XII – Tanizaki vs the Triglavians: the Role of Mystery in Worldbuilding

Imagine that a novel begins:

Sam got out of the car and went into the gas station to buy cigarettes and a flashlight.

There’s nothing to suggest that this shouldn’t be true—that at some point this didn’t or couldn’t happen—and so we, as readers, accept it.  We suspend our disbelief for a few more lines.  But we don’t believe it yet, in the way that, if the writer does their job, every word between this sentence and the last will imprint almost as vividly as a memory from our own lives.  For us to really believe that this is true—for us to buy into the story—something else has to happen.

Now picture:

Sam, still slightly out of breath, climbed over the ragged convertible’s door, which he discovered was permanently jammed shut.  He ducked into the store past a poster of his own face, sans mustache, to buy cigarettes and another flashlight.

Do you see this one a little better? 

What’s the difference?  The second is obviously longer in words, though it covers the same actions and expanse of time.  That extra language is used to produce some details, so at first glance we might imagine that the specificity leads us to buy in.  Essentially, we’re thinking, Well jeez, if they know all those details, it must be true!  This is akin to how cult leaders are actually more effective when they make wild claims, because they lead us to think they must be right, precisely because their claims are preposterous while they’re so confident about it.  To some extent, this is how any storyteller works.  They project an air of sureness about what they’re saying, and deliver carefully curated clusters of details to get us to believe what they’re saying, writing, or showing on the screen, not just accept it.  This is as true in ancient oral poetry as it is in more modern forms like novels or movies, and the postmodern form of videogames.  EVE, for all its scope, breadth, and internal history, relies just as much on its details as any of its predecessors.

But encyclopedias are full of details, and no one finds them to be engaging stories or worlds.  We might read them and accept the information as true, and functionally believe it, and yet a good storyteller can get you to feel the reality of lightsabers in a way you’ll never feel anything you see described in an encyclopedia.[i]

It is actually the delicate blending of details with mystery that makes us believe, really experience, a story or a world.  In the example I wrote above, the detail that our character is out of breath might add to the image, but the word “still” makes us wonder where he’s coming from, and why he’s out of breath after driving a car.  We might likewise wonder how the car’s door got jammed shut, or why he appears to have just recognized that (Did he steal the car?  Is that why he’s out of breath?) or why his face is on a poster at the gas station, or why he has a mustache now.  (He must have stolen it!  No one with a mustache and a convertible is ever up to any good!)  Even the word “another” makes us wonder what happened to his first flashlight, and perhaps interacts with the other details and their resonant mysteries, so we can begin to see the outline of a story, yet dimly, flickeringly, so that we want to read more to find out.  This reflects our conscious experience of the real world—we are constantly presented with details that form contours in our minds, but since we never get to see everything at once (like an encyclopedia or god) we have to feel our way forward, based on these details, to bring the whole thing into light; and even then, we uncover further mysteries, and keep going.  Thus, what gets us to buy into a story, to believe it, is when it mirrors our conscious experience of reality by carefully deploying believable clusters of details that outline a mystery.  The story begins to feel like another world because we explore it like we do this one.

But in the example I gave above, the story is in the linear, monophonic, non-interactive medium of prose.[ii]  That is to say, your ability to feel forward through the world is itself a sort of illusion, as in actuality the author is leading you along. 

So what happens in a world like EVE, where the storytelling is embedded in a world we actually can explore on our own, and where much of the story actually comes from what we do?  How do you get someone to believe in a world, not just a story?  And how does this form manipulate the interactions between detail and mystery that make it all tick?

In 1933, electric light was still fairly new to Japan.  The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki saw this simple technology, which is now ubiquitous and not generally tied to any specific culture, as something distinctly Western, foreign, and contradictory not just to traditional Japanese aesthetics, but to the philosophies behind them.  In a quiet and deviously humble essay titled “In Praise of Shadows,” he begins by explaining the challenges of building a new house that still feels authentic: hiding wires, using wood panels instead of tile, and so on.  But this is just the literal application of what he really wants to talk about—shadow, mystery, depth, age.  In Tanizaki’s view, the core philosophical element to a Japanese home or to Japanese design is not its characteristic sparseness, but its use of shadow, or recessed alcoves that hide the artwork within them, of deep eaves that block the sun.  The real problem with electric light isn’t that it’s foreign, but that it is too effective at eliminating these carefully curated shadows, and all the depth and variety they imbue.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because this is the same issue the storytellers at CCP have to balance in EVE.

We might think of a story like the darkened rooms of Tanizaki’s essay, and our progress through them like a small candlelight.  Here, the light would be the details, (the new mustache, the broken car door) and the darkness would be the mysterious reality they imply (Did he steal the car?).  The detail casts into certainty some things, but at the flickering edges of its light, it creates uncertainty, illusion, mystery, so that we can’t be sure what things are.  A pot at the edge of a flickering light might be a face, or a mirror; a bookshelf might be a radiator, or a window—and only as we draw closer do they come into focus, just as, later in my example above, you would expect to find out what our character is really doing.  As more candles are lighted throughout the darkened room, their shadows intersect and pool together just as much as their lights.  We do indeed see more of the space, but very little of it with any certainty.  When the story concludes, in most cases, we can at best see only half of the forms in the room.

The encyclopedia, in comparison, throws on the halogen floodlights, obliterating shadows and overwhelming us with a deluge of details and certainty.  In this light, we might find the room mildly interesting, but not addicting—not enchanting, and certainly not begging us to explore and interact with it.  Moreover, the room will look the same at any hour of the day, and to anyone passing by.  There is nothing organic, nothing unknown, that can arise out of this abundance of details without any mystery.   In essence, this is the difference between an art and a science.

Controlling this process—lighting the right candles at the right times, directing the eye to the right places—has been difficult enough to justify storytelling as a virtuosic artform going all the way back to Homer.  But it’s made even harder in the days of online wikis, fan theories, and databases.  Indeed, it’s tough for Star Wars or Harry Potter to contain any real depth of mystery any more, because over time they have not only gotten more and more detailed (or brighter) but they have also had those details combed through and assembled into something like very literal encyclopedias.  As I showed so briefly above, there is this weird parabola in our ability to believe a story, so that the barest lines do nothing to engage our imagination, but total encyclopedic omniscience also reminds us that we’re dealing with fiction, and everything feels more designed than depicted.  Creators in older and more detailed universes thusly need to be careful to work with what they already have, to stay in that middle-ground where there is still mystery; or, to keep using Tanizaki’s metaphor, they need to add items to the room without throwing on any more lights.  That is a whole lot to manage.  It’s no wonder longer projects of worldbuilding often lose that initial spark.  (Candle pun intended.) 

The challenge in a game like EVE is that the story doesn’t begin at the beginning.  Entering New Eden is more like getting off the plane in a foreign country than cracking open a book or starting a movie.  To compare it to my example above, we don’t necessarily begin with Sam’s little scene at the gas station, seeing it through the lens of prose—we might be on the other side of town, as a character ourselves, and might see this part of the story firsthand only if we’re in the right place and time, and then might only hear about it afterwards.  Even if you’re one of the rare few who has been in EVE’s world since 2003 when it launched, in story-time, you’ve only been around for the most recent instants at the crest of an eons-long history. 

But it is precisely that history that makes the world so immersive. 

I remember the moment I got hooked on EVE’s world, some time in my very first hours in the game: I was running a mission in my Kestrel, and I flew by the massive wreck of some ancient freighter.  It looked nothing like any of the ships I could read about in the market, and it was as big as a station—while still being only one broken piece!  I was stunned with the idea of how old this universe was, how long it had been around before me.  I was humbled, and hooked.

This combination of dazzling futuristic technology and impenetrable ancient worlds is what makes a lot of sci-fi tick.  Perhaps the best, most efficient worldbuilding ever done is the words “A long time ago,” at the beginning of Star Wars.  I mean, really, can you imagine a more economical way to build in the mystery that is so addicting than by setting up a vibrantly futuristic world and then telling us it happened in the past?  That one line might have, on its own, made the single biggest difference in whether Star Wars became a universe you wanted to visit, or stay in.  We might download EVE for the spaceships, the things we can do in the world, but we are sucked in by those ancient stations, wrecked starships, and planets settled longer than human cities in real life.  This is the magnificent interplay of detail and mystery, light and shadow, in EVE’s storytelling.  It is only made more powerful by the way you are dropped right into it, given your own little candle, and invited to forge out into the dark.

But people pay for content.  One of the challenges of this type of storytelling is that everyone is not at the same point of the story at the same time.  While a new player might be utterly enthralled just looking at the asteroid colony in a mission, advanced players need things to do.  So, like any game, EVE has to run out expansions.

The challenge in rolling these out is very much like Tanizaki building a house with modern amenities and traditional aesthetics.  Like Tanizaki had to take pains to put the right shades on his lighting, or to hide the telephone behind a staircase, EVE’s storytellers need to introduce new game mechanics, new activities, without making the world feel too new, or solved.  They’ve done this with varying degrees of success. 

Two of the major expansions over the past decade have involved first the pirate Sansha’s Nation creating “Incursions,” or randomly spawning NPC invasions all over space, and then the more recent Triglavian invasion, in which an entirely new civilization began attacking the universe out of, essentially, another dimension.  While the Sansha’s Nation existed in-game prior to their major expansion, and so fulfilled Tanizaki’s philosophy of repurposing and deepening older material, the Triglavians were implied in the lore but didn’t exist in the world at all prior to their expansion.

I worry about the dynamic of every new expansion being OH MY GOD WE’RE BEING INVADED… again.  Obviously, marketing has some interplay with storytelling here: while it’s better for the story to uncover some ancient mystery, it’s easier to market an OH MY GOD INVASION to new, current, and returning players.  In my opinion, the exigencies of marketing this way do compromise the storytelling, forcing it to be at best less creative, and at worst compromising to the mystery that really forms the bedrock of a fictional world.  To put this another way, we might come for the invasions, but we stay for the depth, and it’s very easy to obscure that depth by constantly rolling out new content. 

However, the rollout, especially of the Triglavians, was masterful.  I do think it’s important to direct my criticism at the marketing, the management decisions that force every new storyline to involve another invasion, because the layering of mysterious messages distributed to players, encrypted in a new fictional language, and then the steady escalation of information,[iii] coupled with new content that unfolded it, exemplifies our simile of carefully curating new candles around a darkened room.  It is even more of an achievement for EVE’s storytellers and worldbuilders that they were essentially set up to fail by the necessities of marketing a new expansion, and yet they still managed to capture some of the magic.  This being said, herein lies another example of market pressures making the form and distribution of art contradict its function.  The game’s world would naturally be better off if these could be synergized.

Perhaps all stories, not just worldbuilding, but all worlds too, are some part of Tanizaki’s “dream world of candle and light.”[iv]  Indeed, dreams haunt us because they feel so close, and yet like they contain so much more than we can grasp—the best worlds and stories work the same way.  While in EVE’s lore, the presence of the atavistic Triglavians might reside within darkness, it would be almost impossible to introduce them with the sudden totality of a new MMO expansion without creating the effect that the lights have suddenly been thrown on.  This makes the act of exploring the world not one of pushing deeper into that darkness as if pulled along by it, nor even of seeing apparitions in the fog alongside a boat the storytellers are driving, but of pushing oneself through that absolute, shadowless glare of a laboratory.  In this light, we might marvel at the things we see for the way they were constructed, but it is impossible to imagine that they exist on their own.  Exploring the world becomes a theoretical, intellectual exercise, more akin to memorizing sports statistics than interpreting mythology. 

Yet, videogames are a brand-new medium.  What we’re discussing here is storytelling, but much of EVE’s history also involves storymaking—that is, the way players have created and then chronicled intricate histories with their own actions.  To me, it’s both beautiful and fascinating that we haven’t yet discovered all of the ways these things interact, or what this new medium can really do.  Capitalism isn’t kind to any sort of art, and over time, as our societies evolve and our videogames are further innovated, we might gain enough data to see how marketing and monetization can work with storytelling and storymaking, not against them.  Moreover, in any competitive game, people optimize themselves out of their most engaging gameplay[v]—they solve problems, which is ultimately the goal of any game—and in so doing gradually turn up the lights themselves. 

Tanizaki’s essay is a powerful snapshot into one of those strange periods between times, when old and new blend but are not yet indistinguishable.  In 2021, EVE Online, and digital media in general, are in much the same place.  I hope that in the future, this blog will do some of what “In Praise of Shadows” does for us now—whatever that is.


[i] This is also the sort of buy-in mechanism used in a lot of modern cults, or “mystery religions,” such as Q-Anon: modern as we are, our brains still prefer the story to the facts.  That might never change, and maybe it shouldn’t.

[ii] Go back to Post I for a nice refresher on what different mediums do better than others.

[iii] A good example from midway through the story is when the Triglavians hacked billboards to broadcast their message, and the in-world news site The Scope reported on it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2Mj8g4k2Gs

[iv] In Praise of Shadows, pg. 1

[v] A fantastic essay on how we ruin our own games: “Water Finds a Crack,” by Soren Johnson,  https://www.designer-notes.com/?p=369

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, (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563219302602)


[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 – https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k6wnd9/fc_chat_53_captator_phantomite/

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: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/romantically-attached/201608/how-will-the-endowment-effect-affect-you

[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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f6lp_mYxQA

[vi] https://www.reddit.com/r/Eve/comments/k3xr9h/we_were_trained_to_hate_these_changes/

[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.