everything." When we're able to bring a group of players to CCP and sit them down, talk over the course of three or four days with them and explain everything,then they take that news back and spread it to the other players. It works out a really good synergy between everyone.
MTV Multiplayer: Overall, have you found that to work well for you guys?
"We can't add pink elephants because you say you want pink elephants."
Ward: It has its ups and downs. Sometimes they really feel the sense of empowerment, maybe too much. They say, "We're the elected council and you have to do what we say." And we say, "But we're the developers of the game. We have business obligations and shareholders who need to make a profit." All of a sudden, we can't add pink elephants because you say you want pink elephants.
MTV Multiplayer: So you're saying there isn't always a shared understanding between players and CCP?
Ward: There is when the sessions are over, but when [the players] come there at the beginning it's difficult. We've had two sessions so far [note: there's one every six months], and I'm getting pretty good at it. I'm also good at just saying "no" to features anyway. Because as a lead game designer, I always have the other game designers coming to me saying "You know what we need to do!?" and I say, "You know we don't have the money for that and it'll be impossible?" And they say "OK" and walk back to their desk. It's basically the same thing with the CSM. They say "I want to fly through the planetary rings," and we say, "Okay, would you rather have walk-in stations that we've been talking about for so long or do you want this planetary ring thing?" And they go "Oh okay. Well, in 2011, I want to fly through planetary rings."
MTV Multiplayer: Do you think other MMOs should do this?
Ward: It's fairly new. But I don't know. It depends how you do your game development. Here at CCP we really like to listen to our customers a lot, and I think some other MMO companies might just have their plans and say, "That's what you're going to get." They might throw a lot of employees at a problem to solve it instead of talking to the playerbase.
Stay tuned for more from my interview with Noah Ward. [UPDATE: The rest of the interview is here.]