EVE Evolved: Consequences and conflict

EVE Evolved title image
I've always considered EVE Online to be the model sandbox MMO and a template that could theoretically be applied to other titles. Whether you believe it's by careful design or a happy accident, EVE has stumbled on a formula that clearly works and has helped the game stay popular for over a decade. I've written before about the many interconnected parts that make EVE's sandbox model work and how pulling out essential features such as item loss on death or adding foreign mechanics like global banking could cause the whole game to fall apart. But there's one aspect I didn't really cover in depth: consequences for negative behaviour.

In his latest Some Assembly Required column, Massively's Jef Reahard argued that EVE can't be considered the quintessential sandbox MMO because it lacks consequences for bad behaviour. While I would argue that EVE is as close to the ideal model of the genre as exists at the moment, I'm forced to agree with Jef's assessment. Almost all of the major events in EVE's recent history that have hit the gaming media have been about theft or war, with tales of massive scams and alliance warfare painting New Eden in a dark and violent light. The ultimate sandbox would be equally capable of birthing incredible stories of exploration and players working together to build magnificent things, not just chaos and death in the gloomy depths of interstellar space.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at the lack of consequence for negative actions in EVE Online, whether it causes negative behaviour, and why sandboxes need to be about more than just destruction.

EVE Evolved side imageDoes EVE encourage negative behaviour?

When asked about what type of game EVE Online is, I typically describe it as "a story about what people do when left alone in each other's company." It's less of a game and more of a social sandbox with spaceships and very few rules, the result being emergent behaviour that often mirrors the real world in surprising detail: Real friendships form on the battlefield, political deals are signed between empires that rise and fall, in-game businesses pitch to investors, and bankers inevitably run off with everyone's money. The only thing missing is any kind of policing beyond that which alliances attempt to impose on their own members.

By taking out the laws we normally abide by in everyday life, EVE allows the worst of humanity's behaviours to manifest. This feels like it was intentional, though, as EVE was always intended to be a harsh dystopian universe where corporations rule with an iron fist. Reader johnmynard summed up the issue nicely in his comment on Jef's article when he said, "EVE has most of the trappings of a virtual world except that its rules allow what should be a small percentage of players, the trouble-makers and lowlifes who would ordinarily be kept locked up or at least marginalized by society, are instead allowed to run rampant and corrupt what should be an exercise in the best behaviors of us into an exercise in the worst behaviors of us. Don't get in a fluff, EVE faithful; you know it's true."

EVE Evolved side imageLack of consequences

EVE was originally created as an open-PvP game with harsh consequences for stepping on the wrong side of the law. CONCORD's rapid police response for attacking players in high-security space was enough to deter all attacks outside of authorised wars, and hunting for targets in low-security space was dangerous. Pirates opted to either scour asteroid belts to find unprotected miners or risk an expensive battleship to attack travelers within range of the sentry guns at stargates and stations.

Attacking players outside of an official war declaration also caused your security status to drop, signaling your pirate status to others and restricting your access to highsec. Getting a reputation for attacking unarmed miners and industrial ships could also cause a pirate to be excluded from large corporations or even hunted down. Those consequences for negative behaviour may have been marginally effective back in 2004, but they've slowly become irrelevant over the years. Pirates long ago resigned themselves to living with -10.0 security status and using alternate characters to ferry supplies to them, and suicide attacks have rendered even the CONCORD police ineffective.

Today's consequences are those imposed by the playerbase itself, and most of them are completely ineffectual. Many alliances have rules against members scamming, for example, but some actively encourage it, and players can always just make secret new characters to scam with. The only actual consequence in EVE is having a hard-earned reputation sullied, such as would happen if Chribba pulled a massive scam. For the vast majority of players, there are essentially no rules.

EVE Evolved side imageSandboxes need to be about building things together

If you're tired of the deluge of news stories about massive wars and underhanded scams in EVE Online, it might interest you to know that the game wasn't always this way. From 2004 to 2006, EVE went through a historic age of colonisation and industrial development. The largest alliances worked to build grand empires in the depths of space, pooling their efforts and finances to construct the first ever player-owned space stations. Outposts cost under 20 billion to set up today and can be constructed quietly by a handful of players with jump-freighters, but back then it took hundreds of players mining for weeks or escorting freighters through pirate-infested space.

The Interstellar Starbase Syndicate famously built the first ever publicly owned outpost during this time and funded it with the first ever financial IPO in an MMO. Players began building their own investment schemes and even stock exchanges on which shares in public companies were traded. A good reputation opened some big doors in years gone by, even enabling me to run massive public investment schemes to build a huge tech 2 material reactor farm and copy mothership blueprints. This was a golden era of empire-building that saw industrial might win out over brute force, and it culminated in 3000-player industrial nation Ascendant Frontier building the game's first ever titan.

Somewhere along the way, the scales of EVE tilted completely toward violence and destruction. There are no great industrial projects any more as outposts cost chump change and hundreds of titans change hands on the open market. Today's alliance politics is about banding together into the biggest coalition and smashing the other guy's stuff to bits, and empires are more often conquered than built. The ultimate sandbox should allow players to build grand empires together and not just kick over each other's cheap sandcastles.

EVE Evolved title image
EVE is very much a window into how people might interact when the barriers of law and personal consequence are demolished in a society. It's gratifying to see that most players strive to be good and honest people even in such a corruptible world, but there will always be a few willing to scam and cheat their way to the top. It's probably better that players can express that side of themselves in virtual worlds than the real one where they could do actual damage, and it's very fitting with EVE's theme of a hyper-capitalistic corporation-dominated future gone wrong.

Today's EVE universe is one largely devoid of consequence and in which violence and conflict is the only choice, but the future might not be so one-sided. In the same way as the Apocrypha expansion heralded a golden age of sandbox exploration, the planned release of player-built stargates could bring in a new industrial era. The game's largest alliances currently sit on stockpiles trillions of ISK and have thousands of pilots at their command, and player-built stargates could be the grand industrial project the game has been waiting for.

New solar systems to explore may also come with new social rules that encourage co-operation over villainy and apply very real consequences to transgressors such as being stuck in an unknown solar system with no way home.

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.