Some of the biggest news out of EVE Vegas 2017 this weekend was the debut of Project Aurora, a new multiplayer strategy game from CCP and Spymasterdeveloper PlayRaven that seeks to bring the Eve universe to mobile devices.
The game got its first playtest during the event, giving some of Eve Online’s most dedicated fans a chance to try the game themselves. It was a real gamble given Eve's notoriously hardcore player-base, but response to Aurora was warm, with plenty of attendees exchanging tips and strategies, as well as chatting with developers about the future of the game.
Taking the mobile leap
To some, mobile might seem like an odd home for a game like Eve Online, but for Project Aurora Producer Sam Barton, it’s a natural connection to make.
Eve Online, for all of its technical intricacies, is a deeply social game. People form meaningful alliances and relationships with others that they may have never even met in real life.
“We'd learned in 13 years of Eve Online development that the things that make the game the most special are the relationships that people strike up with each other and the epic player stories that happen as a result of super social cohesion between people,” says Barton.
For him, it’s a matter of access. How could CCP spread those types of emotional connections to people who might not be sitting behind a PC playing Eve Online?
“The motivation came from wanting to widen the audience that we know that we've already got with Eve Online and allow other people to have the enjoyment and the fun of the world, and create their own player stories for themselves,” says Barton.
To attain that vision, CCP teamed up with Finnish mobile developer PlayRaven, which has developed titles such as Spymaster and Robocide. The two teams have been working together closely, with CCP ensuring that the game stays true to the Eve name, while the team at PlayRaven offers up their mobile expertise.
“It's actually been a pleasure working with PlayRaven because it's a very fluid, relaxed relationship,” explains Barton.
“It never feels like it's one side versus the other or there's this kind of like relationship where one side wants one thing and another one thinks there needs to be this bartering negotiation in the middle. It's just this very easy, relaxed conversation.”
CCP is a relative newcomer to the mobile space, so it's found some valuable guidance in its time working with PlayRaven.
“I think the one thing we've very much learned is the agile nature of mobile development,” says Barton.
“[PlayRaven’s] experience with fast iteration, getting these games out very quickly, doing soft launches and getting that feedback on half-finished games; it’s really been a good learning process for us.”
It’s thanks to this “agile” process, Barton says, that CCP and PlayRaven are at Eve Vegas letting fans playtest Project Aurora.
Wooing their hardcore fanbase
Project Aurora was met with a wary response from fans at Eve Vegas when it was initially announced, but over the course of the event it was surprising to see many, some of Eve's most inveterate players, checking in on their Project Aurora outposts over the course of the weekend-long event.
I think the one thing we've very much learned is the agile nature of mobile development.Sam Barton
CCP has been putting in a lot of effort to ensure that there’s plenty for their core fan base to enjoy, and Eve Vegas was the first chance it had to see if its new mobile Eve Online framework would please its already devoted players.
“There's always a bit of nerves when you reveal your baby to the world,” admits Barton.
Luckily fans seemed to be quite receptive to Aurora once they got their hands on it. I caught many players taking peeks at the game during panels and in the halls, and fans were quick to start a Discord channel dedicated to the game so they could share tips and tricks.
“Even people who have never played mobile games before have come up to us and said, ‘I don't know what to think about this, but I'm interested in it and I want know more about it, because for the first time it sounds like something that might be interesting to me,’” says Barton.
“Now we can start to flesh out this game hand-in-hand with these guys to let them let us know how they want to spend their time in this game.”
Meshing the old with the new
Project Aurora promises to be a combination of what makes EVE Online so addictive, with mobile-friendly mechanics and systems that any type of player can get on board with. Corporations, mining and all of the wheeling and dealing therein will still play a major part in Aurora.
Barton describes these familiar features as “toolboxes” that allow the players to shape their own experiences, falling in line with the meta elements that emerge from Eve Online that make this universe so unique
“We want people to fully define what their corporation is and how they work with it," says Barton. "But it’s also a political toolbox, too. They need resources to improve their space station, and we want people to decide whether they go out in force and take it from other people, whether they set up negotiations and exchange services for it, whether they spy on someone, take their resources, and send them back to the corporation.
"It's very important to us that we provide options and allow people to make their own choices, rather than having a very clear framework of you do this, you do this, and then you profit. That's not really the game we're interested in making.”
This framework will allow for epic stories of war and betrayal to emerge, much like they do in Eve Online. Barton says that relationships will still be the most important aspect of Project Aurora’s narrative.
“The emergent way people play is the most interesting to us. It's the reason why we're opening the game up so early,” explains Barton.
“We feel that the real retention and engagement with this game is being able to log in and to see people that you know, and that can be people that you like and people that you hate as well. People that have taken advantage of you at a time when you're vulnerable, and you'll always remember it because it can set you back weeks' worth of resources.
"We want you to be able to have that toolbox to do something about that, whether it's lean on your friends to help you out, or tactically mastermind a way to get your resources back.”
Though this sounds a lot like Eve Online, CCP and PlayRaven are actively finding ways to make this very much a fresh mobile experience.
“We want to make sure that the way you interact with those activities sits right on a mobile device. We don't want it to be a very complex, in-depth thing that's requiring a lot of hand-eye coordination and skill,” says Barton.
“We want this to be, first and foremost, a strategic and tactical game rather than a twitch skill-based game. We kind of want to take the ideas that people love and that resonate well from Eve Online, but then pivot them and refocus them in a way that sits right with a mobile device.”
Barton wants the game to be accessible to new players, too. If you’re jumping into Project Aurora for the first time, you should be able to have a grasp of basic mechanics and feel that you can make an impact in your corporation right out of the gate.
We want to make sure that the way you interact with those activities sits right on a mobile device.Sam Barton
Barton feels that Eve veterans can help support newcomers, too.
“We really want the core Eve Online players to become our super enthusiasts for this game,” he says. “We want [newcomers] to discover the game through the activities of our core fanbase, and for them to jump into the game and have experiences with people who can then bring them in and explain to them exactly what's happening here.”
At the same time, it should be a game for hardcore fans that want to spend a long time in the world absorbed in the game’s intricate systems.
Complex relationships and varying degrees of player skill require robust tools both in and out of the game, and the developers fully intend to make this as easy as possible for players.
“We really want to open up some of the things you can do in the game to an API as well, so that people can build their own tools,” explains Barton. These tools, that will help players track, say, the game’s economy and much more, will again help players shape their own experiences.
“It's very important to Eve Online people to build their own websites, to build their own companion apps and to help them do what they want to do in the game," adds Barton.
"The way the game's being built at the moment, we're not burning those bridges. We're leaving that open so at some point we can release an API that people can then create their own tools to help manage their experience how they want."
Behind all of this is a free-to-play model, though the details haven’t been etched out just yet. Barton says that the team hasn’t even begun to plan the free-to-play framework. They’re hoping they can build it alongside fans with their feedback.
“We don't want to alienate our fan base by putting a business model in there that feels kind of strange to them, given the gameplay," says Barton.
"So right now we're very focused on getting the gameplay and the engagement right. We do know that we want to go with free-to-play, because we see this game as not just a game, but a hobby. We want this to be a hobby that lasts five plus years for people.
"And we know the free-to-play model is one that allows us to support that hobby for a long period of time. So that's the reason we're going with that business model. As for the details, that will come from this point onwards.”
Fan input has always played a large role in Eve Online’s ongoing development, and the same looks to be true for Project Aurora. Eve Online is a game with a real, elected governing body that parlays with CCP to guide the direction of the game, after all.
We don't want to alienate our fan base by putting a business model in there that feels kind of strange to them.Sam Barton
As Project Aurora moves into testing and soft launch in the coming months, CCP hopes to continue to work closely with their most devoted fans to ensure an exceptional finished product.
“[Eve Vegas] is the starting point for our community involvement. We're going to do whatever we can to set up a continued dialogue with the player base here. So we're still working on whether that's going to be through something that we set up, whether that's kind of like a bespoke forum setup, or whether we just tie into the existing social media set,” posits Barton.
“We see ourselves doing very regular AMAs on Reddit and engaging with our community in that kind of way as well.”
Continued playtesting will also play an important role in the game’s development. “We want people in early access to feel that they're really helping to steer and drive the game into a certain direction,” says Barton.
As the Eve Vegas playtest drew to a close on Sunday night, Barton was sure to make it very clear that they wanted to hear from their fans, even as they return home from a weekend full of all things Eve.
“The doors are open for feedback. Not just for feedback, but how we receive feedback,” notes Barton. “If people feel that they have a specific way that they want to get feedback to us on how things are doing, then please come and open the dialogue with us. We'd be more than happy to have a conversation.”
Already the Eve Vegas playtest has yielded surprising results.
“I think the willingness of a crowd that I didn't think would be completely willing to look into this game getting involved has been the most surprising thing,” admits Barton.
The developers have also noticed some truly impressive player innovations:
“We've already started to see a couple of tactics in-game that we haven't dreamt of already. It's been 12 to 16 hours since the game's been out there, and already there are people coming up with more devious ways to get their goals than we have dreamt up in nine months working on the game from scratch. That kind of thing will never cease to amaze me.”
As for when Project Aurora will enter the public domain? Barton hopes the game will enter soft launch in Q4 2017 or Q1 2018, and the team is aiming for a full global release in mid-2018.