Tuesday, October 13, 2009

EVE Online is for Noobs (In a Good Way)

I downshifted my World of Warcraft and Aion play this fall so I could survey a bunch of different MMOs--partly out of professional curiosity and partly because I'm ever hopeful of a transcendant game experience. (Yeah, yeah, every junkie's like a setting sun; I get it.)

I played some nifty games. In general, MMOs have their collective act together. But the one I'm continuing to play this fall is EVE Online. And frankly, no one's more surprised than me.

My expectations were low. I'd heard about how hardcore it was--how unforgiving. I've long had a fascination with the EVE community; it's great to observe as a spectator. And the game itself is an outlier by almost every measure. The game design, the UI, and even its player population curve all confound the MMO norm. So EVE is an interesting case study, and it's fun to read about all the warfare, espionage, and skullduggery. But is the game any good?

My answer is an emphatic yes! (But keep in mind I've been playing only a few weeks.)

Here are two key things that surprised me about EVE.

Hardcore, My Asteroid
Everyone says this about EVE--fans and critics alike. The EVE community wears EVE's "hardcore" nature like a badge of honor. But it's not hardcore in the sense that it's hard to learn or complex to play. In particular, if you're comfortable theorycrafting as an endgame raider in WoW or being a dungeonmaster in D&D (any edition), you're going to find EVE...well, not easy, but you'll be totally comfortable with its complexity. Really, if games are your chosen hobby, there's nothing in EVE that's crazy complicated. In some respects, it's easier. The game is less timing- and twitch-oriented than WoW or Aion (to pick two examples), and I'm basically a spaz, so that's good.

The other way people describe EVE as hardcore is that there are big swaths of the galaxy that are full-on PvP zones, and there's no expectation of fair play. Go there, and you'll get squashed like a bug. But really, it's not that bad. New players have tons to do in equally big "higher-security" swaths of the galaxy. If you follow one simple rule--don't fly around in a ship you can't afford to lose--you'll be just fine.

It's Terrific for Deep-Immersion Roleplay
(This space left blank for the obligatory "Wait, what?")

In EVE, your "character" is a head-and-shoulders shot on a viewscreen, and so is everyone else. You never walk around your ship or the space stations you visit, much less the moons and planets. When you interact with others (PCs or NPCs), you see them on a viewscreen or read an email from them (or maybe you'll voice-chat if it's another PC). You don't even have a crew on your ship, NPC or otherwise. Eighty percent of the time, you're looking at your ship flying in space, and the other 20% of the time you're looking at your ship floating in a hangar (or at least it's in the background while you work the stock market and get business done).

With your character at arm's length from you, how can this be a good roleplay environment?

I think the answer lies in EVE's interface, and in particular how it meshes with its genre.

When I'm playing EVE, I'm looking at a close exterior view of my ship. I have a window that shows my sensor array and lists what ships, asteroids, etc. are nearby. I have another window for communications, and a HUD near the bottom that shows the status of ship systems like weapons, shields, and thrusters. The game will superimpose friend-or-foe data on anything I can see on my viewscreen. And I have delightful contextual menus for things like "autopilot," "approach," "dock," and what have you. I'm not hitting a thruster button and doing manual roll/pitch/yaw for my ship. The computer does all that for me.

In other words, Dave-the-player's UI for his computer is almost exactly what Dave-the-character's UI for his ship would be. Play EVE in a dark room, and you're experiencing the game world almost exactly as your character is. And that's a recipe for immersion.

Contrast that with WoW, where I see things my character doesn't, like the minimap in the corner of my vision, the health bars of my adversaries, and their names and guild affiliations floating over their heads. With EVE, it's a freakin' computer, so of course you'd expect it to supply navigational data, battle damage reports, and ship IDs on mouseover. Your expectation is different because it's a hard SF game with a hard SF mindset.

So Are You Hooked, Noonan?
Not yet, but color me intrigued. I remember telling people all the time, "The thing about WoW is that the game changes at 60." (Now it changes at 80, I know.)

EVE will undoubtedly have those horizons, too--lines that change the game once you cross them. I have no earthly idea whether I'll like the game I find beyond those horizons. I still can't fathom that one PC game (WoW) fascinated me for four years, and I certainly don't expect other games to pull that off. But I can tell you this--the noob experience for EVE is a lot friendlier than I'd heard. And you can really immerse yourself in the mindset of a capsuleer.

Out of Context: "We need to tell her she's a particle."
Music: Fitz and the Tantrums, Songs for a Break Up, Vol. 1

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