EVE Online: Space Opera Extraordinaire
For almost three years now I've been living a double life. By day I'm Jeffrey Lee, mild-mannered computer programmer. But by night, I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Oursulaert. I watched corpses glitter in the dark near the Tanoo gate. I've killed miners with their ore cans, I've killed great philosophers, proud young warriors and revolutionaries. I have killed the good, the evil, the weak and the beautiful. I have done this in the service of the Minmatar Republic, and for the billions of enslaved Matari everywhere. I am a Minmatar freedom fighter, and I play EVE Online.
EVE Online is an MMORPG. But it is an MMORPG like no other. It dared to go where few had gone before - into space - and to do it in ways none had imagined before. Compared to World of Warcraft, the player base is tiny - with only a hundred thousand subscribers - but the community is immense. Many people liken it to Elite, for in EVE you are free to do whatever you wish - be it mining, trading, pirate hunting, or being a pirate yourself. So, strap yourself into your goo filled pod and join me as we take a closer look at the game.
This is perhaps the biggest thing that sets EVE apart from other MMORPGs. I'm not talking about the technology inherent with space travel - I'm talking about the real technology that underpins the entire game. For starters, there is no sharding. This means that everyone is playing on the same server as one another, and so either directly or indirectly your actions are able to influence everyone else in the game. This has caused monsterous implementation and scalability problems for CCP, the company behind EVE, and it's a battle that they're unlikely to ever be rid of. But in a world where so much has been designed around player interaction, the game just wouldn't be the same if the server was sharded. Sharding also helps negate the small size of the player base - the peak player count at the weekend has risen from around 8k when I first joined to almost 35k now, breaking numerous world records along the way.
The second biggest thing (or perhaps the first, it's very hard to say) is the way skill training works. Whereas in most MMORPGs you are required to 'grind' for tens or hundreds of hours in order to reach a competitive character level, in EVE there needn't be any grind at all. Skills train whether you are logged in or not, and no amount of shooting NPCs or mining asteroids will make them go faster. That's not to say that there aren't ways of making them train faster - but those ways don't involve grinding. Of course, levelling up your character isn't the only grind in a traditional MMORPG. Getting money (ISK in EVE, to signify the games Icelandic origin) often requires grinding, but a smart player can avoid that by playing the market, or avoiding dieing, or perhaps a bit of judicial piracy of industrial ships full of expensive goods. There is only one true grind in EVE - that of raising your security status by killing pirate NPCs - but that only applies to pirates who want to go cold turkey and re-enter areas of space they've been barred from. Without that grind, pirates would merely ping-pong from good samaritan to outlaw, constantly killing swathes of defenseless noobs in the starter systems.
Another big aspect of EVE is the PvP. PvP is entirely non-consensual - you can be killed anywhere, anytime (Well, unless you're docked in a station, or offline). Of course there are penalties in place for killing the wrong people in the wrong place - each solar system is given a security rating, which depicts how many NPC police will respond to an unlawful killing, and how much the killer is penalised - but these were never designed to give complete protection to players. The death penalty in EVE is harsh - not only do you stand to lose whatever expensive ship you're flying around in, but if your escape pod is also destroyed you can lose equally expensive neural implants, have to fork out for a reasonably expensive new clone contract, and if your existing clone contract wasn't up to date you could lose several weeks of skill training time. This gives the combat a real sense of danger, and is part of what can make it so exhilerating - or terrifying.
Of course, the 'pew pew' isn't the only form of PvP in the game. The market is almost entirely player driven, with 90% of the products available having been built by players, using components built by players, using minerals mined by players. And all put together under control of blueprints purchased from NPCs and researched by players. Big wars between player alliances or the release of new ship types can cause mineral prices to sky rocket due to the extra demand, and trade cartels are able to perform price fixing on certain high-end goods where only a limited number of blueprints are available. And if trading isn't your thing, you can always join the PvP of the heated forum debates, where the ego reigns supreme.
OK, you now know about some of the base mechanics that make the game different to others, and how much players are able to influence the game world. But what's the actual game like?
For the most part, you'll be concerned with what ship you're flying and how it's fitted. There are probably around 100 player flyable ships in the game, split up for the four main empires/races, and some from the minor empires. As you'd expect each ship has different attributes, making each ship suited to a different task. All except shuttles and freighters (and escape pods!) allow modules and rigs to be fitted - these are the key components in making combat in EVE so deep and complex. There are probably over a thousand different modules to choose from, ranging from the mundance cargo expander to the devestating doomsday devices and stealthy cloaking devices. The use of different modules requires different skills to be trained (and for the ship to have the right powergrid and CPU resources spare, along with the right kind of module slot). These modules and other fittings are the great equaliser; they are what allow week-old players to take down year-old players in combat - providing they know their enemy and use the correct fitting for the occasion. For new players getting into PvP combat the most common role will be the tackler - small, fast, disposable frigates with webifiers and warp scramblers, whose aim is to keep the target in one place long enough for the heavy hitters to destroy it. More experienced players move on to become scouts (the most useful being the covert ops pilot), heavy hitters, logistics ship pilots (to help repair other ships or boost their combat abilities), or perhaps they will gain the knowledge and skill required to be a fleet commander. Whereas the outcome of most large battles can be predicted merely by counting the number of ships on each side, a skillful commander can catch his enemy off-guard or surprise him with unexpected ship setups and maneuvers.
For those players not interested in PvP combat, there's always NPCs and agent missions. The development of this PvE content can often take a backseat to development of new PvP content, but at the same time PvE provides a stable, steady income for the majority of the player base. Currently NPCs are rather dumb and weaker than their player counterparts, but the large numbers of them that get thrown at the player in a typical combat mission can provide a significant challenge.
The actual act of combat is rather simplistic, however - just a case of pointing your ship in the desired direction, selecting targets, and turning modules on and off. There's no fancy first-person control requiring the player to lead targets or strafe to avoid enemy fire. This greatly simplifies the processing that each server node must do, allowing battles containing hundreds of players to take place, and allows players on dialup connections or in distant countries to compete with everyone else. Even with this simplistic model of ship control the servers can struggle, however - the game has almost become a victim of its own success, as the dev team struggle to optimise the code and server infrastructure to cope with the ever-increasing player count.
I think I'll bang on about this again, since it's such an important aspect of the game. After all, it is a massively multiplayer online RPG - so CCP are quite right to give players so much control, and to attemtp to play solo is somewhat pointless. Apart from the control over the market, players are also free to control much of the space - over half of the game world consists of '0.0' - the lawless expanse outside the four main empires. This is where players build their own empires, based around ideals of peace or war, and then proceed to shoot each other about it. Many great player alliances have risen and fallen during my time in the game, containing up to several thousand players each, and there have been many great battles during their histories. This player interaction gives the game a very deep and rich history, often far deeper than the prime fiction content the event team produces. This alone is one of the big reasons to play the game - to watch the political landscape unfold around you, as you become a piece in one big space opera.
As mentioned above, apart from the player-generated world there's also the prime fiction one. This is where the traditional roleplaying takes place, and after a long hiatus it's an area where CCP are now focusing future development. Upon character creation, each player has a decision to make - about which of the four races their character should belong to. Each race has its own history, as detailed in the extensive backstory CCP have produced for the game. Apart from detailing the political alignment and motivations for each major and minor race and empire, it also gives insights into various pieces of technology in the EVE universe - from the stargates that enable interstellar travel, to the clones that allow pilots to cheat death, and the goo-filled pods that allow them direct control over their ships via extensive neural implants. The roleplayers take the backstory and prime fiction events and run with them, using them to guide the actions of their characters. Many players are ignorant of this roleplaying community, which can lead to some interesting responses when someone starts roleplaying in an open channel. But in their own way all players are roleplaying, for every action they take can have an effect on the world around them, and their experiences with different player groups will cause them to form opinions of them that will later guide their actions if they are to encounter them again.
Ah, there's always a downside. As with many MMORPGs, EVE has its fair share of them. The client can be buggy, and although it often looks pretty it isn't very well optimised, leading to much slideshow in larger battles. The server is in a similar state - although on the whole it is a very scalable architecture, its complexity also makes it almost impossible to predict how a change will affect performance, and some old code simply can't cope with the number of players that are getting thrown at it now. Balance in an MMORPG is a myth, but nontheless one which must be chased for the game to remain enjoyable. This often leads to sweeping gameplay changes, which in turn lead to 'flavour of the month' setups as players discover what the latest 'I win' setups are... only for the devs to scrabble to nerf them in order to attempt to bring balance again. And although the community is arguably the best part of the game, it can also be the worst - with such an emphasis on high-stakes gameplay, a good deal of trust is needed between characters, which inevitably leads to real-life trust. But in a world where spying, theft and betrayal is perfectly legal, this can lead to real-life hurt when that trust is broken. Some players take it a step too far, resorting to hacking web servers and accounts in order to obtain victory for their side. Naturally this isn't condoned by CCP, and any players found to be partaking in such activities will be facing a swift ban. Similarly, the sale of ingame items for real-life money is also frowned upon - this is of course a good thing - but this doesn't mean the game doesn't suffer from its fair share of sweatshop workers and macro miners/NPCers.
As the devs have said on many occasions, EVE would be nothing without its player base. Player interaction is the key to the game, and although it is possible to play on your own, there's not really any point since all you'd be playing is Elite with a builtin IRC client. The plethora of ships and setups makes combat incredibly deep and complex, and the high-stakes nature of the game can get pulses racing. For the gentler player or someone looking for a little extra spice, there are a variety of other, non-combat activites available. There are the downsides, of course - MMORPGs can be quite time consuming to be enjoyed to their full potential, and poor client or server performance can become frustrating. The mentality of some players can send temperatures soaring, but there are also a large number of friendly, intelligent players who you could happily damn to hell ingame and then take them down the pub for a friendly drink afterwards.
All good things come to an end, however. An MMORPG is only good if you can find the time to play it and have something fun to do, and after playing for almost three years those two abilities currently escape me. In the past I've been an anti-pirate, a pirate, a trader, a skilled fighter and mission-runner, a scout, a covert ops pilot, a corp leader, a fleet commander, an alliance council member/diplomat, and occasionally I've been known to fit some mining lasers. I've meant a lot to some and nothing to many, and left my permanent mark on the face of EVE - whether anyone will remember it or not. But for now my character is in limbo, dreaming of the day when his master will have the time and inclination to don the pod-goo once more.