Erlendur Thorsteinsson: Master of the Universe

This computer scientist breathes life into the many worlds of the sci-fi game Eve Online

This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2009.

photo: Gísli Dúa

GAME ON

Erlundur Thorsteinsson’s love of numbers led him to a career in online computer gaming.

Dream Jobs 2009

On a dark November day, Erlendur Thorsteinsson strolls into the Party at the Top of the World. That’s what the crowd of gamers calls this annual gathering at the Laugardalshöll arena in Reykjavík, Iceland. And it is quite a party. Crammed into a room, hordes of players battle it out in a challenge called the Super Ultimate Eve Online Mining Tournament of Awesomeness. Elsewhere, attendees share war stories over pints of beer and wait for the metal band Roxor to take the stage.

It’s all part of the Eve Fanfest, an extravaganza dedicated to Eve Online , a science-fiction computer game with about a quarter-million subscribers worldwide. Devoted players have flocked here to see demos of new game features and meet the game’s creators, including Thorsteinsson, who leads Eve’s software development team.

But at the Fanfest, the amiable, soft-spoken Icelander isn’t fighting off the fans; instead he wanders anonymously through the raucous crowd. If he doesn’t seem to mind or even notice, that’s probably because what drew him to this life was not a fascination with games but a love of numbers.

Thorsteinsson graduated from the University of Iceland in 1996 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and computer science. He wanted to get a doctorate in computer science, but first he cut a deal with his wife, Sonja: If she let him go to the graduate school of his choice, she’d get to pick where they lived after he finished.

He chose Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, where he completed a master’s and then a doctorate in ”algorithms, combinatorics, and optimization.” He says he loved the challenge: ”A Ph.D. is a solo project, just you and your ideas.”

While he was still in school, the couple had their first child, Birkir Örn, and Sonja started to miss their relatives back in Iceland. After he finished his Ph.D. in 2001, she didn’t hesitate to exact her end of the deal: They were going home.

He quickly landed a job at one of the top tech companies in Iceland, Frisk Software International, a maker of Internet security programs. From mid-2001 to early 2007, he went from project manager to chief information officer. Then, in March 2007, he got a call from his old college friend Hilmar Veigar Pétursson.

Pétursson is the CEO of CCP, the company that created Eve . He offered Thorsteinsson a job, and Thorsteinsson took it. Many people see Eve as a creative and compelling game; he saw it as an intriguing chunk of code. The following month, he arrived for his first day at CCP’s sleek headquarters overlooking Reykjavík’s harbor.

It was a completely different world. Thorsteinsson had never thought about working on computer games and rarely even played them, so he spent some time catching up. ”I started playing a lot more games,” he says. ”It’s research, of course.”

Eve , launched in May 2003, has been growing explosively. At any time of the day or night, thousands of people from dozens of countries are logged on, exploring the game’s solar systems, jumping through wormholes, mining asteroids, and blasting away opponents in starship battles. Players create characters, band together in alliances, and accumulate virtual loot to buy more-powerful ships. Some die-hard fans play for days at a time, stopping only for a nap, a bite to eat, and maybe a shower. Maybe.

Thorsteinsson says Eve is different from other massively multiplayer online games, or MMOGs. It has a single universe, or shard, whereas most games segregate players into isolated shards. So even in MMOGs with more than a million subscribers, like World of Warcraft , no more than a few hundred people can play together. Eve , by contrast, has had more than 45 000 players logged on at the same time, and all of them can play together.

The technology that makes Eve happen—that tracks the coordinates of thousands of ships in space, computes the results of their gunfire, processes the activation of weapons, and manages other transactions—did not exist until CCP invented it. That was exactly the kind of challenge that lured Thorsteinsson to the company. His team of 14 programmers writes, debugs, and pieces together the computer code that powers Eve .

The development of large online games like Eve can be a little chaotic, but most in the industry don’t see that as a problem. After all, you don’t want to use extremely formal software practices, because they can stifle creativity. But too much chaos is, of course, a bad thing. You need a steady hand to guide your programmers. You need a guy like Thorsteinsson.

”He’s a rock,” says Gabe Mahoney, CCP’s vice president of engineering. ”Erlendur brings structure and discipline, so that we can funnel that chaos into productive channels.”

Recently, the company began exploring a software-development methodology called Scrum. The idea is to build a big program in a series of well-defined steps but with enough flexibility to accommodate changes to the program’s features. ”We don’t want to just code, code, and code for six months and then go see if things work,” Thorsteinsson says. ”We want to do this in small increments and at every step have something that’s functional.”

To keep people in the game and attract new players, CCP is always working to make the Eve universe larger, more intricate, and more interesting. Thorsteinsson works closely with the game designers (who concoct the story lines and game mechanics) and the art department (which creates the graphics). ”It’s a big challenge,” he says, ”how to make something like this scale up.”

CCP deploys a new version of Eve about every six months. The latest made great headway against an annoying technical issue: lags, the bane of MMOGs. As the number of players grows, so do the number of data exchanges between servers and the time it takes to access the databases. If the process takes too long, the game gets sluggish and players get irritated. To minimize lag, CCP started using hundreds of blade servers—thin computers that sit vertically on special racks, like books on a shelf—and solid-state drives, which are much faster than the traditional spinning hard-disk drives. It was an expensive upgrade. The equipment is housed in two data centers, one in London, the other in Shanghai.

”But you can’t keep throwing hardware at the problem,” Thorsteinsson says. So last year, CCP revamped its network software. The new code, written in the Stackless Python language, has less overhead and vastly speeds up communication between servers, the company says. Eve also went from a 32-bit to a 64-bit architecture, to be able to move data more quickly to and from memory.

Deploying the new network software was tricky because CCP couldn’t keep the servers off-line for too long. The company managed to make the switch in a few hours, and the payoff was immediate. With the network upgrade, space armadas encompassing more than a thousand players can now blast away at one another. ”This is something that no other game does,” Thorsteinsson says proudly.

These days, Thorsteinsson and his team are coding Eve’s next version, to be released this spring, which will include an even larger variety of spaceships and ”unstable wormholes” that will transport players to unknown parts of space. The developers are also busy with one feature that doesn’t yet have a release date but has already generated a lot of buzz: Players will not only be able to pilot ships but also walk inside space stations as three-dimensional avatars. ”Just imagine the new kinds of interactions that are possible,” he says. ”This will be like another game inside the game.”

Back at the Eve Fanfest, he says he likes to meet players and find out what they love, or don’t love, about the game. He gets a lot more compliments than complaints. No surprise there. He’s helping to keep their universe fun.

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2009.

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