Sins of a Solar Spymaster #64 – EVE is Surreal

Is EVE real? Find out what The Mittani thinks of the sentiment after spending several months as CSM chairman in this week’s SOSS #64 – EVE is Surreal.

EVE is Real, they say - that’s the flashy new ad campaign, backed up by an impressive video showing an almost-realistic fleet fight that could have taken place - in a bygone era of an alternate reality where people actually flew Gallente, frigates burned to get warpins instead of covops probes, and a handful of supercapitals didn’t cyno on top of everyone involved and slaughter them with impunity.

Space Combat

I’ve spent three weeks of my life in Reykjavik in only the last three months, a tiny village that calls itself a city in contrast to its sheep-farming competition on a moss-covered treeless volcanic rock surrounded by fart-water (ask anyone who’s taken a shower in an Icelandic hotel, if you don’t instantly know what I mean) where women think that the best way to distinguish themselves from their peers are myriad different designs of neon stockings and the men are at once endearingly blunt and frighteningly overconfident. Iceland is a place where everyone seems to consider themselves a king or queen, and park their cars with such insouciance that it would make a Russian diplomat in New York feel a twinge of guilt.

It is a tremendously silly place. It is even more silly when you consider that one of that country’s most functional businesses - ranking somewhere behind fishing and allowing Alcoa to ruin their environment with rampant aluminum smelting - is a company that makes a spaceship MMORPG.

Odds are you know this already. The annual pilgrimage to Fanfest is a lesson in culture shock - no tipping, no strip clubs (this particularly horrifies Americans, I’ve noticed), alcoholism as a national sport, and of course the fart water. I reiterate these joyous aspects of Iceland in hopes of conveying - and I’ll fail, because some of you who haven’t spent enough time there yet may still envision it as a kind of relaxing paradise - exactly how dislocating it is to keep going back there, in rapid succession, these past three months. Did I mention that this has been during the ‘sun does not go down, ever’ phase of their season?

I didn’t plan for any of this. I didn’t intend things to go this way when I started playing this madness-inducing game back in 2005. I was bored with WoW and picked up EVE based on one of the ubiquitous Somethingawful megathreads and toodled around in a little corp called Lordless, the entity which would eventually - after the inevitable drama which consumes and destroys small corps - transform into Goonfleet. My grand ambition in the Lordless days was to diddle around running trade routes in Empire, mining in a hisec system with a Ferox, and dabbling in some empire wardec “PvP”. I use the scare-quotes because the grandest accomplishment of Lordless was to sell sets of fake bookmarks for the Genesis region which were 99% accurate, but the 1% which weren’t would land you on top of our heavily-gunned lowsec POS, which became a veritable bug zapper surrounded by the corpses of our overly trusting customers. I think our stint as mercenaries lasted a week, involved perhaps three empire slapfights between gangs of less than 10 on a side, and then the corp imploded in drama.

The Spy Game

I returned to EVE after Goonfleet was born, and was promoted to the directorate of the nascent super-organization purely because I was an old Lordless hand, even though I had no accomplishments to speak of. What had originally gotten me into the game was the fake yet extremely convincing tale of Nightfreeze and his ‘Great Scam’, as well as the very real exploits of EVE’s most notorious spy, one Istvaan Shogaatsu, who had been covered in PC Gamer UK - essentially the biggest media notice an EVE player had received at the time. My previous goals of trading were right out - the infant Goonfleet lived in 0.0, and we were rapidly acclimating to all the hard lessons which make one’s Empire experience seem laughably trivial and naive. I wanted to be a spy, to try my hand at the trade, perhaps to one day hope to emulate Istvaan in some small way, or to at least play the game at the same level.

It’s a testament to EVE’s few virtues that, unlike many other games and most modern societies, those who are clever and vicious and intelligent and lucky enough can actually accomplish the goals they set for themselves. After years of running a spy network, pulling off a various capers and generally muddling about in New Eden’s version of the Game of Thrones, I was even anointed the successor to the purely hypothetical ‘espionage crown’ by Istvaan himself.  After the successful victory of the Great War and receiving the blessing from Istvaan, the EVE I had known ended for me. I had begun playing the game in part because of him, and I had continued playing to prosecute Goonswarm’s vengeance against BoB.  Game over, the evil end boss defeated, and the love and favor of Princess Istvaan won. Roll credits.

Yet for some reason, two years later, I’m not only leading Goonswarm itself but an entire coalition, and technically ‘leading’ the Council of Stellar Management, too. The somewhat bitter irony is that none of these accomplishments were among my goals for the game. My most sincere efforts in EVE were spent when I was a relative unknown, before the BoB disbanding. Where before I had a goal that was close to my heart - get in the espionage game and see what I can do - now that I actually have a spotlight on me, I’m just winging it. I don’t even particularly enjoy being in charge - the whole point of being a spymaster was to stay in the shadows behind a throne, controlling events, not being an Internet Spaceship Politician.

CSM Summit

My first brief tenure as CEO of Goonfleet four years ago ended in a Threadnaught against CCP and a ragequit after Remedial, the founder of Goonfleet, thrust the position on me in a time of crisis and against my will. Remedial has gone on to quit EVE, broker mortgage modifications without a license and rack up almost half a million dollars worth of fines from his state government. Meanwhile, me - averse to sitting on thrones and completely lacking in any real purpose in EVE post-2009 - accidentally became the King of Space, running Remedial’s bastard child.  

The election announcement at Fanfest was when I knew that my reality had gone completely off the rails, past “EVE is Real” into some kind of Fear and Loathing in Internet Space acid trip where people ask you for autographs with alarming sincerity over spaceships. The attention had been difficult to adjust to in the aftermath of the 2009 BoB disbanding - this column is a product of that, plus a few interviews and lecturing at the GDC. In hindsight, I should have realized that winning the CSM election would just accelerate the existing insanity into some kind of inadvertent attention-whoring overdrive.

I began in New Eden a Yulai-based trader in an Iteron V in 2005, just another gamer playing just another MMO. Now imagine trying to explain to people who know nothing about EVE that you’re going to Iceland because of a game about internet spaceships, or that you won a ‘space election’. That was my life in May. Imagine trying to explain to the same people a month later that you need to abruptly rush back to Reykjavik on two days of notice because of riots on the internet. About monocles.

Under Attack

And in Iceland, the sun doesn’t set, people eat rotten shark and sheep heads, and their belief in elves is so strong that they re-route their roads around the houses which said elves reside in; doing whatever it is that elves on a volcanic rock surrounded by fart-water happen to enjoy doing during the day. So, having explained this situation to people who probably think I should to be committed, off I went to Iceland, which as you can tell by now is an entirely normal place that absolutely does not call into question one’s sanity or ability to re-acclimate to normal society.

After returning from the Emergency Summit, I found my alliance’s home under attack in Deklein, and so launched into crisis mode; to repel a vast coalition of people who hate vast coalitions (were they able to somehow weaponize their own hypocrisy, we’d all be dead by now) I found myself staying up for 30-hour stretches and abusing comical amounts of coffee and other assorted chemicals to help manage the situation. It turns out that the fastest way to induce an artificial depression is to mess with your sleep schedule; if it wasn’t for yoga, I’d probably have lost my cool completely. An invasion is a normal part of the Great Game out in nullsec, but on the heels of the Reykjavik adventures it seemed like my life had become some kind of EVE blur, entirely beyond my control since March. EVE is Real released around this time, and I found a comic parody of it showing the star of the spot in a straight-jacket muttering about how ‘real’ the game was. I wondered if that was going to become me.

Now I'm about to fly out to Nevada to speak at EVE Vegas, where more than 200 people are heading for a weekend of drinking, gambling, showgirls and spaceships. I’m supposed to give some kind of a lecture as a speaker, and I have no idea what that will be. Somewhere along the line I managed to lose my sense of perspective on public speaking, having become frighteningly blase about giving off-the-cuff speeches about EVE to large groups of nerds, which is I suppose one very tangible real-world benefit to come from my gaming habit.

I’m not sure if what I’ve penned is a cautionary tale, a lament, or just a feeble attempt to get my head around what’s happened. The CCP Marketing department would probably say it’s an advertisement for the engagement their game engenders. Yet until 2009 I had a rough guide for where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do in EVE - espionage - and now I find that I’ve flown far from my home in Wisconsin four months out of the last five to either speak or engage in political activity for a MMO (“political activity for a MMO” is, itself, complete madness, yet we take it for granted in EVE). From one perspective this could seem awesome or horrifying. Yet most of the time I just find myself wondering how the hell I ended up here - and how long it will be before I, too, build a hut for elves in my back yard.

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