RAZOR’S EDGE: The Meta Goes to Eleven

2016-03-18

“For my money, the Ubiqua Seraph infiltration was an act of despicable brilliance. An operation as cruel as it is astonishing, it serves as a simultaneous testament to both the virtues and the evils of a truly open-ended massively multiplayer game.” – Tom Francis, PC Gamer 2006

EVE is a social experiment on top of an MMO. Actions and consequences are meaningful and the players self-regulate. Developers hit on the idea early on, and the test came in 2005. That was the year the Guiding Hand struck at Ubiqua Seraph Corporation, and  Mirial, the CEO. The Guiding Hand were mercenaries, and Ubiqua Seraph, a powerful corporation. After months of laying the groundwork, Guiding Hand took them down in a brutal and complete way. The betrayal and humiliation of the controversial CEO was the part of the biggest heist to date. Community reaction, though, was even more interesting than the actual event. Disgusted players took to  the EVE forums demanding CCP take action. The brutal crime and violation of trust, they said, affected many innocent corp members. Several publications and gaming news sites picked up on these events. Perhaps the most famous coverage camre from PC Gamer magazine. That was an article called  Murder Incorporated.

If you have not read Murder Incorporated, you are missing out. It was an event that influenced a generation of EVE players. It’s what brought The Mittani, Shadoo, and even pacifists like Mike Azariah to New Eden.

CCP could have intervened. They could have barred players for false represention of their identities. They could have reversed some of the damage to the Ubiqua corp members and assets. Instead, CCP did the exact opposite. They used it as PR for EVE, showing gamers that in this world, you could do anything you wanted. That turned the heads of competitive gamers everywhere. People saw that intelligence in EVE wasn’t a statistic or an item. It was real-life intelligence. You could outplay the competition by using your own real-life skills. What mattered was players’ levels of persuasion, manipulation and cunning. Leveraging interpersonal skills was only the beginning. Programming skills helped build tools and calculators. Cyber-investigative techniques helped infiltrate enemy groups. Spycraft was born, with all its gray areas. CCP let players work out the moral issues on their own. That included players’ home countries’ privacy laws and limitations.

One of the problems with joining any MMO is catching up. That is why interest is high in beta tests and populations soar when an MMO starts out. People want to get in on the ground floor, even if they are unsure how long they will stick with it. CCP set EVE apart by making the game a non-grind with real life skills applicable, and you could play it on Macs! Sort of. We should also note EVE was winning many MMO player awards between 2006-2009, based on fan voting. Players were invested and loved their EVE.

Around this time, the game features were expanding fast. Not just new ships – there were also so-called “jesus features”.  These were things like Faction Warfare, Wormholes, Planetary Interaction, and Incursions.  The game wasn’t getting refined; it was getting bigger. One of the issues of the last few years is paying down all the design debt of the old era. The devs are improving systems, but players just see a more refined game that is easier for new players. Production of the ‘next level’ features stopped.

CCP’s decision to let the meta take the game where the players took it was a brilliant move. That decision came with a price: the payment of that design debt. That is what we see with now. The hyper-meta EVE players sit on their corps comms while playing other games.  There is an unwillingness to move on, leaving the personal investment behind. Think of how often many alliance leaders aren’t even logged in.

Goonswarm leadership deals by taking their coalition members on “vacations” to other games. Goons were once known for raiding games, like Star Wars Galaxies. Now, that has evolved into an organized phenomenon. In part that’s because EVE’s Goons grew up and professionalized their management.

Perhaps EVE has established itself as a game that people want to read about, even if they are not playing. Maybe gaming itself is transitioning from something you do to a way of life. Video games may be transcending themselves. They may be entering the third-person world of celebrities and personalities. Thanks to the streaming culture, video games are becoming sports. This can cause exponential market growth. For example, some people play sports in the neighborhood park. When the game ends it’s over. Other people watch sports on TV. They keep up with statistics, and some play fantasy sports leagues with workmates. Once an activity builds an audience it can grow beyond itself as a cultural phenomena.

I’m not immune. Last Friday I debuted my new streaming show, “EVE: Talking In Stations”. EVE veterans get together and talk news, analysis, and history. Don’t miss it! It begins at 6 PM Pacific time on Fridays, only on TMC Twitch (actually there’s a podcast version too). The last thing I needed was another space job, but there it is, a new project that leverages personal skills. The need to take it to the next level is strong in EVE.

Look at the path of advanced players that outgrow the confines of the game and fall out into the meta. A new player starts as a corp member, we’ll call him Bobby. He moves from line member to corp leadership. Soon, he graduates to alliance leadership. Ambition pushes Bobby to a larger alliance, and he repeats the same path. Now he’s important to a large alliance. Then maybe he decides he’s outgrown the alliance. He runs for CSM (usually CEOs), lecturer (writers), or tournament announcer (FCs). After that Bobby either quits the game or applies to work at CCP.

The reward path of our brain drives us to the next level. In some games, that keeps us on the level grind. EVE, though, has many levels of real experience, not experience point levels.

Has meta debt killed the excitement of the game itself? Have players done it all and just hang around for the politics and bad posting? Some players sit on the sidelines, waiting for something to make sov worth it again.  The biggest misconception is that null was ever worth it. Sovereignty wars were always long, taxing campaigns. People set alarm clocks, grabbed coffee, and fleeted up in the middle of the night. Grueling sov mechanics made progress slow. Controlling systems meant capturing moons with POSes. Back then it took hours to put up a tower (POS). Any mistakes made it take longer. Fuel consisted of separate ingredients that burned off at different rates. All this made management of towers real spreadsheet work. Alliances had different types of players back then too. There were fighters, logistic guys, and builders. They worked together as part of something greater than themselves. They had purpose: get to the next level.

Right now NC., PL, Snuff and others are pounding on the Imperium’s SMA flank. They are hoping to build on the progress of IWantISK mercenary hirings. Their next level has always been breaking Goonswarm. It’s what lets them rally the troops: a purpose. The key to all gaming activity.

Sometimes, I think of my space job as something important. When that happens, I remind myself that there are people in my own corp that have no idea I work for TMC. And they wouldn’t care, if they knew. They don’t read the news, or reddit, but they do read the EVE forums. These guys represent the majority of EVE players, logging in to have fun and to get to that next level.

Maybe it is time to go back to expanding EVE. Maybe we need to make it bigger, giving the rest of us another level in the game. The meta players have already taken it to the last level, they are at eleven.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com.

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