Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

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[Originally printed in games™ 187]

Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

games™ is invited to meet the most chaotic community in all of gaming. Join us as we attempt to get behind the politics and the people of EVE Online at Fanfest 2017

In 7 April, 2017, hundreds of pilots, bleary eyed and strangely energised, could be found holding position in the cold after hours of organised conflict. These world-weary travellers had been drawn here, to an area known by the designation of ‘downtown Reykjavik’, to play their part in an annual ritual dubbed Fanfest. And still, as the night grew darker and colder, they stuck shoulder-to-shoulder with friend and foe alike, coming together to stand against a shared threat – that of common sense.

Flash back to eight in the evening. Dignitaries bearing CCP call signs could be found rallying the masses, ensuring a determined effort on the part of the pilots to huddle together and see this night through to its inevitable, messy conclusion. There was CCP Falcon, sat atop his ‘Aluminium Throne’, kickstarting the evening with determination and thunderous music; then there was CCP Seagull, stood above the masses on a table, brandishing a bottle of ‘The Black Death’, rallying her group into the night with an impassioned war cry.

Flash forward to one in the morning. There he goes, one legendary member of the Council Of Stellar Management – the democratically elected government that presides over New Eden, providing a direct line of communication between the players and CCP – dancing manically through the streets, initiating trade deals and brokering alliances in the cold embrace of the Icelandic night, all the while loosing his mind to the sultry embrace of a dissociative anaesthetic. Or so he tells us anyway, it’s difficult to know for certain; you never quite know what to take at face value in this environment, because as we came to discover, everybody has their role to play in EVE Online and the lines between fantasy and reality are too easily blurred in the space-bound soap opera.

Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

This battle isn’t to take down a corporation – like so many of the stories that you’ve no doubt heard trickling out of EVE Online over the years – but to drink the city dry. Because EVE Online, as everybody is so quick to tell us, is the only game in the world where another person will take every single thing that you treasure, burn it down right in front of you, and then laugh about it with you over a beer later. You see that adage in action here at Fanfest, because the only thing that CCP and its loyal pilots care about more than interstellar misdemeanours is drinking. Day one of three at Fanfest is where the conflict, the camaraderie and the drama of EVE is dragged down from the stars and out onto the streets. From the outside looking in, we were here to find out how CCP’s MMO was able to function, let alone thrive, in the face of so much inherent chaos and bad behaviour.     

So, what is it that drives a game like EVE Online? It’s a question many have asked and failed to answer. Because even now – after 14 years of active duty – it continues to exist as something of a curiosity. For all intents and purposes, EVE sits just outside the purview of the wider gaming sphere. It plays by its own rules as the rest of the world turns dutifully, only occasionally surfacing to embrace industry trends as a means to an end – as was surely the case when developer CCP Games transitioned its game into a free-to-play model early last year.

EVE Online is by no means the most popular MMO in the world, but it is its most infamous. An unscrupulous approach to sandbox design and enforcement has allowed a maw of debauchery to not only emerge but thrive under the watchful eye of CCP. It has created an atmosphere that leans wholly on a balance between trust and betrayal – fuelled by friendship and rivalries – and the studio is only too eager to encourage this activity on both sides of the scale. The result is an environment that’s given birth to some of the most energised player-driven narratives and emergent moments of chaos gaming has ever seen. And at the heart of each of those stories is a player. 

Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

The most devoted of them come the world over to visit Fanfest, the yearly celebration of EVE Online, hosted by CCP in its native Reykjavik, Iceland. It’s an opportunity for fans to come together and meet the pilots they spend so much time flying side-by-side with and the rivals they spend so much time attempting to screw over. For the most part interactions are cordial, but on occasion thousand-player battles – with huge monetary implications for both sides – have been known to spark at Fanfest and erupt online; one particular story is told to us often, of one faction leader bitterly insulting a rival’s wife, with vengeance later enacted in the stars. Huge pushes for territory are known to take place while Fleet Commanders are in flight to Iceland, or otherwise distracted by the lights and noise of the Keynote speech – used this year to highlight an array of graphical updates and new content coming to the game in 2017 – one such attempt was made this year, we’re told, but quickly shut down by dedicated and designated players who sit out Fanfest to protect their alliance’s assets.

In spite of the madness, at its core, EVE Online is still just a game like any other. It has basic mechanics and systems, all wrapped around a cosmos made up of 7,500 interconnected star systems that form New Eden; a starship (with an attached real-world monetary value) needs to be financed in-game, built and requisitioned to navigate between them all. A bit of a joke in the community, EVE has often been known as the game that’s more interesting to read about than it is to play – something some of the team are even happy to acknowledge. “Moving stuff between places isn’t necessarily fun. It doesn’t sound like it when I try to explain it to somebody that doesn’t play EVE,” says Edvald Gislison. “I’m just hauling stuff between star systems and they are like, ‘oh so you’re like a truck driver?’ ‘Well, yes but…’ but they just don’t get it! If you’re hauling something really expensive, your heart is racing the whole time. It’s the only game where you can almost get a heart attack from a PvP encounter. When you get in your ship and, when you get into a situation where you could lose all of your stuff, your heart just starts racing, because the feeling of loss is so real in it. There’s no respawning or losing a few points or anything, you are losing something directly tied to you it’s like your property,” he says, thinking for a moment before adding, “It’s like Mad Max: Fury Road, but in space… that’s what I should tell them.”

One fleet commander tells us that you should never “drive anything that you can’t afford to lose” and it’s easy to understand why. In the practically lawless environment CCP has fostered around that basic design, players are free to make their own destiny; filling in roles of miners, pirates, journalists, mercenaries, bankers, brokers and everything in-between. In EVE, players can work alone or in player-formed corporations and alliances that can be as small as just a handful of hopefuls, though the largest is comprised of tens of thousands. Each and every one of them has their own agenda.

Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

“They just wanted to ruin the experience for everyone. They were just going to ruin the game and be the dickheads of EVE,” continues Gislison, better known as CCP Quant, who holds the position of data scientist at CCP. “We had been loud about not wanting to intervene in anything. [EVE] is a sandbox and anything was allowed, you can scam if you like and, yeah, you can grief people. They just took that as a challenge,” Gislison continues, discussing the formation of player-built coalition The Goonswarm, the federation formed under the legendary Mittani – the man (at least partly) responsible for much of the newsworthy drama that’s emerged out of EVE over the decade. “They wanted to destroy the game, but they haven’t succeeded. They’ve just made it better. Players have been trying to destroy EVE for a long time… but none have succeeded… It’s a part of what makes EVE what EVE is.”

The reason? Resilience. While many may spend hours a night actively trying to break the game, every player we encounter has a deep-rooted love and respect for EVE. It attracts a certain type of person – “you need to be thick skinned and you need to have the confidence to trust anybody and everybody to get a job done, no matter how many times you get burned,” one miner turned mercenary tells us, still exhausted after her flight in from Sydney, Australia – although many spend their time in New Eden simply trying to make their own way. Doing their best to dodge player-maintained trade blockades, avoid those that have found a way around the game’s navigating systems and taken to living inside of EVE’s wormholes (don’t ask, it puzzles even CCP), and skirt the hostile territories that some CCP developers even fear flying through when taking their own pilots out into the space.

EVE’s executive producer Andie Nordgren believes it’s this shared space that makes the game so attractive and unending, thinking of it as “an online distributed, asynchronous, persistent, board game. Everybody that plays EVE is standing around this one table, and care about the same game setup that has been active since 2003. And that’s a big difference from almost every other game,” Nordgren continues, surprisingly sprightly considering the last time we saw her she was under the moniker of CCP Seagull, passing a bottle of Brennavin and drinking tokens around amongst players in the street the night before. “It’s a big part of what makes it unique, that everybody plays on the same board. If you tell me you play EVE I know that we have something in common, even if we have never met before.”

Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

And that thing that they all have in common? They’ve probably been ripped off, blown up or screwed over. It all comes down to trust; many of the very best stories from EVE emerge out of an instance of deceit or betrayal, and that is only able to exist because very real bonds are formed in this game. Some players will happily talk of the millions of ISK (the in-game currency) that they had acquired by gaming the economy or the huge fleets that they had commanded, but ultimately it always comes back to trust. EVE Online couldn’t exist without it.

“We of course expect the craziness now,” admits Nordgren, but she’s quick to sing the praises of the player base as it exists today. “But the reason that all of these stories emerge about betrayal is because they are actually exceptions… the relationships that people build are real and the trust they build together is real. Because almost every time there is trust between players in EVE, not betrayal, and that’s why it becomes news when there is. That’s what makes the relationships real, because there is always a real choice to betray or to not betray in a sense.”

When we take this idea of trust to EVE’s community manager Paul Elsy he is quick to smile, he knows – perhaps better than most at CCP – how powerful a bond of trust and betrayal can be. “I guess you could call me a pain in the arse,” he laughs, the community manager ran as a famed pirate in the game for a decade, making his millions by playing the market and ripping people off, before joining CCP. “It’s still strange some times, seeing things from the other side of the fence after being a player for so long… now I have to try and be one of the good guys, which is difficult!”

“I think a big chunk of EVE’s design is based around disruptive gameplay,” Elsy continues, last seen the night before sat on top of a throne constructed out of crates of beer, better known as CCP Falcon to the community. “We have very few rules, the rules that we do have are very strongly enforced and we take them very seriously, but generally we try to stay as hands off as possible. It’s very rare that we will actually intervene.”

Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

An example he gives is of a player deciding to open a bank back in “2008 or 2009, that was when there was the big EVE bank scam,” he tell us, joyously recalling the time an 800 billion ISK Ponzi scheme almost crashed the in-game economy. “He ran this bank for a year and then he just closed the bank, took the money and vanished. There were people who just accepted they had been screwed over and moved on, and then there were people who were like, ‘CCP, what are you going to do about this?’ And we just had to be like, ‘well, nothing!’ He didn’t break the rules. You trusted a guy with your assets and ISK in-game and you lost them… that’s a fact of life, every day is a school day.”

“We are very big into sandbox gameplay. The best stories of EVE come from emergent behaviour. It’s give and take, an action and reaction. And the best thing I love about it is that it’s all emergent, there is no script. It’s all just player behaviour and I think that’s what drew me to it back in 2003. I can just go, log in, and create my own story – just by speaking and interacting with other people and you don’t really get that feeling in many other places.”

That, in essence, has ensured that EVE is essentially a microcosm of human activity. The game has been studied by academics and by economists, interested in testing financial and political models in a reactive player-driven world. In a universe where every resource, friendship and eventual betrayal can be tracked, EVE offers a new and interesting way to understand and view the social systems of our world. This too can have very real implications. To these players EVE is more than a game, more than a hobby, it’s an intrinsic and important part of their lives.

Jin’taan, a leading member of the Council of Stellar Management and legendary fleet commander has to take responsibility for the virtual lives of thousands of players – tasked with protecting them and guiding them in the game. And that, as you’ve no doubt got a sense of by now, is easier said than done in this cutthroat environment. “You’re not just losing your own stuff you’re losing your friends’ stuff. I’ve had stress dreams about losing fights. I’ve cried over it… I’ve done research into it, and I swear most fleet commanders are sociopaths.”

Inside EVE Fanfest and all its space pope insanity

EVE is a microcosm,” says Xenuria, another member of the CSM. “It’s more than just a game – it’s also my own personal petri dish where I can try out things that might not be appropriate in the real world,” he says, noting that it’s an area where he feels comfortable testing out new ideas after struggling with being on the spectrum. “EVE might not be able to improve the world; but it can improve the people who play it. EVE gives people a chance to experiment socially in a structured environment and you can always walk away from it. From that perspective it’s a great place to try new things and to learn about yourself. It’s a world in miniature.” Although Jin’taan would describe it differently, “It’s a third-world monarchy simulator online, it’s so good.”

All photos courtesy of Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

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