EVE Fanfest 2017: Five Days at the Top of the World

By Julian Benson on at

I walk down the steps of the Harpa building, a concert hall that looks to be straight from the minds of Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex team, and see a man dressed in full papal regalia holding aloft a sheet of paper and crying out “I have evidence of the cure.” He marches through the building, an entourage of monks and nuns in tow, and crowds fall to their knees before him. The whole scene has a ring of self-flagellating penitents - like the religious orders who walked through the streets during the Black Death beating their own backs with barbed rods. Here, in Iceland at EVE Fanfest, it’s merely an elaborate icebreaker.

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Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

The man in the papal robes is Charles White - I interviewed him last year about his life in EVE as the Space Pope and his real-world duties working at NASA - and he’s playing a leading part in a live action role-playing game (LARP) that was spilling out all over Fanfest. This saw attendees completing tasks to deal with a deadly plague in New Eden, the virtual universe in which EVE takes place. Tasks could be as simple as taking selfies with other fans and spreading information about the disease, or they could be more complex, like the group of players who tried to fabricate a cure by mixing cocktails of coloured liquids in a specially-built pleasure quarter in one of the rooms of the Harpa Building. I’ll have a more in-depth article on the LARP going up soon but this was only one facet of the week, one of many distractions from the main event.

Each year EVE Online fans fly from all over the world to Reykjavik, the home city of the game’s developer: CCP. For five days they attend talks, socialise, and drink. It’s a place where the barriers between CCP staff and the game’s players become porous, with developers walking the floor and posing for photographs with fans, answering questions about the game, and swapping war stories.

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Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

Throughout the event, players gather in one of the Harpa’s many rooms to hear talks about all aspects of EVE Online. There were presentations on big changes, like upcoming ship re-designs, PvE combat, and player-built structures. There were also smaller, player-run talks, like one I attended where players who exclusively spend their time gaming the in-game economy shared their tricks of the trade. Here I learned that there’s one player who hangs around in EVE’s lawless systems (nullsec) where she buys up valuable items on the market and ferries them out to the safer systems. This is a dangerous work as in nullsec anyone can attack you without fear of the space police blasting you to shribbons. Every time she makes a run to the safe systems, she has to hire a mercenary corporation to cover her freight vessels. Still, the returns from goods sold far outweigh the cost of the mercs.

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Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

A stranger talk, still, was delivered by astrophysicist Michel Mayor. He’s not an EVE player but he delivered a lecture to players on exoplanets and the history of their discovery. This had little to do with the game - it was just about space, and the outcome of a partnership CCP calls Project Discovery. It’s a crowdsourced science programme, where CCP and the scientists develop tools that players can use to help analyse data provided by the scientists. In the case of the exoplanets, players will be provided with light data from distant stars, the idea being to try and spot the telltale regular dimming of light that indicates a planet orbiting a star and blocking some of the star’s light.

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Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

Mayor’s talk drew quite the crowd in the auditorium and thousands of people viewed the stream. It’s not a great surprise that EVE’s players are interested in astrophysics, but it’s not every game convention where you can see a 75-year-old scientist, a winner of the Viktor Ambartsumian International Prize and Kyoto Prize, hold forth on the intricacies of astrophysics to a rapt audience.

It wasn't all heavy science and economics, though. During the opening ceremony CCP organised an Icelandic clap

When not trying to get in on roundtables about economics or cheering and booing the leaders of EVE’s player-run alliances on a recruitment drive, a lot of players tried out the upcoming update to CCP’s VR dogfighter: Valkyrie. A hall of the Harpa was dedicated to the game throughout the event, with a row of fighter cockpits constructed for maximum verisimilitude.

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Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

EVE fascinates me as a game because, whereas so many other games prescribe how to play, CCP’s MMO has always been a bed of systems out of which new types of play grow. In World of Warcraft the quests never change, so what players do is dictated by Blizzard and identical for each player of that particular class. In EVE, players make their own tasks.

One person I spoke to is part of a syndicate of players building a network of citadels in low security space. These space stations will be hugely profitable when up and running, giving the station owners a cut of the profits from each trade made in its marketplace. However, to make its citadels more used (and so more profitable), the syndicate has hired an alliance of mercenaries called Pandemic Legion to clear out competitors operating in the region. None of this is anything to do with CCP: every task involved, from sourcing the materials to building the citadels and the contracts handed out to mercenaries is something created by the players. Elements take place within the game, but many of the missions and delegation of responsibilities are made through Whatsapp messages, Skype, and email.

Opportunities and interactions like those described above are one of EVE’s most obvious draws. Others are attracted for much more human reasons. One player I spoke to, who’s been playing since 2006, told me how he spends all his hours in-game mining asteroid belts. For many players this can seem like a dull task, with you essentially staying in one place and managing different ability cooldowns, selecting new rocks for your mining lasers to target.

For him, though, it meant he had a game to play while he cared for his bed-bound mother. In PvP play he wouldn’t be able to leave the game at a moment’s notice to answer her calls for a drink or to empty her bedpan. EVE was a way for him to make friends he could spend time with each day without leaving his mother uncared-for.

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He told me about his mum, who in her younger years worked as the head nurse at a psychiatric ward in a Toronto hospital: stories about her treating a mob boss who had developed paranoid schizophrenia and shot his friend thinking he had come to kill him; another about a patient pulling down the curtains in his room, stripping naked, and fashioning the fabric into a giant bow tie then bouncing on the bed. In February his mother died and one of her last gifts to him was a flight to Iceland and a ticket for Fanfest. While in Reykjavik he can meet the people he flies with online in the flesh and share stories of the woman he’d cared for while flying in New Eden.

Meeting each other is the thread that ties together the players of Fanfest. Many of the talks are streamed online so the details of upcoming changes to EVE Online are easily accessed from home. CCP runs events throughout the week that simply throw players together to socialise. The LARP is a new feature, but for years there has been a poker tournament, charity dinner, and, chief among them all, the pub crawl. Hundreds of players are separated into groups led by CCP developers and led out into Reykjavik with drinks tokens, cans of Gull, and bottles of local spirit Brennivín. In years past teams carried flags that they were encouraged to steal from other players but these had to be taken away after it led to rival teams brawling in the streets. (It strikes me as taking a game designer mindset to recognise the excessive drink wasn’t leading to the fights but the sense of factionalism that holding a flag fosters).

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Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

I saw no fights this year (at least, that is among EVE players - turns out Icelanders are a rowdy bunch), though that didn’t stop it from being full of memorable moments. At one point Hilmar, the CEO of CCP, entered the pub where our group was drinking and immediately a chant of “Hil-Mar! Hil-Mar! Hil-Mar!” was started. There was a player sharing out a vile drink called Hot’n’Sticky that we saw off in quick time. The night ends with every group meeting at a club and dancing to a DJ who had clearly been given a good brief on his audience; ‘Intergalactic’, ‘Out of Space’, and ‘Rocket Man’ all got a play. The day after a lot of Fanfest attendees were noticeably muted, fragile, and pale. The telltale signs of a good pub crawl.

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Photo credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

This was my third Fanfest and I’m now convinced that even people who don’t play EVE but just enjoy reading the stories that come out of it could enjoy the event. The talks are interesting to players but everywhere I walked I’d stumble into conversation with players who are sharing tales of dastardly scams, near-misses, and tragic losses. These are stories you don’t need to know the intricacies of the game to understand and where my knowledge of the game was required players were keen to explain the necessaries.

Throughout Fanfest players could get tattoos and makeup at a dedicated station.

The final event of Fanfest is called Party at the Top of the World. The company flies in a DJ and makes full use of the Harpa building’s concert speaker system, turning one of its rooms into a giant dance floor. This year’s DJ was Kristian Nairn, who you may know better as Hodor from Game of Thrones.

In a final culmination of the event, EVE Online’s players and developers come together to dance in shared nerdom as they listen to a half-giant play a club-ified version of the theme tune to a fantasy series. Somewhere in among it all I met the now disrobed Space Pope and we had a dance and a hug while listening to Hodor work the tables.


Editor's note: Flights and accommodation were provided by the organisers.