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Ease of Access - Case Studies in Accessibility and Popularity of MMOGs - Page 4

Updated Mon, Oct 05, 2009 by Sardu

A Case Study in the Successfully Inaccessible: EVE Online's Hardcore Mythos

by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle

Just about every MMO fan has an opinion about EVE Online. An impromptu survey of the Ten Ton Hammer team yielded comments like:

  • "EVE's fleet warfare is like Vegas, it'll take you from the most amazing fun you've ever had in an MMO to the worst in-game horror you've experienced, back to the most fun again, all in the space of one night"
  • "Is that the new fitting screen? it's my longest running subscription... I've been paying for the game for four years but haven't logged in but to change skills"
  • "It's the most beautifully crafted spreadsheet I'll never play again."

EVE Online's unique approach to massive scale combat is nothing if not polarizing, and as such it's full of fresh insight into any discussion on what accessibility means to MMOs.

Can I play EVE Online?

The answer to this question is easy: EVE Online is among the most playable games in the wacky wide world of MMOs. While the Linux Cider client was discontinued for lack of interest earlier this year, the Mac OSX client continues to grow in use at a clip comparable to Mac vs. PC adoption. The EVE client also blazed a trail, being Transgaming's first MMO adaptation for Mac (now City of Heroes and Warhammer Online have joined the lineup as well, and WoW, though not a Transgaming port, has always had a Mac presence).

Not only is EVE Online among the most OS-agnostic of MMOs this side of a browser-based game, you can easily run multiple instances of the game from one computer. My personal best is three (one for each of my triple-heads, and a perfect setup for casual mining), but CCP devs say they've gotten up to 10 instances running on one computer. EVE's multi-boxing capacity has been the object of fun and legend, too. Darius Johnson, ex-CEO of Goonswarm, the game's largest alliance, claims to be run by just 20 directors running massive 12-screen rigs, but Ten Ton Hammer thought it was more entertaining not to try and confirm their claim.

Is EVE Online fun?

EVE Online is a game of paradoxes, and what seems like a nightmarishly inaccessible game can, in fact, put you deep in the "endgame" faster than any level-based online RPG you've ever played. In a word, it's all about connections, but first, let's address why EVE has garnered such a gnarly reputation.

Producer and EVE Online forefather Torfi Olafssen had the final word on EVE for beginners when he began a 2008 FanFest 2008 keynote segment with reference to EVE's "steep learning cliff" - an idea forever visualized by an XQCD comic. Even with the best insurance you can buy, you're liable to lose most of your investment whenever you lose a ship (which happens fairly often), and should you get "podded", you can lose horrendous amounts of training time should you commit the cardinal sin of not upgrading your clone regularly. In short, EVE Online's death penalty remains the most punishing among popular MMORPGs, by far, and new players learn very quickly not to put all their proverbial eggs in one battleship-sized basket. The paradox here is that you really feel it when you lose a ship or destroy someone else's ship. For some players, that's visceral and compelling. For others, particularly the PvE attuned, it's just as compelling... as a reason to emo ragequit.

EVE's aura of complication and inaccessibility is in many ways justified, but here’s another interesting reality about EVE: you can be part of the “endgame PvP” in your first week, maybe even your first day. It's as simple as 1) clear your schedule for the evening, 2) join a militia if you haven't already and watch chat to find a roaming fleet headed for trouble, and 3) tag along. You’ve got nothing to lose even if you die in the worst possible way, you’ll learn plenty, and if you can manage not to make a pest of yourself on voicechat, you might even make some friends (which usually equates to getting loot and making money).

The factional warfare introduced in Empyrean Age means that these fleets can be found much closer to high security systems - it’s just a matter of signing up in your local militia office and keeping an eye on chat to see where the next fleet is forming up. Additionally, the upcoming fleet finder system (think LFG for alliance fleets) and sovereignty changes in November's Dominion expansion (notably the new ease with which sovereignty claims can be made and disrupted, upkeep costs for claims, and the massive Titan nerf) are, according to in Lead Designer Noah Ward's words, intended to make sovereignty attainable for smaller and smaller alliances. In the wake of EVE's Great War, a conflict model that's more sporadic and balkanized is welcome news for many players.

And you're never completely without help. EVE still boasts the most newbie accessible mechanic ever to grace an MMO: the new player corporations. It's impossible to be "unguided" in EVE, and you'll always find a few veterans (or pseudo-veterans) hanging out in chat to answer your newbish EVE questions. Failing that, EVE's second largest corp, EVE University, has assisted thousands of players in finding their way into fleet warfare.

What's waiting for EVE players at the end of the yellow brick road?

This isn't an easy question to answer, since EVE is the clearest mainstream example of a sandbox game. From one viewpoint, EVE might be the most soloable game you've ever played. The "endgame" is whatever you want it to be - whether you're tooling around mining or pirating with some friends (always take friends!), roaming around with militia fleets, claiming and maintaining sovereignty with your alliance, spymastering your corp or spying on an enemy's corp, or even market arbitrage.

Not all of the continuing fun of the game is in the endgame, either. Just like in the age of sail, commanding small, speedy ships makes for a more interesting and varied experience than commanding massive ships of the line. What small ships lack in durability and firepower, they make up for in speed, versatility, and affordability. Designed for small craft, the new epic mission arcs have been a success, with new epic mission arcs centered on the pirate factions in the works. Noah also hinted at "subsystem targetting" during our time with him at PAX 2009, by which hordes of smaller ships could target specific parts of capital ships Luke Skywalker-style. No game has put as much continuing effort into revamping its accessibility either, with three major revisions of the new player experience, factional warfare, sovereignty changes, wormholes and tech 3, and so on.

In short, the fun of EVE is all about the effort you put into EVE - it's the most risk / reward oriented MMO that you're going to find. And, despite the jokes, EVE is becoming more and more accessible as time goes on. EVE remains entirely in the realm of the niche MMO, one of the few true holdouts in a category slowly caving to the influence of its most popular title. Despite the "threat" of greater accessibility and a console tie-in, EVE's hardcore mythos has served the game well in the past and should continue to do so in the future.

We've had our say on accessibility, now let's hear yours. Does an MMO's accessibility guide its destiny? Should every game designed nowadays have an easy onramp, or should a game weed out the feint of heart at the very beginning? Was EVE an outlier, or can more MMOs follow EVE's niche model into hardcore celebrity? Your thoughts welcome in the Ten Ton Hammer forums!

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