About eight years ago I decided to give ludicrously dense space MMO EVE Online a try. I was fascinated by its complexity and wanted to get a taste of it. So I signed up and joined a corporation (that's EVE-terminology for a clan or guild) called EVE University which was created with the aim of helping new players out.
I burned out quickly. While I had some interesting times, the main culprit was my set-up. EVE is a slow burner, even by MMO standards. It's the kind of game you might have on in the background all night, chatting and doing a few small tasks, but only actually spend a couple of hours fully attending to it. But I had it set up on my computer desk, off in the corner of the room, where I only want to spend time if I'm focusing on a game. The pull back to the couch was just too strong, I tell you.
These days I play for comfort. I have my desktop plugged into my TV like my consoles, with a comfy chair and a laptop off to the side which I have set up for all my other distractions. And it occured to me that this could be the perfect setting for such a game. I wondered how far the game had come in eight years, and so signed up again as an experiment.
Here are my findings after day 3.
It's just as baffling, but somehow more welcoming about it.
There is an awful lot to learn in EVE, and there are a fair few people willing to share, but even then it's tricky. Every topic has the potential to be a rabbit hole, and figuring out what's important to you is key.
I decided that if I was going to play this, I would have to pick a goal to aim for. So my goal for now is to become a really good explorer.
Exploration is a type of play in EVE that involves using probes to pinpoint signals which lead to places which can be looted for rewards. More dangerous space can lead to more interesting rewards, and there are many explorers dedicated to keeping track of huge, ever changing networks of wormholes that may lead to all kinds of interesting and dangerous places.
Even though the developers of EVE have made no secret about considering it entirely a PvP game, exploration is perhaps one of the professions which is less likely to lead you into a direct confrontation with other players. Safe work is hard to come by in the game, and exploration is far from safe. Still, I don't currently have the appetite to become truly competent with weapons and movement in a way that would make me a great fighter, so exploration seemed much more my speed.
But first I needed to figure out just how to go from place to place and handle the basic controls. Here, things have become a lot friendlier, and perhaps counterintuitively. Previously, there was a many-steps-long tutorial of things that you had to know about, and it was intimidating, information overload.
Now this has been replaced with the Opportunities system, which acts more like a series of suggestions of things you might like to do, which can be completed in any order you like, and isn't tied to particular locations or objects. To complete docking at a station, dock at any station.
The freedom might seem to make it more confusing, but actually what it does is give you permission to only learn about the things that you are interested in, and put them into practice faster. I rarely find mining an interesting thing to do in games, and thanks to this new system, I never have to worry about it unless I want to.
It still relies on player emergent behaviour - perhaps a little too much.
Until Twitter started getting heavy investment and seemed to stop caring about the features users actually wanted, there was a time where it was interested in incorporating user behaviour into its design. Almost all the signature features: @ replies, hashtags, retweets and so on were a response to things that the users used to do manually.
EVE and its playerbase seem to revel in the fact that there are certain things that everyone should know how to do but were at least seemingly invented by players and never formalised into something more usable. Now, I've no trouble with a bit of complexity, but there does come a point where what is being lauded as complexity actually just seems like busywork. I'm ambivalent about this.
For instance, one of the things listed as Important Stuff To Know upon joining my Exploration-focused corporation, Signal Cartel (more on that next), was how to create a safe spot to hide out in a system.
Since the most traveled space is between stations and planets and jump gates, it's also the easiest way to be found by someone who is trying to hurt you. If you want to avoid that, the easiest way is by making a safe spot.
But the game won't let you warp just anywhere. It has to be either to a large object in the system or a 'bookmarked' location. So how this works is that you warp from one location to another, and drop the bookmark midway, then do the same thing with two other locations, and then warp from the first bookmark to the other. Bookmark a point midway between those, and that's your candidate for a safe spot. There's a bit more to it than that but that's the basics.
It's as much of a pain as it sounds.
It's very tempting for a user who relishes in the complexity to not really see that this is busywork - to the point of being a rather silly way for spaceships to work, if you think about it. But I can also understand why there might be reluctance to change things. If it were trivial to warp to an arbitrary spot in a system, suddenly all sorts of offensive strategies would become ineffective. Fusses would be kicked up in their droves. So we're probably stuck with the workaround.
That's okay, but it makes me think that there's an occasional disconnect between its big picture ambitions as an experiment in player behaviour, to create this believable ecosystem, and what the player is doing moment-to-moment.
All those stories you hear about the corporate espionage leading to hugely costly betrayals, economy destroying wars, they're exciting and feel like something that would happen in a real, living and breathing world. While all the steps still needed to negotiate player-created conventions such as creating a safe spot appear to exist for much more boring reasons, so as not to annoy players who style their PVP around travel routes being predictable.
And here's the thing, the thing that makes me cautious about making comments at this stage: perhaps I'm being unfair - maybe there are more nuances to this topic than I've been able to discern in my short time with the game. But the fact remains, right now it feels like another tedious workaround to learn in order to account for the fact that the game mechanics are made deliberately clunky.
The Big Picture still feels utterly fascinating to be a little part of.
There are few people in EVE Online who are influential enough to make ripples that will be felt throughout the universe. But more than any other game it does feel like has created a culture, a society with characteristics. Not always nice ones. But in doing so it has provided a level of escapism that's hard to beat.
What always hits this home for me is that this is a game where corporations literally spy on others - not through a spy button that can be pressed, but as a process that players have just figured out as they go.
I was, in fact, accused by someone of being a spy when joining Signal Cartel. They had just had war declared on them by P I R A T, a big corporation whose activities I can't possibly imagine based on that name alone. Wars are a massive pain, since they make it legal to attack war targets in secure space. Where usually the authorities would be a deterrent to attacking another player, if you're at war, you have to watch your back. So all sorts of tactics like camping outside of trade hubs and known player hangouts become valid as do, of course, spies.
The player in question had some concerns that I had my shit a little bit too together on my first day of signing up. In actual fact I'd just done a bit of homework before joining the corporation, and I think time told that I was not an experienced player. But it really emphasised the fact that this is a thing that really does happen in this game.
In fact, EVE Online is an amazing place for anyone who wants to live a fantasy life of being a complete jerk. The opportunities are almost boundless. I'm constantly learning of new and creative ways people have discovered to dick players over.
The trouble is, that's not me. I even feel guilty being too nasty in a single player RPG. Surely I have no chance, right? Well...
One of the things that attracted me to Signal Cartel is that their stated aim is to be nonviolent, nice and helpful. Over the next few weeks I hope to get a feel for what that is like to aim for nice, in a world that appears much more designed to reward nasty.