EVE Evolved: Building stronger communities

EVE Evolved: Building stronger communities
When I first started playing EVE Online at the start of 2004, only 40,000 players inhabited the game's 5,000 assorted solar systems. Despite having a peak concurrent user record of under 10,000 players, the game somehow didn't feel empty and desolate. Players built communities all across the map, and the purpose of the game became all about interacting with other players. I've played a lot of MMOs since then, but none has drawn me into its community as deeply as EVE has.

I think that's because most MMOs today are aimed more at casual and solo play, and most guilds are glorified chat channels with shared bank space. There's plenty of room for solo players in EVE, but most of the gameplay is aimed at groups with purpose and ambitions larger than any individual can reasonably accomplish on his own. Holding territory and building supercapitals are jobs for large alliances, PvP is rarely a solo affair, and even grinding ISK is more fun in a group. This focus on group activities is usually seen as the driving force behind EVE's cohesive communities, but I think there's more to it.

In this week's EVE Evolved opinion piece, I look at what drives EVE to create stronger in-game communities than you typically find in other MMOs.

EVE Evolved side imageSplitting players up

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't one of the main highlights of the MMO genre that you're playing with hundreds of thousands of other people in a shared online world? It surprises me then to look at today's MMOs and see just how many of them artificially limit the number of players you can interact with. Level-based games segregate players into different zones and ensure people rarely play with lower-level players. World of Warcraft is an extreme case, as players have to grind to level 85 before they'll be able to participate in most guild activities.

MMO developers have come up with a lot of different strategies to get players together, like EverQuest II's mentoring system and City of Heroes' sidekicks, but EVE Online doesn't even have to try. New EVE players can fulfill functional roles in a group of veteran players as early as day one of a free trial. There's no limit to how many players you can take on a mining operation or PvP fleet, so new players make effective wingmen.

EVE Evolved side image Sharding and cohesiveness

Sharded server structures reduce the number of players you can interact with to a tiny fraction of a game's overall players, producing smaller groups and a more fractured community. World of Warcraft has over 10 million players, but its largest guild is a casual group that measured only 5,000 characters at peak. Despite having less than 4% of WoW's players, EVE Online's largest alliance is currently over 9,000 characters strong.

Admittedly, sharded MMOs do tend to make closer server communities, and group accomplishments are amplified as each shard has its own few competing top guilds. EVE has somehow managed to maintain this level of community in a rapidly growing single-shard universe, and I think it has to do with the size of the universe and the fact that assets are tied to locations.

Owning territory or invading enemy space binds an alliance's day-to-day operations to particular geographical areas, and the fact that assets have to be stored somewhere limits individual players to self-chosen areas of operation. If you run missions in Dodixie, you'll interact with the locals on a daily basis but won't have a clue what the Russians are getting up to in the Drone regions.

EVE Evolved side image Out of game

Interestingly, EVE's most resilient corporations have been those born not within the game but on massive existing communities outside the game. When people on the Something Awful forums decided to get into EVE, thousands of new players poured into the game as GoonFleet and proved that new players could be a serious threat. Through sheer force of numbers and determination, GoonFleet went on to become a major player in nullsec territorial politics. When the GoonSwarm alliance was disbanded by CEO betrayal in 2010, most of the players just reformed under a new name and got right back to smashing other people's ships to bits.

Since then we've seen the same story repeat multiple times, with communities outside the game forming their own corporations and alliances. The Reddit community is now a major political power, and sites like PC Gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and Eurogamer all have their own in-game organisations. Being hinged on an existing community outside the game provides a cohesion beyond that normally found in EVE corporations, as members care more about being part of their own community than about their individual games.

EVE Evolved side image Failure cascade

It's been said that an alliance can't be destroyed, only pushed to fall apart from the inside. An alliance can lose all of its territory, have its assets stolen and the CEO's prized ship could be destroyed, but there's no way to forcibly destroy the organisation. What usually ends an alliance is that its members get demoralised by losing a war and corps start making mistakes, give up fighting, or even leave the alliance. This in turn makes it harder to win the next battle and come back from defeat, resulting in a phenomenon players have come to know as a failure cascade.

There is no bigger test of an organisation's internal cohesion than war. Ascendant Frontier was once EVE's largest industrial alliance and producer of the first ever titan. The alliance famously collapsed following the titan's destruction, with key corporations pulling out under the certainty of losing further assets. Other alliances have survived under the same kind of pressures, due in part to good internal management and well-directed propaganda to keep morale up. I'm beginning to think that the cohesion of out-of-game organisations like Dreddit grants a massive resistance to failure cascades, as members are less likely to abandon the organisation in tough times.

EVE Evolved title image
EVE is a game that supremely rewards people who can work together toward goals larger than any individual could accomplish. I've played a lot of MMOs over the years and even ran a WoW raiding guild for a while, but none has ever made me feel as if I belonged to a community that mattered as much as EVE. Perhaps it's a common feature of all sandbox MMOs, which would make it an even bigger shame that the industry is currently so fixated on themepark MMOs.

With its focus on group gameplay and the fact that all players are located on one server, EVE players create cohesive social structures that for me are the game's main feature. It's a sense of community that players remember fondly from earlier MMOs like Ultima Online and EverQuest, and something that I think has been lost in modern titles.

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.