Impressions of Fanfest 2014

Fanfest, the annual gathering of enthusiasts for the EVE universe of games in Reykjavik, Iceland, wrapped up a couple days ago. I had high hopes and expectations for this year's event, which was my third Fanfest, and many of those expectations were fulfilled - but not all.

Other sources have provided excellent reports on the news from Fanfest. I won't recap these again, but instead encourage readers to see these summaries of the most interesting reveals:

In this post, I want to comment on three broad themes that I observed at this year's Fanfest. And I have a few opinions about what bits of news were the most important for the future of our community, and why.

Visionaries and Reactionaries

I saw two types of CCP Games developers during Fanfest: those who are moving forward towards a clear vision of something better, and those who are mostly reacting to some less than ideal aspects of EVE Online.

One of the best presentations I saw was by CCP Rise on improving the new player experience (NPE). The drop-out rate of new players trying EVE Online is far higher than it should be, with well more than half quitting the game in the first month. CCP has assigned a team to address this issue, and CCP Rise described a preliminary vision of what that team intends to accomplish.

It's still too early in that project to know exactly what specific actions the team will take (as revealed in the follow-up roundtable discussion), but I was impressed by the clarity of vision of what an ideal NPE should accomplish in EVE Online. As a result, I've no doubt that the team will ultimately release an improved experience that will encourage a higher percentage of new players to remain.

Similarly, CCP Seagull described the developmental path for EVE Online in a keynote address. With the industry revamp now readied for the summer expansion, she described a progression of additional improvements towards the ultimate goals of providing players with full control of game elements and the ability to construct stargates to new space. It's an ambitious plan, which may take three years or more to complete, but the clarity of CCP Seagull's intended direction inspires confidence that they will do it.

I also attended a roundtable discussion about improving player vs. environment (PvE) experiences in EVE Online. It contrasted significantly against the presentations by CCP Rise and CCP Seagull, unfortunately.

I was very pleased to see that CCP Games has established a team for the purpose of making PvE more enjoyable. However, that team does not yet have a clearly articulated vision of what that means - or at least one that they are willing to share openly with the player community. They acknowledged that PvE is repetitive and predictable, currently. They have a lot of ideas on how to make it better. They know they need to build tools to improve it. But when we will see improved PvE experiences, and what they may look like, was not revealed.

Based on the PvE team's comments, I suspect we may see small changes in PvE elements within a year - but until they can share a well-articulated plan, I don't have much confidence that we'll see a dynamic and significantly improved experience for players anytime soon. I hope that as the PvE team tackles the hard work of building tools for dynamically generated content, a vision of what could be will emerge. Perhaps by next year's Fanfest (March 19-21, 2015), they can reveal a more fully articulated plan to us.

Keep it secret! Keep it safe!

In past Fanfest gatherings, CCP Games was eager to show things they were working on, even in very preliminary states. I remember Hilmar proudly showing off parts of the EVE client running on tablet devices in 2012, for example - something which will now likely never see the light of day. CCP devs used to show players all sorts of things like atmospheric flying, ambulation in stations, and other early developmental ideas.

This year, the attitude among the CCP Games staff was quite different. In every conversation I had with a dev, they were guarded about what they said. Perhaps that's because I was wearing a Fansite pass this year, instead of a regular Attendee badge, but I don't think so. The general policy now seems to be: reveal future plans only on a "need to know" basis. Apparently, there are now a lot more things that players don't need to know.

Example: I attended the charity dinner. This is an opportunity to sit with a CCP developer over a nice meal and chat about EVE Online. Our dev joined our table, and we asked him what he's been working on. "Some of the new industry system," he replied. Could he tell us what he thought of the industry changes, we asked. Recall that the industry changes had already been revealed through the published dev blogs. "No, I just programmed it, so I can't really comment on that," he said. In fact, he said very little the rest of the evening, deflecting any question that might touch on future directions or possibilities.

I saw the same attitude at several roundtable discussions. "Has CCP considered doing X?", someone would ask. "We can't really go into any details on that," a dev would reply. More than a few times, I asked myself, "Why did CCP Games schedule this roundtable, if they aren't going to say anything?"

I understand the need to manage player expectations, and certainly CCP Games erred too much towards openness in past Fanfest events, so some caution in how devs respond to player questions is warranted. But the attitude was beyond caution this year - in general, the devs were playing their cards very close to their chests.

Perhaps the only exception was the demonstration of Project Legion during the DUST514 keynote - and that did not turn out so well. The game itself looked fantastic, and since I don't own a PS3, I could not be more happy about the decision to create DUST on the PC platform, where I can play it. But the announcement did not factor in the feelings of the DUST fans who had come to Reykjavik to celebrate their game. After the Legion reveal, they felt like they'd taken a collective punch to the stomach.

CCP Rouge had to respond to those hurt feelings the next day, by announcing that DUST development would continue, and that players would be able to transition their characters to Legion if they so desired. But the whole incident illustrated how openness can bite you if you don't manage it carefully. I fear that this will only encourage CCP Games management to clamp down further on openness in future Fanfest events.

One Universe, (Mostly) One Platform

One of the first things that Hilmar did in the welcoming address was announce the termination of the World of Darkness project. This was a difficult business decision, I am sure, but a positive result is a singular focus on the EVE Universe. Now, all of CCP Games' offerings - EVE Online, DUST/Legion, and Valkyrie - are based in one world. Recognizing that players will want to engage with each of these aspects of the EVE Universe, CCP's Chief Technology Officer, Halldor Fannar, announced the intention to enable single player identities to log into each game. In other words, I could log in Neville Smit as the same character in EVE Online, Legion or Valkyrie, switching between the three games at will.

It's clear that CCP Games is also focusing on the PC as their primary platform for game development. Though some development on the PS3 will continue for DUST514, it's obvious that the main technology focus will be on the PC - not consoles or mobile devices. Frankly, I always worried that these alternative platforms were distracting CCP Games from optimizing the player experience - this is no longer a concern.

Exciting vs. Important

It's easy to get distracted by the cool, glittery stuff that CCP Games revealed at Fanfest. Everyone loves new ships, new modules and new features. I am not immune to this myself.

I love the flat, black, stealthy-looking designs of the new Mordu's Legion ships. I must get these for my collection!

I love the flat, black, stealthy-looking designs of the new Mordu's Legion ships. I must get these for my collection!

I found myself entranced by the flat, black Mordu's Legion ship designs. They look like fantastic missile-based kiting ships - I fully intend to procure all of them for my collection.

Valkyrie is looking very, very good, and I will be among the first to get a VR headset as soon as it's ready. I had the opportunity to try both the new Project Morpheus headset from Sony as well as the latest rig from Oculus. Between the two, I preferred the Oculus device - it seemed to fit better on my (admittedly large) head, and the graphics were superior. But the Morpheus device was a close second, and it was being demonstrated on a less recent build of Valkyrie on the Unity graphics engine, while the Oculus demo was running on Unreal4. The fact that there will be a choice of two competitive devices assures me that prices should not be too prohibitive, once they are available - or so I hope. Regardless, I will gladly pay whatever the cost - the immersive Valkyrie game experience is that much fun. Once it is released to a wider audience, I'm sure it will prove to be extremely popular. Oh, and here's a bonus: Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) is doing the voice over. Insert joyous geek squee here.

What can I say about Project Legion, other than I am delighted that my hope for a PC version of DUST is finally coming to fruition? I know that the PS3 console players are extremely unhappy with this development, but the PC-based EVE Online players seem to be thrilled that they will soon be able to switch between Internet spaceships and super-soldier ground troops at will. And, based on the demo that CCP Games shared with us, Legion looks like a superior game to DUST514, with better graphics. Sign me up - I'm in. Mission accomplished, CCP.

While these announcements are all very interesting and exciting, they are not nearly as important as some other more mundane aspects of EVE Online that were addressed during Fanfest.

  • The profound industry changes are going to be extremely important for the future of everyone in New Eden. My initial concerns about the death of small-scale high-sec production appear to be unwarranted, though manufacturers are definitely going to have to pay attention to their costs in order to earn a respectable profit.
  • The next two major developmental efforts in CCP Seagull's vision of player-built stargates and the opening of new space to explore are: corporate management, and structures including Player-Owned Starbases (POS). The corporate management interface is perhaps the worst abomination of programming every executed - and I am not exaggerating. The poorly executed definition of corporate roles, and the lack of integrated support for alliances and coalitions, makes corporate management a real headache. And since corporate roles affect so many other things - including who can access what in a hangar or a POS - it must be revamped by CCP Games before they can begin to add other elements to the game. Now, finally, the CCP devs will be concentrating on fixing these systems. Perhaps by next Fanfest we may see an announcement or two about their availability - I wait eagerly in hope for this.
  • I was very impressed by the presentation by CCP's security team. These guys have a tough job, to be sure, but they seem to be squashing bots and real money traders with increasing effectiveness. This is good news for everyone who plays EVE Online legitimately.
  • Finally, the CCP devs are doing everything they can to improve performance on the server. Moving all log-in identities off of the main Tranquility server will help lighten the load there. In addition, they are reprogramming the core mathematical calculation engine of EVE Online, as well as many other efficiency-improving enhancements.

These aspects are not as shiny and attractive as more visible aspects of the EVE Universe, certainly, but they are much more important. They affect the essential foundations of our games, and how we as players will enjoy them. I have to give CCP Games high marks for their focus on these critical parts of our gaming experience - even though most of this is hidden from us as we play.

See you next year

I'm already planning to attend next year's Fanfest, March 19-21, 2015. I haven't described the most enjoyable part of being in Reykjavik for this event: connecting with the real players who we meet in virtual space. That alone is worth the price of admission - despite whatever amount of news we get from CCP Games.

Even if you can't attend Fanfest, be sure to review the presentations, which you can find on CCP Games' YouTube channel. There is a wealth of information there, and I've only touched on a few of the highlights here.

Fly safe! o7