EVE Online: A beginner's guide to the galaxy

It's the online game with fans who take dedication to new heights. At the 2014 EVE convention, Laura Davis discovers why so many players think the sci-fi title is out of this world

It's 7pm on a Saturday night, and I'm attending a two-hour lecture to learn about a game that I'd never met anyone who played before this weekend. It feels like school, except that nearly everyone is male, and there's a palpable excitement in the air. We are in the Harpa, a huge, glass-panelled concert hall and conference centre that looks out over the sea and has a stunning backdrop of Icelandic mountains. But no one is looking at the view – they're transfixed by a galaxy far, far away.

We're at the annual EVE Fanfest in Reykjavik, where players of the PC game EVE Online have gathered every year for the past decade to meet fellow fans and chat to the celebrities within the community – the game's developers.

EVE Online is a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), a sci-fi "sandbox" where players roam through a world without levels or platforms, create an online character, choose a spaceship, and make their mark in the EVE universe, usually by joining one of many corporations (groups) set up by other players.

It's often referred to as "spreadsheets in space". The game has no bad guy to defeat, no missions to complete, and no ending. Its fans play against, and with, people from around the world – 500,000 of them, as of last year. While consoles remain the largest gaming sector in the world, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) don't have the mainstream audience of many big-name Xbox and PlayStation titles. However, their appeal is growing. After mobile gaming, the MMO market makes up the third largest games market – and it saw a 16 per cent rise in global revenue growth last year.

Thousands gather for an event at Fanfest (Arnaldur Halldursson) Thousands gather for an event at Fanfest (Arnaldur Halldursson)
The most widely recognised title within the genre is World of Warcraft, the fantasy role-play game that has spawned a film which will begin shooting next year. As with World of Warcraft, EVE Online is pay-to-play with a monthly subscription of £9.99, but unlike WoW, EVE's subscriptions are growing.

So what draws players to EVE Online? By all accounts the game is incredibly difficult and some new subscribers are daunted by its open universe and endless possibilities. It's also overwhelmingly popular with men – hence the make-up of the lecture hall – with 95 per cent of EVE players being male. Its players average a weekly playtime of 18 hours a week – although there's a huge disparity between the dabblers and the diehards. Some play for just a couple of hours a week – others for up to 12 hours a day. Eve Community manager Paul Elsy tells me that "these players are essentially on call all the time". In a battle earlier this year, his friend, player "Sortdragon", spent 22 solid hours commanding his fleet.

Fanfest is like a pilgrimage for EVE players, of whom 2,000 are in attendance this year. On offer are a series of lectures, interspersed with round-table discussions about various elements of the game – such as "A study of geometry in EVE Online". There's also an EVE university to train new players.

During one of the events where the game's developers socialise with fans, I meet Valentijn Geirnaert from Amsterdam, a once-dedicated player who had to quit after "burning out". So why is he here? He explains that he's meeting other players from corporation "Veto" who he'd played with for years. Geirnaert had also been a member of the "council", the democratically elected group of representatives who serve to mediate between developers and fans. He says that although he'd loved his position on the council, it was like "having a second, unpaid job". This might sound like hell to some, but for players of EVE, it's a privilege.

Some players are taking advantage of the onsite tattoo stand to get tattoos of their corporation logos. Couples have been known to exchange their wedding vows here, too. The most striking thing, however, is the passion players have for CCP, the developers behind EVE Online. There are chants of "CCP! CCP!" to be heard throughout Fanfest. In return, staff have written a song for the fans. CCP also announces that it will be bringing out model spaceships (cue wild cheering from the crowd), plus there's a television series in the pipeline, and a new comic book is being released, which will relay gamers' tales within the EVE universe.

CCP's input to the Icelandic economy has not gone unrecognised, with a monument erected in the capital city of Reykjavik last week to celebrate 10 years of EVE, that has the names of every player engraved – although one name had already been scratched off.

A man gets his ink at the EVE Fanfest (Arnaldur Halldursson) A man gets his ink at the EVE Fanfest (Arnaldur Halldursson)
While it's no secret that players take it seriously, within the EVE world, anything goes. Espionage is a huge part of the game, and players love a spot of backstabbing. Plans to take down rival corporations can take months of preparation. CCP boss Hilmar Veigar Petursson tells me that sometimes these rivalries spill over into real life. He's heard stories of people switching off the electricity so others couldn't play.

The company's resources have recently been dedicated to the development of its virtual reality (VR) game, EVE Valkyrie, which will be launched on Oculus Rift (the headset that Mark Zuckerberg recently acquired for $2bn), and on Sony's rival VR headset Project Morpheus. VR has been tried before, but the technology simply wasn't up to scratch. Having had a go on EVE Valkyrie at Fanfest, in which the player is placed inside a spaceship to shoot enemies in the EVE universe, I was immediately struck by how incredibly immersive it is.

With this level of absorption possible, and fans thirsty for more of the universe, it might be a concern that a VR version of EVE Online offers too strong an appeal. I speak to Nasa scientist and sci-fi writer Les Johnson at Fanfest, after he gave a speech about the possibility of making EVE real. He thinks that the prospect of VR could be better than reality for some, suggesting that restrictions on the amount of time it can be played might be needed. He describes EVE as "the most immersive interstellar empire game going". And this guy knows space.

I'm surprised by how easy it is to be drawn to EVE; the sense of community among fans and staff is something to be admired. In a world where the public have power to praise and complain on social media, good customer service is paramount. CCP gets this. Where the mobile market is growing to draw in the more casual gamer on a free-to-pay model, so is the extreme fan market, and CCP is branching out to take EVE multi-platform.

With social networks becoming some of the biggest financial success stories of the last decade, it's not difficult to see why a game with a huge social appeal is also succeeding. One corporation within the game bought everyone at Fanfest a beer in real life. A motto repeated throughout Fanfest reads, "internet spaceships is serious business." They're not kidding. 

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