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EVE Online's free to play update might change your mind

Carebears dare

I almost uninstalled EVE Online partway through the oddly crashy character creation process. Somewhere out there is a parallel universe in which my only experience with the game is a distant memory of an unpleasant and rapidly abandoned free trial. What a terrible world that is.

For you see, I was wrong about EVE. I suspect a great many people are, as perhaps do its creators CCP, who recently released probably their most significant update ever, called Ascension (aka the Alpha update). The first step in an ongoing effort to overhaul the new player experience, this update introduced a free to play option to the long-running subscription-based spacey-tradey blowy-uppy stabby-backy MMO. Like many, I decided to give it a proper chance, to see whether its new structure was an improvement. That was over a month ago. So what's the verdict?

Well, it's complicated. Both the game and the verdict. More so than most games, writing about EVE means considering multiple disparate audiences, and some dispelling of illusions. Let's start with how the Alpha system works, because "it's gone free to play" is a wholly inadequate explanation of what CCP are actually doing.

Previously, EVE was subscription only. Players paid a monthly fee, with an option to pay with in-game currency instead. Both are still options today, and doing so confers "Omega clone" status upon a character - full access to everything the game has to offer, just as before. Now, however, players who choose not to pay, or whose payment falls short, will play as an "Alpha clone" instead. This restricts a pilot's skills, which in turn locks them out of using (but not making or trading) most in-game ships and equipment, including those of other factions. On the face of it, this sounds like a fairly standard free to play setup, but the truth is that EVE's skill system is unlike any other online game's. Its economy too is not the usual MMORPG affair, where all items are a linear upgrade to the last model, and 95% of everything is utterly worthless. Almost everything can be put to practical and/or financial use, and while higher and more varied skills give an advantage to any player, bigger numbers aren't a guaranteed victory. Instead of Level 32 Player's inevitable mathematical crushing of Level 24 Player, even the humblest of characters can have a significant impact on anyone they meet in EVE Online, and anyone can carve out a niche.

One major reason for this, and a major source of EVE's infamy (and some widespread misconceptions) is the corporations. Any player can found one of these co-operative, entirely player-run organisations, or join an existing one. They can be a dozen players keen on making money, a couple of professional gankers sharing their loot, or a vast military-industrial complex of the sort you've likely already heard of, organising hundreds or thousands of players in enormous war campaigns, economic conspiracies, and espionage operations against rivals or random victims for the hell of it. Player activity is so integral to the game's basic function that CCP needs to retain old hands more than most MMO devs, and so they form another audience for the Ascension to please. They're also an unofficial partner in its delivery, as however much story or scripted missions or new items and systems CCP put out, it's the experienced players who bring everything together.

So what's their verdict? I asked some of them and, surprisingly, there's a firm consensus. While the exact focus of their interest naturally varied, and analysis ranges from “it changes nothing” to “it's already changed the game completely”, every old timer I spoke to clearly considered the Ascension update a roaring success. Part of this is down to their own efforts not just to profit from the influx of newcomers, but to actively welcome them.

Quite by chance, my very first 'podding' - the destruction of both my ship and then the deliberate murder of my helpless escape pod - came at the hands of one of EVE's most famous alliances (very much to corporations what corporations are to players), Pandemic Legion. It was utterly pointless and frustrating and done out of sheer boredom on their part. I know this because once I'd had the requisite sour rant to a friend and thrown a tiny puppy from my stockpile through a window, I calmed down and sent an in-game email to one of my killers, asking them what exactly I'd just blundered into, and what I should have done to escape the ambush. A few minutes later, she and her friends were showering me with money and an extremely expensive (to me, at least) fully fitted ship, as they were "quite taken" by my "newbro attitude". I can think of no better summary of how EVE's community has responded.

It was another few weeks before I canvassed my new friend/murderer and several other major corporations for their opinions. Here I refer to those multiple audiences I mentioned at the start, because EVE isn't just one game. While its popular image is of braying (... dickheads? Yes, dickheads) waging gigantic wars on each other, openly griefing and abusing random strangers for sheer sadism's sake, and committing to elaborate, duplicitous schemes in long-term efforts to defraud each other via what I can only, and distastefully, call the non-diegetic gameplay of forums and third-party tools and gaming of systems... that's only one of the games. The other main game (for simplicity's sake, let's ignore the many interconnected subgames they both involve) is the one I chose. I'm what the participants of the former would call a "carebear", although we prefer "not a dickhead". Which we've come to use in its most positive, affectionate sense.

Being a carebear typically means focussing on shooting hostile NPC ships, manufacturing and trading for profit (almost every item is created from scratch by players), carrying out simple missions for NPCs, exploring, and/or mining the minerals everything's made from. You know, the stuff that underpins the whole economy and makes those mega-wars possible. Which of course, in turn, provide the demand for everything we produce, and limits supply by way of constant destruction. It's a shame that everything is ultimately a cog of the war economy, but it works, and it's vast and complex enough to accommodate casual pacifism.

In our case, it meant salvage. My yearning for games about salvaging recently led me to Cataclysm DDA, and in EVE led to the creation of my humble little corporation, Skyena. After picking one of four factions (the Minmatar, rebellious nomads who turn out quite colourful, with many fast, flexible ships of junky, pleasingly asymmetrical design), and working through the extended tutorial, which sensibly encourages the player to dabble in a little of everything, I made my first few millions by making and selling ammunition to fellow rookies, and identifying a couple of items experienced players disdained, but which had obvious appeal to us.

Thanks to the help of the kind and excellent Irae Shevek, and a chance meeting with some friendly miners (now our neighbours and regular trading partners), Skyena was set up to put those millions to use. What use? Indulgence! I get to pootle around hoovering up wrecked ships, manufacturing, shopping, and contracting work to others. Irae gets to scan down mysterious signals hoping for treasures or a fight with some NPCs, and unwind with a bit of mining. We don't care about grand alliances and world-shaking conquests. Spies? Nah. Fiddling about with second or third character slots to trick people or bankroll piracy? Pish! If you were any good at piracy you wouldn't need all that, would you? Bloody nullers.

It's a happy, comfortable little life we're making, and the dramatic goings on between your Goonswarms and your Dreddits and your Mittani have zero direct impact on our game. Oh, prices and supplies and traffic are affected of course, but no more so than any other events (including, for example, the steady decline in several ore prices caused by swarms of Alphas with no imagination, dooming themselves to burnout by constant mine-grinding), and the dynamism is mostly welcome anyway. Of course we get blown up now and then - I won't say "fight", because 95% of attackers are cowards who never start anything they stand a chance of losing - but that's just a business cost now. Personally it still grates that so much killing achieves nothing at all - I've openly offered to, for example, pay a barrel-duck-shooting group protection money that would earn us both far more profit than us getting blown up once and never coming back to that system. To no avail. I blame alts: they remove any incentive for piratical self-sufficiency.

But while it's always frustrating and even upsetting, that quickly passes, and without exception, everyone who's blown me up has been civil, or even actively helped me afterwards. So much in EVE depends on your attitude, and, provided you steer clear of a few extremely busy areas replete with (...MMOrons? Let's try MMOrons), you'll find that the famous "griefing" CCP openly tolerates is largely limited to blowing up your ships or trying to rip your character off. Consider it akin to players sniping or backstabbing you in an FPS, or kicking your face off in a beat 'em up. Of course there are your usual internet oafs here and there, but with the exception of a particularly cretinous neo-nazi dullard and the occasional spammer (who, most entertainingly, was soon saddled with an open bounty of hundreds of millions as the entire chat room united against him), I encountered none of note. That's a far better average than is typical. Against all my expectations, the community may take a little adjustment, but it's a welcoming, positive, and deceptively open-minded one.

Even the fact that the term "newbro" is standard vernacular, rather than the tiresome "noob", says rather a lot. Asking around revealed great enthusiasm from the most established alliances, with all the major players fielding sub-corporations geared specifically towards outfitting and guiding Alpha-only players. They're well aware that EVE's future depends on expanding the playerbase, and everyone from small mining outfits to longstanding groups like Pandemic, TEST, and Goonswarm are gleefully putting their resources towards welcoming them with open arms. Brave Newbies in particular are going as far as total desegregation, integrating complete beginners into experienced "omega" player fleets, even offering fleet command roles and dedicated communications and training infrastructure to teach on the fly. EVE University, a wholly player-run training and support system devoted to sharing experience simply for its own sake, is positively buzzing with activity. Their distinguished position comes not from some special status built into the game, but solely the behaviour of its members, which in my experience is exemplary.

Among these groups are of course a diverse set of opinions, but practically everyone is accentuating the positive, and exploring the interesting opportunities the update presents, rather than lamenting its limitations. Barring a vanishingly small minority of unpleasables, it's most striking that I've met absolutely no outright hostility to the new system or players. More common is skepticism of what status Alpha players can expect. The phrase "cannon fodder" is common, and not without cause, as while talented players in Alpha-accessible ships can have a disproportionate effect on a battle, their limited skill access confines them to secondary or tertiary roles, if not outright kamikaze. My first contact, Abbi, a friendly neighbour and unofficial ally of Skyena, goes further. "Alphas are slaves", she declares, pointing out the transactional nature of politics, and the obvious benefits to a large corporation of pushing recruits into full time mining, or an endless cycle of kamikaze-respawn-repeat fuelled by disposable corporate ships. While I think it's safe to dismiss any established group grumbling about the perceived threat to the status quo - history buffs can fit their own analogy in here - the bigger concern is what effects a two-tiered membership system will have on EVE's culture in the long term, and crucially, what impressions it'll leave on those vital newbros. So, enough about what those tired old whingers think. The real question is whether CCP have succeeded in attracting and retaining enough fresh-faced new whingers.

I've long lamented that MMOs and their audience foster a straightjacketed culture of grinding, minmaxing, and sacrificing all in the rush to find the optimal path through a game's code. Newcomers to EVE have likely already heard stories fueled by exploitation of external forums and multiple accounts (unlike most, CCP more than tolerates the use of a player's three character slots to manipulate the game and cheat other players, even allowing 'multiboxing', or logging in with multiple characters at once, an act so drearily mechanical it salts my brain). While the active support from old hands is welcome, I worry that corporations accelerating the rush to the most exciting toys will burn some players out early, bypassing the unusually interesting journey, and misleading them to the belief that there's only one way to play. Or worse - that they might think that toiling in the mines is some price they must pay to access the rest of the game.

A good MMO is about the journey more than the destination. While delayed gratification can be an element of that, it's more important and less fraught with grinder's remorse than simply making the journey entertaining in and of itself, and it's here where EVE truly shines. In my opening month I've seized a tiny piece of a niche market, fought a two-pronged battle against a roaming behemoth NPC and opportunistic ganker, and set up complex trade and service arrangements with friendly Omega players and small corporations. I've discovered and explored a wormhole, participated in an impromptu civil defence force, and helped even newer Alphas take their first steps into dangerous low security space. My very humble corporation has contracted out work to couriers and negotiated training fights with known criminals - why not use them, right? - to improve our regular efforts to protect miners in exchange for salvage rights. We've even had applications from other new players.

With the exception of Wurm Online, and perhaps the Planetsides, EVE is the MMO that benefits the most from complex interactions with other players. Solo play is absolutely possible, but even as one who enjoys the self-sufficient approach and working up from scratch, it's in your dealings with other players where it really shines. Even then, the reliance upon the meta-game is entirely optional unless you explicitly choose the corporate high flyer life, or other goals that demand that kind of extreme efficiency. This isn't something the opening hours really emphasise, but they do encourage the player to diversify and try a bit of everything.

After choosing one of four factions (now a much bigger deal, as Alphas can only access ships and weapons favoured by their faction), you create a needlessly detailed character, spend 40 minutes trying to get them to smile, give up, and take the least sour-faced portrait photo they can muster. Then it's off to space with you, where a faction-specific tutorial will teach you the controls and a few basics via a fully-voiced NPC. In my case, that NPC was ... uh... Admiral Coolhair? I forget. It really doesn't matter, as they vanish before long. While I can't fault the voice acting, it's hard not to feel a little patronised by the fawning expressions of awe at how skilfully you clicked on the indicated icons exactly as told. It's also oddly inattentive, with many players getting stuck because they carried out the obvious next step of a task while the AI was still waffling on about how to carry it out. This is a bit clumsy, and the tutorial teeters somewhat from over- to under-explaining, but with the exception of the incredibly unhelpful Exploration tutorials, it's by no means bad.

The bigger concern, and one that will continue, is that CCP are intent on bringing EVE's story and setting closer to the fore, with the tutorial (and possibly the faction restrictions) as a first step. This isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it highlights a divide between the de jure story of four factions waging war via functionally immortal space pilots, and the de facto of thousands of nerds nerding it around in nerdland. However promising the setting may be, it's that latter community that matters most. As the tutorial would have it, there's the Minmatar Republic, a society of former slaves fighting their inquisitional oppressors and a largely unexplained invading force of "Drifters", and you the freshly minted pilot field promoted to an eternally respawning 'capsuleer' as part of the war effort. It justifies your cluelessness, but it's unable to even touch on that latter community of existing players and their myriad factions, alliances, and political and economic machinations. Indeed, it doesn't really even try to, a choice best described as 'double edged'.

Dumping players into the shark tank is a merciless gamble, inviting frustration and shock from the unprepared. But it encourages an experimental, hands on attitude, where the best way to find out if something works is to try it and take any resulting losses on the chin. It also trusts the playerbase to shoulder the burden of initiating newcomers, again a bold gamble, but one that's paying off so far. CCP have made some odd decisions and glaring omissions, but their job here was a particularly difficult one of balancing multiple interests. In addition to reconciling story and the reality of the player experience, there's the challenge of giving free players the right mix of content and incentive to upgrade, and raising player numbers and revenue without exploiting or alienating anyone. Whatever your opinion of CCP, that's a tall order, and after a month spent in its clutches I can only conclude that the Ascension update has been an extraordinary success.

The public image is one of giant wars, devastating cons and betrayals, and a metagame so uncompromising that the mere threat of it has been putting people off even testing the waters for years - and none of it helped by the harsh beginning and inadequate 14 day trial. But as thousands are now learning, the reality is that in EVE you can do pretty much what you want, and while Alpha characters are restricted, there's little limit placed on an Alpha player with a friendly attitude and a keen eye for opportunity. Imagination, patience and initiative were always the key to enjoying EVE, and the new update, coupled with the efforts of its community, does a respectable job of making that clear. There has likely never been a friendlier or more interesting time to start playing EVE, as long as you remember this: there's no best way to play. Do what you enjoy.

Thanks to Abbi, Reza Najafi, Christy Cloud, Algorthan Gaterau, and to many players who took the time to talk to me over the last few weeks, with particular thanks to Irae, and members of Brave Newbies, Sniggwaffe, and EVE University.

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