Other MMOs Doing Just Fine, Thanks

Blizzard shipped its World of Warcraft expansion pack Wrath of the Lich King this week, and with all the hoopla over it, you might think itis the only MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) on the planet. Even at the height of EverQuestis popularity, people werenit showing up at stores at midnight to buy the latest expansion pack, as many gamers did this week. EverQuest is still around, however, as are many other MMOs, including this weekis subject, CCP Gamesi EVE Online.

Set in space thousands of years from now, EVE Online charts the progress of humanity, which has split into four distinct races. You play as a member of one of them, and your goal is to join other players in amassing enough wealth that your group can stake out its own piece of the universe and influence the gameis story. Unlike World of Warcraft, in which the developers decide where the story goes and the game is replicated across many servers, EVE Online takes place on one shared server, so if a vast armada of player spaceships attack a significant target, they can alter the course of the tale.

"EVE is one of the only successful isandboxi style games, which allows players to set their own goals," Ned Coker, PR associate for CCP, told me via email. "The single-shard nature of EVE differentiates it, as the persistent nature of New Eden provides a venue for anyone playing EVE Online to affect anyone else. Furthermore, our harsh death penalty provides an impetus for forging meaningful relationships and iups the antei on combat, where you can lose years worth of work in a few minutes or take it away from someone else. Finally, our 5-years-in-the-making virtual economy thatis as realistic as one in the real world is run exclusively by players."

He added: "All of those design principles are a blessing (and sometimes a curse), as gamers are traditionally used to being led through the game space. Many of our players cling to the ihardcorei way you can, but arenit forced to, interact with the world."

Mr. Coker also told me that CCP is committed to always improving their technology, so there will never be a need to add another server. "With the recent introduction of StacklessIO and EVE64, software and hardware upgrades respectively, we can now have over 1,000 players actively involved in a single-system battle, dwarfing what is generally thought possible in an online game," he explained. "We can always expand the game world and adjust some design systems to alleviate overcrowding. But the constant addition of players to EVE for the past five years has provided some amazing opportunities for us to turn over control to the players."

EVE Online also differs from World of Warcraft in its distribution model: The game is a free download, with a monthly fee the only charge to play. Annual expansion packs are also distributed for free. The latest one, Quantum Rise, came out this week, and CCP announced some details of the next one at its annual FanFest, which took place Nov. 6 to 8 in Iceland. The next one is currently unnamed, but it will be released in March 2009 and it will feature new areas of outer space to explore, epic mission arcs, new ships, and more.

A new ship, the Orca, included in Quantum Rise

CCP also promises to eventually allow players to disembark from their ships and walk around space stations, although no date for that major feature has been set. Macworldis Peter Cohen attended last weekis FanFest, and he received confirmation that Mac users will receive the feature too. While EVE Online on the Mac is mostly on par with the Windows version, one glaring omission has been the Premium Graphics update, which greatly enhances the gameis cinematic look and feel. Mr. Coker told me that CCP is "very close" to releasing the upgrade to Mac users, and Mr. Cohen had the chance to see it running on a Mac while he was in Iceland.

Finally, Mr. Cohen attended the keynote address for FanFest and learned that CCP plans to come to store shelves next March, in time for the next expansion packis release. Atari will handle distribution, enabling CCP to get the game into 50,000 stores around the world. It wasnit clear, however, if the Mac and Linux versions will be included in the package. I wonder if CCP will try for a midnight release too.