When I told a coworker I had picked up EVE Online, he laughed.
“If you had to guess,” he said,” how many banners did it take over all these years for them to get you?”
It was an interesting question. The game has been around for nearly a decade, and I obviously knew about it all this time. I’ve seen the trailers. I’ve read the horror stories of hundreds of thousands of real-world dollars destroyed in wars and scams. I’ve seen untold numbers of ads floating around various gaming sites – all promising free trials to explore the galaxy of New Eden.
Hell, I even redeemed one of those trials back in 2009… though I never ended up actually playing the game. I created a character, read the first few tutorial blurbs, then got caught up playing Team Fortress 2 insetad. The trial expired, my character presumably sat around bored, and the allure of the game faded away.
Well, it faded until a few weeks ago, when I caught wind of the new EVE: True Stories series by Dark Horse Comics. The concept intrigued me – a group of tales all based on events experienced by “real” EVE Online players. I dove into the first issue and was turning pages faster than I could even process the what of the comic’s plot. There was business backdealing, epic space combat, and secret trade routes being exploited for massive amounts of money. The world sounded so real, so deep, and so fun.
I was doomed.
A star is born
It was no later than that evening that I had downloaded the EVE Online client and reactivated my old account. Since it was technically a trial upgrade, I was offered 33% off the normal subscription rate, plus a free unique ship for my hangar, an orange-painted Gallente Imicus. I didn’t know what the hell that was, but who was I to turn down a fucking starship?
I decided to truly start fresh, creating a new character so I could run myself through the (apparently much better now) tutorials again. In a few minutes, Chance Ravinne was spawned into Gallente space. He was an unassuming man, a little unkempt, but just smart and charming enough to talk his way through life. For some reason, I could relate to the jet-haired bastard.
The “tutorial” was extremely minimalistic, though I suppose a good preparation for what was to come. An A.I. program gave me a Velator (a rookie ship), ran me through basic controls, and assigned me the kinds of tasks I could expect from most NPCs in the game (not that there are a lot of NPCs). Go find this beacon, go mine this asteroid, go scout this area, go buy some carbon and synthesize it into space gems. Basic stuff.
Despite the simplicity of these assignments I was immediately overwhelmed. EVE Online has been likened to a lot of not-so-flattering programs, most notably Microsoft Excel, but to me, the game was a lot more like Adobe Photoshop. It’s very pretty, and even with basic tools you can do a lot of fun stuff, but there are a lot of tools. You get the impression that you could learn it for 10 years and still not master it.
Even as I focused on procedures like locking a target to shoot at, I noticed about thirty other indicators the A.I. didn’t explain. Sure you could fire your lasers at something hostile, but your lasers also have an optimal range. They also have a maximum tracking speed, meaning controlling the relative velocity between you and your target seems important, much like the principles of footsies spacing in most fighting games. You have the option of overheating your starship systems, presumably to get more out of them, but also damaging your components in the process. Oh yeah, and there are about 500 optional menus and submenus to overlay during the fight – and that’s assuming you’re using conventional hitscan weapons on a single target!
Set a course for… uh… down?
I managed to kill my first space rats, but shooting wasn’t the only challenge. EVE was also extremely unintuitive to navigate, not because of bad design, but because it’s in the fucking void of the cosmos. It’s not like most MMOs, or even most games, where you have easily identifiable landmarks you can see from miles away. The universe is absolutely gorgeous with stunning vistas of planets, nebula, stars, and space wrecks (I should note CCP has updates the game engine over the years to keep the graphics modern and impressive), but intuitively navigating them is another story. There are thousands of solar systems, each light years apart from one another, and arranged in a variety of directions and vectors. By comparison, your rookie ship is a pale gray dot among the sea of stars.
There’s no town square. There’s no mystic caves. There’s no ground for god’s sake, removing all feeling of “up” and “down”. It definitely takes a while to get your bearings… if you’ve ever played Endless Ocean (or if you’ve ever been deep-sea diving) you can probably relate to the initial shock of losing these simple reference points. For the first ten hours of playing, I relied extremely heavily on my navigation overview and autopilot systems to locate moons and stations I’d been to thirty times.
Surviving two types of crashes
Then there’s the marketplace, the lifeblood of EVE Online. Unlike most MMOs, your first sales interactions aren’t with NPCs, because it’s the players who control all commerce in this game. Sure, your A.I. buddy gives you a few starter weapons and enough cash to buy a really cheap ship (though not a bad one by any means – I’ve learned there are very few “useless” ships in New Eden), but everything else is purchased through fluctuating real-time bids with inventory that’s peddled at competitive prices in their respective star systems.
It’s a free market capitalist’s wet dream, and the more time I spent shopping the more I understood the appeal of the “Excel” aspects of the game. If you made note of prices of even the simplest materials in a few systems and loaded up your cargo hold with wares from somewhere dangerous, you could easily make millions, if not billions, of ISK (interstellar kredits). That is, assuming you could survive the trip.
And that brings up the great divide for many EVE Online players and would-be EVE Online players: player vs player combat. You see, in the star systems of New Eden, PvP is always on. From the second your rookie ship undocks from your starter space station, anyone and everyone has the capability of blowing you out of the sky at any time. Likewise, there is literally nothing stopping you from targeting the friendly bots that guide your first ship and blasting them with antimatter beams or gravimetric railguns. And if one of your neighbors does decide to fashion your spacecraft after the Challenger, respawning isn’t a minor setback: your ship is completely destroyed, and your killer will be able to view and take everything you had on board.
So, why isn’t EVE Online completely dominated by firefights? Why don’t the hub worlds instantly devolve into 24/7 shooutouts? Well, there are a few reasons. One is CONCORD, basically the space cops. They can’t stop you from killing someone, but doing so will put you on their naughty list, and getting chased around major systems by the interstellar police isn’t fun, especially when they can prevent you from using the stargates that are the popular means of escaping a rough area.
Another reason players don’t shoot it out in most regions is corporations and alliances. Sure, you can blow up some newbie for fun, but what if that newbie has friends? What if his friends have ships literally the size of moons, and what if they find out where you and your friends live and Death Star it? Even if your victim doesn’t have that many pals, he or she can get revenge by placing an alluring bounty on your head, making you a juicy target to everyone else in the universe. Even relatively peaceful players will consider offing you if the reward is ten times what they make in a week of playing!
Finding your place in space
EVE Online doesn’t rely on the handholding that most games provide. You can and will fail, and when you do, you’ll face gigantic consequences, the least of which I’ve outlined here. And yet, you’re also free to do almost anything. There are no invisible walls and almost no content restricted by level (though there aren’t traditional levels in EVE… more on that next time). You could hang around police-patrolled areas forever if you wanted, but you could also steer your sad little beginner ship into the depths of unprotected space or undiscovered wormholes, slowed down only by a single popup to warn of the potential hazards ahead.
And as Chance Rivanne looked out into the stars to decide his career and fate among the constellations, that’s exactly the course he set. We purchased a crappy insurance policy and plotted a few warp jumps into the worst parts of the galaxy, eager to greet whatever sat on the other side of the void. The universe compelled me to dive into its icy heart, and I lept in at just over 485,000 kilometers a second.
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