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.
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.