For over 13 years, the sci-fi MMORPG EVE Online has supported millions of interstellar travelers, traders, pirates and explorers in the virtual space of New Eden. It's provided a fantastical ecosystem of user-generated possibilities: you can pitch battles among thousands-strong factions, or learn and teach skills that better your community.
It used to be that all players paid the game's makers, Icelandic studio CCP Games, a subscription fee for the privilege of leading a second life within this galaxy far, far away. But as of its latest update, "Ascension," introduced on November 15th 2016, the game allows a level of free-to-play access. This mode, "Clone States," grants players a pre-determined set of skills without any monetary outlay. Another part of the update, "Inception," is said to be to be the most comprehensive guide yet for beginners.
There was an almighty upsurge in new players in the hours following the update, adding both fresh meat and potential titans in waiting to a healthy community of around 400,000 active monthly users. At least, that was the number EVE Online data scientist Edvald Gislison quoted when I attended the 2016 EVE Fanfest in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík, back in April. "That's more people than live in Iceland," he says (around 330,000, since you're wondering). "It kind of freaks me out."
Above: The 'EVE Online' Experience, free for play trailer
What wasn't concerning Edvald—and likewise the game's executive producer, Andie Nordgren—back in the spring was the game becoming too big. The introduction of a free-to-play mode will send EVE numbers soaring, but there's no risk of CCP's universe collapsing as a result.
"We've the hardware for EVE to become a lot bigger than it is now," Edvald tells me. "The potential bottleneck is really when people start cramming into the same system, at the same time, as there's one server handling all of that.
"When we have big battles, we need them to happen across multiple fronts, multiple solar systems, so we can distribute the load without that looking forced. If we had 400,000 people trying to get into the same solar system at once, then we'd have problems."
Above: All 'EVE Online' screenshots courtesy of CCP Games
When I visited Reykjavík, EVE Online was in the middle of a spectacular, stars-spanning conflict. Attendees at Fanfest called it different things: I heard "World War Bee", "The Easter War", the "Battle of M-0EE8" and more besides. But everyone agreed that this was a battle unlike any the game had seen before, with the very existence of enormous in-game empires on the line.
"This war is a product of us making changes to the mechanics of how people fight over space more than six months ago," Andie tells me, explaining how CCP is often criticized for introducing new ways to play EVE by its community, even though most changes are eventually accepted.
"Sometimes those changes aren't popular," she says. "We can't ever know what the outcome of our changes will be. Players won't grasp the full picture immediately, and neither can we. It's basically like social engineering on a massive scale—if you're running a city and you try to build a new area, you hope it'll turn out a certain way."
"But as much as you try to engineer your ideal outcome, you can't guarantee it, and you can't control what the population does. But we do try to reassure players that we know what we're doing, while being humble about it, because we do sometimes get it wrong."
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CCP got it very wrong in 2011, when players protested against new microtransaction policies by opening fire on an in-game memorial statue. Andie remembers this as a "riot", adding: "They pushed us to acknowledge what they wanted to see. And in that case, we did change direction, quite rapidly."
She refers to herself several times during our conversation not as a producer, but as a "custodian", telling me: "I want to take people's commitment to this game seriously, and deliver stuff that will make them happy in this part of their life."
"I have a vision for where I want to take things," she continues. "I want to hand over almost everything that's made by NPCs in the game right now to players themselves, one way or another. And then, eventually, I want to let the players redefine exactly where they can go in the universe."
"But that's the really long-term plan. We're taking smaller steps, and responding to how the game feels, what needs addressing in the short term. We've got this 'big picture' vision, but we also keep focus on the current reality."
"We've learned that nothing we add really starts until we add players into the mix. They're our core motivation." — Hilmar Veigar Pétursson
"I get the most pride from seeing just how this all operates almost completely autonomously from me," says CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson. "I am super proud of the EVE development team, who've taken the reins, the legacy and history, and they're now driving the game in a really exciting direction which is completely theirs."
"We've changed a lot, since we started," he continues, "and we've learned that nothing we add really starts until we add players into the mix. They will come up with new approaches that we could never imagine. My mind is blown by all the ways they've found to, essentially, break the game, to change it from how we thought it'd be played. They're our core motivation."
I've been to many gaming expos and conferences over the years, but few have had an atmosphere that comes close to the welcoming warmth and friendliness of EVE Fanfest.
I have a couple of drinks one evening—during the Fanfest's semi-notorious pub crawl—with a few veteran players. One is dressed to impress in some sort of high-ranking officer's attire. I couldn't quite speak their language, with no knowledge of the outposts they've overthrown, or the class of ship they've captained, but there's no snootiness, no hostility, and no obvious blurring of the line between reality and fantasy.
Nobody I meet is acting as if EVE is their true calling in life, like everything else merely orbits around its daily demands. Which is, I admit, something I was expecting to see evidence of, given the reported passion of its more persistent players. And yet, for some, participating in the game has been hugely advantageous for their real-life careers.
"The closer you can get to the game being your experience, the higher its human value." — Hilmar Veigar Pétursson
"The most touching stories I hear about our game come from people who've managed to do something inside it that they could never do in real life," says Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CEO of CCP. "That's often associated with having physical disabilities, people who can't move around for real, but in the game they can and impact on it incredibly."
"But then, another set of stories involve people who aren't super confident in themselves, but in the game they've gained confidence, going out of their comfort zones and learning more about themselves. They're gaining leadership skills, realizing they have that capacity. But until they played EVE they never found a way to articulate it, and they've then taken their game experiences back into real life."
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"People build up their in-game organizations on their own," Andie tells me. "Someone starts a corporation and begins recruiting, and if there's a leader in there who's enigmatic enough, they'll build up their numbers. People have all manner of roles and responsibilities, and these organizations are quite elaborate—some of the biggest ones have thousands of members.
"Some people do this in their work life and bring those skills into EVE Online, and equally there are players who've gained skills in the game and brought them into the real world. Managing over a thousand individuals is no small task, and that is something that's led to players of the game getting hired in real life."
EVE Online is built upon the individual experiences of these many thousands—millions, cumulatively across the years—of players, each of whom carves out a niche for themselves, writing their own dramas against the glittering backdrop of New Eden. And CCP is happy to leave them to it, for the most part.
"We can't do a lot to regulate how the game's played, and we've really managed to relinquish that control," Hilmar says. "If we tried to control too much of EVE, nothing interesting would happen. And I think that takes courage to let go of the game, and let it loose in this vacuum where the players can really take hold of it."
This idea of my experience being different to your experience makes all the difference," he continues. "The closer you can get to a game being your experience, the higher its human value. Little here is preordained. We trust the players will do something way greater than we can imagine."
"People really affect each other's experiences in the game. That's very different from just sharing a fandom." — Andie Nordgren
I get the impression of a studio that still holds most of the cards in their game, but relented ownership of the most significant ones several turns ago. They remain the masters, ostensibly, of this interactive space opera; but are far removed from the movers that matter most within it. So much of what plays out in EVE Online is simply beyond its architects' control, but the team at CCP seems okay with that.
"This is an interesting position to be in," Andie says. "The EVE community is so special, and I think that comes out of the fact that people really affect each other's experiences in the game. That's very different from just sharing a fandom.
"You might love the same TV show as other people, and you'll attend conventions and dress up in cosplay, and that's great; but in EVE, the experience is that much wider, because anyone who plays the game for any amount of time will directly impact the wider experience for other people. And that means you have these meaningful shared experiences, which build unique relationships between players."
Those relationships can be tested, however, by real life intervention. To really make headway in EVE Online takes time and commitment. And uninterrupted sessions lasting from dawn 'til dusk just aren't a possibility for people with families and busy work lives, when responsibilities begin to impose on free time, as Edvald explains.
"You see a lot of long sessions being logged—we're talking six to eight hours, even as many as 23 in a single day. But when you start playing, it's rarely clear how long what you're doing in that session will take. If you're attacking an enemy structure, that's not going to be a short experience. And you can't just pause, or get up and leave, because you'll lose your ship. It'll be stranded, and your allies might leave you. And if you run away, you'll lose allies too.
"Two years ago, I was home alone with my second son. He was a couple of weeks old, and he'd just fallen asleep. I thought I had a couple of hours, so I logged into the game. I'm in the middle of a battle, calling out commands and following them too, and then he wakes up. Like, what do I do? I had to stand up and see to him, as my son comes first after all. But when I came back, half an hour later, everything was destroyed—my ship, and everything in it.
"For group participation, you need to sit down for several hours at a time, and not be disturbed. And it's really hard to explain to your partner that you just can't stand up right now."
"Watching people's big constructions blow up is totally part of the fun." — Edvald Gislison
"Ascension" is taking CCP into its 20th year in business with a dramatic spike in EVE Online activity, essential after seeing concurrent player figures fall in 2015. I've still not personally played it, and I'm not about to begin, either: not because I'm not interested, but because I, like Edvald, simply don't have the time these days.
I totally see the appeal, though. I understand how players who've spent days and weeks constructing magnificent vehicles and installations can puff out their chests and feel proud of their achievements.
I sense the thrill of issuing the command to send hundreds, if not many more, of loyal allies into battle. I can as good as smell the heat of a siege, ultimately destroying a massive opposition station, a structure that's cost another organization countless hours to assemble. "Watching people's big constructions blow up is totally part of the fun," says Edvald, with a wicked smile.
Cool guys don't look at explosions? I don't know about that. From the perspective of an outsider peering into the EVE Online universe, it's evident that making them happen is kind of a big deal. And doing that with friends old and new, as you zip about in stunning spaceships, claiming territories as your own and forging alliances when diplomacy takes precedent over torpedoes—that sounds cooler than just about anything else.