Eurogamer's news editor Wes once said that if Hunter S. Thompson were alive today - and writing about video games rather than the counter-culture of the sixties and the politics of America at a crossroads - then he would surely be covering the extraordinary sight of the digital gladiators descending upon Las Vegas to celebrate their shared obsession and do heavyweight battle with each other at the Mecca of fighting games, the Evo Championship Series. Impenetrable to the outsider, all-encompassing to those on the inside: a place where worlds collide.
From my own perspective, I can't help but feel he'd be even more intrigued watching over the events of Eve Online's Fanfest - and the players' fervent devotion to a suspension of disbelief that hinges on the basic desire to gain as much as possible at the expense of others. In the flesh every bit as much as in the game, personalities, politics and power rub together constantly like tectonic plates. Yet the camaraderie of a shared adventure is unmistakable.
Last year, the endless conflict of Eve Online stepped out of its digital boundaries in extraordinary fashion. The end result was around 120 people losing their livelihoods, and so before we go any further with what's intended to be a light-hearted retrospective of some of the most remarkable drama that gaming had to offer in 2011, that sobering fact needs to be acknowledged and respected. Let it be so noted.
Prior to June, Eve was on the brink of a new chapter in its history as CCP prepared to launch Incarna, an expansion that brought human avatars to a game previously dominated by spaceships. There were certainly rumblings within the community that questioned the value derived from five years of development - and the reduced focus on the in-space portion of the game - but it was still regarded as a grand evolution for Eve.
"This is Iceland. Two years ago - recession. One year ago - volcano. Next year? Plague." - Icelandic tour guide
CCP's vision was hammered home at Fanfest. Taking to the stage, CEO Hilmar Pétursson unveiled the company's Future Vision trailer. It demonstrated an astonishing blend of Eve Online, Dust 514 and the Incarna technology, and the crowd responded with evangelical zeal. In response to a standing ovation, the film was replayed.
If any players had felt uncertain about the immediate future for Eve Online prior to Fanfest, they left Iceland assured of a long-term vision that was light-years ahead of contemporary gaming. But it would all prove to be too much, too soon when the Incarna expansion delivered little more than a single-room and an avatar, isolated from the multiplayer experience.
"We're going to face an uphill struggle, and the reason many of us never talk about this publicly is that we'd be burned at the stake by the players." - Kristoffer Touborg
Thus wrote Kristoffer Touborg, lead designer of Eve Online, arguing for the gentle milking of the Eve golden goose in what is now an infamous document in player folklore: the leaked 'Greed is Good?' newsletter that debated plans to monetise the game further through micro-transactions, and explore how exactly that might be achieved. No small adjustment when the game's eight-year-old economy had been founded on player interactions.
With the players already outraged over a watered-down expansion and the high cost of virtual items, a response giving absolute clarification over the developer's plans was needed urgently. Up until that communication, CCP was in a precarious situation and juggling more than a few time-bombs - the perception of micro-transactions by the players, some internal skulduggery and a rather uncomfortable sense of having been caught with its trousers down. While CCP deliberated, Eve's community raged about the contents of the document.
"Assume for a short while that you are wearing a pair of $1000 jeans from some exclusive Japanese boutique shop..." - Arnar Gylfason, senior producer of Eve Online
AKA CCP's 'Let them eat cake' moment. Gylfason's blog post, a belated response to the outcry, got a few things right. It acknowledged the damage the leaks had caused to CCP's relationship with its players and the breach of trust, internal and external. The post also strongly hinted that Touborg was simply playing devil's advocate in the true spirit of Oxford - although you'd be forgiven for raising a suspicious eyebrow at neutrality when arguments for micro-transactions such as "I think they're brilliant" form part of the debate's thrust.
But in communicating CCP's thoughts on upsetting the player-driven economy of Eve, and in reassuring players of the value of the proposed goods, it fell far short. I'd agree with most right-thinking people that generalisations are a bad thing and we could do with a lot less of them. That said, I'm pretty comfortable imagining that the prospect of owning a $1000 pair of jeans is about as tantalising to the average Eve player as the idea of sitting hunched in front of a PC, getting terribly dramatic about playing Cowboys and Indians with imaginary spaceships, would be to the kind of person who sees a $1000 pair of jeans as bloody good value for money.
(An aside - as I was writing that paragraph a junk e-mail arrived offering Dolce & Gabbana childrenswear at discount prices: €195 for a baby's cardigan, if you were wondering whether we're still all in this together.)
"I can tell you that this is one of the moments where we look at what our players do and less of what they say." - Hilmar Pétursson, CCP's CEO, in a leaked internal e-mail
It's hard not to feel like a complete bastard for including this quote. It's irresistible, though, given the events that followed - and that's not even allowing for comments made by Pétursson that bullets and baseball bats had been sent to CCP's Icelandic headquarters. While it's hard to imagine him joking about something so serious, it's even harder to imagine that the idea didn't cross the mind of at least one Eve player.
Regardless, in reassuring the company of the importance of staying the course regardless of player opinion, the result of the leak was to offer nothing less than a challenge to the community.
"After standing proud for half a decade, [this monument] was destroyed in late YC113 by capsuleers who were staging a mass uprising against an intolerable status quo of intergalactic affairs." - Revised text now adorning a memorial in Jita
Imagine a room full of hoary old prisoners who haven't eaten for a few weeks waiting to be told when the kitchens will re-open, and then being informed that eating was overrated anyway but on the bright side, at least they didn't have to work for a living. There's a riot - or, in Eve's case, a couple of thousand pilots dry-humping an indestructible trade-hub monument before going home and cancelling their subscriptions.
With no end to the stand-off in sight, CCP eventually called an extraordinary meeting of the council representing Eve player concerns, and flying them to Iceland on short notice in order to discuss every issue, reach an accord, and resolve the crisis once and for all. After the summit, NDA-stifled reassurances were made to the paying public and peace was returned at last, thank goodness. All we needed now was the minutes from that meeting to put the fears of every Eve player to bed.
"I assumed that if I wanted the gaming media to pay attention to what Some Guy Who Runs A Space Guild says about a niche MMO from a country surrounded by fart-water, I'd have to call in some favours and/or suck some d**ks." - Alexander Gianturco, chairman of the Council of Stellar Management
Fortunately for all concerned, we don't stand on ceremony at Eurogamer and were happy to make the first move, as it were. With the minutes stuck in corporate limbo for over two months, the CSM bound to a Non Disclosure Agreement and players' already paper-thin patience starting to crumble, suspicions over micro-transaction plans began to grow again.
The quotation above comes from a follow-up statement issued by Gianturco to his influential Alliance, Goonswarm. The original statement had threatened an unholy PR war against CCP by the CSM, a move intended to act as a quiet shot across the bow in response to CCP's refusal to engage with its community. At that point we had approached him for an interview.
Wonderful though it would be to announce that uncovering this plan was the result of journalistic investigation, the less impressive truth is that Gianturco's original declaration had been posted to the official Eve forums at a time when I happened to be browsing. Once we'd published a story on it, accusations in the very same forum thread accused him of leaking information to the press in order to massage both his and his Alliance's position, leaving him fighting yet another fire: the paranoid player-base. This only happens in Eve.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the minutes were finally released an hour or so after our interview with Gianturco was published.
"I absolutely considered resigning." Hilmar Pétursson, talking to Eurogamer
The End. Maybe. Hopefully. When we interviewed Hilmar in November last year, it was clear that both he and the organisation as a whole had been shaken to the core by the events last summer. They had led to a complete reorganisation of resources, a refocusing on Eve Online and the sad redundancies that action entailed. It was a startlingly frank and open interview (I like to think of it as my Diana/Bashir moment - albeit with less eyelash-fluttering and considerably more sincerity). Last winter's Crucible expansion bought this re-focusing into sharp relief with a raft of wide-ranging improvements to the game. There's much optimism for Eve as we head into 2012.
This is Eve. I'm not sure it can even be killed at this point, and I'm quite sure it will outlive us all, as long as there are more people willing to indulge in the illicit thrills of dystopia instead of the dull satisfaction of doing the right thing. Cynicism prevails. The number of players online at any one time might have slipped into the doldrums of 35,000 - rather than the 55,000 the game had come to enjoy - but that was still an awful lot of people willing to pay good money to screw over their fellow man, even as CCP appeared to do their best to screw their own game.
If you believe that the betterment of gaming lies in adding moral ambiguity, depth to characters and a world that responds to player actions then, to borrow from Richard Dawkins, Eve is the greatest show on earth and the only game in town. It's a place where people will be people - rather than players - both inside and outside of the game. Most importantly, it's hard to imagine that playing nicely would have left Eve in the optimistic position it finds itself in today.