It’s hard to recall a time when associating the term ‘free-to-play’ was met with a generally positive response, especially when such enthusiasm comes from the fans of an established (and still growing) game franchise. Yet that’s what’s happened with EVE Online which, on November 15, will offer a barrier-free point of entry with its new Ascension update. To newcomers, it’s a way to travel the entire EVE Online universe without having to pay a subscription. What’s more interesting is how many EVE vets already perceive this new, limited experience: an unorthodox ‘hard mode’ that promises to pose is share of difficulties in a game universe that isn’t already bereft challenges. We recently spoke when EVE Online executive producer, Andie Nordgren to share more about this next big update.
Gamespot: What can you tell us about EVE Online’s upcoming update?
Andie Nordgren: We have a big expansion launching on November 15th and it has a bunch o goodies and content for current players, some big additions to the EVE sandbox with new structures that players can build, and new combat to shake things up.
The dramatic change is that we’re introducing a way to play the game for free. We’re doing that through what we call the clone states. The core mechanic in EVE is that you’re immortal and your consciousness when you die just moves to a new clone. These clones now come in two modes. There’s a base mode called the alpha state, which has a capacity for a particular set of skills in the game, the skills then let you do different things and fly different ships in the game. The alpha state gives you three ship classes, the three smaller and most popular ship classes you can play as much as you like for free forever. Then you can augment that with a subscription to the omega state, which is exactly the same as EVE players have today on subscription. If your subscription lapses you just revert to the free alpha state. This is a way for both old and new players to play the game for free and check out.
Can you have a full EVE Online experience just by playing the Alpha state?
Yup. We intentionally designed it such that it should be a viable way to play the game and there are no restrictions on what you can do, apart from that you get access to these three ship classes. Other than that, you could just go anywhere and do whatever.
You share the same environment as everyone else, correct?
Yeah, exactly. When making this design we looked back at these huge fights that we had with almost six-thousand ships in the same engagement and out of those about seventeen percent could have been free players, because we-
Based on the ships they used.
Yeah, based on the ships they used. We had actually one of our developers create a character on the live server where he gave himself limitations of the alpha skillset and he played like that for three weeks and went about doing stuff. He was flying around in this ship, a Thorax, and he thought, “Where can I go?” The answer is anywhere. He did some stuff in low-sec, he did some stuff in wormholes, and then he was flying all around null security space. It means that even if you’re on this free account, you can jump straight into the game and be part of huge battles or just do stuff on your own.
He told a story where he was able to kill a bigger ship just solo because it was equipped for something different. Even if you’re on this free mode you can just go out there and engage with people. For established players, I think it becomes a bit about like a hardcore mode. I think we’ll see a lot of stories of people who have achieved something on the alpha state.
It’s like you could be the most experienced EVE Online player and seeing the appeal in intentional deprivation by playing the alpha.
Yeah. I think a bunch of people will do that. A lot of people will have the alpha skills at maxed out already, because what happens when you unsubscribe is that you still have all the other skills beyond the alpha set, but they just get turned off. They get grayed out until you resubscribe. There are two layers here. You still have to train into the skills, so if you’re on the free account you don’t automatically just get all of these ship classes, you still have to choose which skills you train and so on.
A lot of people are asking for a way to be in the game and then choose whether they want to subscribe or not. A lot of the former players are going drop down to the alpha state and then if their friends are heading out on a fleet and they need a ship that requires omega state then they might subscribe for a month and hop into their bigger ship with their friends when they know they have a specific reason to. Because right now you can’t even log into the game without resubscribing, so it’s a dramatic difference for the veterans in terms of just convenience and utility as well.
How has the community reception been?
The reception has been fantastic. The EVE community, the most hardcore nerd community on the planet, is like excited for their game to become available for free. It’s pretty fascinating. I would’ve thought that this was going to be the community that was going to go like, “Free to play, never.” Of course it’s a bit like a hybrid model, the subscription is still there and so on, but they, yeah, the whole game is in super excitement mode.
What else can we look forward to in this Ascension update?
We have done something that we’ve never really done before, which is for the very first location of the game we’re using a more story driven approach to teach people how to take part in the EVE universe. We have worked with various ways to try and teach people stuff, but we’ve thought also that because it’s a sandbox game, it’s very open-ended. It’s very dependent on you taking initiative. We’ve felt in the past that doing a railroaded tutorial would set you up with all the wrong ideas about what game is, right? Now we are doing a railroaded tutorial, but the type of story it takes you through is one that builds you up as a person who is later going to take your own initiative. We think that the basic competency in just how do I control my ship, what is a station, what can I do there are some basics that we need to cover for you before you can take off and choose your own path. Now we’re deploying some strong storytelling elements to give you those basics.
We’re making an experience where you get to go through a multi-chapter story, where you join the game through one of the empires in New Eden and you’re waking up in a wreck site after a battle that has gone wrong. You were out, you’re a new recruit, you’ve been out with a fleet and it’s been attacked by the Drifters, who are one of the biomechanical enemies in the game. They’ve attacked your fleet and you’re the only survivor. The commander from your empire is stuck with you and as the new guy, you have to help with figure out what happened, rescue some scientists that have vital information, and go on a journey. Then you have your ship AI, called Aura, who is there to take care of you and help you carry out what needs to get done. Then we take you through a story with several moments in it that ends up with you taking part on your empire’s counterattack on the Drifters and there’s a huge battle between these forces.
Does this replace the previous tutorial?
Yeah. Depending on which empire you choose you have a different mentor with a different flavor. It’s not lore exposition, but you get hints and a taste of the flavor of the empire.
There isn’t any sense of permanence when you choose an empire, right? Could you change your mind?
You could. Now the way we’ve done the alpha state actually is that the skills you have available are actually race locked, so now the race matters more. If your clone is an omega state then you can train the ships of any race. Those restrictions go away then and then it matters less. If you’re in the free mode then your race actually matters. You can of course go and join any player-driven group regardless of which race you’re playing.
We’re also extending the sandbox features and we’re going to do some additional mining, making it much easier to fit your ship so you can try stuff out before you buy it and so on.
And this is will part new expansion, right?
This is all part of the Ascension expansion.
So, Ascension has these upgrades plus the introduction of the free to play component?
We’re redoing the explosions and the character sheet is all new. It’s a big bundle of stuff and I think there are really two audiences for this: it’s people who have been EVE-curious and are maybe looking to check it out now and it’s also people who have played EVE previously and will realize, “Oh, I could log back into my characters and actually play again without any pre-commitment.”
There isn’t any premium content in Ascension for the subscribers, right? It’s just like a free, robust download?
Does this expand the galaxy?
No. There’s no new solar systems or anything like that.
Updates in the past done that, though, correct?
Wormholes was that in 2008, so that was the last big one. There have been some regions added and stuff like that, but we’re gearing up in the next one or two years probably for actually expanding the galaxy.