By Harold Goldberg
It was an Icelandic, windswept, face-slapping rain. It was the kind of rain that would either anger you or wake you to a deeper realization, like a water torture that moved to water torpor to wet zen: a watery mind warper. In Reykjavik, it was your choice, yours alone. In this case, the revelation was the realization that Eve Online would no longer be a mystery to me. In the past, I never quite got a grip on this colossal scifi world of massive battling ships full of people who abide by economies and politics and laws, a vast community dealing with a cornucopia of complexities.
But FanFest made Eve Online understandably real to me. Partly, it was because the Space Pope was there. An LA robotics scientist by day, the Pope had carefully donned supreme cleric garb and his own riff on the kissable Ring of the Fisherman. He was trailed by a priest and two nuns, one a tattooed prioress who is an astrobiologist by day. She had come mainly for Swiss astrophysicist’s Michael presentation about the search for exoplanets — and also to drink. They all sat down with me for lunch and we engaged in a brief but open and free-ranging conversation.
The new priest talked about the embracing friendliness of those attending the three-day soiree. One glasses-wearing nun, seemingly quiet at first blush, opened up and talked at length about losing her phone while peeing. And the Pope? As he bit into a croissant with a ham and cheese sticking out of it like a sword, he talked about what he felt were his 300,000 plus followers in Eve Online and the counsel he gives to them. Beyond a general affability, it was clear the Pope had a good feel for marketing.
In the first hours, Eve FanFest in its entirety seemed slightly culty (certainly to someone like me, who’d been up for about 40 hours traveling). But as I learned more and more as the hours moved into days, I recognized the fact that this gathering was about the refreshing honesty and togetherness that comes with members of a community being treated not only as game players but as intelligent game developers. I counted around 65 events and panels to attend. With interviews abounding, this would be a deep dive indeed.
It was about 10 years ago that Seth Schiesel, then The New York Times’ game critic, extolled the wonders of Eve Online to me for the first time. He was so intensely into the inner workings and battling machinations of the community that once, when we were to get together, he would not leave his apartment for the so-called real world.
In The Times, Schiesel wrote that Eve Online is “one of the most interesting games in the world,” with “formidable depth, complexity and Kilimanjaro-like learning curve.” Even more importantly, he said “the forces of continual refinement” prove that the game’s makers CCP, continually try to not only appease fans but work with them as well.
That article was so powerful in translating this multifaceted world to a general audience, “that we even used it to explain things to ourselves,” says Hilmar Petursson, CCP’s CEO. It’s refined continually to this day. As Eve Online changes and morphs, so does the work of those who created the game from scratch, two decades ago. In actuality, only one person who worked on the game’s initial gestation works on Eve Online today.
One of those long-timers whose job has morphed from the time he was a 3D modeler is Torfi Olafsson. He now works in CCP business development far away from Iceland in Seattle. Over the years, he’s helped to tell the bigger picture stories in Eve Online books. Olafsson also took meetings with a variety of Hollywood types in an effort develop a movie or TV show based on the game. For Olafsson, it was an education in the name of broadening the audience. He says the timing has to be right and the stars have to align for a game like Eve Online to become a star of old media. “Five years ago, people were telling us that scifi is dead and no one wanted to make a movie of TV show. Times have changed.”
So perhaps that will bode well for a potential Eve Online TV epic. Treatments have been written. Option deals have been signed. “With the depth of episodic television,” says Olafsson, “you can empathize and understand in a way you can’t with a feature length movie.”
Hollywood is hard, I thought, as I walked from the interview to a keynote presentation and sat in the dark for a time. While one member of the press was of the caveman YouTube influencer variety who was sorely, desperately in need of deodorant, many far less smelly media had been to FanFest before and were more than happy to talk about its wonders and compelling facts from years past.
Adam Rosser, a journalist for BBC Radio, has been to a handful of FanFests, and he takes his own vacation days to participate. “I’m eternally fascinated by the community, the company and the panels,” he says we lean over a railing and watch fans scurry to panels a below us.
Fanfest wasn’t always this full of eager participants. CEO Petursson remembers, “We worried that no one would come to the first one. But they did and it grew from there.” Inside Harpa’s elegant Eldborg Concert Hall, (which has been artfully featured in the Wachovski’s Netflix series Sens8) the crowd cheered nearly every announcement from new, giant ships to the election of a fan-based Council of Stellar Management (which, among other things, provides feedback to CCP on a variety of game-oriented issues). As the event wore on, the crowd laughed at every joke, no matter the presenter or presentation.
They were simply glad to meet, engage, commune and yell huzzahs, to be together for one of the few times during the year they could do so. While there’s another meetup in Las Vegas, this is the one that matters most to those who live, rob and battle within the vast, seeming eternity of galaxies that is Eve Online. In Reykjavik, it was clear that they were one for all and all for one. They were massively space Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas characters spawned to exponential proportions.
But the fans are not always bathed in this rainbow glow of kumbaya. The community can become angry when it feels it’s given short shrift. Brendan Drain is a quiet, hyper-intelligent CCP expert and writer from Northern Ireland who’s made his own game which is in early access on Steam. He extols the brilliance of many things Eve Online while at the same time acknowledging the bigger mistakes CCP has made over the years.
“Incarna was one of the most grievous errors,” says Drain, recalling the time in 2011 when that particular expansion, which included an ill-conceived online store, met with mass fan protest. He stops for a moment of silence, staring ahead and outside to the gray blue North Atlantic Ocean with in the kind of sadness only a trusting gamer can feel.
“It wasn’t just a mistake. It was hubris,” admits Petursson, who has been with CCP since Eve Online was just an idea on a page. He speaks in short, clipped, candid sentences about the company’s missteps and failures. As another example, Petursson says CCP became so bloated during the creation of the never-released World of Darkness, a bloody, moody, mature game about vampires, the company ultimately had to sell the game off for a variety of reasons — including budgetary issues. Layoffs ensued. But worse, CCP seemed to have forgotten about the fans.
It’s different now. “We learned from those mistakes – the hard way,” says Petursson. And CCP is branching out beyond Eve Online. Sparc (not to be confused with Microsoft’s ambitious but ill-fated Project Spark) has been a years-long virtual reality project that recalls everything from air hockey to rollerball to tennis. If there were a kind of Wii Sports of VR, Sparc might well be the highlight. It hits the sweet spot of games that are easy to pick up but difficult to master.
Morgan Godat, the game’s executive producer, is one of the more outwardly enthusiastic game makers who the CCP press relations people trotted out to the press. He’s spent time at EA on five The Sims games and Gauntlet: Legends before that. Godat’s hope for Sparc is that it becomes a kind of Wii Sports for VR, “the kind of game people of all ages play during a party or after a holiday dinner.” In Sparc, you don a virtual gladiator outfit and make use of a ball and a shield. The ball’s physics make the game feel like three dimensional air hockey. But you’ll discover potent nuances like zinging your opponent’s ball back at him and then tossing your ball at him a moment later.
Certainly, Sparc is easy to pick up. When I played, I beat my opponent handily, 9 – 0. While the challenge ramps up in a more difficult mode, it’s the easily understandable play that will have players returning for more.
In Sparc, “there are seats for those who would prefer to be spectators,” says CCO Maria Sayans, who thinks Sparc might be a worthy addition to esports. For Sayans, who came from Electronic Arts where she was Europe’s senior marketing director for Battlefield and Mirror’s Edge, CCP has so much potential to bring in new players. She says that CCP already has crafted plans for what “where we want to be five and 10 years down the line.”
“We’re betting a lot on VR,” says Eve Valkyrie executive producer Andrew Wallins, who worked on Watch Dogs and Diver: San Francisco before joining CCP. “Our goal was a well-balanced game that was deep enough for Eve Online fans to enjoy but didn’t make newcomers dizzy. We wanted to make it as accessible as possible…and with headsets getting lighter, cheaper and wireless, that accessibility will be even greater soon.”
Could Eve Valkyrie work with another medium like augmented reality? Wallins thought quietly for a few seconds. “That’s an interesting thought. How would it work? I think the best thing would be if you went out on a starry night, maybe from an observatory looking out into the vastness of the galaxy. But I think it works best in VR.”
Wallins’ love of games is immense (and for a while we veered off course, extolling the joys of SoulCalibur on the Sega DreamCast). You can see it even in the minutia of Eve Valkyrie, which has progressed since the mixed reviews of its debut on the Oculus Rift. To this dogfight in space, CCP in December added Wormholes, where the usual rules of the game are twisted, and in April added Groundrush, a map which allows players to battle near terra firma and beneath a snow-ridden terrain.
Later, Harpa’s big theater featured another keynote by white-haired executive producer Tryggvi Hjaltason. He told a captive audience how to use cognitive science to bring in new players to Eve Online. One of his points about memory was fascinating. He said we, as humans, remember 60 percent of what we’ve been told after 20 minutes of hearing or seeing it. After an hour, that memory wanes to 50 percent. After a few days and on into infinity, humans recall only 20 percent of what they’ve learned or experienced.
By imparting this information, Hjaltason was treating game players almost like game developers. He was sharing valuable, if not inside, information that would help them as they recruit new players to join Eve Online. Hjaltason shined here, certainly moreso than his first day keynote during which he went on too long. During that speech, his hands, which were sadly broken during a skiing accident, were metaphors for the potentially poor experience of new Eve Online player. The speech could have been more effective if it were shorter and more concise.
Days had passed and Eve FanFest was ending. After the bands had played metal music, after Game of Thrones’ Kristian Nairn played DJ, after the wind blew as if powered by android hellions on a destructive bender, after I believed I saw the Huldufolk emerge from a jagged boulder, after the cold angered the 5 a.m. drunks into barroom brawls, after I listened Worm Is Green to calm down, I found myself in the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s biggest attraction, a vast, meandering pool made into a fancy hot blue heaven from the runoff of a geothermal plant. When think on it as I move through the superheated water and the steam rises, The Blue Lagoon is not unlike Eve Online and CCP in this sense. Both have had a number of tweaks and adjustments since they were introduced. And arguably, through all the construction whether it’s through software or bricks and mortar, they’ve emerged as architectural wonders, one made by nature, one made by man, to be better than ever.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.