EVE: Second Genesis

Developer: CCP Games
Publisher: CCP Games
Release Date: May 2003 Worldwide
Genre Keywords: Persistent, Online, Economy, PvP, RPG, Strategy, Space
Format: PC CD or Download (~400 MB)
Site: http://www.eve-online.com (forums, character tracker, knowledge base, in-game and real world game news)
Price: 19.95USD sign-up, 14.95 USD / month, 35 USD / 3 months, 65 USD / 6 months

Depending on who you ask, MMO games are either the Second Coming, or a complete waste of time. You can't really help but see the potential of worlds and situations created on the fly by real humans and not limited artificial opponents, shoddy AI, or obscure puzzles that no one but a developer could have thought entertaining. On the other hand, at the core of every MMO is the simple modus operandi: keep people playing and paying. This invariably leads to painfully artificial game-extending methods which sap the life out of any potentially interesting game mechanic. Can we say Jedi in Star Wars Galaxies?1 This is what's commonly referred to as the grind, or timesink; the repetative activity that ceases to be fun and becomes a chore that you must perform to get to the perceived "good part" (fighting a new enemy, traveling to a new area, gaining new trappings for your in-game avatar) - over and over and over again. Some games, such as PlanetSide, manage to dispense with this by offering XP via Player vs Player (PvP) combat - as the main point of the game is PvP combat, you gain XP via doing what you would be doing anyway. Sadly, it also loses the "new area, new enemy, new loot" mechanic - since it basically doesn't provide any of this (see my w/u for details).

Enough with the back story already...

EVE approaches the MMO concept from a different direction. Instead of using the classic MMO restriction of activities being XP-limited (i.e. you can't do X until you're level Y), everything simply has a price (in Interstellar Standard Kredits, or ISK for short), from items, to new ships, to even skills.

Opinion: This feels inherently more satisfying because you can gain ISK in many different ways, be it by mining, NPC hunting, crafting for profit or for the growth of your Corporation, or even piracy, and you can use it for anything you like. Unlike XP which is traditionally used for learning new skills solely, here you can choose to invest your cash in either a new skill (which opens new options) or new equipment for your ship, or a new ship, or...etc. Control of your destiny is fully yours.

The second innovation that CCP came up with is time-based skill learning. While you have to actually purchase new skills, training them simply takes time - the more complex a skill, the more time it takes. So while you can learn simple Gunnery in under an hour (real time), to raise it to level 4 or 5 may take days or even weeks of real time (although you don't even have to play to train - training continues 24/7 as long as you have a skill assigned to train, whether you're logged in or not) - because that skill level gives access to some truly awesome equipment.

Opinion: I like this because with one swell foop, CCP has cut the timesink of "Dammit, I need to kill X more critters before I get this skill completed. Then finally I can Y!" Now you go off and do Y-1 while your skill trains itself, and by the time you arrive at the ability to do Y, you may find you don't even need to do it since you've already reached your financial goal via Y-1*. In addition, lots of options open to you with each level gained, so instead of specializing you can spread out your skills at an early level and gain options that way.

* Where Y and Y-1 are ISK-making activities of varying profitability.

So what do you do?

At the core, EVE is still an MMO. You will earn money to afford better equipment, to better outfit your ship, to go into higher danger areas, to earn more money and repeat until sated. However, there are so many solar systems (over 5,000), so many choices (4 races, 2 subclasses each, choice of 3 initial specialisations, professions, education and direction - this just determines your starting stats) in what you want to do and how to go about it, and such a purely ridiculous amount of mad loot to be found, that EVE achieves what some MMOs struggle with - distraction. Here's how that works.

I set out today in my Probe (a low-level ship, decent cargo space, 2 weapon slots, low armor and firepower) to mine some Omber (profitable ore) in lower security space to earn enough for my AfterBurner skill (allows you to install AfterBurner modules on any ship), as I'm tired of being slow in normal space. I might save some minerals on the side to build me that second ship I've been storing the blueprint for, too. I'm mining happily along (3-4 minutes, faster with better equipment) when out from beyond the next asteroid two NPC pirates jump me. I switch off my mining equipment hastily and power-up the Gatling Autocannon (I don't have enough energy to run them both - a calculated risk, since powering up an inactive module requires your ship be at full power) in preparation for a fight. There's 2 of them, and 2 more appear - each kill nets me a cool 2,000 ISK as reward from the Law Enforcement faction and some minor loot from the ships. One of the loot pieces I get is a Polarized Laser Frequency Modulator, something to improve firing rates for laser weapons.

I don't have that skill - my race is into projectile weapons - so I hightail it back to a nearby station and read up on it in safety (real time passes while you access info screens, better to be safe). I check up on the item, then pop the market window to see what it's worth; it's not a lot, but if I travel a few jumps I can nearly double the ISK from selling it - and they give me better prices on refining ore. So I head there, plotting a safe course - since I have a full cargo hold and present a ripe target - and taking the weaponry offline, instead toggling the shield boost, the hull strength boost and the auto-repair mod online - just in case. While on the way, I re-examine the Modulator and start wondering if I should invest in laser weapons, since they don't use up ammo - might be a cool second weapons ability to have. Oh hey, don't Amarr ships have bonuses to laser turrets? Hmm, maybe I should look into acquiring that ability ... and a new ship.

Oh damn. Totally forgot about those AfterBurners. Maybe tomorrow?

So there you have it

Of course eventually you will have tried everything (although the designers calculated that it would take 3 real time years to just learn all the skills) and won't get distracted so easily. For those higher-level players there are still the differences between mining, hunting heavy NPCs, trading on the player and general markets, finding blueprints (known as recipes) in other games, running industrial corporations (once you're set up and have several people mining for you, you can create and sell ships cheaply and still make a profit), researching new technologies (EVE is a constantly updated MMO, new content is added periodically), or even turning towards PvP wars and/or piracy. Apart from freak phenomena like EverQuest or CounterStrike, no game will keep any sane person interested forever - but the designers of EVE made sure to keep you distracted enough to keep playing.
Lots of boring and pointless divagations about the interface deleted from original draft. Let's just say it's intuitive, right-click friendly, and very deep at the same time and leave it at that. Oh yes: EVE is not a space combat sim, it's tactical and strategic like other MMOs, where being well-prepared , well-equipped and well-positioned is key.

Graphics & Sound

EVE was only launched halfway last year, so at the time of writing it still looks fantastic. Despite some Z Buffer errors in the latest content update (already identified and to be fixed in the next one), the graphics are fluid, sleek and downright pretty. In addition, the 4 bloodlines/Empires in the game each have a look and feel that is truly distinctive, from the hodge-podge, patchwork Minmatar to the arrogant, golden-domed, lit-up and shiny Amarr. The Caldari are blocky and functional, and the Gallente organic and rounded. Not just ships but stations, warp gates, and the character portraits (created with the very powerful character generator) also follow these design concepts, and each empire has a comprehensive back story and continuing development - although the pace of this is quite glacial.

The final flair to the graphics is the copious use of asymmetry. Almost all entities have an element that unbalances the whole, and the effect gives everything a sort of "evolved" feel, giving the idea that this is iteration nth of an old design. The designs easily make even X2: The Threat's designs obsolete (and X2 is a newer game). One thing I would like to see is more individuality to the ships, however. Since you spend 100% of your time inside your ship, it'd be nice if you were able to slap some paint, decals, or even kill-notches on it - unfortunately, this is apparently very hard to do, and no such plans are on the drawing board at this time. In a genre where individuality is pretty important, this flaw tends to stand out.

Audio could be better. While the assorted soundbytes while in-station are pleasing and ambient, and the automated voice that informs you of your flight status is perfectly modulated, some of the combat noises are rather weak pops and fizzles - although this could be attributed to the fact that I'm still on Frigates; the bigger ships may be more beefy. The warping sound is also quite good, but I'd like to hear more clangs and thuds on actual docking. A mixed bag all around, all supplemented by a solid ambient soundtrack, which can be turned on/off and skipped around in. In fact, third party tools exist to import mp3s and oggs into the in-game playlist.

The final bit of neatness is that EVE is easily played in a window. With the inherent traveling times (sure, warping is fast, but as a noobie you'll be doing a lot of traveling on courier missions or to find best deals, in a ship that doesn't have much warp capacity) and small-scale mining (again, more advanced players can mine in more dangerous belts with friends, where combat against NPC raiders is frequent, minimizing any actual "downtime") mean that you might be sitting back a lot. The ease of windowing the game means that you can easily do something else.

Bits of Interest

EVE Online's world is not separated into servers or shards; it is all one world. That means that you never have to worry about friends strewn across varied servers; you'll all be in the same world. As of last record shattered, EVE supports ~12,000 simultaneous players.

EVE's crafting is relatively painless - there is no chance of failure, and it's not busywork. The preparation for it is a little complex, but fortunately it makes sense. First, you'll need a blueprint or a blueprint copy (blueprints allow you to make unlimited amounts of product; copies are run-limited, but a lot cheaper); this will list the minerals you will need for the item. Second, acquire the minerals through either mining or purchase. Items will typically require mass amounts of basic ore, easy to find and mine; and tiny amounts of rare ore - this usually has to be purchased as mining it is very risky). Third, rent factory space in a cost-effective place (rates vary on how far away from the main trade routes your location is). Then, drag the blueprint to the factory, and click Go. After specifying the number of runs you want to make, you're done; the product will continue spewing out into your hangar as long as there are minerals available. You can go off and take care of other business while your stuff builds.

Researching new technologies follows the same setup - find a research lab, talk to a willing agent, and "start" a research project (by clicking "Start Research"). The trick here is that research labs are far more rare than factories, far more expensive, and always bought out by corporations (player guilds) to further their goals (researching new, pricey tech, or optimizing their own blueprints - the more research you do on a blueprint, the fewer minerals the end product requires). This makes research an activity reserved for those who have a lot of time on their hands to hunt for spots; sadly, a casual player will rarely partake in this part of the game.

EVE has tons of lore, background stories, and evolving events that constantly shape what happens in the game world - some of it is even player-created and driven. While it does move at a glacial pace and the endless promises of "global upheavals" get a little tiresome after a few years, in EVE's case there is little doubt that the world will change. Space is big and empty - but tomorrow there may be a Player Owned Station there, and the day after that the sector may belong to a player-ran Alliance. Again though, that's just one sector out of hundreds, so not all users will perceive the effect of the slowly changing universe.

Some caveats

You may have noticed that I just mentioned that the game's mechanics lend themselves to "doing something else". The more vociferous gamers are probably already yelling things of this sort: "Proper game mechanics should mean there is no downtime!" To which I must say: grow up. And not in an admonitory, but rather in a literal sense. As you get older, you'll want your gaming done in either short bursts of excitement, or longer, drawn out periods of planning, strategizing, socializing with your peers or solitary profit making which satisfies in a quiet, fulfilling fashion - you just don't have the time for hours upon hours of gaming marathons. This is opinion, but backed up by quite a few acquaintances in similar situations.

That inherent downtime, be it mining or extended travel, is excellent for casual gamers who would perhaps like to surf the net in the background, do a bit of website coding (like me), perhaps even pop off to make dinner while the cargo hold is being filled. In the meantime your skills are trained and your cargo run is being completed.

Time killer

EVE is ridiculously addictive. The effortless method of training and the huge size of the universe means that everytime you want to accomplish something it'll lead you to a new discovery or a better price, which you must travel another few hops to reach. Every time you do that, there's potential to become distracted by something else. And in the meantime you've learned a skill and spent 15 minutes figuring out what the next one should be. Which reminds you that the one that just finished gave you the ability to fit that really kickass weapons system to your ship, but ... you left it two systems ago because you ran out of room to ferry some cargo. And then...

The cycle really only ends when it's way too late and you're wondering where the time's gone. Obsessive types beware, and this is coming from someone who plays a lot of games, but never MMOs - each one I've tried I hated, but this one just works. It's kinda like E2 in that way - and on this point I'll stop before I get too involved in the intricacies of Corporate Warfare, subtleties of piracy and mining in 0.0 space.

A final word. Something I heard the other day which rather exemplifies EVE for me:
EVE is not a game; it's a hobby.
And that about sums it up.
1For those not in the know, becoming a Jedi in SWG does not consist of, as one might surmise, defeating powerful opponents, mastering blade combat, training reflexes, struggling with the Dark Side, building a lightsaber and solving complex diplomatic/social/economic puzzles. No, just master 17 jobs and visit 12 planets (or so) in a mind-numbing grind of incessant leveling - voila, instant Jedi.