There was a time when I played a lot of MMOs (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online games, to the uninitiated).
It started, as it often does, with World of Warcraft, still pretty much the undisputed king of the genre. Back then, late 2008, around the time the Wrath of the Lich King extension was released, publishers Blizzard were on top of the world; 10 million subscribers eager to login day after day, grinding away at quests, dailies, achievements, and the massive end-game raids, where up to 25 players work together to progress through a dungeon, a feat that can take many hours of work (not to mention weeks of preparation, gearing and practice).
Like many others, I was sucked in by the oh-so-easy progression and Blizzard’s expertly calibrated ‘carrots’ that keep players playing long into the night — just a few more XP (eXperience Points) to reach the next level; just one more piece of armour to complete the set and benefit from those sweet set bonuses; one final variety of snake to kill to complete the achievement and receive one more completely worthless badge.
Of course, aside from the endless content, the second ‘M’ in MMO is a key factor in the endless playability. Multiplayer games, especially those like WoW that allow their players to band together in player-run ‘guilds,’ offer a ready-made group of peers that not only share your interests and passions, but also often have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. Players feel simultaneously wanted and valued, while the drip-drip-drip of rewarding quest completion ensures a never-ending dopamine hit, day after day after day.
Eventually, though, Warcraft lost its charm; Blizzard removed much of the challenge from the levelling experience, and as the level cap increased so did the necessary time commitment required to run the same high-level dungeons over and over while you wait for that elusive piece of gear to finally drop. Disillusioned, I looked around for an alternative. As it turns out, there are quite a few.
The success of WoW has spawned an army of clones over the last ten years. Some are relatively successful (Guild Wars 2, Destiny), some not (such as Defiance, a bizarre attempt to pair an online game with a TV show); some follow Blizzard’s monthly fee model while some adopted a more generous free-to-play model, making their money instead through the sale of items that can help you in-game (the so called ‘pay-to-win’ model, much reviled among ‘serious’ gamers). There are games set in both the DC and Marvel comic universes, as well as in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Conan, Warhammer, and Dungeons & Dragons worlds. You can play on a pirate boat or during a zombie apocalypse. Final Fantasy went MMO (for the second time) with Final Fantasy XIV, a series with almost twenty years of history behind it.
I tried them all. But, in the end, I found that there is no other multiplayer game in the world that comes close to EVE Online.
More than just spreadsheets in space
EVE Online is a multiplayer game set in space. In the far future (so the story goes) mankind has colonised the distant galaxy of New Eden, and split into four pretty much interchangeable varieties of human: the Amarr, Caldari, Gallente and Minmatar races. After possibly the most complex character creation screen imaginable, players awake to find themselves in a space station with a crappy ship and no money. The object of the game is … well, I’ll get to that later. A helpful AI named Aura holds your hand while you learn how to fly your ship, shoot asteroids, shoot pirates, and make a little bit of money. You buy a better ship. If you’re lucky, nobody shoots it.
For a game that has been described as having not so much a learning curve as a learning cliff, there really isn’t much more to the basic premise of EVE. That’s because it is a “sandbox” game; in other words, the developers built all of the mechanics of the game, but the behaviour of the players determines how to actually play it. (I’ll get onto the behaviour of the players later, too.) Suffice to say that, after playing for a while, you start to see why psychologists study EVE Online as a way to model real-world issues.
One of the key differentiators that makes EVE different from most other MMOs is that loss is permanent. In Warcraft, and most other games, if your character dies you do not lose all of the weapons and armour s/he was wearing at the time; you resurrect with exactly the same set of equipment, ready to have another go.
In EVE, however, that is not the case. When you die, that ship — along with whatever was in it — is gone. Forever. And, since each ship and piece of equipment on it represents a substantial amount of effort on the part of the player, losses can be exceedingly painful. In classic MMOs, when a challenge is not going well, you will often hear the raid leader give the order to “wipe” — everyone die, let’s start again. In EVE, that’s rarely an option. Aside from the loss of an expensive ship, to start over you need everyone involved to either have a spare ship ready to go, or the funds to purchase and equip a new one right away. Which brings me onto another topic: resources.
As well as perma-loss, the other aspect that sets EVE apart from other games is the entirely player-driven economy. Virtually everything in the game can be manufactured by players, using resources gathered by other players (via mining, planet management, moon extraction, and other incredibly complex game mechanics). Anything you buy, therefore, is at the end of an infinite chain of resource gatherers, manufacturers, and market traders, each group fuelling the others in a complex ecosystem that is largely unmanaged by CCP Games, the creators of EVE Online.
In a nutshell, that’s the game — make money by doing stuff, spend money on things that other people have made. But in reality, it’s what happens in between that truly defines the EVE experience.
“EVE is life,” as the saying goes, and “space jobs” in EVE mirror many of their real-life counterparts. Mining is hour upon hour of boredom, broken up by occasional bursts of danger; shipping goods from A to B can also occupy many hours. Unlike other MMOs there are no shortcuts, no hearthstones or portals that allow you to leap from one end of the galaxy to the other (well, there are wormholes, but those require a completely separate set of skills and knowledge to use), and so players must learn patience, how to calculate risk versus reward, and how to interact with each other to discover whether there are market needs that they can meet … for a tidy profit, of course.
This then, is effectively an alternate life, in a far more meaningful way than the Second Life ‘game’ ever achieved. Finding a niche, building up your abilities, budgeting for risk, and knowing when the time is right to expand in new directions, are all skills as applicable to the real world as they are in New Eden. And that’s before you even start to consider the people skills involved in running the massive in-game alliances, comparable in size to many global companies, and requiring just the same amount of infrastructure and management. The largest player-operated groups in EVE have their own HR departments, training teams, IT infrastructure, and board of directors. Tack onto that the necessary military-style structure for the management of interstellar warfare — logistics, scouting, diplomats, and various ranks of Fleet Commanders, those players tasked with leading fleets of ships into battle — and successfully steering even a medium-sized alliance becomes as challenging a job as any other in which thousands of people are depending on you.
Joining a player-owned corporation or alliance can even be a similar experience to joining a large company. While real-life on-boarding might involve being shown around, introduced to the right people, and provided with the equipment you need, joining an established group in EVE can often include gifts of money (ISK, the in-game currency, is named for the Icelandic krona, where the game’s developers are based), ships, and other valuable resources. Nowhere is this unique attitude towards new players more clear than in the terms used by the EVE player base; unlike most games, where they would be classified as “newbies,” in EVE the new players are known as “newbros” — they may be new to the game, but once they join our side, we’re all brothers-in-arms now.
Forging a purpose
So, you’ve found a new home amongst the stars with your new space friends, who shower you with pretend space money. Now what?
The final killer trick up EVE Online’s sleeve is the exploitation of the singular dream of virtually every person on the planet. A place to call your own. A home.
New Eden is separated into two distinct areas of space. The centre of the galaxy is known as high security, or “hi-sec,” space. It’s safe, well-connected; it even has its own police force. The biggest danger here is the chance that you might fall for one of the non-stop scams perpetrated by players against other players, taking advantage of those age-old weaknesses, greed and stupidity.
Outside of hi-sec, beyond a protective band of low-security space, lie the lawless wastes of null-sec. Out here, nobody is going to protect you from the bad guys … hell, if you’re out here, you probably are one of the bad guys. Yet null has a singular attraction, one that entices tens of thousands of players to leave the safe playpen of hi-sec and make their home in the middle of a permanent war zone. Because null-sec systems can be conquered, and owned, by the players. The opportunity to plant a flag (quite literally; the game allows for custom logos to be added and displayed in-game) and declare “This belongs to us!” is irresistible, as is the urge to kick over someone else’s sandcastle and take what was once theirs for your own. Fleets of players, sometimes numbering in their hundreds, take to the virtual sky to defend their home, while the opposing side fight to expand their own empire. It is a struggle as old as civilisation itself.
Over the thirteen years since EVE’s original 2003 release, empires have risen and fallen, and systems and regions of space have changed hands hundreds of times. Yet the fact that New Eden is a “persistent world” means that there is a history to every system, every station; a history that players know they have contributed to, and that they can continue to shape in the future.
EVE is real
In the title of this piece, I said that EVE Online had spoiled every other MMO for me. And while the factors discussed above — perma-loss, the player-driven economy, the community, owning your home, becoming history — are all part of that, I think that they combine to form a sum greater than their parts. For all that it’s just pixels on a screen and data on a server, EVE is real, and what you do matters, in a way that handing in quests or running dungeons in other games can never approach. Returning to other MMOs, even one as polished as World of Warcraft, reduces you to the level of a trained rat, obediently pushing a button to receive treats. The challenge is entirely superficial — press these buttons in this order, don’t stand in the fire — whereas EVE asks questions of you that get to the heart of who you really are. What are you willing to risk? What are you ready to fight for? And what will you do to reshape history?
In space, everybody can hear you scream.
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Also, if you enjoyed this article, you might like my previous EVE-related article: Is “This is EVE” the greatest game trailer of all time?