gaming March 04, 2016

How EVE Online spoiled every other MMO in the world for me 


There was a time when I played a lot of MMOs (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online games, to the uninitiated).

It started, as it often does, with World of Warcraft, still pretty much the undisputed king of the genre. Back then, late 2008, around the time the Wrath of the Lich King extension was released, publishers Blizzard were on top of the world; 10 million subscribers eager to login day after day, grinding away at quests, dailies, achievements, and the massive end-game raids, where up to 40 players work together to progress through a dungeon, a feat that can take many hours of work (not to mention weeks of preparation, gearing and practice).
Like many others, I was sucked in by the oh-so-easy progression and Blizzard’s expertly calibrated ‘carrots’ that keep players playing long into the night — just a few more XP (eXperience Points) to reach the next level; just one more piece of armour to complete the set and benefit from those sweet set bonuses; one final variety of snake to kill to complete the achievement and receive one more completely worthless badge.

Of course, aside from the endless content, the second ‘M’ in MMO is a key factor in the endless playability. Multiplayer games, especially those like WoW that allow their players to band together in player-run ‘guilds,’ offer a ready-made group of peers that not only share your interests and passions, but also often have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. Players feel simultaneously wanted and valued, while the drip-drip-drip of rewarding quest completion ensures a never-ending dopamine hit, day after day after day.

Eventually, though, Warcraft lost its charm; Blizzard removed much of the challenge from the levelling experience, and as the level cap increased so did the necessary time commitment required to run the same high-level dungeons over and over while you wait for that elusive piece of gear to finally drop. Disillusioned, I looked around for an alternative. As it turns out, there are quite a few.

The success of WoW has spawned an army of clones over the last ten years. Some are relatively successful (Guild Wars 2, Destiny), some not (such as Defiance, a bizarre attempt to pair an online game with a TV show); some follow Blizzard’s monthly fee model while some adopted a more generous free-to-play model, making their money instead through the sale of items that can help you in-game (the so called ‘pay-to-win’ model, much reviled among ‘serious’ gamers). There are games set in both the DC and Marvel comic universes, as well as in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Conan, Warhammer, and Dungeons & Dragons worlds. You can play on a pirate boat or during a zombie apocalypse. Final Fantasy went MMO (for the second time) with Final Fantasy XIV, a series with almost twenty years of history behind it.

I tried them all. But, in the end, I found that there is no other multiplayer game in the world that comes close to EVE Online.

More than just spreadsheets in space

EVE Online is a multiplayer game set in space. In the far future (so the story goes) mankind has colonised the distant galaxy of New Eden, and split into four pretty much interchangeable varieties of human: the Amarr, Caldari, Gallente and Minmatar races. After possibly the most complex character creation screen imaginable, players awake to find themselves in a space station with a crappy ship and no money. The object of the game is … well, I’ll get to that later. A helpful AI named Aura holds your hand while you learn how to fly your ship, shoot asteroids, shoot pirates, and make a little bit of money. You buy a better ship. If you’re lucky, nobody shoots it.

For a game that has been described as having not so much a learning curve as a learning cliff, there really isn’t much more to the basic premise of EVE. That’s because it is a “sandbox” game; in other words, the developers built all of the mechanics of the game, but the behaviour of the players determines how to actually play it. (I’ll get onto the behaviour of the players later, too.) Suffice to say that, after playing for a while, you start to see why psychologists study EVE Online as a way to model real-world issues.

One of the key differentiators that makes EVE different from most other MMOs is that loss is permanent. In Warcraft, and most other games, if your character dies you do not lose all of the weapons and armour s/he was wearing at the time; you resurrect with exactly the same set of equipment, ready to have another go.

In EVE, however, that is not the case. When you die, that ship — along with whatever was in it — is gone. Forever. And, since each ship and piece of equipment on it represents a substantial amount of effort on the part of the player, losses can be exceedingly painful. In classic MMOs, when a challenge is not going well, you will often hear the raid leader give the order to “wipe” — everyone die, let’s start again. In EVE, that’s rarely an option. Aside from the loss of an expensive ship, to start over you need everyone involved to either have a spare ship ready to go, or the funds to purchase and equip a new one right away. Which brings me onto another topic: resources.

As well as perma-loss, the other aspect that sets EVE apart from other games is the entirely player-driven economy. Virtually everything in the game can be manufactured by players, using resources gathered by other players (via mining, planet management, moon extraction, and other incredibly complex game mechanics). Anything you buy, therefore, is at the end of an infinite chain of resource gatherers, manufacturers, and market traders, each group fuelling the others in a complex ecosystem that is largely unmanaged by CCP Games, the creators of EVE Online.

In a nutshell, that’s the game — make money by doing stuff, spend money on things that other people have made. But in reality, it’s what happens in between that truly defines the EVE experience.

Space jobs

“EVE is life,” as the saying goes, and “space jobs” in EVE mirror many of their real-life counterparts. Mining is hour upon hour of boredom, broken up by occasional bursts of danger; shipping goods from A to B can also occupy many hours. Unlike other MMOs there are no shortcuts, no hearthstones or portals that allow you to leap from one end of the galaxy to the other (well, there are wormholes, but those require a completely separate set of skills and knowledge to use), and so players must learn patience, how to calculate risk versus reward, and how to interact with each other to discover whether there are market needs that they can meet … for a tidy profit, of course.

This then, is effectively an alternate life, in a far more meaningful way than the Second Life ‘game’ ever achieved. Finding a niche, building up your abilities, budgeting for risk, and knowing when the time is right to expand in new directions, are all skills as applicable to the real world as they are in New Eden. And that’s before you even start to consider the people skills involved in running the massive in-game alliances, comparable in size to many global companies, and requiring just the same amount of infrastructure and management. The largest player-operated groups in EVE have their own HR departments, training teams, IT infrastructure, and board of directors. Tack onto that the necessary military-style structure for the management of interstellar warfare — logistics, scouting, diplomats, and various ranks of Fleet Commanders, those players tasked with leading fleets of ships into battle — and successfully steering even a medium-sized alliance becomes as challenging a job as any other in which thousands of people are depending on you.

Joining a player-owned corporation or alliance can even be a similar experience to joining a large company. While real-life on-boarding might involve being shown around, introduced to the right people, and provided with the equipment you need, joining an established group in EVE can often include gifts of money (ISK, the in-game currency, is named for the Icelandic krona, where the game’s developers are based), ships, and other valuable resources. Nowhere is this unique attitude towards new players more clear than in the terms used by the EVE player base; unlike most games, where they would be classified as “newbies,” in EVE the new players are known as “newbros” — they may be new to the game, but once they join our side, we’re all brothers-in-arms now.

Forging a purpose

So, you’ve found a new home amongst the stars with your new space friends, who shower you with pretend space money. Now what?

The final killer trick up EVE Online’s sleeve is the exploitation of the singular dream of virtually every person on the planet. A place to call your own. A home.

New Eden is separated into two distinct areas of space. The centre of the galaxy is known as high security, or “hi-sec,” space. It’s safe, well-connected; it even has its own police force. The biggest danger here is the chance that you might fall for one of the non-stop scams perpetrated by players against other players, taking advantage of those age-old weaknesses, greed and stupidity.

Outside of hi-sec, beyond a protective band of low-security space, lie the lawless wastes of null-sec. Out here, nobody is going to protect you from the bad guys … hell, if you’re out here, you probably are one of the bad guys. Yet null has a singular attraction, one that entices tens of thousands of players to leave the safe playpen of hi-sec and make their home in the middle of a permanent war zone. Because null-sec systems can be conquered, and owned, by the players. The opportunity to plant a flag (quite literally; the game allows for custom logos to be added and displayed in-game) and declare “This belongs to us!” is irresistible, as is the urge to kick over someone else’s sandcastle and take what was once theirs for your own. Fleets of players, sometimes numbering in their hundreds, take to the virtual sky to defend their home, while the opposing side fight to expand their own empire. It is a struggle as old as civilisation itself.

Over the thirteen years since EVE’s original 2003 release, empires have risen and fallen, and systems and regions of space have changed hands hundreds of times. Yet the fact that New Eden is a “persistent world” means that there is a history to every system, every station; a history that players know they have contributed to, and that they can continue to shape in the future.

EVE is real

In the title of this piece, I said that EVE Online had spoiled every other MMO for me. And while the factors discussed above — perma-loss, the player-driven economy, the community, owning your home, becoming history — are all part of that, I think that they combine to form a sum greater than their parts. For all that it’s just pixels on a screen and data on a server, EVE is real, and what you do matters, in a way that handing in quests or running dungeons in other games can never approach. Returning to other MMOs, even one as polished as World of Warcraft, reduces you to the level of a trained rat, obediently pushing a button to receive treats. The challenge is entirely superficial — press these buttons in this order, don’t stand in the fire — whereas EVE asks questions of you that get to the heart of who you really are. What are you willing to risk? What are you ready to fight for? And what will you do to reshape history?

In space, everybody can hear you scream.

(Feel like giving EVE Online a try? Use this signup link to start a 14-day free trial!)

If you enjoyed this article, check out my previous EVE-related article: Is “This is EVE” the greatest game trailer of all time?

gaming January 30, 2016

Review: Spectrum Vega 


I was lucky. Back when I was a kid, in the middle of the 1980s, personal computing was just taking off, as companies like Apple and Amstrad realised that there was money to be made by bringing games machines out of the video arcades and into family homes. There were plenty of attempts by various different companies to build the perfect machine as they scrambled for market share; it had to be powerful enough to run the kind of games kids were used to playing in the arcades, while also not so expensive that many youngsters were priced out of the market.

By 1984 in the UK, there were two main contenders (at least if you wanted to be one of the cool kids; nobody yet wanted to admit to owning an Apple II, and the government-funded BBC Micro was mostly only found in schools). The Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum were both introduced in 1982, and although the C64 would go on to become the best-selling computer model of all time it was the British-made Spectrum, with a price tag less than half that of its rival, that dominated the nascent home computing scene.

I was around ten years old when I first got mine. It was actually the slightly later model ZX Spectrum+, which replaced the iconic rubber keys with a moulded plastic keyboard, and added a reset button (which did nothing more than cause a short circuit across the CPU reset capacitor). Thus began almost a decade of game collection, both legitimate and less-than-legal tape-to-tape copying, to feed my 8-bit gaming addiction.

Vega boys

Fast-forward almost thirty years, and video gaming looks very different. The powerful multi-core PC dominates, while consoles now in their fourth generation deliver near photographic-quality imagery and textures. Virtual reality is just around the corner, with the long-awaited release of the Oculus Rift later this year. One would think that the lowly 8-bit computer no longer has a place in the hearts of gamers, but that is apparently not the case. The retro-gaming movement, due no doubt to the large numbers of kids like me who are now in their forties with large amounts of disposable income, has grown immensely in the last few years. They even have their own magazine, complete with the Spectrum's iconic diagonal rainbow stripes.

And now some of those 80s kids have resurrected the humble ZX Spectrum; not in its original form, but as an 8-button, plug'n'play console called the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega.

Photo of Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega console

Made with the blessing and involvement of Spectrum grandaddy Sir Clive Sinclair, the Vega was brought to market after a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and comes pre-loaded with 1,000 games (of, it has to be said, variable quality). The console plugs directly into your television via the SCART socket, and draws its power from either the TV or another convenient USB plug.

While there are a good few games that Spectrum fans will remember fondly -- Horace Goes Skiing, Knight Lore, Auf Wiedersehen Monty, Back to Skool, Jetpac, should all provide hours of nostalgic fun -- the Vega's killer USP is the ability to download and run any Spectrum game from a mini-SD card. Sites like World of Spectrum and Emuparadise ("Emu" as in "emulator", in case you were wondering) contain virtually every game ever released, and downloading them to an SD card is the work of only a few minutes. So, if you have fond memories of Daley Thompson's Decathlon or Chuckie Egg, they're easily loaded up, and the built-in keybinding mapper allows you to map the controls of just about any game to the Vega's 4-way directional pad and four action buttons.

Ready Player 1

To somebody grown used to endless respawns and ever-so-gradual difficulty gradients, the first thing that hits you when you fire up an old Spectrum game is just how damn unforgiving they are. Stand still too long? Whoops, you're dead. Not in quite the right place to make that jump? Dead again. Almost reached the end of the level before dying? Back to the very beginning you go -- there are no save points here.

The complete lack of maps for any game that involves multiple locations is also a shock to anyone that has spent the last ten years playing World of Warcraft, Fallout, or the various Elder Scrolls titles. Vague memories might start to resurface; a computer desk covered in sheets of perforated dot-matrix printer paper, pencilled maps of connected squares that start optimistically in the centre of the page before spreading wildly across multiple pieces of paper, squiggly lines indicating their shared connections. You recoil from the memory of trying to map any adventure game which included a maze; the non-Euclidean infinite loop of possible directions, with escape only possibly by moving south and then east.

One might imagine that the best thing about a Spectrum console is the lack of loading time -- chat to any 1980s Speccy owner and conversation is bound to turn to the endless war of attrition with the tape player's volume control, and "Oh God, that loading noise!" By comparison, the pleasant chiptune on the Vega's main menu is the only hardship one must endure before choosing and starting any game almost instantaneously.

Image of Spectrum loading screen

However, I personally found that the lack of waiting, the absence of the five minute "will it, won't it" minigame as you wait to see whether the magnetic tape has finally stretched beyond all recovery, removes a core aspect of Spectrum gaming: that of commitment. No longer tied to a course of action that requires you to sacrifice large chunks of your playtime to watching epilepsy-inducing blue and yellow stripes flicker across the screen, it is far easier to simply give up than to persevere with a challenging game. The Vega encourages me to throw in the towel far too early, tempted by the possibility of an easier, less frustrating experience in one of the other 999 games available.

But if you can stick it out -- the limited lives, endless restarts, fiddly controls and challenging gameplay -- it is still, thirty or more years after its debut, fun. Hard and frustrating, certainly, but still fun.

After all, if your ten-year-old former self could beat those games, then so can you.