Three years on from a major shake-up spurred by falling financials, cancelled projects and layoffs, Eve Online developer CCP has posted record profit numbers and is helping to lead the VR revolution. CEO Hilmar Pétursson reveals how the studio reversed its fortunes – and what comes next
If CCP was one of the monolithic Titan spaceships that populate its virtual universe of Eve Online, 2013 through to 2015 would have found it slowly circling a black hole, engines cut and smoke pouring from within.
While the audience numbers of its iconic sci-fi MMO continued to grow, CCP itself posted losses of $21m for its 2013 fiscal year, and was forced to let go more than 50 employees. The following year, its San Francisco office was closed.
“2013 was a very tough year for us,” admits CEO Hilmar Pétursson. “We did a lot of difficult change. We cancelled a project – the World of Darkness MMO – we had been working on for seven years. We just weren’t seeing a path to the end. We took a difficult call on closing that down, which involved laying off the team and streamlining the rest of the company for a different reality and a different way to operate.”
Nearly three years later, the studio’s hard decisions appeared to have paid off. Eve continues to thrive, with a new expansion, Citadel, released in April. Meanwhile, the developer has expanded its efforts to the burgeoning VR space, launching Gunjack for Gear VR last year and dogfighting spin-off Eve Valkyrie alongside the Oculus Rift headset in late March. On the horizon lurks a Gunjack sequel and Project Nova, a spiritual successor to 2013 first-person shooter Dust 514.
It’s a big change for a studio that until last year had only released two titles. The company is supporting its rapidly expanding line-up with the opening of a new office in the UK, the brightest new star in CCP’s constellation.
“Back in 2013, we made a lot of changes to how we operate our development process and how our studios interact and all that,” Pétursson recalls. “We’ve gone for each development office being much more focused on its project and having much more economy in the positions.
“We’ve seen the first results of that in Gunjack, which the Shanghai team put together last year and released in November to raving success. Then, of course, we have Valkyrie coming out of Newcastle, and that team is extremely focused on that. We have Eve in Reykjavik, as well as some smaller start-up projects that are too early to talk about. Then we have a team in Atlanta doing advanced research into what comes next for VR.
“The centre of the company is kind of in London right now. We will probably move more into a model where we have people just coming together in London when we’re doing reviews and product feedback and things like that. We have, with this establishment of the London office, been making an operating reality by facing the facts.”
"Each and every game has to stand on its own and work in isolation."
While Eve may be the game that made CCP’s name, the studio’s latest efforts in VR actually take inspiration from somewhere you might not expect: oft-overlooked PS3 shooter Dust 514.
“We took a lot of the lessons from the Dust production into Valkyrie, which has benefited the game tremendously,” Pétursson reveals. “What we tried with Dust was an extremely long-ranging mission, and Dust provided a lot of technical achievements. There were a lot of elements relating to how to organise things on the backend of the servers with the demand of having two games in the same IP as gamer services and all that, which definitely harkened and informed a lot in how we’ve managed the development of Valkyrie.”
Almost exactly three years after it was launched, Dust 514 was taken offline, paving the way for Valkyrie and newly unveiled free-to-play PC FPS Project Nova.
“One of the lessons from Dust is that each and every game has to stand on its own and work in isolation before you layer in the connectivity,” Pétursson says. “With Dust, we attempted to do both at the same time. With Valkyrie, we are very much focused on it being an awesome space shooter built from the group-up for VR. Then we know it is fairly easy for us to layer in various sorts of connectivity. We’re very much building the onion from layer to layer, instead of – as we attempted with Dust – from all the different layers.
“Dust taught us many lessons and we have a lot of experience in doing this now. At the time it was very innovative and I don’t think anyone has still taken it to the level that we did. There’s a lot of people exploring this, it’s something that gamers are curious about and we will definitely continue to explore more after we’ve got this game to stand on its own two feet.”
Having ventured from its home planet on PC into the galaxies of consoles and VR, there remains a largely unexplored sector for CCP: mobile.
“We are more interested in mobile companion apps when it comes to mobile,” Pétursson responds when asked about developing for the platform. “Making original games for mobile is not so much in our wheelhouse. It’s such an expertise field by now, and it’s not really a format we are well suited for as a company and as a culture.
“We are much more gravitated to VR – that plays a lot more to our strengths. VR is a platform unto itself, so that has been a huge focus. Our forte is PC gaming and online – we have become a bit of a content leader for VR, so these are the things we will be focused on going forward.”
His words highlight the current mood of CCP; equipped with a new studio, newfound confidence in its projects and the knowledge needed to capture emerging platforms, it’s a developer with the future in its sights. It’s a huge transformation from three years ago.
“2013 was a very tough year for us,” Pétursson reiterates. “But, out of that, we started to change a lot about how we do the projects. We started to do many more projects, also focusing more on VR.
“These two factors combined have led to a record profit year in the history of the company last year. Our profit was over $20 million, and we also did a financing round at the end of the year where we raised $30 million. We are now in an extremely good position when it comes to balancing strength and overall financial strength.
“It was a very difficult thing to do, to make the changes we did in 2013, but it is definitely working – those difficult calls put us in the place we are today.“