EVE Evolved: The living storyline

When EVE Online launched over seven years ago, it was a small game with a niche place in the MMO world. Sci-fi fans were drawn from across the world to the potential offered by the fledgling universe of New Eden. As a small independent studio, CCP Games made up for its lack of funds with an incredible creativity and a willingness to work closely with players. Much of the early development was focused on working with players, from updates to the user interface to balance issues and ideas for new ships and modules.

In 2004, CCP began involving players directly in the game's evolving storyline through massive storyline events. I have fond memories of the time the Serpentis pirate corporation hijacked and stole a Federation Navy titan, an event orchestrated as much for the enjoyment of players as for showcasing the new titan class of ship CCP had been working on. Another particularly memorable storyline arc was the Crielere event, in which players assisted NPCs with research into mysterious new Guristas prototype cloaking devices. These events formed part of EVE Online's living storyline, affecting the game on a fundamental level through the introduction of new ships and items.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look back at the history of EVE's storyline and forward to what the future might hold.
The death of events


As the number of EVE players steadily grew, the feasibility of running events for a large number of players waned. The amount of work needed to create an event involving a few hundred players was justifiable when EVE was in its infancy, but as subscription numbers climbed upward, event participation didn't scale so well. It turned out that the type of players who piled into live events were typically the same roleplayers every time, with few new people being drawn in. While the average mission-runner or miner would hear about the event and no-doubt think it was awesome, they wouldn't actively participate.

Another major part of the reason for the poor participation was the short duration and spontaneity of each event. If you happened to be offline when the event occurred or too far away to reach it in time, you had no chance of attending. Even using volunteers to produce events proved too costly, with complex approval procedures required and weeks of work being put into events lasting as little as 30 minutes. Eventually, the AURORA volunteer department was disbanded, and live events became nothing more than something for old players to reminisce about. CCP continued to pump out engaging fiction and the occasional news story tying into the game fiction in some way. Unfortunately, the lack of active player involvement in news stories made them little more than something for roleplayers to try to bring to life amongst themselves.

A strong reminder

In 2008, the Empyrean Age expansion proved once again that players would still get excited and involved with the game world over tangible events. In the lead-up to the Empyrean Age expansion, news stories about the tensions between the four empires flew mostly silently under the radar. Since the news stories had little to no impact on the game, enthusiasm for them remained largely in the domain of roleplayers. This response soon flipped completely upside down as CCP released several engaging news videos depicting storyline events unfolding in EVE behind the closed doors of the daily server downtime.

Although players couldn't actively take part in these events, we finally had some exciting story development that felt tangible. War was all but inevitable, and we'd be on the front lines defending our empires. The videos themselves were impressive, and elements from them were seamlessly merged with the game world. The damage done to the attacked Ishukone Headquarters station, for example, could be seen in-game. Players responded with an overwhelming "HELL YES!" and the whole event seemed to serve as a strong reminder of the power of a truly tangible story. With the events team having been disbanded and developers moving onto their next project, however, the enthusiasm for faction warfare that those events generated didn't last very long.

The rebirth of events

Back in May of this year, CCP finally announced to excited fans that live events were back and better than ever. This time, the devs had a plan to tackle the issues that had plagued previous events. To give all events staff accountability (and so eliminate the perception of events as being potentially rigged), a small number of full-time paid staff would now be used instead of a large team of volunteer players. Participation issues would be solved by having a large number of mostly automated events over the course of several weeks or even months.

In the currently active event, Sansha pirates have been somehow opening wormholes above planets in empire space, launching fleets to abduct citizens of the empire. Players themselves organised intelligence-gathering networks and other tools to fight the invasion. Each event takes only 30 minutes or so to run its course, with waves of Sansha battleships being spawned and finally a few actors in expensive ships entering the fray. Although the attacks have dragged on for several months now with little plot progression beyond the first few weeks, things are sure to start picking up in the lead-up to the next expansion. This first event proved yet again that players will fall over themselves to become involved with the EVE storyline.

The future soon

The Sansha events we're currently experiencing were intentionally designed to be a little on the repetitive side. This allowed more players to get involved, and as the Sansha are mindless drones, it also made sense from a thematic point of view. The main reason the events had to be repetitive, however, was that they have been forming the lead-in to EVE's next big expansion. With the Incursion expansion this winter, players will be battling fully automated Sansha incursions into empire space. The combat comes in the form of small dungeons designed for specific numbers of ships, though the exact details of how this will be finalised are yet to be seen.

The important thing in all of this is that a live event was used to introduce something new to the game, just as it was during the Serpentis titan theft or the Crielere cloaking device research event. Instead of just getting a paragraph in the patch notes and a few interviews on the new Incursion game mechanics, the expansion has been introduced in a very real and tangible way. If someone asks where the Sansha Incursion dungeons come from, we can tell him with confidence about the kidnapping of the Ducia Foundry wormhole expedition team, the leaked CONCORD ISHKEA reports on Sansha's military buildup, and the nation's new-found ability to control wormholes. If that's not exciting, I don't know what is.

Summary

The idea of introducing new game elements and even full-blown expansion features using in-game live events is something I've been a personal supporter of for years. Ever since those first brushes with CCP's events team in 2004, I've been hooked on the notion that EVE's storyline should live and develop in-game rather than being restricted to fiction. The fact that CCP is finally taking this stance makes me extremely excited for the future. I can't help but wonder if we'll get similar events for future expansions, perhaps even events and missions surrounding the release of new ships and modules. While we can speculate on what events look like in the future and what they might be used to introduce to the game, one thing is certain -- EVE Online's living storyline is just getting started.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.