"I think that EVE actually has the nicest community of any MMO," Brendan Drain - games journalist and EVE columnist at Massively - told me as we were having a beer together during a calm moment. "People think that scams and heists and shit are going on every day. But it's not."
It was in April 2013 and we were sitting outside the press area in the giant Harpa conference centre, located in the Reykjavik harbour. All around us, EVE Online players were celebrating Fanfest, the annual player conference dedicated to all things EVE. Me and two of my close friends went there to film a documentary about the game and its dedicated, to say the least, community and its complicated relationship to EVE developer CCP Games.
1500 people had travelled to remote Iceland, this small island in the middle of the North Arctic, to talk about what they love the most - Internet spaceships - for three days. They came from all over the world - mostly Europe, the US and Australia. Going to Iceland is not cheap, the hotels and, mostly importantly, the alcohol aren't cheap either. Yet people go all the way to Reykjavik to attend round tables, keynotes, pub crawls and parties.
As Mat Westhorpe, known in the EVE community as Seismic Stan and researcher for our documentary, once said - Fanfest is like a mix between Woodstock and a Star Trek convention. The subject of the convention is obviously what most people would label as "nerdy", yet there's a lot of debauchery going on during those three days. It usually starts at the Celtic Cross pub in central Reykjavik, which is absolutely packed with EVE players the evening before the convention proper starts, and ends with the huge Party at the Top of the World.
The bars in Reykjavik are bound to love Fanfest, especially during the developer-led Pub Crawl with a Dev, during which packs of attendees roam the streets, going from pub to pub, drinking every drop of alcohol they can get their hands on.
A Tale of Internet Spaceships, our documentary, is about these people and their dedication. While touching on Fanfest itself, due to the important part it plays for the game's culture as a whole, the film mostly deals with one of the most complicated situations that the players and the company have found themselves in - the release of the Incarna expansion back in 2011.
The relationship between the community and CCP is a weird one. The current tag line for EVE Online is "EVE is real", which argues that things that happen in the game are as real and important as things that happen in real life. For many players, EVE is real, it's such a huge part of their life. And in a game so fraught with danger, where you can potentially lose what you've worked for ages to achieve in an instant, it's no wonder that anything that CCP does to the game essentially becomes politics.
There's a huge so called meta-game surrounding the actual gameplay for EVE and arguably, things that happens outside of the game - be it on forums, Reddit, Twitter or through other communication channels - can be just as important as what happens in the game itself. The first bullet that starts a giant war can be a forum post. "While it is about money and assets and stuff, it's mostly about power," Mark Heard - famous as Seleene inside EVE - told us in front of our cameras. Thousands of players, often organized into huge alliances, fight for resources and territory. Politics play an incredibly important part of the whole experience. Peoples' lives can be impacted, for better or for worse. It's inevitable that CCP gets pulled into it.
Take last year's Odyssey expansion for example. With its release, CCP shuffled around valuable resources across EVE's galaxy, trying to balance things out. The result was that the giant CFC, the Clusterfuck Coalition, saw a huge part of its income disappear. The only logical reaction was to invade the part of space where those resources now could be found, which incidentally belonged to the Reddit based TEST Alliance Please Ignore. After weeks of heavy fighting, TEST finally crumbled under the boot of the CFC. Thousands of players were forced out of their homes, losing their territory. A decision made during a game design meeting would end up changing the map completely, with one of the largest alliances in the game no longer owning any star systems to call their own.
Incarna became, at the end of the day, a fight over the identity of EVE Online. CCP added actual avatars to the game, and for the first time in the history of the game the players were able to leave their ships and walk around in stations - even if they could only move around in a small room and not interact with each other. The expansion also introduced micro-transactions, selling fancy clothes that the avatars could wear. In theory, it had a lot of cool ideas that really could have enhanced the game and taken it to a whole new level. In practice, it was buggy, pointless, forced upon players that wanted nothing to do with it and the pricing on some of the items in the cash shop was through the roof.
Everything reached a boiling point when an internal newsletter, discussing additional micro-transactions that would have an actual impact on gameplay, leaked. Then a memo from Hilmar Petursson, CCP's CEO, leaked as well. In it, Petursson told his staff that all the player anger was basically just noise and that they would watch what players would do, not what they said.
So the players did something - they rioted. Thousands of them gathered in Jita, the most important trade hub in the game, and opened fire on a poor monument placed next to the highly trafficked Caldari Navy Assembly Plant space station. For about a week the protesters essentially shut down the whole system, which had an impact on both EVE's fragile economy and the actual physical servers the game ran on. Many cancelled their subscriptions to the game.
By the time it was all over, CCP had changed their development focus, moving back to the actual gameplay of flying in space. In the restructuring of the company, 20% of the employees lost their jobs. The material introduced in Incarna has never been developed further. Avatars, in EVE, are more or less dead. Petursson officially apologised. The expansion that was released later that year, titled Crucible, went back to completely focus on spaceships. The players won. As developer Kristoffer Touborg said to us, it was a case of "you wanted spaceships, here's some spaceships".
Time has been good to EVE after that. Many of the players that cancelled their subscription during the Jita Riots came back to the game. Crucible was loved by most, since it addressed many of the concerns and annoyances people had had for years. Some still hold a grudge, and are waiting with bated breaths for CCP to screw up again, but overall the atmosphere in the community isn't as hostile any more. The company got slapped around by their paying customers, learned a hard lesson and moved on. At least for the time being.
As a media- and communication studies student and games journalist mainly focusing on the MMO genre, the whole Incarna affair holds a special form of fascination for me. It forces us to ask questions about who is really in charge of a virtual world, the developers or the costumers. In the history of MMOs, Incarna is probably the most interesting moment. CCP, in a sense, gave the players the tools they'd then use to against their development overlords. And since EVE prides itself when it comes to giving players creative freedom, there wasn't much that could be done. Other games might have forcibly stopped the riots, banning players in the process for impacting the gameplay of others. In EVE's open sandbox, that would just have led to an even greater backlash.
That's why we went to Reykjavik - to find out what had happened, to talk to the people involved, to find out more about this odd relationship between players and developers. When we presented our project to the community, 82 people decided to help us out financially. For a one hour long documentary, the budget of $3000 we managed to crowdfund wasn't much, but it allowed us to rent all the equipment we needed. We're incredibly indebted to those people, who gambled that a bunch of strangers would do the game justice. I truly hope we did.
While Brendan's point about the EVE community being one of the nicest communities in MMOs might be arguable, the people we met and interviewed for the film were in general very open, honest and happy to talk to us. From "regular" grunts and foot soldiers to leaders of giant alliances, EVE is serious business - but also a passion that is highly infectious. I've been to Fanfest three times and I always come home with an overwhelming urge to pick up EVE again. Fanfest 2013, especially with the 35 hours of material we brought back with us, was not an exception.
It was also fascinating to see Philip and Elin, my co-producers who have never touched the game, interact with the community. They fell in love with it and many of the players we talked to seemed to fall in love with them. As far as they are concerned, Brendan's comment stands. In game, EVE is cut throat, filled with hidden traps and players just waiting the exploit any weakness you might show. At Fanfest, there's a sense of warmth. After all, we're all nerds fascinated by Internet spaceships - a fascination we love to share with outsiders, even outsiders with cameras.
Over the course of three days, we got to experience this warmth and - we hope - catch it on camera. We also got an insight into the feelings that ran rampant during the Incarna incident. A Tale of Internet Spaceships, as we say in the film itself, is a tale of dedicated fans, consumer power, conflict and redemption.
EVE's community might not be the nicest out there, but through its own actions, it has become the most fascinating. Hopefully viewers will at least catch a glimpse of that in the finished film.
A Tale of Internet Spaceships will air at 7pm (UK time) this evening. Head to the documentary's official YouTube page to watch the full thing, and the official website for more information on the production.