"I'm looking for a guy called Chribba," I said, and watched as the eyebrows of the other poker players rose. By all accounts, these were Bad People I was dealing with. Scoundrels, backstabbers, the lowest of the low. That’s right – EVE players. Everything I had learned about this incorrigible species of interstellar riff-raff had taught me not to trust a single one of them. EVE was the kind of game where you spent three years making a new best friend, only to steal all his money and crash his favourite space-Porsche into a moon. EVE is a game for villains. Which is why I needed to find Chribba so badly.
"Who did you say?" asked a well-dressed American to my left. He toyed gently with his poker chips and glanced at my press badge.
"Chribba," I said, "Do you know him?" The three players in earshot began to chortle.
"Oh, yeah. Everybody knows him."
The EVE Fanfest is an annual pilgrimage for players of EVE Online, favoured MMO of bankers, mathematicians, economists and IT professionals. In the game they form ‘corporations’ – groups of individual spaceship captains working together to make money and blow shit up. At Fanfest, they go one step further. They come in uniform, dressed in labcoats or gangster suits or even just in hoodies with the name of their corporation emblazoned on the chest. This year more than 1400 ‘capsuleers’ tramped the streets of Reykjavik, capital of Iceland, in search of the Fanfest’s sacred venue – the Harpa.
I say ‘sacred’. The Harpa is a gigantic glass trapezoid rising out of Reykjavik’s freezing and exposed shoreline. It sits by the harbour where two grey patrol vessels are quietly docked. These two vessels make up 50% of Iceland’s naval fleet. The Harpa building itself sits against a backdrop of a landscape that looks far too naturally beautiful to be real. More likely, it is some elaborate configuration of hundreds and thousands of bafflingly picturesque postcards arranged in such a fashion that they resemble a single dazzling mountain range.
Inside, EVE fanatics boost to and fro, attending to a smorgasbord of EVEnts. In one room there’s a mild-mannered seminar about ship-balancing. In another, a grand PvP tournament, where pilots partner up with the mercenary console players of Dust 514. Meanwhile, the bulk of the community squeezes into a giant lecture theatre, where the Council of Stellar Management – an entirely player-elected body – are taking questions from their constituents about the faults and benefits of a new voting system.
This kind of ‘virtual local politics’ might seem dull to the likes of you and me but getting somebody from your corporation onto the CSM means having a direct line to CCP, the developers of the game. CCP routinely liaisons with the Council, to the point where – during a particularly unhappy patch of EVE’s history last year, known to dissatisfied players as the ‘summer of rage’ – they flew the members of the Council over to Iceland to hold an emergency summit.
The players were upset because CCP had decided to take a more aggressive approach to selling in-game items. At the time, their newest expansion pack – ‘Incarna’ – allowed players to create a full-body avatar and wander around their captain’s quarters. To CCP, this meant microtransactions (or the complicated EVE Online equivalent). It meant clothes, accessories, mementos – all available from the in-game store for varying prices. From $17 for a set of clothes, to a grimace-inducing $70 for a monocle. To the players, Incarna meant... well, it didn’t mean a lot. It certainly didn't mean anything good. It didn’t add anything to the ‘game’ and there was no interaction between player avatars – they were all stuck in their respective captain’s cells. What was even the point in having a hyper-expensive monocle and some sweet new threads if you were the only one who was going to see them? Then, just as dissatisfaction was at its peak, an internal memo from CCP entitled “Greed is good” leaked out to the EVE community.
That’s when CCP flew the Council out for their emergency meeting, Euro Crisis style. They managed to smooth things over, issued a massive apology, and promised to change direction. Two years later CCP have gone back to focusing their bi-annual expansion packs on the things pilots love – spaceships. The Council seems to have made its voice heard.
But there is politics, and then there is poker. I know which one grabbed my attention on the Fanfest program. When the time came, I headed straight for the tables. I bought in and ordered a beer called Polar Bear. Not because I had heard it was nice. It’s just that every time I drink the water on this giant island-shaped volcano, I can’t shake the suspicion that I’m downing half a litre of mild sulphuric acid. Beer is a healthy alternative. I sat down and started asking about Chribba.
The well-dressed American was from Las Vegas, where he works as a card dealer in a casino between EVE time. He actually corrected the dealer on our table at one point when he made a mistake. Vegas folded his hand and told me the facts. Half of which I already knew, but of course I was going for Louis Theroux naiveté, so I let him talk.
Chribba was a wealthy player in EVE Online. Not the wealthiest, exactly, but still very rich indeed. He had been around longer than anybody and made his money not by screwing people out of their in-game bank accounts, but by benignly and patiently mining Veldspar, the most common mineral in the game (it’s also the mineral which is used in a lot of basic production lines). He has over ten ‘alt’ accounts and almost all of his energy goes into the mining operations. He is a man so consumed by his hunger for Veldspar that he has a tattoo of the very word on his forearm.
"Honest?" I looked around. "EVE is a game where the main ‘thing’ is skulduggery. How is he honest?" The scoundrels laugh. Somebody wins the pot. I don’t care, I folded ages ago.
A man at the far end of the table pitched in. "I met Chribba once – well, spoke to him – and talking to him was just, like..." He paused and sighed, like a schoolboy pondering his crush. When the words he was looking for didn’t come to mind, he waved his hand as if to shoo away a happy dream. "Ag. He’s just the nicest guy."
Two tables over, a young man in a Louisina State University baseball cap hollered over the crowd, asking about the blinds and sitting back with poker player coolness, fingering his mountain of chips. He wore white-framed sunglasses. One lens had the word “Pro” inscribed with white lettering, while the other lens bore the word “God”. Pro God. I couldn’t tell if he was claiming himself as a ‘Professional Deity’ or if he was just really, really down with Christ. Whatever it was, this kid screamed PvP. Two days later I would see the name ‘Progodlegend’ flash up on the CSM election results and discover him to be the leader of a violent military corporation called 101st Space Marine Force. He was elected with thirteen others. There is politics, and then there is poker.
"Oh," said Vegas. He was quickly becoming my new best scoundrel-friend. "That guy is just the biggest douchebag in the game." Then he checked himself. "Well, I mean, that’s his character I guess." He’s covering for something. I catch a glimpse of the attendee badge hanging from his neck. He is a member of TNT, a corporation that has allied with The Mittani and his infamous Alliance of grief-fuelled spacerats – the Goonswarm. He smiles sheepishly.
Two years ago, RPS had sent Quinns to seek out an audience with The Mittani, de facto King of Space. He turned out to be an interesting guy. But since then His Majesty has ordered raid after raid of ‘hi-sec’ space (areas of EVE where new or peaceful players are generally protected by the NPC police force). These raids – dubbed ‘Burn Jita’ after the trade capital of New Eden – see the Goonswarm flooding into traditionally secure systems and destroying every freighter, mining ship and any other unsuspecting spacecraft they set their eyes on. Essentially, they are sacking Rome. The ‘King’, it turns out, is more of a ‘Khan’. As if that wasn’t enough to alienate the entire non-Goon population, The Mittani was also forced to resign from his position as Chairman of the CSM last year over harassing a depressed EVE player. A scandal for which he has since apologised.
"Yeah," said Vegas, "that’s Mittens."
"His nickname. Don’t call him that to his face. He doesn't like that. He doesn't like that at all."
I wasn't going to call him anything. I had no desire to talk to a tyrant. I wanted the other side of EVE. Despots and douchebags were as common as Veldspar. Every one of these gamblers would have a story about how they stabbed somebody in the back, or robbed a helpless cargo ship, or made off with their ally’s stash. I wasn’t looking for a rogue. Rogues were everywhere. I was looking for something rarer. I was looking for someone I could trust.
"You don’t know if Chribba’s here, do you?" I asked. "Not here at poker. I mean, here at Fanfest."
"Oh yeah, he’ll be around somewhere," said my good friend, the scoundrel. "But I don’t know where."
The other tables were getting rowdy. A girl on the table next to us started yelling trash talk at a man in a pink cowboy hat standing opposite her. What did he know? She had been playing only seven months and already had This Much Cash and This Good A Spaceship. So eat it!
I looked around the room. She was the only girl there. EVE Online’s playerbase is 2% female, 98% male, a terrible ratio for any game and something CCP seem to be at least a little concerned about. This year Fanfest included a round table called ‘Ladies with Laz0rs’ where the women who play could discuss their life as space pilots and corporate executives. During a feedback session on Dust 514, one woman came up to ask the developers when they were going to fix the walk animation for the female mercenary model. “It doesn’t seem realistic for a woman to be on the battlefield and walking like she’s wearing high heels,” she said. The two devs on stage said they would fix it, promising to make the female model “more like a Sigourney Weaver, or Michelle Rodriguez”, prompting huge cheers from about 98% of the audience.
The girl and Pink Hat Man continued their tirades at each other and someone at our table sniggered and murmured something as the trash talk died down, but I didn’t hear what. Then the tournament organisers came over and asked Vegas to move, to even out the numbers on another table. He said his goodbyes and left for greener pastures. (Literally, the poker table he went to was a brighter shade of green than ours). And with that I lost my only source. That was it.
I went all in and lost.
These are the ups and downs of journalism, folks. There comes a time in a man’s life when he must admit to himself that he is not actually very good at poker. For me, the first night of EVE Fanfest 2013 was that time. I got up and left.
The next day was bright and cold. I wandered about Reykjavik and intermittently went into bookshops to keep warm. The shelves were full of thin, expensive hardbacks with titles like: ‘The Sagas of Icelanders’ and ‘Hovamol: The Sayings of the Vikings.’
“He’s the closest thing we got to royalty.”
“He does stuff like jettisons millions of ISK in a box out into space, just for somebody to find.”
“Oh, man, yeah, Chribba's a great guy.”
“He’s like... what’s that bloke’s name? That guy with the... Dalai Lama! That’s it. He’s like the Dalai Lama.”
Jesus. Not a single person had a shred of dislike for this fella. I went back to the Harpa, with its black-hoodied brigade, and lounged around in a science talk called ‘Make EVE Real: Asteroid Mining’ during which a man who used to work for Nasa put forward the case for actually mining asteroids in real life. Yesterday they had one on Faster Than Light travel. I can’t say I was convinced but there were some complicated formulae involved, so I supposed it must be possible.
I was there in the hope that Chribba’s interest in the fictional Veldspar extended into reality. But if my elusive philanthropist was in the audience, I couldn’t see him. That’s when it dawned on me. Chribba didn’t even need Veldspar. He had secretly discovered the most valuable resource in the game.
You see, throughout my enquiries I had been hearing that Chribba was so deeply-trusted and so well-respected across the whole EVE universe, that he was one of a handful of people who act as ‘deal brokers’. At its most basic level, a deal in EVE would involve two people (or gangs of people) meeting in space for a BIG transaction. Say a player – let’s call him ‘Keynes’ – wants to buy a Really Big Ship from another player – let’s say ‘Hayek’ – for a shit-ton of ISK (the game’s currency). All being fair in a fair world, Hayek and Keynes would simply do the swap and go on their merry way.
But EVE isn’t a fair world. And Hayek certainly doesn’t trust Keynes. He suspects that once Keynes has got the ship, he’ll just warp away without paying. In EVE it’s not only possible, but incredibly common to get scammed out of goods in this manner. Keynes, meanwhile, is most assuredly not handing his money over without seeing the product first. So how do we solve this?
Here’s a guy who everybody trusts, and since everybody trusts him, it makes sense for both Keynes and Hayek to involve him, because they definitely don’t trust each other. Chribba therefore acts as the ‘middle man’. Keynes gives Chribba the money, Chribba confirms that he is holding the ‘bag of ISK’, Hayek hands over the Really Big Ship to Keynes, Keynes confirms that all is present and correct, and Chribba transfers the money to Hayek. Everybody's happy, everybody leaves the deal alive.
And, of course, Chribba himself takes a hefty fee. This is what he calls his ‘third-party service.’
That’s it. So long as he retains his good name and benevolent reputation, Chribba has discovered a secret currency. One more valuable than ISK, more valuable than Really Big Ships. More valuable, even, than precious Veldspar.
Everybody trusts Chribba. “He’s just the nicest guy.” It was therefore a nuisance that nobody I spoke to at Fanfest actually knew him personally. I had wanted to do all this journalism the old fashioned way. Beers in a dingy bar, notes thrust under hotel doorways, panicked calls made from reception desk landlines. Maybe someone would beat me up and tell me to “stop asking questions, sparky!” (‘Sparky’ would be the nickname they’d give me). All that stuff, you know. It makes for a better story.
As it happens, I just had to use Twitter.
He agreed to meet and I went into the EVE keynote with one half of my brain coolly asserting, “Mission accomplished” and the other half mumbling, “Well, this is all very anti-climactic.” I took a seat on the balcony above the crowd and sat through slide after slide of EVE history. I was baffled by jokes I didn’t have the energy to understand but which somehow made the whole audience of 1400 people bust a collective gut. There were huge cheers as new features were announced. A new warp animation. Loud cheer. New probes to launch. Very loud cheer. Ice asteroids were being moved from one place to another. DEAFENING CHEER.
I found myself wishing I could understand it. No, not just understand it. Love it. I wanted to love EVE as much as these people did, love the game just for a weekend, love it for its depth and compulsiveness and mechanics and cold, hard numbers. Even the spreadsheets players inevitably doomed to create to keep track of all their investments. I even wished I could love those. But as it stands I can only love that EVE exists, and that it makes good stories.
Sometime during the keynote, Hilmar Pétursson, CEO of CCP, clicked onto the next slide. It showed that, over the course of the previous evening, the poker tournament (along with a special dinner) had raised 2 million króna for charity. “That’s about the same as $17,000 US dollars,” he said.
Heh, I thought. I guess even scoundrels can do good things.
Somewhere in the crowd below, Vegas was probably cheering.
Check back for more of Brendan's Icelandic adventures tomorrow.