EVE Fanfest 2014 – The RPS Report

By Rich Stanton on May 7th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

I’m standing outside the Brick bar in Reykjavik, Iceland. After 2 days of hardcore talks, announcements, and chatter about spaceships, the EVE Fanfest pub crawl has begun. Each team is numbered and has a physical flag. I hear a whoop and turn to see a guy wearing a Guristas top – a pirate faction – run with a stolen flag, the previous owners hot on his heels. He stumbles and falls headfirst with a sickening crack, and his pursuers pile on top. No-one is helping. It’s not a brawl so much as a brawn-off, but suddenly everyone’s involved and at the end I see our pirate get up with a face so bloodied I instinctively recoil. Nobody’s even had that much to drink. EVE is real.

After such sights I soon abandon the pub crawl for quieter times, and the next day recount my story to a colleague in the press room. “Oh that’s nothing,” she says. “There were players fighting devs last night.” It is impossible to attend Fanfest, and not come away feeling like you miss a story for everything you see.

Fanfest is held every year in the Harpa, Reykjavik’s monstruously stylish conference centre. Not only does it look like a grounded spaceship – the kind of structure you half expect to rise in the final scene under bad CGI, afterburners ablaze – but it also symbolises the boldness of Icelanders, a people that like many others from island nations believe themselves to be god’s chosen.

All photos by Arnaldur Halldorsson, Brynjar Snaer & CCP Games.

If the Harpa’s a physical manifestation, EVE Online is surely the mental projection – a universe ever-expanding outwards, capable of swallowing the unwary whole, that makes other MMOG concepts look positively quaint. EVE is a triumph of ambition more than technology because, in over a decade since its release, no other developer has attempted something similar.

At Fanfest the pilgrims disperse to attend talks from ex-NASA scientists, endless CCP developers, and community leaders – or perhaps they attend the bars, mill on the shop floor, or if particularly plucky get an EVE-themed tatoo. Then once each day we all gather in Harpa’s largest auditorium for a keynote where CCP themselves preach the gospel, and whip the crowd into a fervor. I know EVE but next to this crowd I know nothing, and announcement after announcement follows the same pattern: I wonder ‘what’ and some guy a few rows back goes ‘whoooo!’

Among the announcements were that blueprints could no longer be used remotely (massive cheer), rigs could now be fitted to freighters (“aww yeah!”), a new ship called the Prospect that’s basically a covert-ops explorer (this has groups standing and whooping). By the time CCP announce a new pirate faction, Mordu’s Legion, the energy’s getting to me: woooo! An amazing ship customisation tool is shown: woooo! Various other elements like ship redesigns would be frankly incidental for other games. Here everything gets a cheer.

There’s a minor Battlestar Galactica theme this year, explicitly in the announcement of Katee Sackhoff as EVE Valkyrie’s voice lead (huge cheers, etcetera), and implicitly in the new warp animations – which see ships disappear with a muffled ‘poomph’ and appear in massed ranks in a very cool manner. The video demonstrating warp speed has a guy below me actually losing his shit, shouting himself hoarse after it finishes “Again! Again! Again!” Katee Sackhoff got a few scattered wolf-whistles, but the second time CCP play the warp video, the ‘poomphs’ are accompanied by almost sexual grunts from all around. Sorry Katee, tough crowd.

Then there are the various types of destruction. During the Friday keynote CCP’s Andie Nordgren, lead game designer on EVE Online, announced that in the future CCP were aiming to make player-built stations, gates, and many other things destructible. “I want every asset in the game to be destructible,” she shouted at the end, and the biggest cheer of the conference was duly delivered back.

Later that night we watch the ‘EVE of Destruction’ where professional MMA fighter Gunnar ‘Gunni’ Nelson politely submits around ten CCP developers (plus ringers) one after the other, while wearing attractive Valkyrie-branded shorts. As we watch one half-naked man after another wrestled down, with much bonhomie and hugging, it’s impossible to miss the deep undercurrent of homoeroticism in hundreds of nerds under the footlights, staring transfixed at the giant screen of Gunni’s very round bottom.

This is the hard thing with EVE; distinguishing between what is serious and what is self-knowing irony. Clearly Gunni’s very round bottom is one thing, but a few hours before this I watch CEO Hilmar Pétursson leading a crowd of thousands in a call-and-response of ‘EVE Online’ which after three chants changes to ‘Destroy!’ which – if you didn’t know where you were and what they were talking about – would seem like some contemporary Nuremburg.

It’s easy to be sniffy about this stuff but the fascinating thing about Fanfest is that the emotion is real; and the reason for that is the investment. When a designer finishes his piece on-stage and talks about “delivering on player’s investment” with his voice nearly cracking, you know that this isn’t meant in the way that – say – an Electronic Arts spokesman might say it. This is a different kind of serious business, one with the humans it serves at the centre of what it does.

The relationship CCP has with its players is unique because it is not one-way. In the games industry it is usual for products to be developed by a team specifically siloed from the kind of engagement CCP takes for granted. Sure companies take feedback, to an extent, and pay lip-service to the idea, but very rarely do they engage like this. CCP cares about the people who play its games and these people care about CCP – and each other. It can be visceral.

The Mittani occupies a strange space here, both outside of CCP yet the most important figure within the game – in terms of perception above all – and maintaining a cool distance from both the developers and other players who aren’t in his inner circle. If you don’t know EVE think of him as like a younger, goateed version of Star Wars’ Emperor, shot through with not a little Lannister DNA. Inasmuch as any player does, he rules this virtual universe, and is always weary of others’ incompetence: silly questions from the hoi-polloi, CCP’s terrible decisions, the media’s mis-reporting of the B-R5 battle.

I spend some time with the man over Fanfest, in various contexts, and he is very charming and smart – as well as solicitous. He keeps telling me to become a spy in EVE, which I laugh off, and over the course of Fanfest manages to alternately bamboozle and enrapture myself and others with tales from the top table.

That is until, on the final evening’s party, he tells me he’s agreed an alliance with a director from BNI, my corporation. Thus despite my refusals I should prepare to be a part of his team temporarily. I’m a bit of a wind-up merchant sometimes, so at this point I say I’ll leave BNI and switch sides to shoot goons rather than be under his leadership. It was a joke, or so I thought.

“You don’t know what you’re saying!” The Mittani shouted at me. “You’re an asshole! You don’t want our fucking guns trained on you! We will fuck! YOU! Up!” At this point I suggest we go outside so I can better record things, which is misinterpreted by a panicked PR – who’s noticed the shouting – as an invitation to fisticuffs, and the three of us Benny Hill out of the door into an auditorium where Mittens tells me to “just fuck off” for saying I’d take out his alliance.

It’s worth pointing out here that I’ve never killed anyone in EVE, and I pose about as much threat to the Mittani as the average games journalist does to Vladimir Putin.

The next night I see him and we hug and are friends again. The conflagration was because this encounter was, at times, like looking into a mirror. Here is a man who takes frivolous things seriously: “You don’t want our fucking guns trained on you!” I probably don’t, but you’ve got to laugh.

At the very end of fanfest, post-madness, I grab CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, one of the two men who has been with EVE since the very beginning. He’s knackered but happy at how the event’s gone, and it seems to me the theme is once again CCP re-focusing on EVE. “I would say we’re re-focusing on simpler strategies and smaller teams,” says Pétursson. “I think that helped make us successful: EVE was made like that. And maybe we scaled up our teams and our ambitions too rapidly.”

“EVE has every single year surprised us in its ability to become even more awesome, I can attest to that,” says Pétursson. “And maybe there’s been a shyness at the company to bet the future on that.” A worry of becoming stagnant? “It’s like the innovator’s dilemma – when a company becomes successful in a certain area and is unable to break out because of that success.” This worries him? “Well yes. In a way we were maybe trying to over-engineer a way out of an innovator’s dilemma that wasn’t there.”

The point being surely that, after a decade, there is still nothing else like EVE. “Yeah. We under-appreciated how innovative EVE is because we created it. So to us it’s less innovative than people who see it from the outside. So I think just appreciating that is something we’re coming more to terms with.”

As for the future – an Italian EVE fan, slightly drunk, buttonholed me at the end of an evening to outline his vision. “When I am 70 and in the home for old people,” this man said, “I want to be plugged into EVE. I will say goodbye to my failing body, and if my grandchildren want to see me they can come say hello – I will be there.”

I put this dream to Hilmar, and ask if he sees full-body immersion in old folks’ homes as one possible future for EVE. The man doesn’t miss a beat. “Yes, yes! We share that dream! It is fantastic.”

Fantastic, as well as meaning extraordinarily good, also carries the meaning of ‘remote from reality.’ EVE is not fantastic enough in this sense, and yet it is the most fantastical game ever devised and capable of generating more stories than any other. It is worth pointing out that, whatever the scoffs say, the fuel that stories run on is human emotion. No-one could deny that EVE creates the very best gaming stories because its players care so much.

At the final keynote it is announced that the CEO of the in-game corporation Burning Napalm is going to buy every attendee a beer. As CCP announce product after product people can buy and the fans go wild, I work this out at costing about £10,000. I’m sure he got a discount, but still. These people care.

That’s why I saw countless arguments at full volume about this or that faction in whatever star system. This is why people smile in bars and ask ‘who do you fly with’ before bothering with a name, and it’s why the closest thing in-game to a god can only be poked so much before he threatens to rain hellfire on his interlocutor. That’s why I saw an in-game pirate face-planted IRL for stealing a flag.

The last is what you could call the dark side of EVE; the fact that certain players invest so much of their lives in the game, and are indeed encouraged to, appeals to a certain type of person. It’s why, for example, on the first night the EVE Monument is revealed, it is vandalised by a GoonSwarm sticker – which is a good laugh because it’s removable. Then a day later someone’s physically scratched out a name of a player they dislike, and everything gets distressingly legal.

Being no psychologist I’ll refrain from specifics, but games do appeal to a particular type of obsessive personality. For the majority games are a plaything, but for some of us they are more – hobby is a good word for it. And perhaps to be capable of the passion required to fully invest in a game like EVE, you need to be in some way bruised by the world. Or at least buffeted by it.

I take serious things frivolously, and so on the last day wake up late for my flight, explain the urgency to a cab driver, and get in – without batting an eyelid he tells me he’s ex-police and takes off at 90mph. The bleak landscape of outer Reykjavik, where the sun shines but the grass is never green, coalesces into a blur. In one of those freaks of fate Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’ begins playing through the radio, just as it had on my ride from the airport five days ago. I always liked the song but in that moment – as the bookend to EVE Fanfest 2014 – I felt it.

We’ll see the bright and hollow sky, we’ll see the stars that shine so bright, stars made for us tonight. This passenger made the gate, and jumped back home.

Stay tuned for more stories from Fanfest over the coming days.

, , , , .

42 Comments »

  1. DatonKallandor says:

    Just need to read any thread on any forum in which goons are mentioned to see people who’ve played EVE loose their shit.
    EVE is serious business, even though in any real sense, it’s the opposite of serious business (unless you’re the Icelandic Government, then it’s a significant chunk of money).
    It’s fairly easy to see why nobody else has tried to make another EVE: It’s not that profitable and it’s really complicated. Pretty much anything else that costs the same amount of money to make and market is going to sell better – and sell for sure.

  2. Einhaender says:

    What a rich article.

  3. Leonard Hatred says:

    If it wasn’t grarr dexx that fell over running away with a stolen flag, I’m gonna be disappointed.

    • grarr dexx says:

      I’m just an irl poor scrub so I can’t afford a trip to iceland, I’m sure if I had the moola I would have done something like that during the pubcrawl

  4. benjamin says:

    I must say, the quality of writing in these type of articles is running very high right now. Beautiful stuff! Please keep up the good work. We of the Master Race need a Master Blog to follow.

    • Leonard Hatred says:

      Agreed – RPS’ eve coverage has always been superb. I’m genuinely pleased that when Jim fell out of love with the game the other RPS guys picked up the baton of championing what is essentially a very, very good Terrible Videogame.

      There is something about Eve’s sheer fucking audacity that makes it so brilliant to write – and by extension read – about.

    • Ross Angus says:

      Indeed. Excellent stuff.

  5. Premium User Badge grossvogel says:

    An excellent report marred by just a single error: Andie Nordgren (CCP Seagull) is EVE’s senior producer, not the lead game designer. This title belongs to Pétur Þórarinsson (CCP Scarpia), who also delivered the “I want every asset in the game to be destructible” line during the EVE keynote (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k07Uu7qUEa0&t=1467).

  6. rcguitarist says:

    Those images of the people at Eve Fanfest are saddening.

    • Emeraude says:

      How so ?

      • Distec says:

        Fat neckbeards seem underrepresented.

        • GamerOS says:

          Isn’t the going stereo type that ‘fat neck-beards’ usually live in their dads/moms/parents basement and that we can conclude from this that these people won’t have the money to actually show up at fan fest?

    • Bradamantium says:

      Yes, it really crushes one’s spirit to see boatloads of people at an event revolving around something that they very much care about, that brings them together in one way or another. Very depressing. I shed a single tear.

      I wish I liked things.

  7. plsgodontvisitheforums_ says:

    woooo!

  8. Prolar Bear says:

    Great article. I know pretty much nothing about EVE, but the people inhabiting it are a tad scary.

    • Gesadt says:

      theyre no different from anyone else who are passionate about their hobby

  9. seamoss says:

    > Fanfest is held every year in the Harpa, Reykjavik’s monstruously stylish conference centre

    Must be that time of the month then…

  10. Easy says:

    I concur, one of the best writing of late, thank you Mr Stanton.

  11. Vendae says:

    Gunni, you can round me up with your round et cetera.

    With that out of the mind, nice article indeed.

  12. lautalocos says:

    at first i thought it was funny that people took a game so, so seriously, but after reading the entire article, im really starting to think that some of these people would physicaly hurt someone if they where in a rival alliance-guild-clan-whatevertheycallit

    i mean, some people thought that would happen with the dayZ and rust players, and i just dismmised comments like those, but now it im starting to believe it

    • Wnderer says:

      Most eve players leave their rivalries in game. We may be assholes in game, but we leave it in there. Fanfest was great and it’s always great to shake the hand that might have killed your expensive shit in-game

  13. Romeric says:

    This is not the story I expected to read. Powerful and shocking but with a strong sense of camaraderie. Your summation of the personality of the average Eve player is brilliantly realised. Excellent, excellent journalism.

    • Noumenon says:

      “not the story I expected to read” — true that, I got way better story than I deserved from my idle click.

  14. Cartras says:

    A small correction, Mordus Legion has been in game possibly since the start, they have a station in Pure Blind. I am not sure on if they are an original faction because I have only been playing a bit over three years. They announced new flyable ships from the Mordus Legion faction, much like other hulls based on other pirate factions, but not a “new” pirate faction.

  15. quasidemo says:

    Just registered to say, as others have, good story, great writing!

  16. edwardoka says:

    What a magnificent, well written, absolutely terrifying article.

    • Gesadt says:

      whats so terrifying about it

      • Josh W says:

        Nuremberg, Obsession, Vladimir Putin, Bruised and possibly violent people, Distressingly legal vandalism, and an ever expanding game based on nationalistic pride that can swallow the unwary whole.

        The choice of imagery is ominous and fascistic. Know the details he’s talking about and you can overlay that with the realities of the situations he is referring to. Sink into the tone alone and you will quite rightly be unnerved. The stuff Rich’s evoking is scary stuff.

        Of course, that doesn’t mean that these are substantial parallels, this isn’t like the daily mail, where dark evocations and innuendo are supposed to reveal fundamental truth. Instead you can take these dark parallels and go “is that true? probably a bit, but drama is drama”. Imaginative writing always summons ghosts, constructs mysteries, it uses it’s references without being beholden to it’s original sources in all their substance, and tied to all of their historical quirks. And it’s that easyness with reference that makes it so appealing.

        • edwardoka says:

          I think you’ve done a better job of summimg up the feeling of it than I could, it’s quite evocative (I’ve never been a fan of call-and-response style behaviour, for reasons.)
          I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was actually AAAH SCARY but there’s certainly a dark heartbeat to it.

          I can really see the appeal of the game, the ability to become part of a much larger faction and effect change across an entire game’s ecosystem and feel like I am a small cog in the machine yet my contribution counts. I can see faction-driven behaviour triggering darker parts of myself. I know that if I were but to reach out my hand and install EVE I would probably lose tens of thousands of hours of my life to it.

          And I would doubtless end up chanting “DESTROY! DESTROY! DESTROY!” with the rest of them.

  17. Premium User Badge Lars Westergren says:

    Interesting article. I’ve always found tribalism very disturbing though. It’s channeled into a mostly harmless form of play here, but the underlying psychology is something people should be very aware of and work to counteract in themselves. In my opinion.

  18. bstard says:

    If only Ogre still was in bussness he’s be perfect there in that center. I even see a nice balcony for his act. ‘Neeeeeeeeerrrrrds!’

  19. Mr Coot says:

    Please tell me you have an article in the works on any talks given by the CCP economist, Dr Eyjo. RPS’s interview with him from Fanfest last year actually made be sign up to EVE. It is a very interesting game. Very intellectually satisfying. Very nice community. More psychopaths than corporate management – but that fits with the game philosophy, some of very best things in the game have an element of risk – running into a psychopath while navigating the awesome community, is one of them XD

  20. FireStorm1010 says:

    I wish i had ever attended an Eve fanfest.

    Funny thing is when i was really into Eve and active and even a bit known in my part of Eve, i hadnt enough money, it was to expensive for me. Now that i could afford it , im a very casual player, so not feeling enough of the passion that woudl make me dish out the money and find the time…

    Maybe someday:)

  21. Lorka says:

    Ah, what a wonderful piece of writing. Thanks for this, Rich

  22. PopeRatzo says:

    And not a female in sight.

    As we watch one half-naked man after another wrestled down, with much bonhomie and hugging

    Ah, that explains it.

  23. Cres13 says:

    Fantastic – keep them coming!

  24. Rhodokasaurus says:

    I still think that unless you’ve really gotten into EVE you can’t understand it. Things that sounds weird and scary in this article make perfect sense in the context of the game.

    The fact that someone defaced the EVE monument sounds awful and rude in real life, but this is about EVE. Scratching off the name of a self-admitted pedophile is exactly what an EVE player would do. EVE is about accumulating money while blowing up other people’s expensive things. It’s about fucking people over as hard as you can, but with everyone’s express permission.

    It’s hard explaining exactly what EVE is, but the closest I can come to is that it’s a living, breathing world where you can do what feels right, unconstrained by the limitations put on you by the real world; financial demands, following the rules of society. You might think that just makes a bunch of anonymous assholes, but it doesn’t. It breeds people of all types who are free to take risks.