Training in EVE…

After 6 months actively playing EVE, I am finally beginning to understand and enjoy EVE. No game is merely just shoot and kill, but this game in particular requires an elaborate strategy to survive.

After coming back from Iceland I joined a Null Sec (security) training corporation, Open University of Celestial Hardship (OUCH). Their training is much simpler than EVE University, which I personally think is too big to be useful, at least for me. OUCH wants you to attend 9 sessions, pass a Null Sec survival test, have 10 kills, and off you go. That’s a program I can get behind. One caveat: they have rules, like way too many rules. I fly to Low Sec to retrieve a skill book that I purchased and immediately one of the trainers ask me what I am doing there (I guess one of the rules is not to go into Low Sec or Null Sec until you have leveled up??? I am not sure nor can I remember). It is a boot camp some ways, but I guess it has to be.

Immediately, I find out that survival of Null Sec or even Low Sec does not depend merely on having the baddest ship, but also having millions tactical bookmarks in space from which you can gather intel without being jumped on or to which you can escape when you are being pursued. Or organizing your Interface just so so you can switch over to different views in a second depending on the type of task you have at hand, learning about weapons and ships and their uses, and above all knowing your enemy/alliances/friends. This is some real shit, folks.

It took me no time to make friends (did I say friends?) in OUCH and I use another character of mine to join another corp located in Low Sec. Two more days in this new corp and I open another EVE account so I can create dummy characters to scout my way for me to avoid flying into a trap… I start immediately making a sleuth of bookmarks in every Low Sec system I enter… I get in the habit of checking killboards (which tells me who was killed by whom) and systems for activity/kills, monitoring chat channels…I get tons of tips for survival. And I start taking notes, like lot’s of them.

I was told that the learning curve was steep. But this is madness. The game truly cultivates the paranoia in you. I am also currently reading a book called Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict whose authors are using Sun Tzu’s Art of War to show the reader the road to victory in life. I must confess, this is merely a happy coincidence but I am awestruck by the uncanny parallels between the advice I am getting from my EVE compatriots and  Sun Tzu.

How I stopped worrying about getting ganked and learned to love destruction

If you’ve experienced  virtual worlds,  you know that economy is an integral part of the experience. It is what makes a world come alive. In fact, economic activity is the selling point of virtual worlds for some. This is why they log hundreds of hours in a month and, when not logged, they scrupulously pore over auction house and farming guides to figure out how best to earn virtual cash.

The tricky part of all this economic activity, as almost all virtual worlds scholars would agree, is that they make things a bit too real. It renders the boundaries between real world and fantasy world ever so permeable. Real money trading (RMT), in which players buy virtual gold for real cash is a booming market, and in most cases is against the EULA. In games like EVE Online, where theft and scamming have become an art form, money exchange takes on different flavors. It is impossible to pass through a system in EVE without hearing cheap come-ons like “Give me your ISK and I’ll double it,” all of which are as fake as the e-mails you received from the dethroned Nigerian prince who wishes to bequeath his estate to you out of the goodness of his heart…

Given the  importance of economy in EVE, when players start talking about a relatively stagnant economy,  it is clear that CCP, the Icelandic company that developed and runs the game, has a problem. In fact, CCP is the first video gaming company to ever have hired an economist Eyjólfur Guðmundsson  (DrEyjoG) to manage a game’s economy (he recently left his post in pursuit of academic endeavors.

I am not an economist, but the word on the street is that the players have worked out all the efficient ways to manufacture and trade which has clearly affected the market prices and the  inflation of PLEX prices, the ultimate investment good that can be traded for game time. Here is a thoughtful recap on the Great PLEX Bubble from our trusted friends at TheMittani.com.

Perhaps for this reason, DrEyjoG’s keynote was one of the first ones scheduled at the Fan Fest. He went over the trajectory of the EVE economy for the previous year, dissipating concerns, dismissing the talks of inflation with detailed charts. But it was clear (even for the untrained eye of a non-economist) that the economy had somewhat flatlined.

The upcoming expansion, Kronos, appears to be CCP’s partial solution to the issue. Hailed to be “delivering the industry New Eden deserves,” Kronos aims to initiate a much-needed industrial revolution. The overhaul introduces industrial gameplay accessible to new players, revamped interfaces, new pricing slots that give a financial incentive to manufacture in dangerous areas, changes in the mineral compression, and upgrades to the mining and hauling ships.

What was more interesting to me, however, was another strategy that permeated the entire Fest. That strategy was to appeal to a very primal instinct in all of us: desire to destroy.

For the first time (or at least that is how it was presented), DrEyjoG showcased numbers from an event in EVE: the infamous Battle of B-R5RB that sparked from an unpaid sovereignty bill and quickly developed into a full-fledged war that was to become the largest that any virtual worlds has ever witnessed. Below is an actual footage of the battle:

Fought in the Tranquility server, the battle lasted for 22 hours, raking up  $330,000 in damages.  7,548 participants, 717 unique player Corporations, and 55 unique player Alliances were involved in the battle. 20 million soldiers were killed, over 400 ships were destroyed, of which 75 were Titans  (the largest ship in the game that costs approximately $2500, though one of the destroyed titans  was around $5500). These numbers (which were highly publicized in the media) and other relevant comparison charts which were shown for the first time at the Fan Fest were presented almost as a reward for having caused so much mayhem. titanomachyalertCCP not only created an in-world monument commemorating the battle, but also put together a documentary about this historic event, no doubt to advertise the game:

DrEyjoG also talked about a similar battle that occurred in EVE’s Chinese-based server, Serenity, that was of equal proportions but in some cases have surpassed the Battle of B-R5RB in numbers. He presented this parallel battle almost as a challenge to the Tranquility players, inviting them to top those numbers.

Why the hype around these battles? Yes, they serve to attract advertisement dollars as well as new players. But, really, good luck convincing new players to get into a capsule and foray into the wilderness that is EVE. This is a world in which players have been known to stalk one another for years just so they can destroy  expensive ships. EVE is notoriously hard to master, and because of that, its new player retention rate is fairly low.

If anything, showcasing destruction like this serves the primary purpose of encouraging consumption. It is EVE’s unique way of boosting its economy. It is the ultimate sink if you will. Destruction is the business model for EVE and thus it will be celebrated, always. Accordingly, @CCP Seagull, the senior producer of EVE, announced that their goal is to make every single build in EVE be destructible, including the stations themselves. No doubt, EVE is walking a fine line here. It is a delicate balance to maintain: encouraging destruction to the extreme while not turning off its players who might suffer extraordinary losses. Thus far, they seemed to be doing an OK job at it.

In the closing EVE party, I bumped into one of the fleet commanders of the ClusterFuck Coalition (CFC) that annihilated Pandemic Legion and N3 at the Battle of B-R5RB. After congratulating him, I asked him, “So are you guys going to take DrEyjoG’s challenge and start a battle that would top the numbers of the Serenity server?” His face all flushed with alcohol and content, he replied, “Naaa, they are a bunch of botters, no glory in that. But we’ll be kicking some ass.” I guess not much has changed since Julian Dibbell’s goldfarming days… But in all likelihood, it will take at least a year to get that kind of a fleet up and running.

I came away from EVE Fan Fest having made peace with the possibility that I, too, would be losing my ship fairly soon. And perhaps for the first time, I felt like… that was OK.

Recap of EVE Online Fan Fest

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Last year, EVE Online celebrated its tenth year anniversary. An extraordinary feat for any game to have survived a decade while maintaining the interest of its player base… This is especially true for a niche game like EVE whose core game play is based on total destruction. To revamp EVE in its second decade, CCP promised to make major overhaul to the EVE experience.

EVE Fan Fest 2014 followed up on those promises. Hilder Veigar announced that the company entered its fifth phase in which the efforts to build a universe around the EVE brand will take the front stage.

To that end, CCP announced a few decisions that bring focus to the company efforts. World of Darkness, the vampire-themed MMO based on White Wolf’s supernatural role playing game franchise, was closed down early April. This is possibly so that EVE Dust 514, CCP’s first person shooter game located in New Eden, could live. Developed for PlayStation, Dust 514 had received lukewarm response last year, but looks like the company will be making major overhauls in that game too.

After World of Darkness was shut down, Dust 514 players anticipated two outcomes for the Fan Fest 2014: either CCP was to announce substantial changes to the game itself or that it was about to close it down. Both assumptions were somewhat correct. CCP announced that Dust 514 is to be migrated onto the PC platform under a new name, Project Legion. All player assets will be transferred to the new platform, but the game will cease to exist on PlayStation. Expectedly, those who bought the system just to play Dust are disappointed and some even consider the decision to be a way to quietly close down the game in its current form without causing a huge backlash. Moving the game to the PC platform will undoubtedly increase the game’s player base, that’s for sure.

In his first keynote, Hilder Veigar stated that the goal is to “focus” company efforts, and with that goal in mind, killing World of Darkness and divert its resources to Dust is a smart move. Given that the keynote for Dust 514 lasted for only half an hour, comprising mostly of devs showing the game play, it was clear that not much progress had been made on developing the actual game, but that the bigger vision on how to integrate it further into the EVE universe had been considered. Like in most other presentations during EVE Fan Fest, some exciting possibilities were suggested as the players were asked to be patient.

Undoubtedly the darling of the Fan Fest 2014 was EVE Valkyrie (formerly EVE VR), CCP’s multiplayer dogfighting shooting game that uses VR technologies to deliver a truly immersive gameplay.

 

Rán Kavik
Rán Kavik

With Valkyrie, CCP is aiming for intense multiplayer action, tactical depth, and accessibility, meaning frictionless entry. Like everything else, Valkyrie started as a side project last year, an experiment if you will, but has come a long way since then. The game will be using Oculus Rift and Unreal Engine 4 and will be released on Windows and PlayStation 4.

In Nordic mythology, a Valkyrie is sent by Odin to choose which warriors live or die in battle. In EVE’s lore, the Valkyrie are the fighter pilots (controlled by the player) snatched from the brink of death to become immortal privateers whose consciousness are transferred to capsuleer-style clones. These pilots form their own army under the leadership of the first Valkyrie, Rán Kavik (voiced by Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff). Rán, similar to Aura in EVE Online, is a mentor and a leader who guides the player throughout the game and provides mission briefings. Valkyrie players will be provided with three ship types and, as in EVE Online, they could fit and customize their ships.

Valkyrie is building on the familiar knowledge of EVE players to introduce a brand new cutting edge technology to gaming, possibly to reduce the initial frustration that will arise from playing a brand new game with different mechanics.

My sense is that if the company can successfully implement and integrate these three games, they have a chance at building a successful gaming franchise. EVE Online is notoriously difficult. It presents a harsh environment that is off-putting to incoming players, incomprehensible UI, steep learning curve. EVE loses its many new players within the first couple of hours of game play and the biggest challenge for the company is to figure out how to keep them. To keep its world active, then, CCP focuses its efforts to ensure that there is a steady incoming players. By creating three different games within the same universe, CCP is reaching out to different types of gamers and inviting them to the EVE universe. This approach, if successful, could increase its player base.

What the players want, which may or may not be technically possible, is to have the players of these three games synchronously engage in combat. That is the dream. Whether or not CCP will be able to deliver this vision is a different matter. But certainly, the company’s new trailer is hinting that way.

Meshnet Istanbul

My trip to Istanbul was short but full of exciting Internet-related meetings. How can it not be? Since the Gezi Park protests,  the Prime Minister Erdogan launched a full blown war against social media, characterizing it as “a menace to society.”

Over the last decade a culture of fear shrouded the country. Main stream media have been systematically silenced: media moguls were bought off or forced out business underneath the heavy burden of taxes, journalists wiretapped and threatened, politicians and high-ranking representatives of the army imprisoned under bogus charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. See the full report here.

Then, the grafting scandal happened last December, implicating important members of Erdogan’s cabinet in the largest money laundering scheme ever in the history of Turkish Republic. After a bust, police discovered millions of dollars/Euros stored in shoe boxes of the accused politicians. Following the incident, hundreds of police officers were dismissed over night in an attempt at retaliation. Further evidence of this scandal was leaked through Twitter and YouTube.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the upcoming elections, the government deployed a number of measures to repress political speech online. It passed amendments to the Internet censorship laws that made it possible to block websites without court orders. Since Twitter and YouTube were the usual suspects, it abruptly banned these services on some cooked up charges. Twitter came back online only after it promised to ban the accounts that leaked the information that implicated the government in the grafting scandal.

In a more troubling turn of events, the government seems to have resorted to more subtle measures in its efforts to curtail access to social media sites. It was revealed that government-owned Turkish Service Providers like Turk Telekom were hi-jacking public DNSs like Google’s and re-routing back to their own servers. This strategy not just impedes the right of Turkish citizens to access the correct information they are seeking, but more importantly, undermines the  core technical functionality of the Internet’s architecture. The Internet Society observes that it is an important breach of digital rights of Netizens: it “threatens users’ fundamental human right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas across frontiers.” While some view DNS hi-jacking as a subtle attempt at building an alternative, more restrictive Internet, others warn how this system could be used to enhance surveillance of Turkish citizens.

It is in this climate that the emancipatory communication practices have emerged: everyone who wants to be online began using encryption technologies and VPNs. Digital rights organizations are preparing to build p2p mesh networks for an alternative Internet that facilitates freedom of speech.

When I was there, I went to one of these meshnet workshops with the Pirate Party Movement of Turkey. At the same time we submitted two panels for the upcoming Internet Governance Forum taking place in Istanbul this fall.

To live online in Turkey means to live underground.

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Giving Twitter the bird :-P

Cheap pun. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

I am in the process of sorting my Images folder and ran across a screenshot of a cartoon that I had swiped off the Internet in 2009 during the Arab Spring. As much as we, scholars, are kicking and screaming, claiming that what is going on in Turkey currently has little resemblance to the Arab Spring (and it doesn’t), the parallels in discourse are uncanny. Not much has changed since 2009… except the government.

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wicked thoughts on media and technology…