Thursday, 20 September 2012

Let Slip the Devs of Lore: An Interview with the Content Devs



Over the last year, I felt many players who enjoy the lore of EVE had been getting short shrift from the development goals being pursued by a post-Incarna CCP. In my Blog Banter 38 entry, Designing the Future Experience, I expressed my disappointment at the deliberate avoidance of all lore references in the latest tutorial revisions. After reading it, CCP Affinity contacted me to provide assurances that interest in continued lore development and immersion was alive and well.

Hungry for more information, in collusion with lore guru Mark726 of EVE Travel, we sent a series of questions to CCP Affinity and CCP Abraxus (head writer and author of The Burning Life EVE novel) for which they have kindly provided the following answers:


Seismic Stan: CCP Affinity, you're a Content Designer, can you tell us what that involves? What's the difference between a Content Designer and a Content Writer? What is your favourite part of what you do?

Affinity: Content Designers are responsible for the NPCs, agents, missions and complexes within New Eden, we work on ensuring the content is as balanced as possible and creating new designs for player interaction with our PvE environment.  As a Content Designer, I work on Incursions and Factional Warfare (FW) complexes and NPCs.  Content Writers, as well as creating the fiction for our Universe, work on the storyline within New Eden.  They write scripts for missions, item descriptions and NPC text.


Seismic Stan: You've recently moved from Team Five 0 where you were working on Incursions. Does your shift mean that after a period of tweaking, Incursions are now balanced?

Affinity: Within a game like EVE, I don’t think we could ever declare a feature fully balanced, never to be iterated on again.  CCP Bettik and I worked on Incursions last release and made some changes to blitzing, however, in retrospect we realized too many changes had been made at once.  As can be seen here, we made a decision to roll back some of the changes as well as making some minor changes to the OverrideTransver Array (OTA) sites.  The decision to move teams and work on FW complexes and NPCs will give us time to monitor the status of Incursions and make sure if we make any further changes to them, they will be the right changes.


Seismic Stan: Before we move away from the subject of Incursions, are we likely to see any more developments there? Last December, when I interviewed CCP Headfirst, he painted a tantalising picture of the potential of the TALE system which drives the Incursions, where he described "a future involving Incursions across New Eden by a variety of aggressors, with Guristas contesting Blood Raiders turf whilst Serpentis pushes on the Gallente Federation's borders and Amarr militia forces press out toward Providence." Can we hope for any such variation? I mean surely Sansha Kuvakei has figured out his current campaign isn't working out all that well.

Affinity: While this would be awesome, it’s not a high priority for us right now.  Incursions have not been abandoned at all, but their current format works and while we have long term story plans, we are also reluctant to throw out working content and remake it all from scratch.  I am not saying never, we just have a focus on iterating what we have right now to make it the best it can possibly be. 


Seismic Stan: In a recent interview, Jon "CCP Unifex" Lander recently seemed quite pleased with the ratio of game designers to content developers, suggesting that having only four content developers was a good thing with the explanation that "players are the content". How does that impact your workload? Is there no benefit to having more content developers?

Affinity:  CCP Unifex is absolutely correct, what makes EVE so special is that it is a sandbox game, so compared to other big titles, we put more resources into systems design and fewer into content and this is definitely the right decision for us.


Seismic Stan: You recently helped out the Player Experience Team with the new tutorial, released with Inferno 1.2. It has some improvements which are visually very appealing and do a great job of cutting through all the UI noise, but the decision to avoid all reference to lore seems to suggest attempts to fast-track new players into "player content" rather than having any faith in CCP's own IP. Can you tell us anything that would allay fears that the rich backstory of EVE is being abandoned to the mercy of a player culture more concerned with Kill:Death ratios and spamming local with ASCII phalluses?

Affinity:  This was definitely not our intention at all.  We wanted to use a month during the summer when most of the development team are on holiday and do something that would impact new players coming into New Eden.  The goals for the new tutorial were to make this process as seamless as possible for new players and to leave them in the best possible place to continue their adventures within our Universe.  I’m sure most of us can remember our first few weeks playing EVE and how daunting everything seemed at the point; I think the best thing for new players is to keep all explanations during the tutorial concise and allow them to get comfortable with the gameplay as a first priority, so that they stick around to enjoy and get the most out of our rich backstory.


Seismic Stan: There is a perception that CCP is no longer interested in broadening EVE Online's appeal and is increasingly only attempting to cater to a very specific PvP-centric player demographic. Do you think at CCP there has been a cultural shift away from lore-based development in the wake of the mishandling of Walking in Stations? What consideration is being given to ensuring EVE appeals to potential new customers (and delivers on that appeal)?

Abraxas: There's been a cultural shift toward lore-based development in recent times, but a lot of it has in fact been much more strongly focused on ensuring our appeal to newcomers. For instance, instead of publishing new story material on a regular basis - especially since this material wasn't necessarily continuing any particular storylines - we started to consolidate it through the EVElopedia Fiction Portal project, and ended up with a wiki that contained well over a thousand articles and has released more content with every major expansion since. Events and news have made a comeback but they've been on the quiet side because we're still working out how to tie them well into an ongoing, comprehensible storyline. We want to move away from the content model where only a small handful of people willing to read endless reams of text had any idea what was going on in the game, and we also want to find ways to involve players much more directly in what we're doing. We're still in the design stage on this, but we're getting very close.


Seismic Stan: You've recently joined Team Game of Drones who I believe were the developers behind the revised Faction Warfare system and the Unified Inventory as well as CCP Ytterbium and his tiericide rampage. What's next on the agenda? What part will you play? How's team morale? When will you be allowed at the drone interface?

Affinity: We are currently continuing work on Factional Warfare, more ship balancing and iterations on the Unified Inventory.  Team morale is great; we are all really excited about the Winter release and have had great feedback from the FW community about our changes.  I am currently creating new NPCs for FW and revisiting the complexes to ensure they are the best they can possibly be. 

CCP Affinity's parking spot
Our team name is a little confusing as we don’t actually work on the drone interface but I like it, and ‘Winter is coming’ always reminds me of Iceland (if anyone has ever been here during the Winter they will understand.


Seismic Stan: I attended your Live Event roundtable at Fanfest, which was a discussion filled with possibilities and potential, but I got the impression that the Live Event initiative was being driven entirely by enthusiasm and caffeine, with yourself and CCP Goliath both having full-time duties elsewhere before being able to commit resources to Live Events. Given the success of last year's Arek'Jaalan Project (which resulted in the player investment of 30b ISK, it spawned untold player research projects, an in-character podcast/news site and provided new ways for player communities to interact), what resources are CCP making available to the Live Event team? How do you envisage Live Events playing out?

Affinity: We have had many meetings about Live Events and a potential new Live Events team recently and I am so excited and desperate to spill the beans, but for now I will simply say… watch your space…


Seismic Stan: In 1984, Braben & Bell made a 32k game called Elite which had over 2000 star systems, each one with unique information about culture, government and society, yet in EVE the description of every solar system is simply "Solar System" and most celestials only have a generic description too. This seems like missed opportunity and an easy canvas to add some colour and even interactive storyline clues which could lead to live events and allow player actions to be recorded in history. Are there any plans to flesh out available information in game?

Abraxas: Yep, there are plans to flesh out this kind of information, though we have to be careful: We've got Planetary Interaction, we've got DUST incoming, and we're working with a living, breathing & evolving world. Any background info we nail down on various game systems will have to work with anything those systems get used for in the future, whether that's a capsuleer plonking down a series of installations on a planet, or a bunch of covert ops mercenaries stomping the area into dust, or what have you. You can't easily make any grand claims about, say, the technological level or social developments about a particular area when you're dealing with factors like this.


Seismic Stan: With many canon plot-threads still to be explored or resolved, what storytelling techniques will be employed? Has any consideration been given to broadening the appeal of lore material beyond the written form and into audio drama or further animations like the cinematic trailer from Fanfest?

Abraxas: Yes, but their validity depends quite a bit on the approach we're taking. Currently, the techniques we're focusing on revolve around consolidation: ensuring that all the information is clear and unambiguous and that it reaches the players through as few sources as possible. We're always working on developing new methods for storytelling, but right now those methods are bound by that consolidation constraint.


Seismic Stan: I firmly believe that players would be more engaged if lore was delivered in a manner more sophisticated than walls of text.  Is there any possibility of seeing more engaging storytelling in NPC encounters and agent conversations? Leveraging the avatar engine to animate the agent headshot would give a little life to the experience and perhaps to deliver in-mission communications (rather than the current schizophrenic system of sometimes getting a pop-up window of text which you can't read because something's shooting at you, or some coloured text in the local chat channel that you might not even notice until the mission is over). Can we hope for any advancement on PvE content from it's current decade-old design?

Affinity: Five 0 are currently updating all NPCs to the Incursion AI, this will inject some random elements into content such as target switching.  We have a lot of long term plans for content and I am very passionate about the lore and have a lot of plans to deliver this in a better manner, so yes there are definitely possibilities for the future.


Mark726: At times, it seems like the Empires are getting somewhat stereotypical. The Amarr used to at least have some things going for it, but these days can seem little more than "generic crazy religious" people. Are there plans to reintroduce some of the shades of gray to the empires?

Abraxas: You know, I've seen this one crop up on the forums, and it genuinely surprises me, because we've actually moved away from sterotypes and toward much more varied storytelling - particularly with the Amarr. As I've noted when responding to forum threads on this subject, in the past few years we've published numerous chronicles (and a separate chapter in my own EVE novel) that dealt with the Amarr in what we would hope is a particularly complex and nuanced way. These stories ask questions about the role of faith, the validity of redemption, and the purpose of life in New Eden's rather cruel universe, and they do so in a fashion that I posit is of extremely high quality. Taking the Amarr as an example again, there's been room for satire, romance and horror, all of it taking angles on the same core piece of lore that, in my belief, strengthen the lore rather than weakening it. I think we're doing pretty well.


Mark726: Unlike the Amarr, the Minmatar in particular seem to have been left hanging for quite a while. There's the usual calls for access to more tribes, but the fact also remains that, technically, the Minmatar have been without any kind of functional government for years now since Shakor disbanded parliament. Are there any plans to push the Empire storylines forward like we used to see back in Empyrean Age? There seems to have been no major pushes forward since, outside of the books.

Abraxas: There absolutely are, and the Minmatar are very high on our list of priorities.


Mark726: Are there plans for longer story arcs for some of the minor factions. For example, will the Angels get their own long term arc like the Sansha? Will the Talocan get as well developed as the Sleepers (especially given their apparent commingling with the Sleepers)?

Abraxas: With the caveat that good things take time - keep in mind that it took us nearly a year to get the Fiction Portal up and running, but when we did it launched with a huge amount of content - the answer is definitely yes to both those questions. Our initial focus is naturally on the four active empires, but we've wanted to work on the pirates, and flesh out the Ancient Races, for quite some time now.


Mark726: A recurring problem found by RPers was that the amount of knowledge known out of game has become drastically more than what is known to the general public. While Arek'Jaalan and the like were attempts to narrow this gap, those kinds of projects appear to be frozen for now. Will there be any pushes to narrow the OOC-IC knowledge gap so players could start using them in their own arcs, in stead of just attempting to find out (without any acknowledgment from CCP of their efforts)?

Abraxas: Nope. It'll happen to some degree anyway, simply by dint of our efforts to consolidate our lore efforts and funnel them into in-game channels, but given the choice between releasing more content or holding it back because the very knowledge of it would break character, we go with the former. It's not that difficult to imagine ways in which you as a capsuleer could have discovered any manner of information - you're one of the most powerful people in the cluster and you'll have access to intel and recon resources that entire nations could only ever dream of - and we've long since found that an enforced IC presentation just puts far too many limitations on the ways we create and deliver content.


Mark726: Along similar lines, when Apocrypha first came out, there were statements from the Devs that a lot of hints were hidden in sleeper sites... but after a few years, we've had little updates on if the various theories that have popped up are even going in the right direction. Can we expect either more hints or more dev/IC interaction to help the players discover these hints and figure out what's going on IC with the sleepers and talocan?

Abraxas: Eventually, yes, but likely not in the way people expect. No, that totally couldn't have been more cryptic.


Mark726: Stargate lore currently says that we can only have gates in binary systems. This is perhaps just a pet peeve of mine, but it's never been clear where the binaries are or why it's still needed. Are there any plans to smooth out these kinds of lore problems? How closely does the lore team watch the fiction portals if something like this is pointed out?

Abraxas: We've got an automatic watch on the discussion tabs of all Fiction Portal articles, and we're pretty quick to fix, explain or retcon any inconsistencies that are pointed out to us in those pages. There are certain things - yeah, that blessed binary system thing - that take us longer to resolve, but we're aware of them.


Mark726: Is there a long term plan of how to deal with the Jove? Are they dead? Alive? Will they be playing a role in the storyline in the near future?

Abraxas: The who?


Mark726: Are there plans on how to further the isogen-5/terran superweapon storyline? Where did Jamyl find the caches? How did she get rogue drones in on it? Are the rogue drones in with the sleepers?
Will we see the return of storyline-based expansions? There used to be significant plot points that would come up as breaking news during expansions (a la empyrean age). Will we see that again?
Will that Caldari station in Luminaire ever be built? Again, a pet peeve of mine.

Abraxas: Let's see: Yes, not telling, not telling, not telling, can't say, eventually, can't say.


Seismic Stan: Just to wrap up the interview, are there any other exciting revelations or clues of the future that you'd be willing to share? What about the "sniff test" cryptically mentioned in the CSM Summit minutes, anything more to divulge there?

Affinity:  The "sniff test" was a high level idea I had for a major mission overhaul.  The goal was to make all missions more like epic arc style, having a storyline that evolved as you went through the mission.  I would love to turn career agent missions into a professions based epic arc with lore behind your profession and rewards in line with your chosen profession.  These would lead on to very racially biased storyline missions. 





I'm grateful for CCP Affinity and CCP Abraxus taking the time to provide us with these answers. I'll leave my thoughts on these responses for another blogpost, and I'll badger Mark to give us his feedback too. In the meantime, I'd be interested to hear what you content-seekers and lore-hounds have to say.

5 comments:

  1. The text updates during missions are definitely one of the things that bug me the most. The new avatars, like you suggested, would be a great way to fix that. So many times I'll fly around for a few minutes wondering what to do next only to see a hint waaay back in local. Even an audio clue, like radio static or something to hint to the player to look at that wall of text, would be a decent, if not temporary, solution. Thanks for getting those interviews, guys. MOAR LOAR!

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  2. It looks like the new high bar for interactive content is GW2, with missions that players can act on either side of. It seems like that would be a great fit for Eve.

    Here's something you stumble on in the sandbox: the Caldari want it to swing one way, the Gallente want it to swing the other. Your mission is to push it on your side. Oh, and by the way, 5 minutes ago someone got the opposite side of the mission in the opposite faction. That person is considered a war target for you until the first one of you turns in the mission. Good luck!

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  3. Sounds good.

    But that is all it ever will do.

    -Myyona

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  4. Very nice reading. I'm not that IC focused but i like that stuff and have read a lot of the backstories and chronicles.

    There still some things i miss or would like to see

    Titans creating a gravity well that could be dangerous for nearby ships and planets. Need to keep distance to each other...

    Girani-Fa (a System in Amarr/Gallente border) is mention in the stories to be a gallente system with free access for amarr but if you go there it is under amarr sov. couldn't hat be changed relatively easy? (Story in Quafe article)

    before i came to eve, I played jumpgate, my first MMO and with space ships. When there was new stuff introduced like a ship or a new weapon system, the faction delivering that had a special mission offer on various stations to collect materials for the project. The Players had to work out those missions and deliver enough materials to get the new stuff.
    Transfer that to eve and combine it with lore, when there are major ship developments on its way it would be pretty cool if players could support the developing corporation (roden shipyards spring to mind) and maybe even get a badge or a medal as supporter of company X for project Y.
    Add a list of corps or individuals that helped to finance project Y to give corporations small and big the ability to interact with eve lore.

    I don't say this stuff is easy but I am pretty sure ccp will someday manage to get some of this very cool stuff in they talk about. And I will hopefully be around seeing it.

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Lay it on me.