The Flight of SeagullTarek Raimo
When Andie Nordgren, AKA CCP Seagull, became the Executive Producer of EVE Online at CCP Games in mid 2014, the company was reeling from a series of setbacks that had started with the Incarna debacle in summer 2011.
In 2013 a round of layoffs had stripped almost 20% off CCP’s workforce – mostly in Atlanta. That office had mostly been dedicated to developing the World of Darkness MMO which was finally cancelled in spring 2014 after years of unsuccessful development. Some prominent figures also left the company of their own accord. Most notably the lead game designer CCP Soundwave and the previous Executive Producer CCP Unifex.
Turnover in this industry tends to be high, but it seemed that more was going on behind the scenes, and that indeed appeared to be the case. In the wake of the World of Darkness cancellation The Guardian released a scathing article on the internal troubles plaguing CCP, and on the employer review site Glass Door negative reviews were piling up. A picture emerged of a company that suffered from bad management and toxic internal politics, struggling to barely hold on to the success of its core product EVE Online, while unable to produce anything else that would diversify its portfolio.
In those days, many doubts existed whether that new Executive Producer could steer a course out of those troubled waters, while battling a stubborn senior management. Only a year earlier Nordgren had become Senior Producer, and in her first appearances on stage she seemed insecure. Her background was also not in game-design per se. Her previous functions within CCP had been more on the technical side. It is an oft-quoted business stereotype that engineering specialists don’t make good strategic planning managers. Would she be the right person to replace the quiet confidence of John Lander (CCP Unifex) or the boyish charisma of Kristoffer Touborg (CCP Soundwave)?
CCP Seagull hit the ground running
As it turned out, the doubters were proven wrong. CCP Seagull hit the ground running. Already during her time as Senior Producer, she had worked on a new long-term development roadmap. Since she came from the technical side, she had solid experience in project management and delivery of features – a trait very valuable for the second decade of EVE where CCP aspired to become more professional and organised as opposed to the haphazard startup mentality that had characterised the company up to then. However, Seagull was not only a professional match, but had interests throughout her life which resonate with the game itself. RPGs, LARPing, games in general and an affinity for modern (online) technology. Seagull was someone who could understand the potential and fascination a game like EVE Online has, and her tenure showed that she definitely had a vision for the future.
A New Focus
During previous years, EVE Online development had strongly focused on biannual expansions built around a main gameplay feature, such as wormholes, Factional Warfare, sovereignty or incursions, but in the post-Incarna period CCP had become almost gun-shy about introducing major new content. The order of the day was re-balancing and consolidation of EVE as a game. This could not go on forever though. At some point new aspects had to enter a game that was showing its age.
The result was a new release schedule and philosophy. The many balance changes and quality-of-life improvements still necessary needed to be deployed continuously in small but short increments, but on the other hand, there would also be a grand development roadmap with major goals. Game mechanics that had not been touched in years were to be completely changed or replaced; the sovereignty system dated back to 2009 and the distribution of resources in nullsec had been unchanged even longer. The infamously problematic Player Owned Structures (POS) and Outposts would be replaced by a whole new set of structures, and at the end goal of it all would be player-built stargates.
Such plans are of course not only the effort of one person, but CCP Seagull became the custodian of that roadmap in more ways than just publicly presenting it. In all her presentations she came back to the plan that CCP is committed to for the second decade, and the steps taken in game development showed clear progress toward the stated goals.
Some of the changes that happened along the way were not received with great enthusiasm. The introduction of Jump Fatigue with Phoebe is a gripe with many up until this day (despite rebalance), and the Aegis sovereignty overhaul has also been criticised ever since by diverse groups. Still, for the first time it seemed like CCP were committed to a long-term plan and actually appeared to stick to it. That reflects another change during the tenure of CCP Seagull.
In the past CCP has been notorious for creating expectations that were never fulfilled. At the cusp of EVE’s second decade they declared that only features which are already in pre-production would be presented. If a player watched a presentation at Fanfest about an upcoming new feature, they would know that it will be implemented with certainty within a release or two. Again, as Executive Producer, CCP Seagull was vouching for this, and so far CCP has stuck with this for the most part.
On Seagull’s Wings
The professional track record of Seagull’s tenure certainly ticks the boxes. Independent of what we might think of the specific details and implementations, EVE progressed. In terms of continuous rebalance and cosmetic improvements, the short-term release schedule worked out well, and the major features such as citadels and new sov mechanics were delivered as announced.
the EP can give the whole thing a personal touch
However, I propose that an Executive Producer can do more than just make sure that the development goals are met. Like a film director or the conductor of an orchestra, the EP can give the whole thing a personal touch, and I would say that CCP Seagull certainly did much to achieve that.
The EVE lore and backstory development crew had been gutted by the layoffs between 2013 and 2014, and yet we saw efforts to develop the meta plot of New Eden on a scale that hasn’t happened since Incursion in 2010.
The Drifters appeared. Storylines that had lain dormant since the days of Arek’Jalaan and Templar One were picked up again. Fanfest 2017 was even partially turned into a LARP event that tied in with the game, and of course the Amarr Empress died and a new one was chosen through succession trials involving players. An event not held since the very early days of EVE.
Seagull often spoke of an immersive world that invites to exploration and engagement. As an old fan of RPGs she certainly understood the significance of that. At the same time, she also strongly favoured an approach that would put the players and their actions at the center of the game’s narrative and she elaborated on that during a presentation she gave on game design. The much celebrated This is EVE trailer is a definitive expression of that design paradigm and for a time it seemed that this new approach would bear fruit.
To help solve EVE’s notorious problem with player retention, the new player experience was also overhauled and the dated PVE gameplay got a few refreshing new aspects. EVE Online gained some more traction with the public, new players came in larger numbers again, and within the game new groups of players were emerging who worked off the content that was provided, most notably the Arataka Research Collective who became a major participant in the Kyonoke Inquest event at Fanfest 2017 as well as content creators in their own right.
Descent and Departure
Ultimately, though, the active player numbers of EVE did not grow in any sustainable way. The general trend is in fact downward. As much as Seagull did to become the leading representative of a reform in CCP attitude and development planning, it was not enough to make EVE recover from its apparent stagnation. Her efforts may have helped to avoid the worst after the crisis period between Incarna and the World of Darkness failure, but did she manage to become a protagonist of persistent change within CCP?
“the users are talking about themselves, not you”
In her presentation I linked above, Andie Nordgren proposed that things are going well in your design if “the users are talking about themselves, not you (i.e. the developer)”. Of course, EVE players like to gossip, speculate and discuss about the ups and downs of CCP and their developers, but again in recent times that talk has tended more towards the negative, and that would certainly be the antithesis to Seagull’s view.
2017 brought another round of layoffs as CCP discontinued their VR games (Valkyrie, Gunjack and Sparc). Yet again the community team has been hit hard, and it is noticeable. For example, the Alliance Tournament will mostly be organized by the players of EVE-NT, and the CSM elections have been postponed. Even the composition of Permaband has changed. The year before, Lead Game Designer CCP Scarpia left along with Senior Game Designer CCP Ytterbium and Technical Designer CCP Foxfour. Key personnel who were important for the ongoing efforts.
In the four years of Seagull’s work as Executive Producer for EVE Online, the business model has shifted too. Now the game has a free to play option, Skill Extractors and Injectors have been introduced to offer a new “quick fix” through monetization. Dust514 has been cancelled just like the VR games, and the original intended replacement – Project Legion – was never heard of again, potentially being replaced by a new FPS-Game project called Nova. That FPS shooter was announced as being close to release “within months, not years” by CCP-Hellmar, the CEO, but the results of that have yet to be seen.
the question is whether CCP will stay committed to this goal
Older players like myself feel reminded of the problematic times between 2011 and 2014, especially with Seagull’s departure. Of course, the decisions about other games or the monetization strategy fall outside the scope of her work, but one thing remains that was explicitly stated on Seagull’s roadmap: the opening of new space and the creation of player-built stargates. With Andie Nordgren leaving, the question is whether CCP will stay committed to this goal. Has the groundwork been laid already, and is the capacity there to make this dream a reality? Will a new executive producer be able to continue on Nordgren’s path of greater immersion, more player focus and faithful commitment to a stated development roadmap?
CCP has just introduced a completely new faction and a previously unknown region of space into the game. Is that a stepping stone along the trajectory Seagull has outlined for us, or will it whither on the vine like other CCP games and features have in the past?
For now CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson fills in as EP for EVE, and it is uncertain what we can expect. No announcements about major future developments have been made this Fanfest. Instead, in her last Keynote, CCP Seagull emphasized on base principles like balance, the sandbox, and exploring. She reminded us that the development of structures is ongoing and named specific dates for the release, so we at least know that this plan will be realized. For the rest we will probably have to wait until a new Executive Producer and Lead Game designer can be found.
I hope that will be sooner rather than later, and I also hope it will be someone who understands the phenomenon of EVE Online as deeply as Andie Nordgren did.