EVE Online: My (Nearly) Perfect Drug

EVE LogoMy relationship with multiplayer games is complicated. It started with Doom 2 LAN parties and moved on to Warcraft 2 and Starcraft, Civilization, and so on. Multiplayer, back then, was always PvP. You’d play games with and against your friends. Things like co-op weren’t really part of the picture. Sure, there was ‘comp-stomping’ (you and your friends vs. the, usually very poor, AI) and the like, but let’s face it: there was no challenge there, and for me the whole point of multiplayer gaming was to find a challenge that the AI couldn’t give you without cheating rampantly and obviously.

EVE Online was released in 2003, at the height of the ‘Everquest Addiction’ fervor. I didn’t discover it until a friend introduced me to the game in 2005, and I immediately fell in love. EVE Online’s appeal has to do with the ways in which it capitalizes on the multiplayer aspect to deliver a dedicated PvP experience. The cooperative PvE is there, and lately it’s become quite good, but what makes EVE shine is the way it allows players a spectacular degree of freedom to play in the game how they please. The results are often discouraging to those who imagine humanity to be fundamentally, morally good, but by permitting the skullduggery, CCP gives great meaning to the decision to not be an asshole. The result is a world with much higher stakes than worlds like WoW offer. Only the smallest fraction of games offer this kind of experience.

My first step into the Massively Multiplayer realm was Everquest, basically a MUD with a graphical interface and one that was hilariously poorly executed at that: I recall, at one point, hiding in a cabin to rest, only to have a mountain lion literally come straight through a wall and kill me; the trouble ticket team swore that this was ‘intended behavior.’ By today’s standards it feels impossible to justify having paid money for that, but back then it was A Super Big Deal. The thing about Everquest, however, and all MMOs that followed in its footsteps, is that it was built on the MUD framework: a pile of players going through what was otherwise a single-player experience, except with the ability to work together and talk together (and sometimes PvP). Unlike single player games, however, these games were developed with co-operative play in mind; enemies and challenges could be devised that were – by design – outside the ability of a single player. This has grown into the concept of the Raid or Instanced Dungeon. At their heart, however, MUDs and the MMOs like them are little more than virtual amusement parks. Once you’ve been on all the rides, there’s nothing else there. Sure, the devs are at work adding new rides and opening new areas of the park… but unless you’re someone who really likes roller coasters, once you’ve ridden on one, you’ve basically had the ‘roller coaster experience.’

EVE Online has a primary development focus (PvP) but their approach isn’t about creating the experience or the content through development. Instead, they create the tools and let the players drive the experience and create the content themselves. It is, at this point, a proven and effective model. Although the conflict drivers in EVE are (in my opinion) often poorly constructed, there’s enough residual hate inherent in the ‘total freedom’ model that plenty of petty conflicts arise out of the human tendency towards tribalism, and the rest is emergent conflicts as player goals come up against each other. If you want to find a fight in EVE Online, it is trivially easy to do. If you don’t want to find a fight… it is still possible to play the game, but it’s not quite as easy – and Player vs. Player is universal, down to the economics and market structures that the most die-hard PvE pilot still interacts with.

‘Spreadsheets in Space’ Is a Myth

The running joke about EVE Online is that it’s actually all a giant spreadsheet. There are certainly players who don’t look at the graphics while they play, and who keep the sound turned off (“EVE has sound?!“), etc., and just focus on the various windows that deliver raw information to the pilot. Using spreadsheets, especially when engaging in EVE Online’s ‘crafting’ mechanics (properly called ‘Industry’), is definitely useful, but you can wing it if you’ve got a mind for business. It is, however, perfectly possible to fly ships and make ISK (the in-game money) without approaching it quite so cerebrally.

 

EVE Online Learning Curve
A common depiction of EVE Online’s ‘learning curve.’

There is a lot to learn in EVE Online, and much hubbub is made over this fact, but the truth is that EVE requires you to learn no more (though decidedly no less) than WoW or any other MMO out there. The difference is that EVE wears its information on its sleeve, whereas other MMOs often require that you learn as much about the game from third party sources or intuit it from in-game performance. As with other MMOs, however, there are ample third party resources to help you understand, learn, or optimize your play.

The best help and advice comes from the people you fly with. All other MMOs can be experienced solo. Yes, the experience is made richer if you play with friends or meet friends to play with in the game, but for EVE Online this is the game experience. Okay, strictly speaking, no, you don’t need friends to undock a ship and go do things, even great things. But especially for new players, the value of flying with a group of people who’ve been around the block a few times cannot be overstated. There are, contrary to EVE’s fearsome reputation as a haven for assholes of the highest magnitude, legitimately awesome groups of people dedicated to helping new players sort out the game and what they enjoy. Of these, I personally endorse EVE University. Disclaimer: I flew with E-Uni for three years, and was an off-and-on instructor for them. There are other groups who do the same job and just as well, but I’m partial to E-Uni.

In a lot of other games, a newer player stepping in and asking to hang out with seasoned veterans would be viewed as a drag. A lot of people are happy to help you out and spend some time ‘power leveling’ you and whatnot, but at the end of the day, they’re taking time AWAY from what they’d otherwise be doing in order to get you onto their level. This is not the case in EVE. A character is combat effective from Day 1.

No Such Thing As ‘Low Level’

Okay, the heading is a touch misleading… but compared to the low-level experience in other games, EVE’s mechanics are leaps and bounds more inclusive of newer players. (Not all groups are as inclusive of newer players at the social level, but that’s true anywhere.) There are no character levels, in EVE. Instead, there’s a massive library of skills which can be chosen and installed onto a character, and each of those skills has a level from 1 to 5. After level 5 there is no more improvement offered by that skill. This means that a new player can very easily obtain a potent specialization in a week or two. What’s more, skill progression is not tied to game activity. You assign the skills you’d like to learn to a skill queue, and the clock ticks down, whether you’re online or not, at the same pace as the guy with no job who plays fourteen hours a day.  The stat bloat associated with having had a character since 2005, or even 2011, is mitigated by the 5-level cap on all skills. Players who’ve been around longer have more choices about what they fly, but they are no more potent in that equipment than a new player who focused on that equipment for about a month or two would be. That flexibility is a very powerful thing, to be certain, but a new player isn’t barred from ‘end game’ content the way low level players in WoW or Everquest are.

Moreover, there are some fundamental game design choices made by CCP that create niches for new characters (or older characters who still want to fly the same equipment). New characters are (until they skill into others) initially restricted to small, fast ships called frigates. They’re fragile, they don’t do a lot of damage on paper, and they tend to engage at very, very close ranges. Flown improperly, they can be swatted out of the sky by larger ships in a single shot. On paper, this is exactly the kind of ‘high end content exclusion’ that other games have.  The video below flies in the face of that assumption, it shows an experienced player rolling a new character and being successful in solo PvP after a scant 17 days.

As someone who’s been playing the game for ten years, I can say with confidence and authority: Frigates can be devastating if you learn to fly to their strengths. To be swatted out of the sky, you basically have to be flying directly into the guns of the larger vessel. If you attempt any kind of evasion whatsoever, that massive battleship suddenly can’t hit you very hard – if at all. If you fly the frigate in a fleet with larger ships, you swoop in on larger prey and use what’s known in the game as ‘tackle’ to hold that larger ship on the battlefield so that your larger friends can tear it apart. When your larger friends are tackled by the enemy’s smaller ships, you engage those smaller ships to protect your fleet. If you fly a frigate with half a dozen other frigates, you are a pack of wolves – swift, hard to notice until it’s too late, and capable of downing surprisingly large prey if it strays too far from the herd.

In WoW or EQ, the low level character is little more than bait in PvP until they’ve ground their way up to whatever the effective cutoff point for PvP is in those games. In EVE online, the frigate pilot serves a legitimate and often vital role in fleet operations. Many battles are decided by the effective and intelligent use of combined arms tactics requiring characters in ships of varied sizes and capabilities, as well as pilots of varying skill levels. Literally from the moment you connect, your character is either ready to fly tackle, or could be with 90 minutes of skill queueing. (It’ll take you that long to sort out how to fly the ship coherently anyway.) There are a plethora of guides and youtube videos showing what can be done with the tiniest fraction of the total skillpoints that folks like me have.  I have never met another MMO where characters were PvP-ready, and not just welcome, but effective out of the box. Nothing else I have ever played has even come close.

Persistent World, Persistent Consequences

In most MMOs I’ve played, the consequences of death are loss of XP and the inconvenience of a corpse recovery. In EVE Online’s single-sharded world, the consequences of ‘death’ are the permanent loss of your ship and gear, instead of XP; and corpse recovery is much rarer and as much a matter of pure luck. In truth, the end result is the same: you have to spend time regaining what you’d lost in one form or another. EVE’s model, however, flips the script: your gear is disposable. Veteran players of other MMO’s develop relationships with their gear and the notion that, every time you die, you have to re-gear is so alien that it gives EVE a ‘hardcore’ feeling despite the actual end result (loss of progress) being functionally the same.

The exception to this, however, happens at the ‘end-game’ content. Most veteran EVE Online players recognize that the ships they fly and the modules those ships are equipped with is a consumable; a cost of doing business, whatever that business is. You will lose ships, period. You just account for it and go on with your life. “Never fly what you can’t afford to lose” is a very early lesson EVE Online teaches you. Diligent adherence to this maxim, however, results in the expansion of what you can afford to lose.

At the collective level, however, EVE Online offers wealth engines and objects of conspicuous consumption that require the amassing of tremendous effort by many, many people. These are EVE’s ‘sandcastles,’ and for every group of people who want to build one, there’s a group of people who want to knock it over – because they can. The destruction of those assets, too, is permanent. In this, EVE is the most visible member of a very, very small number of games. These are battles with gravitas, with capital-C Consequences. These are conflicts that have genuine meaning to them (even if their causes can be comical), something that few other games achieve at all, let alone consistently. Win or lose, your conflicts in EVE become stories, and you will remember them.

Ten Years, Still Loving it

So, yes, I’ve been playing the game since 2005. Clearly I love it. EVE is a living document, constantly under development, and what makes EVE Online amazing today hasn’t always been the case. There’s changes on the horizon (I’m looking at you, Carriers) that suggest that some of the combined-arms freedom that allowed for such interesting tactical diversity is being edged out. But EVE’s development is often subject to tides. CCP has repeatedly demonstrated that they can learn from mistakes, and their balance team has earned some measure of faith in their ability to recognize missteps and get back on track. It has a new, aggressive release schedule that keeps things fresh and changing. It remains the most inclusive, meaningful MMO I have ever played and likely will ever play.

Guillome Renard Pilot HeadshotAnd if you read this and decide you want to give it a try, (the first two weeks are free! wink, wink, nudge, nudge) don’t go it alone. I highly
recommend EVE University, but am also happy to help you find another place if you like.  I’m Guillome Renard, in game, feel free to drop me an EVEMail.