Reincarnating Incarna

This entry has been written from an ‘out of character’ perspective to discuss where CCP may or may not take Incarna and avatar-based game play in EVE’s future.

I started writing this post a week or two ago so things have moved on a bit since in a way I wasn’t entirely expecting.  Still, let’s get it out there before Fanfest happens!

If you are a regular reader, then you probably know that I am generally in favour of CCP bringing an element of avatar-based game play to the EVE universe someday, with one rather large caveat; if it is ‘done right’.  The Incarna of 2011 was a great disappointment, no-one wants more of that thank you very much.

I am revisiting the topic now as Fanfest and EVE’s tenth anniversary are just around the corner, where we are told CCP will set out their plans for the next decade.  Personally I’m not expecting to see much of a concrete road map as CCP has never been so great at planning more than six months ahead in much more detail than ‘we think it would be cool to do something like this..’, but I suppose we will soon see. 😉

However, in the broad strokes of EVE’s future plans, CCP has been consistent in saying that they still want to bring avatar-based game play to EVE.  Some day it will happen, it is simply a question of how many more years it will be and what form that will take.  What has changed since I started thinking about this again is the news that EVE’s senior producer, CCP Unifex (Jon Lander) is changing roles within the company.  My impression at this point is that the legacy he is leaving behind appears to be that CCP has a more robust and structured approach to planning expansions and setting a roadmap than ever before.  The Odyssey expansion should tell us a lot about how things will be going forwards.

Who takes over from Unifex is going to be interesting and could herald a new way of thinking within the company, particularly as CCP have indicated that they are actively looking for external applicants rather than just promoting internally.  CCP want fresh blood and new thinking leading into EVE’s second decade.

In May, marking the day 10 years on from EVE-Online’s own launch, Dust514 will see the deployment of the ‘Uprising’ patch (expansion).  Like last year, Dust will be a major component of Fanfest 2013 with its own keynote presentation.  Also like last year, World of Darkness dev’s will be in attendance to reveal more about CCP’s third game in a 1 hour presentation slot.  Now that Dust514 is an actual ‘thing’ and being released, CCP are probably looking to get WoD out of development limbo and move it towards being a product.  WoD was first announced at Fanfest 2006, which was a very long time ago for a game that no-one outside of CCP really knows very much about at all.  Let alone a release date. 😉

WoD is of course CCP’s only announced game that is not set within the EVE Universe.  It is important to CCP’s business in that it represents an income source not tied to EVE.  It is also the reason why development of Incarna was announced at the same Fanfest – the two projects were to be developed using shared technology and tools.  CCP would have been hard pressed to justify the cost of investment back then to take on either one of those projects, but sharing the development cost between two games spread the risk and raised the potential returns.

After it had all gone rather wrong in the Summer of 2011,  CCP’s CEO Hilmar reiterated to the CSM a major point of his reasoning behind pushing the direction Incarna took.  Hilmar had been so keen on bringing avatars to EVE because he was concerned that if EVE did not utilise this new tech then it could fall behind the curve and lose out in the long run, becoming less relevant to gamers over time (like WoW is).

So he pushed Incarna, but only later realised the folly in forcing features into the game that did not fit.  Incarna of 2011 was about poorly defined ‘social spaces’ that had no clear reason for existing other than as a technology show case.  CCP failed for years to articulate why the EVE players should be excited about Incarna because the vision for it was weakly defined and not very ‘EVE-like’.  Finally admitting failure, they backed off the project to explore other options and returned development focus to the core game of internet spaceships.  And on getting Dust out of the door.  This is now three expansion cycles in the past.

In the Winter 2012 CSM Summit minutes, CCP Unifex broached an interesting shift in approach for expanding the EVE Universe.  Whereas in the past CCP have talked about making EVE into the ‘ultimate Sci-Fi simulator’ in which a player could live out any of their science fiction fantasies, instead CCP Unifex advocated creating more focused and distinct products that interconnected to form the EVE Universe, as Dust514 does.  It is a separate game but shares the same game world as EVE.  He used Planetary Interaction as an example.  If Unifex could rewind time and do it again, PI would have been created as a separate title for tablets and mobile devices.  EVE in the form of casual gaming.

We now know that CCP Unifex’s new role is to be the head of CCP’s mobile computing strategy, developing new products for smart-phones and the increasingly popular tablet PC market. Hmm.  I’m not sure that CCP are gunning for porting Planetary Interaction, but it does sound like they have something in the works.  Maybe they will have something to announce next weekend during the CCP Presents show at Fanfest.  But where does all this leave Incarna?

I think that if and when CCP do return to tackle Incarna, then it may make more sense for it to become the third(?) title to share the EVE game world.  I also think that it could be the means of to opening EVE-Online up to the Free To Play MMO market on PC.  Now before you totally freak out at the thought of F2P EVE, I am not talking about tampering with EVE-Online the internet spaceship game‘s subscription model.  This would be a third title in CCP’s EVE stable and it could be a F2P game running alongside EVE, as does Dust514.

You may be wondering why this could even remotely be considered a good idea.  One of CCP’s goals with Dust514 is to expose an entirely different demographic of gamer to the EVE universe.  A console shooter built on 15 minute matches is a different beast to EVE’s multi-hour fleet ops or meticulously planned industry.  Likewise a tablet/phone based casual title might be played by a quite different type of gamer than EVE or Dust.  It is all about expanding the customer base and drawing more people into our game world.

EVE presents a very definite barrier between interaction and new players – a subscription fee.  Gone are the days when all MMO’s charged a monthly sub, F2P gaming is very much here and many MMO’s have changed their payment models in response.  That topic is often a divisive one among EVE’s existing community who like things as they are and are wary of a microtransaction future undermining the core game.  I share that wariness.

An alternative for Incarna might be to offer gamers access to ‘walking in stations’ without a subscription, and to build the new Incarna game play around a more microtransaction based economy while all things internet spaceship are left exactly as they are now.  An Incarna player could at any point choose to subscribe to EVE and unlock the ability to board a ship as an EVE-subscriber, but the trick is that this could go both ways.  As things are, if your sub expires then you are out of the game until you re-sub or PLEX your account for more time.  This is I think the point when CCP lose a customer, as the lapsed subscriber soon becomes disconnected from their corp or alliance until they decide to re-sub.

What if instead of being shut out of the game, you were simply dropped down to the F2P model and lost the ability to fly spaceships but kept the ability to interact with your subscribed buddies?  Wouldn’t you then be more likely to be drawn back in as you hear about all the stuff you are missing out on?

Last year CCP kept a small team working on gameplay prototyping for avatar-based  game play.  Their conclusions were reported as promising and based around exploring derelict ships and stations for salvage and artefacts.  Such a game might appeal to a different audience than EVE’s spaceships as well as complement existing player interests.  It could provide a new means of drawing in new and lapsed subscribers.  By approaching Incarna as a distinct title in its own right the EVE Universe could be further deepened and expanded, all without demanding that the EVE-Online dev teams stop working on the internet spaceships.

Maybe once WoD is out the door, eh?

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