The Eve Online studio on winning a Develop Award and going it alone

CCP: The King of independence

A month after receveiving the accodlae for top Independent Studio at the Develop Awards, we sat down with the CCP CMO David Reid to discuss what staying independent means for them, how it has succeeded for so long and what its plans are for the future.

What does it mean winning the Independent studio award?

It’s a great moment, if you think about where CCP was a year ago today, and we were really in an interesting moment in the company’s history, in terms of the reaction of the community and the involvement we were having and some of the things around Incarna and such.

Now you look at where we are today with Eve having broke its all time subscriber record, bigger than it has ever been. We’re in open beta for our re-launch of Eve in open beta in China, we’ve got dust 514 launching around the corner. It’s just a really exciting time for CCP overall.

Beyond that, it’s a really momentous period in the industry right now, we all feel a huge transition happening where things around the notion of f2p, micro-transactions, digital distribution, live service and continuous development is just dramatically changing anything.

For a company that’s been around as long as CCP to be recognised by its peers in that way is something for everyone at CCP to be immensely proud of.

Did you think you’d be in this position a year ago when you were having troubles?
I’ve been a friend for a long time and kept my eye on CCP and I’ve always known that those who watch and see what CCP is doing and the things that we as a company aspire to achieve, you know we’re doing things very differently to a lot of other traditional developers and publishers in the industry.

As a relatively new guy to the company, I always knew this is the club CCP should be in, and that’s why I came here. But at the same time, the competition was pretty stiff I think.

You look at Crytek, a very well proven triple-A shooter developer, you look at Rovio with Angry Birds, which has been a dramatic global success, and it’s one of those things that’s just indicative of the transition that’s happening right now.

And to be in a club with those developers and to be recognised by them and others is just a tremendous honour, it’s something to be immensely proud of and we’re really excited about it.

Why do you think you won the award?
I think at some level it’s the acknowledgement at just how ambitious the charter at CCP has always been. Yes we’re making video games, but we’re aspiring to do something a little more meaningful as well.

There is something about the notion about what happens in Eve Online, the single shard where everyone plays together, the sandbox.

This is almost more than a game, it’s a grand social experiment with a company of a few hundred developers and several hundred thousand gamers around the world.

We’re not doing games like everybody else is and we haven’t been for the past ten years. So it is something where when people see these things come together and they see the progress in Dust and the growth in Eve the past year, people are excited.

A lot of gamers in particular, and those of us who work in independent development, we’re still gamers as well, and we see what’s happened in the industry the past few years of almost a retreat from big ambitious games.

I’m not saying there aren’t good games out there but you can really see how the traditional titans of the industry have maybe taken their foot off the gas from great core gaming experiences in favour of social, casual genres and platforms and monetisation models.

And in the midst of all that, we’ve embraced a lot of changes as they’ve come but we’ve never deviated for a moment from building these breakthrough experiences and I think people really like that.

It’s just a great acknowledgement to say that people want us to keep doing this.

How have you managed to keep subscriptions successful where others have failed?
I think it comes down to a few things. Number one is the notion of what an MMO is meant to be is a uniquely social experience and, unlike other MMOs, Eve is a single shard game.

Everyone playing Eve is playing with everyone else who plays it all the time, with the exception of China which is sharded differently for legal reasons, more than it is for technical reasons.

Maybe only in Eve do we see where everyone is literally playing together. I think the social contract with our gamers, they look at the subscription model, and realise it puts people on a bit of a level playing field.

The way in which you play Eve is almost as though your subscription fee is your leveller.

Alot of microtransaction based games are viewed as people having an unfair advantage simply by spending, and in Eve, as a subscription based-title that’s simply not the case, and it’s not the case in Dust 514 by the way.

But you can see where people worry about that with micro-transaction based MMOs, and in Eve it’s uniquely important for all the gamers to feel like no one is getting an unfair advantage.

Do you think this is a sustainable model? As games like Star Wars have seemingly struggled somewhat.
Absolutely. This is one game that has grown every year of its existence, and certainly had a smaller start than World of Warcraft or Old Republic and Rift, but it has had a staying power than nothing else has ever had.

I think it comes down to – subscription is absolutely a viable business model and it continues to be – but I think that for everybody in the MMO business has to realise now is that mandatory subscription is not the only way to build these games.

If you want to build a subscription based game, you need to make sure that is the proper business model for the game you are making, for the type of content you’re delivering for the type of game and service with which gamers get new content and what it is they get.

For Eve it has proven to be a very successful model. For other games, where gamers are able to consume the content faster than developers make it, subscriptions can be a tough business model.

I think that’s the lesson and with Eve the nature of the beast in that its something where the gamers who play the game who create the content as much, if not more so, than the development team.

We don’t have a design team that writes quests, dungeons and NPCs and stuff like that, they provide tools for the players to interact with each other.

It’s much like the Inferno release, the war declaration system, the new missiles and launchers, the mercenary market place and things like that; they are more tools for the Eve players to conduct war and commerce with each other.

Would you consider going to free-to-play? Considering you’re doing that with Dust 514?
With Dust 514, the idea was to build a game from the ground up to be a free-to-play, microtransaction, virtual goods based business model and to make sure that when you’re appealing to the first person shooter audience you utterly need to be certain that you’re still making a skill-based game, and that free-to-play cannot mean pay-to-win, as it does with other games.

I think that was the right business model for the consumer and the gameplay experience we’re building there. For Eve it feels like the subscription model has been the right approach. You never know what happens in the future, but there are no plans to change that business model right now.

Eve’s been running for ten years, and we’ll have our tenth anniversary in 2013, and that itself is an amazing testament to the resiliency of the business model.

But it’s probably dangerous to look another ten years into the future; we might all be playing in holo-decks by then.

How important is it to be an independent studio?
For a company like CCP, which is fiercely independent and is utterly committed to a singular vision to what we are doing and in acknowledgement of how different it is from the rest of the industry, it is important.

It is more than important in some of the core DNA of this company, of its employees. It’s hard to imagine the discussions we can have with other companies and partner, and often times it doesn’t fit neatly into another company’s portfolio.

It’s just hard to see how it is in line with what other people do because it is so utterly different. That’s not to say that it always has to be that way but as you look at the business today, and the industry overall, it’s not surprising that this fiercely independent Icelandic studio has built something that is so different from what the rest of the industry is providing.

And it’s not surprising that at a top level it is a studio that has been successful largely due to its independence and not having to grasp to the overall corporate strategy another develop may have to deal with as part of a larger company.

It doesn’t mean this is always the right way to do things but you can see the success of Eve over the past ten years and realise how it might have been changed if there were a broader mandate than simply to drive to that singular vision and to appeal to a very specific customer and build a very specific world.

Do you think publisher owned companies can’t take creative risks like an independent studio can?

I think that’s true. It’s a business at the end of the day, and I don’t think its crazy to look at what’s happened to some of the marquee developers in our industry, as they’ve become part of larger companies.

It just is what it is that when you’re part of a bigger team and a bigger company, and have public shareholders and things like that, you have a lot more things to answer for. That’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just different.

That can be an environment where it is hard to take big creative risks. And creative risks are risky, things haven’t always gone well at CCP, and they won’t always go well at every independent developer.

There is a lot of good to be said for being part of a bigger publisher, and I’ve been part of that in my career at Xbox, NcSoft, Trion and things like that. But if you really do feel that the vision of what you are building is so singularly important it is easier to go make that happen on your own as an independent developer.

It’s not hard to imagine that Minecraft would have looked completely different if it had been built within the confines of a larger publisher. Or with other things that you see now that are emerging in the free-to-play space.

Think about what League of Legends or Eve might have been like. It’s not hard to see how these things just by their nature change the outcome of what your development process provides.

Has there ever been any pressure to join up with a publisher?
It would be hard to say pressure. There’s always interest and we certainly take those calls, take those meetings. CCP is a good business in this industry, it has beenl it’s growing, it’s very profitable and continues to be and from that perspective there’s certainly a lot of interest.

It’s something that you always look at and you always take those meetings but there’s nothing on the table right now that suggest there’s going to be a change in CCP’s independence.

Have you ever had those discussions with Sony since you’re taking Dust 514 to the PS3?
Sony is a tremendous partner. This is a perfect example of the sort of partnership that we as an independent developer needed to have to make the vision of Dust 514 come to life.

It’s one thing when you’re building a game on the PC and you have an open platform and you have the ability to drive things within the confines of a pretty unlimited platform.

But the goal of Dust 514 is to make sure that this single shard, sandbox magic that has propelled Eve Online in a way that no other MMO has ever done stays.

The goal is to bring that secret ingredient and bring it into a larger audience, a gameplay moment-to-moment experience that is more familiar to a broader group of people and to let them to explore the Eve universe in a very different way, and tell their own stories in that sandbox.

I think that when we talked to other platform holders it became clear that with Sony we had a partner who was willing to work with us to meet our ambitions.

We needed help understanding how to make free-to-play work in the console space, and they wanted a developer to work with to make that happen.

I don’t think that necessarily requires you to change your view on whether being an independent studio or not is that right way to do things but it was absolutely critical to find a partner who had the openness, the flexibility, the vision and the commitment to seeing a pretty ambitious project through.

I can’t say enough good things about our partners at Sony but that doesn’t necessarily mean CCP has to rethink its stance on being independent or not.

What have you got planned for the future now?

This is one of the things with being an independent developer, you always need to watch that sort of growth very carefully and make sure the hires you are making are great fits for the culture, the team and what value you are going to get out of that next hire.

We don’t run the company in a way that a studio with a bigger portfolio might have. So you do have to be very measured about these things.

Do you have any specific plans?
I like to think about Eve as a universe with Dust connecting to it. There’s no reasons why the connection has to end there.

There are any number of games, applications, genres, platforms and business models that could be part of the Eve universe. That’s very much what we see going on in our future.

I personally think of World of Darkness a little less as our third game and a little more as our second universe, and imagine the things that we can do.

And we have plans for what comes after World of Darkness but right now it’s really important to ensuring the right polish and ambition on Dust before I get to giddy about what the next thing is.

So you are working on new IP?
There is always a discussion about that at any company. When you say working it makes it sound like there’s a team of developers, and I wouldn’t say that’s an accurate statement.

But you are considering?
I think that’s fair.

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