CCP, creators of EVE Online—a sci-fi game that emphasizes space exploration, battles and economics—has one of the closest relationships with its fan base of any game developer. This closeness is best demonstrated with the EVE Fanfest, where hundreds of players from around the world come together in Reykjavik, Iceland to celebrate all things EVE.
This year’s 13th annual Fanfest stands out because it marks the company’s 20th anniversary and it comes at a time when its VR efforts, including EVE Valkyrie and Gunjack, are helping to pioneer VR. Valkyrie has been a key launch game for premium headsets, including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR while Gunjack was a launch game for the Samsung Gear VR, helping to kick off mobile VR. Similarly, Gunjack 2: End of Shift is pioneering new ground by being one of the first games to be built from the ground up for Google Daydream. CCP will release its first non-EVE game while originating an all-new sport when Sparc comes out later this year.
Realizing that cutting edge technology helped bring EVE Online to success, CCP is committed to exploring the VR space to push the technology forward while growing both its brand and fan base beyond its core game. However, CCP CEO, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson explained at the event’s keynote that the hype period for VR is officially over. Now comes the task of exploring the “desert” to figure out what works best for VR entertainment. Part of the strategy is in creating a “playground” for its players. Where EVE Online is a sandbox experience, CCP is looking to complement it with focused short-form VR experiences that will create just as many cherished memories for its players.
Pétursson sat down with [a]listdaily at EVE Fanfest to talk about navigating the VR desert as the technology shapes the company’s brand, engaging with a loyal fan base, and the direction the company is headed so that it continues to grow for another 20 years.
How do you think the 13th EVE Fanfest, celebrating CCP’s 20th anniversary, compares to previous years?
I think it compares quite nicely. Every Fanfest is different, but I would say that this is probably the most relaxed one. Everyone is super chill—the team, the players and speakers are all chill. It’s very nice to see. We’re trying out a new thing: live-action role-playing. I think that’s a very interesting spice to add to the mix and I see people going very deep into that. It’s nice to innovate on something that we’ve been doing for such a long time. I also thought the EVE Online keynote was very good and it’s probably the strongest one I’ve ever seen, with a concrete plan for the year and vision for the future.
CCP has a deep connection with its community, but how important are these in-person events when there are so many ways to communicate online?
They’re very important. For all the magic of the internet, engaging through text is often not very productive. It sometimes brings out the worst in people. In person brings out the best. That was kind of the situation that created Fanfest. In early 2004, we were having various struggles with EVE, and it was impossible in so many ways. We were mostly interacting with people through forums, and sometimes it just wasn’t productive. I remember saying, “I wish we could just have them over.”
So, we had the idea of holding Fanfest that fall without knowing what it would be. We opened up a page for people to sign up, and when we saw 140 people signing up to fly to Iceland, we thought, “okay, we’d better think this through now.” Over 100 people came from Iceland, so we had close to 300 people at the first Fanfest. That’s when we got it—this has to be a thing—and we’ve been doing it ever since.
For a long time, CCP has been known as the EVE Online company. What would you like CCP to be known as in five or ten years?
I would like us to be seen as pioneers in the gaming industry, taking gaming beyond what they’re historically known to be. We think of what we do as more like virtual worlds than games. Certainly, games and gameplay are important pieces, but there are also deep fundamental things relating to social, communities, economies, making decisions and dealing with the consequences, reputation, and so on. There are so many aspects of sociology weaved into our creations that I hope we are identified as one of the early pioneers that brought it to millions of people.
Do you feel that the perception of CCP has been changing with its development of VR games?
Yes, I think we are more associated with the tech disruption that is VR because we have shipped many games on many platforms and most of them have been quite successful. So, I’ve definitely noticed that people associate us with that.
How important is it for CCP to be seen as a leader in the VR space?
Well, I think it’s more important that we make games that are good and people enjoy them. The goal isn’t necessarily to be seen as a leader; the goal is to make games that people love. Being identified as a leader in this space is more of an emergent property of doing that well. So, we’re more focused on making kick-ass games.
You said in the keynote that the hype period for VR is over and now we’re entering a desert. What is the key to navigating that desert?
The key for us to be really critical about what to do next and not think that our next successes are going to look like our first successes. You can see that in Sparc. It’s very different from Gunjack and Valkyrie, and they’re both different from each other. So, we want to make sure we’re making relatively diversified experiences because nothing in VR is really known regarding what’s going to work and what won’t. As we evolve the Valkyrie and Gunjack franchises, and learn from the release of Sparc, we have other projects in the works that we’re not yet ready to talk about, so we’re figuring out how they should be.
It’s also important to work with the market makers. We are a mid-sized company and the other players in the VR space—especially in the hardware space—are gigantic companies. So, it’s very important to work with them and be tuned in to their future roadmaps so we understand how they think it’s going to evolve. Then we can aim our efforts to be aligned with that. It’s important that we go for breaking even on our games. We don’t want to be losing money on VR, but we’re not seeing it as a profit center yet. Those are the components we think about in navigating the desert.
Is CCP partnering for location-based VR experiences?
We’re in an exploration phase, talking to everyone that is planning location-based VR. It’s too early to talk about anything concrete, but games like Sparc have a very obvious use case for that.
Can you elaborate on the shift from creating sandbox experiences to making more of a playground for players?
EVE Online is a social economy sandbox, so for a period of time, we thought all of our games needed to be like that. If it wasn’t an EVE-style game, then it wasn’t something we thought we’d be interested in. But now we’ve opened it up to a playground metaphor. It’s perfectly fine, and even encouraged, to do shorter-form games if they help us learn something that we can bring back to the fold.
For example, Gunjack (the simplest game we’ve made) taught us a lot about mobile VR. It was important to not overcomplicate the game because we were learning something brand new. So, in the metaphor of the playground, the sandbox is still there but we’ve widened our scope in terms of what games we see ourselves making if they are teaching us about an important topic.
What are some of CCP’s other goals for the future?
Obviously, one of the biggest topics for us is continued growth for EVE Online. It’s in an unprecedented place of being 14 years old but still having a bright future ahead of itself. So, it’s a big challenge to continue that journey. Another challenge is to better understand the components of EVE that really make it tick so that we can recreate parts of it in other games. Then, at some point—once we have explored VR well and its installed base is at scale—the challenge will be of how we can do something at the scope of EVE Online in VR.
What do you tell developers to keep in mind as they forge forward into unexplored areas of gaming?
What I tell developers to keep in mind is that we’re exploring, we might not always be right, and it’s okay to fail if we learn something and grow from it. If you don’t say that, you’re not really pioneering, you’re just making safe moves. I want to emphasize to developers that we are now in the phase of exploring VR and it’s very new. We’ve been doing it for four years, which isn’t a long time. So, we should look at it as a wide-open field and do different things. It’s okay to be wrong if we figure it out quickly and learn and grow from it.