My Love Hate Relationship With EVE Online

So today, I found myself with a lot of free time, and not a lot to do with it. I figured I might as well write about something that doesn’t need me to have all of my code, notes, or whatever else with me. EVE has always been an interesting game to me even though I don’t play it any more, so I figured I’d give my thoughts on what about it makes it so compelling, and share some of my stories from playing it. I’ll be using enedited screenshots of the game, so you can see not just the pretty graphics, but nearby ships, my ship’s status, and the smack talk in the chat window!

Back in university, I spent most of my gaming time playing EVE Online. I’d tried the game a few times on the free trial before, but it never stuck. The last time I tried it I was nearly on the brink of quitting once again, until I decided to try something different…

Instead of doing the usual PVE activities I always repeated when trying EVE, I decided to try out the PVP side of things. I bought a cheap frigate and a transport and moved them both to the same system. From there I moved between asteroid belts looking for miners. When I found one mining into a cargo container, I’d mark it’s position, grab the transport, and return to steal as much of the ore as I could.

One of the first fights I ever got into… Sadly, I didn’t get any kills.

That makes literally no sense…

Without having played the game before, most of what you just read probably isn’t very significant. The gist of it is that I started stealing from other players. Now aside from what this says about me as a thieving scumbag, the game design behind EVE is unlike almost any other game out there. It deviates so far from traditional game design in ways that make it both compelling and mind numbingly dull.

While I’m still very inexperienced as a game designer, I’d like to delve into the game design of EVE and try to pick apart what about the game made me love it so much in the past, and what makes me want to steer clear of it today.

Another one of my earlier fights. This guy actually ended up quitting the game when I blew up his ships…

What even is EVE…

You’ve probably read stories about EVE before and heard tales of enormous space battles, scams, and heists. You’ve probably also seen the estimated value in real dollars of the ships that were destroyed or stolen. I’d wager that that’s about all you’ve heard though. I’ll start by giving some detail on the actual game mechanics of EVE.

EVE is a sci-fi MMO that takes place almost entirely in space with each player controlling a single ship at a time.

The universe is absolutely huge, mostly static, and looks more or less the same from one end to the other unlike a game like World of Warcraft where every zone has a different feel to it. The universe is split into 4 areas:

  • A big blob of high security space in the middle of the universe where players operate under the protection of CONCORD, who will destroy any criminals in the area. This doesn’t guarantee safety though!

  • Null security space on the outside of the universe, where there are almost no restrictions on players shooting one another. Territory can be claimed and held to increase resources. Large alliances and coalitions have formed over the years and have staked their claims to large swaths of null sec space.

  • A band of low security space between null and high sec, as well as some other isolated pockets within high sec. While there is some protection for players with the sentry guns around stations and stargates, this space is about as dangerous as null sec in theory. In practice, there are fewer resources here than in null sec. As a result, you’ll mainly find small gangs of pirates here.

  • Wormhole space. This one is a bit of an oddity. While normal systems are connected together like a web by stargates, wormhole systems have constantly changing wormholes to random systems, sometimes anywhere in the game, though usually with some pattern depending on the system. Other than that it works like null sec, except that players don’t appear in the local chat channel, meaning you can’t see who is in the solar system with you until they find you, or you detect them with long range sensors.

EVE Security Map
A map of EVE’s universe, color coded by security status.

Each point on this map is a star system. The red points on the outside are null sec, the green, blue, and yellow are high sec, and the orange are low sec. Wormhole systems don’t have a fixed location, their entrances can appear randomly across the entire world.

Each solar system is physically huge, and mostly empty. Each one will have a star, planets, stations, and of course, players inside. They are all realistically sized, with each one having a total diameter in the tens or hundreds of astronomical units (or AUs, about 150 million kilometers each, the distance from Earth to the sun). Warp drive allows you to travel at a maximum speed of about 6 AUs per second, but it takes some time to get up to speed, especially in larger ships. This means that traveling across the entire universe can take several hours since you have to stop at a stargate in each system.

I created a second account early on to act as a spy. Here, Rat Racer is getting the location of an enemy’s mission so my main, Project X592 can swoop in for the kill.

Unlike pretty much every other game out there, the concept of XP works very differently in eve. You don’t kill things to gain XP, level up, and get more powerful. Instead, you put skills into a queue and they passively train even while you are logged out as long as your account has an active subscription. Killing NPCs will usually give you money instead of XP. Players will spend most of their time trying to obtain more ISK, the game’s currency, one way or another.

The entire economy is controlled by players. Players are the ones manufacturing all ships, and most of the modules and ammo. Items always have a physical location in the game. Unlike other games where an item bought from one auction house can be bought and picked up at any other, nearly all stations in EVE have a local market. There are a few thousand systems in the game, and many will have one or more stations. Buying an item isn’t a matter of going to the closest auction house, finding the best price and picking it up at the mailbox a few feet away. For each item you’ll get a list of all the prices in the region, and it’s up to you to decide if you want to buy something close by and potentially get ripped off, or take the time to go to a far away station for the best deal.

A treasured memory… One of my first ransoms, a player in a Raven who thought I wasn’t a threat.

As you’ve probably heard, EVE is complicated. Complex rules of player aggression, a huge number of skills to train, a multitude of different ships with different roles, a vast player controlled economy and more, all accessed through a relatively convoluted UI. I can’t even begin to address just how complex this game is without breaking down each individual system. I could probably write an entire post about things like the combat, economy, corporations, aggression mechanics, or whatever else.

Lastly, it’s slow. Travelling between systems is slow, movement is slow, skill training is slow after the first few months, making money is slow. Even player battles can sometimes take several hours of real time. The combat is for the most part relatively slow and uninteresting too – orbit a target and turn on your guns, wait for it to die. It can get a lot more frantic and complicated in some PVP situations, but for the most part it’s pretty dull.

So that’s EVE. On the surface it sounds complicated and time consuming as all hell (because it is), so what made me want to play it?

For some reason, the pilot of this Megathron ejected before it blew up. I stole it.

A True Sandbox

At the highest level, what makes EVE so compelling to me is that it’s a sandbox MMO unlike any other I’ve played before. While there may have been a few games in the past that held some of the same appeal (Ultima Online, for example) none that I’m aware of have managed to stay alive and maintain a decent number of subscriptions like EVE has; though it does seem to have plateaued in recent years.

EVE’s complex web of systems and obscure UI create a living breathing world that makes any other MMO look like a shallow facsimile of a ‘universe’. Any time you buy an item, you buy it from someone probably trying to play the market for maximum gain. That person might have paid a hauler running transport contracts to bring that item to that specific station to take advantage of the low supply and gouge the person buying it. The item was probably manufactured by someone else entirely, who bought the minerals to make it from a miner. Maybe that item was even on a another player’s ship that was destroyed and looted by a pirate, who sold it for a quick buck at the nearest station.

This feeling of interconnectedness goes even further. When you take part in PVP in most MMOs, it’s an isolated experience (like a battleground in WoW) that has little meaning in the game as a whole. At most, you get some currency to buy some new piece of gear that is only used in those same PVP experiences. The key thing about EVE is that any time a player’s ship is destroyed, it’s gone for good.

I often used small cheap ships. I destroyed this Zealot, an expensive cruiser with a cheap little Thrasher.

Losing ships is connected to everything in the game. The fact that ships can be lost creates scarcity in the economy. Miners mine at all hours of the day to replace what gets destroyed, and the economy reacts in turn. In times of relative peace, supply grows, and prices drop (though there is inflation in EVE). When wars break out, it impacts the entire economy. These wars consume vast quantities of resources, and prices everywhere rise as everything becomes more scarce.

Losing ships makes tempers flare, and angry players rally their allies to take on their killers (usually those players just die). Losing ships grinds away at the resources of player alliances and weakens their hold on their space, potentially causing to it changing hands entirely.

There are many elements that make the EVE sandbox what it is, but the fact that players can be attacked any time they aren’t docked in a station and permanently lose their property creates intense competition, brotherhood, alliances, deception, theft, manipulation and more that you simply DO NOT find in any other game. The fact that CCP has an almost ‘anything goes’ attitude towards what players do in the game is an absolutely necessary component of this. If players weren’t allowed to steal, lie, or scam one another, EVE would probably look a lot like most other games, just a lot slower and more boring.

My activities often upset my targets. This player was so upset with me that she updated her character’s biography to try and insult me.

What did I see in it?

So EVE is this great big interconnected sandbox with meaningful consequences… But for a single player just starting the game, it’s pretty damn boring. Most of that stuff means nothing to you, and it meant nothing to me the first few times I tried playing the game. Veteran players recommend joining a corporation (EVE’s version of a guild) so you have people to play with. Because the game is so open and doesn’t have much in the way of long term progression, the leaders of corporations have to create their own goals. A good corporation will draw a player into EVE like nothing else.

Before I started stealing in EVE, I actually was in a corporation. But even that wasn’t enough to keep me interested in the game. It could be that they lacked a long term goal, or that they were too small, or something else, but I still felt my interest in the game waning.

It was at this time that I decided to turn to the dark side of EVE… The first time I stole a cargo hold full of ore from another player, I felt an adrenaline rush. Were they going to shoot me? COULD they destroy me? I had no idea! I brought the ore back to a nearby station and sold it for a tidy profit. Then I did it again, and again. Then, I improved my methodology…

I certainly didn’t win every fight. I lost many ships to fights like this one against four other players (the Velator is a new player ship, it doesn’t count!). Luckily, I was beside a stargate and escaped… this time.

Birth of a pirate

Before I continue breaking down the game design of EVE and why it makes the game what it is, I think a small case study is in order. I can’t talk about EVE without going into my own journey as a pirate in the game. As I go, I’ll describe the game mechanics that allowed me to do what I did.

It only took a few days to figure out that stealing ore with a transport wasn’t a very efficient way to make money or find fights. The ship was defenseless, and if I wanted to return in a combat capable ship, most players would leave the area before I could get back to the scene of the crime. I needed a new strategy.

Other ‘unfair’ fights I did win. All 4 players here were either destroyed or ran away.

It’s around this time that I found out about ‘can flipping’. A ‘can’ is another name for the cargo containers that players use to drop things in space. You can use them to pass things from one player to another, or to leave something floating around temporarily, or for anyone else who wants it by abandoning the container. They also have a lot of space inside them. At the time, they had several times the cargo space of any mining ship.

This is relevant because even though EVE is an MMO, lots of players still play solo in high sec, and lots of them spend their time mining. Without another player to transport their ore, they spend an awful lot of time going back and forth between the station due to their cargo hold size… Unless they use one or more cargo containers. Some players even give names to their containers with the current time so they don’t risk them expiring after 90 minutes. They maximize profits by using a large transport ship for as few trips as possible using these ‘cans’.

While miners take advantage of the cargo hold size of cargo containers, can flippers abuse it in almost the same way. By jettisoning something really small like a single unit of ammo next to a can full of ore, you can transfer ALL of the ore from their can to yours all at once without having to fetch a transport. From there, the can flipper is free to destroy the ore, or transport and sell it themselves. The fact that players often named their cans with time stamps only made it easier to locate can miners with the directional scanner.

An example of ‘can flipping’. You can see the container full of someone else’s ore, and an Orca that for some reason decided attacking some with their freighter was a good idea…

For most can flippers, the ore is not the true target. The goal is more often than not to destroy the mining ships, sometimes in the hopes of getting the somewhat expensive strip miner modules they carry. But more often than not, they do it for the sheer fun of destroying defenseless miners. Back then, any time you stole something from another player you would gain an aggression flag towards them and their corporation (if they had one). This allowed them to shoot you freely, which in turn caused ANOTHER flag between the two of you which allowed both of you to shoot one another. Usually though, they’d steal their ore back, which allowed you to shoot them just as if they’d shot first.

It’s similar today, except that stealing allows ALL players to shoot you, which can be good or bad depending on the situation. That second combat flag was the end goal of can flipping; it’s what allows you to destroy helpless miners! (Note: CCP increased the cargo hold size of all mining ships years later, effectively killing most opportunities for can flipping.)

Another example of the fruits of can flipping. A different, but very dead Orca.

I did this for a while, got kills, and even a few small ransoms, but I learned of yet another game mechanic that could be even more profitable… War declarations. A ‘war dec’ is between two corporations or alliances and allows all players on each side to shoot one another freely anywhere in space. I suppose this was created by CCP to allow people to settle their differences or practice fighting without the interference of outside forces. In practice, it’s used almost exclusively as a method of griefing.

After can flipping for a while, I found out about war decs, and decided to try them out by creating a one man corporation and ‘deccing’ people I found while can flipping that seemed like good targets. Once the war was declared, I’d contact the CEO of the target corporation and demand a ransom to end the war; nothing too high since I was only one person, and I always made sure to honor any ransoms that were paid (even though CCP wouldn’t force me to!)

This unfortunate war target was unable to cough up the ransom, and was podded.

I had a lot of fun doing this, but eventually even this died down for me, mostly due to the time involved. Most of my time was spent bouncing from system to system looking for cans to flip, waiting outside of stations to see if war targets would undock, or using locator agents to find those war targets in the first place. It was all very time consuming, and in the end I was still just playing solo for the most part. Even still, I played the game for a year or two and loved it at the time.

I’ve tried to go back several times but it’s never recaptured the appeal it once had. Part of this is probably down to the nerf of can flipping – mining ships have much larger cargo holds now. I was able to play the game on my own and have fun, but with that gone I have no choice but to play with others. That’s not a bad thing but it makes it so I can’t as easily control when or how long I play for, which I really do not want in a video game! I’m not trying to argue that the game should cater itself to me, however, only that these were my reasons for quitting.

EVE is the only game it can be

The reason I ended up quitting EVE was that it was simply too time consuming. The world that EVE created was unlike any other I had ever explored or had a part in, and I did feel like I had a very real part in it… even if that impact was very small overall. In the end though, the amount of time that it took to do anything was just to much. I had school to deal with, and I wanted to play other games. I hadn’t formed any long term connections in the game because I’m generally antisocial as hell when playing games online.

I always hated people talking crap in EVE… This player surely regretted doing so!

I would argue, however, that this is the only way that EVE could possibly exist. Imagine for a moment that CCP decided to make everything in EVE faster – mining is faster, travel is faster, the combat system is overhauled, but everything else stays the same. I can imagine that one of two things will happen. One possibility is that players will spend just as much time as they did playing the game before, building and losing more stuff, to the point that the game will effectively be as time consuming as it was before, except with more expensive stuff blowing up all the time. The other is that supply will vastly exceed demand, and that the amount of effort that it takes to get a new ship will be so small that it’s no longer very relevant, and the game loses the impact of destroyed ships having real meaning.

The point, however, is that the thing that gives the game meaning is time. Players invest their time into the game. When they lose a ship, or their corporation is destroyed, or they reach a goal they’ve been aiming for, the fact that their time counted for either something or nothing makes it mean so much more.

Other games like League of Legends can have that impact to a lesser degree when you move up the ranks, but EVE is the only game I’m aware of where you can actively destroy the results of someone else’s time, or get revenge on someone doing it to you.

The fact that players invest their time into the game means that each ship, each module, each piece of ammo has real value to the player. You could argue this for any other game, but in EVE, these things can be destroyed or stolen… Or you can destroy or steal these things from other players. In essence, you can rob them of their time. When you destroy another player’s battleship (battleships are a specific class of ship, I’m not making terrible board game jokes), you know that that ship probably took them many hours to acquire, and that it will probably take them almost as long to replace it. You risked your own ship to do it, and it would have taken you a while to replace it if you had failed. Blowing up that ship means so much more than beating someone in a ladder game in Starcraft II.

Apparently I was pretty confident I was going to win this fight since I took a screenshot… I wasn’t fast enough when trying to escape and lost a battleship.

The ability to destroy drives so many players, just as it drives others to protect, or to create. Sure you can create things in other games, but when it’s just soulbound and discarded once the next expansion hits, it’s almost meaningless.

This, I believe, is the essence of what makes EVE so compelling. This is why players band together into huge alliances. This is why players wait for years to plan their revenge on those that wrong them. This is why players hatch elaborate schemes to steal massive amounts of ISK. This is why players will fight battles lasting for hours and destroy hundreds of thousands of real dollars worth of ships.

I’m not aware of any games that you can still play today that come close to providing a similar experience and actually have people playing them. If you know of any, please, let me know in the comments below!

Can I use this?

There is so much that can be said about so many different aspects of eve. The economy, the politics, the espionage and so on. It’s a fascinating game, and I could write so much more about it, but let’s bring it back to my own journey to become a better game designer, and perhaps yours as well.

I doubt that the elements that make EVE so special could be applied to anything other than an MMO. That sense of an interconnected world only occurs in an MMO, and the game obviously has to at least be a multiplayer experience to allow players to invest their time into it and take it away from one another.

In reality, if you’re a solo developer or on a small team EVE won’t teach you anything that you couldn’t learn from games like Darkest Dungeon or XCOM. I think it’s unlikely that a game like EVE could be made by a small sized team. This is probably why we don’t see anything out there like EVE. Large teams are mostly funded by publishers that are afraid to take risks on creating games that deviate too much from what they know will provide a return on their investment. With the rise of crowdfunding, however, we may end up seeing new games that borrow elements of EVE in new and interesting ways.

I joined a corporation as Rat Racer, and discovered a corp thief had joined and offered to “take everyone’s stuff to Jita to sell it”. We didn’t fall for it.

If you’re trying to create an MMO as a small team, I’d be tempted to question your sanity. Even still, I think there may be a gap in the market for games like EVE. I think it’s certainly possible to create a game that takes the core of what makes EVE so special, while filing down the many many rough edges that it has.

As for my own work, EVE serves only to give me some insight into why players care about games they play and the progress they make in them. Thinking about why I enjoy the games I play is critically important for my growth as a game designer as well. Beyond that, it’s not likely my own games will incorporate much of EVE’s design.

That isn’t the point of this post though. EVE is a fascinating game, and I really enjoy writing about it. I only wish there were more games out there like it!

I’ll leave you with this lovely piece of fan art we received during my brief time in Ex-Mortis.

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