In December 1964, Che Guevara delivered a classic speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. The South American revolutionary effortlessly did what revolutionaries do best, inspiring, threatening and posturing, rising to his historic occasion with vehemence and dignity. It was his time and he took it neatly. During a withering diatribe focused almost exclusively on US foreign policy, Guevara said, "Cuba, distinguished delegates, a free and sovereign state with no chains binding it to anyone, with no foreign investments on its territory, with no proconsuls directing its policy, can speak with its head held high in this Assembly and can demonstrate the justice of the phrase by which it has been baptised: 'Free Territory of the Americas'."
The speech - one accompanied by rapturous applause - came towards the end of Guevara's life; he was assassinated in 1967, perhaps unsurprisingly if you read the transcript. He was peaking. He would never be more prominent, or more dangerous. Looking back through quotes attributed to Guevara, you see him becoming bolder, more cogent, more obvious as time goes on, leading up to his audience with world leaders in 1964. The progression of Hitler's speeches is very similar. The development of their ideas finally reaches a place where they cannot be ignored. They reach a place where their proponents shift from soapbox barkers to leaders.
Of course, the likes of Guevara and Hitler were genuine, historical figures, radical politicians that changed the world. Their prominence was 50, 60 years ago: now entertainment is politics and within the sphere of entertainment, interaction is the true explosion. PlayStation is a mass movement: conservatism is banality. World of Warcraft trends: socialism stagnates. But ubiquitous as games are, it could be argued that they shackle the masses, that the games industry has never had a bona fide revolutionary. We may have been led away from the grinding drudgery of television, but no one's ever threatened to take on the establishment wholesale.
Maybe the wait's finally over.
Days of Darkness
On June 1 2007, CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson stood on stage at the company's 10th birthday party in Reykjavik, Iceland, and said that when he joined the EVE Online team seven years ago, he "thought he'd be making a computer game". EVE, he said completely seriously, is "changing the way people think about entertainment". "Yay," said a few in the crowd. Some smiled. Others looked confused; drank some more.
Pétursson continued, pointing a finger shyly beyond the microphone, talking about a "self-governing virtual society" before remembering himself and holding his hands up in a "whatever" sense. He played a video titled "Days of Darkness", a lengthy piece put together by EVE players depicting events in the Amarr-Minmitar war covered in the game's back-story. The club quaked to the spectacle of titan laser. Icelandic society's great and good were assembled for the reception, and there were many middle-aged business types in the crowd. Standing at the front taking photos, I turned to see the face of one grey-haired woman watching the Minmatar fleet decimated to thunderous drum and bass. She was baffled and scared, very obviously. She didn't know what was happening in that movie. It made no sense to her. A man she knew as "important" had told her this was the new face of modern entertainment and all she was seeing was a terrible display of brute force. There was no "game" on her screen. She was seeing something she didn't understand. And if this is the future, her brain was saying, I have no place in it.
Her brain was only part right. EVE is the future, and she belongs in it just as much as everybody else.
Hilmar Pétursson is a big man with a practical joke laugh and bad skin. The day before the party, he presents at CCP's in-construction offices on the wall of Reykjavik's harbour. Taking a group of international journalists through the history of CCP and onwards through the concept of what the team is trying to achieve with EVE - demagogic arm-waving, shining eyes and all - he outlines something everyone in the room understands, but few seem to get. What Hilmar and the rest of the CCP creatives are doing has essentially nothing to do with computer gaming at all, and trying to get that across to a bunch of games journalists may have been a little along the lines of, as we on the UK say, "pissing in the wind". He doesn't seem to care.
EVE Online is an open-ended space-based massively-multiplayer online role-playing game. It's probably the one true example of a "sandbox" MMO: players, flying around in spaceships and sitting in space stations, can basically do what they like. EVE has a complex economic model and encourages players to join corporations in which they compete against other corps for financial and military supremacy. At least, that's what it's supposed to be.
Up to this point, the company has done nothing else, although the acquisition of US-based developer White Wolf has enabled the company to start work on another MMO, one based on horror franchise World of Darkness. CCP was formed in Iceland in 1997 by three friends - Reynir Harđarson, Thorolfur Beck and Ívar Kristjánsson - all of whom still work on EVE. The company was originally funded by a space combat board game called Hćuttuspil ("Danger Game"). Pétursson joined as CTO in 2000, rising to CEO in 2004. A closed bank offering in 2000, and a further round of funding in 2002 put EVE into full production, but, classically, only a publishing deal with American outfit Simon and Schuster gave CCP the money to finish and release EVE on disc. Pétursson tells us that during the darker days of 2001, all the staff worked for three months without wages. No one quit.
EVE cost USD $6 million to make. With Simon and Schuster getting out of games in 2003, CCP bought the distribution rights back and began offering the EVE client free to download in 2004, a situation that remains the same today.
"It took about half a year to negotiate with the management of Simon and Schuster to get the rights back," says Pétursson. "Then we turned the model around and really only started offering EVE as a digital download and stopped retail distribution, and started to market EVE more as an Internet application rather than a game. We've always seen this more as a service than a product. Not going into a store to buy a product, of course, makes sense now, but back then it was a breakthrough."
The forefront of the impossible
Innovation led to success. Over 200,000 people are currently playing EVE, he says, a reiteration from May's Nordic Game event. Exactly, there are 172,250 subscribers and 31,330 players on their month's free trial. Tenuously, more than 700 people actually work on EVE today, including 207 main staff and over 350 in-game volunteers. While it's a long stretch from WoW's eight million players ("Our goal was never to make the biggest game... although we wouldn't mind having eight million subscribers."), EVE, Pétursson says, is simply not the same product. In fact, the way he's talking, EVE isn't even the same medium.
For a start, the game's notoriously difficult and gives the player very little idea of how to play it. This is shown clearly in the retention of subscribers: about 50% cancel their subs in the first six months. Pétursson says this is a good thing, a polar opposite philosophy to practically ever other MMO creator in the world.
"We're often asked why we don't just fix it, why we don't make it easier to start," he says. "You could look at this as a great weakness. We lose more than half the people in the first six months, so why don't we make it easier and more accessible? It's important to note that this is the filter that creates the community. Messing about too much with it would really affect what keeps people playing the game... The people that have this mindset are the game's strongest asset."
More than 3 million people have tried EVE. A fraction remain. Why? Probably because most of them want to play a game. And EVE isn't a game. It's a revolution.
"We're at the forefront of the impossible," Pétursson tells a room full of largely blank faces. "We have been for the past four years."
Questioning looks abound. Hilmar's just getting warmed up.
"We believe massively-multiplayer games have grown up from MUDs and are now entering a new phase, which we look much more on as virtually run societies," he says. "If you look back on the things that have happened in EVE in the past weeks and years, it doesn't really look as though the people that are part of the game-loop experience it as a game. It feels real to them, and they react to it, and they talk about it, and they have feelings about it as if it were real. And if you have 200,000 people being a part of something that they regard as real, then it is real. Even though it's virtual, it is real. There are real friendships, there are real feelings, there are real enemies. We think of EVE more as a society than a computer game."
You can hear a pin drop. It's going to be a bit tricky writing a "feature about EVE" from this, think 15 Mr Games Journalisms. Why isn't the funny man talking about spaceships?
Better red than dead
Pétursson, hands whirling, expounds his theory of "theme park" as opposed to "playground" methods of MMO design. World of Warcraft and Everquest 2 are theme park games, he says, with EVE and Ultima Online sitting in the playground "school". While none of the games are perfect implementations of either approach, EVE, says Pétursson, "emphasises the playground."
Still listening for the pin.
"The analogy is that the theme park is a carefully constructed experience, which is supposed to be fun, condensed, easy to access and is entertainment," he says. "It's really well defined. You never have any doubt about what you have to do. You just wait in line. You go on the rollercoaster, which is fun, then you go out and you go home. The playground is basically just a sandbox. There are toys there. There are more kids than toys, and they usually fight about it. They build sandcastles, but the others just mess them up all the time. There's a nanny there, but she isn't really watching. She's too busy cleaning up the kiddie poop."
On the plus side, you make more friends in the playground. You don't go to Disneyland to make friends, says Hilmar. Also, having friends means you can be collectively more powerful than the kids that are knocking your sandcastles down. Negatively, there are no clear goals - which many find confusing - and there's no true playground hero. Governance is also a problem. "Anarchy leads to despotism," says the presentation slide.
While the playground approach may not lead to the biggest games, being the biggest "was not necessarily the goal". "The goal was to really innovate and to try and do something that's breaking new ground," says Pétursson. "It's been constant pain and struggle, but we really feel as though it's worth something."
He starts talking about social networking, and not just of sites like Facebook and YouTube. Back through history, he says, the Masons and similar groups have been bringing people together in the same way. EVE fuses old and new players, "creating a positive and beneficial relationship between the two groups. And also, when you don't have any shards, you have a big integrated community, and you don't reach a critical mass in terms of really having something that can be called a society. You don't have to break it up into little pockets of 15,000 players with no real connection between them."
EVE, for the sake of clarity, is played on a single server, the largest social software of its type to do so. Games like World of Warcraft, Lineage II, Guild Wars, and so on, are played on servers with number limits, often called "shards". Tranquility, EVE's live server, is housed in a two-ton supercomputer in London which will apparently enter the top 500 list of the world's most powerful computers this year.
Hilmar quotes Metcalfe's law, a theory that states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system. Listening to my recording of the presentation is hilarious. There's not a single sound in that room apart from Hilmar's voice, an occasional cough and me typing.
Rabbits, war, deliberative democracy
"When you make something that's about connecting people together, then each new subscriber increases the value of the application," he says. "For example, your fax machine only has as much worth as the number of fax machines you can send faxes to. The value of MSN is how many people are using MSN. It's not the features of MSN. ICQ, Skype, Yahoo! Messenger: they all do the same, but the value is who's on it. Our belief is that each individual new EVE subscriber really adds value to the people that are already playing the game. So, EVE is a fundamentally better game with 200,000 people than it was with 50,000 people, and it will be an even greater game when it has 300,000 people."
When EVE goes over 300,000 players it will have a bigger population than Iceland. No other game can claim anything like this amount on one server. Hilmar recounts a story of player politics in the first year of EVE's play to give an example of what happens when you have a large population in the same virtual area. It illustrates, he says, "exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes".
In the beginning, EVE's population began to group in areas of "low security" space largely by nationality. In the EVE universe, the central region is "high security" and is known as Empire space. There are four races in EVE - Amarr, Minmitar, Caldari and Gallente - and their Empire home-worlds are all grouped in the centre of the massive play area. This is the most populated part of the map. It's where characters start out, the increased level of protection meaning they're safe (ish) from piracy. As players gather skills and assets, they generally move into lower security space, where rewards are higher but there's no aegis from the NPC police force, Concord.
The universe's southern area was populated by the Scandinavians; the southeast by the Russians; the north by the Americans; and the west by Germany, France and the Benelux region. The Russians had to hack the EVE client because it didn't support Cyrillic script. Once they'd done this, they couldn't speak any other language to anyone, because all anyone with a non-hacked client saw was "boxes and stars and crap". Violence became the only communication available to them, and the Russians were constantly at war with their neighbours, the Scandinavians.
Despite being better organised, having weight of numbers and general tactical advantage, the Russians weren't winning and they couldn't understand why. Turns out the Americans were funding the Scandinavian effort, despite the assertion that they didn't want to get involved in any war and were "just making ships". They'd created supply lines through Empire space, space protected by Concord. The Russians discovered the alliance and convinced the French in the west to attack the Americans and stop the ship supply to the Scandinavians. The Russians then won. The conflict spanned three months and involved 16,000 people.
"I mean, this is a real war," says Pétursson. "It was won on logistics, as all wars are, and for all the people participating it really felt real. And that's the point. When you really allow people to play in the playground, you get meta-patterns and meta-gameplay emerging. It was amazing to follow."
Despotism, monarchy, anarcho-capitalism, democracy, deliberative democracy. Walking on space stations. Replicating the micro-cosmos. Hilmar briefly takes us through the graphical update planned for the coming months. A major content update is coming later this year. The screen says the words:
"EVE's virtual world state is social equity. One shard. It's real."
Hilmar smiles and there's clapping. And I can't help thinking I've seen the groundwork of something gigantic.
An unstoppable force
When I interviewed Hilmar at Nordic Game in May, I put it to him that EVE Online wasn't a game at all. It's a life-metaphor, I said, and the driving factors within its confines are the same that compel people to progress in everyday life. He agreed. People want popularity, money, power, friendship and, obviously, a bigger car/spaceship. And they don't know why. The reason so many people get put off EVE is because they expect it to be World of Warcraft in space. When it isn't, they leave. They don't see the point of it. There are no queues to join. There are no rollercoasters to ride.
They don't see a point, because the point is that EVE's universe exists and you enjoy existing within it. EVE's "point" is the same as life's "point". Everything matters, so nothing matters. It just is. If you think about it too hard you either won't get up tomorrow morning or you'll bounce out of bed grinning like a monkey, so go easy. The fact is that CCP has created something unique in its field, and has every chance, as Hilmar said at CCP's birthday party, of changing the face of modern entertainment. Pétursson's quiet hypotheses will become bolder and more obvious as time goes on and subscriptions grow, and in the end it won't be befuddled games journos taking notice: it'll be everyone. Don't believe me? "They" didn't believe Che Guevara, either. Until they shot him.
EVE Online is gaming's Free Territory of the Americas. It's Hilmar's Cuba. CCP hasn't hit its peak yet. It's far from it. There are no foreign investments on its territory, and there are no proconsuls directing its policy. EVE is free from the rest of an industry drowning under rampant me-tooism and the tyranny of convention, and the message is spreading. The players of EVE Online aren't manacled by content, or shepherded into "experiences". EVE's users are creators of their own destinies.
Winding up his speech in 1964, Guevara blasted the UN with the following: "This epic before us is going to be written by the hungry Indian masses, the peasants without land, the exploited workers. It is going to be written by the progressive masses, the honest and brilliant intellectuals, who so greatly abound in our suffering Latin American lands. A struggle of masses and of ideas. An epic that will be carried forward by our peoples, mistreated and scorned by imperialism; our people, unreckoned with until today, who are now beginning to shake off their slumber. Imperialism considered us a weak and submissive flock; and now it begins to be terrified of that flock; a gigantic flock of 200 million Latin Americans in whom Yankee monopoly capitalism now sees its gravediggers."
We don't have to be dictated to. This is about you. This is not about "game" or "MMO" or "level" or "raiding" or anything in between. This is about how you choose to exist, in both virtual and actual reality. It's about real life, about a finally connected science-fact. In the last 10 years, CCP has created something that gives you the option. You decide. Do you want to be led blindly by the hand, staring into the bowels of your computer, or do you want to join a revolt against "content," against "limits," against pressing "w" for eight hours a day for months on end for a suit of armour anyone can get if they do the same? Do you want to tell or be told? Do you want to obey and serve or are you ready to be free to make your own mark? "They" had to kill Che Guevara to stop his dream. Please believe me when I say there are certain companies within the online games industry that are certainly disingenuous, pathetic and ruthless enough to survive comparison to Guevara's "imperialism", but thankfully they stop short of murder. The only thing that's going to halt Hilmar's vision is if you - we - don't have the balls to share it. Together, we are unstoppable.
It's up to all of us. It's up to the Free Territory of the Americas. Here's to another decade, CCP. Happy birthday.