From Iceland — Never Underestimate the Power of Play

Never Underestimate the Power of Play

Published August 1, 2008

Never Underestimate the Power of Play
Photo by
Courtesy of CCP

Reykjavík based game developing company CCP was founded in June, 1997. In May 2003, the company launched its first Massively Multiplayer
Online Role-Playing Game (MMO), EVE Online, which took the on-line world by storm. The founders, Creative Director Reynir Harðarson and Chief Financial Officer Ívar Kristjánsson spent years of hard work, together with a staff under 50 to make the virtual world of EVE a reality. In 2004, CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson joined the group and helped lead the company’s explosive growth. Now, 11 years later, they reap the rewards – CCP now counts over 300 employees on three continents, 250,000 active players, and is undisputedly one of the world’s largest independent game developers. Set in a giant galaxy tens of thousands of years in the future, EVE Online offers the largest single-server virtual universe in the world. In 2006, CCP expanded its reach to China and now boast offices in Shanghai, Atlanta and London. However, the company’s headquarters remain in Reykjavík, where it all started.

After a day at CCP’s three-floor office down by the Reykjavík docks in Grandagarður, the Grapevine learned many intriguing things about the company and its history. The unique relationship between the players and developers is what keeps the game going, and dedicated fans run several websites that have become an integral part of the players’ community. Every great success story has humble beginnings, and this is definitely true for CCP, who’s first years were “a real struggle”. In fact, the seed capital for EVE’s development consisted of earnings from a surpise hit family board-game called ‘Hættuspil’ – this kept CCP afloat through crucial times. The company has grown rapidly since, and as their first virtual world is such a huge international success (last year’s annual FanFest at Laugardalshöll attracted more than 1.000 people from around the world) the plan is to make more.

Virtual Worlds: The New Money Machine
CCP policy insists that their employees go on vacation at the same time, so the office was rather quiet when I arrived for the visit. Luckily, my tour guides of the day, PR Director Valerie Massey and HR manager Helgi Már Þórðarson, were very nice and talkative. Þórðarson, sporting a T-shirt that read: “Impossible is what we pour on our cereal in the morning” tells me they have a lot of T-shirts and other merchandise, as those kinds of things boost the morale. “Unfortunately I’m not wearing my EVE socks today,” he adds.

Our first stop is at the heart of the office (and every office): the coffee machine. I learn it is a popular one, and even has its own Facebook fan-club (after tasting its brew, I asserted that the machine deserves every bit of praise it gets). As we walk along with our mugs in hand, the first thing to grab my attention is a game room with a huge flat screen TV and video games stacked up.

“This is where we lay off some steam and play Rock-Band. That’s actually research,” says Massey. The office features some more fun things for the staff. There are pool and ping-pong tables, an electronic drum-kit and the second largest privately owned aquarium in Iceland. The tour goes on.

EVE is a capitalist society and features a massive player-controlled economy, so the money business is just as complicated as in real life. Prices are decided by the players that comprise game’s economy, and the world expands every second of the day. EVE has thus long reached the point where they need a full-time on-line economist to keep track of things. In 2007, CCP hired Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson to handle the ever-increasing demand for economic information; he collects data created within the game world, analyses inflation, economic growth and price trends, and issues reports on the economy’s development. Having a full-time position for a real-life economist is a first time ever in the history of MMO’s.

“We stole him from the University of Akureyri!” Massey says proudly, but Guðmundsson was the Dean of the Faculty of Business and Science at the University.

Do you like it better here at CCP?  I ask him:

“Yeah, definitely, in the sense that this is just such an awesome phenomenon. From an economic standpoint, the depth of the society was much greater than I had ever expected. The complexity of it is just awesome.”

Guðmundsson tells me about a recent conference on “innovation and governance in virtual worlds” that he lectured at in London. It was organised by the Virtual Policy Network and BERR, a unit within the UK government that helps businesses formulate regulations and communicate with the government. The conference looked at what should be done to make the UK a competitive environment and put the focus on virtual worlds. “We were basically giving policy advice to this committee to help them figure out what is happening with virtual worlds. It’s quite interesting because it tells us virtual worlds are now catching the eye.”

Has the Icelandic government shown any interest?

“No, I’m sad to say. They probably haven’t realised the tremendous opportunities that lie in the field. Consider the fact that you can basically have a market of 2 to 3 billion people, steady subscribers, even though you’re firmly located in Iceland. Today, CCP is the biggest exporter of software in Iceland, and we don’t even sell software, we sell subscriptions.”

So Much More Than a Workplace
As we continue our walk, Massey introduces me to more staff members, preoccupied with their computers. Some of them have been with the company since the very beginning, which I’m told is quite unusual for a gaming company. Everyone tries to distribute as much as they can to keep the company on the top, whether it’s creating graphics for the website, producing videos or designing spaceships. One part of their job is also to play the game. “To be able to keep track on the market I have to be active on the market,” explains Freyr, an economics graduate.

Employees within the Reykjavík office come from more than 20 countries:

“We’re like a small United Nations,” says Massey and explains that the staff has a really diverse background. There are fashion designers, game designers, concept artists, art producers, programmers, archaeologists, animators, technical artists, product designers, 3d animators… the list goes on: “There is this misconception when people think of a gaming company, they think you’ve got programmers and game designers and that’s it. They don’t realise the spectrum of talent it requires.”

“Right now we need more than 100 people before the end of this year. About 30 or 40 in Iceland, somewhere between 50 and 60 in Atlanta, and between 10 and 15 in China,” Þórðarson adds.

And they’ve got plenty of incentive for their skilled staff to stay. There are golf tournaments, rafting tours and movie trips. They have a masseuse and a hair stylist, and recently opened a nail salon for the staff and its significant others. All the while, CCP’s on-site chefs make sure there’s enough food to keep everyone stuffed throughout the day. To say they take good care of their employees is to put it lightly. In fact, if it weren’t for outdoor duties, they would never have to leave.

“I don’t think many Icelandic companies invest as much in their ‘Fun Divisions’ as CCP. We’re constantly doing something. We celebrate all our small victories with parties, and take a trip every 18 months. The last one we took was to Morocco. I think this way of treating the staff is catching on in other companies. It’s not complicated. If you take good care of your employees they will produce good products and good products will almost always make a profit. The staff is the most valuable resource we have. Not the building or the computers.”

Not everyone is as happy as the staff, though, and I learn that the game can sometimes be too much to handle for some players. “We get suicide threats. All we can do then is contact local authorities. Most of the times it is because someone has got upset with the game. About 98% of the times, the threats are just hoaxes, from people who’re trying to get a rise out of us. It’s a huge world so pretty much everything happens from time to time,” Massey explains.

And the CCP staff has its ways to deal with the complaints and all the heated discussions on the EVE forums.

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