There are few games as remarkable as EVE Online, the space MMOG released in 2003 that over the last 13 years has gone from strength to strength. EVE was never like the others. Most MMOGs follow the lineage of Ultima Online or Guild Wars, setting up great fairgrounds full of rides for their playerbase to enjoy, and splitting that playerbase into smaller and more manageable ‘shards’ or groups. EVE is and always has been a free-for-all, a galaxy where every player co-exists and can make their own decisions about the future. But now it's going free.
To go through how CCP has changed EVE over time would be its own article, but this is a new evolution. You’ve always been able to get hold of trials for EVE, but characters soon enough have to be ‘PLEX-ed’ (cashing in a pilot’s license which grants one month’s playtime.) Now anyone can play, with certain skill restrictions, without handing over a penny.
I sat down with EVE’s executive producer, Andie Nordgren, to discuss what may be the biggest change in the game’s history. The last time I saw Nordgren she was on-stage at the 2014 Fanfest in Rejkjavik, talking about her dream of making everything in the universe destructible. The crowd listened in awe, rapturously whooped as she showed videos of things exploding, and wept at the beautiful possibilities of building space stations. I say this to emphasise one thing. EVE is a videogame but to understand it you have to accept that, for many of its players, EVE is also real.
First things first, what exactly does ‘free’ mean in the context of EVE? “Play EVE and be part of EVE for free,” says Nordgren. “It’s not just a trial or a taste that tries to, you know, shove you into subscribing as soon as possible. We really want it to be viable to play for free. If you’re an existing player you can see it as a kind of hardcore mode, you know, like see how far you can get with just the Alpha [F2P] skill set: you’re kind of locked into tech 1 guns for the most part, but there’s a number of tech 2 low-slot and mid-slot modules that are also available to you on the Alpha skill set.”
Essentially free players have ‘alpha’ clones and subscribers have ‘omega’ clones, with the latter having access to the full array of ships and skills in the game. To give this some context, I played EVE using tier 1 ships for probably my first six months as a subscriber, before eventually upgrading to a tier 2 interceptor.
But before we get bogged down in the details, why are we even talking about a 13 year old game in the first place. What gives EVE such longevity, and allows it to maintain such a fascination for both its players and those of us who just love reading about it?
“I think it’s because everyone plays in the same universe and they have some possibility of impacting play for each other,” says Nordgren. “Which means that you can become famous, right? Or you can become infamous. And all the players together are actually creating one shared history, which means that it’s meaningful to care about that history, because it’s not just cloned and repeated on different servers or whatever. It’s one shared universe and one shared history.”
Since 2003 CCP has updated EVE continuously with huge changes - the game’s current visual style represents the third major overhaul since launch. The systems are continuously renovated and extended, and Nordgren talks about the game being “re-released” several times a year with CCP’s patches. One thing that has always been a challenge to get right is the ‘new player experience’ - how to ease players in - and this too is changing.
“It’s such a deep and complex game experience, kind of unmatched, because you have so much freedom and there are so many layers to it,” says Nordgren. “Learning EVE is like, you know, getting into any other field or exciting hobby - you have to put some effort into getting into it. And I think that in the past we have leaned a lot on people’s excitement for the game in the game in that sense, but now when we’re opening up this free option we’re trying to turn the question of whether you should try EVE more from a sort of ‘Why?’ to ‘Why not? It’s free, right?’
“So now we bring you into the universe and the possibilities in it by placing you in more of a storyline. A chapter-based story teaches you the basics of the game, and we’re hoping that when you come out of this you have achieved the sort of basic competency for how you can move in the world and what you’re able to do there, and you can continue on your own path as you see fit or join a group of other players. You’re now equipped with knowledge and competencies that mean that those players don’t have to explain, like, super basics to you. They can just drag you into whatever they are having fun with.”
Nordgren shows me the opening few missions, which seem to do a good job of teaching the basics and then allowing players to use them without further instruction - but as an EVE player myself, I can't judge if they’ll work for new players as well as it seems they will. And in any case, CCP are really not the most important corporation out there - the success or failure of this new business model will come down to how EVE’s existing playerbase reacts towards the newbies.
The reaction to EVE's F2P move among the game's community was amazingly positive. That’s not what you tend to see when other MMOGs do the same, but it speaks to something unique in EVE’s players. For the most part they are strategists, they think ahead, and they see the possible benefits in an army of labour looking for guidance. Or perhaps are just excited at the idea of a load of noobs to shoot.
“I think so,” laughs Nordgren. “I think people also understand what the design is, and can see how this is both viable as a new player and wouldn’t destroy the game that people play now. I think that because the design is sound in the middle of it, people have been able to allow themselves to just be excited for the idea that a lot more people would come to EVE and be part of the universe. But we also took a lot of care with how we communicated it, and we did it very early so that we would have as much time as possible between announcing and releasing so that we could listen to feedback as well. So I think that’s at least part of the answer, in that we didn’t just kind of throw this finished at our community, we invited them to be a part of it.”
Did the feedback lead to changes? “Significant changes to the skills that we are allowing on the Alpha clones,” says Nordgren. “And really crucial feedback in terms of allowing you to have multiple Alpha clones log in at the same time, which we have decided not to do because the exploit potential just becomes too busy to deal with, and this is something current players, basically asked for - and they were right! I think the community understood that they were genuinely invited to that conversation, it wasn’t a token ‘Hey, we told you, and we want feedback.’ You know, we actually wanted feedback, and we took it, and we made changes based on it.”
A fascinating aspect of EVE is the in-game economy, with CCP famously employing a full-time economist to watch over the in-game currency ISK and the markets. So this economy is about to get hit with a massive influx of cheap and unskilled labour. Has CCP modelled this, and what do they expect the impact to do?
“Some of course in terms of calculating the capacity of what Alpha clones would be able to do and achieve and so on,” says Nordgren. “But of course the beauty of EVE is that it is a complex adaptive system as a whole where the whole system changes based on people’s motivations. Basically human behaviour within markets, in a sense, based on how people will value time versus work versus effort, all of these things. And what I usually say is that if we are able to predict it then there’s something wrong with the design, because then it’s too based on what happens between the individual and the game and not enough based on what happens between people as they start playing with and against each other.”
But the corporations won’t be nearly so laid-back. They want cheap armies. “Yes players don’t know either,” laughs Nordgren. “All the current groups are thinking about how to take advantage of Alpha clones and their doctrines because ‘If we don’t figure it out, the other guys will,’ you know. Now it’s an arms race, and it’s a beautiful arms race because it’s with people. Now you have to recruit based on, you know, your culture and who you are as a group, and see if you can get people with you so that you have the strength to withstand an invasion from someone who did get a lot of Alpha people with them.”
Expect many more EVE war reports in the months to come, in other words. Finally let’s return to the mindset with EVE. It is a game that is often mis-sold, because it really is everything people say it is - but it’s not nearly so hard to get into as is often claimed. The unusual side to it is the heavy emphasis on human interaction, which doesn’t really come into play until you’ve been flying for many hours.
The game’s steep learning curve is oft-mentioned, but within five minutes of starting EVE a few years back I was flying a ship around space, and soon enough engaged in low-level combat. What people really mean when they’re discussing the learning curve is the sheer complexity that lies beneath the surface of (mostly) simple interactions, which is hard to define because, frankly, it’s as much to do with player behaviour as it is the depth of the systems. I ask Nordgren what kind of mindset players should bring to the universe of EVE when trying it out.
“I think the mindset to have is that exploring what you can do in the game and uncovering layer after layer, that’s part of the experience and that’s part of the joy,” says Nordgren. “EVE is not a game where you come in and you are supposed to know everything from the start, or where the fun is supposed to come from, like, instantly being the superhero. The fun comes from this exploration of the possibilities.”
“So the mindset I think people would enjoy the game most with is to kind of grab this joy of discovery and have a bit of awe and wonder over the beauty of space - and just, you know, enjoy it and enjoy that discovery, instead of thinking that if you don’t understand everything right away that you somehow suck. You don’t suck. This is part of the fun. Like, you know, just find new things to figure out, find new things to learn, and if you’re the type of person who enjoys this, there’s so much fun in EVE.”
I end by offering one piece of advice to new players. There are no legitimate ISK-doublers in Jita, or indeed anywhere else. Nordgren laughs, probably thinking about how many support tickets are incoming on this very issue. The only legitimate ISK-doubler in the game, CCP-authorised thank you very much, is Kotaku UK.
“Yes! You come highly recommended!”