The Massively Multiplayer Online game is an interesting idea. I mean, just put it on paper: imagine a gaming experience in which each character is another human somewhere on the planet. Far more than a glorified chat room, an MMO allows for not only an expansive universe to reside in, but persistent gameplay that gives you a reason to dive in, and furthermore, a reason to keep coming back. I’ve explained my tentative relationship with these games before, but it seems to me that EVE Online has worked the hardest to fulfill the genre’s potential, even with World of Warcraft dominating and Star Wars: The Old Republic doing well in its own regard. But does that make EVE Online a good game in its own right?
How Does An MMO Work?
The first MMOs were role-playing games, descended from multi-user dungeons from the 80s. The genre’s complexity and ability to grant the player persistent growth over time makes an easy choice to implement into a massive game that requires both. Meridian 59 (3DO, 1996) and Ultima Online (EA, 1997) ushered in a whole new era of gaming when they arrived on shelves, introducing monthly subscriptions to gaming at a time when dial-up internet providers still charged for access by the minute and large crowds of players could only be rendered as 2D sprites. Times were tough for these technical marvels; Ultima Online (UO) in particular was flagged not only for less-than-stellar service at launch (PC Gamer noted at the time that it was faster for your in-game player to walk than run because of the incredible lag in the game) but also of a class-action lawsuit when players sued Electronic Arts about not being informed about the game’s regular monthly subscription (despite being printed clearly on the box).
With the rise of 3D acceleration and the rise of the internet infrastructure, the genre advanced quickly with games like the fully-3D EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot and non-games like Second Life, a title in which companies like HP and American Apparel set up virtual shops where players could buy virtual items for real dollars (something PlayStation Home would mimic and Zynga would perfect years later). But while greater bandwidth and powerful computing hardware allowed for a fully realized massively-multiplayer game. A game like World of Warcraft, despite ten million players, doesn’t let you play with ten million other people. As is common practice across the field, players exist in one of many simultaneous instances of the same game world that act like parallel universes, limiting interaction between these realms to account transfers only.
The biggest reason for these ‘instanced’ events isn’t merely technical, however. Building a world like Azeroth to sustain ten milion players at once would require more than a few expanses of vast and endless nothing, something described in Warcraft universe, but not practical in a game. World of Warcraft cost Vivendi $50 million to produce in 2002 and Star Wars: The Old Republic cost Electronic Arts $200 million not quite a decade later. The appeal of wandering across a landscape that mimics the empty utility of the real world just isn’t fantastic enough for many players, who want a tighter, narrative-driven adventure they can share with smaller group of others. Smaller instances are also created in these games, like dungeons to chase individual quests. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, instances are generated often for the player to perpetuate a single-player-feeling experience. In short: to create a tight narrative in an MMO, more money must be spent developing games that keep large amounts of players apart in their own pocket dimensions. Unfortunately, this also dampens world-changing events that aren’t brought on by the developers themselves through patches or expansions.
So Where Does EVE Fit In?
EVE Online was the crown jewel of the self-publishing crown years before social networks or Kickstarter allowed developers to crowd-fund their titles from the fans themselves, something that the unique construction of their game has allowed. Developed by Iceland-based CCP, EVE Online was originally published by Simon & Schuster, a name hardly synonymous with gaming. EVE wasn’t a breakout hit, but with regular monthly subscriptions flowing in from hundreds of thousands of players, CCP has thrived and built the game as they see fit. CCP eventually purchased the publishing rights back and began distributing the client digitally through their own website, allowing them to control the future success of the title.
For those unaware, EVE Online is a space-based role-playing game that is largely controlled by its players. Each new pilot can sculpt their own persona and join corporations that can roost over their own solar systems away from the control of the established non-player character (NPC) entities that bring up the player in the early stages of the game. EVE’s universe is massive with over 7500 star systems. The game is not only mostly player-driven, but is also player-policed. Systems are assigned a security rating from -1.0 to 1.0 that dictate how much control NPCs have over keeping the peace in that area. It can be a vicious environment, but with risk comes potential reward. The game’s economy is also largely player-driven as well, with prices for items being dictated by those buying and selling them, rather than by a fixed standard. It’s an open auction house for anything and everything and acquiring a new ship, weapon, or skill book may require you to jump through several systems to pick up (just like real life, amirite?).
But rather than splintering the audience amongst a spectrum of different servers running parallel versions of the same, massive universe, EVE actually operates as one cohesive unit, that is to say, one server. While 30,000 players are usually in the game at any time, it’s possible that the game’s total 400,000 could hop on at any time and all be within the same universe. The game is allowed to do this through some clever instancing. Unlike a game like World of Warcraft where the game environments are tightly-nit spaces that can be viewed at once, each star system and space within it, whether planet, space station, or asteroid belt is separated by great distance, requiring warp jumps between them. As a result, each individual location and system can be split off without having to model the entire bowel of space. While it’s certainly possible to fly between planets or even intra-system installations on normal power, it would take a prohibitive amount of time to do so.
The game is built to support a hardcore audience and you’d certainly have to be hardcore stomach the game’s learning curve and eventual rewards. Elections are even held within the game’s population for a player council that works with the developers to foster a better community relationship. Casual gamers hoping to lean in, however…