Hilmar Pétursson is Gabe Newell born in Iceland. Both men are separated by continent, but their ideas belong in the same room.
Pétursson sees player feedback as essential for developers in the digital age. He says Eve Online is a service – not a product – that must continually adapt to player pleas and protests. He believes CCP must go where its customers are, be it on mobiles or social networks.
In 2010 Gabe Newell managed to get Steam on the PlayStation Network – a significant coup achieved on the promise of developing Portal 2 for Sony’s system. Pétursson’s ambition is possibly greater – he wants a single game universe to unite PC and PlayStation customers.
Dust 514 is the service that could bridge these two systems together, and CCP is driving the project into its final stages of development. In fact, the Reykjavík studio last week hired David Reid to spearhead its upcoming marketing operation.
Develop spoke to Pétursson and Reid about the finer details of the dust project.
What are your general thoughts on the MMO market? World of Warcraft is now looking downwards, a lot rests on the success of The Old Republic – where do you see MMOs in five years?
Pétursson: Well, really I would just rather talk about this as the general market of gaming. I mean, MMOs and free-to-play and online games are all blending together into this one participatory social… thing. To get a handle on it? I mean, the lines are blurring so much. To specifically talk about MMOs is, I would say, speaking in outdated language.
Eve has subscriptions, it has Plex [in-game currency], we have Dust, we have fan-made mobile apps. These are parts of a larger ecosystem. Whether you call it cloud gaming or not – it doesn’t matter too much. What’s important is that people want to customise their experiences to suit their lives and leisure time. The more you allow them to do that, the more devices you give them to interact with their experience, I think is going to be the difference between a relevant and outdated games company.
It’s on us at CCP to constantly keep up with customer expectations, about where they want to access our experience and how they want to pay for it. It is up to us to meet demands, not set them.
Gabe Newell coined the phrase “games as a service”, but that’s essentially what CCP has been doing for years, right? Evolving with your customers, making decisions based on data and feedback.
Pétursson: When we first spoke to investors, back in 2002, we had to explain to them that what we were providing was, in fact, an evolving entertainment service. But now it’s almost outdated to describe Eve as a service. We’re talking about it more as an experience that offers many different services.
You can look at current industry trends as convergence, with all consumer devices offering similar services, but I look at it as expansion. Eve was a core experience that has expanded to many other devices. From that perspective it’s almost the opposite of convergence. We’re proliferating Eve, not converging it.
Our fans had such a desire to put the Eve experience on mobile devices that they made an Android app. That’s the philosophy here – expanding the experience into new devices when there is a desire to. About 100,000 people have downloaded that app now, it’s amazing.
Studios shouldn’t ignore what their fans are saying. These people are building mobile apps and a hundred thousand people have downloaded it. This is something we have to look at and support.
There’s iOS apps too. There’s Eve Universe for iPad, there’s apps for iPhone. These aren’t our apps – we haven’t made them. It’s on us as a company to follow through on this. We can’t say we don’t want to make an Android app because we as a company don’t want to. It doesn’t really matter what we want at this point. People have had a desire to build their own, and 100,000 people have downloaded it.
There’s a great number of amazing apps developed by the community, and this is all through a relatively simple gateway. Compare that to the gateway we’re about to open with Dust… We want to give the application developers more help in building their apps and their own Eve products.
Is it important that CCP offers a project separate from Eve Online? In that, do you want your business to be about more than one product?
Pétursson: I would rather think of Dust as an integrated experience with Eve. There are so many people who are naturally intimidated by getting started on Eve, and that’s what Dust is for. It allows people to participate in this massive world by just picking up a controller.
Reid: From a business perspective we consider World of Darkness to be our project that’s separate from Eve.
It wasn’t clear if the World of Darkness project is still in meaningful development. When CCP announced the redundancies at the US studio, you said the company was trying to achieve too much at the same time. What was it that you felt the company needed to cut back on?
Pétursson: Well we were ramping up production of World of Darkness, Dust and Eve at the same time. Fighting on three fronts, with the attention and revenue divided. Now we have scaled back on World of Darkness, but we still have a fantastic core team working on it. They are absolutely committed to it.
The Dust project, of course, spreads across PS3, PSN, PlayStation Home and even Vita – all interacting within the same universe, so clearly that’s a massive undertaking. What is the concept for Vita and how it converges?
Pétursson: We were thinking about giving people access to more asynchronous parts of the game. But now, having looked at Vita, I’m sure our teams will have many ideas as soon as they get hold of the device for themselves.
With Dust you have a very unique hybrid free-to-play model, in that you have to purchase the game but thereafter will have to either pay for a subscription or earn one by being successful in the game. Is that still the plan?
Pétursson: Yes the initial cover charge is almost like early access. The people that will buy it when it launches will be there to shape the whole experience. We think this is our best way to find a committed audience, and later – who knows – we may open the door to everyone.
It’s a hard sell to the consumer. All Points Bulletin didn’t succeed with its own cover charge and now it’s free-to-play entirely. Surely you must have been tempted to drop the cover charge?
Pétursson: Absolutely. It always is a temptation. Whether we go free, or how soon we do it, are questions that will be answered the more the experience evolves.
Reid: On the other hand, one way of looking at the cover charge is that it’s a hard sell, but look at Battlefield 3. That’s all about online and it was full price and it sold great. The audience are pretty comfortable with that notion of paying for an online-focused game.
But of course Battlefield 3 had EA’s full marketing might behind it and a retail-backed pre-order operation. There is still the question of whether Dust will come to retail or not. I get the impression it won’t.
Reid: [Smiles heartily] We haven’t yet confirmed whether it will or not. [Laughs]
Will Sony help with marketing?
Reid: Well they have tremendous resources with the PlayStation Network. If there is a retail play, they have tremendous routes into that. They have PlayStation Network cards sold over the counter. There’s so many ways for us to get our brand everywhere.
I mean, I’ve only joined the company for about 72 hours and about half that time is speaking to Sony.
Pétursson: And already Sony is helping. We continually write information about the game on the PlayStation Blog, and they’ll be participating in [annual community event] Eve Fanfest. Sony has a huge commitment to that show, and they will be reaching out to the Eve community and showing off live demos for the first time.
Develop has made its position clear: We believe success for Dust could change the PlayStation Network forever.
Pétursson: We hope so, and by the level of commitment Sony is giving us, and how willing they are to respond to the changes in the industry, it’s really encouraging. We’re seeing Sony really picking up on the things that you wrote about in your last article. That’s really how it feels to us.
And if Dust works, CCP will be driving forwards with a new type of currency on the PlayStation Network.
Pétursson: Yes and they haven’t done anything like this before. We’re having many meetings with them to ensure they have solid policies on virtual currency. Given the amount of back and forth there, we can definitely see us breaking new ground.
Reid: Yeah these meetings with Sony have been fantastic. We are both trailblazing together. CCP and Sony are right there in the same room figuring all this out together.
I imagine the virtual item revenue split between Sony and CCP is one of those back-and-forth discussions.
Pétursson: Yes, a very healthy topic for negotiation [laughs]
A key challenge with Dust is the evolving support from CCP. PCs are built to be continually updated, but PlayStations go through definitive step-changes. How can you provide a decade of support for a console that will be superseded in a number of years?
Pétursson: There is a big roadmap for the game and all its updates. Obviously we have to wait for customer feedback to determine our decisions. Now, we have been faced with technology upgrade challenges for years. We release new versions of Eve at a time when most people don’t have the technology to support it, so we operate both the old and new versions of Eve on the same client and allow people to migrate.
We will continue to develop on PlayStation 3 even after the release of Dust, and I think the game’s audience is more used to constant updates than people may assume. I mean, if you look at Call of Duty, that essentially is an online experience that has undergone mass migration across three games.
If there is a PlayStation 4 – which I can tell you now I have no idea if there is – but if there was, we would build Dust for that console as well. It will most likely be a revision of the experience, as with all updates, and could allow people to play across PS3 and 4.
You have a famous relationship with Eve players. When Dust launches, how much are you thinking of them too?
Pétursson: Well the moment when we really meaningfully begin that dialogue will be at Fanfest this year. We’ll be speaking to the die hard fans, and have roundtable discussions, both for Eve and Dust – talking to people about what they’re concerned about – getting feedback on their ideas about how the games interplay.
Obviously we have the basic designs and ideas, but we really need to make sure we crack that puzzle of finding a compelling Dust experience for Eve players.
Will there be PS3-to-PC connectivity from day one?
Pétursson: Yeah. There will be able to communicate on our social network. We already have cross-game text chat working, and we’re looking into cross game voice chat too. There are also more structured engagement between Dust and Eve players in terms of in game mission contracts going back and forth. We also have a huge commitment to orbital bombardment [laughs menacingly].
Our aim is that Dust is a fantastic experience for the Eve Online community. I mean the Eve community is so engaged with us.
If you look at the Eve protests last summer, that shows how much customers can react to business decisions, and the standard they hold developers too. At the time we were not living up to that standard – they are the first ones to tell us if our game is doing something wrong.
From a neutrals’ point of view, it was fascinating to see an in-game protest at the scale you experienced on Eve.
Pétursson: Yes, this to me was a representation of how much people care about the game. And how is that a bad thing? I mean, I wish we didn’t get things wrong, we all make mistakes though.
I feel sorry for making mistakes. Of course I do. We’re not gods at CCP. We don’t always know what’s best. The challenge of game design isn’t avoiding making mistakes, the challenge is knowing who your audience is and what they want.
After the protests you lost a lot of players. Since then you’ve had an outreach programme to get people back. How is it all going?
Pétursson: Eve had grown in 2011 overall, so we’re very happy with that. I think it says a lot about the dedication the developers have with the project, because internally we were happy with the Crucible update.
I take it you’re not currently above the peak you reached last summer, then?
Pétursson: Yeah, that’s right. The summer peak was huge though, because of all the promises with the Incarna update. It was something that a lot of people were looking forward to.
We didn’t meet those expectations – what we gave people wasn’t what we had promised. We should have presented it as a small tech upgrade, in beta – essentially just something you can take a look at if you want.
But the protests were an example of the enthusiasm people have for Eve Online. What we had to do, and what we always have to do, is listen, admit we made mistakes, and update.