A few weeks back a friend of mine discovered that I dabble in EVE Online. I’m reluctant to use the word ‘play’ in this regard and would much rather use ‘dabble’. It seems these days that anyone using the word ‘play’ in regards to an MMO such as EVE or World of Warcraft is instantly stereotyped as someone who neglects both their health and their loved ones just to immerse themselves in the same virtual world 16 hours a day. Of course that does apply to a minority of people, but it’s pretty much the same as saying “What?! You drink beer?! You must be an alcoholic!” So on discovering that I ‘dabble’ in EVE Online he said “You know that game is just a spreadsheet right?” Well, that’s one way of putting it I suppose, but then it depends on which aspects of EVE you appreciate. It really depends on your perception of the game. The ‘spreadsheet’ side doesn’t particularly interest me at all. It’s rather what you do with those numbers and calculations that matters. In fact, EVE is about something else for me; a lot of other things really. Here’s what’s great about it.
Freeform, sandbox games such as the Grand Theft Auto series owe at least part of their roots to some of the early sandbox games of the 1980s. Elite was one of them, designed by Cambridge students David Braben and Ian Bell back in 1984. As a lone adventurer you were given a small spaceship plus a handful of cash and traversed the universe making your fortune in any way you saw fit.
Elite was ridiculously successful: the potential of a huge universe to explore, being able to venture in to the depths of the unknown and the freedom in choosing your own way to interact with this vast universe and its inhabitants through trade, combat or piracy. Elite was a far cry and a refreshing break from the linearity of the 80s platformers.
Elite had massive success for many reasons but not least for its huge world that could be explored freely to your heart’s content. That world was indeed huge; a sprawling universe of procedurally generated star systems with their own suns and planets. The sense of freedom of exploration was immense but what was equally important about Elite was that the way you progressed and earned your fortune was met with equally as much freedom.
EVE Online is our modern day Elite; a huge universe ready to explore, in fact both Reynir Harðarson and Hilmar Pétursson – the founders of EVE Online – admit that Elite – along with Ultima: Online played a very large part in the inspiration for its creation.
The freedom given to an EVE player is core to much of its gameplay. A player in EVE is an individual, a player can choose to make their fortune in any way he/she sees fit and will, most probably, make friends and enemies in doing so. In regards to enemies, especially real players, EVE is merciless. Anyone, at any time, can be attacked by any other player, unless they stay in the police controlled safe systems. What makes this system even more dangerous is that if a player’s ship is destroyed it is permanently lost along with any modifications applied to the ship. This system is reminiscent of the permadeath of Ultima: Online in which players could very easily lose everything they were carrying if they ever lost a fight. It is also in contrast to a lot of other MMOGs in which there is no danger of loss of any kind.
There’s something dangerously exciting about EVE’s system of merciless loss. It induces a sense of fear and trepidation that feels real and immersive. Our primal fear of real death and loss is much more stimulated than other similar games and allows us to more easily hold our suspension of disbelief. EVE operates on a level where our defeats and setbacks can be depressing but our achievements are exhilarating in equal measure. In this, EVE manages to supply us with a sense of familiarity and thus deeper immersion.
The nigh-on limitless possibilities for freedom of interaction with real human beings while keeping to the contextual confines of its world gives rise to the potential for powerful emergent narrative in EVE. In its history this has certainly been proved on numerous occasions. The assassination of Mirial, CEO of the Ubiqua Seraph corporation or the banker who made off with billions through an investment scam. All of these are real events, perpetrated by real people; many of the stories created from these events are documented at places like https://truestories.eveonline.com/
There are caveats to EVE‘s mechanics though. One is its notoriously difficult learning curve, illustrated in the classic image below…
The rewards of rich, emergent narrative are met with a barrier of serious dedication to the game and a long time spent unravelling and mastering its mechanics. Given EVE‘s niche, almost cult-like popularity, newcomers could easily be put off by the frustratingly high skill-level and abilities of the dedicated players. Furthermore, to even participate in any of the player-driven events that are worth telling takes time to build your own personal power and get to know the community. Initial encounters with player-controlled piracy can be exhilarating, but in those early stages it will most likely result in your inevitable doom, leading to more frustration and possibly a desire to abandon the game entirely.
Learning and progression frustrations aside, EVE is a deep and rich experience. It is not so much a game that says: here are the rules and this is the story. It is more a game that says: here is the world, create your own rules and tell your own stories.