A postcard from Reykjavik: Inside 2013's Eve FanFest

So that's why our man's gone to Iceland.

To understand Eve Online, you need to visit Reykjavik. It won't help with mundane details like which battlecruiser to aspire to, but the ride from Keflavik airport to both CCP and FanFest's home town is an eye-opening experience. Simply knowing that Iceland has a hostile interior is nothing compared to actually seeing it - not merely how small its patches of civilisation are amongst seemingly infinite emptiness with no trees and often nothing to see but the remnants of volcanic activity covered in moss, but the kind of community it takes to handle it.

Even with a Subway seemingly on every corner, this remains a tough land for tough people, clustered together and very aware of the need for co-operation. We're talking a culture so interconnected that there's a genuine not-a-joke smartphone app to help Icelanders make sure they don't accidentally get jiggy with too close a relative. Just driving through is to realise that Iceland may not be the only place Eve Online could have been made, but it's as much a part of its soul as the spaceships, with Reykjavik its own high-sec region. They even share a currency, making for at least one bizarre moment when we're told the event has raised two million ISK for charity. Actual money, or spacebucks? Do charities need battlecruisers?

FanFest's location, the Harpa, is a giant concert hall built of slanted, multicoloured crystal that I wouldn't be shocked to one day hear had taken off to finally rejoin the mothership. Inside is equally cool, a convention location that M.C. Escher might have designed, with staircases spiking up and down and drawing the eye into unusual places. Adding to the endearing chaos, CCP has renamed all of the rooms with Eve names like "Tranquility" and "Multiplicity", but the signs everywhere still point to the likes of "Eldborg" and "Silfurberg" and "Toilets", and all of them seem to have at least one entrance somewhere just to confuse.

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Eve players come in many shapes and sizes, though 96 per cent are male.

Around 1500 Eve players are attending this year (out of a player base of 500,000 - not a bad slice when you consider the trials of getting to Iceland, and that it's not the only event being run for fans at the moment), and that's a good number. It's enough to keep things lively and everything from PvP tournaments to round-tables are well subscribed, without feeling like everyone is constantly fighting to get around, wasting entire days standing in queues, or the combined body heat turning the place into a sweaty oven.

The schedule is packed, with something always going on, and usually multiple things to check out. Players as well as the press can get one-on-one time with the exhausted but always enthusiastic CCP developers wandering around in their dev shirts, and the halls are big enough for just about everyone to get in on keynotes, talks, and events like the World of Darkness reveal and Oculus Rift enabled EVE.

As cutthroat as Eve Online's universe itself can be, everyone I spoke to over the weekend was lovely. I freely admit to having limited knowledge of the game, and going in was a little concerned about how that might be taken. Maybe I'd be talking to someone, then they'd say "I'm a wormhole player," I'd say "What's a wormhole player?" and then they'd make this face. Silence would fall, then a single shared scream would echo and the enraged crowd would descend, like a zombie movie sponsored by Quafe. That would be a real pain, because I packed several shirts and even plug adaptors for this trip, but forgot my back-up intestines.

But no. Everyone I meet is tolerant of ignorance and happy to share their passion for New Eden, even before spotting my Press badge, be they a space pirate sharing lunch with their prey, or alliances gathering together around a table to plot the next year of their campaign to rule space, get boots on the ground, and eat satay chicken. If scores are to be settled, the FanFest goer's weapon of choice is beer.

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The Harpa is a great building, and a perfect match for Eve's SF style and CCP's quirky side.

Common themes soon emerge though, including a cautious excitement for World of Darkness that becomes rabid post-demo, and skepticism towards CCP's upcoming (soon to be graphically updated and non-beta tagged) FPS side of the Eve universe, Dust 514 - a game they're not so much shilling this year as giving the full crown treatment. Love or hate its premise, it's due to be a huge part of Eve Online in the years to come, starting with its current largely server-based skirmishing opening out to allowing Dust corporations to seize planets, and future updates extending from planetary resource gathering to boarding parties, and Eve corporations having to transport the biomass used to make mercenary clones to worlds they want to conquer. To reach the necessary scale though, it badly needs to break free of its current PS3 only straitjacket, and there's absolutely no word over the course of the FanFest on when that will happen.

Most of FanFest's meat is in panels, roundtables and keynotes, though the show floor has a few attractions. There's a makeover station for instance, where players can go to get a new Eve inspired look for the weekend via sprays and paint and temporary tattoos. Next to that though is an actual tattoo booth. On the last day, I checked in with the girls running it to see how busy they'd been. "We've done around 35... 40 tattoos?" they said, flipping open the book to show the most popular. The Guristas bunny came top, followed by the Minmatar and Amarr logos.

In a pure coincidence, two of the people also around at the time were a couple who had gotten married earlier at FanFest - an event first - and were looking to mark the occasion on their skin. "We're getting matching rings," said the new husband. "I want to get the Minmatar logo, with Celtic stuff around it and then the rings below it to tie it all in." As for the new wife, also flicking through the patterns? "I'm thinking of getting the Guristas bunny on my breast."

Ouch. But as someone willing to get in the chair, could he shed some light on why half the empires were unrepresented? "I can't remember seeing one Caldari," he said, adding (with nods from at least one other person in my eyeline) that the Gallente logo can look at first glance to be a little... ah... close to the iconography of a certain country that enjoyed a controversial 20th century. "I wore a Gallente shirt in Germany and actually got in a bit of trouble," he confesses.

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Leave Reykjavik, and Iceland becomes a more alien Skyrim, with a literally blue-water lagoon, hot springs and volcano-forged scenery.

But onto Eve itself. This year's FanFest had three big themes to push in its keynotes and panels - The Second Decade, Eve Is Real, and Seriously Guys, Play Dust 514, with specifics including a preview of the next Eve expansion, Odyssey, and science talks on how it might be possible to go faster-than-light and mine asteroids for resources without having to wait a few millennia.

These talks were far from all-business though, especially when CEO Hilmar Petursson and Creative Director Reynir Hardarson took the stage to explain in great detail how much of a fluke its success was. What was Eve before it was the game with 500,000 players and a couple of million observers? It was a simple little game that looked like Stars! without the graphical chops, funded from the proceeds of a boardgame, Hęttuspil (The Danger Game).

Then, it was a beautiful but under-baked game that had yet to learn the true power of the sandbox, overshadowed by the perceived might of EA/Westwood's short-lived Earth And Beyond (in a not-so-subtle poke at this, the first chapter of an upcoming introduction book on the series is called "Birth And Beyond"), dealing with publisher feedback like "One of the worst interactive experiences I have ever had," bankruptcy, and a bizarre marketing push involving the team floating hairy and topless in milky water. There were photos of this. There were no explanations. There may be none.

Most conventions have a certain element of "How the hell did we get here?" to them. After hearing these talks - and more importantly, seeing the pictures - it's amazing the entire CCP core team isn't covered with painful red welts from repeatedly pinching each other.

Since then of course, things have become much more focused - the best vision line of the show being "Eve is real, really - there's a world that is Eve. We're not adding to it, we're just seeing it better." Very Tolkeinesque. Big reveals this year included the Danger Game being translated into English, initially to be bundled with the Second Decade collector's edition, and two projects based on Eve's True Stories From The First Decade site - a Dark Horse comic, and a planned TV show.

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You make your mark on Eve. You can let Eve make its mark on you. Or get a Mario Kart one, oddly.

Both have promise, though my suspicion is that the odds of the TV show actually being 'true stories' are about as high as Defiance ending with "Datak Tarr, some nerd on the internet just foiled your plan!" But we'll see. Eve obviously has many stories, it's just that they tend to rely on the knowledge that real people are involved rather than just characters - even an event like Burn Jita, for all its fireworks, is notable more for being something no other MMO developer would allow, never mind encourage. Stripped of that layer, and with the likely need for TV friendly elements like regular characters and quick explanations, will audiences find them engaging?

We'll see. At FanFest though, engagement is hardly an issue - in keynotes especially, though not always at obvious points. They're long, they're detailed, but they're also pretty casual, with plenty of plans for the future, apologies for Incarna and other slip-ups, and trailers up on a big screen, their audio played through a subwoofer powerful enough to force fillings out of teeth. With a trailer like Origins playing on that, it's tough not to get swept up in the moment.

It's the quality of life improvements that really bring in the love though. Where other games would need to have something as dramatic as Dust's upgraded graphics to get a whoop, Eve's interconnected systems and sandbox nature means that here, a change like "Ice belts are moving into anomalies" practically gets a standing ovation, with CCP's Kristoffer Touborg probably relieved that the audience doesn't quite get excited enough to throw their pants on stage at changes to the probe system. Asking what the fuss is, I'm told "Probes are a pain in the ass" by someone who belatedly realises what he just said, making this an update with something for all.

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FanFest's opening symphony is to be available in some form soon, minus the great location.

Most of the changes are obvious improvements, or simply niceties like new textures and options, though many of them are quite far out still. One that does disappoint me though was the live preview of Odyssey, which supposedly brings a sense of exploration and celebration to the universe, but seemed to boil down to 'we've put new derelict models out there' and 'we've made it easier to make money with them.' Hopefully there'll be more to it when it launches, because there's certainly a good chunk of people out there right now for whom exploring space is always going to be more compelling than making a fortune in virtual spacebucks.

Still, Eve's goals for the next few years are hardly lacking in ambition. In the words of Andie Nordgren, its senior producer: "Think about space colonisation. Think about building things. Think about destroying things. Think about the rise of the capsuleers, taking over what the empires used to control. Imagine your corporation flying its own colours. Think about home; what that means to you, and imagine what could lie beyond the known if only you could construct the right kind of stargate." There was much applause.

There's obviously much more to FanFest, from the yearly Party At The Top Of The World to the chance to book trips into Iceland proper either during or around the main event. It's a convention for players, open enough to take everyone from the heads of major alliances to solo traders - an event where people absolutely do criticise the game they love and take the chance to air some grievances, but where the mood - at least as I saw it - remained positive, friendly and upbeat, from the standing ovation for outgoing executive producer Jon Lander (now moving to mobile projects) to a sense of enthusiasm over this virtual world that makes it tough to leave without a head buzzing with hope for the future - at least, the one running on CCP's trusty server.

This article is based on a press trip to FanFest in Reykjavik. CCP paid for travel and accommodation.

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