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A ship in the F4R2-Q system comes under fire during a vicous battle in Eve Online. Image: Razorien Eve

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Eve Online historian recounts how players made a chaotic space opera all their own

An excerpt from Andrew Groen’s Empires of Eve Volume 2

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Eve Online, the famously tedious science fiction game, turned 18 years old earlier this month. For nearly two decades, CCP Games’ epic spacefaring MMO has brought players around the world together in a shared universe called New Eden, a wild and dangerous place filled with conflict and intrigue. While the game itself has a fiction all its own, the best stories always seem to come from players. They’re the stuff of great space opera, but — like many things on the internet — all of it is ephemeral. That’s made the work of author and Eve historian Andrew Groen all the more difficult.

Groen’s first book, Empires of Eve: A History of the Great Wars of Eve Online, was published in 2016. Originally funded through Kickstarter, it remains the definitive work on Eve’s early history. It’s a tale pieced together from old message boards, rare first-hand accounts, and chat logs squirreled away in obscure corners of the internet. On Tuesday, May 25, Volume 2 goes up for sale, representing another few years of careful work. Polygon is proud to present a lengthy transcript of the entire first chapter.

We’ve already spent some time with the final product, which was recently delivered to backers. You’ll find this is a sequel written to be approachable and suitable even for readers who have no understanding of Eve or who have not read the first book.


Ships in Eve Online tether to a nearby structure, preparing for battle. Image: Razorien Eve

On May 6, 2003, the tiny Icelandic video game studio CCP Games released a spaceship game called Eve Online to stores around Europe. In Eve, as it existed in 2003, players piloted starships through a hostile science fiction universe populated by thousands of other players. Though it was predated by an elder lineage of online virtual worlds, this spaceship game had two things that set it apart from its predecessors.

First, it took place in a single online environment. Everyone who played the game inhabited the same, persistent online world as everyone else. That single virtual environment, a cloud of more than 5000 star systems collectively called “New Eden,” was online 23.5 hours a day, 7 days a week, pausing only briefly each night for server maintenance.

The other factor that made this game different was a unique sense of object permanence. The starships players could build and fly in Eve were costly, and when their hit points reached zero, they were gone forever. That meant every ship, regardless of how big, expensive, storied, or overpowered it was, could always be permanently destroyed. In other words, loss was an integral part of the game design. Every player’s kill was another player’s death. Every ship and every character had a story all its own, and every story was intertwined.

Because the game of Eve is online essentially at all times, events cannot be reset or reversed. Whatever the players manage to achieve — good or bad, purposeful or for lulz — is written into the history of the game, live, as it happens. Eve looks the way it does today because of what happened yesterday, and yesterday can trace its lineage all the way back to the days of the game’s launch. Every one of the player characters is linked to every other, even if they play on opposite sides of the star cluster, even if they are from opposite time zones, and even if they played years apart from one another.

In Eve, as in the real world, today comes after yesterday and inherits its conditions. If you lost your ship yesterday, you no longer have it today. Nor tomorrow.

As a result of this continuity, the history of Eve Online comprises one singularly grand narrative, with millions of characters across — as of this printing — nearly two decades. The majority of those characters scarcely affected the universe at all; most people who try Eve quit after only a few minutes. Eve is hard. But those who stayed found a universe they could shape according to their personal designs.

That singular narrative has the flavor of the fictional space opera world it takes place within, but because each character is controlled by a real human person the characters are all non-fictional. They are each a real person. Even when a player is actually secretly controlling multiple characters, those characters’ choices are still controlled by a human mind, and players’ real lives outside the game affect their destinies within it. When we examine the story that exists between all the players we find a spectacularly complex narrative belonging to no individual, but created by the convergence of the entire community.

Eve Online is like that classic parable about a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters eventually producing the complete works of Shakespeare. The difference is that the great ape species of Eve is the slightly more intelligent homo sapiens, and they are far greater in number than a thousand. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, if the history of Eve mirrors Macbeth.

The story of Eve

Some aspects of the game have changed throughout the years. New sectors of space have been added, landmarks have been placed to mark historic events, and CCP has made more than a few graphical improvements. But many things also remain the same. Then as now, the game is set in a cluster of stars called “New Eden”—each star with its own planets and moons, many with space stations, pirate hideouts, or mysterious relics from secretive lost races—for players to explore and encounter each other within. The universe of New Eden is one of extreme beauty and grandeur. Enormous, ribbon-like nebulas streak across each system’s skyboxes, and hulking, iron ships slip with perfect grace in and out of the ports of the orbital space stations that serve as player trading hubs.

The star systems in the center of the star cluster are controlled by non-player empires playing out a fictional space opera. Those empires employ a police force called Concord which is capable of punishing players who attack other players. In the outer rim of the star cluster, however, far beyond the borders of the NPC empires the star systems have no protections of any kind. Players are free to venture out into “nullsec” (zero security) space and do as they please. They can access rare and valuable materials inside the nullsec asteroid belts and in the wrecks of NPC pirates. They can fight and kill other players. They can institute their own laws if they have the strength to enforce them. They can form groups and become rich, building hubs of commerce.

Previous online games had already shown that players will inevitably seek to form their own virtual societies when given the opportunity to communicate and interact sufficiently. But in the long history of video game development, nobody had ever put so many people in a single confined digital space and forced them to compete for scarce resources. What followed was somewhere between Ready Player One and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The social web

Back in 1990, virtual world trailblazer Richard Bartle published a seminal essay describing the four chief archetypes of personalities people exhibit in online worlds. The first are the Achievers, who spend most of their time striving to advance further in the game. Next are the Explorers, who search the far corners of the world and test the fine details of its systems. Third are the Socializers, who view the game primarily as a means for interacting with other people and roleplaying other identities. The final type Bartle describes is the one with the most profound implications for the Eve universe. Bartle nicknamed this group the Killers, and described their chief governing impulse:

iv) Imposition upon others.

Players use the tools provided by the game to cause distress to (or, in rare circumstances, to help) other players.”

Richard Bartle, co-creator of MUD1,

From the essay “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs”, published in 1990

All of Bartle’s archetypes found a home in the expansive cosmos of Eve Online. But it was the Killers, and their myriad methods of “imposition upon others,” who set it on the path to what it is today—for better or worse.

Most of the early players of 2003 Eve had already been testers in its incomplete beta state. Those players used that time to establish social networks and figure out advanced fighting techniques and money-earning strategies, so that when the game officially launched those players immediately became important and influential. They knew how to mine and run trade routes in order to get rich quickly on Eve’s first day, and they knew how to leverage that into wealth beyond the average player’s wildest dreams. While they were busily building their fortunes, these players had also unconsciously begun to forge Eve’s greatest asset: the vast and intricate social web which binds the community together through virtual space and time.

But many players were not content to merely make their fortunes as merchants and manufacturers. Instead, they built advanced warships and set up devastating blockades on heavily-trafficked nullsec stargates. These pirates gleefully destroyed and looted the mining ships of brand new players who had no idea yet that player-killing was even possible. Hundreds of these virtually victimized players sent angry messages to CCP Games’ game managers. CCP, in turn, calmly explained player-versus-player combat to this first crop of Eve newbies, some of whom were playing in their first ever online world.

Some of these players knew that Eve was predated by other online games, and that it had inherited their problems. As they always had, the Achievers, the Socializers, the Explorers, and the Killers mutually agreed that their counterparts had no place in the game and were a scourge. They would attack each other and beseech the game developers to change the game mechanics to make it more hospitable to their preferred playstyle and inhospitable to the others. In Eve, they do so to this day. And yet, there is a peculiar interdependence between these player groups, despite their mutual animosity, that Eve seeks to exploit.

Raph Koster, designer of the legendary virtual worlds Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, put it well in his observations on Bartle’s findings:

The fascinating part of the essay is where Bartle discusses the interactions between these groups. Killers are like wolves, in his model. And therefore they eat sheep, not other wolves. And the sheep are the Socializers, with some occasional Achievers for spice. Why? Because killers are about the exercise of power, and you do not get the satisfaction of exercising power unless the victim complains vocally about it. Which Socializers will tend to do.

Further, Bartle pointed out that eliminating the Killers from the mix of the population results in a stagnant society. The Socializers become cliquish, and without adversity to bring communities together, they fragment and eventually go away. Similarly, Achievers, who are always looking for the biggest and baddest monster to kill, will find a world without Killers to be lacking in risk and danger, and will grow bored and move on.

Yet at the same time, too many Killers will quite successfully chase away everyone else. And after feeding on themselves for a little while, they will move on too. Leaving an empty world.”

Raph Koster, Lead Designer of Ultima Online, one of the primary design inspirations for Eve Online

May 7, 1998

The magic of Eve is that it seeks to find a balance between these types of players, and provides a grand interstellar stage for that human social ecology to play out. CCP Games vowed to judge no one’s playstyle. The universe was a sandbox, and whatever you decided to build with the sand was your choice. It was even your choice whether to build with the sand or throw it in someone’s eyes and smash what they were building. Where in previous online games Killers were reviled as literally immoral, Eve Online offered them a place within its ecosystem and allowed them to fulfill their role as catalysts for change. It asked the community of the game to govern itself as much as possible, only stepping in themselves if there was outright cheating or a threat of real world violence. At the same time, the developers nudged Eve toward war by creating systems for collaborating with friends and uniting against enemies.

In 1998, in response to a dispute between Killers and Socializers within his own community, Ultima Online’s Raph Koster wondered what he was truly observing:

What exactly is the population of an online world, and what social forces drive it? One word seems at the center of the issue: Power. The conflicts that arise are there precisely because competing agendas (and often, as in the case of the playerkillers versus the roleplayers, competing play styles) attempt to exercise power over one another. [...]

We must have playerkillers in UO, because the world would suffer if we did not have them. But they also must be channeled, so that their effect is beneficial, and not detrimental. [...] It’s largely about perspectives. The issue for the Killers is whether they will gain the wider perspective and cease to be “virtually sociopathic.” And the issue for the Socializers is whether they will recognize that the Killers are a part of their society too, and not always a bad one.

The thorny issues that then remain are the nitty-gritty of virtual community building: how do we govern in a world of anonymity? How do we police, and who polices, the players or the game administrators? What sort of punishment is appropriate for virtual crime? What sort of punishment is even possible for virtual crime?”

Raph Koster, Lead Designer, Ultima Online

May 7, 1998

Reading Koster’s and Bartle’s writings, it is hard not to believe that they somehow knew the destiny of Eve before it was even built. It seems that the patterns at play in Eve Online are hardcoded into our systems, similar to the patterns that govern the motions of cities. However, just like cities, the design, layout, and governance of a virtual world play an essential role in shaping the people and their quality of life. Each person is undeniably an individual, and yet — knowingly or not — they fit inescapably into a grander human pattern.

The ability of Eve Online players to exert power over one another incentivized piracy, plotting, and bold schemes. The risk and danger caused by this forced people together and lead them to form groups for safety. The groups they formed almost always coalesced around certain types of gameplay: socializing, exploration, achievement, and—most infamously in this universe — “imposition upon others.”

Eve is an experiment that has been evolving since Day 1, and we continually observe new behaviors. In many ways Eve Online has always been an astoundingly forward-thinking game. It pioneered a number of technologies and design practices that are still being jealously studied by CCP’s competition to this day. Almost twenty years later, its technology is still capable of amazing feats, and its design is full of old truths the gaming industry has largely forgotten.

The design of the game meant that the community was constantly tearing itself apart and putting itself back together again.

Pre-history

The story of Eve is not something that can be written down in full. There are more characters in that story than there are words in both volumes of Empires of Eve. The community’s travails, told in full, could fill a thousand books with a thousand pages, each story intimately interwoven with the others. It would likely be impossible to read because all of the stories happen concurrently.

Empires of Eve: Volume 1 summarizes the story of Eve’s first six years of existence, focusing on the player-conquerable “nullsec” regions of space. The Eve community was generously patient with my storytelling as I tried to condense a 4-dimensional story onto the 2-dimensional page, necessarily leaving out volumes of detail and nuance.

Taken as a whole, that story is about the formation of the first dominant superpower within Eve Online — “Band of Brothers” — and how it very nearly conquered the entire game. The climax of that story details an uprising unique in gaming history as the Russians of “Red Alliance,” the French of “Tau Ceti Federation,” and “Goonswarm” of SomethingAwful.com formed “RedSwarm Federation” and united with the largely european “Northern Coalition” to turn back the BoB advance and eventually destroyed the organization from the inside out.

The climactic conquest of BoB’s home region of Delve came in mid-2009, and BoB had dominated the game since 2004. Nobody knew what a world without BoB even looked like. Some organizations had no other goal or purpose for being except fighting Band of Brothers. They were left rudderless, confused even, in the wake of the collapse of their great enemy.

The defeat of Band of Brothers ushered in an entirely new era in Eve Online, and it’s in the dawn of that new age that the story of Empires of Eve: Volume 2 begins.

Cold, dark, and harsh

A single, large, player-owned ship flees a conflagration around a player-owned structure. Explosions erupt in its wake. Image: Razorien Eve

Early in Eve’s life, a community manager summed up the game’s ethos with one of the most enduring descriptions that defines the game to this day.

Eve isn’t just designed to look like a cold, dark, and harsh world,” they wrote. “It’s designed to be a cold, dark, and harsh world.”

It’s an understatement. Eve is a social bloodsport in which the cost of failure is often the destruction of your community. And because there are no limits on how much the player can apply themselves toward their goal, gameplay at the peak of Eve sometimes involved drastic extremes of human behavior like rage, deceit, propaganda, character assassination, and weaponised racism and misogyny.

In creating space for the best in us, the Eve ethos also created space for the worst in us, and there are many scars and much graffiti on the history of Eve to prove it.

However, there are many people here who are genuinely warm, bright, and kind. For them, the fight against the cold, dark, and harsh is the entire point of their time in Eve. The leaders of these organizations of players describe their experience with striking similarity. Many of the corporation leaders I spoke to describe a feeling of deep exhaustion. It is often only through sheer community loyalty that many of the organizations described in this book manage to survive against the crushing natural entropy of the Eve universe. If there’s one thing that unites most Eve players I’ve met it’s a shared love of darkness. Either fighting it or revelling in it.

Many of those leaders told me they would quit Eve if they could; some of them desperately want to. They’re tired, but they’ve been here long enough to know how rare their light is in this place. Some of them have been here since 2003, and they’ve endured 18+ years of cruel conquerors and cynical con artists becoming increasingly sophisticated and diminishingly discerning.

With their newbies chattering on comms in the glittering darkness, the humble corporation CEO waves a torch to keep Eve’s nature at bay a while longer, wondering how long they have until the fire gets too dim to scare back the darkness.

Which it eventually will. In Eve, nothing is more certain.

Tranquility

Never was this principle of inevitable entropy more clear than in the case of Band of Brothers, who had once looked as if it had broken the game and would be impossible to stop from establishing a system of complete control over all of New Eden.

Empires of Eve: Volume 2 is the story of the next stage in that unending cycle: of those who came to power amid the downfall of BoB, and how those powers grappled with an entirely new dynamic in nullsec. The balance of power had changed. The game mechanics of nullsec were set to change. The Internet itself was changing outside and around the game, and Eve Online was on the brink of a golden age.

With the conquest of Delve complete and the final BoB base at “49-U6U” captured, SirMolle and his lieutenants were chased back to empire space in defeat. Goonswarm CEO Darius Johnson resigned from his post and with his final proclamation trolled triumphantly, “Delve is Goons. Anime is cartoons. Welcome to the most profitable and heavily fortified region of space in the galaxy. Delve is impossible to invade. We know because we’ve tried. Our bitter struggle is finally over, and at long last our revolution is complete.”

Much of the story that follows deals with the seismic effects of this revolution, and the farflung destinies of the groups who managed to achieve it.

It’s also the story of how the victors managed to blow it completely.