I am nothing if not an evangelist for EVE Online. I write about it more than any human ever should, and I love it. When you begin to peel back all the layers, the spreadsheets, the hasty calculations scribbled on notepads next to your keyboard, and the hours spent theorycrafting spaceships outside of flying them, what you have left is a game that isn’t afraid to be bold and different. MMOs are in a weird place. It’s really saying something that the most innovation the genre has seen isn’t in the gameplay but the financial models used to support itself. Yet, for as many sandwich-board wearing doomsayers predicting the end of subscription fees, EVE Online continues to forge onward. This week, we’re taking a look at what EVE Online does right and what other contenders in this awesome genre could stand to borrow from Iceland’s greatest export.
Don’t be Afraid to Punish Players
Within the genre, people have gravitated towards a spectrum to describe the gameplay of various MMOs. On one end is the sandbox, the other is the theme park. Sandbox MMOs like EVE Online are best described as games that give you the tools, but require the player to build their own fun. Theme parks, on the other hand, create the fun for you, like roller coasters. Different approaches have their merits, and I’m certainly not about to say that theme park MMOs need to go away—many of them are incredible.
What I will say is that the risk averse nature of MMOs is creating a pretty stale playing ground. Two weeks ago, I discussed how Final Fantasy XI benefited from expecting more from its players. EVE Online is similar in the sense that death can result in losing all of the items and modules in and on your ship along with the hull itself. While no one likes the idea of having weeks of hard work wiped away in the blink of an eye, that very real possibility is a driving factor in making one of the most compelling combat experiences in video games.
Once you internalize the risks that come with undocking your ship, even in the safest of places, EVE Online becomes an experience that transcends the delicate bonds of attachment that most games barely manage to cultivate. You have a vested stake to your in-game character. And when that character explodes in fiery death, that attachment manifests in an even more powerful reaction. EVE is home to some of the most outrageous explosions of rage as players lose everything in moments. Yet, the other side of that coin is the sheer exhilaration you feel coming out of those encounters with your life.
The threat of loss is so strong that many pilots experience uncontrollable shaking during their first encounters with hostile players. The pressures of being a captain, multitasking your modules, positioning, coordinating—it all becomes so overwhelming that until you’ve experienced them enough times, many players lock up and freeze.
It’s that rush of adrenaline that will hook players and keep them playing long after they’ve mastered their nerves and combat becomes routine. It’s that sense of consequence, that the decisions you make now could have a very real impact on your wellbeing within the game that creates an emotionally rewarding experience. You need to have bad moments in order to understand how great the good ones are.
Embrace Non-Violent Playstyles and Horizontal Progression
While a good many players in EVE Online will openly mock the pacifist mentality that runs rampant through a large portion of the player-base, there is no denying how important it is. In fact, while players blowing things up will always steal the spotlight, it’s the industrialists who make the galaxy of New Eden spin. Just about everything in EVE Online, from the ships to the modules that you fit to them, is created by an actual player.
Many MMOs suffer because combat has gone from exciting to rote. It’s sad to think that something as thrilling as throwing a fireball at someone or calling down lightning from the heavens could become a tired experience, but that’s exactly what’s happened. Combat is not only at the heart of most MMOs, but just about every video game. EVE takes combat and keeps it exciting by blending it into hundreds of other avenues for playing the game.
Like I said above: the threat of death is constantly hanging over every player, but it can be shocking how long you can go without encountering it. Some of EVE‘s deepest game mechanics aren’t combat oriented, and, by giving players a reprieve from explosions, it ensures that they will always feel spectacular.
Many MMOs have two sides to their coins: combat and crafting. Unfortunately for most, the combat side heavily outweighs the crafting side in just about every facet. You are a warrior first and a craftsman second. By fleshing out the other side of the equation and adding new elements beyond the duality of war and craft, MMOs can create meaningful niches for players to explore and fill, adding a sense of depth that can freshen up the genre and keep things interesting.
Instead of having just one endgame, EVE Online has dozens, and it guarantees that just as one begins to lose its luster, players can flock to new areas within the game to liven things up.
Let Players Tell Their Own Stories
It’s not uncommon for developers and publishers to find ways to flesh out the worlds their customers inhabit. It’s just smart business. World of Warcraft has a treasure trove of novels and a soon-to-be feature film for players to dig into and expand their knowledge of the world and its characters. Even EVE Online has a few novels to help turn New Eden into something digestible in a traditional literary format.
But those books and movies, while interesting in their own right, will always pale in comparison to the stories that players create. Last year, CCP Games, developer of EVE Online, recognized this. They came out with a trailer that rocketed to fame within hours. “This is EVE” is a trailer that, instead of having inconsequential voices tell you how great the game is, gave the players a voice to tell their own story. It can also be seen in the EVE documentary “A Tale of Internet Spaceships.”
WingspanTT, who I interviewed a couple of weeks back, was one of the fortunate few chosen to be in the EVE trailer.
By giving players agency over the world they inhabit, you create an emotional bond between them and the world. The greatest fiction surrounding EVE has never been the books, but the players and the stories they create on a daily basis.
The problem with a theme park is that, at the end of the day when you sit down to discuss it with your friends, everyone has the same experience. You can gush about how great that roller coaster was, but unless there is a different one for you to ride tomorrow, you’ll have nothing new to share. EVE Online is important because there is always a new horizon to explore and a new story just waiting to be told. Those who are bold enough to forge into unknown space, unafraid to get involved in the messy politics of New Eden, are also those who walk away with their own dramatic tales to tell. And those tales mean something.
A cool piece of gear will last a raid tier, but a memorable story is forever.
Developers Need to Adapt to their Audience
One of the things that I find so endearing about EVE Online is how accommodating CCP has become to their players. It’s hard not to imagine that EVE is less of a business and more of a great big science project where CCP sits in their offices poking various aspects and studying the results.
The game itself is full of ways that players actively subvert the intended game design. There was a time when CCP was less flexible, and though the company has relapsed a few times to their heavy-handed ways, overall, CCP seems intent on letting the players decide the course of New Eden.
Examples of this are everywhere. For example, wormhole systems were never intended to become domiciles for thousands of players. Perhaps an even better example is the way CCP reacted when players gathered to actively suppress and destroy anyone attempting to travel to the game’s biggest trade hub, Jita.
Recently, CCP has also implemented a release schedule that absolutely dwarfs what most companies are doing. Every month or so, a content update is rolled out packed with updates from minor balance changes to the upcoming Carnyx update which will overhaul how sovereignty works with regards to player alliances owning actual territory in space—a huge evolution to a massive aspect of the game. CCP is agile, able to respond to the course of the game faster than most developers could ever hope to do.
This level of dedication has made EVE feel healthier than it has ever been. When most of its brothers and sisters are beginning to show their age, EVE feels like the Patrick Steward of MMOs: it just stopped aging entirely.
I certainly realize that EVE Online will forever and always be a niche game—it just isn’t for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that the principles that govern its design couldn’t be adapted to a wider audience. EVE Online will likely exist for another decade, but it will always be remembered as the little MMO that could. The best thing the genre can do now is to observe and innovate, and, despite the obtuse first impression, EVE is bursting with innovations.Related: EVE Online, Listed, MMORPG, Sci-Fi, Top List