New subscription-based games a flawed strategy - CCP dev

GDC Online 2011: Lead designer of Eve Online Kristoffer Touborg talks about the mutating MMORPG market, working with Sony for Dust 514, and the dimly understood details of World of Darkness Online.

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Yesterday, CCP Games announced it was laying off 20 percent of its workforce (roughly 120 employees) and refocusing its efforts on its venerable massively multiplayer online role-playing game Eve Online and the upcoming PlayStation 3-exclusive Dust 514, a first-person shooter set in the Eve universe. As a result, the company has cut resources from its early-in-development World of Darkness Online, even as it reiterated its long-term commitment to the project.

The future of Eve Online should see fewer faces and more spaceships.
The future of Eve Online should see fewer faces and more spaceships.

Before the news of CCP Games' layoffs hit, GameSpot sat down with Eve Online lead designer Kristoffer Touborg at last week's Game Developers Conference Online, for a wide-ranging discussion on the state of CCP. While intervening events may have rendered some of Touborg's answers outdated, the designer's responses shed light on the Dust 514 development process, the studio's recently rethought approach to Eve Online, and the future of online gaming business models in general.

GameSpot: Give us an update on Dust 514. How has the team taken to working on a PS3 title? What are some of the new challenges the team has encountered working with new hardware and with a publisher that requires strict code approvals?

Kristoffer Touborg: The biggest challenge for us is going from making an MMO to a console title. We have a ton of experience making MMOs, but a console title is something that we have never done before, and that's proven to be relatively difficult. We did inherit a lot of designers from an old studio, Midway in the UK, who were doing console titles and joined us early on, so we have a good mix of veteran console developers and a lot of old Eve people. It's definitely a bit of a challenge, but the product is looking really good. We've been playing it internally for a while now, and it's looking like a ton of fun. In terms of publishers, Sony is giving us a lot of support. This is one reason we went with PS3-exclusive development. It afforded us a lot of freedom in terms of development and marketing support. The PlayStation thing is a really happy marriage, no doubt about it. The biggest technical hurdle is tying it in to Eve Online and hooking it into our servers. That going to be the biggest challenge for us when it comes to us going live, but we are still scheduled to begin our beta this winter. That's when players will see it first, and we'll take it from there, but it's looking like a lot of fun.

GS: World of Darkness Online was recently unveiled. Are there any new details you can share with us?

KT: Not really for World of Darkness. We have Eve out now; we are looking at Dust next, and then World of Darkness, so we are still kind of keeping that under wraps. We do traditionally go to the "Grand Masquerade" to give out a few bits of information, but aside from that we are still in the teaser timeline, so nothing new to say about World of Darkness.

GS: It is a single-shard world like Eve?

KT: I don't think we can really say whether it is single-shard or not. We would like it to be so that all users can interact with each other, but we are not ready to unveil the actual final architecture of it yet.

GS: We understand that additional White Wolf settings such as Mage: The Ascension and Werewolf: The Apocalypse are not planned to be implemented for playable characters at the game's launch. Are Mage or Werewolf characters and content/skills definitely planned for implementation at a future date into World of Darkness Online, or do you perhaps plan to implement either of these settings into an entirely different game?

KT: Of course we would love to leverage the entire IP. With White Wolf we inherited a really, really rich set of games, a really rich story, so hopefully we'll see a lot of it. Whether you are going to be able to play as a werewolf in the expansion to World of Darkness, or they are going to have their own game, it's too early to tell, but it would be dumb of us as a company not to leverage all the stuff we have. So let's hope you'll see Mage in some way, shape, or form.

Dust 514 will feature guns (not pictured) as well as ships (pictured).
Dust 514 will feature guns (not pictured) as well as ships (pictured).

GS: Can you give us a general update on Eve, in terms of what the team is working on and what players are asking for?

KT: Yeah. Last week we announced a pretty big content switch for Eve Online. We've been working on a lot of other products as we wanted to diversify Eve a bit and bring it into 2011. We added [the expansion] Incarna; we added a virtual goods store. A lot of that stuff was us trying to take an eight-year-old game and bring it up to date and branch it out. It's become obvious that that hasn't really turned out the way we wanted it to, so we've said, "Let's go back to doing what we are good at." So, the majority of our development resources are back to making spaceships again. There won't be the same number of people working on stuff that is not related to flying in space, so this winter you should see the first push of much more old-school expansions.

We used to have very rich expansions, and that's what we're going back to. The number of people working on things related to flying in space has probably tripled, so we are ready to start delivering a load of content. We had a pretty slim summer, but this winter we are going to rebalance five or six ship classes; we are going to be making new ships, and just tearing into a lot of stuff that we haven't touched before. It's a lot of fun. I've had a very slim crew recently while doing all of these other things, but we are back to a ton of developers making spaceships again. So if you are part of the customer that enjoys the spaceship aspect of Eve Online, winter and onward will be a very exciting time.

GS: So are you looking to just retain your current customer base, or is there a push for new Eve Online players?

KT: I'm not sure that balance has fundamentally changed. Of course, all of this stuff should be very good for existing players. Some of the people that have been with us for five years have been screaming for some of the features that we are just now getting in, but of course we also want new players to play Eve Online. Those goals haven't fundamentally changed. We've changed the way we approach the product; we've changed our priority list, and flying in space is back on the top of that list. A lot of flying-in-space stuff.

GS: Eve is one of the few online games that have not changed their pricing to a free-to-play model. What's the reasoning behind this, and does CCP have a position on alternate pricing models in the future, either for Eve or for CCP's other online titles?

KT: So, we've gone to a kind of hybrid model. You have your subscription, and you can also buy virtual goods. What we often see from games that successfully use the microtransaction model is that they are either games that are built for it, which Eve certainly isn't at eight years old. That's a very important part. Doing microtransactions is much, much easier if you construct the game for it, and Eve wasn't constructed for it. Or, that model is good for MMOs that were previously doing really poorly. In some cases, swapping business models was the last resort. It was either, "We are shutting this down, or we are going to try something new," and we really aren't in that position. We are a really healthy, subscriber-based game. Does that mean we will be a subscriber-based game in five or 10 years? Maybe not, but as it currently stands, we have 400,000 subscribers, and there's really no reason to turn that bucket upside down.

GS: But you are not ruling out designing more new games around microtransactions in the future?

KT: No, certainly not. It does seem to be the currently popular business model, and with good reason. There are a lot of companies that are doing really well. And for example, Dust 514 won't be subscription-based. It's going to be based on microtransactions, so yes, we are certainly stepping into that. With Eve Online, it is a much more complicated question since it is already in the market and difficult to adapt. The single-shard environment is a bit of an issue. A lot of these games rely on having a mass quantity of new player acquisitions--if you run a game on a single server, that mass quantity of acquisitions can work against you. We can't just have 3 million players come in over night; that just wouldn't work for us. I don't know how Eve will evolve, but it will continue to be a subscription-based game for now, and that's working for us.

GS: Do you see the market shifting away from subscription-based in the future?

KT: Oh yeah, definitely. I was looking at games currently in beta on MMORPG.com the other day; I think they had 30 games listed, and four of them were subscription-based. It's definitely going away, and we're seeing big titles, like Modern Warfare 3 and others, looking like they will be heavily microtransaction-based. I would say it's the way of the future, but these kinds of things also tend to come and go. It's a current trend, and it will be for a while. I think designing a new subscription-based game is a flawed strategy, because you are basically competing with free.

GS: Where do you see CCP fitting into the current and future game market? The studio has always prided itself on single-shard gameplay focused on player interaction--player economies, player associations, and so on. Do you feel that this strategy of keeping all players on a single server will bear out in an increasingly connected world where social media and mobile compete for people's time, or will there need to be a significant change to the way CCP and other studios approach online games?

You know what would look great on that eye? A luxury microtransaction-based monocle.
You know what would look great on that eye? A luxury microtransaction-based monocle.

KT: I see a lot of people actually following us. We've always been a multiplayer company; we've never done single-player games. Our primary design principle is human interaction, and that's what everyone is doing. Social games are about human interaction. So I don't see us changing as much as I see the industry following us. Now, of course, the whole direction of making social games like Eve--a lot of people call it a spaceship game, or a game about spreadsheets, but Eve is inherently a super-social game. That's really what Eve is all about, and I don't think that will ever change. On the other hand, the single-shard environment may not stick around exactly as it is now. What if you had an MMO that was sharded but you could freely move between servers? It's not a single-shard in its entirety, but if your friends are on another server and you could just click and move, or something ever more graceful than that such as an in-game area for travel to other servers--I think there are a lot of ways to keep the feel of a single-sharded game, but accomplish it through loopholes. I hope that's how we continue to make games. I don't like sharded environments. The single-sharded nature of Eve is one of the things that helps it retain its charm, and I think you can really take that principle and apply it to any other game if you just sit down and engineer your way around it. We'll see, but we will certainly continue with very social games that are about social interaction. That will always be our mantra.

GS: Since GDC Online has become a convention that is focused on figuring out the nature of the next big thing, what kinds of trends do you see and feel like that's where everything is going to be in five years?

KT: Certainly this year it has been virtual goods. CCP had a talk about what we've done with virtual goods, and a few other companies are doing the same. It seems like the honeymoon period of it is over for some companies--us included. We kind of jumped on the bandwagon and didn't do very well, so our GDC Online talk is about not doing it very well. At first you had people coming here saying, "We were the first guys doing virtual goods, and we're doing tremendously." Now, there has been time for broader testing, and you are seeing some people doing well, and some doing poorly--and that is the big theme for me this year. Not everyone is coming back able to throw money around. We are starting to get a more balanced and realistic view on the model, and that's really where all of these trends become interesting. The first people to do it well aren't that interesting, and you will almost never be able to perfectly mimic them. Getting the broad batch of data where you can see what works and what doesn't is interesting, and that is what I am going to be keeping an eye on here. A more balanced view on virtual goods is probably my trend to watch this year.

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