This entry has been written from an ‘out of character’ perspective to discuss the development road to the winter expansion.
There is a new video dev blog out, it is very much a taster thing to say “Holiday season is over and we’ve finished release planning” but it does give a few hints as to where CCP are heading in the next six months or so.
So there’s that to go on and of course there is the Summer CSM7 summit minutes. Page 42, Winter 2012 Expansion section. I think that the messaging coming out of CCP in recent weeks paints a picture of EVE development taking an unusual course.
Prior to the CSM minutes coming out, I had a pretty clear idea of where I thought the winter expansion would be going. I expected to see a team continuing to iterate on factional warfare, as CCP had previously committed to doing that. I expected continuing ship balancing work (the so-called ‘tiericide’). I expected some of the new module stuff that slipped out of Inferno (micro jump drives, salvage drones…). But most of all, I was expecting to see either Planetary Ring Mining or the Starbase revamp taking the spotlight.
I was wrong. Well, not all wrong as some/most of that will be in there somewhere. But what we are not going to see is any of the Starbase or Ring Mining stuff until probably winter 2013. Starbases will be done first, which means that Ring Mining may not happen until 2014. CCP Unifex put it like this:
The theme for the winter expansion will continue to be ‘WAR’, or more specifically the stimulation of blowing stuff up and there are to be no ‘Jesus features’ (large new shiny features). This will allow CCP to iterate on features already in the game and lay a stronger foundation for 2013.
I thought that the use of the term ‘Jesus feature’ was a curious one. So I have digging and went back to re-read what Hilmar actually said when that phrase was first coined. The term ‘Jesus Feature’ was born in the CSM 6 Winter 2011 summit. Let us revisit (page 41):
Of course, exclusively going a Crucible route, iterating the product ‘to death’, is not viable when thought of in terms of years – but it absolutely makes sense for the immediate future as the debt from the last three years (the Jesus-feature era, where a magic feature for EVE will turn five loaves of bread into 50.000 new customers) has to be paid. Ensuring that EVE is coherent and consistent after all those massive features has become a priority.
CSM stated that they were not opposed to new and ‘shiny’ features, but they stressed that CCP had to carefully weigh and measure what the new features would bring in terms of value for the customers, both new and old – and pointed out that they, the CSM, were a very good sounding-board for such contemplations. Obviously the CSM aren’t game designers, and they fully admitted that, and coming up with new features is not their expertise, but providing feedback – on new feature ideas and iterations – is what they are here for.
That ‘three year era’ ended in 2011 and so began, by Hilmar’s reckoning, in 2008. The year Empyrean Age launched factional warfare. The first Jesus feature. In my opinion, CCP Unifex’s use of Jesus feature is subtly different to my own definition of it. I think that each Jesus feature has been motivated by marketing thinking and focused on making EVE appeal to people who don’t play it. Some time after (as I recall) FW was released, and I have no intention of trying to track down the quote, CCP came out and said that FW was designed to meet the feedback of people who had tried EVE but not been retained; in this case it was about addressing EVE’s lack of consensual PVP. And so FW became focused on providing low stakes PVP (no consequences to ‘losing’ the war) and controlling engagement sizes (the gated complexes).
To my mind, this is what Hilmar was calling an end to. CCP would stop trying to design features to appeal to people who don’t play EVE and focus instead on features that improve the game for people who do. The hope of course being that this leads to a better product and therefore more customers sticking around over time, even if they don’t sign up in a huge burst of growth.
But I don’t think this is what CCP Unifex had in mind. When he said ‘no Jesus features this winter’, he meant no Ring Mining or POS revamp. Which I think in truth are features that existing players very much want to see as they would address core problems with the game they play. The moon goo/technetium ISK fountains and the many issues of starbase mechanics/dull game play. We may suffer a difference of opinion here. 😉
I started this with saying that I felt CCP were taking an unusual path this winter. What I mean is that in the past CCP have usually work on one set of things in an expansion, then moved on to a largely different area of the game for the following expansion. Even though sometimes they said that they were going to be iterating on a certain area over a couple of development cycles, only to move on. The Dominion expansion, for example.
What is going to make this winter very different, and perhaps unique, is that the core features CCP intend to work on are by and large the same features they started working on for Inferno. Factional Warfare and the war dec system will again be major features, along with the front end of Crimewatch (the back end code having been put in place previously). Then we should see some of that stuff which slipped out of Inferno (Salvage drones etc). This is a different approach for CCP, one that signifies an intention to properly finish features before moving on. CCP Soundwave has commented a time or two now that he wants to see FW in a solid and polished state by the end of the year so that it will not need to be revisited for some time to come. This is an abnormally long period of focus on the same part of the game.
Of course, the other factor in play here is Dust514. CCP have been working on the foundations for integrating Dust514 with Singularity and ultimately TQ itself. Undoubtedly resources will be used on the EVE side of the merger to integrate the first Dust related features, not releasing major new systems during this period is probably wise.
I think it is a sound strategy, and very much the essence of what players have long asked of CCP; that they properly finish and polish features rather than leaving them unfinished or broken while the devs go chase after ‘the next shiny thing’.
But, it is a strategy with a troubling pit fall to it that CCP must be mindful of. While prolonged focus on Factional Warfare makes FW players happy, it does little to please non-FW players. Few people would get too bent out of shape over CCP spending a release cycle to renovate FW, but by the time the second cycle comes round they may start getting impatient.
While reading a couple of the FW threads, I noticed a number of players sounding grumpy that CCP were talking about buffing FW low sec stations but not null sec outposts (for some reason they were all in Goonswarm; apply tinfoil?). I have also seen a prominent FW blogger apparently surprised at the thought that CCP might not be working on FW next year as well. Two very different perspectives there sharing a common theme; they don’t seem to be at all aware of what CCP are aiming to achieve this winter.
I have long held an opinion of a huge failing CCP made with Incarna. They pitched it to the players all wrong (it failed in so many ways in addition to this, I’m aware). CCP failed to pitch the Captains Quarters as a prototype feature. They failed to emphasise the revamped tutorial. All in all, Incarna should have been pitched as an expansion focusing on new players, instead they tried to convince bittervets that it was filled with content that didn’t really exist.
In a similar vein, the winter expansion is all about finishing off and polishing work already begun in preparation for a return to revamping null sec and starbases, free of any major lingering issues from Inferno. I think that CCP really have to hammer home this message. They need to be upfront that the winter expansion is more about fixes and polishing than it is about wholly ‘new’ content. It is Inferno part II, or even something more akin to Crucible.
We asked CCP to finish features properly and to renovate the old and broken stuff. This winter we will find out what that is actually like. CCP will just need to work on the expectations management and keep reminding us all of the new philosophy at work.