Back to the immersion track again and this time I am going to change things up completely, leaving behind the fantasy realms of Middle-Earth and Norrath for outer space. It is time to take a crack at EVE Online. That is, after all, where this tear about immersion started a while back.
This should be easy, right? CCP even ran an ad campaign around the “I was there” idea, which seemed to me to be a clear suggestion that immersion was a thing.
Of course, that was made for the Incarna expansion a decade back and ends with the player in the ship hangar of the captain’s quarters, a feature gone from the game for about four years at this point. It was not a high point for the game and the relations between CCP and the players. But it was trying to get at something about the game. Was it accurate though?
EVE Online has a lot of things going for it when it comes to immersion. It is a futuristic dystopian space empire game, which means not only can the game get away with a lot, but things that might seem immersion breaking in a fantasy MMORPG like Lord of the Rings Online are perfectly acceptable in EVE. There are no naming conventions to break, no cultural references that you can make that aren’t ancient history in New Eden, things like in game chat channels and voice comms are totally appropriate to the setting.
And the game even enforces a bit more reality that your average MMO. In the future currency is all electronic… it is mostly that way today… so a cash balance at your finger tips that is measured in the millions or billions of ISK is totally within the scope of what one should expect. But the magic storage back doesn’t exist. You can’t store something in your hangar in Jita then run over and pick it up again in Amarr. You can’t even use the magic mail service that exists in WoW and EQ and so many other titles to insta-ship things to yourself or others.
Which isn’t to say there are not delivery services in New Eden. They’re just run by other players. Contracts, scams, industrial enterprises, spies, piracy, it is all there. I even think the space flight aspect is probably more realistic to what we ought to expect that your typical dogfight in space simulator. Do we think people will fly ships by the seat of their pants or do we thing computers will do the calculations and take the ship where you want to go? I think entering a command to warp to a particular destination is probably more likely.
So here is the odd twist, at least for those of who read my posts about the game. If I am writing about some big battle where thousands clashed and ships were exploding left and right… that even probably involved very little, if any, immersion for me. Or maybe it is a different sort of “in the zone,” I am not sure.
But generally with those fights when were on voice comms with hundreds of people in a fleet and you’re getting instructions over your headset and trying to follow broadcasts and keeping an eye on your position and you overview, it can be a lot of work, a lot of switching around and not focusing on one thing, and getting focused on something is an easy gateway to immersion.
Add in time dilation and the UI not responding and having the outstanding commands window up and having the FC change their mind based on intel coming in on a channel that he can hear but you cannot…. it is probably very warfare realistic… but it not something that where I get that “I was there” feeling. It feels very much like a video game. An amazing, complex, video game with thousands of people involved, but still a video game.
One of the problems with EVE Online is that I spend a lot of time playing the game while tabbed out in some other window. I am looking at Jabber channels or something in Discord or one of the many web sites with game information like DOTLAN or zKillboard… or maybe just looking up something that was mentioned on voice comms or linked in fleet chat.
Which is, like so much, is perfectly in sync with the technology age of the game. Of course we would have access to all sorts of data… and data overload can be a thing. If you have the wrong overview setting or mis-heard a command because something else was going on of the FC is too excited and only keyed up his mic half way into what he was telling us… but that is all very realistic too.
What isn’t, however, is the UI itself. The game has gotten better over the years, doing things has become smoother, but having to fumble around with that user interface that is suppose to represent the state of the art technology thousands of years in the future doesn’t quite sell it.
Okay, so where do I find immersion in the game?
I can get there in big fleet fights, but usually only if I am flying logi, the repair ships that accompany a fleet into battle. I can get into the zone in that role, and it is one of the reasons I spend as much time as I have over the years doing so, because your part of the battle is fairly small. You need to stay on your anchor and keep an eye on broadcasts, locking up and repairing ships as they call for help. This is often facilitated in a fight by a spy in the opposing fleet who will communicate the enemy’s next target. Somebody in command will call out the name of the next target and tell them to broadcast for reps and we’ll all lock them up so they will have repairs already on them as hostile damage begins to land. When things are going well it can be an assembly line of reps, one ship after another until suddenly the broadcasts stop if the fight has gone your way… or until the logi ships start dying off too quickly and you can no longer hold and then your side is probably on the losing end.
That is certainly a thing. And even in smaller fleets, especially Reavers fleets, I can get in the zone flying a combat ship rather than logi. Having an FC you know and trust and knowing what you need to be doing can get you there.
But for the most part immersion is kind of a solo thing for me in New Eden.
While most of my posts about big fights don’t involve immersion, almost every post I have made about doing some minor task… usually flying a ship through hostile space on my own… has involved some immersion moment. Especially when I jump through a gate in low sec or null sec space and find hostiles on the other side. I was reminded of that last week when I lost a Purifier to a gate camp. I came through and saw them on the overview, that they had the gate bubbled, and my heart rate went up noticeably as my body responded to that sensory input with an little jolt of adrenaline.
A physiological reaction to something that happens in game is pretty much proof of immersion in my book.
Anyway, looking back at what I have written so far I have been meandering. That is often my style. But I don’t need this to be 10K words, so I am going to try to pull immersion in New Eden into better focus by comparing it with my past two posts, which were about LOTRO and EQ in order to tease out what elements of the game help me find immersion and what works against it. What do they titles have in common for me?
For LOTRO I listed out:
- Familiar lore
- Good adaptation of the lore to the game
- Feeling of place within the game
- Mechanics are familiar but not identical to other fantasy MMORPGs
- Familiarity with the game
- Well done landscape that feels like Middle-earth
And for EQ I said:
- Feeling of place within the game
- A connected world that required travel
- A feeling of different places in that world
- A simply huge world at this point
- A freshness that has somehow remained with me
- Night/light really changing the feel of the game
- A sense of danger in the world
- Mercenaries if you can’t find a group now
Lore comes up right away for LOTRO. Without Tolkien’s works behind it LOTRO is just a poorly implemented fantasy MMORPG. Lore is key to the experience for me.
Not so with EQ and not so with EVE Online as well. The lore of New Eden just doesn’t do much in the game for me. It isn’t compelling for me and is, in some cases, a bit annoying.
For example, the idea that ships in New Eden have crews is dumb, an artifact of somebody slipping a mention of crews into the old game wiki. Nothing in the game supports the idea of crews and much argues against the idea. Even those who love the idea of crews gladly toss aside the complexities involved with their pet theory. Where do they come from? Are they impressed into service? Are they slaves? Who willingly gets on a ship with an immortal capsuleer who will be reborn if the ship blows up? Are planetary conditions so bad that people are willing to die? This is a plot hole worse than where they go to hire henchmen in James Bond movies.
I am a proponent of the lone capsuleer theory. The game takes places thousands of years in the future where technology has made capsuleers immortal gods of the space lanes. Am I supposed to believe we have the technology for that and faster than light travel, but somehow my missile bays need somebody standing around loading them by hand? I think not. Besides which, how do my skills and implants and boosters affect ship systems unless it is me running everything. I am alone on the ship, I am a part of it and it is an extension of my body. This is the lore hill I will die on.
Sorry, got a little carried away there. Let’s just say that the lore is a split decision for me on a good day.
I am going to skip down on the LOTRO list to familiarity with the game, which is kind of a draw for me in EVE. EVE is a game of continual learning, so familiarity means that you have a foundation from which to work. But there is so much to know. The wise quickly learn their limitations and fools like me rush in and get schooled. There are 65 regions in known space in the game and after 15 years of playing I still run across region names I cannot place on the map in the MER… and if I’m listing them out from the MER that means a bunch of people live there. So kind of a wash on familiarity, but that was why I wanted to get it out of the way and move on to the big one.
Then there is a sense of place. I said in the last post that this felt like an item that could be a through line on all of these posts, and this one will support that idea.
EVE Online very much has a sense of place. Not in the way that Middle-Earth in LOTRO or Norrath in EQ do. Not really. I mean, space in New Eden is as beautiful and varied as the landscapes in LOTRO, and the size of EQ is only matched by the size of EVE Online, something enhanced by the lack of instant travel and automated post box deliveries I mentioned above. It feels like a place because it takes time to move through it.
But New Eden doesn’t have a lot of personal touches, places that are special because the devs designed them that way. There are a few monuments scattered about space. But a lot of the places that are special are because the players made them so.
Jita, the main trade hub of New Eden is an accident of design. The Caldari Navy Assembly Plant at Jita planet 4 moon 4 was once the first mission hub for new Caldari players back when rolling up Caldari gave you an initial skill advantage for PvP. So lots of new players are coming back from missions and selling their stuff and suddenly it because the place to sell. Jita 4-4 is your space mall.
The graveyard in Molea was a player driven effort. CCP has since made it a thing they shepherd, but it went for more than a decade of being a place made special by the players. Other monuments in the game are there to remember things that players did. There are plenty of systems made famous for events, like B-R5RB or M2-XFE, where titanic battles were fought.
And then there are the places that mean something to us individually. Two years back I wrote a post about my homes in New Eden. Anybody who has played the game for any length of time likely has a system or two or a station that they feel like they lived out of, that has memories for them.
The funny thing is that while space if pretty, it is also kind of generic. It doesn’t change much as you travel through a region. One system can look very much like another. They only become special because of the things we experience. It is our stories over layered on top of New Eden which makes one system memorable and another just another pair of gates on the way to some place. New Eden has a sense of place because we make place there special.
And that leads me into another item which isn’t on either of my other two lists, and that is the player stories.
Every MMORPG has player stories. I write here about the tale of the instance group and my time in other games, essentially retelling the stories of my time spent. But those tales are often in the context of the lore and the larger tales of the game itself. I wrote about Hellfire Ramparts yesterday not because we did something unique, but because we ran a piece of content. Our experience was our own, but it was parallel to what many thousands of others have experienced.
EVE Online, being a good sandbox, lets players have stories that are not on the same rails that everybody else has experienced. It can be small, personal events. If you have decided to move to a new region in high sec, just finding a new home, hauling your stuff, and getting to know the new neighborhood is a story. A lot of stories depend on interaction with other people. There is a lot of PvP in New Eden. Ships blow up. Players pop up where you don’t expect them… or sometimes they land exactly where you do expect them. It is a difficult game to find the fun in at times because the fun isn’t always dispensed in bite sized increments. And the scripted stuff, missions and events and the like, are often a bit tedious after the first run or two. PvE is content that can be mastered and, thus, made routine. But player stories about them doing their own thing, that is what makes the game.
People often complain about sovereign null sec. It is boring. It is too safe. Wormholes are more lucrative and low sec has better small gang fights. I’ve heard it all over and over and have been called names because of where I live. F1 monkey is always a favorite. Gevlon said I was a slave, like I somehow couldn’t log off.
But here is the thing. Out there in null sec I am a part of a much larger story. We just saw a 13 month war that had 120K in game characters attack a group of less than 40K in a campaign that swept through a dozen regions and laid waste to at least half of them. It was a struggle the size of which just doesn’t happen in other games, driven by politics, deals, grudges, and a desire for fame and a place in the history of New Eden. Andrew Groen has written two large books on the history of the null sec empires in EVE Online, and there is certainly material enough for a third.
Even if we assume the character to player ratio is something around 5 to 1 (I make this call knowing that the current ratio in Goonswarm Federation is 4.2 to 1) that is still a lot of people involved. That is maybe 30K real life individuals involved in a virtual space war that carried on around the clock for over a year and spawned host of narratives, intrigue, and propaganda that spilled out into the real world.
I had to come up with a new term just to try and find some way to capture the feeling of being involved in such an event. I will call it “Meta Immersion,” the feeling of belonging to something that isn’t real yet becomes a real part of your life. This is a special aspect of New Eden that just doesn’t happen at scale in other games that I have played. Empires rise and fall, alliances are made and broken, leaders become famous for a season and maybe infamous come the next, it is all quite a big deal when you dig into it.
Okay, I am getting all breathless about story here, I know, and I am already three thousand words into this post. Maybe it is time to try and sum up to some bullet points. So let’s see…
- Sense of place
- No fast travel options makes the size of the game more tangible
- Scales up to “meta immersion”
- A vast canvas for story, from the smallest to those with a cast of thousands
- Lore that is compatible with player stories
- A company that sometimes cares a lot about player stories
- A lot of good complexity
- Most meaningful trade skills in any game ever
- Unique mechanics
- Skill and knowledge focused versus gear focused game play
- A sense of danger in the world
- A UI that really struggles to tell you what you need to know (remembers everything, tells you nothing)
- Most info you need is outside of the game (tabbing out breaks immersion)
- A lot of bad complexity (try managing a corporation)
- No other game prepares you to play this one
- CCP can’t quite grasp its own game or the implications of some of its actions
- CCP goes through bouts of “you’re playing wrong” and breaks things
- Other players on voice coms (and in the forums and on /r/eve)
- Loss is very much part of the game, which is a tough hurdle for many people
That last one is a hurdle for so many people. I still hate losing a ship. If there is one thing that MUDs then MMORPGs have taught us as players is that gear is sacred. I remember back in TorilMUD where a first offense for doing something considered cheating (which included a bunch of things that would be normal in WoW today) got you the choice of losing half your levels or all of your gear. That was no choice at all. With gear getting back your levels is no problem, but without gear a level cap character was useless.
In EVE Online ships are not like that. Aside from a few very special items, ships are expendable, more like ammo than gear. I’ve lost 334 ships in 15 years, which is a small number really. That is almost twice a month. If you lost your gear in WoW that often you’d quit. But in New Eden you just go to Jita and buy a new ship. There is enough competition that the market is usually good at finding the lowest acceptable price for producers and most anything can be had for ISK.
Anyway, I have rambled enough about EVE Online for now. There are probably half a dozen things I meant to write that I forgot and no doubt a couple I went on at length about that could have been cut back. But this is an exploration via writing on a blog where everything is a first draft.
So that is three games down. Where should I go next?
The series so far: