Today’s a big day for the ever-churning vat of intergalactic intrigue that is EVE Online. It just went free-to-play, which means a big influx of players to disrupt the universe’s precarious balance of power. I spoke with the game’s executive producer, Andie Nordgren, about how corporations are already using that to jostle for power, potential exploits, the looming specter of harassment, and CCP’s role as a developer in a universe that’s not entirely theirs.
Nathan Grayson: EVE is going F2P, and that means a potential influx of new players. What are existing corporations doing to prepare? I’m sure they’re anticipating shifts in power, or at least opportunities to gain an upper hand. Have there been recruitment efforts? Propaganda?
Andie Nordgren: Several of the old-school groups have set up new corporations in their alliance. They’re gonna be their recruiting corporations. They’ve set up one at each starter point. They’re looking for new ways to reach people. Like, “Hey, we’re the mercenary coalition, so if you want to be a badass space mercenary who fights war for pay, then come and join us!” Brave Newbies, a group formed after a massive battle in 2014, are still around, and they’re preparing for a big recruitment drive. All the big groups now have a newbie school that they’re trying to get people into.
Grayson: Post-F2P, what is your plan to keep EVE and the community around it healthy? While F2P will doubtless bring in new players, you never know what those players are gonna do or how existing players are gonna react. F2P also opens up new holes for possible exploits, given that people can easily open up tons of accounts now.
Nordgren: That was part of the reason we went very early to our community and talked about this change rather than—BOOM—announcing it with a big trailer and springing it on people. We knew there were possible exploits. The design itself covers it quite well. Part of the alpha clone state, which is what you play for free, is a specific set of skills for specific levels. Because skills control what you’re able to do in the game, as part of the free offering, we’ve been able to restrict some of the resource gathering skills, for example. You can’t create tons of accounts and go and mine all the ore from the game.
One major restriction that’s covering this is, you can only ever have one free account online at the same time. So you can’t just create 100 free accounts and have them login and do stuff. But part of EVE Online is that people can have multiple accounts, and they do, even with subscriptions. It’s fine. If one person wants to run eight accounts and have a big mining fleet, that’s fine. He’s also paying for those accounts. There is that kind of resistance in the system.
So we very much collaborated with the community to shore all of that up. I think that’s part of why the community is excited. Because they don’t think this is gonna be a big problem, so they don’t have to be like, “CCP! Why are you doing this? You have to fix these obvious things!” Someone will still come on and say something crazy, because that’s what people do, but we’ve worked hard to minimize it.
Grayson: Which is very cool. But there’s also a possible darker side to it all: when people can make tons of accounts—even if they can’t use them at the same time—they’re much more capable of harassing people. If one account gets blocked, they can just hop on with another. I’m sure you saw it, but recently an EVE player faked their own suicide IRL, citing harassment, and ultimately scammed people, seemingly as a means of getting revenge. What are you doing to protect against that?
Nordgren: We’re on high alert to monitor all those things, and we have a couple follow-on things we know we can do. For instance, right now we don’t want to restrict players shooting other players in high security space, because we think it’s going to be OK. But if it turns out it’s a complete menace, we can then lock the ability for free players to shoot others in high security space. So they’ll be able to do that in low and null security space, but not in high security. So we have a couple tactics where we’re taking a wait and see approach at first, but if there are problems, we can pretty quickly stop them.
Grayson: So you have big red buttons. Running a game as potentially chaotic as EVE, is that a standard practice? Do you have a bunch of “just in case” failsafes in place, waiting to be deployed?
Nordgren: Not necessarily. That would be problematic for us as developers to deploy interventions like that. Part of the game, the uniqueness of it, is that we offer this world with a bunch of systems in it, and it’s about the emergent gameplay of how players decide to play against each other that comes out of that.
We see ourselves as janitors and caretakers of that world. If the world is unbalanced so that people aren’t having fun, we fix it. But usually we take a long view toward that, because if we step in the middle of some conflict that’s going on, then we’re taking sides. Unless we have some really good external reasons to step into something, we become biased as caretakers of the universe. It’s really quite a delicate and complicated position we have as developers. We don’t own the game. The players kind of do, together, with us.
Grayson: Yeah, it’s a precarious line to walk. I can’t really think of another developer that has to examine each case so rigorously, given how completely player-run EVE’s universe is. It’s also uniquely a game about, well, fucking each other over. Backstabbing, scamming, sabotage, and things that might be frowned upon in other games (and real life) are just the way of EVE’s universe. But that’s part of the fantasy and the culture. Players usually do those things with knowing smiles. Where do you draw the line, though? What’s too mean, even for EVE?
Nordgren: The line is very much as soon as we enter real-world harassment. That’s like, “Banhammer. Immediately.” I think that there’s an interesting aspect, though. We don’t disallow scamming other people inside of the game, but we have some rules. You’re certainly not allowed to pretend to be a charity when you’re not. When it goes into real-world stuff, then the real-world rules apply. As long as you stay inside the game, the magic circle of the game, almost anything is allowed.
Most players take it with a smile. You see this at the player events we do, like the one in Vegas. People are happily having beers together and partying in real life. Then they go back to shooting each other in the game.
With the freedom to be mean to each other also comes the flipside that trust really means something. Because of that, so many times you have this weird dynamic where, someone who just shot you will then invite you to their corporation. One of our developers, to really explore the design we’ve made, took a character and artificially gave himself the skill restrictions that free players will have. He played like that for three weeks on the live server, just to see what he could do with this type of character. Twice, he was killed by someone, and they ended up chatting him up and going, “Hey! Are you new? We can show you how to fit your ship better. Do you want to join our corporation?” It’s real in a way similar to the real world: you can have an impact on other people’s experience because the game doesn’t control so much of it.
Grayson: You guys have cracked down on some things recently, though. Stuff like gambling. I was wondering: did the F2P change spur that? It’s not hard to imagine things spiraling out of control the way CSGO did for a little bit if everybody could make free accounts.
Nordgren: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. There are some issues that, before F2P, were in the yellow, and a potential large increase of people could turn them red. So we decided to get them out of the way beforehand.
Grayson: Obviously, some players weren’t too stoked about that—like you said, I think they prefer a hands-off approach to what they regard as “their” universe—but prominent folks like Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco seem to be in favor.
Nordgren: There were some negative effects on the game health overall. We’ve taken steps to correct that by changing the EULA, and now the playing field should be reset. If you come up against people inside the game, you know you’re fighting them inside, not out of it.
Grayson: How much ISK did you remove from the economy? I’ve seen some people speculating as much as 40 trillion ISK.
Nordgren: We don’t comment on how much assets were removed, but some were removed with the accounts that got banned. Those assets go away.
Grayson: Given what we discussed earlier, is that a little heartbreaking for you as developers? This was, after all, a player-created and run enterprise. It was an unexpected development that emerged systemically, by way of players interacting.
Nordgren: Yeah, partially. We pride ourselves on supporting emergent, enterprising behavior from players. But the fact that this was going on so much outside the game turned it into a balance issue overall. It just goes too much into the real world. And there’s a couple of things happening around gambling that’s just not very nice. People doing it too much. We don’t want to be in the business of making those calls for people.