In recent conversations with fellow MMO fanatics, we always seem to come around to lamenting how the genre has reached something of an evolutionary dead end in the mainstream. With World of Warcraft leading the way to nowhere, the style of the developer-curated world we often refer to as a “theme park”-style game has struggled to do anything truly new since Blizzard’s powerhouse came to dominate the scene in 2004. It’s an entrenched set of conventions that rely on heavy phasing and instancing, limiting how much a massively multiplayer online game can take advantage of being, well, massive, multiplayer, and online.

But before Azeroth opened its gates, a spreadsheet-laden spaceship game from a small studio in Iceland went all-in on the idea of a player-driven sandbox and never looked back. Two decades later, that game – EVE Online – is still ahead of its time.

Before WoW, There Was EVE

“Before there were petrol cars, there were electric cars,” CCP’s CEO Hilmar Pétursson told me back in April. “The first cars were all electric. Then someone had the idea of making them run on petrol and kind of killed the electric car. But the electric car came back again. There are many examples like this in human history, where some tracer bullet takes off, but it’s so ahead of its time that it takes many years to be adopted by others. And I think EVE is like that.”

That may sound like an almost arrogant thing to say, but from where I’m standing, as someone who has played dozens of MMOs for what must be tens of thousands of hours since the early 2000s, I think he’s absolutely right. They have earned the right to say it, as EVE Online more or less stands alone in its trailblazing vision of a vast universe built on human interactions, not pre-built content. And its longevity certainly speaks to that, thriving when so many “WoW killers” have come and gone and are scarcely remembered today. It’s also the direction I think this genre needs to go if it’s ever going to escape that evolutionary dead-end and realize its full potential.

EVE Online more or less stands alone in its trailblazing vision of a vast universe built on human interactions, not pre-built content.

And we can already see some of EVE’s ambitions being emulated today. When I first heard Bethesda drop the bombshell about 1000 explorable planets in Starfield, I immediately thought back to how EVE has had over 7000 full star systems for some time now. Games like Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky have likewise tried to sell us on the idea of a galaxy too massive to ever be fully explored by any one player. They may focus on different things or lack certain pieces of the EVE puzzle, but it’s clear that they are following in its footsteps to some extent.

“I think EVE is a little bit of a game that people wish they had made,” Pétursson said. “Like, when I look at Dwarf Fortress, I think, ‘Damn, I wish I had made Dwarf fortress.'”

But, okay, where are the other electric cars? Obviously, it’s easy to look at the financial success and cultural impact of World of Warcraft and understand why so many would want to copy it. But if there are so many wannabe WoWs kicking around in some state of cancellation, life support, or modest success, why is there only one EVE Online? Is there only room for one game of this type in people’s lives?

The Social Network

I often jokingly refer to EVE as “my favorite game that I don’t play,” largely because the structures it’s built around demand a lot of time and social energy. And that’s by design. Rather than having adventures assigned to you by NPC quest-givers who can’t actually be let down or disappointed, almost everything you do in EVE is initiated by another player in some way. That may be taking advantage of market opportunities by mining in dangerous areas of space for sought-after materials that the big alliances need to fuel their war efforts. Or, to call back to my fondest memories of EVE, it may be getting recruited into a small pirate gang to steal that very ore before the poor miners can transport it back for sale. And far from being a product of placing a bunch of planets in the void and turning everyone loose on them, this is all by meticulous design.

“It’s extremely deliberate,” Pétursson explained. “You want to build atomic foundations where the natural instinct of smart people coming into the system is to create these interesting social situations. EVE has a lot of role specialization… manufacturing and logistics, which are maybe just crafting in other games. But in EVE they are highly sophisticated logistical pipelines with roles for miners, manufacturers, transporters, but also logisticians, accountants, and lawyers, frankly.”

This makes it a difficult game to play casually if you want to really get anywhere or participate in the epic-scale megawars between the various alliances. At times, it felt like being in a relationship, and I would experience guilt for not logging in enough. My corp-mates relied on me for more than just healing in a raid, but as an integral part of a complex machine that operated truly, as a business as much as a pirate crew. And that may have, as my life got busier, pushed me away a bit. Insert all your jokes about commitment-phobic Millennials here. But Pétursson is glad nonetheless for those of us who treat it more like a spectator sport.

‘You want to build atomic foundations where the natural instinct of smart people coming into the system is to create these interesting social situations.’ – CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson

“I am very happy to have the outsider community who are interested in news about EVE Online. I think that is a key to its success,” he said. “The fact that what is going on in the game is newsworthy to people who are not in the game is an extremely high bar for anything, really. The people in the game, part of their motivation to do amazing things is understanding that it is notable beyond just the people playing the game with them.”

The Tao of EVE

Even still, I think EVE-style, player-driven sandboxes are the necessary, inevitable, and most desirable future for this genre. Challenges like honing the niches for casual, on-again-off-again players will be significant going forward. But the fact is, a game like EVE Online excites me to think about even today, when the magic of the WoW-likes has completely worn off as they struggle to innovate within their stifling boundaries. The electric car will make a comeback. And EVE is planning to stick around for that revolution.

“I absolutely do think we’ll be here talking about the 30th Anniversary 10 years from now,” Pétursson insisted, declining to even acknowledge my cheeky suggestion of an EVE 2. When I asked what direction he thought the next decade of the game might follow, he added, “I would want to see human-scale gameplay experiences be on equal footing with the galactic-scale gameplay experiences.” EVE does currently allow you to design a detailed 3D model of your character and walk around in limited areas, but having full planetary, on-ship, and on-station movement and the ability to interact with other players at that level has been a dream of many fans for years.

“CNN and BBC are covering news from EVE Online as if it were the real world,” Pétursson noted. “And you could have very deep philosophical conversations about whether or not they are real. Then you get into, ‘What is reality, consciousness, and perception…’ but it is important.”

In another context, this might sound like the kind of Silicon Valley hypespeak that we’ve gotten used to hearing when someone tells you their augmented reality shopping app is going to completely transform how we live. But once again, when Pétursson says it, it comes across as authentic. We had a whole conversation about Dr. Yuval Noah Harai’s controversial book on the history of the human species, Sapiens, that I couldn’t fit into the scope of this article. But he clearly takes a genuine interest in how virtual systems and human beings interact to create interesting, alternate worlds, beyond making a line on a chart go up or being lauded as the next big market disruptor.

“Nobody at CCP had made a game before,” Pétursson admitted. “We had made what were more like metaverse experiences before we started [EVE]… So, EVE Online was completely not made by game developers. And I think that is visible in the strengths and weaknesses of the game.”
So maybe the next big thing in MMOs won’t come from a huge studio with lots of cash to throw at cutting-edge graphics and an eye-catching license. Maybe, once again, it will come from some anthropology and philosophy geeks on a chilly little island in the middle of the ocean. Whatever shape it may take, I look forward to exploring it some day. And I likewise look forward to the shapes EVE Online might take if we really are still talking about it 10 years from now. It might be about time for me to reconnect with my old pirate buddies, after all…

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