This 13-year-old game about doing business in space has 500,000 paying players — the woman in charge explains why it’ll win you over, too

Eve Online” is a massively multiplayer online game first launched by Icelandic developer CCP Games in 2003.

eve online keepstar

CCP Games

The battle that took out the massive Keepstar, in which over 7,500 players participated.

The economy of “Eve Online” is tremendously complex, with players organizing into corporations that they entirely own and manage within the game. The details are tricky, but suffice it to say, the game’s currency can be exchanged for real-world money, making the stakes even higher for high-flying players.

“Eve Online” is an extremely popular game with roughly 500,000 subscribers, but it also has a reputation for being particularly cutthroat. 

In 2009, for example, a disgruntled director of an in-game, player-run corporation defected to a rival faction, utterly dissolving the company on his way out the door. In the process, the rival faction was able to steal the equivalent of thousands of dollars worth of territory, spaceships, and Isk, Eve’s in-game currency. It was a blow that hurts even more, given the brisk trade of Eve’s Isk for real US dollars.

More recently, just a few weeks ago, over 7,500 players held an epic, hours-long space battle that resulted in the destruction of Eve’s first ever Keepstar — a gigantic, Death Star-sized ship that had taken players literally months to build. 

Watch an accelerated time-lapse of the battle that destroyed the Keepstar here:

But for Eve’s 500,000 subscribers, many of whom have stuck with it for huge chunks of its 13-year-history, all of the piracy, intrigue, and possibility of everything you’ve built going up in flames is all part of the fun. Hey, at least it’s never predictable.

“The game doesn’t deliver a guaranteed experience,” explains “Eve Online” executive producer Andie Nordgren, the woman in charge of the whole game. “There’s a world you can do anything in, but so can other people.”

andie nordgren eve online ccp games

CCP Games

Eve Online executive producer Andie Nordgren

Now, as it enters its 14th year online, and with mounting competition for players’ time and attention, the challenge for “Eve Online” is to more readily show off what makes it so special without losing the core that’s gotten it this far.

Enter “Ascension”: an update to the game that dropped in November that aims to ease new players into the game, and also makes it free to get started. The company says it’s a big hit, with “Eve Online” subscribers trending higher since the release launched. 

Ascension

Due to its weird, non-traditional, and non-action-oriented gameplay, “Eve Online” tends to attract an older, more mature player base, Nordgren says.

Combine that narrower demographic with the rise of the smartphone, the continued dominance of online games like “World of Warcraft,” and the continued lure of newer games, Eve has been steadily losing subscribers over the last few years. Bloomberg also reported that CCP Games, which owns Eve Online, is in talks to sell itself for just shy of $1 billion. (CCP declined to comment.)

To make sure “Eve Online” continues its relevancy into 2017 and beyond, Ascension is a big push from CCP to make it more accessible to a wider audience. While players can still pay a monthly fee of around $15 to get full access to the game, Ascension adds a free-to-play tier. 

Here’s a trailer for Ascension:

More dramatically, “Eve Online: Ascension” totally reinvents the first few hours of the game, putting you at the center of a galactic conflict, and using that tightly-controlled, more cinematic experience to ease you into the game.

It gives players a taste of those “big battles” right at the outset, Nordgren says, so those people who hear the stories of the game’s intense warfare get “more of that same experience that people might expect.” Which is good, because otherwise, those players might be in for a rude awakening as to the long journey towards the game’s unique brand of epicness.

Hello human kindness

“Eve Online” is famous for its tremendous learning curve.

Any player can become a pirate captain, or a trade leader, or a banker, or an admiral. First, though, you have to deal with a lot of tedium, as you deal with what the game’s fans sardonically call “spreadsheets in space.” 

Despite its reputation, and the vast scale of the simulated space it gives you to explore, “Eve Online” isn’t exactly a thrill-a-minute ride for adrenaline junkies. While big space battles, villainous double-crosses, and dramatic last-minute entrances turning the tide of battle do indeed occur, they’re few and far between.

EVE_Online_ _Gallente_Frigate

Wikimedia Commons

Eve Online

Instead, most players build their fortunes through menial jobs, much like the ones available in the real world. The “Eve Online” economy has room for everything from mining to long-haul cargo shipping to courier services to commodities trading. The game is more about managing inventory and monitoring markets than firing the missiles.

And since “Eve Online” is mostly a free-market economy, there’s always the hazard that a player-run bank will turn out to be a scam, or that your business partner turns out to be a plant for a rival corporation. Players are up against not only the hazards of deep space, but also the worst parts of human nature.

Nordgren’s team only really steps in to arbitrate in any given conflict if something is truly unfair in a way that totally throws off the entire game. So, if you get scammed, or your expensive ship gets sent to the scrap heap, that’s on you.

eve-online

Courtesy of Duncan Harris

“We think of ourselves as janitors of this world,” she says. Sure, this laissez-faire approach might cause some players to quit, she says, but “that’s the cost of these epic stories.”

In a weird way, though, it’s part of why people play the game. The biggest players in “Eve Online” find community and camaraderie in the digital expanses — when everything is so fragile, you start to really appreciate the business ventures and communities you’ve built together.

“People are really good at taking care of each other,” Nordgren says. “Even in this super hardcore environment, we see so much warmth and humanity.”

And it’s a big part of what makes it so addictively dramatic when wars break out or political struggles spill into the public, Nordgren says. It’s not mindless computer-controlled characters you’re dealing with: “You’re making real choices.”

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