Stellar Relic

Category - Opinion

Opinion pieces (editorials).

Sovereignty for the Little Guy

sov

EVE Online’s July patch-pansion, called Aegis, brought with it an universe-sundering change in the core, defining feature of the venerable MMO – sovereignty. Reception for the Aegis Sovereignty System (more commonly referred to as Fozziesov in the EVE Online community) was mixed, at best – and is no better today. In recent weeks, Nulli Secunda announced they were closing their doors; Black Legion is ceding their sovereign territory (a move announced with an eloquent post headlined by the statement “Fuck Fozzie”); and UAxDeath (a prominent Russian alliance leader and, more recently, a CSM member) famously issued a proclamation of dislike on the EVE Online forums.

Last week, though, I found myself in nullsec for the first time in years, helping a ramshackle bunch of pirates, wormholers, bittervets, and industrialists take sovereignty in Scalding Pass. A Band Apart, the alliance more famous for its leader than for anything it has actually done in the game, took sovereignty with a handful of players and a great deal of pluck. It was as unlikely a sight as I’ve seen in the game – more unlikely even than the Phoenix dreadnaught I caught (and killed) in a lowsec belt, where it was ratting. 

maybe someday they'll let us name the damn system as well

That’s our system, J2-PZ6.

To be clear, this is not an event that would have taken place without the implementation of Fozziesov. While Black Legion may complain that ‘sov isn’t fun anymore’ – a sentiment that is totally valid for the PVP orientated sov holders of the world – no one can deny that sov is fundamentally more accessible now. A Band Apart took sov, after all, and did it without the protection of a regional super power or the exchange of mass quantities of ISK.

The trouble present in the EVE community – or rather, the sov-holding EVE community – is not a question of whether the current system works. Instead, the conflict between player and developer would appear to resolve over a far more fundamental question: what does holding sovereignty even mean anymore?

Gone are the days of Great Wars, but if we’re honest those days have been gone for some time. Gone are the days of vast renter empires. Gone are the days of Fortress Delve, the Big Blue Donut, Mittanigrad or bust. In its place are idiots like me, floating around wondering how I entosis things; Freeport republics that are open to all (and totally ingenious scams – but that is another topic altogether); solo pilots actually taking sovereignty in underutilized stretches of space all by themselves.

eve-captureevent

 

The Old Guard take this new age as a sign of disrespect, a slap in their collective faces by the very company they feed. They forget that Fozziesov is, essentially, exactly what they clamored for just a year ago: occupancy-based sovereignty. Sure, the system is a little clunky – no one claims it to be perfect, least of all CCP themselves. Sure, the system is obtuse – I, for instance, still haven’t the slightest idea how we took sov aside from the vague term ‘entosising’.

But. A Band Apart took sovereignty the other day. We promptly found half of the alliance locked out of the station due to obscure administration permissions and settings; we spent a good hour or so laughing at those that couldn’t get in, then laughing at our alliance leader as he, chagrined, attempted to fix the situation (an event memorialized in the name of our station: “Dad Lost the Keys”). Within days, we were beset by angry locals that fielded a force we couldn’t overcome (a seven man fleet consisting of a battleship and some cruisers of various flavors) without resorting to a swarm of Griffins that had just been brought in by a plucky industrialist within the alliance.

These things, these shared experiences and tribulations that will serve as the foundation of trust and friendship in the years to come, would never have been born without Fozziesov.

Progress can never be achieved without some disruption of the status quo; you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet – pick your favorite cliche and know that it will likely hold true for the EVE Online of today, next week, and next year. All that remains is to ride it all out and see where the chips fall.

Games and Symbols of Hate

sowgb

In June, Apple briefly removed nearly all games that featured the Confederate Battle Flag from the App Store. Controversy ensued, with much denunciation of Apple’s move – not all of it in good faith. Apple almost immediately walked back their blanket ban and reinstated apps that Apple perceived to be including the flag for “educational or historical uses”.

So: a relatively short-lived controversy, now many weeks in the past, and almost immediately resolved to the satisfaction of most rational people. Why am I writing about it? Well, I think there’s still a number of issues worth digging into here.

Intention & Ignorance

Firstly, let’s not kid ourselves about Apple’s motives. They are a big corporation that chases the mainstream political zeitgeist in order to be more palatable to their customers, not out of some moral certitude. They didn’t pull any games with swastikas in them back in June. They reversed their decision because they were criticized, not because they’d seen the error of their ways.

There were plenty of people angry about Apple’s action for the right reasons. There were reasonable people genuinely torn about it. There were folks, like the GamerGaters, operating in bad faith – not particularly interested in free speech or education, but in advancing a regressive political or social agenda. And then there were the people who were flat-out ignorant of historical reality. These are the people who have rainbow-ified their Confederate Flag avatars on Facebook and see no contradiction, as though Stonewall Jackson would have been fine with boys kissing boys. These are the game devs who decried the Apple decision by complaining about the “real racists”.

“Heritage, not hate”, these people say. But they don’t understand their heritage. Games can help remedy this.

hoo boy this is awkward

Thanks for the tips, Cromwell. Did you know that some historians consider you a “proto-Hitler”?

History’s Value

Let’s zero in on the historical aspects, here. It is the undermining of history that leads to this sort of thinking, whether through deliberate obfuscation of facts or misplaced romanticism and nostalgia. Misunderstanding, whether deliberate or not, leads to the same result; ignorance is only slightly more excusable than malice. Here are some facts regarding controversial conflicts that games deliberately avoid addressing.

The Confederate States of America was a traitorous insurrection founded on slavery. The war was started by the CSA to preserve slavery. Slavery enabled the Confederacy’s armies to remain in the field, and accompanied them to the battlefront. An educated person cannot, in good faith, create a game about the Civil War that does not at least touch on slavery.

Just as slavery was critically important to the Confederacy’s ability to prosecute their war, so the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities are inextricably linked with Germany’s part in the Second World War. Slave labor helped to fuel the Nazi war machine. Anti-semitism, both by driving out some of Germany’s most intelligent and productive citizens (see: Einstein, Albert) and by the huge diversion of resources and rolling stock necessary for the Holocaust, probably expedited Hitler’s defeat by months or years. An educated person cannot, in good faith, create a game about the European Theatre of WWII without at least mentioning the real consequences of Nazi ideology.

And yet: most games about the Civil War or WWII don’t do this. They not only fail to educate, they deliberately avoid facts that could be seen as controversial. It is, admittedly, difficult to tackle these sorts of issues. Nobody wants a game about the Holocaust, unless it’s about escaping from it or undermining it. Decent human beings are not interested in some kind of Eichmann Simulator, and people who are interested should not be allowed to have it. Still, there are ways to educate players about the more troubling aspects of our past without forcing them to play-act war crimes.

Take the Pacific Theatre of WWII, which is terribly underrepresented as a historical setting in AAA games, was one of the most brutal conflicts ever, and full of both American and Japanese war crimes. Perhaps that lack of moral clarity is why developers prefer to turn to Europe. It’s a shame. I’d rather enjoy fighting over the Kokoda Trail or in the Battle of Shanghai  – as opposed to invading Normandy for the umpteenth time. There are complicated questions of morality and race here. What do you do when your comrades gun down unarmed prisoners? Such a game could educate players on issues of race, as well. What if the player was a Japanese-American interpreter? There’s so much to work with in history that has been left untapped.
The selected unit is the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS 'Adolf Hitler'.

The selected unit is the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS ‘Adolf Hitler’. There are no swastikas in Unity of Command, either.

The Symbols

Let’s circle back around to the Confederate Flag and the swastika and their ilk. Do these symbols add meaning and value?

Well, yes. From a game developer’s perspective, symbols have value, even in the hatred they inspire. One of the main draws of games with a World War II setting is the chance to slay Nazis. Players know that the swastika is a symbol of evil. It reminds us of Nazi ideology and its resultant bloodbaths and atrocities. This principle applies to other forms of media, as well. Tarantino’s last two films (Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds) rely heavily upon it.

There’s a negative argument in favor of including these symbols, too. Look at what happens in their absence. In Paradox’s WWII Hearts of Iron series, there are no swastikas. There is no mention of the Holocaust or war crimes or massacres. The end result is to suck the morality out of the game. The Nazis become just another nation to play. The Waffen-SS are portrayed not as murderous thugs, but as elite supertroops. In Hearts of Iron III, the tutorial is narrated by Hitler. This is the logical end-result of the Paradox mentality: games that run so far away from history that they become divorced from reality in a disturbing way. Mentioning something like the Holocaust becomes seen as sour grapes and responded to with accusations of “whining” or “that’s not what this game is about!”

Even when media effectively claims a historical setting but fails to include the relevant symbols, things can feel a little defanged. (Remember the idiotic doubled-armed Nazi salute used in the first Captain America movie? I’m sorry, the HYDRA salute.) I won’t wade into the controversy over the Wolfenstein games in Germany here, but similar thinking can be applied.

Of course, there are also games that traffic in and appropriate these symbols to cover for their own creative and narrative failings – with no sign of the victims of said evil. This is part of why the most recent Wolfenstein title was such a breath of fresh air: the Nazis weren’t just bad because they put swastikas everywhere. They did the awful things that Nazis do. This ups the narrative stakes and educates players. It’s good for everyone!

There are limits to this line of thinking. Most symbols are ambiguous, and some are basically unimportant. The swastika and the Battle Flag are uniquely charged with meaning. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for including the Italian flag in a game because of Italian war crimes. But we can say “hey, wouldn’t a strategy game based on the second Italo-Ethiopian war be cool? Let’s make it, and be sure to include the use of chemical weapons – it’d be disrespectful to whitewash history for the sake of a modicum of mainstream acceptability.”

Well, the trains guy doesn't like me, but at least I'm on good terms with Hitler.

Well, the trains guy doesn’t like me, but at least I’m on good terms with Hitler.

Myopic Accuracy, Educational Dissonance

Above is an interesting screenshot from the upcoming Decisive Campaigns game. How should I feel about having a “Good” relationship with the most infamous man of the 20th century? Um, probably not great! And that’s good! If you’re playing as a German officer in WWII, you should feel the dissonance of winning for evil. Only STAVKA-OKH has managed this.

Yes, historical wargames have an obligation to remind the player that war isn’t a game. Historical shooters have an obligation to teach us why we’re shooting. War is as much about moral choices as it is strategic or tactical ones. This is something the Total War games (which I’m generally not a fan of) do surprisingly well, in oblique ways. When a city is captured, the player must choose whether to Raze, Loot, or Occupy it. There are benefits and downsides to all three options, but it is made clear that by clicking the “raze” and “loot” buttons, you are effectively condoning the murder of civilians. I could never bring myself to do anything but Occupy, but the fact that the choice was there made me morally aware. It helped educate me about the stakes and consequences of conflict.

When you win Sid Meier’s Antietam or Ultimate General: Gettysburg, you should have a sour taste in your mouth, because you haven’t just won a battle, you have defended and extended the practice of human bondage. This isn’t preaching or moralizing – this is accurate. Not the myopic accuracy that enables a game like War in the East to model every aspect of the Nazi war machine, every piddling variant of Panzer, without acknowledging the monstrous actions of both sides of the conflict (and the flag that flew over one of them).

Yes, seeing the Confederate Battle Flag or the Nazi swastika right there on my screen makes me uncomfortable. It should. It makes me question my actions and contemplate history and morality in this video game. That’s good! That’s education. I’m advocating for cognitive dissonance, to push people to think, even though they could just be entertained.
It might not always be the best design decision – but it is the only morally viable one.

EVE Online Changed My Life

EVE Online

I remember when I first sat down to play EVE Online. It was the summer of 2007. I was new to San Diego, with a new job and my first child on the way. I was a real adult for the first time, as I had just separated from the Air Force and was on my own in a way I had never been before. It was a stressful time, a time that I sought solace in something soothing. For months, that thing had been World of Warcraft – but its hold on me had waned and I was in search of new experiences in MMOs. I forget how I heard of EVE, but at that point in time it was downloaded and ready to play. When I pressed the button to login, I had no way of knowing that EVE would forever alter the course of my life. But it would. It did. It does still.

I was young and dumb. I didn’t have a ton of confidence in myself. I was coming off a six month ‘vacation’ during which I had struggled to even get an interview, much less a job. I felt lucky to have finally found something, but it didn’t pay well and it was a contract job. There were no benefits for me or my growing family, there was a ton of out of pocket travel expenses, and I was doubting every decision I had ever made. My very pregnant wife was staying with her mother 3 hours from San Diego as the due date approached and I was, quite frankly, pretty down about everything.

EVE did not immediately change that. In fact, I didn’t even make it through the full 14 day trial the first time I tried it. Or the second time, for that matter. I bounced from MMO to MMO, looking to recreate some of the feelings I had experienced in World of Warcraft, to no avail. Much of that experience had been tied to the friends I played with, friends that were now thousands of miles away and swiftly falling out of touch as our lives went in separate directions. Eventually, though, EVE and I clicked. Still, my life didn’t really change due to EVE. I didn’t play much as my son was born and work picked up steam.

Two years went by. I was working at another government contractor – still for not nearly enough to live on in San Diego and still with no benefits – and I still felt very much like the same child I had been when I entered the Air Force. Sure, I paid taxes now; I had credit cards; I got smog checks for my car; but that was all just dressing, the trappings of an adult hung on my immature psyche. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, other than the nebulous answer of ‘IT’. I was well into my 20s and felt utterly lost, which is a pretty bad thing to feel when you have a wife and a kid.

To hide out from this growing sense of trepidation about my entire life and all the choices I had made, I dug deeper into EVE. I dug deeper into EVE’s community, reading blogs and the like. I started my own blog. I made lots of good friends in-game and then started a corporation with them. And then a podcast. People started reading my blog and I began to experience something really silly – a moderate level of EVE notoriety.

I made more friends and more acquaintances; I started cohosting a popular EVE podcast (for its day); I started running some community services. I became confident in my words, in my knowledge of the game, and in myself. Sure, a lot of the ground work for this confidence was laid down in the military and I could equally claim that joining the Air Force changed my life. The difference is that the military didn’t necessarily encourage me to be me; it encouraged me to be a good member of the military. With the podcasting, the blogging, and the community stuff I did in EVE Online, I began to understand who I was.

Yes, this all sounds melodramatic and silly and this whole post is a bunch of navel-gazing at the end of the day. However, it is no less true. It was only by putting myself out there, into a community of people who had similar interests but (importantly) widely differing viewpoints on a variety of issues, that I grew up.

After blogging and then working for TheMittani.com for a spell, I had grown a pretty great list of friends and acquaintances, people I have gone out of my way to meet outside the game. I’ve had beers with total and complete strangers and felt more or less at ease with them. I went to E3 and EVE Vegas and Blizzcon (oddly enough), all thanks to EVE Online. I got into the gaming industry thanks to EVE Online; I doubled my salary in a little under two years thanks to EVE Online. I’ve met CEOs of corporations both virtual and real. I spilled beer on a CCP developer.

In EVE Online, particularly early in my experience of the game, I found out the benefit of patience. EVE is a cruel mistress to the impatient, a fact that is regularly made plain every time a hauler dies with billions of ISK in it, or a blinged out mission ship dies to a gank. At TMC, as I was made into an editor and then a general manager of sorts, I found out how to work with people who, typically, are kind of hard to work with – video game nerds. Also at TMC I learned what drive and motivation really were about; I learned what it was to be good at something and comfortable with saying so; I learned about greed and how to let go.

There are many things I still try to internalize, lessons that have yet to be understood fundamentally, from EVE. I made many friends and understand better every day what it means to actually be a good friend. I learned how to differentiate respect and admiration and friendship and liking a person. EVE was, for me, a mental proving ground. A place I could experiment with leading, following, second-in-commanding. The most cutthroat digital universe was, in fact, my safe place.

I grew up and matured and began to understand how to operate as a human being, and to strive towards being a good one of those to boot, all because of this internet spaceship game that I sat down to play in the summer of 2007. Eight years later, I can only look back at my 2007-self and wonder where that guy would be right now, had EVE never caught on with him. It isn’t a pretty picture, if I’m honest, but the important thing about looking back is to understand and appreciate what you have now. I have a great family, I have great friends, I have a great job and greater prospects for the future. All of these things, as well as some of the very best memories in my life, I owe to EVE Online.

Level Boost: The New Sorry

Nothing says I'm sorry like 'pay me another 60 bucks for less content'

Level boosts are becoming the ultimate make good for the developers of MMOs (and similar games) who are unable to make their old content compelling enough to play. “Sorry we can’t figure out how to make anything compelling beyond the new end game” is what each developer is saying, essentially, about level boosts. Sometimes, this is appropriate; after 10 years of playing WoW, I can honestly say that I never again want to do 1-60. Other times, it is less a quality of life thing and more of a ‘yeah, we know, this whole first bit kinda sucks and always has.’

Creating content that is both repeatable and compelling is an incredibly difficult challenge. Unless you are the type to enjoy grinding, there aren’t many games that manage to do it. In most genres this isn’t much of a problem, for a variety of reasons: the grind could be the whole point of the game (Diablo 3); the game could only need to be played once for full effect (The Last of Us); the players could be the ones in charge of producing content (EVE Online).

and by history we mean our whole game

This is why MMOs in particular are susceptible to alt-fatigue, the exhaustion of static content that must be repeated time and again. World of Warcraft is a pretty great example of a game with a high level of alt-fatigue potential. The game really only starts at max level – different character roles are required for group activities and you can reasonably expect a large portion of your players to want to experience multiple roles over time. Logically this means those players should want to play hybrid classes such as the Druid or the Paladin, but humans are illogical creatures. They will of course make a Warrior, and then a Mage, and then a Priest to cover the same bases that a single Paladin or Druid can.

The problem with this is that leveling through WoW is by and large the same experience no matter what class the player chooses. It is a static experience that clashes with the dynamic experience of end game content. You must do (by and large) the same quests, in (roughly) the same order, whether you are a warrior or paladin or mage or priest. Thus, ‘illogical’ players that roll three different classes to fill three different roles will likely not be enjoying the content on the second time through, and probably start to hate it on the third.

This person has a problem. They probably also really like Friends.

Image courtesy of Engadget.com

There are, of course, exceptions to this; my wife is in fact one of them. She enjoys completing the same content over and over and over again. She also is on her 1 billionth rewatch of Friends. For most people, though, repeating the leveling experience is not a compelling thing. That’s where the level boosts come in.

Developers like Bungie and Blizzard are no dummies when it comes to player experience; for all the griping that can occur on the internet, those two companies have actually repeatedly delivered some of the finest player experiences of their times. They worry about this problem no less than you hate that the problem exists, but creating handcrafted worlds that adhere to a narrative that they create seems, at least so far, fundamentally incompatible with a refreshing and compelling repeatable experience.

There is some hope. Advances in procedural generation of content could provide an avenue through which compelling narratives and worlds can be repeated – at least, that’s the hope of No Man’s Sky. And games like EVE Online have shown that there is a recipe for player-generated content that doesn’t end in tragic failure, though in those worlds the developer-created narratives often take a back seat to the player-generated drama.

Welcome to The Matrix, basically

For now, level boosts like the one Blizzard introduced in Warlords of Draenor and the one that Bungie are deploying with The Taken King are the implicit apology for a failure to generate compelling leveling experiences. These failures are not necessarily the result of negligence or ignorance on the part of the developer, though, contrary to what many embittered customers of those companies like to allege. They are the symptoms of the inherent design problem present in persistent, handcrafted online spaces.

Level boosts are a good thing, whether old timers or other detractors like it or not – at least, as long as developers are still trying to push the boundaries of the industry and find the way ahead. As a stop gap measure, level boosts are not only sufficient but considerate. The danger lies in whether companies see the level boost as another ‘feature’ to add on to expansions of content. Should we arrive at a point in mainstream development wherein level boosts are the ‘best practice’ for MMOs and no time is being spent on trying to fix the core issue that level boosts were created to address – well, then it’ll be time to just pack it all up and go home.

EVE Sovereignty At The Brink

EVE Online

Two years into its second decade, EVE Online is in serious trouble.

This is a game that, at its best, is about politics – influence, war, territory, diplomacy, tribal gangs flinging spaceships and slurs at each other. Lately, it’s about different things. Things that other games do better. And the playerbase is shrinking as a result.

The actual number of subscribed accounts is hard to determine. We do know that it is significantly lower than the 500,000 subscribers figure trumpeted by CCP in February 2013, and that number included their relaunched Chinese server. Two posts by EVE blogger The Nosy Gamer dig into the exact numbers, though he believes that subscriptions don’t matter so much in an age of microtransactions and cash shops. He may be right; subscription numbers aren’t the best measurement of EVE’s vitality, given the number of players with multiple accounts. The most accurate metric we have is the number of accounts actually logged in and, thanks to EVE-Offline.net, that data is available.

It doesn’t look great.

peep that slope

2013 was a very strong year for EVE. After a brief slump at the end of 2013, the PCU (number of concurrent players) was spurred to what would become 2014’s high point by the famous Bloodbath of B-5RB, netting CCP a massive publicity win. It has been almost all downhill from there, with the huge activity gains of B-5RB wiped out within months. (I’m not cherry-picking data here – if anything, the 5-year graph looks worse.) From 2011 through 2014, EVE averaged nearly 50,000 concurrent players. For the past few months, New Eden has struggled to draw 30,000 – a drop of roughly 40%. How did we get here?

Let’s dispense with some oft-repeated untruths. No, CCP’s anti-botting/RMT efforts haven’t driven away nearly half the playerbase. That is silly for reasons of proportionality alone. No, the banning of ISBoxer and other automation tools is not responsible for the situation. The idea that a relative handful of multiboxers and ISBoxer users was inflating EVE’s PCU by tens of thousands is laughable. Players are leaving EVE because EVE isn’t interesting anymore and what makes EVE interesting is the political narrative.

To know why EVE is struggling, we must understand the political history of the game.

Influence.png

First, let’s clarify this “politics” idea. There are of course many things that EVE does decently enough and a few things that EVE is fantastic at. But EVE’s most unique feature (and its greatest draw) is the political narrative in nullsec space, the territory conquerable by players and unpoliced by NPC do-gooders. In this space, unique among MMOs for its particular brand of lawlessness, groups of players can forge political bonds, control and exploit territory, and strive for dominance unfettered. This is the arena that produced B-5RB, Asakai, the Goon/BoB conflict (known by its participants as the Great War), spies and commanders, heroes and villains, and the vast majority of the stories about EVE worth reading. It’s what makes the Verite Rendition Player Influence map so magical – every entity on that map is composed of hundreds or thousands of people, and they all have stories.

Take any major EVE battle of the sort that occasionally leaks into the broader media. The actual fighting itself is usually only interesting in a narrow technical sense; the actual experience of a player combatant may not be particularly exciting or even enjoyable. I’ve participated in my fair share of big fights. I remember high points like magnificent bombing runs and Doomsday beams flashing across the starfield. Mostly, I remember low points: interminable waiting, time dilation, my client stuttering and choking, tediously following the fleet commander’s orders, boredom and frustration. This is not interesting. What is interesting is the battle’s consequences; in New Eden, the battles have consequences – or at least, they should.

EVE doesn’t seem to produce many meaningful struggles anymore. B-5RB is, once again, illustrative: the battle occurred only as a result of a series of mistakes and uncharacteristic moves on both sides. Players without an obscenely expensive supercapital-class ship were directed away from the battle proper by their commanders, to preserve server resources for the more useful Titans and Supercarriers. Finally, the battle’s actual strategic consequences were muted, as both sides had sufficiently deep war-chests to replace their losses in a matter of weeks. The war itself was a passionless thing, driven mostly by the need to give players something to do. No righteous fury or struggle for survival animated B-5RB.

These are symptoms of the game’s political ossification.

Shuffling the Deck

In December 2009, EVE’s 12th expansion (Dominion) was released. Dominion came with a new sovereignty system – a complete overhaul of the mechanics determining player control of space in nullsec.

It was not a good overhaul. The pre-Dominion sovereignty system wasn’t good, exactly, but it lacked the more pernicious and damaging flaws that Dominion carried. Dominion-era sov warfare was a grinding, oddly-designed mess that heavily favored the defender. The complexity of the system discouraged new blood from attempting to enter the nullsec game and conferred further power to the veterans who already held space.

The number of new alliances moving into nullsec plummeted and even alliances with terrible leadership were able to hold their space indefinitely, simply because grinding through Dominion’s legion of timers and other obstacles was not worth it. Even the conquest of uncontested space was a chore. To successfully attack, alliances needed more members. They began to merge and grow. Coalitions became less “alliances of alliances” and more autocratic.

Dotlan

As alliances bloated in size, their culture and identity became diluted. As they became richer and more well-established, leaders were less inclined to risk their hard-won gains on wars or other failure-prone ventures. The Verite Influence map started to have mostly the same names on it. For years.

These player organizations, mostly safe behind the high walls of Dominion sovereignty, evolved, becoming more Byzantine and bureaucratic. Familiarity with the mechanics bred the ability to exploit them. Coalitions developed unified communications platforms, reimbursement and welfare programs, and a whole system of internal management. Groups that were once autocracies now insulated the leader behind a wall of fleet commanders, diplomats, metagamers, and a dozen other kinds of functionaries and specialists. Some of this was happening before Dominion and would have happened without it, of course – players evolve. Dominion just reinforced the stifling effect that the sovereignty mechanics sparked.

After a few years of adjustment, EVE’s political narratives stopped being as interesting or dynamic as they once were. Everyone had fought everyone before, usually many times.  Just as a first-past-the-post, all-or-nothing electoral system discourages third parties and narrows the field of viable candidates and parties, the all-or-nothing sovereignty system discouraged smaller alliances, eventually forcing the vast majority of nullsec players into a trinary, and then a binary, galaxy.

As a member of one of EVE’s most long-lived and influential alliances, Goonswarm Federation, I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. The first half-decade of EVE was a time of consequences – dramatic upsets, narrative, clashing ideologies, space opera made real. After half a decade of Dominion all we had left was the core gameplay, and it’s not a secret that much of EVE’s core gameplay isn’t actually very good.

 

influencecropped

Fozziesov

To CCP’s credit, after more than five years of Dominion stagnation, they have finally come around to replacing the Dominion sovereignty system. Developed under the aegis of Game Designer CCP Fozzie, the new mechanics are almost universally referred to by the community as “Fozziesov.”

The way Fozziesov actually functions isn’t that important; it follows the EVE Online tradition of taking already-complex game mechanics and obscuring them further behind weird terminology. Activity Defense Multiplier? Entosis Link? Ugh. The question is: will it work? If it does work, will it be enough to revitalize the nullsec political game? Ideally, Fozziesov would shake up or break up EVE’s coalitions and lower the stakes of conflict. Many prominent coalition and alliance leaders have in fact stated that they’d welcome to a return to the freewheeling, balkanized EVE landscape of old.

It’s an extraordinarily difficult task for CCP to attempt, akin to reversing a historical process – taking EVE from coalitions down to nation-states down to tribal groups. However it is an extraordinarily difficult task worth doing; revitalizing the nullsec game is probably the only way to reverse EVE’s declining numbers.

Respected EVE politicians and alliance leaders are skeptical. Reaction to Fozziesov in action has largely been neutral or negative. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything; EVE players will gleefully attack CCP for any action they take or propose to take and it’s too early to make a definitive judgement of Fozziesov. Still, it is worrying. A failure to return dynamism and fun to nullsec could be fatal. One experienced fleet commander hits the nail on the head:

Mechanics might change, but the general vibe around Eve is that most people have been around the block so many times that they don’t want to put much effort into it anymore. Content creators of olde are largely inactive. Apathy from the old guard isn’t a bad thing – as long as there is a fresh generation to take over. But does that exist?

I hope that new generation does exist because this game is worth saving. Let’s not underrate what CCP has accomplished: more than a decade after launch, despite everything, EVE Online is unique. Games that pitch themselves as competitors to EVE tend to fail (see also: ArcheAge, Perpetuum, Darkfall, etc). Figuring out how to make PvP territorial control work within an MMO is terrifically difficult. MechWarrior Online has been putting it off for three years now.

EVE is not dying. I suspect that New Eden will be around for another decade, if not longer. It’s just becoming less and less interesting – which could be worse than death.

Point/Counterpoint: The Legacy of MMOs

World of Warcraft

MMOs are destined to die. It’s a fact of life that we as MMO players don’t often like to acknowledge, but at some point every company will either a) crash and burn and take the servers down with them or b) transition to other genres and take the servers down with them. The question isn’t ‘what if EVE Online or The Secret World were to go down forever?’ – it is instead ‘what should happen to MMOs when their parents need to pull the plug?’ Some, like Mr. Murff, believe MMOS should be archived so that players can still experience them after closure; others, like Mr. Andrews, believe intellectual property rights should remain intact. 

James Murff

I’m very much a big proponent of games as historical artifacts (in the same way as painting, or books, or music, or what have you), so I am, of course, a damn dirty liberal hippie. Here’s how.

MMOs are an essential part of the gaming landscape, and offer people experiences they can’t get anywhere else. Games like Warhammer, City of Heroes, and Star Wars Galaxies left an indelible mark not only on the MMO genre, but also the people who played them, some of whom did so for almost a decade.

By allowing companies to wholly control these games to the point that they can shutter them, forever, never release the source or software to the community, and generally freeze all attempts at historical archival, it creates entire sections of gaming history that are arbitrarily “lost.” This is unique to games-as-service too; in books, movies, and even non-MMO games like Halo, archival is always an option, because there will always be a copy somewhere that can be backed up. Not so much for the religiously-guarded servers of MMOs.

I think it’s fully within a company’s right to shutter an MMO if it’s not performing. That’s fine! But I think that there should be a legal mechanism or organization in place to gracefully transition those games into “archival”; that is, they are no longer subscription-based or require purchases (except the clients, much like a normal game purchase) and the original company no longer maintains or updates the game in any way, but you can still play them.

Whether this is done through a full transference of property rights, or via negotiated licenses (such as Creative Commons) is a valid point of contention, as is which games should be selected for archival. But I don’t think it can be said that these games shouldn’t be saved in some capacity. Otherwise, what’s the point of playing them? All MMOs die eventually, after all.

I do think it’s fair to say that the source shouldn’t be released, or released under a limited license. However, it’s not like companies haven’t been sued for source theft before; Dennis Dyack’s company was destroyed because Epic sued them over the unauthorized use of Unreal Engine’s source code.

This isn’t an emotional response, it’s a historic one. We have a duty to preserve gaming culture and history. Archival is an important aspect of any creative medium, and games are a creative medium. Imagine if we didn’t strive to preserve books, or movies, or paintings; many classics would be lost to time. This is no Library of Alexandria, of course, but the preservation of games should be an important aspect of contributing to the medium. MMOs are the only games with this unique problem – all other games can be archived, either digitally or physically – so I think it’s only fair that we put measures in place to give them a measure of archival as well.

I absolutely believe it is the right of a company to shut down and no longer support an MMO. But I also believe we have a duty to preserve games – or at least the games that had such a huge impact on our medium – and MMOs fall under that category.

As for intellectual copyright, there’s all sorts of problems with how companies and the government handles copyright in the United States. The foremost, though, is that we give people and companies copyrights to their products for almost 100 years after the dissolution or death of either. If you have an estate, you retain the copyright forever. There’s a reason why alternative rights contracts – such as Creative Commons – have sprung up over the years in the wake of modern copyright law.

Part of a creative medium’s value is in how we transition the concept of private creation into public creation. Many beloved characters and stories exist within this public domain – Sherlock Holmes, the Cthulhu Mythos, Dracula, etc – and the stories that have resulted are some of the best we’ve seen.

Companies should have the right to protect the software they create and a right to shut down a service they are providing. What I don’t think they have the right to do, though, is forever lock off chunks of history for the sake of a profit margin.

We have a historical imperative to preserve these games, just as we do to preserve other creative mediums. That means a graceful transition (how? I’m not entirely sure, the details have to be hammered out, and it will be expensive) into a state where the company is no longer supporting the game, but either players or a non-profit (non-profit is my personal favorite option) are running the server. Players should be able to play, understand, and enjoy these important dead games, without infringing upon the company’s copyrights.

MMOs are small societies, experiential games that pull together people in interesting and even studiable ways. EVE Online is considered a good avenue of study for economists, and the infamous plague in World of Warcraft led to research in how disease is spread in a society. They are indeed a product of their time, and as time goes on, these MMOs change. Saying that the experience of EVE now is fundamentally different than EVE of 2005 is not disputable.

Still, though, we shouldn’t be so quick to let the tangible aspect of these MMOs disappear. YouTube and the like only gets us so far; in order to truly understand and appreciate a society that developed and is now dead, you need access to more than just their media. You need their monuments, their cities, their real and approachable spaces. The death of an MMO is the destruction of these monuments, the dismantling of the tangible, and all that’s left are second-hand accounts.

There is a wonder in wandering these spaces, empty or full, and seeing the legacy left by both players and developers. A book without a monument lacks impact; a monument without a book lacks context. They are inextricable, and to deprive us of one is to deprive us of the whole experience. That’s why we should preserve these spaces, and perhaps even some of these societies.

Dave Andrews

This is a pretty cut-and-dried case in my mind. The companies who construct MMOs do (and should) hold all rights to their work. It is their property, paid for in the labor and infrastructure costs associated with the teams who build them, and to suggest that we are merely ‘allowing’ companies to wholly own something they made is a ludicrous argument. The only entity entitled to the ownership (in whole) is the entity who created it (or to whom the product is sold). To argue otherwise would be to argue for the dissolution of the concept of private property.

Being a long time MMO player – and having spent time with almost all of the titles mentioned above and a fair few others – I totally get the emotional response to a hobby effectively being killed by something beyond your control. It sucks, but at the end of the day you simply have to respect the rights of the intellectual property owners. If they can no longer maintain and operate an MMO and the infrastructure involved (which can be quite expensive), or no longer find it in their best interest, then they have the right to shut it all down and move on.

The other thing to keep in mind is that in the vast majority of cases, MMOs are not shut down arbitrarily. MMOs are a product/service and gaming studios are businesses. When they start consistently going into the red and the choice is either appeasing a handful of players or trying to keep your employees fed and clothed.. well, I know which option I’d pick.

Where most of this argument exists is in a very emotional place and there really is no arguing with emotion at the end of the day. However, the fact remains that source code is no less an asset than a building or an iPhone or anything else – and players are very much not entitled to that asset. As we should all know by now, when you subscribe to an MMO you are purchasing the rights to use a service and a client. You are categorically not buying the source code, server code, or anything else.

In addition, there are costs to consider. How would such an ‘archival’ solution that involves legislation be funded? In my personal experience running MMOs (backend server work, etc), I would estimate the cost of running an MMO of three thousand or fewer players to be around 27,000 USD (2015 dollars). This covers things like rackspace at a semi-decent datacenter, labor for a semi-competent engineer (who can do database, network, and system engineer work), and all the miscellaneous things that go into serving up MMO content. That doesn’t sound like a lot – but how many MMOs have had the plug pulled on them over the years? How many more can we expect to die in the next 10? Is this really something we want government funding to go towards? I realize I’m asking a lot of questions, here, but I truly don’t understand my colleague’s obsession with keeping dead things alive.

Setting aside the copyright argument (I can’t really argue with someone who believes copyrights are culture killers) and the realities of cost (it would cost around 27,000 USD per month to run a barebones MMO from my experience), this is the most important argument I think I can make against a forced method of maintenance mode for MMO properties: the game you are trying to preserve has already died by the time maintenance mode would be an option. Think of an EVE Online with 10% of its current playerbase – how fun is that game even? If you were a newcomer looking to experience EVE Online in 25 years, you wouldn’t be able to. Hell, if you are a newcomer right now you wouldn’t gain any understanding of the previous 10 years of the game, even if you put 10 years into it.

Can anyone understand the “many whelps” of Onyxia or the context of Leeroy Jenkins even today? MMOs are an experiential piece of entertainment that is constantly shifting and requires, uniquely, a base number of players to really understand. The reason MMOs live (and die) in ways that other genres of video game do not is this simple fact. Social and cultural context are what define MMO experiences, more so than the code or the quests or the mechanics of gameplay.

MMOs are about people; it is the only real draw of the genre. How those people come together, the bonds that are built from shared experiences, the competition of being better than the other guild, or team, or realm, those are what make MMOs worth preserving – and it is also why they cannot be preserved in the manner James describes. We don’t need to preserve the ‘approachable spaces’ of a game by keeping the servers on. Comparing YouTube to the dusty scrolls of yester-millenia is facetious at best, not to mention the fact that the reason for the emphasis on preserving spaces in the real world is that those spaces often functioned as media (read: statues, plinths, triumphal arches, pillars, and columns all serve as media upon which information is written).

The digital media of the modern era is perfectly suited to record the digital spaces that function as MMOs. Without the context of actually having been there, having been a part of the zeitgeist of World of Warcraft or Star Wars: Galaxies or EVE Online, future players will be fundamentally unable to understand what made those games great. The experiences that those communities share are the only thing worth saving – and keeping the server lights on isn’t the way to save them.

There is, however, a method of preserving these experiences that exists right now. Everyone can (and many do) engage in this archival process already. It not only relates systems, art, and level design; it relates the actual experience of playing. It is called YouTube and it is free of cost to the developer. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City famously included EVE Online in their initial slate of video game inductions in 2013 and they didn’t do it by running a small server version of the game; they did it by putting together a video presentation. Game experiences change in MMOs, more so than any other category of video game. They are fluid in nature and the joy of them exists not in code, but in the people you play with and against. Better to document and record those experiences than to put up an empty shell of what used to be a video game.

To reiterate: it sucks to realize that a part of your life is now gone and can never be retrieved. That is as true for childhood as it is for a player’s alternate life in MMOs. Part of growing up and maturing as an adult is the realization that you can never, ever recreate old magic. You’ll never down Onyxia for the first time again; you’ll never win your first 1v1 in EVE Online again either. Instead, you should focus on looking forward, to making new magic and new memories and new friends in new spaces and new communities and new contexts. It is important to know and respect the legacy that past MMOs have delivered to us, but that doesn’t mean we should wallow around in their graves in a sad attempt at paying respects.