CCP on Making EVE: Valkyrie the Best Game it Can Be

EVE Fanfest is an annual event in Reykjavik hosted by CCP Games where fans of EVE Online from all over the world come together. The universe of EVE Online is harsh, cruel and one of the most brutal and predatory worlds someone could enter, though the opposite is true of the fan community when they return to Earth from their intergalactic wars and piracy. Andrew Willans is the Lead Game Designer for EVE: Valkyrie and spent some time with Hardcore Gamer to discuss EVE: Valkyrie and how he proudly flaunts the Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica influences. 

[Hardcore Gamer] What is everything you can tell me about the upcoming Groundrush update?

[Andrew Willans] Groundrush is the latest free update for EVE: Valkyrie. It is fifth free game update so far, long may they continue. The big ticket item of Groundrush is the new map and that is called Solitude and it takes place on the surface of the planet. It splits the combat between just above the surface and underground in a series of maintenance tunnels so it’s a really different sensation when you’re fighting just above the ground and underground, kind of an homage to Descent. It definitely has an element of that kind of feeling in the corridors. It’s a radically different map and it’s been in development for about six months, it’s taken us a while to get to this, we’ve always had this idea that it would be cool to have combat taking place just above the surface but there is a lot to consider for VR comfort like how much terrain, we did some research on horizon lines and found they are a big contributing factor to motion sickness and when we removed the horizon line in our training modules there was an increase in comfort levels in players so we took some of those learning into our map design for Solitude, which is almost based in a canyon on the surface of the planet so the horizon line is kind of obscured, it’s in the distance or in a snow storm so we used a lot of findings from the testing to make sure we could deliver a map with maximum comfort and maximum thrills. The other thing is we’ve expanded the co-op mode so we’ve got carrier assault and control have been added to the playlist so now literally you now have PvP and PvE whenever you want, you click a button and the progression is identical so whether you are playing against humans or AI it is the same experience, you will get matched based on your skill level or based on your score and the XP and in game currency and chips you unlock is all the same, however you want to play EVE: Valkyrie. We’ve brought online English subtitles by popular request so anything we can do to make the game accessible to more people we try to do so those are in the latest update and Steam controller support for all of the Vive players and a pilot animation system. Previously the pilots were like statues but we’ve added a skeletal mesh to them so they shift their weight and move. When you come out of the match you’ll now get a victory celebration or hang your head in commiseration if you’ve lost the match. It brings a lot of life to that moment. And all the other things we do in standard updates, balance changes, tweaks, fixes, that sort of thing. We’re just trying to wrap as much content as we can together and package it as a game update.

It sounds like you’ve taken what could be significant DLC content and added it on to a free update.

That’s what we’ve done with EVE: Valkyrie since day one. EVE: Valkyrie is a premium game, the players buy the game once and all this content is free. So this is actually the fifth one we’ve delivered, we started that journey with Carrier Assault and that was a huge epic game mode. And we got a load of features that just weren’t ready for launch that we’ve included in that update, it was our first major content update and we’re trying to do something different with each update, whether or not we’re bringing a new map online or its a game or whether it’s just a really cool feature, we try to get as many things in as we can like Valkyrie leagues we demoed. It’s basically an alpha league since we’re still tuning all the calculations behind the scenes.

So now that you’ve done this major update with new animations, expanded game mode, new map and so on, now that you have just finished this and ready to launch it in a couple days, what’s next?

[laughs] It’s kind of what the focus of my presentation was before, the road map ahead. So before we continue down this path and just continue to add content we need to take stock of where we are on our journey and what we really need to improve. I don’t think we do the best job we can to get new players on board, so we need to improve that. We want to simplify some of the in game economy, there’s lots of different things you earn like the ISK, the silver currency and XP and salvage that goes into crafting, there’s lots and lots of different elements that go into the crafting and we want to simplify that down to make choices that are easier for the players. And we’re looking at the ships with a real cold kind of analytical gaze to see where we can improve things because I think we’ve got too many ships and I think the players agree with this. We’ve got a lot of ships but not a whole lot of real noticeable diversity or variety in the ships so we’re looking to get down to a tighter roster where each ship has a distinct personality so we’re thinking about taking a couple of ships, one ship might have an incredible weapon set that everyone loves and another likewise but has 50 percent of the design we’re not happy with so taking the best of two ships and combine them which makes the roster tighter and more balanced so there isn’t as much of a spread with different ships. This benefits the players as well where they can find the ship with the personality that best reflects their playing style quicker since there are fewer choices but more distinct choices and going hand in hand with that we’re looking at mechanics like the launch tube feature, that was put in with an air of tactics, the idea was to add some strategy by preassigning your ships to the launch tube and set off into battle but we found more and more users are finding that a barrier to entry and not understanding how to utilize those launch tubes to get out into battle so there’s lots of ways we can fix that like tutorializing that. Or we could just take a look at it and say why do we even got this, would it be better if we just added a simple ship selection? And you can pick anything you’ve currently got crafted to take into battle and get rid of the mechanic all together. It’s still got the level of tactic and strategy without that mechanic and they could get the exact ship they need for the carrier run when they are attacking the core, and this would take out people cursing themselves for not putting the right ship in tube three before battle. All of those things in combination really, how do we make that game more open and approachable? And a key to point out when we are talking about accessibility we are not talking about making anything easier or dumbing it down, it’s all about giving the players choice and valid choice so when they are in the game they have the tools and knowledge to make decisions as effectively as they can.

So in a nutshell you aren’t trying to take away any of the core mechanics or the essence of the EVE: Valkyrie experience, you’re just trying to make it more user friendly. Sounds like it could be a tricky tightrope to balance.

Absolutely. It is but I think we’re far one side of that tightrope if that makes any sense. I think it’s like a seesaw and we know where we are on that seesaw and also acutely aware of where we need to be on it. I think the moves that we’re going to make and what we’ve got planned are going to benefit the game and get people out there and enjoy the combat, which is what it’s really all about.

When EVE: Valkyrie launched it got pretty mixed reviews, some people praised it as being the best VR title available while other critics didn’t seem to think as highly. Since you’ve been working on improving the game and adding new contact have you received more positive feedback on the game?

Absolutely, we were delivering the game at the dawn of a brand new medium and we wanted it to be a launch title for VR and we moved mountains to make sure we were there for the launch of Oculus but there were lots of things in the game, lots of concessions in the game to get us out on time and lots of things ended up on the cutting floor. Carrier Assault wasn’t ready in time and we needed more time to play test and get proper feedback on it. It wasn’t simply saying oh we need someone to build assets or we need someone to do the animations it was really down to what can we balance and get it in a good place. We were still learning a lot about how our players interacted with UI and menus and VR menus and there were lots of things we did that we thought were cool but you release something and start getting more and more feedback in great volume it highlights certain areas that need to change. A particular example of that would be for selecting a map. We wanted a planetarium and the idea was you were surrounded by huge planets as an amazing and overwhelming VR moment and as you look at each planet the map and data appears to tell you about the lore of each planet and you accept it and load into the map and sounds amazing and we delivered all that stuff but then you start drilling down into the usability and how do you add another map and how much information can live in that scene and it could become too cluttered and we’re lazy creatures. Humans are pretty lazy creatures so even getting someone to look around to their left to select something, that isn’t in the optimum place so we experimented with UI that became lots of concentric circles that put the information into your field of view so you could pull the information so that it was into your comfortable gaze so looking forward we wanted to bring the pertinent information into that. As humans we are lazy, that’s a horrible thing to say, so in a way we have quite good peripheral vision but it’s not useful to deliver data, it’s somewhere between predator and prey. As I look forward I can tell there is a poster to my left but I couldn’t tell you what is on that poster. It’s got to catch my attention and cause me to look at it. We did a lot of experiment with the UI and did a lot of work on that. I think we are on our fourth iteration, and as more and more content gets added to the game we’ve got to make sure it is as solid as we can get it. We need to build on firm foundations. There was lots of stuff, some mechanics in the game that people didn’t particularly like and there were some barriers in the economy system with premium currency and in game currency but we managed to remove those elements based on the reception we got so we jumped on those things as quickly as we could and the updates are really adding compelling content to the gameplay and that’s something rewarding, I’m quite proud of where the game is now, it’s in a fantastic place. And we just want to push it even further.

That tends to be common criticism with early VR. Because it’s such a new technology there isn’t much established groundwork for what a good VR game looks like or what people really want out of the experience, it kind of seems like a lot of it is trial and error. It sounds like with these updates that you’re able try things out on the fly and based on feedback modify the game to make it better.

Absolutely, it’s been a huge learning curve and even with something like the wormholes and the idea of bringing these exotic game modes online every weekend we had wonderful mechanics so we’ve been trying to take something that we know works and put a twist on it. Like one shot missile kills and rainbow trails and all this crazy stuff we put out there and see how the community reacts to it and see what we can reuse and what parts might fall apart in the game mode. It’s so bizarre how we can change things, we had this control mode where you had to capture three control points and when we changed it to just having to capture one it radically changes the experience so it’s nice to have an area in the game where we can test out some of these mad scientist. I don’t think we’ll ever stop experimenting in that sense but we do know a lot and have a good idea about where we would like to be in the next six months so having this discussion at Fanfest and bringing these ideas to the fans is opening up the door to all the conversations about the roadmap for this year to make the best game that we can.

It sounds like your approach is heavily influenced by fan feedback, like you try a lot of different ideas and respond to the feedback and let it guide your next round of updates and changes.

It plays a large part of it. They are clocking in a lot more flight time than we are so we have to listen closely, even to something very specific like the damage of this ship is just too overpowered. Then you have to give it real attention since these people have probably play tested it far more extensively than anyone on the dev studio ever could so you have to listen closely when you get feedback like that. But then you have to be very objective where one man’s OP is another man’s favorite ship and you’ve got to have your own vision of what you want and that relationship has got to happen at the same time so they’ve got to go hand in hand. We can’t do everything entirely based on what the fans want because everyone wants something different and we look at the features we want to make and kind of marry the features that are at a good stage in development with what we hear from the fans. We have to look at the long term road map when we build things and there is no point in bringing tools online too soon if they aren’t going to be put to the best possible use. It’s a roadmap but it’s map where we put things where we think are suitable and then try to do as much fan service as we can based on demand for one or two months down the line. And there’s always the nitty gritty of running a small studio like we might have an idea for a feature but have to look at how many man hours will it take to get this feature ready and what have got for this month’s deadlines.

I don’t know if you would have this information but do you have an idea of what the ratio is of EVE: Valkyrie players that discovered it through EVE Online and those who discovered EVE: Valkyrie on their own or through some other means making it their first exposure to the EVE universe?

I think initially EVE Online players were probably 90-95 percent of the player base and found their way into Valkyrie through EVE Online and wanted to support it but when the Oculus came outand that broadened the player base outside of EVE Online by way of this is VR, here are the games. In more recent times there is a huge PlayStation player base and when PlayStation VR launched that exposed EVE: Valkyrie to a lot more players. EVE Online is not very well known among console gamers and EVE Valkyrie could be the first EVE experience a lot of console gamers have. I know it was for a lot of my friends, a lot of my buddies are console gamers and they were like oh, we’re playing EVE tonight and makes me kind of stop and they clarify they mean Valkyrie. I had to do a double take and make sure I didn’t miss the memo that they became PC gamers and got EVE accounts.

EVE: Valkyrie seems a lot more accessible. EVE Online requires a good amount of time investment plus it has a steep learning curve, where Valkyrie is kind of a pick up and play arcade style game in the vein of classics like X-Wing and Tie Fighter but modernized to incorporate VR and use the lore of EVE.

Yes EVE: Valkyrie takes all of those sci fi elements we know and love and brings in the lore from EVE Online and the classic arcade shooters you mention and first person shooters. Marry all of those elements together and you get EVE: Valkyrie. We’re all passionate gamers, hardcore gamers, so VR is an exciting new thing so lots of influences all went into EVE: Valkyrie. It was more than a little influenced by Battlestar Galactica.

EVE has been around long enough where it has its own established lore, history, identify and fanbase. As a creative person, and this is mainly for my own curiosity, how often do people draw parallels between the EVE universe to things like Star Wars, Battlestar, Star Trek, and other various sci fi franchises and do you ever get annoyed by the comparisons?

(laughs) Never. I never ever get tired of the comparisons because they’re obvious, they’re in there. When we were designing Carrier Assault we wanted this epic take down the Death Star moment, I’m not going to lie about that. There’s a trench, there’s nothing cooler than flying down a trench to core reactor so we can blow it up and see this epic explosion. There’s lots of nods, the dog fighting is influenced by Battlestar Galactica and some of the classic sequences and even some other things people pick up on like those epic World War II movies with the naval battles that happened at the seas of Normandy and spitfires and that was some classic, iconic dog fighting with real guns and I never get tired of those comparisons. We wear our influences proudly on our sleeves. We are hardcore gamers and hardcore space nerds.

EVE definitely has its own identify as an established and unique property. I actually started to wonder about that when I was writing about EVE: Valkyrie before coming here and was thinking about the iconic Star Wars trench run and thought, I wonder how often these guy hear that and get sick of it?

(laughs) I never get tired of it. But it’s something like that when we have an idea in our head and then it gets time to balance it. When we first did Carrier Assault we wanted one hit to destroy the core but it’s not as much fun. It’s fun in a movie when Luke Skywalker got that one shot in the Death Star but in our game, which is a team based game, we found it to be more compelling to drill down the energy of the core so we all felt like a team we took down this behemoth spaceship. We also found it was better to down the amount of health the perimeter nodes had in Carrier Run to blow those up. It’s about trying to find the sweet spot with the adrenaline and taking things but maintaining the team work element in the dog fighting and the objectives for the cat and mouse gameplay and the objectives for getting the right amount of damage to take things out. It’s a constant struggle to keep on top of everything.