There and Back Again: My Time in Eve Online

With Eve Online soon to be made free to play, opening it's world to a potential new audience of players, I though I would share my own experiences with the game as an average player. This is just one common story of untold thousands.

Even in it's most basic levels there's something about Eve Online you can never cure yourself of. Floating idly among asteroids, chasing NPC bounties through the gasses of nebula, menus of buy quotas and sell prices tumbling away from you as if the meaning of life was concealed there. In it's early stages Eve Online is a strange, beautiful, often banal discourse of unfettered capitalism and the violence directed by it's bureaucracy.

That was my experience when I first tried the game for a period in 2006. In the few weeks I never made it much past the edges of high security space and the comforting bosom of Conchord's NPC fleets. The mining was plentiful, the quests diverting, the jumps between sectors just dangerous enough to keep you on your toes. I learned the systems but never truly learned the game; I stayed a member of the few non-player corporations provided by the game, enjoyed the sights and mostly minded my own business. Never did I get close to the politics, the collective economics, the very real currents of humanity that gives Eve Online it's true soul.

Return & Rebirth

So it was in the fresh spring of 2015 I installed Eve onto my laptop to give it a proper go. I wished to get my hands dirty once again in the flesh of asteroids and commodity markets. I longed also to reach out to my fellow man wandering the stars and murder him in a cold fury.

My first surprise was that after nearly ten years my character had been retained. I imagined him being dusted off in a terrible chamber filled with dust and print magazines, a warm corpse until my credit card reanimated him. After reacquainting myself with Eve's navigation controls and numerous skill/tech/economic trees I took myself to the forums of Giantbomb-dot-com to sign up to the only name I knew I could trust: Kite Co (since disbanded).

There was an interview process. A friendly one-to-one was had with on their recruitment staff including background checks to guard against enemy agents working the inside angle. Eventually I was awarded an API key and URL to generate my own security key and thus access the corp forums, trading data, comms information, custom UI, and orders of battle. It was safely assumed that despite these measures spies and saboteurs were thick on the ground.

With everything arranged and my assets liquidated I grabbed a quick shuttle to transport myself to their home base. Kite Co. operated from a handsome little station baring the proud name of Ryan Davis, nestled among allied systems in the dangerous Catch region. It was than 30 jumps from my starting position. I had hoped to surpass any trouble with the raw speed of the craft but quickly learned hope without preparation is just fantasy. After several attempts I was finally advised on a cheap configuration that would be immune to the dreaded Interdiction Spheres or “bubbles” mined between jump gates to snare unsuspecting travellers. At least two more times I made the mistake of daring to look away for the 40 minute trip, needing to boost manually away from trouble. Thugs lurked around gate exits and at least once I was nearly caught in the crossfire of rival bands burning each other up at strategic pinch points. The further I went the colder space became.

Eventually I arrived and set about making myself useful. Kite Co. was a member of the BRAVE Collective, a newbie friendly organization affiliated in the HERO Coalition, and war was upon us. The Pandemic Legion was encroaching on BRAVE territory and and for some time HERO and it's allies had been exchanging bloody noses with them. Across the forums and chat the call went out for materials and I answered, gradually, in my own time.

I could mine somewhat fruitfully if I remained in those asteroid belts that could be found near friendly stations. A few jumps took me into the heart of our industrial belt, a system rich with the essential materials: rare colours of Ombre and Plagocise alongside bright seams of Dark Glitter and Clear Icicle. The system was also rich in travellers, some benign and many not, all heavily armed. In my fragile mining vessel I humbly took my share as part of the regular mining fleets that would go out with escorts patrolling nearby or just a short warp jump away. Still that was not enough to deter the marauders – we would keep our lumbering vessels pointed towards base so as to warp immediately. A watchman at a system gate would shout over the intercom and we would have to disappear immediately or be jammed and rapidly reduced to a cloud of debris before rescue could arrive. The danger was worth it. Ore and minerals essential to the alliance were prioritised and reasonably bought at good prices dictated by an alliance-wide “Buy Back” scheme. All very dangerous and quite profitable.

After a couple of weeks I had truly made myself a man in this world of men and monsters. I was still contributing to the fleet but had also set up some planetary operations, a stacking game of industries resulting in modest yields of useful materials. More importantly I had been training patiently to volunteer for the regular armed operations. Combat patrols were regular and with local systems hanging in balance increasingly large fleets were now probing towards the enemy front lines. At long last my skills were ready to join the order of battle.

Another call went out and I answered.

The Battle for HED-GP

The HED-GP system, like many famous battlegrounds, was itself unremarkable but offered enormous power to the faction that controlled it. For the HERO Coalition it was their primary route back to Conchord patrolled safe space and the famously busy trading lanes around Jita. The Pandemic Legion, an aggressive faction of high-level pilots in elite ships, had pushed our defences out of HED-GP and was now ticking down the conquest timer. A massive multi-alliance counter attack arranged to strike back and block the change in sovereignty. HERO allies with the large battleships necessary to destroy a Pandemic Legion capital-class fleet were on their way but would miss first engagement by as much as an hour. Smaller enemy fleets would surely slow them up even further. It was down to BRAVE and our swarms of less experienced pilots to engage the enemy, hold the field, and pray our reinforcements arrived first.

I had volunteered and subsequently trained for the ECM fleet, a large contingent of small but extremely fast frigates equipped with boosters and arrays of targeting jammers and scramblers. Access was limited to a single jump gate into the system. We would be the second wave. The first wave was a phalanx of elite attack ships & bombers to jump first and weather the storm of any counter attack before clearing out the area around the gate. Our job was to jump through and engage the the enemy fleet's weapons systems at extreme range, massively reducing the range and accuracy of their large calibre batteries while using our speed to protect ourselves. A second fleet of frigates armed with missiles & torpedoes would then follow and begin chipping away at enemy shields and armour. The final wave would be the large battleships we had to bear, rag tag groups of various craft to strike the first real blows. After that the reinforcements for both sides would soon arrive, harbingers of death and victory to dictate the final sum of the day.

We massed at a warp point, a vast transporter that could deposit us within a dozen jumps of the battleground. Attempting to take our fragile frigate fleets the long way would have undoubtedly ended in disaster. Until then I had witnessed fleets of dozens coming and going from our stations, whether to war or to the asteroid belts. Now I witnessed hundreds, multiple hundreds, small frigates buzzing like hornets around battleships and carriers in the eerie light of the portal. The time dilation, caused by such a mass of ships in an area, fluxed and slowed until the even the frigates drifted ponderously about. Piece by piece the fleets and battle groups made the jump and began the hotfoot to war. The phalanx of elite battleships went ahead, clearing the stray marauders and interception squads hastily assembled to slow our progress. Following a jump behind we saw few of these, only the burnt salvage and tell-tale cargo containers untethered in open space. Discipline was essential, proceeding only at the orders of our experienced Fleet Commander. Anyone jumping early would likely be destroyed immediately in the crossfire.

We arrived at the final gate just in time to see the first wave jump through. The time dilation began to stretch again as the second wave arrived and took up gate orbit alongside us. Over our audio communications we could hear the 1st wave commander orchestrating the attack, a half conversation of violence; “We're through. Take your drugs now. Looks like bombers, keep out of range of those bombers. Sharp shooters activate weapons now...”

We stayed, listening for several minutes. By now the ship count in local space was somewhere in the hundreds, my screen packed out with slowly rotating ID blocks and menus rolling with contacts. Allied chatter was confined to the text window, only the occasional bark and murmur of the FCs coordinating the next step. Finally the call came: “ECMs jump now. Gate green. Gate green.”

I hit jump and there was a pause, my compatriots blinking out of the system as the gate took them as fast as it could. It was a longer than normal jump, the shining light of hyperspace turning over and over until, finally, I was on the field of battle.

I wish I could say it was chaos but truthfully I did not have the aptitude to parse what was or was not. All I could see was shifting clouds of blue marked and red marked boxes, competing swarms roving slowly about exchanging a fire storm. When ships were destroyed small and distant explosions would blossom, slowly reaching out to their comrades and evaporating. The enemy was vastly outnumbered but not out-gunned, the large capital ships already deployed were making themselves well known. The time dilation was now at it's most extreme with ship numbers steadily rising through the hundreds. Here an instantaneous reload was a several second wait and slight course adjustments had to be conducted well in advance to have their desired effect.

We followed our orders and put the plan into effect. The missile frigates and heavy battle groups were right behind us and in profound danger if the enemy's targeting systems were not arrested. We hit our boosters and put ourselves into the highest possible orbit around the bulk of the enemy fleet. Interdiction spheres were being activated across the area, our leading wave preventing their escape. The radio buzzed with instructions and updates from the fleet commanders. I activated my ECM modules and set them to repeat. A handful of us were quickly destroyed as the effect multiplied on their targeting systems, a few more as pilots ventured too close to the core of the battle. Then the missile frigates had joined us. Now we were the hornets around the beasts, beating and leeching them piece by little piece as they pivoted and roared in their formations. More large enemy ships joined the fray only to be caught with their allies in those terrible spheres, their guns muffled by our ECMs and their shields picked away by our torpedoes and rail guns.

A great battle is a fury but a banal one. Soon the rhythm set in, a chorus playing until the next verse. By boosting frequently while in high orbit around the enemy I maintained my jamming for most of an hour. The reports passed to us by our fleet commander now suggested that the bulk our allied reinforcements would not be for almost another hour, slowed by surprisingly large interceptor battle groups numerous jumps away. More and more of the enemy were jumping to aid their fleet and were caught in the trap, bound but still dangerous. Battle cruisers and carriers packed together like sardines fired wildly in all directions, swarms of drones reaching out like claws. Without our high velocity boosters the ECM fleet would have been sitting ducks; those not fast enough on the button quickly falling foul. Eventually I too was destroyed, squadrons of destroyers closing in in a desperate attempt to weaken the net. I was re-spawned, re-equipped, and jumped as fast as I could back to the field. The situation was now much more fluid with our rag-tag battle groups and the first major allied reinforcements sprawled about the melee. I was able to maintain my jamming for another half hour, periodically retreating each time I was caught by smaller enemy fire. When I was finally caught I second time I admit it was a relief. My part in the whole operation, from marshalling to second destruction, had taken most of four hours. I had done my part. Even as my escape pod was vaporised I could see our allies finally taking the field with their enormous capital ships and tough battle wagons. I admit I was relieved. I logged off and shut down. It was now the small hours of the morning and I had work tomorrow.

The news the following afternoon was good. The results were bruising for both sides but we had triumphed. They had become stuck in our trap and now their biggest ships had been burned in their dozens. We celebrated and back-patted on the forum then went back to work. I divided my time between mining and assisting the regular combat patrols, dealing what damage I could with my relatively low character skill set. Each was fraught with danger, paperwork, and camaraderie. There were other skirmishes to follow, nothing on the scale of that fateful day at HED-GP, but all vital actions in that little war in 2015, raging across the sector.

Escape & Return

I quit a few weeks later, logged off and uninstalled. I needed to be free of Eve Online. Not because I had found it in anyway unpleasant, or uninteresting, or small. It was the complete opposite. Never in my life had I been so completely enveloped in a video game by it's world, it's people, it's action. A game of real people taking real action, forging a real world out in a grand virtual sphere. It was too much. I needed to play other games. I needed to return to the real world.

The game doesn't stop when you leave. In the past eighteen months Kite Co. was disbanded, the fortune of BRAVE fluctuating with it's leadership now attempting to reform and establish a new direction. Ryan Davis was captured, renamed, then abandoned. It now lies unclaimed, held by a Concord NPC subsidiary. Perhaps Ryan Davis can serve bettere than it ever did when I knew it; a place for lone miners in need of a neutral base, fighters in need of a fix-up, a place for traders to dump their wares.

This is the true magic of Eve Online. Every mineral mined, ship lost, insurance paid for adds to a genuine whole that doesn't stop without you. I was not a king of New Eden but one it's pawns; a pawn of pawns scrapping, scraping, killing for virtual pennies in a universe that was truly free and dangerous. I was a slave who felt like a god among gods. I don't believe I will ever find anything else like it. I doubt there ever will be anything else.