[In one of her neatest recent interviews for GSW's big sister site Gamasutra - and def. worth reprinting here - news director Leigh Alexander talked to CCP exec Mike Tinney on EVE Online, and why the key to getting big in the MMO biz is starting small.]

In the current economic climate, it's hard to find a company with good news to share. And the volatile MMO business might be the last place you'd look.

Yet Iceland-headquartered CCP, developer of EVE Online, is not just healthy, but growing, seeking 60 new hires, says North America president Mike Tinney. "We're in a pretty strong position these days, and it's refreshing to be able to say that in today's economy."

Amid the challenges faced by the Icelandic economy, CCP is a "safe harbor," Tinney says. While employees in the hard-hit region face personal hardship, CCP as a company is bringing capital into the company. Asked about reports that the company may move its headquarters, Tinney says, "I would classify that as a rumor."

One factor in the company's continued stability is its self-sufficiency, Tinney tells Gamasutra. "We publish our own content, we design our own content, we control our billing relationships, we control our hosting relationship."

"We have partnerships in place, but we're not a traditional developer-publisher relationship, where the publisher oftentimes has problems controlling the content pipeline, and the developer often has problems controlling or influencing their delivery to the customer, or their interface with the customer," he says. "I think that has helped us out a lot over the years."

Know Your Players -- Really

Of course, not everyone can so easily maintain that kind of independence. But Tinney says there are other lessons other MMO developers might glean from EVE Online's success -- namely, the idea that it's not necessarily the size of your userbase, but your relationship to them.

At last count, EVE has 236,000 users, each of whom has on average two characters per account. The game's also in its single-shard server -- which means close to 500,000 different characters are sharing a single world built on galactic conflicts and a complex virtual economy. Real-world economist Dr. Eyjo Gu├░mundsson conducts high-level studies of the socioeconomics of the player base.

"It really is a relentless dedication to tracking the playing trends of the people in EVE and constantly working to provide them with the experience that they're looking for," says Tinney. "That's created a very strong community, a very loyal community, and one that sort of feeds onto itself and gains momentum."

CCP, which is focusing on EVE, although it bought White Wolf in 2006 and is reported to still be working on a World Of Darkness MMO, claims that its space sim never launched with a high target for user numbers. In fact, it launched to a difficult but all too common set of circumstances -- almost immediately after launch, publisher Simon & Schuster made an exit from the games biz.

Stranded but persistent, CCP bought back its publishing rights and focused solely on meeting the needs of the 25,000 players with which it started. These days, a game once considered at best niche or a cult hit continues to experience steady growth.

"We have a pretty competitive churn," says Tinney. "A lot of MMOs launch at a very high water mark, and then through a series of expenses and efforts fight to retain an ever-decreasing pool of subscriptions."

Don't Worry About WoW

And because CCP's goal has never been to try to compete with market-dominant World of Warcraft, Tinney's able to note that Blizzard's high tide has actually lifted all boats.

"[WoW] has made this kind of game a household name, and a mainstream form of entertainment," Tinney says. "Otherwise, I think most other games and virtual worlds would be considered niche entertainment." WoW's success, Tinney maintained, increased the field and the public awareness around MMOs.

This raises an interesting principle, though. As an example, Mythic Entertainment was not shy about confronting WoW with Warhammer Online and had a successful launch week with 1.5 million units shipped to retail and 500,000 registrants. To date, though, the fact that Warhammer has just 300,000 paying subscribers is considered a disappointing performance for the game, which has subsequently let support staff go.

So why are WAR's 300,000 users a disappointment, while EVE's 236,000 are a success? "Everybody defines their success in their own ways," notes Tinney. "It's very hard to make an MMO, and very challenging to find something that hits the right wavelength for a community of participants and then manages to retain them."

EVE was also launched at a more modest budget than Warhammer and other games like it," says Tinney -- and there are other challenges inherent in going up against WoW. "It's very difficult to launch a new game in this environment and have it compete with a game that launched five years ago -- and in a state of success has continually upgraded," he says.

"You have to make those upgrades in a state of speculation, in the hopes you'll achieve the type of success that preexisting games have already created for themselves."

Skip The High Targets

In order for an MMO to be a success and for its developer to stay fiscally sound, then, is the better strategy to start small, developing strong relationships to the userbase and focusing on retention rather than big-number targets.

"I do personally and I know that CCP overall [agrees]," says Tinney, "and I humbly say that we're happy to see the rest of the industry coming around to that personally. I think that CCP has always regarded it as such."

"A lot of MMOs that have beene out there for 4-plus years and developed a steady playerbase, those aren't the ones you're seeing layoffs in right now," he says. "Even if you have only 100,000 people playing, if it's a subscription model, you know what your income is going to be next month, and if you're a prudent businessperson you build your company's model within that framework."

Advice Tinney would offer to startups launching a new online product? "I don't think that I would start going after a million people, a million WoW players," he says. "I would not try to launch a new virtual world that has no community support behind it against any of the large, established virtual communities," he says.

"Because you're not just competing against the program's client --you're competing against the social community that engages and supports that world," he advises. "Set a very reasonable goal to build a very small community -- don't aim low, but build a biz model that supports an early-adopter mentality and then support the hell out of this community."

"There's a lot of strategies out there, and there's so many ingredients in the recipe of a successful MMO any one of them can throw the whole thing off," he adds. "But I think the community is one of the most important ingredients."