The recent controversies generated by Eve Online have been interesting to watch, but they have also stirred a bunch of feelings about the game that I have long intended to articulate. I want to talk a bit about the promise of MMOs, the future of subscription-based games, and the lack of a suitable alternative to CCP's game of spaceships.
I'm going to start off by talking a bit about elements of Eve that I have covered before, perhaps most notably in this episode of The Five Year Spree, which is my account of five years running a corporation in Eve. That was a project that took up so much time and effort that working almost full-time on RPS pretty much replaced it. It was incredible, and I despair at the fact that it is probably unrepeatable in my lifetime.
MMOs And The Mirror Of Reality
The best times in Eve were logging into a place where my 20-man corporation had set up, and simply waiting for something to happen. What was most exciting about Eve's sandbox nature was the fact that I didn't know what the day would hold. Unlike almost any other game, where I would know that I was going to end up running a dungeon or fighting x number of dudes, human or CPU-controlled, in Eve I couldn't know what to expect, other than the near-certainty that I would be tangling with other human beings in some way.
I'd log in, bring a second account online on my laptop, and see what was going on. Were there any strangers about? Was there anything suspicious to investigate? The start of a session of Eve usually involved a bit of scouting to see what was going on in nearby areas of the game. What had happened overnight? What had other people seen? I can't think of another gaming experience even remotely akin to this.
More exciting still were the organised ops where we'd simply go out and try to pick a fight. Some of these remain the most intense and interesting gaming experiences I've ever had. Just this morning I was thinking about one hit and run raid which ended with us being barricaded into a station by superior numbers. We all undocked simultaneously in high-damage ships, and totally destroyed the blockading gang. It was the kind of versatility in character skills and PvP possibilities that are denied to almost any other game, and a spectacular moment of brilliant, unexpected tactical flair that made our time in Eve so rewarding. This depth and flexibility is one of the reasons why Eve remained appealing to me for so long.
But what all this ultimately led to was the feeling that Eve was a sort of mirror of reality, or a pocket reality, rather than a distinct game. This – to me at least – was always the promise of MMOs: that they would be simulated worlds with enough breadth and complexity to allow us to live escapist secondary existences of fantasy, heroism, and daring. Our time in Eve as a small, highly skilled band of privateers fulfilled that promise, and it's something that no other game is able to do. Despite there being a number of sandbox MMOs, and hundreds more level-based, quest-driven MMOs, none of them manage to deliver Eve's combination of skill scaling, and “flat” world dynamics. Try as they might (and few do try) no other game has been able to make a game in which players who are just a few weeks in can meaningfully work with or against players who have been in the game for years.
The critical side effect of this for Eve Online's current playerbase is that they do not have anywhere to run if things go bad. It's not simply that they enjoy the game and get indignant about perceived threats to it, it's that they realise it essentially irreplaceable in the wider scheme of games. Robot Eve-ape Perpetuum Online is one possibility, but its terrain-based world does not offer the same scope for tactics, and its territory game and PvP dynamics have yet to hit a mature enough phase to be interesting. Eve players might go there and enjoy themselves, but the chances are it will simply make them long for their home game.
All of which means that players are going to be extremely protective of what they see as “their” world. No one can recreate Eve, because it exists in its dedicated community and dedicated server farm, and it seems no one can offer an alternative. It's this fact which should explain the extreme reactions of Eve players to the current set of changes – from rage-quitting, to offering to pay even more on their sub to keep new payment models out. Eve has a value to them because it cannot simply be replaced.
Which brings us to Eve's greatest strength, and its best chance for destruction: its evolution.
Change Is Worse Than A Rest
One of the strangest things about Eve is coming back to it after a time is to find out how much has changed. The combat dynamics that I was so interested have steadily warped back and forth between different builds and gang compositions over the years, finally leading me to have had enough of the game when it became more like a traditional MMO (relying on “healing” via logistics ships and cross-repairing battleships) than what I would regard as an interesting skirmish warfare game. The prevalence of jumpdrives and the erosion of the value of reconnaissance and scouting also led to my loss of interest, but that's an aside: the point is that Eve has always been about change, and the module design has been perfect for introducing new things without grossly damaging the existing model. Eve's subscriptions have always promised one thing: the evolution of a game that had a unrelenting, unflinching PvP core. For this, we loved it, and were happy to pay. Change was good.
Change to that business model, however, well that's not so good. I get the feeling that Eve's developers mistook their right and obligation to change the game's design, for a right and obligation to change the service that gamers have been paying for all this time. What gamers have been paying for is for things to be added to the game as part of their subscription. By changing this in Incarna, it was only logical that some people should be upset with CCP's failure to stick to the agreed system. The contract had changed to one where there could be hidden extras. It was the long-haul gaming of equivalent of a contractor working on your house suddenly saying that there are hidden extras not cover by his quote. It changes things. Despite his excellent work, you like him less.
What is happening here is a conflict within a single company, between two ways of thinking: the old and arguably outmoded subscription system, and the new microtransaction ways of the future, of which CCP think they want to be a part. One of the issues, however, is that Eve Online could well have been the point at which it was proven that microtransactions and subscription models could exist side by side. It's not yet clear whether WoW is going to suffer dramatically from the f2p boom, but I suspect as a niche game that has no peers, Eve could have continued with its subscription model without any significant change, and therefore without any drama. It could - I believe - have demonstrated that people will pay a subscription if they believe the content and service they are getting is worth the money. Eve players do believe that, and so trying to unleash a new business model on them is a betrayal.
And perhaps a little cowardly, too. CCP had been extremely brave in creating an unusual game in the first place, and then brave in changing it every six months to follow, but it feels like they capitulated to perceived market pressures with the microtransaction idea came along. Not sticking to their guns and providing a purely subscription-based service was a move that stank of fear.
Worse, it's almost irrelevant whether the cash-shop introduces more than cosmetic items – it has changed what Eve means by charging for anything more than access to its world. That's a fundamental shift in philosophy in a game whose philosophy was so much the motor of its success.
World Of Redemption
My feelings about Eve have changed significantly over the years. While I immediately recognised the potential for the game as a symbiotic process of growth and evolution that relied on both players and developers, I originally felt that CCP should do what they like with their game – it was /their game/, after all - and not listen to the mob. I no longer feel like that, not least because of CCP's own actions in taking progressive moves like setting up the player-ombudsman system of the Council Of Stellar Management. The point of this was to give elected players are direct line of feedback into the development process. Having created this line of communication, CCP were acknowledging that they did not necessarily know best, and that they should listen to the general mood of the playerbase. As such they should never have introduced a microtransaction system, particularly because - as far as I am aware - no one on the CSM would have recommended or endorsed the idea. (I believe The Mittani said it would "make no difference", but he is wrong.)
Of course I am not denying that it was a business move, one purely made for extra revenue, but that's sort of the point. The fact of Eve's hardcore nature, and the fact that CCP sat down at a table with their players to “listen”, means that money hasn't always come first for Eve. The game has grown organically by appealling to players who wanted a certain sort of service. And that should not change now, no matter how popular microtransactions might be.
All this said, I do not think that Eve's players should get upset about Eve being a test-bed for other technologies – most obviously the walking-in-stations tech being a trial for the technologies which will power World Of Darkness. The reason for this is because CCP need a chance at redemption, and the players of Eve Online need somewhere they can move on to. Those of us who revelled in the politics and economics and the rich interfaces for human interaction that the game provides have nowhere else to go. Not, that is, unless CCP bring these philosophies of game design to life in a new game. No other major company seems likely to.
World Of Darkness could – and should – be CCP's redemption. A game that encapsulates the results of Eve's experiments, and gives us another living world to take new, imaginative strides in. As such CCP should be given plenty of space to get this stuff right by testing it within their existing population. Sure, the new game won't be internet spaceships, but there are a lot of other, more abstract values to what Eve means as a game, that could find their way into this new project, and they are vital.
If Eve or CCP dies now, then its spirit, its capacity to do what the MMO as an idea – that of a persistent, simulated world – had always promised, dies with it. And that is something that everyone involved, players and CCP alike, is a caretaker for.
IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE: I am not against cash shops on principle, as many seem to be. I think the idea of their funding free-to-play stuff is great, and I expect there to be lots of superb f2p games in future - but that does not mean the cash shops are appropriate across all online games. Eve is a great example of where the system does not work, and should not be implemented by its developer.