Posted by Jack on 2013-12-02 at 18:43
Tagged: gaming

The holiday season is MMO season for me it seems. Last year I dusted off a six-year dormant World of Warcraft account to see what was up. I played for two months and got bored.

A week or so ago, I got an Elder Scrolls Online beta invite, and that was interesting but obviously beta so it's hard to judge. It seemed to be very much in the WoW vein and as such I can't say I'm really interested (although I would definitely play another round of the beta to give it a fair shake).

Then I played EVE.

EVE is a ten year old MMO and every time I heard of it I thought "Wow, that sounds pretty neat," and went about my business. I did a similar shuffle with Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft, hearing bits and pieces of neat stuff until I eventually took the hint and started to play them. Now they're two of my favorite games ever. When I caught wind of CCP's 14 day free trial of EVE and just so happened to have most of the week off for Thanksgiving, I decided to give it a whirl.

Once again, I'm glad I did.

EVE has discovered a core feature of MMOs that I think is starting to catch on: being low maintenance. Warcraft and its many clones have done all they could to make the game easy and less time consuming, but when you play these games you're still actively clicking around, grouping up, fighting monsters. While playing they require not only a time commitment but also an attention commitment.

EVE, on the other hand, is all about long term planning. Its skill system operates in real time, taking minutes, hours, or even days of real time to train a skill but you don't have to be logged on or active in that time. You also don't need to do content to train them, there is no XP, you have no level, you just buy a book from the market. Of course, that requires money you have to earn but you can do that in a million different ways from mining, which can be safe and hands off for almost an hour but has little return, to piracy which requires your full attention but can be most lucrative.

Initially, when I heard that people usually surf Reddit or watch Netflix while playing EVE, I thought it was a criticism. Now I realize it's genius. In WoW to advance you have to kill mobs and get loot. That's the entire game. Sometimes, like the first time through an area, that's fun but a lot of the time that descends into repetitive and boring gameplay. There's a reason that it's called "grinding" when a player is out killing an endless stream of boars for their leather. EVE has repetition too (mining is basically the same thing over and over), but it doesn't require you to participate in it, only to set it up and then go do something else for awhile. In short, EVE is perfectly happy to let you automate the grindy parts, where WoW and ilk force you to manually slaughter a thousand boar in shifts of ten even if it's the last thing in the game you'd like to be doing.

I believe that this core difference, high vs. low maintenance, is why WoW has started to hemorrhage subscribers (7.7 million in 2013 down from a peak of 12 million in 2010 - Source) where EVE has been on a steady uptick for a decade. To be fair EVE only has 500k subscribers, but considering that pretty much all new MMO titles are falling back on some form of free to play, having half a million subs is still impressive. Being high maintenance, requiring the player's full attention, makes it very easy to get bored with repetitive content. WoW has released many expansion packs (although not even half as many as EVE) that add lots of content and streamline the gameplay but fundamentally it's the same game. If you're bored with killing mobs for loot then more levels, zones, skills, gear, race, and class options all focused on killing mobs for loot aren't going to make you any less bored.

EVE takes a more organic approach to the problem of player fatigue by not forcing you to do anything but when you do decide on what you want to do, EVE lets you take it to its logical conclusion. For example, crafting. In WoW you can craft a very select set of items, you craft enough of them, you skill up and get more items you can craft. 99% of your gear, however, is all from mob drops or quest/dungeon/PvP system rewards. In EVE not only can you craft manufacture every single useful item in the game from battleships to ammo, you can also jump in at any point in the process as long as you have the skill (again, leveled in real time rather than by grinding) and the blueprint. WoW lets you craft trinkets to enhance your ability to craft trinkets. EVE lets you become a one man monopoly, a wealthy industrialist with factory capacity and long chains of players supplying them and distributing from them.

EVE's PvP interaction is also a natural extension of the game. WoW lets you grief other players in zones, or face off in structured arenas for sport but it's all consequence free fun. The WoW community would be up in arms if PvPers could destroy each other's gear or really cause anything but the mildest of setbacks. In EVE this is a matter of course. You can be part of a roving band of pirates (or just one really opportunistic businessman) preying on other players or you can be the victim and lose your ship, its fittings, its cargo, your implants and even your skills (if you're not careful) while those that attack you make a profit on your corpse. Death hurts in EVE because it has real consequences, which seems to be a unique feature among MMOs.

Importantly, player interaction isn't limited to co-op or opposing combat. EVE deaths and ship losses hurt, but they also benefit the game because they make a lot of other industries work. Battle and piracy means a lot of dead ships for salvage and a lot of people that need to buy ships and gear to replace their losses. In this way, EVE is much closer to being a real ecosystem than any other game I've played. Each trade hub has buyers and sellers and manufacturers. Supply and demand fluctuate based on reality rather than artificial drop chances. Playing as a trader buying and selling goods, there's a fair chance that the commodities you're ferrying around were produced by players with resources gathered by players, were sold by players, and will be bought by real human players. External factors, like warfare in a region, jump prices not because of some algorithm but because real people there need replacements and are willing to pay higher prices rather than having to travel for ten minutes round trip to get them marginally cheaper. Instead, you can do that for them and make a tidy profit in the meantime. Low security systems have higher prices because the dangerous space surrounding them is teeming with pirates. High security, well positioned starbases naturally become trading posts. When you simulate a world at a high level, details like this just sort of shake out of the system.

Now, of course, EVE is still a game. There's a progression to it that the developer enforces. Ships, modules, skills all form a distinct hierarchy. The asteroids you mine still magically respawn. NPC corporations and enemies still go about their routine. Nobody's ever going to independently develop a ship that didn't already exist (yet). Within the limitations and bare requirements of the MMO genre, EVE does quite a lot by sketching the universe and letting players fill in the details.

Which leads me to another facet of the game I find fascinating: it is surprisingly fertile ground for immersion. The EVE universe is undoubtedly minimalistic. After all, most systems are just open space with a pretty backdrop and some landmarks strewn about. Yet this doesn't alter that fact the setting is immaculately well realized. Space is beautiful and empty and space travel is long. You find yourself existing in the world very easily. There is nothing you would wish to do, within the context of a spaceship game, that you can't do. There are no doors that can't be opened, there are no ships you can't control or destroy, no products you can't produce. When you trade commodities that other players have put up and other players are buying, you are no longer roleplaying a trader, you are a trader. You're not shipping things back and forth for some AIs that really couldn't care less, you're helping another player achieve his goals and making a buck in the meantime, just like a real trader. When you decide to attack another player's ship or ransom it, you're no longer roleplaying a pirate, you are a pirate. Even when you've backgrounded EVE to mine and you're watching Netflix... what do you think the captain of an automated mining ship is going to be doing while his ore hold is being filled up? That's right, you're no longer roleplaying a miner, you are a miner. Nothing is symbolic. You don't do just do pirate missions to be a pirate. You don't get a pirate costume or a class designation or a special ship or title. You just are a pirate, just like a moment later you could just be an explorer or even a powerful CEO. You roleplay in the universe by virtue of existing in the universe.

Compare this to WoW. The universe is baroque and well articulated, but it's still false. You can't live in Stormwind, you just log out. You can't open all the doors. You can't produce items that match up with the best epic gear. You can't even really affect other players except to give them a hard time for awhile or defeat them in consequence free PvP. Everything is merely symbolic. One player "killed" another, nevermind he's respawned and is going about his business without missing a beat, buying new gear, or even giving it a second thought. The players rise up and fight the big boss, but the tide is never turned, the war is never won, the story never moves on until Blizzard releases another expansion pack.

I can't say that I'm going to be a long term EVE subscriber. I'll get busy, get distracted by other games, etc. I've never played an MMO for more than a couple of months before moving on. However, between having the capability to queue up days of real time skill training in less than a minute and being able to play the game in short bursts of interaction, I don't feel obligated to spend hours actively playing the game to get my money's worth. If you keep your skill queue going, whenever you have time to actually sit and play for awhile you'll still have gained as many skill points as someone that logged on every day. Combine this with the fact that CCP releases two expansions a year that are free to current owners instead of a biennial shake down for the price of a full game and there's really no reason to unsubscribe unless you're confident you don't want to ever play again. Even being broke isn't an excuse since you can buy game time with in game currency (although I'm betting it takes awhile to be able to general almost a billion ISK in a month and not get wiped out).

What I can say is that, for someone completely bored with WoW-alike theme park MMOs, playing EVE over the last week has been refreshing.