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Six Days in Spaceland

One trip to Iceland later, Patrick comes to understand what drives 500,000 players to engage in the ongoing space opera that is EVE Online, and why being a game about spreadsheets is a good thing.

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Reality becomes slightly blurry at EVE Online’s Fanfest, an annual gathering--nay, pilgrimage--for the online space game’s most dedicated schemers, dreamers, and astronauts.

Don’t play EVE Online and expect to succeed. Success is relative. Understanding failure and the cruel, unfair nature of humanity is lesson one. A consistent story I heard from its players was the day they lost their first ship. It happens early, but late enough that players have spent hours and hours with the game. In a moment, it’s all gone. There’s no checkpoint. Most games are designed to ensure the player, if found to be putting in a reasonable effort, will be victorious. Games are, largely, not about failure anymore. There is no winner in EVE Online, at least not a permanent one, and many players are happy to squash you under a virtual boot--the whole reason Something Awful’s GoonSwarm alliance exists is to ruin everyone's time. It’s an experience that asks you to totally forget the concept of a backlog and submit.

When you attend the Penny Arcade Expo, it feels like a big club. Everyone is kind of sort of into the same things, but we’ve come here for different reasons. You might not be into what I'm into. Fanfest is a brotherhood. No one spends hundreds of dollars to visit EVE Online’s home unless EVE Online is like home to them. It fashions a completely different kind of atmosphere, one that inspires an intimate camaraderie usually left to goofy chat room banter. Here, it’s safe to be obsessed. Here, you can cheer at new scanning options in the upcoming expansion, Odyssey, and get a stiff high-five in return.

When Drew and I showed up, we found a makeshift tattoo parlor where players could have logos, flags, and other treatments made permanent. Drew quickly filmed the first person we spotted, figuring it would be a rare occurrence. The whir of ink-on-skin was there all weekend.

The event is held in chilly Reykjavik, both the capital and largest city in Iceland. The tiny country is home to just 319,000 people, and more than 120,000 reside in Reykjavik itself. As an American whose handful of years learning a foreign language went out the window years ago, traveling to Iceland is a surreally familiar experience. Residents speak pitch-perfect English, and nearly every menu starts in English, not Icelandic. This is true of many tourist-centric locations around the world--tourism was 5.9% of Iceland’s GDP in 2010--but it’s even more prolific in Iceland. Residents told me there was an easy explanation for this: nothing is translated into Icelandic. If you want to experience games and movies, you learn quickly.

Roughly 1,400 cadets showed up for Fanfest this year, the biggest gathering yet. But that number surprised me. Doesn’t a convention mean thousands and thousands of people? If Fanfest was held in Los Angeles, it would probably attract more of its 500,000 active users, but it wouldn’t be Fanfest. Iceland feels magical, mysterious, and one isn’t surprised it birthed the band Sigur Ros. EVE Online is set in an alien part of space, and Iceland is appropriately alien to most of its players.

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Giant Bomb Travelogue: Iceland

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Being held in developer CCP Games’ backyard--it’s literally blocks away--has benefits. Many of the developers who build the worlds players spend their time in are right in front of them. There’s a keynote each night of Fanfest, where CCP gathers the troops and unveils what’s next. Behind the enormous screen are seats filled by developers. When fans hoot, holler, and applaud, they aren’t just hyping up each other--they’re thanking EVE’s creators. A senior developer announced he was moving to mobile development at CCP, and the house gave him a standing ovation for minutes. There were few dry eyes.

It’s enlightening to watch the interaction between players, too. The stories that bubble up from EVE Online involve conflict, backstabbing, and warfare. When one side succeeds, the other isn’t merely defeated, they’re buried, beaten, embarrassed, and immortalized. It wouldn't be surprising if people, then, hated one another in real-life, but it’s the opposite. Fanfest is all hugging, swapping stories, swilling beer, and taking shots (in Iceland, the preferred spirit is the native Brennivín, a not-so-bad liquor with the misleading name “Black Death”). Quiet meetings occur at Fanfest, including a nightly gathering of the leading members at high-level corporations and alliances that rotates bars to keep it all secret.

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That isn’t to say there isn’t some tension. EVE Online has villains, perhaps none more infamous than Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco, one of the game's most powerful entities. The outside world learned his name due to a drunken comment at last year’s Fanfest, in which he encouraged people to track down and harass a specific player who had aired suicidal thoughts. (The alcohol involved in the incident, Jagermeister, was jokingly banned during this year's equivalent panel, a roundtable presentation by popular and upcoming alliances in the game.) CCP was forced to respond. Gianturco was banned from EVE Online for 30 days, removed from the player-elected council, and issued a formal apology. But as the leader of GoonSwarm, EVE Online’s most notorious and troll-y group, Mittani is both celebrated and reviled. GoonSwarm is known for a number of passive aggressive harassment tactics, including spamming “local chat” (which allows players to talk with those immediately around them) with links to dick pictures. A group of us were walking from the convention center and discussing Mittani. Another set of attendees walked past, and yelled “Mittani is a faggot!”

Soon, Mittani and others will be memorialized outside the game itself. CCP is asking players to contribute their best stories from playing EVE Online, some of which will be included in an upcoming book celebrating EVE Online’s first decade of existence, while others may inform the storylines for an in-development television show based on the game. CCP is trying to bribe players into giving up their secrets, a task more difficult than you’d imagine. Time and time again, when I’d ask players for their craziest stories from playing EVE Online, each would play it close to the chest and keep some details secret, as those details still had an impact on the ongoing game. Furthermore, CCP is building a literal monument to EVE Online in Iceland, and players active in the game during May will have their names inscribed at the base. When this was announced at Fanfest, someone in the crowd shouted “Vile Rat!"

Vile Rat, known to friends and family as Sean Smith, was EVE Online’s chief diplomat, a trader of words and promises, and often at the center of EVE Online's biggest moments. He also worked for the U.S. State Department, and was killed during an attack in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. There was little mention of Vile Rat during Fanfest, but when someone shouted Smith’s virtual name, the room went quiet. CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar said the monument would remember those alive...and no longer with us.

The crowd applauded.

(There are excellent profiles of Vile Rat at Kotaku and, of all places, Playboy.)

I joked at the start of our travelogue video that coming to Fanfest was a lark, and it’s true. I’ve wanted to attend Fanfest since I joined up with Giant Bomb, and CCP provided an opportunity to do so this year. (Thanks!) Much of my work involves preparation, but I didn't do any here. We’d be immersed in the subculture of EVE Online for several days, and I wanted to trust my gut on what was interesting, and pass that on to you. After a day or two, you pick up the lingo, and it’s easy enough to have conversations about a game you actually know very little about. By the end, you’re itching to head home and start playing, and it generated lengthy reflections about my playing habits, and what I value out of my game time.

To be fair, EVE Online does look much cooler in screens. It looks REALLY cool, though.
To be fair, EVE Online does look much cooler in screens. It looks REALLY cool, though.

The stories of EVE Online’s grand clashes are the envy of every game, online or not. There’s the player who doesn’t even play EVE Online but simply spends his time researching other players and selling that information to the highest bidder. There are alliances who fight one another based on time zones, and will attack the other’s most vulnerable locations, based on when those people sleep. There’s the player-elected council that’s issuing “no comments” on a recent scandal involving the leaking of Skype conversations between the council and the game’s developers. These stories are why so many players and journalists are fascinated by EVE Online, even as they give it the stink eye from a distance. It seems impossible to not be jealous of the adventures these fanatics are having in EVE Online. When I think about how I spend much of my time playing games, so many of them hollow experiences purely designed to “keep up with the conversation,” it prompts me to ask...why? These renegades have tossed the rest of gaming aside to roll the dice with the most important currency of all: time. Games try so hard to create impact and consequence, while EVE Online does so effortlessly by robbing you of your time investment when things go wrong, or another player fucks you over. The stories are so gut-wrenching because it can all be measured in time.

My other response was confusion over the general contempt for EVE Online from anybody who doesn’t play it. “It’s a spreadsheet game,” is far and away the most common way to describe the game. It’s true for a couple of reasons--much of the game can be controlled through an interface that looks like a page from Excel, players manage their resources and corporations through actual spreadsheets--but destructive and disingenuous for so many others. EVE Online largely succeeds is because it is a spreadsheet. EVE Online isn’t a twitch game, but requires just as much if not more skill than games that garner much more respect. If EVE Online were a twitch game, one in which the best pilots were the most successful, it would limit the time and interest the players had exploring the way crazier aspects of the game, which directly results in the drama and political intrigue we love to chat about after a well-written feature summing up a forum post about a past weekend’s crazy series of events. By removing the traditional skill barriers, an increasingly archaic way of defining a game, EVE Online invites so much more. The very thing people lodge against the game as a negative helps produce the moments everyone loves.

Fanfest reinforced a personal theme of 2013: don’t judge a book by its cover. Or, at least, judge that book once you’ve had a chance to actually judge it. Love and hate things on your own terms. I was wrong about Monster Hunter. I was wrong about EVE Online. Wrong is, perhaps, inaccurate. My preconceived notions of both were reinforcing ongoing narratives that both are inscrutable, only for crazy people. These crazy people are having way more fun with their games than I often am. Who’s really crazy?

Also, you should go to Iceland. It's really great.

Patrick Klepek on Google+