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Trading a virtual future for a physical present with 1400 ‘EVE Online’ fanatics

eve online fanfest headerThis week I’ll be in Iceland, compliments of CCP Games, to immerse myself in the culture that has sprung up around the developer’s massively multiplayer online RPG, EVE Online. The yearly EVE Fanfest gathering is more than just a celebration of the game’s dedicated fanbase; it’s also a fictional sort of UN Summit in which the state of the union is laid out for one and all, with panel discussions and keynotes offering a sense of what’s next for the ever-evolving game.

Still, EVE Online is something of an enigma within the gaming space. A number of related factors help to set it apart from other MMOs. Most serious gamers are tuned into the fact that something unique is happening is CCP’s 500,000-strong userbase, but complex gameplay and a somewhat unapproachable user interface often sees the sci-fi future-set MMO summed up simply as “spreadsheets in space.” It’s a reductive assessment that completely overlooks the intensely social play that makes EVE so popular among its fans.

With the festivities set to commence in Iceland in a matter of hours, we thought it would be a good idea to spend some time today laying out what EVE Online is and why it amounts to one of the most fascinating games that most of you have never played.

Understanding the EVE-verse

EVE Online is set in the distant future, right around the year 23,000. Sometime in Earth’s future, humanity began to spread out and colonize star systems across the entire Milky Way. The expansion continued until, inevitably, humanity began to fight over a limited supply of resources. The chance discovery of an apparently stable natural wormhole led our people to the galaxy of New Eden, an untouched domain where the onward march of manifest destiny could continue.

This worked well for a time until the wormhole collapsed and the gateway was sealed. Cut off from a steady supply of resources and technology, civilization started to crumble. Humanity persevered despite heavy losses, and five separate factions emerged over time. Four of these five factions are the playable races that you choose from when creating a new character in EVE Online.

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The four playable factions all feature their own histories that define their personalities, and the story continues to evolve even now. The Amarr Republic was the first to recover after the wormhole collapse, and its discovery of a faster-than-light drive led to a bloody phase of conquest and slavery. One of those slave races revolted and formed the Minmatar Republic, which remains strongly anti-slavery and survives through a strong economy backed by an equally strong military.

Meanwhile, the mega-corporation-controlled Caldari State began as part of the democratic Gallente Federation, but seceded, sparking a 93 year war that left many grievances unresolved. The terraformed Caldari homeworld remained in the hands of the Federation until just recently, when a major engagement spanning across the two games, EVE Online and Dust 514, led to the planet changing hands. The fifth and unplayable faction, the Jove Directorate, suffered the effects of self-imposed genetic manipulation and lives on the outskirts of known space, suffering from a psychological disorder.

The differences born of their mutual history define the Factions. For example while the Gallente and the Caldari are both trade oriented, the Gallente believe in small business practices and progressive attitudes, while the Caldari are focused on the major corporations and create their own lab bred labor. These differences color the way you play and influence the continuing story.

Life in New Eden

EVE Online‘s galaxy of New Eden is a dangerous place to build a life for oneself, but great rewards also await those who take the biggest risks. The game is built to support any number of player approaches. You can focus entirely on mining or trading or manufacture. You can tailor your ship for combat and link up with a band of mercenaries or pirates. You can even take on administrative roles at any number of corporations – or one that you found yourself – as anything from CEO to accountant. The game is built to encourage social play and much of the fun is derived from the dynamics that spring from CCP’s hands-off approach to the economy.

The New Eden economy is driven by Interstellar Kredits (ISK), the in-game currency that is used by all factions. Various resources can be found and gathered across the galaxy, and they are regularly replenished by an automated process that sees them spread to less populated regions. Every one of the game’s 7,500+ star systems is assigned a Security Status rating that offers an idea of how “safe” the region is.

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High-security (or “high-sec”) systems are overseen by New Eden’s NPC law enforcement body, CONCORD; “illegal” in-game actions such as piracy – illegal according to the in-game laws rather than the rules that CCP has laid out – are responded to quickly and severely. Low-security (“low-sec”) systems are policed as well, but less intensively.”Null sec” or “zero space” systems are completely lawless, but they are often where great resource rewards await. More importantly, individual “null sec” systems and even entire clusters can be wholly controlled and policed by player-run corporations and alliances.

This brings us to one of the most unique facets of EVE Online‘s universe: it operates on what CCP refers to as a “single shard.” 

Most MMOs use multiple servers, where the world is identical on each server, but the people there are limited to interacting with those on that same server.  EVE Online’s subscribers are all on one main server, or shard, known as “Tranquility.” There are a handful of servers for other purposes as well, such as one dedicated to Chinese gamers and others for testing purposes, including one to test cross play between Eve and Dust 514. 

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PlayStation 3 owners will have a unique connection to EVE Online that will likely be discussed in some detail over the next week at Fanfest. Dust 514 is a free-to-play first-person shooter available to PS3 fans that is currently still in beta, with the full release planned for later this year. 

All of the planetary engagements in the PS3 shooter are ostensibly unfolding on the surface of one of the thousands of worlds scattered across New Eden. Many of the details are still being hammered out as Dust 514‘s open beta proceeds, but the fundamental aim is pretty straightforward: corporation vs. corporation play, with players on the EVE side putting out contracts that Dust mercs can accept. This creates a tangible tie between the multiplayer action and the eye-in-the-sky MMO play. Both sides enjoy benefits: EVE players can offer aid to Dust match-ups in the form of orbital bombardment, while successfully completed contracts bring all manner of rewards to corps on the EVE side.

Social dynamics and paying for play with play

With nearly every one of EVE Online‘s players concentrated on a single server, it’s probably no surprise to learn that social play is at the heart of the game. Player-run corporations and alliances span huge chunks of New Eden, and CCP’s hands-off approach allows for what amounts to real world intrigue. There are stories of real-life players infiltrating corporations over significant periods of time and working up to a powerful enough position to make off with key resources and even bring down leadership. It is all about relationships, and that is part of what Fanfest represents.  

During the Icelandic event, fans and developer openly discuss what can make the game better, what works and what doesn’t. When Dust 514 was still in the development phase, CCP went to the fans and asked them for more than just general questions about what fans wanted, they asked for actual input on things like features. CCP listened too. In an MMO where social interaction is so highly praised, this level of communication between gamers and developers is incredible. 

eve-onlineEVE Online is not a subscription-based MMO in the traditional sense. Instead of paying a monthly fee, players spend either real-world or in-game dollars/ISK on PLEX, or Pilots License EXtension. One PLEX extends a subscription by 30 days, though it can also be used to transfer or resculpt characters (or to obtain Aurum, which can be spent on a variety of cosmetic in-game enhancements). The important thing to note here is that PLEX isn’t only available as a real money purchase; ISK can pay for it as well, effectively creating a situation in which dedicated EVE players can pay for their time in the game… by spending time in the game and playing it effectively.

The economy in EVE Online also operates on a real world model, with player behaviors actively influencing how it fluctuates over time. The market operates on supply and demand, based entirely on what players are buying and selling. This open-ended structure creates even more opportunities for mischief. Those with enough resources at their disposal can actively manipulate the market. For example, a corporation with a controlling share of one type of resource could effectively drive the price of said resource higher by restricting its availability, creating higher demand in the process. Fanfest presents some of the most dedicated gamers with a chance to meet in person and discuss the future of the economy. Back room deals will be made, and conversations over beers will shape the digital landscape for years to come.

Bringing everything together at EVE Fanfest

All of these various aspects of game and community come together at CCP’s yearly EVE Fanfest celebration in Iceland, where the studio is based. Players meet with devs in an informal, party setting. Serious business is discussed, but the gathering is as much about fostering the EVE community as it is about accepting feedback in a one-on-one setting. The talks and panels and keynotes all exist to communicate the current state of the EVE universe and the direction it is headed in.

There are stories of hated in-game enemies meeting in person for the first time and cracking a beer together. Of wild nighttime parties at which EVE Online is simply the common bond that brings these people together. The closest comparison is to BlizzCon, though the Iceland setting and smaller EVE player base makes for a much more intimate gathering. This year’s festivities are expecting an attendance of roughly 1,400 from around the world. This also marks the game’s 10th anniversary, so Fanfest is as much a celebration of where things have been as it is a look at where they’re headed.

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If you’d like to learn more about EVE Online, there are plenty of resources available, from the EVElopedia to the streaming podcasts of EVE RadioEVE Online is unlike any other game out there right now because of the commitment of the community and the receptiveness of the developers. For 10 years that digital cabal has continued to expand and evolve in ways that no one, not even the people that made the game, could have predicted. So now it is a time to recount and recap, to plan and prepare, and discuss what the next decade of EVE Online will look like. 

Check back with us all week for updates live from Iceland. 

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