Exploring EVE Online #7: The Story Beyond the Pixels
EVE Online is a social engine. Far beyond a simple game of statistics and pixels, it is an entertainment environment that unites and divides people. It is no coincidence that the name of the developer CCP stands for Crowd Control Productions.
This was very evident at the recent player-organised EVE event I attended in London, where CCP announced their upcoming Winter expansion, Retribution. The event itself took place in a pub and was a regular social event organised by one of EVE’s many community-led organisations, namely Veto corporation. The close relationship between CCP developers and their players was further exemplified by my discovery that within EVE, Veto will sadly be closing. This is because their figurehead and leader – an influential player known as Verone – had recently been recruited by CCP to act as a community representative.
Like many EVE communities, Veto itself has grown far beyond the confines of the EVE game engine and will live on as a gaming community. Of course, they will remain EVE players too, but will move on to other corporations and alliances. I’m sure they will also continue to descend en masse into pubs around the world to the bewilderment of the locals. It’s their thing.
This extension of in-game community into the real world is commonplace in EVE. With such a strong social fabric within the game, the desire for beer and conversation is unsurprising. Aside from the big events like Fanfest and E3, there have been many other recent EVE meets around the world, organised by players but with visible support from CCP. As well as the UK, in the past year alone players have been lured from their keyboards to events in Moscow, Loutraki (Greece), Las Vegas, Austin, Washington and Chicago to name a few. The opportunity to drink beer, talk spaceships and put names to faces is growing increasingly popular. Then there’s always the yearly Mecca to Iceland for the official Fanfest gathering.
The age of the lonely gamer is dead.
BEER, SPACESHIPS AND HISTORY
Located an autocannon salvo from the Tower of London, the Veto pub meet itself was attended by over 100 EVE fans and a phalanx of CCP personnel. I enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with people I’d met in-game and to make new acquaintances. There were no shortage of colourful characters in attendance, with variety of outlandish hairstyles and beards on display. There was no dress code advertised, but black T-shirts were certainly the order of the day. I was introduced to a suspicious bucket of alcohol which was being ladled out in shot glasses. It was aptly known as POS fuel after the in-game commodity required to run orbital starbases. Indeed, it is likely to leave the regular consumer floating and unable to move.
The atmosphere was lively and it was clear that there were players from many different cliques and playstyle backgrounds. I chatted with null-sec warlords, roleplayers, EVE Radio deejays, wormhole spelunkers and “ebil piwates”. Although in-game many of these folks might be mortal enemies, they were all mingling, exchanging stories and bragging rights like proper civilised people. Well mostly. I did encounter one individual who was the closest I’ve yet come in my search for these mythical EVE sociopaths. I’d tell you his name but he was too busy being antagonistic and confrontational to share that with me. Some people just shouldn’t drink.
CCP Unifex delivers exclusive news of the Retribution expansion to the London attendees. A personal highlight for me was the opportunity to chat with a fellow player from the dawn of EVE. As a player from a benign gaming background of playing softer PvE-focused MMOs like Everquest, back in 2003 I had suffered a degree of culture shock after some brutal but enlightening experiences at the hands of an infamous group of players known as m0o. They routinely “griefed” players to a huge extent, having developed PvP tactics far more advanced than the majority of green-gilled EVE pilots who were still trying to come to terms with the comparatively unforgiving PvE aspects of EVE. I am ashamed to say I even once had a rage-quit experience after losing my very first cruiser to a m0o ambush after mining solidly for three weeks to afford it.
Lallante, now a lawyer in his mid-twenties, had been one of these villainous scourges at the time. Doing the maths, I was mortified to realise he had been a child in 2003. I had been driven to fury by infants. Oh the ignominy.
It was fascinating to hear his explanation of how m0o had developed tactics in EVE’s beta period which essentially kick-started the survival of the fittest mentality that is so endemic to EVE. Lallante claimed m0o developed methods so effective, they forced CCP developers to take action directly against them in-game and also led to changes to some of the fundamental aspects of EVE’s PvP gameplay. According to Lallante, it is m0o that we have to thank for module stacking penalties and the signature radius mechanic which makes large weapons less effective against smaller ships. It was interesting to note that, whilst he no longer has much time to play EVE, he still very much part of the community, both at pub meets and in the popular Failheap Challenge forum community.
Few gaming environments allow players to make such claims of historical impact. Lallante’s story was proof that, for better or for worse, EVE pilots can write themselves indelibly into New Eden’s history.
MEETING THE HEAD BRAIN
I also had the chance to chat with Jon “CCP Unifex” Lander, Executive Producer of EVE Online. First, I needed to work my way through the gaggle of attentive acolytes listening to his oration on why EVE players are the best players. I eavesdropped for a while and it was clear that, although his enthusiasm may have been slightly amplified by the beer he clutched, he was a man passionate about the game and the community.
However, I have to admit I had an agenda. In EVE’s grand sandbox, I am very much a fan of the lore and content – as an EVE player, I sometimes like to have the story laid out before me and not have to engineer it for myself. In a recent interview, Mr. Lander had shown he had other ideas, having proudly stated that in a development team of 200 designers and engineers, he had only four content developers. I was interested in pushing him further on this point.
I challenged him to justify this in a game whose PvE content – for the most part – is nearly a decade old. With barely a visible pause as he moved into a different intellectual gear, he explained that he viewed EVE as a game where players are the content and CCP developers are merely custodians of the game world. He gestured to the people around us and indicated that this – the social scene and the community – was the purpose of EVE. Not farmable, static content with a limited lifespan.
He underlined his point by using other MMOs as examples, holding up the limitations of new content provided in the form of World of Warcraft’s most recent expansion or Star Wars: The Old Republic’s approach to player versus environment gameplay. In both cases, thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars of development resources were poured into content which was completed and YouTubed by hardcore players in a matter of days.
It seems Jon Lander believes it is not an efficient or an effective approach to game development. Certainly, for the hardcore gamer, that may be the case, as his examples bore out. I would argue that the more casual gamer might disagree, as it would take them months to work through the same amount of content. But then EVE does already have a huge amount of PvE material to sate those players who, for the most part, would eventually progress onto a different, more player-led play style before they exhausted the available content.
So what of supporting EVE’s continuing backstory as featured in novels and the many online chronicles and related material? Before I could press for further insights, CCP Unifex found someone less demanding to talk to and my moment had passed.
I was a little disappointed, but I understand that CCP has learned to their cost what the majority of their players do and don’t want. They realise they must put their most devoted and invested players first and so it is the player-led content that will always be king. Whilst EVE’s realm of New Eden has a strong and engaging backstory, the living universe is mostly populated by players who see such details at best as an entertaining distraction, or at worst a needless waste of time and development resources. It is a credit to CCP Unifex that he is in tune with that thinking.
STORYLINE EVENTS GO LIVE
However, all is far from lost. Those four content developers previously mentioned have been far from idle. The fertile minds of CCP Abraxus and CCP Gnauton, the organisational dynamo that is CCP Goliath and the enthusiastic genius of CCP Affinity (and undoubtedly other unsung heroes) have reintroduced live events after several years of absence.
Whilst still in the early stages, exciting things have taken place both in and out of the game client which should entice science fiction roleplayers and conspiracy theorists alike. Shortly before I attended the Veto meet, Tech 4 News – a in-character player-run media corporation within the EVE universe – received a mysterious communique suggesting a planned attack. The information was released onto the EVE-O forums and soon after, a series of live events took place involving the Angel Cartel NPC organisation. These resulted in many exploded ships, happy content-seekers and the beginnings of a developing storyline. There is promise of more, with recent activity from the Guristas criminal organisation.
It is encouraging to see CCP embracing aspects of gameplay beyond appeasing the hardcore PvPers. If such events gain significant player support then hopefully they will go from strength to strength. Certainly, encouraging the growth of this underdeveloped aspect of EVE Online gives far stronger voice to the claims that New Eden is the world’s most complete science fiction sandbox.
In any case, the unique and close relationship between CCP developers and their players is a triumph of customer relations and contributes hugely to the engaging experience and thriving communities that are EVE Online.
[This article was originally published on 12 October 2012 on the Guild Launch blog.]