EVE’s Senior Producer: “My personal opinion is that I hate game balance”


John Lander is the Senior Producer at EVE Online; he started as a IBM project manager and his focus is bringing organisation to EVE. We talked to him about war, the Mittani and the brutality of EVE’s ethos. (This interview took place before The Burning of Jita in April.)

PCGN: What feedback did you get from Fanfest?
John Lander:Absolutely fantastic. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous going into it, because we had such a reaction from the community last year. And this was ‘this is the new direction we’re going to take, this is the stuff we’re going to look at’. Me as an EVE player, this was what I wanted to hear myself, but you never know. And traditionally Thursdays been quite a quiet day for the fanfest. So we thought we can just add Dust into Thursday. We had to show those players, who had come to see EVE, what Dust will mean. When everyone saw the guys playing the EVE side and doing the bombardment… they just came out of it with a huge buzz, ‘oh my god, Dust adds to the EVE universe, this is going to be a really good thing.’ It fits really well in with the war theme. Friday wasn’t aspirations, it wasn’t hype, it was ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ A new, slightly more sensible, John Lander-focused EVE. It was what people wanted to hear. We still need to look at opportunities to do amazing things, but to be honest, this year the amazing thing will be Dust and making these two things work in the same universe.
PCGN: What’s the theme for 2012 then?
JL: With Inferno, because Dust is pretty much ‘shoot people in the face’, it’s pretty easy to think the theme for 2012 is ‘war.’ The developers have been playing EVE since it came out, so they know what’s good in the core of the game; it’s when we deviate from them that we start having issues. So when they came back with the war stuff, what we’ve got for Infernum it was just, ‘wow’, let’s do that.
We have a whole load of spillover from that which we’ll use for later expansions in the year, then we announce things like modular POSes and ring-mining, which got a huge reception. We’re looking at them right now thinking ‘shit, these are really big things, we want to do them properly, maybe we it’s the first thing we do next year.’ But we have other ideas that we’re going through now, that war thing, just allowing players to engage in ship-versus-ship combat.
It’s actually quite humbling when you’re in the bar afterwards and people are coming up to you and saying; ‘that you, for making EVE EVEagain.’ It was great for all the devs, as we had some really tough times last year and people were genuinely thinking what’s going on with our game? The developers started believing in what they were doing again, but you’re never really sure. They started going back out onto the forums and engaging with players and things seemed good, but the cry that always came back was ‘we’ve heard the bullshit before; we’ll see what you do’. When players saw the bombardment system, and sat down and asked the devs about factional warfare and mercenaries as a profession, they were like ‘yeah, okay’ which really helped the devs think ‘we’re back and we’re doing the thing we’re good at.’ We’re just consolidating.
It seemed from the outside like Incarna was a room containing a dude with an expensive monocle. It sounds like your changes are incremental. What are you doing with the war theme? Changing the corporation structures to give them a more militaristic bent?
Everyone talks about game balance; my personal opinion is that I hate game balance, it leads to people min-maxing and knowing exactly what to do. We want to throw a stone into the pond and see where the ripples go. You never know how people will behave. Rogue drones always dropped rare alloys. A few years ago we created regions that were populated just by these guys. Players moved in, killed the drones, turned the alloys into minerals, and sold them on the market. Over the period of eighteen months, they killed mining as a profession, because you could get all your minerals from that. A happy land happened, where everyone was in sort of equilibrium.
On Tuesday, we took away those minerals. We announced this at Fanfest and you could immediately see just speculation on the markets, mineral prices changing, Dr Eyjo released a dev blog about the prices, and people started stockpiling. It’s really about just tweaking some of those things, throwing things out of balance.
We’re throwing in a ton of new modules. If you look at ship fittings, if you want to snipe from long range, you use a certain set-up. The same for short range. Every ship had two or three cookie cutter set-ups. We’re just about to just chuck a whole load of new modules in, allowing new builds and tactics. It’s just going to freshen it up a bit.
The Inferno machine: you harvest; you build; you destroy. That’s what EVE’s about. It’s been working well for nearly nine years now; we just have to make sure people want to keep going round that loop. So everybody now has some reason to try something out. It’ll fuel industry, as more stuff will get blown up. Build stuff, sell stuff, mine stuff.
The classic economic war footing.
Yeah, exactly. As we go through the rest of the year, the things we want to do will be in a similar vein, mixing things up so people say “hey, this isn’t just the same old.” The biggest expansion, of course, will be the inclusion of Dust. The tie-in to factional warfare, helping your guys, along with the big changes we’re making to factional warfare next month. It’s like Sovereignty-light, we’re changing the occupancy, how you fight over systems. When Dust comes along, the battles the Dust guys have on planets will have an impact on who owns the actual system, and what its benefits are. It gives the sandbox an opportunity. Rather than us going ‘this is the mechanic and you must do this’, which is all very dull, you decide as a faction if the EVE players want to liaise with the Dust players. So if you keep losing sovereignty in a quiet system, it could be from the Dust battles that are happening there.
And you’ll be able to hire mercs to rectify it without flying over there?
You’ll be able to create Dust contracts for Dust corporations to pick up. You’ll be able to have joint corporations, of EVE pilots and Dust fighters, or Dust and EVE corporations in the same Alliance. You’ll have shared Alliance chat, shared channels, Vivox across both games for shared voice comms. We kinda got out of the habit of that. We started making games for people, rather than saying ‘here’s a world, you do what you want’. Hilmar said “we don’t own EVE, we’re just the janitors.” I try to live by that. Look at what happened with the Jita riots last year.
There was a perception last year that, in the releases you put out, the quality was dropping while the bug numbers were rising. Have you redressed that?
We’re addressing it. EVE is a classic E-type system, according to Lehman’s laws of software evolution. It’s incredibly complex, lasts for a long time, has things continually built on top of it. If you don’t spend a reasonable amount of effort just maintaining the system, it’ll just degrade. We have been constantly trying to push out big new features; Dominion’s change in sovereignty, or Tyrannus’s Civ-style gameplay, and Incarna, an entirely new game. We didn’t spend enough time looking at our internals and just fixing them. That was to do with how the project was organised. You have to remember that EVE started as this very small project and it’s now well over 200 people. I used to manage big projects for IBM and we would have thought about splitting a project up at that size. It’s hard to deal with that many people.
How buggy was the release of Escalation then?
If you look at the Escalation release, we shut the servers down for just an hour and we only had three defects to triage that day. You go back to 2007, we shut the server for 20 hours, to get this stuff done. Everyone said, ‘this is the smoothest ever’. It’s because we’ve allowed the teams to own features and stopped being so top-down. It’s like moving a tanker. We’re also deploying much more often. We did Crucible in November, Crucible 1.1 January, 1.5 February… It will be interesting with Infernum next month, as it’s much bigger.
Even Escalation made a big change to crimewatch, which deals with whether you’ve been bad or not, and that hadn’t been touched for ten years, which had lead to problems in both high and low security space. Players won’t see any functional difference, but we’ve completely redone the back-end. It was one of those things that, if you changed code anywhere, it’ll probably break, as it so interconnected. Means that we can no build things on top of it. So now we can start looking at Bounty Hunters, which is easy to conceptualise. Everyone wants to be Boba Fett. One of the things about the new mercenary marketplace coming out in May is that it gives you so many options; it’s easy to say “I’ll buy your war off you.”
Your stockmarket is from the 1950s, not the future; the modern stockmarket is bot-driven, while yours bans them. Is there anything you can’t buy in the EVE universe?
You can buy a Plex for $20, which is itself trading at around ISK 450,000,000, and sell it on the market. The other way around, if I’ve done lots of mining, I can sell my stuff and buy a Plex. We’ve got some virtual goods, not many but they’re very expensive. In effect, you can buy anything, yes.
Can you buy a system? Can you buy a war?
There is going to be bidding for wars, but you’ll also be able to put a contract out. Here’s a contract for a million ISK, for mercenaries to fight for us. The wardeck mechanism in EVE, for a long time now, has basically been used to grief people in high sec and there are so many loopholes that it’s just been a dead system. You can still grief people, but people now have some options. Also, people can now make a career out of defending the good guy. We want to give tools to people so that they can find out what they are. I want people to be mercenaries who take the contract, then shoot you in the face and doublecross you. I want people to build up a reputation.
Can you take multiple, opposing contracts?
I don’t know. I’m a dreadful game designer. I’ve played EVE since 2005, have many ideas of how I want to see EVE. Stoffer, our lead game designer, I see him close his eyes and shake his head when I talk about game design.
Mittani’s returning with Burn Jita on the 28th. You said you were looking forward to this? Most developers would cringe.
I first met Alex in 2010, when he did his presentation on metagaming in MMOs. Afterwards, I just went up and shook him by the hand, and said ‘thanks for making so much content for us’. It goes back to 2005 with the original Guiding Hand Social Club heist, and we looked very carefully to see if we should roll it back, and we decided no, this is fine in the world. That set the standard that, yes, this is a tough game. It is brutal and lots of people won’t like it.
But you look at Dark Souls, there is a growing movement that we want painful, difficult, not just feelgood evil stuff. These guys who are griefing; there are consequences to it and, if they’re suiciding their ships, their ship will get blown up. They’re doing it because they’re enjoying it. People will find out about this and they’ll either not go to Jita, or they’ll look at the opportunity to get on some killmails and shoot the goons when they’re flashy red. This is an opportunity; a lot of people will be cursing that their ships been destroyed. I’ve had it, when I’ve jumped through a gate, alt-tabbed, and come back to find myself floating in my pod, and I’ve been angry. But then you step back and go ‘wow, this game is eliciting this feeling from me’ and I want to go back to get that guy back. Even last year we still grew in terms of subscriber numbers.
That’s a funny formulation. What is the way that you’re saying you didn’t grow?
We had a big drop-off. We didn’t grow as much as we wanted to in the year, but we still ended the year with more people than we started. But it could have been way worse. People are coming back and we’re getting lots of new people in. It’s looking very healthy and we’re looking at another growth year; there aren’t many western games who can say that. I look at the number of people who’ve been playing seven years and there’s a lot of those players. On the back of Fanfest, we’ve seen a huge effect of new players. The halo effect of Dust is really working; my feeling is we couldn’t predict that, just be happy when it happens. My mandate for the EVE project is let’s make a business plan for the company that involves us doing the things that we know well and we can predict; everthing else is an upside. We can run the business even if we don’t ship Dust. I don’t ever want to go through what we went through last year again.
I understand you’re having a Lego model made of one of your ships. Tell us more about that.
If you get 10,000 votes on the Lego site, they’ll make your model. A fan made a Lego Rifter, and we showed it off at Fanfest – once we rebuilt it, thank you Icelandic customs – and the community just loved it. It’s the quickest ever 10,000 they’ve had. So we’re going to talk to Lego… I just want one. I don’t get the ships free from CCP, I go out and buy them.
You’ve talked about API-based gaming; you’re happy for people to train skills through mobile devices, but not the auction house.
We’re not taking advantage of mobile platforms but we’ve always had a really great third party developer community. All these things are already out there in our API but we want to truly go big on these things, we needed to put this technology in place. We’ve got this technology called Crest which is the outward facing part of the EVE universe and we can expose whatever we want to on that. We had a big developer track at Fanfest; the limitation is ‘what do we want to expose gameplay-wise?’ Does mobile skill-training increase player interaction; the same thing with the market. What about fitting? It’s an incredibly singular thing. Why not have that on your iPad, so that you can fit on the bus home from work, so you’re ready to go when you get home. We could expose everything.
Except maybe combat, which can’t work on mobile devices, can it?
The Dust-EVE simulation is hefty and the rendering engine showed the work we’ve been experimenting with DX11 at Fanfest. So how do you translate that experience? We want to make sure whatever we do looks great and is very polished. It’s the key part of EVE, that vision. What are we able to properly develop and support without taking away from the core spaceship game? We have the tech, it’s a key part of Dust interacting with Tranquility. We’ll take it easy to start with, as it would be incredibly to destabilise the game.
You mentioned while we were talking at lunch that EVE is a dreadful solo game; with the mobile devices, how do you keep them away from that?
If it’s a chat channel, as a mobile app, so you have access to the chat channels you do normally, that’s a great tool. If it’s an app like Atari’s Asteroid Blaster, with chat channels built in, that would enable those social interactions. What the game is that we play, that’s wonderful. Some sort of stylised group mining on an iPod. Maybe, off the top of my head, you go up into the upper atmosphere and you’re mining gas clouds in the upper atmosphere of planets. Because there’s this universe, we’ve already segmented it; the surface of planets is Dust 514. Space is EVE. What about the inside of stations, what about all these weird and wonderful things.
The key thing for us is, what about these social connections? It’s people working together, fighting against each other. Stoffer came up to me and said “we need to encourage people to hate each other more.” He’s right; the great conflicts of the past, Goon versus BoB, were driven by hate. But I also remember going to Fanfest where Mercenary Coalition went face-to-face with Goonswarm, and they were all there. There was Seleene and there was Darius Johnson, and they were physically there. With their MC shirts and the Goon Bees, all staring at one another… then it was “beer?” “Beer!” and they were all drinking together and saying “remember that time I shot you in the face?” so there’s in-game hate which is great for making conflict, but the community is very, very tight.
Thank you.