VII – “Wait, You WANT the Response Fleet?”: Strategic vs Recreational Gameplay, Part One

We sit in the cold beauty of a pre-war Delve, sixty kilometers off the stargate.  We have two Osprey Navy Issues, a Confessor, and a Keres—a weak but nimble force, hoping to stir up trouble in the heart of EVE’s largest empire, then fight while running away like Mongol horsemen.  We also have a Stiletto on the other side of the gate, watching the enemy form up.

At this moment, they have about thirty ships.  About half of those are battleships, any one of which would be difficult for our gang to kill.  Mixed in, they also have all sorts of electronic warfare to shut us down, hold us in place so we can’t kite away—and as they sit there, telling us to jump in, they continue to trickle in enough fast tackle to blot out the sun.  At the center of it all is Lord Jaxom’s Bhaalgorn, a battleship fit, essentially, to deny targets any chance at escaping, or even shooting back.  As we sit off the gate on the other side, they’re talking to our Stiletto in local chat, telling us to jump into them.

Our Stiletto pilot is asking why they won’t jump in with 6:1 superiority.  They tell us they won’t because we’re cowards.  This is fairly normal banter in the home regions of big nullsec alliances, where doublethink is a way of life.  Then one of them says something unusual—something so frank, honest, and yet cruel that it’s still stuck in my memory, over a year later.

“Eventually you’ll get bored and come feed to us,” they wrote.  “That feels like less of a waste of your evening than going home.”

Our Stiletto asked them why they didn’t feel the same way.

“Because if you leave, we’re still protecting our space.”

Eventually, with their numbers close to fifty, and still refusing to come in to us, we did go home.  We escaped without incident—even our Stiletto—and closed our connection to Delve.  But they were right.  It did feel like a total waste of time.  We were left wondering why we had decided to play EVE instead of another game, where we were guaranteed gameplay, with the precious few hours of free time we had that day; and I at least wondered why I’d bother to play EVE with my precious time on this Earth, when I wasn’t even guaranteed to be able to do it.  Indeed, we hadn’t failed at the game, we had failed to play the game.  Normally, when you fire up a videogame, you take that part for granted.

What I didn’t understand was that this was not the case for our opponents.  In fact, we had failed even to play EVE that night, but they had played it very well.  The difference is in the nature of our objectives—the difference between Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive PVP gameplay.

EVE Online is not one game but many.  This statement rings true when considering the game’s intense complexity: any one career path in EVE certainly has as much depth as many standalone games.  But a game is an experience in which you overcome obstacles to achieve goals, and because EVE is a sandbox game, every player has to invent their own goals.  In this sense, someone whose goal is to visit every system in the game without dying[i], someone trying to collect every titan, and someone trying to become a master fleet commander, are playing games as different as Battlefield versus Farming Simulator.  Of course, they exist together, and often cross paths.  For this reason, we might better think of EVE as one world but many games.

The biggest tradeoff of this design is that, while it allows for utterly dynamic and unbelievably meaningful gameplay outcomes, it also incentivizes players of one playstyle to deny gameplay to those of another.  In the case of the PVP player and the PVE player, both cannot be “playing their game” at the same time.  The PVE player is denied playing their game while the PVP player is nearby hunting them, and the PVP player is denied playing their game when the PVE player doesn’t respond with a fight.  This is natural, and I would never suggest the sheep should not hide from the wolves, but…

EVE’s playability revolves around a healthy ratio of content-to-content denial, across all areas of gameplay.  That is, there is a threshold at which the PVP player doesn’t get enough fights, and decides to go play another game, and a similar one in which the PVE player doesn’t get to make enough money.  Neither has to be able to get their content 100% of the time.  And they may have different thresholds.  For example, a PVE player may not tolerate being denied their gameplay more than 20% of the time, while (speaking as a PVP player myself) if I was in a fight for 20% of the time I spent at the keyboard, I probably wouldn’t do anything else in my whole life.  (Seriously.  I would starve.)

Much of this has to do with mindset and self-conception as well.  For example, if I think of myself as a “PVP player,” then any time I’m not in a fight or preparing for a fight is time I am effectively not playing the game, at least as far as I’m concerned.  But if I think of myself as a “hunter,” then suddenly all the time I spend looking for a fight is also gameplay[ii].  My expectations become different, and so does the dopamine the game releases for me.  With a shift in mindset, avoiding hunters could also be a satisfying experience for the hunted, rather than the gameplay equivalent of a power outage.  I’m going to go into much more detail on this in the future, so for now suffice it to say that the goals we set in-game also define who we are in-game, and this is an immensely powerful force.

The difference in goals and mindset can also exist within an overarching playstyle, such as “PVP.”  This post is about defining PVP into three categories, Strategic, Recreational, and Competitive—and then showing how some of EVE’s most common and confusing interactions happen when they collide.  The difference in each mindset lies in its goals.

The Competitive mindset is the simplest to define: it is what you see in tournaments and tournament preparation.  Unlike most other gameplay in EVE, it is guaranteed, but also not dynamic—there are set rules and boundaries for all matches.  I’m not going to talk any more about this one, because it’s pretty noumenally simple.  In this case, the goal is to win a tournament.

Recreational PVP, like Competitive, is also fairly simple.  This is essentially playing EVE like a game—fighting other players to have fun.  That’s it.  That’s the whole goal.  If you have fun by fighting someone, you’ve achieved your goal.  More ambitious players might say, “if you’ve won a fight and had fun…” but that is a difference of degrees, not of nature.

Strategic PVP is a pervasive mindset that can attach itself to many areas of the game. 

In the case of that scenario in Delve, in which nigh-fifty Goons wouldn’t jump into four roamers, the disconnection was in the fact that we were practicing Recreational PVP, and they—even though they weren’t on a Strategic operation—were practicing Strategic PVP. 

In Strategic PVP, most engagements are a case of maneuver warfare—that is, an objective-oriented struggle, in which it is often the best tactic to avoid direct conflict and instead focus on the objective.  This can be very commonly seen in citadel fights with doctrines such as Initiative’s Boosh Raven fleet[iii], in which the fleet bounces around the battlefield at long range, keeping damage on the target and often ignoring the actual defenders.  Moreover, since EVE is a game, and morale dictates fleet numbers, it is absolutely ubiquitous for nullbloc fleet commanders to avoid uncertain fights.  Simply put, if they lose heavily, their fleet numbers will be lower next time, and they can very easily cascade strategically; but if they simply go home, their numbers should be about the same, at least as long as this isn’t done too constantly.  So, in some scenarios, Strategic PVP encourages denying conflict to focus on the objective, and in others, it encourages giving up on the objective to fight another day.  This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of nearly two decades of intricate doctrinal development, about which one could easily write an entire book—but even on this level, the dynamics of our little standoff in Delve are clear.

We wanted to get a fight, and they wanted to achieve an objective.  That objective was securing their space, which could be done through killing us, trapping us, holding us still and shittalking us, or by boring us and sending us home.  Notice, none of these options include fighting us—just killing us.  Were we to engage 5 v 50, we would have literally lasted about 30 seconds, so their numbers alone denied the possibility of a fight.  But a drawn-out engagement, while exhilarating for both parties, would be useless for their strategic goals.  Staying on the other side of that gate left all four paths open to them, while linking any of our possible actions to a path, so that they could simply wait for us to dictate their response.  This is very good strategy.  But what was their actual goal?

I wrote in passing last week, and will write in more detail in the future, about how the “empire building” era of EVE caused strategic significance to trickle down into even the most minute actions by bloc linemembers[iv] – this was also at play in our little Delve standoff.  The standing fleet is ostensibly there to protect the vital strategic resource-action of ‘krabs,’ i.e. PVE players who generate wealth for the alliance.  Thus, all they had to do was use one of the four paths I listed above to neutralize us, and they would achieve their goal.  Moreover, since every single asset in a nullbloc is imbued with strategic value, and nullbloc members are socialized by fleet culture to focus on battle reports[v], there was potential strategic loss in every single one of those 50 ships, but no potential benefit as long as they kept us in place.

It is undeniably smart to understand these terms of engagement, and any strategist presented with potential loss and no potential benefit would not engage.  This is what I didn’t understand at the time.  And I don’t want to be misunderstood like I’m lamenting this dynamic—this is the way to win at Strategic PVP.  The blog-worthy phenomenon is how that Strategic mindset gets overlaid on other forms of PVP, such that they were winning while we weren’t even playing.  And in the words of Admiral Beatty, “When you’re winning, risk nothing.”

We can compare this scenario to another local-chat interaction I had with a nullbloc member.  We had grabbed a Rorqual[vi] and were holding it to see what else would come. Our prey wrote in local, “You’re not going to kill me before backup arrives,” to which we replied, “Good.”  He then wrote me a nice title for a future blog post: “Wait, you WANT the response fleet?”

This interaction elucidates the common misunderstanding between Strategic and Recreational mindsets.  Our prey thought that he was the objective in a game of maneuver warfare, and interpreted that we would be happy killing them and escaping.  That’s a fair guess, as indeed many, even smallgang players, have this mindset when hunting—and I’m willing to bet nearly everyone in this pilot’s bloc friend group would think the same way.  And that’s a fine way to play the game.  But we were there with a Recreational mindset, with the goal of getting a fight.  Even holding this Rorqual, we weren’t really playing our gameplay yet.  We hoped for a response fleet that we could fight—usually we’re happy to fight up to 4:1 odds, at which point it is seldom tenable to stick around—and had made preparations, such as hiding our reinforcements so that they would actually engage, to try to cause that.  For those to whom this is an alien mindset, I can’t say this next part strongly enough—and I do mean it absolutely literally:

If we had killed the Rorqual without getting a fight, it would have been just as much of a failure as if we had been chased away without a fight, or never caught it at all.

If this is hard to believe, consider how much fun it is to play basketball by yourself.  It is marginally better to sink a basket than to miss, just like it would be some minute consolation prize to kill the Rorqual without a fight, but if your goal is to beat someone at basketball, making or missing the shot doesn’t matter at all.  For us, grabbing the Rorqual was like shooting hoops until someone challenges you to a game: it was just to instigate a conflict in which we could pursue our actual goal. 

But EVE is a pickup game where there’s nothing stopping fifty people from running onto the court, pinning you to the floor, and jumping on you like a trampoline while shooting basket after basket and gloating about it.  To be honest, that’s pretty cool.  There’s probably no other virtual world where this is possible, and if these social tensions weren’t possible, I’d have nothing to write about.  In the case of our standoff with the Delve standing fleet, we were shooting hoops hoping for a challenger we could match, with the goal of beating someone at basketball; their goal was to get us off the court, and there was nothing but the physics of the universe itself limiting their response.  So they could have shown up with 50 players and a sniper sitting in the stands, just in case we were able to score outnumbered.  In the end, they decided to let us shoot our hoops, get bored, and go home.  They won their game.  We never got to play ours.

I don’t want to sound like I’m lamenting this dynamic.  I maintain that EVE is a very punishing game, and the only reason to suffer through it is to do things you can’t do in any other game.  Having been on the other side of the nullbloc-smallgang divide myself, I know that it is utterly unique, and quite exciting, for your every action to carry strategic, and thus narrative, significance on the grandest scale.  That is an awe-inspiring possibility in a videogame.  To carry my analogy a bit further, if you wanted to play basketball 5-on-5, there are plenty of better games to go do that, but only in EVE can you have a totally different challenge every time.  As much as I enjoy the actual action of fighting in EVE, it is this open world that lends such weight to it.

The only problem is when the misunderstandings between these playstyles cause us to lose sight of the fact that we are all part of the same community.  I know bloc people who hate, I mean really hate smallgangers, and smallgangers who feel the same about bloc players.  While some animosity is good to drive conflict and imbue meaning in these engagements, it does often go too far.  We all exist in the same world.  At different times, we also play the same game.  Ursula Le Guin wrote, “We think we wish to join the wild animals in the jungle but will not tolerate the wild animals in our kitchens.  There are too many ants, we think, reaching for the spray, when it is equally true that there are too many humans.”[vii]  I am usually one of the ants in the kitchen of the nullbloc players.  But sometimes they are the ants in my wormhole. 

And of course, these mindsets blend together. That’s why a definition based on mindset, rather than on something like tactics, fleet numbers, or materiel, is so useful and durable. I wrote above how Strategic fleets have less to lose by standing down than taking a risky fight – but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose. As we saw in the war that just ended, though EVE is a really weird game, it still is a game, and repeated stand-downs can cause the same loss in numbers as one big defeat. Having been a part of those wars myself, I can attest to how showing up to fleets repeatedly and getting no fight can make you think “Why am I playing this game,” just like the Goon standing fleet was able to make our little gang . Thus, when Strategic fleets don’t provide enough content, they actually shift the mindset of their participants towards more Recreational thinking. Likewise, Recreational mindsets can be diverted by various factors, such as a hatred of the enemy (wanting to deny them good fights) or a lust for loot and bragging rights. In the case of smallscale evictions or mercenary contracts, for example, small groups can easily find themselves in a Strategic mindset, practicing maneuver warfare on a set objective, that will be gone once their goal is achieved. I personally left my last small-to-medium gang group in part because I disagreed with their two-wrongs-make-a-right mentality of ‘helldunking’ nullsec response fleets as they would do to us.  But even that—a PVP mindset oriented around gaudy battle reports rather than close conflict—is a beautiful niche in the EVE PVP ecosystem.

Next week, I’ll be refracting the Strategic-Recreational divide a different way, looking at psychological warfare, narrative, and how ‘spin’ is a legitimate part of one side’s gameplay and not another’s.  Maybe I’ll have more of an actual opinion in that post, but until then, I too will refuse to engage. 

[i] A feat performed by the great explorer Katia Sae:

[ii] Credit to my friend Welshy RL, a great Black Ops hunter, for explaining this to me.  I once asked him how he could justify hunting for three hours to create five minutes of gameplay when he caught something, and his response was simply, “Dude, hunting is my gameplay.”

[iii] A doctrine now phased out due to mechanics changes, but once dominant in the sphere of maneuver warfare.  This fleet was famously used in the siege of Fort Knocks, in which not only were the defenders wildly outnumbered, but also the attackers’ doctrine choices were objective, not fight-oriented:

[iv] TLDR, by pushing all of nullsec into an arms race for supercapital and citadel assets, CCP realigned the ‘default’ game goals around asset accumulation, rather than the development of skills, knowledge, or achievements.  Though the assets we most commonly talk about are the ultra-expensive supercapitals, all assets, no matter how cheap, do in some way contribute to the strength of the alliance, in the same way that each grain of sand contributes to the beach.  This means that, for many, the asset is worth more than the experience of using it; thus, players become more ‘risk averse’ as a matter of strategic necessity and community habit. 

[v] For non-EVE players: a link to a third-party website that compiles all the losses from a fight to create a sort of scorecard.

[vi] For non-EVE players: the game’s largest mining vessel, the backbone of all nullsec industry, and a significant investment for most owners.

[vii] Location 78.  Le Guin, No Time to Spare.  Mariner Books, Kindle edition.

VI – If You’re Too Big to Fight, You’re Too Big to Exist

As the longest war in EVE’s history winds down, as Goons and their allies do a galaxy-sized victory lap, as PAPI fractures and does damage control, and as the families of EVE’s brave combatants rejoice at their loved ones coming home (or at least, away from their desk) we should keep one thing in perspective: for CCP, this war was an unmitigated disaster.

Yes, having such a meatgrinder down in Delve was good for chewing up minerals and (arguably) giving the Scarcity economic period a reason to exist.  I am of a mind that the war did not actually boost login numbers, but only CCP knows for sure.  And only time will tell if this war yields a healthier nullsec[i] ecosystem, or another cold war so long and stagnant it kills off another generation of players.

But one thing is clear: the best thing for EVE that comes out of its giant wars is the free publicity from giant battles, which grab headlines in broader gaming media and bring in waves of new players hoping for the next one[ii].

Somehow, in the longest war in EVE’s history, those great battles didn’t happen.  Yes, there were plenty of big battles, but only two that really breached general gaming media, and only one in a good way—indeed, the utter meltdown of the servers in the second M2- battle in many ways overshadowed the unprecedented success of the first.  I’m sure many at CCP look at this war as a massive disappointment, a huge wasted opportunity to get that free publicity that is so important for a nearly two-decade old game.  I look at it as a tragic first step for a boon of new players who joined to do something in covid, and have spent their entire EVE career in war—I expect, (and would love to be proven wrong) that many will quit now that the war is over, after being taught a degree of complacency terminal to one’s chances at success in a sandbox game.

I’m not here to talk about CCP, though.  No one knows how they really feel, and I’m sure their opinions on the war are as diverse as ours. 

But I’m also not going to shy away from a great chance at some backseat development, some I-told-you-sos and my own galactic victory lap (followed by some light vomiting… I can barely run around a constellation).  

I want to take this as an opportunity to talk about what I see as the single biggest issue facing EVE today: concentration of the population into giant nullbloc alliances.  I’ll try to keep it short and on topic, and doing this will mean only discussing a few of the myriad evils a condensed population has created.

In essence, though it comes down to this: if you’re too big to fight, you’re too big to exist.

In the “golden age of EVE,” a period generally considered to span 2009-2013, Peak Concurrent User counts on the server began to climb to levels double what they have been for the last few years, and nearly triple what they have fallen to this summer, with the lifting of COVID restrictions and (I will argue) the stagnation of the big war.  In the same “golden age” timeframe, the largest alliances in the game had 5,000-8,000 characters, about one quarter the size of the largest alliances today.  The old Northern Coalition, the then-biggest coalition in videogaming history, was about the size of the game’s largest single alliance today.

Alright, I’m done.  No, really, that is sort of my whole point.  In the period of “empire building” development from 2014-19, EVE’s concurrent users simultaneously halved, including the introduction of a free-to-play account, the Alpha, while the biggest alliances in the game quadrupled in size.  The lasting damage from the increasing concentration of a decreasing playerbase is hard to really wrap your head around, presents the single biggest challenge for EVE today, and probably won’t be fully understood for a long time.  I’ll unpack some of the key points, and then relate it all back to the war that just ended.

First, let me say that this is not entirely the fault of the players.  While I do believe nullbloc leaders have pursued the growth of their organizations to the detriment of the game as a whole (the videogame world’s equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction) most of the blame goes back to CCP for a feedback loop of changes throughout the “empire building” era[iii].  But to blame players entirely would be to misunderstand the economic and political principle of a “collective action problem.”

Essentially, a collective action problem is when what’s good for the individual is bad for their community, and therefore also bad for the individual.  A good example detailed by Vice News is the Dollar General stores popping up across the US[iv].  While these stores provide goods cheaper to the individual consumer, they are also able to operate with fewer employees and undercut local competition, strangling small businesses and depressing the local job market.  Buying something at a Dollar General is cheap, but also means you’ll make less money tomorrow.  It is therefore immediately good but ultimately bad for the consumer and their community.  This effect is also seen repeatedly in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, in which many characters echo the statement of the plowman employed by the bank to drive his neighbors out of their homes:

“I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day.’’ 

“That’s right,’’ the tenant said. “But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?’’ 

And the driver said, “Can’t think of that. Got to think of my own kids.”[v]

There are many collective action problems in EVE—and the presence of them, which requires complexity and agency to develop, is further evidence that EVE is its own world, not just a game.  But the biggest collective action problem is the concentration we’ve seen in nullsec, and moreover of players moving from other areas to nullsec.  Just as Steinbeck is able to humanize both the plow driver and his victims, we can’t find ourselves demonizing the individual players who find their way to nullsec alliances.  But it works like this:

For the individual player, nullsec alliances have historically offered security, moneymaking opportunities, varying degrees of fleet PVP opportunities, and varying degrees of community.  Essentially, they are one way for the game to be taken more casually.  In one of these groups, you don’t need to build your own infrastructure or log on every day to fuel and protect it; you don’t need to generate PVP fights or really know what you’re doing in them; you don’t need to have your own goals, as you can work towards the goals of your group.  Especially for new players, this is a great deal.  CCP has abdicated responsibility for developing new players for years, allowing the nullsec blocs to scoop them up—and ask anyone who’s started EVE in the last 7 years, almost all of them will have come through one of these organizations at some point or another.  For these individuals, the big groups provide all the resources they need to have an easy start in a very hard game.

As these alliances grew and gained strength, they also sucked players out of other regions of the game, both condensing within nullsec and across the server.

Nullsec alliances, working under their own collective action problem, teach their pilots to make money, to avoid drawing attention to their space, to avoid fighting except for strategic reasons[vi] and to join fleets, which are built inherently not to develop skills but to encourage multiboxing (as I detailed in Post II).  Furthermore, for their own security, these alliances form broad coalitions and try to avoid wars.  This is the design of the “empire building” era of EVE – to create a constant cold-war scenario, in which making money and accumulating assets is the single most important factor in winning a war.  This makes every single action have some degree of strategic value, and was done because horizontal growth is simpler to monetize than a game that asks its players to get better.  Again, we can’t fault the alliances for correctly assessing how to win at the game, and doing it.

But the genius of EVE is its dynamism, its ability to generate content through the tension between spontaneous accidents and long-term planning.  When your pilots are trained to avoid fights, because this draws more hunters to the area, and to wait for fleet pings instead of trying to find their own content – and when you wind up with 2 or 3 gigantic groups instead of hundreds of little ones – the uniqueness of EVE is undermined, and the game becomes fundamentally indistinguishable from its competition.

By introducing empire building mechanics and making them tantamount to game domination, CCP created a collective action problem for individual players and alliances alike that encouraged them to concentrate and stagnate for their own benefit, thus ultimately reducing their chances at fun in the game.

To a large extent, those collective action problems still exist.  But they have also pushed a fundamental culture shift in EVE.  While game developers once famously released “Harden the Fuck Up”[vii] they also pushed for years to increase dopamine rewards, decrease skills expression, and promote horizontal growth across an ever-shrinking playerbase.  The other day, I had a 7-person fleet run from my 4-person fleet, saying in local chat that it was “not worth it” to engage us, even though their 7 Feroxes were the posterchild of trivially cheap, expendable ships.  While in a single scenario, that might have happened in 2013, played out 100 times, it would have happened much less then than it would now: more often than not, back in the day, people would have taken that fight.  That’s because the basic objective of EVE used to be achieving things, and now it is accumulating things.  Simply put, the 7 players that wouldn’t fight me last week calculated that the assets, however cheap, were worth more than a possible achievement of victory, because assets are always worth more in a world where every action, and every asset, has global strategic significance.  I wrote extensively on this in a Reddit post last year, and though I took a different tone in it, especially in the closing, than I take on this blog, I stand by it[viii].

So, CCP created collective action problems by trickling strategic significance into even the tiniest action made by a nullbloc player, thus driving a concentration of the population into a few huge alliances, and fundamentally shifting the culture of the game.  This leads us to the current problem.

In nature, populations are controlled by factors such as disease, food abundance, and competing lifeforms.  The COVID-19 Pandemic is a good example.  Whatever origin story you prefer, it is undeniable that the virus was prolonged and worsened by global overpopulation and interconnectedness.  Simply put, there are too many humans alive right now to control the spread of a novel virus.  This happens to other animals all the time, when they get overpopulated and overconcentrated to a point where a disease can spread very easily.  In the case of most plants and animals, that disease devastates the population and resets the overpopulation problem.  We’re just not used to it happening to us.

EVE presents us with a world free from disease, climate change, and nuclear apocalypse.  It is, in some ways, more stable than our world on Earth, even though the servers could shut off at any moment. 

But EVE’s servers have hard limits.  Even using military-grade hardware, and with a major game company prioritizing increasing server capacities for years, in the second battle of M2-, the defenders were nearly able to max out what the server could handle on their own, while comprising about a third of what would have engaged without server issues.  This is not because EVE is globally overpopulated, as Earth is today.  It is because nullsec is overconcentrated, to a degree the servers can’t handle.

This is the same phenomenon as deer becoming overpopulated due to a loss of predators and then starving, because there isn’t enough food to support them all.  In EVE, content is food.  Battles not only bring in new players, they sustain old ones—they give PVP players something to do, and industry players a reason to build.  And right now, at least in nullsec, a confluence of years of game design, in-game politics, and shifting culture has caused giant nullsec alliances to concentrate their populations too densely for the available sustenance.  The biggest groups in EVE are too big to fight. 

If they had quadrupled in size because the game had quadrupled in total players, this wouldn’t be such an issue.  But right now, they exist in spite of smaller groups, because they have grown while the game shrank.  That means if they’re too big to fight, they’re too big to exist.

I have a lot of opinions on how CCP could spread the population back out.  Of course, I think most of them are right.  But this blog is about the meta-sphere of EVE, so I won’t delve into them too much. 

What I will say is that in the past, when I’ve brought this up, on Discords, on Reddit, and even on voice comms, the nullbloc players I’m talking about respond with a feverish negativity, because they feel their playstyle under attack.  I hope that my long digression into collective action problems has shown I bear them no ill will and don’t ultimately hold them accountable for the issues at hand.  I also hope my analysis has made it clear that they are themselves denied content by these issues—after all, we didn’t get the big battles we all wanted out of this war.

I am also not advocating from a political position, such as saying that Goons are too big but others are alright.  Rather, I think the best solution would be to reduce the size of all nullbloc alliances relatively, so that Goons would remain the strongest, and all others would retain their relative places as well, but the players leaving these groups would start others, spread out around the map, and allow for more dynamic gameplay. 

Would the entire map still pile in on the biggest fights?  Absolutely.  But only after the fight was already ongoing, some groups were already committed, and only after themselves earning their involvement by moving across the galaxy, managing diplomatic relations, and planning ahead.

Though we have again circumvented nature and survived COVID-19 without a significant loss in population (at least so far), it doesn’t seem a safe bet that the same would happen in EVE.  After all, we have to live on Earth.  Deer have to live in their local forest.  EVE players can just go to other games. The failure of this war to provide EVE the headlines it deserves is a dire warning about the health and sustainability of the game.  That’s what you get when your game is nearly as complex as the real world: you also have to play by the world’s rules.  Let’s learn from the many times our planet has enforced those rules, and understand that denial is hubris, that a developer, like even a god, can proceed in either to their own demise through the loss of those who sustain them.

[i] For non-EVE players: the ungoverned outer ring around the map that players are free to control and fight over.  This is where 90% of the stories you hear about EVE take place, including just about all of the last war.

[ii] Let’s do something fun: instead of me linking you to articles, why don’t you Google “greatest EVE Battles” or something like that, and see what comes up.  That’ll prove my point.

[iii] I’ve got a lot of opinions on these, but this blog is about EVE’s meta-sphere, so I’ll stay away from them as much as possible.  But for the sake of clarity, for the EVE readers who know what I mean: Rorqual buffs were an obvious money-grab based around reducing skill ceilings and encouraging horizontal growth (as I detailed in Post II on this blog); citadels were the single worst MMO expansion ever, very nearly singlehandedly killed the game, and remain only half fixed now, over half a decade later; skill injectors were needed to allow new players to catch up, but were introduced in a way that heavily favored experienced players; capital and nullsec infrastructure changes made condensing into tiny areas possible, leaving much of the map fallow and reducing gate traffic.  Moreover, the game moved from an achievement-oriented culture to an accumulation-oriented one, and in doing so welded itself to designs not just predatory and addictive, but intrinsically destructive to EVE’s uniqueness.  I’ve written about the latter part in a previous Reddit post:


[v] Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, Location 1630.

[vi] Check back in next week for a long essay on Strategic versus Recreational mindsets in PVP.


[viii] See link in endnote 1.

V – Lysistrata: How a War can End

As of this post, EVE has been locked in the longest continuous large war in its history.  In fact, it has been locked in the longest continuous large war in its history for over half a year now, that’s how long this war has been.  Many players, who likely for some time have been scanning the horizon for an end to the war, are now beginning to grumble publicly—to predict, in hopeful or despairing terms, not a victory for their side, per se, but an actual cessation of conflict, a resumption of normalcy, however that might happen.  This is culturally notable in EVE: unlike wars in real life, players often enjoy slaughter on massive scales, to such an extent that if the Somme were fought in New Eden, it would be heralded as one of the greatest accomplishments of EVE’s single-shard design.  War fatigue has always been the most potent tool in an EVE strategist’s toolkit, as ultimately players do not have to log in; yet at the same time, peace-fatigue can be just as demoralizing.  These pressures have prompted the largest coalition in EVE’s history to announce, yesterday, that win or lose, the war will be over in six weeks.  No one knows if the current war is in fact boiling over, or has already boiled away.  But I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about one of my all-time favorite texts, a brilliantly funny and lastingly incisive comedy by Aristophanes, in which the Athenian poet imagines an end to Greece’s own sort of hell-war: Lysistrata.

In 411 BCE, the Greek world was gripped by war.  Indeed, like New Eden, they were usually gripped by some sort of war, and in fact this war, the Peloponnesian, was the fallout of the great Persian war a generation earlier, forever immortalized in 300 memes (and, to a lesser extent, Herodotus).  In the Persian War, the entirety of mainland Greece banded together to fight the invading “Persian Donut,”[1] a force comprised of the largest land empire in the world.  The mainland Greeks were huge underdogs, and after watching their farms, allies, and floodplains steadily rolled over, they finally won a decisive victory and were able to escape subjugation.  This left two blocs in the Greek world: led respectively by Athens and by Sparta.  After a few decades of abundance, war between them was inevitable. 

By 411, the Peloponnesian War had already been underway for twenty years, and Athens, after a disastrous defeat in Sicily, was on the ropes.  Athens would fight on until 404, but at this time, just as in EVE’s nullblocs now, war-weary eyes were already beginning to search for peace.  It was in this (grossly simplified) setting that Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata.

Now, to be fair, EVE’s current war and the Peloponnesian war don’t map perfectly onto each other.  In the latter, neither side was clearly attacking or defending for the entire time, neither side was massively outnumbered, Athenian shitposting was so vastly superior that, indeed, I’m writing about one today.  A better, but still not perfect, comparison would be to the Persian War decades earlier, when a numerically overwhelming force fought an entirely offensive campaign against the smaller.  But in even that war, there would be subtle elements to break the parallel: the Thracians, for example, the ancient world’s equivalent of Legacy Coalition (due to their constant infighting and reputation for cannibalism[2]) were subjugated by the larger Persian Bloc, not leading it.  No, I’m not here to talk about the actual history of the great wars of the 5th Century.  Others can do that much better[3].  Aristophanes’ play, after all, imagines a fictional end to the war.

Instead, I’m here to talk about cocks.

That’s right.  Cocks.  Peos, the Greek four-letter word that no housewife with a shred of respect would be caught dead with on her tongue.[4]  As Lysistrata’s eponymous heroine suggests, cocks get us into wars, but they can also get us out;[5] and while the play’s “main theme is peace,”[6] I don’t think this blog would be complete if I followed Lysistrata’s own advice, “leaving the penis alone.”[7]

Yes, the plot of Lysistrata is as simple as it is cutting: wives on both sides of the conflict, weary of war and their husbands being away, organize possibly the first pan-Hellenic Feminist movement[8], a sex-strike, in order to get their men to quit fighting.  They swear an oath not to perform the duties of wives, including sex and other household maintenance, and occupy the Athenian Akropolis, where the war funds are kept, so the men also cannot finance their fighting.  Lysistrata suggests “If we sat around at home all made up, and walked past them wearing only our see-through underwear and with our pubes plucked in a neat triangle,” but refuse their husbands’ attention, “they’d sue for peace, and pretty quick.”[9]  It works.

Like just about any Classical text, this play is a keyhole into a world so complex and alien that I’m not even really qualified to summarize it.  Some of the smartest people in the world spend their whole lives trying to understand what love means in a state of gender apartheid, or how the Ancient Athenians, to take just one sub-culture as an example, conceptualized the difference between homosexual and heterosexual partnerships, both of which were integral in their society.  Suffice it to say, for our purposes, that this was a pre-Christian society, existing in a world where sex and bodies were not stigmatized in the same ways they are now: the Romans had penis windchimes[10] and the Greek Satyr Plays used giant phalluses for prop comedy.  And yet, Ancient Athenian women existed in an entirely subjugated and almost separate, parallel society to men.  It was likely far more transgressive for Lysistrata to show women taking over the city than it was to show penises on-stage.

We’ll never fully grasp the infinitely nuanced humanity of the Ancients.  In a way, that’s a beautiful thing.  In two thousand more years, I don’t expect the residents of the tropical archipelago known as Colorado to understand the battle of M2-[11] either.

But the points of tension in Lysistrata are also present in our own lives.  We also live in a patriarchal society.  We are learning a new post-Christian impudence that one day might return to the sex-positivity of the Ancients.  Domestic partners, not just husbands and wives, have to navigate their gendered roles at home, their professional roles in society, and the tension between these.  Despite our best efforts, every EVE player still exists in this real world as well.

The most likely death-knell for any corporation in EVE is when the CEO is out “kissing girls” and doesn’t log on for a long time.  Lysistrata wouldn’t have been funny to the Ancients if there wasn’t some plausibility in it: even while fictional, the play shows us that love can end even the most brutal wars, with the highest stakes, in real life.  I have often thought before that it is game-breaking when a great conflict in EVE ends because a fleet commander or other leader has to step away from the game.  Why, I would wonder, would the capsuleer just suddenly abandon their ambitions, decide to stay docked in a station for months at a time, doing whatever they do in-world when we’re not playing them?  (Knowing how capsuleers are regarded in New Eden, I imagine this is something like the toys in Toy Story plus Silence of the Lambs.)  But now I imagine it’s quite possible that the capsuleer reached the same fate as their player, led from the clutches of agonistic contest into the pursuit of see-through underwear.  Our societies today are far more similar to those of New Eden than to 5th Century Greece; if Lysistrata rings true for us, it probably would for our characters as well.  This goes beyond sex.

The women of Lysistrata also seize the Akropolis, where Athens’ war-funds are stored, so that no men can continue to finance the war effort.  As the leader of the women’s chorus puts it, “you miserable geezers … have squandered your paternal inheritance, won in the Persian Wars … we’re all headed for bankruptcy on account of you!”[12]  To anyone who’s had their credit card seized so they stop subbing more Dread alts, I apologize if this quote elicits some painful memories.  It does also draw out an interesting wrinkle in our modern gender relations, and the profoundly male-dominated world of EVE: a common saying in hype-pings ahead of a major battle in EVE is “Give your wife the credit card.”  This is often stated just so explicitly, and the joke is that if you send your wife shopping, she’ll let you play EVE all day; the implications are that the one playing EVE is a man, makes more money than his wife, and moreover that women are so shallow they can be bought off.  Even if the first two assumptions are true in some cases, Lysistrata tells us maybe your wife is sick of her good Milesian dildo[13] and just wants some of you!  And regarding those assumptions themselves, the play actually begins by placing in tension the frivolous spending of a housewife, Kalonike,[14] just to show them overturned by a desire on a surface level for her husband’s love, but on deeper levels, for female solidarity, and for peace.  While we no longer live in a state of gender apartheid, do fight most of our wars online, and like to sneer at the Ancients for what we deem primitive gender relations, perhaps the EVE Skymarshal pinging for you to give your wife the credit card ahead of a major op shows us we still have a ways to go. 

We don’t know how EVE’s greatest war will end.  In reality, the Peloponnesian War did not end the way Aristophanes imagines, but in Athens’ utter defeat, permanent loss of influence in the Ancient world.  It does seem that the stakes of EVE’s war, at least in-world, are just as existential.  It only lends further realism, further weight, to that war, that the pressures on which Lysistrata’s comedy turn also exist in the lives of players: finances, male pride, and time away from loved ones.  Though our capsuleers cannot die, many EVE players have been removed from battle just as permanently as if by a spear-thrust by these forces.  Some have been removed almost as permanently by the thrust of a toe.[15]

Likewise, the message of Aristophanes’ comic vision is clear: love conquers war, but wars, not in opposition to but in concert with love, can also bring people together.  EVE’s wars should be especially so.  Assuming Mittani’s toe recovers swiftly, and no one gets SWATed again, no one will actually die in the prosecution of this war.  But if we are to believe in the reality of New Eden, we also must believe that the casualties of boredom, of distraction, and of burnout—losses to New Eden every bit as permanent as a death—are real.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  This is, after all, a videogame, and on average probably only the second most important thing in players’ lives.  And indeed, even the capacity for the universe to be so deeply shaped by the presence of war or the presence of peace is unique to EVE.  Yet we should learn from Lysistrata that what we love in-game is the same as out-of-game.  It is who we love, and how we spend our time with them.

Works Cited

Aristophanes, and Jeffrey Henderson.  Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women.  Routledge, 2010. 

Foley, Helene P. “The ‘Female Intruder’ Reconsidered: Women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae.” Classical Philology, vol. 77, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1–21. Accessed 25 July 2021.    

[1] Both an apocryphal epithet and what sounds like a delicious pastry, the “Persian Donut” is (not) referenced in fragments of the Boiotian shitposter Memeaides’ lyric verse.


[3] My personal favorite is the amazing and very accessible history, Athens: A Portrait of the City in its Golden Age, by Christian Meier – though good translations of Thucydides and Herodotus can be really great too.

[4] Lysistrata endnote 49

[5] Lysistrata 141-144

[6] Introduction, pg. 36

[7] Lysistrata 767

[8] The Female Intruder Reconsidered, page 8

[9] Lysistrata 150-154



[12] Lysistrata 654-657

[13] Unless the Milesians have revolted again… Lysistrata 110-113

[14] Lysistrata Prologue

[15] “Pando’s FC Chat” July 17, 2021, timestamp 3:20.

IV – More Money Less Problems: Monetization versus Skills Development in EVE

I knew an EVE player once who had to quit in order to focus on real life for a while – the way he put it, “EVE is too complicated, so I thought I’d go to med school instead.” 

There’s a kernel of truth in this.  Playing EVE at a high level does require extraordinary amounts of memorization, recall, conceptual analysis, and muscle-memory.  These things are not probably not needed in quite the same degree as practicing medicine, and (for most people) playing EVE is cheaper than getting an M.D.; however, practicing medicine is about life and death, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that playing EVE is far more important than that.

To put it simply, EVE Online is the hardest videogame ever made.  Or, if not the hardest, it is at least the most complex. 

Borrowing a term from sports scouting, we can think about a player’s “floor” and “ceiling” in terms of skills and ability.  If you haven’t heard this before, basically a player with a “high floor, low ceiling” is someone who at least won’t be terrible (high floor) but also is unlikely to be the next superstar (low ceiling).  In contrast, a player with a “low floor, high ceiling,” might have major injury or character concerns that could cause them to wash out completely (low floor) but extreme athleticism and potential to be an all-time great. 

Most professional sports are designed in ways that allow for this skills expression – they do not limit the expression of a player’s ceiling or hold up their floor.  A nice comparison would be between whiffle ball and baseball: essentially the same game, but having the ball set up on a stick raises the skill floor by allowing anyone to hit it, while also lowering the skill ceiling by reducing the distance a really good batter could reach, or by eliminating the difference in hit-rate between good and bad players. 

Some videogames do this and others don’t.  One key example for me is the transition from the three-round-burst of the Battle Rifle in Halo 3 to the single-shot DMR in Halo Reach.  While ostensibly the same weapon for newer players, the Battle Rifle’s three-round burst could potentially hit multiple targets in one burst, which the DMR could not; conversely, the BR could also miss and only do 1/3 or 2/3 of its damage.  The transition to a single-shot weapon effectively lowered the skills ceiling, by disallowing advanced players from killing multiple enemies in one shot, and raised the floor by making every shot full damage, as long as it hit at all – and, notably, lowering the ceiling in a competitive game is also the same as raising the floor, because it reduces relatively the possible gap between the best and worst player in the game.  As a pretty serious online Halo player, I found the transition infuriating, as it just erased a skill I had spent over a year perfecting, a skill that gave me a distinct edge in most games.

As part of EVE’s single-shard, sandbox design, it does shockingly little to raise the floor, and allows for a breathtakingly high ceiling.  Part of this is simply because there is no matchmaking system keeping the best and worst players apart.  In this sense, floating in space and munching asteroids is definitely nothing like going to med school; but pushing the limits of what can be done, forging your own way into the rarified air of EVE virtuosos, is, relative to the videogame world, almost comparable[i]

But this skills expression makes EVE harder to monetize.  In the same way that the language of the Death Popup is fundamentally at odds with the nature of permanent loss in EVE, some of the standard videogame industry monetization practices are fundamentally at odds with the high-ceiling, low-floor world of EVE. 

This week, we’re going to look at how CCP is financially incentivized to dumb down the game.  I’m going to draw both on the discussion about monetization in Post III and on the framework around Skills Development from Post II.  If you haven’t read those yet, you might want to check them out before continuing!

Let’s return to the baseball vs. whiffle ball comparison.  If you were struck out by a pitcher in baseball, you might think about adjusting your swing angle, your timing, your eye placement; you and your coach might analyze a pitcher’s body language to see if they’re broadcasting what kind of pitch they’re going to throw ahead of time, or try to memorize the sequence of different pitches to find a pattern.  In other words, you are presented with a problem (not hitting the ball) and try to solve the problem using skills, such as your swinging technique, and memorization, such as the pitcher’s body language or pitch order.  Solving this problem, however you do it, makes you better at baseball.

In whiffle ball, odds are you hit the ball immediately, because it is just sitting there in front of you.  If not, there is a minute degree to which you could think about your batting technique, but for the most part this would be time wasted.  The highest indicator of success batting in whiffle ball would not be your skill, but the number of chances you had.

Now imagine that in both cases, you’re offered to pay five dollars per swing to get extra swings.  In baseball, you’re just as unlikely to hit the ball on the fourth or fifth swing as you are on the first three, assuming you don’t adjust your skills in between: the primary limitation on your success is your skill, and the primary way to succeed is by improving your skills.  However, in whiffle ball, where there is less ability to solve a problem with skills, you are substantially more likely to benefit from spending the money to get the extra swings.  In this case, specifically because baseball is harder, you get more value per dollar buying extra swings in whiffle ball.  Another way to look at this is that the best way to solve the problem in the more complicated game is by… solving the problem – whereas the best way to solve it in the simpler game is to buy the solution.

This is something the videogame industry understands very well.  The article I relied on heavily for last week’s post states:

“In a pure skill-based game, players may often identify methods of gaining an advantage over the system, by honing their skills or developing new strategies, such as memorizing the game’s challenges and obstacles (e.g., learning where race opponents tend to be positioned on the track, finding optimal routes to objectives, and so on) (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). However, in a monetized game, there may be very few, if any, other options available to the player that will bypass or affect financial obstacles (e.g., price of items) and for this reason these types of systems are often referred to as ‘paywalls’ (e.g., a racing game with the requirement of spending real money on virtual fuel to drive the car). Thus, players of monetized games cannot ‘strategize’ to win but instead must decide between making in-game purchases or not playing at all…”[ii]

In short, all games present players with challenges – that’s the whole point – but if a game has a high skill-ceiling, we can solve that problem with skills, and solving that problem makes us better at the game, whereas in a game with a low skill-ceiling, we can only solve the problem with our wallets. 

EVE Online contains both aspects of this dichotomy.  Because it is an open world, players can move freely between high-ceiling and low-ceiling activities.  This feeds directly into the example of skills development I used in Post II, in which the high-ceiling activity of smallgang PVP is harder to scale across multiple accounts, whereas the low-ceiling activity of big-fleet PVP is much easier, and therefore much more important, to scale across multiple accounts: but the same player could easily drift between both playstyles.  Using the above quote from Unfair Play?, we can now look at this from another angle: big-fleet PVP is easier to paywall than smallgang PVP, because the only way to contribute more is to subscribe more accounts.  CCP is thusly financially incentivized to push players towards the lower-ceiling gameplay of bloc PVP.

The era from 2015-19 is widely regarded as the darkest days for EVE, and I wholeheartedly agree.  This period saw, above all, a profound and fundamental culture shift from one that prioritized in-game achievement to one that prioritizes in-game assets.  We can also say that this was a period in which CCP pushed players towards low-ceiling, high-scalability gameplay, such as AFK Rorqual mining[iii].  This was in line with gaming industry logic as a whole, which states that one human solving their in-game problems by getting better at the game on one account is not worth as much money as one human solving their problems by subscribing many accounts, scaling their assets horizontally.

The important thing here – and something I can’t say forcefully enough – is that we shouldn’t demonize players for playing the game in any way.  That’s how a sandbox game works.  Existing in this universe is why you would play EVE, and whatever you do after that is your decision, and there are no wrong answers.

However, while it is vital not to blame the individual player who chooses to run twenty mining accounts, it is also important to point out that the game would be better off if they could make twenty times the money off of running one account very well: they would be learning skills and getting better at the game, becoming attached not just by the Cost-Sunk Fallacy but by the drive to keep improving.  Of course, the game would not be better off if it folded due to low revenue, so we have to accept a balance.

Phantomite has brilliantly expressed another example of lowering the skills ceiling to allow for more scalability, in how old cap-compression carriers have been traded out for local-cap FAXes[iv].  These are expensive assets, both in terms of the vessel itself and the advanced characters it takes to fly them.  From a financial perspective, CCP made a very good move by simplifying the process so that pilots could run three or four FAXes instead of one carrier.  But this is also like taking an MLB pitcher and making them play whiffle ball – many of them would decide to take their skills elsewhere.  And over time, many advanced EVE players have quit for just this reason[v].

So, where does this leave us?

If you’re waiting for a big opinion at the end of this one, you’re going to be disappointed.  I’ve already expressed my biggest opinion, which is that more humans running fewer accounts but with higher skills-ceilings is healthier for the game in the long run.  I also understand that you can’t just wish customers up out of the blue, and I accept that it’s fair to try to maximize your profit off of existing customers, within reason.

The central thrust of this post is just an observation, not an opinion: per current industry logic, making EVE a better game is also making it harder to monetize.  Making EVE a simpler, less unique game, is making it easier to monetize. 

The really complicated part is that, despite overall trends, the entire server doesn’t get more or less complex simultaneously for everyone.  New Eden is a space where some players get to hit whiffle balls and others have to bat against Babe Ruth.  That can be areally cool phenomenon.  It means putting in the work to be Babe Ruth has huge rewards, not just in terms of in-game assets, but in a real and lasting sense of achievement.

Originally, I started on a longwinded explanation of why a game with a large gap between skills floor and ceiling is better than one with a narrow gap, but I don’t think that’s needed.  Suffice it to say, in a well-designed game, a fair game, an engaging and rewarding game, a good player will beat a bad player almost all of the time.  Moreover, playing any good game should make you better at the game.  Those are the core principles of any competition.  That’s also the reason you can watch competitive Poker, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find competitive Go Fish. 

The challenge for CCP is to strike a balance between maximizing profits off of existing customers without limiting their intake of new customers: to keep the skills ceiling high for existing players while lowering the floor for new ones.  They know that already.  And in fact, despite half a decade of sacrificing long-term health for immediate profit, I think they’ve recently made fantastic changes in this regard, be it from the ESS rework requiring PVE players to learn new skills to maximize profit, to the industry rework doing the same for builders; abyssal modules have also hugely increased the skills-ceiling for theorycrafters, and introduced dynamic choice-making when building a ship.  Clearly, there are plenty at CCP that share my view.

But if they decided to go in the other direction, like they did from 2015-19, they would be doing so from a profound position of informational asymmetry against their playerbase.  If this post has done anything to level that playing field, I’d be thrilled.  The challenge for players is to be aware of when CCP wants them to play baseball and when it wants them to play whiffle ball, to spend their money accordingly, and to be aware of whether their path in-game is keeping them engaged by growing new skills or by tying their brain chemistry to their ultimately meaningless digital assets.

Work Cited

Daniel L. King, Paul H. Delfabbro, Sally M. Gainsbury, Michael Dreier, Nancy Greer, Joël Billieux, “Unfair play? Video games as exploitative monetized services: An examination of game patents from a consumer protection perspective.”  Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 101, 2019.  ISSN 0747-5632, (

[i] A lot of this is tongue-in-cheek, and I don’t want to discredit those who work in medical fields by taking this comparison too seriously (especially while those in medicine just spent a year and a half fighting COVID while the rest of us stayed home and fought each other’s spaceships).  Of course playing a videogame is not as hard or complicated as saving lives.  But, to take another example, as someone who plays two instruments at a professional level, I am constantly astounded by how good really good EVE players are, in comparison to great musicians.  I play EVE at a pretty high level too, and I often think someone like Lussy Lou is as much better than I am at EVE as Victor Wooten is at the bass.  Is Lussy as good at EVE as Victor Wooten is at bass?  No.  That’s not really possible.  But the fact that we can even make the comparison is insane.  Think about it that way: it’s not that these things are, in reality, comparable, but rather that the comparison that jumps to mind does tell you a lot about the reality.

[ii] Unfair Play?  Section 4. Discussion.

[iii] For non-EVE players: in a hotly debated and still quite controversial change, during this period CCP introduced the Rorqual as the new end-game mining ship, able not only to mine about 10x as much per ship as the previous alternatives, but also to do so with almost zero actions per minute.  This allowed the ships to be scaled, with some players running dozens simultaneously.  The subsequent damage done to the economy resulted in a now year-and-a-half long period of ‘scarcity’ to rebalance the economy. 

[iv] Pando’s FC Chat Episode 53, starting at about 94:00 –

For non-EVE players… sorry.  This one is pretty damn complicated to explain in short.  I used to fly on the cap-compression carrier fleets, and I remember sweating bullets while on them.  Suffice it to say that if you can’t succinctly explain end-game gameplay to non-players, it’s probably a good thing for the game’s ability to teach skills!

[v] This claim is at once anecdotal and almost indisputable.  I have personally known dozens of very advanced players who invested thousands of dollars and hours into the game who quit during the 2015-19 culture shift, because they found their wealth of skills useless in the new, simplified game.

III – Well-Endowed: The Language of Ownership and EVE’s “Death Popup”

“Can I bring my Griffin?”

Imagine you hear this on comms.  Odds are, you immediately have an image of the player who’s saying it.  I’m willing to bet that image is of a wide-eyed newbro trying to be helpful.

At first glance, you might say this is because of the ship choice.  In most new player groups, Griffins are one of the staple force-multiplier ships.  They are dirt cheap, flyable from day one, can sit at maximum range and survey the battle, and can sometimes swing the tide.  Indeed, ranged electronic warfare is a good way for new players to learn the game.

But I don’t think it is actually the ship choice that conjures such a distinct image of a newbro.  Griffins pack an extremely high ratio of power-to-fear factor, and are used all over the game, even by endgame pvp groups like Goryn Clade or Tuskers.  But try to picture someone in one of those groups saying “Can I bring my Griffin” and it just doesn’t seem right.  No, they’re happy to fly the ship, but they would say “Can I bring a Griffin.”  The difference is subtle, but it speaks volumes.

The academic practice of “close-reading,” the basis of literary studies, is based on the idea that we mean what we say; that is, that the difference between my Griffin and a Griffin is also a difference in meaning.  I think this is a really cool place where we can stop and close-read some of our language around EVE Online.

We see this same phrasing in the “Can I bring my Drake”[i] meme.  That phrase simply is not as funny if it’s “a Drake.”  Why?  Because, simply put, the use of the word my implies that the pilot only has one of that ship, whereas the use of a implies that they have many.  The use of my denotes a new player with regards to a Drake or a Griffin because both of those ships are relatively cheap, and anybody past their first few months would likely 1) understand that ships are ammo in EVE, and 2) have several of their cheaper ships.  We imagine that the Tuskers pilot who wants to bring “a Griffin” has a hangar full of them, and happily burns through them like Juul pods.  (In my research for this piece, I found that Griffins are also known to cause strokes, but usually in the people they’re used on.)  In contrast, the newbro who wants to bring “my Griffin” sounds like they only have one – a level of poverty comparable to having to share a single Solo cup at a dinner party, only really possible in the earliest part of a pilot’s career.

If you’re like me, once you notice this vocal pattern, you’ll start hearing it everywhere.  (That is, if you play EVE.  If you’re one of my valued non-EVE readers, and you hear someone in real life ask if they can bring their Drake, please immediately pull the nearest fire alarm.)  Once you start hearing it, you’ll notice that my and a also overlap, forming a sort of gradient that makes the terms quiet indicators of a pilot’s wealth.  For example, if a pilot says “I’ll bring a Deimos,” they sound squarely within EVE’s middle-class: able to expend medium-priced combat cruisers.  But if a pilot says “I’ll bring a Redeemer,” they at least sound like they’re quite in-game wealthy: able to consider ships expendable that would take a new player months just to afford.  Conversely, the same pilot who says they’ll bring “a Deimos” might also say “my Redeemer,” without seeming inconsistent at all – for most of us, ships like the Deimos are expendable, but Black Ops battleships are prized assets.  If a pilot says “my titan,” you imagine that they only have one, but also know that they’re quite wealthy.  If someone says “I’ll drop a titan on them,” you should definitely try to get in their will. 

This simple wrinkle in the way we talk about our ships also affects how we think about them.  One of the key learning moments in EVE is when a player loses a ship early on (maybe their first, maybe not) and comes to conceptualize that ships in EVE are more like shoes than like a house: even if you spend a lot of money on them, you don’t imagine having them forever.  In this sense, the word a before a ship also indicates a willingness to lose it, whereas my might indicate more reservation, just like saying “I’ll wear a pair of sneakers because it’s muddy,” versus “I’ll wear my Gucci loafers because it’s muddy.”  One of those statements sounds a lot more realistic than the other.

Close-reading tells us that the way we talk and think is a feedback loop: we pack hidden meaning into what we say (as I’ve explained so far) but what we say also imparts meaning back to us.  This is the original logic behind political correctness, which suggests that when I call someone something dehumanizing, I am first putting bad out towards them, but I am also reinforcing my own belief in that reality, reinforcing my biases and putting bad into myself.  In the case of EVE and our assets, maybe saying “my Griffin” indicates outward that I only have one of this very expendable ship, but it might also reinforce my attachment with the ship, and make me more averse to losing it.  If you don’t believe me, try putting “Griffin” into the first line of the US Marine Corps’ Rifleman’s Creed – “This is my Griffin.  There are many like it but this one is mine.”  Still feel like you can throw that ship away?

Of course, one day the Rifleman will die, and the rifle will no longer be his.  The world is funny that way.  We use language, not just fancy legalisms but simple words like my and a, to make us feel like we own our car, our land, or even our ideas, while yet knowing that we are mortal and cannot possibly have these things forever.  Our assets in EVE are the same way.  Everything in New Eden can die and be permanently lost, and even if it isn’t lost in-game, every single EVE player will also die one day and lose their virtual assets just like their real ones.  At some point, the servers will shut down too.

These latter features, of server apocalypse and players’ own mortality, are shared by every online videogame.  But the first part, the permanent death of assets, is intentionally built into EVE and affects every player’s experience of the game even while still… alive.

So, maybe the use of the phrasing my Griffin, my Drake, or even my titan, is fundamentally at odds with the nature of EVE, just like how my property is fundamentally at odds with the nature of reality.  That’s not necessarily a problem for us, as long as we can keep our heads straight about the actual value of those assets, and not let the Endowment Effect keep us from actually enjoying the game.

The Endowment Effect[ii] is a psychological and economic principle that suggests that we ascribe more value to things that we own than those we do not.  The Rifleman’s Creed is attempting to trigger this reaction with its first line, getting a Marine to think of their weapon as more important that someone else’s identical copy.  We’ve all felt it before.  For example, I used to hate on iPhones until I got one, and then suddenly wanted to believe that iPhones are great, and moreover that mine was great; I used to sneer at everyone and their cat having a blog and a Youtube channel, and now I’ve lived long enough to become the bad guy.  This effect is used in videogame monetization[iii], which is an entire industry devoted to the science of getting people to place value on legally valueless things[iv].  They’ve gotten very good at it.  This is the exact tactic behind CCP’s latest scandal, the new player death popup[v].

The idea behind the Death Popup is not just to get the player thinking forward rather than back (arguably good for retention but also priming them for monetization) but also to trigger the Endowment Effect with their ship.  Three different times in the popup it refers to “your” ship, clearly reinforcing that that ship was somehow special because it was owned.  Just look at that popup and imagine it says “Lost a ship?” and so on, replacing the word “your” with “a”.  That is just not as strong of an incentive to spend money.

Yet, as we’ve seen, the Endowment Effect is fundamentally at odds with the nature of EVE’s world.  While it might make certain things easier to monetize, such as EVE’s “magic moment” of first death, that is a gimmick that can only occur early on in a player’s career.  Imagine the advanced player who just lost “a Drake” getting this popup – the phrasing your ship would seem utterly alien to them.  In fact, I would argue that EVE does a fantastic job at blunting the Endowment Effect and letting people learn to take more risks.

I have posted on Reddit[vi] about how the Scarcity Era’s real challenge is in reducing players’ dopamine rewards after years of Pavlovian training towards risk-aversion and asset-hoarding.  I have also planned a post on this blog[vii] about how skills-based games are harder to monetize, explaining why CCP pushed for half a decade towards the horizontal skills-growth[viii] that allowed for years of increasing dopamine from cheap sources.  Those are two profoundly bad business decisions for CCP long-term, as both made EVE less unique compared to its competition, while also making players’ attachment shallower and more chemical. 

I also think that the real issue with the new-player death popup is how it promotes the illusion of ownership in a world of permanent loss.  This, too, is a short-sighted mechanism that only trains new players into misconceptions about the game.  Let me be clear about this: advanced players learn to refer to their assets with the word “a” as a method of survival.  Simply put, that emotional detachment from assets is the only way for this game not to be emotional torture, because you will die.  A lot.  CCP teaching new players to feel attached to their assets might be a way to snag a quick five dollars, but it is also priming players to be more upset the next time.  As players repeatedly die and get monetized, many will quit out of frustration, and a few “whales” will hang around.  However, turning the new player pipeline into a few risk-averse, emotionally abused, cash-cows is at once irresponsible and unhealthy for the game. 

If CCP changed the popup to say “Lost a ship,” it would not be nearly as bad.  That’s how powerful language can be.

It is also incumbent upon existing players to fight back against the language of permanent ownership, and the Endowment Effect that comes with it.  Their success in getting new players to ask if they can bring “a Griffin,” even on their first day in EVE, ironically might determine how long all of their assets might live until the servers shut down.

[i] A ubiquitous meme from the 2012 era of EVE, when the flexible and easy-to-fly Drake was by far the most common ship in the pvp metagame.  Because just about every group ran Drake fleets, just about every pilot owned one, even if it was the only pvp ship they owned.  The nucleus of the meme developed as these pilots would routinely ask “Can I bring my Drake?” on non-Drake fleets, because it was the only pvp ship they had.

[ii] Psychology Today:

[iii] Unfair Play? Section 4, “Discussion”

[iv] Unfair Play? Section 3.3, “In-game purchases and consumer protection”

[v] A change in June 2021 that caused massive uproar in the community, the “Death Popup” prompts new players to spend real-world currency to replace their ship after first loss.  My favorite take on it is from Ashterothi:


[vii] Check in next week!  Post III in the main blog will be about some other sections of the Unfair Play? article, and how companies want you to solve problems with money, not skill.

[viii] Check out Post II on the main blog for more on vertical versus horizontal skills growth, and why one is good and one is… lucrative.

II – The Real Skillpoints: Vertical vs. Horizontal Learning in EVE Online

EVE Online has a development problem.  No, not from the developer, CCP Games, but in how its players are asked and encouraged to develop their skills in-game: specifically… they’re not.  This both makes the Day One experience of a new player more like the opening of “Predators”[1] than your average kindergarten, and also limits the possibilities for advanced players to keep getting better at the game.  This problem of skills development is responsible for the challenges in developing new Fleet Commanders, in switching in-game careers, and creates a feedback loop in large alliances, where players don’t grow new skills an are not asked to grow new skills.  The problem, in short, is that EVE usually asks us to scale the skills we already have horizontally—across more accounts and assets—rather than learning vertically, getting better and better at the game.

This framework could be applied all over the game and the community.  I’ve planned several posts about this, including one next week on how this affects EVE’s monetization – but because I plan to get my money’s worth out of this concept, I first want you to have a strong foundation of what I’m talking about.

In real life, I work as a teacher, and use a teaching style known as “metacognitive skills pedagogy.”  That’s a term worth quite a bit in student loans, which essentially refers to the current trend in teaching.  Basically, it puts two branches of teaching together, for an exponentially greater effect. 

The term “skills pedagogy” refers to how most sports and musical instruments are taught.  Essentially, it means breaking down complex processes into the individual skills it takes to accomplish them, then designing exercises to strengthen those skills, then putting it all back together.  The teacher’s primary job is to keep breaking processes down into the most granular skills possible, then scaffold the process of practicing them and building back up.  This can also be referred to as “vertical pedagogy” – that is, learning new skills on top of old ones.

The word “metacognitive,” or thinking about thinking refers to a practice of asking reflective questions, so the student learns how they learn, and can become their own teacher.  This is commonly used in English classrooms, such as a journaling exercise at the end of a class that asks “How do you think about this book differently than you did an hour ago?”  The teacher’s job in this case is just to hold these conversations.

Commonly, sports and music education lack the metacognitive reflection, limiting students’ ability to see the big picture and teach themselves.  Humanities classrooms often lack an attention for individual skills, instead asking students to scale their current skills horizontally, just like EVE Online.

Let’s take a few examples, one from EVE and one from the real world, side by side:

Let’s think about playing a certain drum beat as a complex skill.  You can break it down into smaller skills, such as expression, reading, and coordination between the limbs.  You can then break these down into even smaller skills: coordination includes independence of the limbs, counting, and possibly moving between different drums quickly.  Expression includes dynamics (volume level), where you hit the drum, and counting.  Reading includes counting, multitasking, and knowing the notation.  As you see, when we break it down to this granular level, the basic skill of counting time helps in every area.  This is why music teachers often focus on that so heavily.

The complex process of Fleet Commanding (FCing) in EVE is similar to playing drums, in that it is a quintessential expression of multitasking and muscle-memory.  We might break FCing down into a few smaller skills: grid awareness, decision-making, clear communication.  We can then break each of these into smaller skills.  Grid awareness includes manual piloting skill, knowledge of the meta and of fittings, and an ability to use advanced overview tabs, such as angular velocity.  Decision-making includes knowledge of meta and fittings, knowledge of fleet-members’ competency, and understanding fleet goals.  Clear communication involves regulating your own emotions, filtering useful and useless information, and perhaps also the complex process of decision-making. 

If you were to teach someone to FC, you would start by isolating the smallest level of skills.  For example, you might take manual piloting and design a racetrack where a pilot has to focus on only that one skill with their full attention.  Once they are performing that task successfully, layer in an element that requires them to read angular velocity, then layer in asking them to communicate that velocity to someone else, and so on.  This is how you would vertically develop someone’s skills into being a Fleet Commander, bit by bit.

EVE doesn’t do this.

Yes, I know, it’s a sandbox game.  The problem is that in many parts of EVE, there is no natural bridge towards more complex skills.  Beginning players are asked to scale their current skills across more accounts, and more assets, not learn new skills, and wind up like Nick Andopolis and the giant drumset he can’t play[2]

Let’s keep rolling with the example of FCing.  It would appear that the natural step below FCing is being a linemember in a fleet, just as the natural progression to a more advanced drumbeat would be a simpler version of the same beat[3].  A natural process would be for linemembers to learn some, but not all, of the skills of an FC, so that when they take the leap, they have fewer skills left to learn.  But in reality, the linemember isn’t actually asked to learn most of the skills of an FC. 

Clear communication?  Linemembers are told to keep comms clear.  Decision-making? Linemembers, by definition, are given orders.  Grid-awareness?  Not really, as most linemembers set ships to automatically follow the FC and follow broadcasts either for friendlies who need help or targets to shoot. 

Linemembers are given a checklist, not a scenario to interpret, and just need to react efficiently and quickly to orders.  The only way to become a better linemember is, once able to comfortably check these boxes on one character, to start doing it on two, or three.  Thus, there is a way for a linemember to do more but not actually do better.  The linemember is asked to scale a rudimentary set of skills horizontally, not learn new ones.

This is the exact same trap most essay-based classes fall into: in a three-paper semester, the first paper might be 5 pages, the second 7, and the final 10.  In most cases, students are not asked to write a better paper each time, but are asked to write a longer paper at the same level.  (That’s right—multiboxing logi[4] on a strat op is the same as writing a 10 instead of a 5 page paper!  Quick, print this out and give it to your mom!)  This standard course plan is also horizontal skills development.  A vertical skills approach would be to ask for three 5-page papers, each one at a higher level, or using new skills.

Thus, the path to becoming a Fleet Commander does not naturally run through being a fleet member.  From a teaching perspective, this makes about as much sense as if the path to painting professionally required you first learn baseball.

This also means that for a linemember to volunteer to FC, they have to take a blind leap into a whole new set of skills, all at once.  Given that FCing also happens in front of a whole crowd, this is like asking an amateur guitarist who likes to play at the campfire to volunteer to play an extremely hard piano solo in a packed Carnegie Hall.

Put in these terms, it seems pretty reasonable that a lot of people don’t want to do that in their hobby time. 

So what would the path be?

I’m not here to be an armchair developer, and thankfully I don’t have to be.  There is actually a playstyle that teaches many of the skills of a bloc FC at a more granular level: smallgang[5] pvp.

In a small gang, you have to manually pilot your own ship, pay attention to advanced overview metrics, communicate with fleetmates (there usually is no single FC), and know what to engage.  (There are also skills that don’t map as vitally onto big-fleet FCing, such as managing heat damage on your own modules.)  Broadly speaking, one could learn many of the skills involved in bloc FCing by doing smallgang pvp.  These skills include those involved in a more complex fleet role such as the logi anchor—communication, manual piloting—but also build on them. 

Thus, the natural vertical progression to being a bloc FC, if designed by a teacher, would be:

Linemember -> logi anchor -> smallgang pilot -> bloc FC

In this case, three levels of the vertical development could occur in large fleets, but a huge amount of skills would need to be learned in that missing link of smallgang pvp.  In this sense, I think it would be advantageous for more blocs to encourage their pilots to do smallgang pvp, as they would be able to help more junior FCs take that leap.

Whereas the progression for the smallgang player would be:

Damage role -> support role -> tackle role -> multiboxing roles

In this case, the progression is simply from simpler (note: not easier) to more complex roles within the same progression.  Contrary to popular belief, smallgang is thus actually more helpful to new and developing players who want to get better at the game—it more resembles how a teacher would build a game.  However, whereas horizontal branching into more accounts in the big-fleet career path can occur at the first step, “linemember,” horizontal branching in smallgang can only occur at the final step, as piloting an individual ship is so much harder and requires so many more skills.  That’s not for everyone, and that’s ok.  The game also needs good linemembers!

So, what’s the problem?

I’m just going to say it: EVE would have more players if it was designed in part by a teacher.  EVE would be a better game if it was designed in part by a teacher.

FCing is one example.  Is it a problem that the game only encourages linemembers to do more not better?  Arguably, no.  That’s how many of us want to play the game, and that’s great.  Is it a problem that the game doesn’t naturally develop FCs?  Many current FCs think it is.  Fewer FCs means more burnout, less content for linemembers, and less activity in the game overall.

We can also apply this framework to many other areas of the game, and see how some are issues and some are working just fine.  I’ll do that in later posts.

But there are definitely places where, in my opinion, the game is hurt very badly by promoting horizontal over vertical skills development.  For instance, broadly speaking, ships get easier to fly the bigger they get.  The natural progression to flying an interceptor well would actually be:

Titan -> Carrier (sirens) -> Lachesis -> Interceptor

Obviously, this makes the game hard to get into for new players, as proper piloting of the ships they can fly first includes more skills—knowledge of the meta, angular vs transversal vs radial velocity, heat control, etc.—than most ships that come after them.  It hurts on the other end as well, such that Titans are extremely easy to scale and run simultaneously.  Titan pilots are not asked to grow new skills, but to expand their asset base horizontally; and moreover, expanding their assets doesn’t usually require new skills either.  CCP Falcon once made a brilliant suggestion[6] for how to make Titans harder to fly—making them worse for bad titan pilots and better for good ones, neither a nerf nor a buff but an expansion of the skills needed to fly them—and I think everyone should check it out.

This also creates a Catch-22 for blocs, such that what is best for them today is to get everybody multiboxing DPS ships, and to protect their moneymaking space so people can afford more DPS ships, but what is best for them (and the game) tomorrow would be to invite smallgang conflict in their space and encourage pilots to grow, so that some can make an easier leap to FCing. 

Also, new player missions are a pedagogical disaster[7].  There’s a lot to discuss here, and in future posts I’ll apply this framework elsewhere in the game.  Between this, and the framework I set up in the first post for defining what makes art, we’ve got a lot to work with – and, probably, most of our readers on life support.

But for now, this post is already too long.  (Sorry.  I learned that habit from all those classes that asked me to write longer papers every time.)



[3] Here’s a good example of layering skills on other skills, and a really damn entertaining video even if you don’t know anything about music!

[4] For non-EVE players: “Multiboxing” refers to playing several game clients at once, a common practice in EVE.  “Logi” refers to Logistics ships, the game’s term for healers.

[5] For non-EVE players: “smallgang” refers both to fleets of usually less than 10-20 pilots, and the tactics used by those fleets.  Commonly, with fewer people, everyone is encouraged to share information during fights, and decisions are made much more collaboratively than in larger fleets, where communication would be too cluttered with everyone talking, so members are asked to stay quiet while one person (the FC) calls all the shots.

[6] The comment has since been deleted (or I can’t find it) but the essence was: remove guns from titans and let them fire a lance every minute.  In addition to the changes to the skill ceiling mentioned above, this would also implement a diminishing return on dropping mass numbers of titans.

[7] Among many, many others, but perhaps the most thorough:

I – EVE Online is a Work of Art

If you’ve ever hung around a Liberal Arts college long enough for paint to dry, or to catch an experimental art show (maybe it is watching paint dry) then you’ve probably heard some formulation of the question, “What is the difference between Art and Artifice?”  (Yes, capitalizing the word Art does capture he way people tend to ask this.) 

Here, “artifice” is taken to mean anything made by human hands, such as a jacket or a pot, while “art” is generally accepted as common media, such as music, literature, film, and so on.  To put it another way, this question asks, What’s the difference between a toilet and an opera?  Both are made by people, used by people, and enhance our lives.  Both are usually all-white and get shit on by the general public.  But more importantly for artistic professions, what’s the difference between a TED Talk and a play, or a novel and a work of nonfiction? 

I was posed this question on the first day of college, and I spent much of the next few years pursuing a suitable answer to it.  The most common definition I heard was that art “goes beyond itself,” to some deeper experience or understanding, while artifice is simply anything else.  I won’t get into the thorny philosophical issues with this definition: suffice it to say, this would allow a tree or a toilet to be art for one person and not for another—it means art is defined only by its reception.  I wanted a more objective definition that was more useful to my work.  I settled on defining art based on the objective qualities of its medium—the words on the page, the placement of the sculpture—rather than the experience it aimed to curate.

Here’s what I came up with:

Art is something that has to exist in its medium—sound, writing, visuals, as a few examples—in order to create an experience; artifice is either something not designed to create an experience, or something that does not fully make use of its medium.

I’ll explain this more in a moment, but since this is a blog, and an essay, about EVE Online, I first want to point out the most important difference between my definition and all the others I heard in school: in my definition, videogames can be works of art, and as more than just visuals[1].  This is important to me.  It means we don’t have to wait for high society to recognize videogames as a legitimate new form, but can legitimize it ourselves, with our own actions.

Now, let’s unpack this medium-based definition a little bit.

Every medium does something uniquely well.  Prose fiction can move through time, consciousness, and perspective with more freedom than any other form, because language is how we think, and one word can turn everything inside out; music gives us the most immediate emotional response of any medium, probably before we even know we’re feeling it; film gives us the best multimedia input, allowing for sound, visuals, and language, seamlessly and simultaneously; cuisine gives us the best heart disease.

The best works in any medium always use what the medium does best and lean away from what makes it struggle.  A sculpture becomes art when it demands we view it from multiple angles, or from a certain position; theater becomes art when it must be done before a live audience for full effect.  A song becomes artifice when it ignores the emotional directness of music; a book becomes artifice when it ignores its ability to manipulate consciousness.

This understanding lets us do a bunch of different things.  As an artist, it lets you look at mediums not as definitions, but as a toolbox, and it lets you pick which tool for which job.  As a viewer, it lets you appreciate not just the experience something gives you but how it achieves that experience through its very existence in that form.  As a scholar, it lets you dismantle that thorny problem of whether or not art can even be ‘good,’ and why people like art that you deem ‘bad.’  The answer to this last problem, under my framework, is quite simple: something that uses its form innately is not better art, but is more art.  I cannot say this strongly enough—everybody likes what they like, and the terms good and bad are completely useless.  The goal of this framework is to allow us to assess how something does what it does without judgement, hopefully opening up the discussion to include more forms than you’d encounter in a traditional education.  That includes videogames.

So, what does a videogame do best as a medium?  We need to answer this before we can assess whether a game is using that or not, which in turn defines when it becomes a work of art.

Like film, videogames are multimedia projects.  Games use creative writing, sound, acting, coding, and multiple aspects of visual art.  What they do uniquely, however, is engage with the viewer.  While certain aspects of Postmodernism in any medium are built by the viewer[2], videogames are designed around this principle.  From an artist’s perspective, you would pick the videogame out of your toolbox if you wanted your viewer to build the experience with you.  No other form can do that so well.

This means that some videogames are “more art” and others are less.  One of my favorite examples of a videogame that exemplifies the use of viewer interaction is Mass Effect 3.  (SPOILER ALERT – I might be about to ruin one of the greatest games ever made.)

In the ending of Mass Effect 3, you are presented with a 3-way choice: kill the bad guys, control the bad guys, or find a compromise.  In the famous “Indoctrination Theory,”[3] fans proposed that, in fact, the final battle had been taking place in the main character’s mind, with them fighting off mind control from the bad guys, and that if you chose anything other than to kill the bad guys, they had actually won.  The implications of this are utterly profound: because the one making the decision is both Commander Shepherd (in-world) and you the gamer, if you choose anything other than to kill the bad guys, you in real life have been indoctrinated as well.


While novels can write in the second-person (as in Calvino’s famous line, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel…”[4]) they are only fusing the perspective of the reader and character.  In the ending of ME3, the actual volition, the actual consciousness of the character and player become one. 

You could only achieve that in a videogame.  In my opinion, this could be a moment in human art as important as when the first words were set on a page.  It is certainly as theoretically significant; what we do with videogames in the next 3,000 years will determine if its outcome.

So what about EVE?

I promise I’ll get to the actual game you’re here to read about much quicker in future posts.  But if you’re still with me, I’m about to make you feel much better about all those hours you’ve spent in New Eden.

One of the other cool wrinkles in my definition is that it allows us to define the quintessential works in a medium—that is, works whose effect is so interwoven with their medium, they could be called the most novel, or the most song.  (Again, I can’t stress this enough, there is no such thing as a “best” work of art in any form – just some that objectively use their form more than others.)  Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is my example for literature, as it is literally a novel about storymaking, and uses every trick in the book to weave the reader’s consciousness into the story.  Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is my example of a quintessential sculpture, as it has to be appreciated in person, to be walked around—and as one walks around it, the tension and empty space between the characters becomes powerful in a way you could never capture in a photograph. 

In the same way, EVE Online is the quintessential videogame.  It is the most videogame that a videogame could ever be.  The reasoning is pretty simple: if a videogame becomes art by using viewer interaction to the fullest, EVE is the most a videogame could ever be art, because in EVE, viewer actions matter more than in any other game.  Frankly, if you can have literal history books[5] about player actions in your universe, you have maximized the interaction of their agency and the world.

The ways EVE does this are well documented.  Permanent loss of assets, a player-run economy, and a single-shard world are, for most, the calling card for the game.  Go read any other article about EVE if you want to see how these features make it a great, historic, and famously Sisyphean game.  I’m here to tell you, those features, which work together to make every action important, and to preserve the result of those actions, thus allowing for history to be made, also make EVE as a whole—not just its visuals or music, but the whole experience—a work of art.

Finally, the real genius of EVE is how it allows for such player freedom, but also protects itself from moments of immersion-breaking.  The problem a lot of games face is that, even if player actions matter, many of them are world-breaking.  That is, if you name your character after a real-world celebrity, there’s no way to explain it away.  Many roleplaying communities have rules about in-character and out-of-character communication, but if a dwarf named Beyoncé waddles through, you’ve just got to look the other way.  EVE is actually able to account for this.

To paraphrase a really important part of EVE’s worldbuilding – capsuleers are driven to the point of madness by the training they have to go through in order to become immortal; thus, they say lots of kooky things that one can just discount for roleplaying purposes.  When NCdot named their staging Keepstar “Trump’s Wall,” anyone who wanted to be in-world could just say this was a nonsense name dreamed up by a mentally unstable capsuleer.  When Vile Rat was killed[6], his very touching memorials all across New Eden, some of which continued for years[7], still did not break world; he was able to be memorialized as a person and as a capsuleer, and indeed, like all of us, he was both.  That is due to the simple fact that, like in the ending of Mass Effect 3, the consciousness of the human player and the character are fused, and this fusion conversely brings clarity to the differences between them.

So this is not just a blog about EVE Online, its players, its history, and its development.  This is my attempt to document and elevate a quintessential artifact in the brand-new medium of videogames.  In the last two millenia, our species has only invented a handful of fundamentally new mediums – arguably, just film and videogames.  Every other artistic achievement we’ve made in that time has been a new form in older mediums, such as music, dance, theater, and… maybe whatever fireworks are. 

The actions of EVE players therefore, to me, have the potential to be as important in our history as the actions of the scribes who first wrote down Gilgamesh.  Only time will tell.  But for now, we’re making history and art and explosions together – and it’s my honor to write about it.  

[1] EVE Online in MOMA:

[2] Think of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch.

[3] For a general overview:

[4] If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, page 1.

[5] Empires of EVE series by Andrew Groen.

[6]Memorial post by his in-game organization, though this story is well-documented across broader gaming media as well:


Intro: Who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-my-spaceships?

For over a decade now, I’ve watched real-life programmers make professional-quality apps for EVE, real-life economists produce analyses that (probably) teach CCP a thing or two about their world, and real-life statesmen shape this historic single-shard server, all while I continued to study writing, music, teaching, and, most importantly, PVP. Maybe I internalized what all those older family members said, that I was wasting my life in the Humanities. (Well, now I have a blog, so I’ve shown them!) It took me a long time to realize that I could also contribute to the community, in my own way. So here it is. This is not going to be your asteroid belt-variety EVE blog.

So it’s fair for you to wonder, Who are you, and what have you done with my spaceships?

The short answer is, I used discursive methods to whittle them into ontological insignifigance.

The longer answer is, nothing.

Nope, I’m not interested in your spaceships.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering, If this blog isn’t about spaceships, is it at least about explosions?  Well, duh.  What about EVE’s stories?  Forever and always.  What about rage, salt, and other trendy condiments?  Reluctantly.  Will you have opinions about EVE’s direction, culture, or gameplay?  Who doesn’t?  So, that would involve some back-seat development?  I have already slashed the tires.  Will you care about my opinions?  Nope.  But I may do some interviews.  Can I bring my drake?  My representatives have advised me not to comment.  Also, I think you mean ‘Risk Averse.’  That’s not a question, but I’ll answer it anyway.

The name of this blog is a nod towards one of my all-time favorite comments from the r/eve subreddit: in response to someone asking ‘Why do you lurk here if you don’t even play the game?’ some wise soul replied, ‘For the same reason people go to the zoo.’  Using this pithy yet catastrophic smackdown as a metaphor, I can say that Isk Averse is something of an all-in-one zoo tour guide, conservation initiative, emergency veterinary clinic, nature documentary, and taxidermist. 

Ok I’ll bite.  So, who the hell are you?

I’ve been a sci-fi writer, literature student, and EVE player not only for all of my adult life, but for much of my earlier life as well.  I probably started EVE first of all these, back in 2008, as a precocious young nerd with a passion for explosions.  In 2012, no doubt influenced by EVE’s world of New Eden, I began developing my own world of speculative fiction, a project that continues to this day.  This blog is a way for me to keep up my essay-writing chops while trying to question the answers that this game, world, and community have left with me for years. 

Yawn.  TLDR?

Well, my inability to keep even this intro short enough you don’t want a TLDR doesn’t bode well.  (Maybe in a future post we’ll get to intersections of EVE and the modern attention span, if I can remember to.)  But if you’ll allow me to wax somniferous for one more moment, I think we can get it done: Isk Averse is a series of social, literary, and political essays about EVE Online that promises to be empathetic but unapologetic, unbiased but opinionated, intelligent but accessible.  One week we might be using EVE players’ mourning rituals to look at how we view death as an online society; the next week we might take a deep dive into the ways EVE develops fleet commanders, or what can make a videogame a work of art.  If, after reading, you appreciate the game more, appreciate life more, come to doubt everything you thought you knew about both, love me, hate me, block me, subscribe, or just want to start playing with us, I’ll consider it a job well done.