Thursday, June 14, 2012

Eve's Secret Sauce

"I’m increasingly starting to believe that there’s a strong argument for EVE, not WoW, as the most successful – and certainly the most unique – MMO ever. Just what is its secret sauce?"

Hugh Hancock, founder of
and Editor-In-Chief of
MMO Melting Pot

Ripard Teg, a.k.a. Jester, can have a corrupting influence on those who do not play Eve Online.  When I wrote about the emergence of New Eden's pajamahadeen I chose one of Jester's blog posts as an example of the arguments one could use in defending Eve from attack by those who wish CCP's flagship game ill luck.  Indeed, Jester's well-reasoned (and frequent!) posting serves as an effective counterpoint to the horrendous posting seen on the official Eve Online forums and other places that tends to get picked up by the Mainstream Gaming Media.

The latest potential convert to the church of CCP is Hugh Hancock, the editor-in-chief of MMO Melting Pot.  Jester's Trek posts are making more frequent sightings on Hugh's site and now the self-described World of Warcraft theory crafter is beginning to believe that Eve Online is possibly the most successful MMORPG in history.  In a post yesterday, he began to ask what makes a game a virtual world.

When the subject of games as virtual worlds comes up I've always believed that, except for perhaps Tales in the Desert, Eve Online is the number one virtual world in the MMORPG genre.  So what sets Eve Online apart?  Simply put, CCP's writers are much better than those over at Blizzard, Bioware, SOE, Turbine, etc.  The big difference is that in all the other games the writers are producing fiction while CCP's authors are Eve players making history.  In other words, stories about players trump stories about NPCs.

To me, Eve Online is a giant shared universe similar to the space opera of David Weber's Honor Harrington series or Eric Flint's Ring of Fire series.  The quality those two series share with New Eden is that no matter what the status of the character, from a galaxy-striding autocrat to a timid carebear flying around scared in low sec, their lives and actions have some meaning in the grand scheme of things.  In almost every other MMORPG players are told that success means killing a lich king or an evil world-destroying dragon.  In Eve's sandbox, as Mike Azariah explained in a brilliant post on Sunday, different players have different measures for success.  And just like in real life, those measures are often perfectly valid.

That freedom to set your own goals and own play style is only part of what makes Eve feel like a real world.  The other part is that the players like to record their deeds.  At the alliance/coalition level we have The Mittani.  Like him or hate him, his Sins of a Solar Spymaster column on Ten Ton Hammer is a great read and gives the line grunt and non-player alike a fascinating view into the highest levels of New Eden null sec politics and policy making.  Going back a few years in history is the propaganda output by Seleene's Mercenary Coalition.

Perhaps my favorite Eve-related read of all time is a write-up of an MC campaign that occurred a year after the events in the above video, "The North Reloaded."

But New Eden is not just politics and conflict.  Eve boasts perhaps the oldest player-run training organization in the MMORPG genre in Eve University.  With a long history of training new pilots, the Uni provides training materials like its wiki and a beginner's video tutorial series to all capsuleers.  Any world that contains teachers giving live lectures can't help but seem more real than
those without.

One of the other things that makes New Eden more alive is that players frequently surprise the developers in Iceland.  One of the big surprises was the desire of players to live in wormholes after their introduction in the Apocrypha expansion.  The new unknown space consisting of shifting connections attracted a lot of explorer types who, this being Eve, came into conflict and began creating their own colorful history, as the Rooks and Kings video Clarion Call 3 reveals.

I could continue on about other features that make New Eden feel like a real world.  Things like an almost completely player-driven economy or how CCP does not step in when bad things like corp theft happen as long as all actions do not violate the EULA.  But the "secret sauce" that Hugh is looking for is that CCP created a sandbox in which players could mold their world and then had the courage to let them do exactly that. 

I think most game developers either don't trust players to come up with their own goals and game play or are too insecure in their own abilities to design a sandbox game that would attract and maintain players.  And with the success of WoW, the developers all want the big numbers (and the big bucks) and are trying to copy success.  Conventional wisdom is that PvP sandbox games are small and theme park games are big.  But is that really true anymore?  We don't really know since no one I've heard of is making such a game, unless you count CCP's World of Darkness that may come out in the next five years.

I had fun surfing the net looking for links and even asking Seleene for a link to "The North Reloaded" since my old one no longer links to anything.  I hope you enjoy the links and the videos because this is the type of content that drew me into Eve and keeps me playing.


  1. I'm flattered - thanks! Interesting piece, and I think your central point is right - EVE succeeds by having game mechanics that make players *behave* like fictional heroes and villains in a hard-SF universe. (The Mittani being a primary case in point.)

    It's interesting you mention A Tale In The Desert - to my mind, one of the other fascinating, unique, and extremely successful MMOs out there. It's not making millions, but as a sustainable business it's close to unbeatable.

    However, ATITD doesn't generate stories on anywhere near the scale of EVE. Cooperation and entertaining gameplay yes (although like EVE it rewards extremely hardcore players), but I don't hear wonderful tales of Things That Happened in ATITD.

    To the best of my knowledge, there are only three games out there that generate such retellable stories - even for people who don't play the game - as EVE: EVE itself, Dwarf Fortress (which is legendary for its wierd adventure tales) and Skyrim.

    I'm still trying to figure out what they all have in common.

    1. Back when MMOs were new, and I played my first ever MMO, I expected it to be like a pen an paper roleplaying game.

      I just assumed everyone would share the one world. The idea of an NPC infinitely cycling through the same scripted missions, with the world unchanged as a result was just not something I had considered.

      And quite frankly, as a result, I found MMOs sad and disappointing until I learnt to think of them as a "computer game" and not a "computer roleplaying game". But the thing with computer games is that they are ultimately not compelling in the long term. When your content is driven by NPCs, it has a threshold, at some point, you get bored. Compare that to pen an paper RPGs. I'm still playing the same game 20 years after I first started.

      In my opinion, EVE is different, because it is the closest you can get to replicating the pen and paper RPG experience. Forget the literal roleplaying, but you have a shared world, in which your actions have lasting impact and the gameplay content is primarily from interacting with other people, so is infinitely variable.

  2. Eve and Skyrim are both rather open depending on how you play. I was level 25 in Skyrim before I killed my first dragon. I had just wandered off at the second quest and didn't get back to it for 25 levels. I was wondering why I couldn't use my dragon powers I was collecting, but I didn't care because I didn't need them and I was enjoying being a werewolf.

    In Eve Online I detracked from the normal new player route about 3 weeks in and fully scummed to the riskier, richer, darker side of playing by living in low sec as a new toon. It was not easy but by abandoning the normal 'mission' progression steps of a new player I learned how to be flexable and creative and drag my content from the game in a way that was functional for me.

    The games did not punish me for wandering off and doing my own thing but they were capable of rewarding me for doing it and using my creativity to define my play.

    1. "The games did not punish me for wandering off and doing my own thing"

      I think that may be key here - all three games mentioned are famous for letting you do Pretty Much Whatever You Want. (Minecraft is very close too - not too many stories, but plenty of great "oh wow" moments even for non-players - and again, doesn't punish deviance from "normal" play).

      I'd be interested to know - did EVE develop broadly as CCP expected, or did they adapt their design to what players ended up doing?

      Another thought - all four games reward intelligence and lateral thinking.

    2. I'm not an Eve Historian by any means. However, CCP has reacted to player wants and needs. When they made Incarnia the entire player base exploded in a negative reaction against what CCP had done. They apooligized and changed direction. (this is a very simplified condension of a major game breaking time period).

      I have read discuss how CCP wanted Eve to be this rich, player content created game with them pushing it along but the player creating it.

      It is one of the reasons our PvE tends to suck. We don't have raids. Our 'missions' are repetitive and boring. You can also completly avoid them.

      One of the best ways to make money on Eve is to play the market. The ingame market is player controlled/effected. There is a very small amount of items that NPCs seed into market. These are things like skillbooks and BPO (blue print originals for basic ships and modules). They do not seed ships into the market. We have to build them. They don't seed minerals into the market. We have to mine them. They don't seed basic modules and ammo into the market. We have to build them from the blueprints. The prices are set by who will buy what. Speculation can crash a market or drive it into crazy inflation.

      They tweak and balance and nerf and try to keep order. Eve's player base is creative and will exploit something in moments. However, the tweaks/balances/nerfs go both ways. We are currently experiencing a back and forth over altering some PvE content (incursions) and the war declaration system as they use player feed back for balance.

      Sometimes, they don't listen to us (Unified Inventory's test server feedback).

      Another example is Concord. Concord is the NPC police. They keep some rules in high security space enforced. However, they simply punish. You break said rule your ship is exploded, the end. There is no shade of grey, no trial, no debate over why and how bad. Some say that they should be protected by the police and events stopped before they happen. Yet, CCP has ignored this and continues to ignore it and allow players to do as they wish if they accept the consequence. They are not stopped before they do it.

      And there is the fact that when we lose our ships in Eve we lose them. No respawn. If another player steals/scams from you, you should have been smarter, no ban.

      CCP allowed its player base to be jerks if they wanted to and didn't punish them for it.

  3. Excellent article and a very good look at what makes EVE unique in the MMO world. The stories and the 'legends' of the game are what kept so many of us playing for the past nine years. EVE also allows anyone with the drive and ambition to make a name for themselves to do so. It's truly remarkable. Thanks for taking the time to write this.