Exploring Space: EVE Online

Seth undocked, his colossal Gallente cruiser sliding out of the space station, Arghesi’s nearest moon in full view. He set course, and allowed the powerful Vexor’s jump drives power him into the space-time tunnel referred to as "the warp". He sat back and began scanning the local area for any rival factions, before decelerating and locking onto the nearest asteroid. Powerful mining lasers on either side of his vessel flared into life, their vibrant streaks of orange and red slamming into the rock drifting through space, slowly harvesting the ore within. It was going to be a productive day, he thought, especially as his scout drones had just ambushed the pirates waiting for him in the darkness of space, leaving him with even more materials to add to his considerable wealth.

This isn’t really the kind of online gaming experience anyone could claim to be familiar with. The background of fiction, economy, and the ability to run businesses, affect the economy and live in a single instance of the game universe was something that EVE Online accomplishes without even breaking a sweat. Now at a quarter of a million users, not to mention at least forty thousand people trying it out at any one time, it’s become a major player in the world of MMO titles. But its beginnings were just as humble as the mightiest of titles we play on a daily basis.

"The founding crew were fans of the game Elite", says Ned Coker, IP Development Manager at CCP Games, situated in the unusual location of Iceland. "Between the way the night sky looks in Iceland and the immense enjoyment they took from this game, they were inspired to apply modern computer science technology and artistic direction to the same underlying gameplay activities of space trading and combat."

Space trading and combat are a large portion of the game indeed, with trades numbering in the millions every day in a variety of forms. Everything from ore, to milk, to ships themselves can be traded, and some players make their in-game living simply from transporting goods from the seller to the buyer. Though the concept of "making a living" is something that might come as something of a surprise to players of other MMO titles, as the leap from slaying dragons and adopting that devil-may-care attitude with your Orc Warrior to attempting to scrounge enough money to get a decent ship in EVE through killing other players is a fairly big one.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that ISK (the game’s currency) can put users in positions of considerable power. With your meagre sum of 5’000 ISK at the beginning of your career, you can amass several million only a few hours in if you’re willing to take a realistic approach to the title. This can take the form of any variety of expenses, from tax on market goods to the more surprising insurance costs for those paranoid about losing their ships: this is a worthy investment, as even this journalist has returned after an hour’s time away from his ship to see a floating wreck and a huge chunk taken out of his wallet after a lack of insurance came to his attention.

It seems complex, intimidating, even off-putting in the sheer volume of expenses, skills and sheer time needed to accomplish the dizzying array of tasks presented to the player. But it’s important to remember this is a real functioning universe. There’s no way the average gamer will get up, and decide which of his fifty jobs to turn up for today, before jumping into one of seven different cars depending on how fast and how safe he wants to be on the motorway that morning. To approach EVE Online with a clear idea in mind, be it piracy, trading, mining or even in-game journalism, will narrow your choices into investments of time that will benefit the cautious, strategic player.

The time invested will be considerable, but the achievements in the game are worth that long-term investment. To train to use the Vexor ship described in the opening paragraph, the player will need somewhere in the region of two weeks’ playtime to train the skills needed to use the vessel itself. But in the dark void of space, is it worth being in something bigger, something more powerful, or something that allows you to hit and run, or simply just run? This and a thousand more questions will plague you throughout, as you’ll likely end up with a variety of ships for various tasks, from hauling huge amounts of ore mined with a smaller ship out in space, to a huge battleship capable of wiping out the home base of a group of player-controlled pirates in low-security space.

But why space as a creative medium? Surely it is an empty, bland thing, devoid of any real entertainment value unless populated with so much content that Star Wars looks like a dentist’s waiting room? "It’s a harsh, brutal environment that we’ve only begun to take our first steps in" says Gonzales, "One way or the other-be it through scientific intrigue, capitalistic venture, or dire necessity-we will be compelled to cross its vast expanses. Doing so will require a quantum leap in technology-perhaps with breakthroughs that we presently dismiss as fantasy or impossible by today’s primitive standards. When you remove those barriers, you end up with a stunning vision of where we could go."

Along your travels you’ll see a variety of solar systems, space stations, and even the odd ring of solar dust that stretches half the width of an entire planetary orbit, the sight of which is breathtaking. Though, in the solitary areas of space between planet, stargate and sun, is there a place for the players? Space is a big area, especially an unmapped galaxy which, with new wormholes opening to other regions with the Apocrypha expansion, leaves a lot of void to be filled. Player-owned stations help to fill this void, though it’s worth noting that you’ll encounter a wide variety of responses should you stumble across them. Some are welcoming friendly corporations, who will bring you in with open arms, embrace you with helpful advice and ISK, and send you on your way. However, some are hiding places for pirates, storage stations for slaves and valuable goods, and they will protect their property by any means necessary.

It’s this player variety that makes EVE Online such a refreshing experience: to see someone brag on the forums about their life as a pirate, waiting for vulnerable players in slow, ponderous ships before striking, holding the pilot’s life to ransom as they sit in their pod, drifting from the wreckage of a ship that can be salvaged for untold millions of ISK. It’s a scary prospect for the new player: even though you’ll start in 0.9 security space (1.0 being the highest, and with a zero or negative value as the obvious binary opposite), the prospect of being able to use stargates to thrust yourself through the galaxy at random will become addictive, and it may not be long before a pirate sees your first-time ship arrive in-system, warping in to destroy you and take you for all you’re worth.

These player conflicts, these storylines created by the actions of pirates and new players alike are the driving force behind the procedural, player-generated narrative that makes EVE Online so popular. But why not just have NPCs drive the main experience and leave player interaction to chat rooms and PvP gameplay? "Rather than create a single player experience," explains Gonzales, "the ultimate idea in everyone’s mind was to make real people the enablers of these activities by marrying virtual world technology to the internet. People will always be the best source of content for everyone else, so in this sense we knew we could create something new."

The internet has long been a forum of discussion, drama, and important events, from the first computer hacking to the latest in online scandals, from credit card theft to software piracy. However, EVE Online uses this idea to generate its own drama, its own events that take place on a colossal scale, both in economic and dramatic terms. In this instance, a long-term member of one of the richest, and definitely the most powerful groups of players (corporations, to use the correct in-game vernacular), decided to betray his friends, his co-workers in-game, and disbanded their corporation. Billions of ISK down the drain, and years of friendship shattered in the name of online betrayal. This is no stray accusation of needless aggression in a console war forum topic: this was betrayal on an economically damaging scale.

Space was invaded, taken from the corporation, whilst its members desperately tried to hold on to the huge area of the galaxy they had taken over and colonized. The two-faced pilot is now nowhere to be seen, hiding from the drama created by his wilful destruction. The thousands of forum threads and news post across the gaming internet are a testament to the impact events like these can have in EVE: this is more than a "world first kill" or a "first to level 100": this is a scandal.

It remains such because the game only takes place on a single server, an example of technology not, to any source of knowledge, yet bettered in the gaming industry. The server hub in Iceland is incredibly powerful, and its ability to have fifty-six thousand players or more online at one time, in the same instanced galaxy, is testament to this monumental technological achievement. It could be argued it then becomes simpler to maintain the gaming experience for all those who play EVE, that there will only ever be one server down for maintenance, or hit by bugs, not hundreds or thousands of servers at random intervals throughout the year.

However, Gonzales offers a different reason. "We wanted a game where one player really could make a difference, and where his or her actions could resonate across the game universe and uniquely claim that success. That’s not possible in sharded worlds. In these setups, an entity can rise to prominence but never achieve true "global" dominance because their influence is limited to the instance or shard they exist in. EVE is one world. When an alliance conquers a region of space, it is uniquely theirs."

The phrase he coins here, "sharded worlds", becomes an important issue in the case of the MMO concept for games developers. There are hundreds of versions of Altdorf, of Ironforge, of any landmark or main player hub in MMO titles throughout the genre. There is no one legendary weapon, simply one per server. The disadvantage of splitting these worlds is that nothing feels unique. To see Band of Brothers fall wasn’t simply surprising, it was devastating: this was because there was only one galaxy, one player community and one Band of Brothers space-area.

To browse the main website for the game is to notice the large amount of online literature that sits alongside the main wiki content that explains everything from mining to why you can’t password a floating box in secure space. These chunks of storyline are a fundamental part of what it takes to understand the universe of EVE as a creative medium: to hear the stories of individual characters and to compare it to your own experience, to then seek out these characters in the game itself. They are present, and they do exist. Even in the novel EVE Online: The Empyrean Age, there isn’t a single protagonist, antagonist or bystander that doesn’t have a place in the game’s dark universe.

But where lies the need for the literature? Is it not enough to simply rely on the player-created narratives? Must we be exposed to storylines beyond our control? "The literature serves two main functions", explains Gonzales, author of the novel in question, "it describes aspects of the setting that we cannot yet portray in the virtual world, and it engages an audience that is eager for storytelling in a way that exposes them to just how deep the rabbit hole goes when it comes to the actual game." Gonzales goes on to mention the fictional characters: the reason for their presence is simple, he states: to have anywhere between two to two thousand players asking around in chat where a fictional character resides creates a sense of community, of shared interest. The fiction allows people to bond, much like those in World of Warcraft who were communally excited to find Thrall on his throne in the Orc city of Orgrimmar.

The universe of fiction and players expands on a daily basis, but to sustain the universe and its convincing and famous economy and the realistic way in which its market crashes, sustains itself, and thrives along with player input and trading, requires outside specialisation. "Economics is a model of social behaviour, and so we felt as though we had achieved our initial vision of creating a vibrant, emergent, player-run virtual world. Hiring a full time economist was the result of this success and an outright necessity, given the fact that it’s very difficult to predict the impact or ripple effect of even minor changes to any aspect of the game in a single-shard architecture."

The economist – one Dr. Eyjólfur "Eyjo" Guðmundsson – speaks about his experience in an interview with Slashdot: "As the game grows the complexity and the fun of it grows exponentially," he states, "you can actually see shortages of goods, scarcities of goods in the game world. If you want some material, you need to take steps to go out and get it; you can mine it, you can refine it, but there is a time element involved in obtaining it. There’s an element of effort involved. You can also lose things, if you make poor decisions, if you go into an area where you can’t defend yourself you can actually lose what you’ve been building. All of these components are build into the world, and when you make decisions in the game you’re making many of the same decisions you make in your daily life."

The EVE universe is always going to expand. At the time of Slashdot going to press, the universe only contained 200’000 users, in late 2007. In early 2009, this has increased by 25%, a rate almost matching that of Blizzard’s impressive player-base of 11 million. Some players subsist simply on 21 or 14-day trial accounts, dashing into the universe as new, brave pilots, completing the money-generous training missions and attempting to wreak as much havoc, or try as many different roles in the game as possible in those three weeks. But sooner or later, the lure of a full subscription beckons – either to take part in the military or to finally pilot that amazing cruiser you saw on day one – and you become a fully-fledged pilot, trader, pirate, or scientist in EVE‘s growing space-based universe. The much-talked of ability to finally leave your ship and walk around in space stations is seemingly in development, and if anything can rival that first warp jump, it’ll be that first step into your corp’s lush red carpet.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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