Ingólfr Arnarson left Norway in a flimsy boat made of wood and beaten metal in 874 AD. He left to find somewhere colder, harsher, more unforgiving than his cold, harsh, unforgiving homeland. He found Iceland. A millennium and a century later, in the country Ingólfr forged, another set of pioneers got an idea in their heads. It was an idea of similar insanity and danger, one that demanded they brave high water to create a new existence. Like Ingólfr, they sailed off in the darkness of the Arctic winter for a new home. They found EVE.
The Reykjavik head office of CCP, creator of the galactic bastard sim, EVE Online, feels like an outpost on the edge of the world. Look at the right angle from the main boardroom's giant windows and you'd swear human beings had never laid foot in Iceland – if it wasn't for the few CCP staff members mid smoke-break gripping solid steel railings on the balcony outside and bracing against the wind.
Inside the boardroom, the only wall that isn't made of glass has an image of two men in a room half a world away. They're Reynir Harðarson and Hilmar Pétursson – CCP's co-founder and creative director, and CEO respectively – and they're trying to explain why they created EVE Online, sat in their company's Atlanta office. Hilmar begins.
“I was playing Elite when I was 11 on my BBC, and I wished the other ships were real people.” Reynir nods – his justification is the same: “I was playing Elite when I was 12, and that dream stuck. I had a dream of making this game – to be called Cosmos.”
Hilmar speaks quickly and plainly, demystifying his colleague's frequent dips into the philosophical and theoretical with solid reasoning. They interact like old friends, Hilmar as the reliable buisnessman, Reynir as the dreamer-with-a-work-ethic. Their sensible demeanours belie quite how insane the decision to make EVE was.
“Iceland the country was connected to the internet via a modem at the time. You had to wait for the country to dial in.” Hilmar laughs at his own joke, but stresses how near this absurdity was to the truth back when EVE first germinated as a concept. A volcanically unstable rock equidistantly far from both of gaming's biggest markets, Iceland is not a country anyone would peg as a development opportunity. Until 874 AD and Ingólfr, nobody even wanted to call it home. “We didn't know anyone who had even worked at a game company,” says Reynir.
“People asked us when I told them our plan for EVE, 'Why even try? You're going to compete with Sony and Microsoft and EA. Who do you think you are?' I don't know, but I just really wanted to do it.” He turns to face the video camera, and smiles. “And we did.”
Bars in Iceland stay open until six in the morning, but the streets look deserted. If you can brave the wind and stand on Reykjavik's main street, you'll see an evolved dance of humanity: the Icelandic intra-pub sprint-huddle. It's a strange penguin shuffle that takes people through the bitter cold to their next source of booze. It's bloody-mindedness on a national scale. I first saw it 12 hours after my interview with Reynir, and connected it immediately to the discussion I had earlier in the day.
“Why did we need to do it? It was the impossible thing to do.” Another smile. Reynir knows the universe he helped found existed in the heads of players and developers across the globe. “It was kind of inevitable – it's a common cultural thing to dream about this type of space opera.” Break EVE down to the one-line pitch – multiplayer spaceships in space – and it's not a unique concept. What was unique was CCP's ability to actually pull it off.
When Reynir and his friends found their minds consumed by plans for EVE and not their day jobs, they quit. “I thought I could easily hire all the guys from my previous company. The problem was we had no money.” Reynir was drifting without financial propulsion. “'Where are we gonna get money?' We decided to make a board game.” They thought it would give them the capital required to jumpstart EVE's thrusters. Reynir explains how they got that first cash injection. “We mortgaged my friend's grandmother's house.” Their game was getting more dangerous, yanking in outsiders on an optimistic theory.
Astoundingly, it worked. “We published the board game in Christmas 1998, and it sold about 10,000 copies, enough to get us programming on EVE and hiring people.” Its name? Hættuspil. 'Danger Game.'
That was where the hard work began. Reynir recalls the early days. “The blood and sweat – and especially blood – that went into creating EVE was monumental. We almost killed ourselves in the process. We lived at the office for almost three years, we worked 15 hours every fucking day. We slept under desks.” He turns to stare at me, eyes haunted across the ocean. “It was absolute madness.”
Later, I speak to Torfi Frans Ólafsson, EVE's creative director and fellow survivor from the company's inception. I bring up this early development period and he slumps back in his chair. “We used to work 80-hour weeks. Sometimes we went without salaries for months and didn't make any money.” From the outside, EVE was ticking along in its first years. From the inside, employees were being stretched by a vociferous fanbase. “All we had was an internet forum full of extremely angry gamers who were pissed off at how bad our game was. All you got for it were players who were furious because of random defects. That was our life.”
Of course, the internet was a different land back in 2003, when wild lollercopters still patrolled the sky. I ask Torfi what would happen to EVE, launching today. “The market is less tolerant of lower quality products. You can't ship with as many defects as we did in 2003.” But they still had their pressures. The only way to hold them off was dogged persistence. “Sometimes you'll hit hard times and you'll just have to weather them.”
EVE was a project born of love – but also of manic, traumatic focus. There's video evidence of this, Reynir explains. “On the website there's videos of me and Hilmar trying to do a marketing sell on the game two weeks before launch, and you can see we were emotional wrecks. You should watch it, it's terrible.” (If you want to see them, the videos are here of Hilmar and Reynir ).
Back in my hotel room later, I load up Reynir's pre-launch video on my laptop. Staring back is a man seven years younger than the one I saw beamed from Atlanta, but he appears ten years older. He looks – no offence, Reynir – terrible. But, through the obvious lack of sleep, there's a glint of something in his eyes as he talks up the game he's helped shape. It's passion.
He wasn't alone. Even though the team put themselves through sleepless nights and cashless days in the name of EVE, Reynir maintains his shock that people cared about the game. “That surprised me: the level of passion for the game right from the get go.” Forums and IRC groups sprung up to discuss the impending title. “Before release you just had to say one sentence and everyone got it. People had such a keen idea of what the game would be, they were able to fill in the gaps.” Those players involved in the beta stuck their tendrils further into the universe than even the developers could manage. The fans started to understand EVE better than the creators.
“EVE was a very simple concept. It's a structure: you mine minerals to make ships, which you can then use to mine more minerals. It's a perpetual machine. From that, all kinds of things arise.” It wasn't meant to be a game, Reynir assures me – it was designed to be a toolbox to enable multiplayer experiences. I ask Reynir whether EVE then shaped itself, or was guided by development. “Both. We forged the fundamental rules and vision, then EVE shaped itself to a large extent. We have a lot of input from the community.” Torfi was blunter. “The players took over on May 5, 2003.” Launch day.
Kjartan Pierre Emilsson was one of EVE's early designers. “We talked a lot about chaos theory,” says Reynir. A layman's explanation of the concept: anything that might happen probably will and oh pissfuck, it's happening right now. I glance out of the window at the darkening sky and imposing, inhuman slab of rock on the other side of the bay. In this land of fire and ice, I can see why trying to understand chaos has its benefits.
EVE's first pioneers learnt, adapted, and developed new customs. They were flying electronic spaceships sat in their rooms at home, so they didn't need to get their heads around the tricky combo of 'fire' and 'the wheel', but their emergent behaviour still shocked Reynir – their chaos in play. Mining is his example. “People would reach a system, eject their cargo containers, mine their ore into them, and keep going. Then one guy would warp in and pick them up. We thought that was brilliant .”
CCP's first development team was small and agile enough to respond quickly to player trends. Torfi recalls the era with a definite fondness. “Sometimes I miss being all together in the same room and being able to shout, 'Guys, it's not going to be sci-fi – it's going to be dragons in space now',” he laughs. “When we were still seven horny guys in an attic, a cigarette break could lead to a major shift in vision or goals for the company.”
Seven years down the line, the chances of EVE sticking to its first template are nonexistent. Was there even a long-term goal? Hilmar responds. “We had a long-term wish.” It's agreed in the business of universe creation that it's best not to plan too efficiently so as not to stifle your new residents. Later, Torfi explains exactly how CCP plots out EVE's route. It involves leaving children to die. “It's about scoping to your abilities. Sometimes you do it consciously, sometimes you do it under deadline where you have tons of amazing ideas and you can only pick two of them. Like having ten perfectly healthy smiling children and having to take two with you before your planet blows up.” Torfi looks increasingly confused as he drops infant-murdering similes, like his mouth is betraying him. “It's a tremendously painful process!” he tries to assure me. Too late.
The features that are included in each EVE update have to be carefully balanced. Reynir explains how, at launch, mining – seen as overly passive – was designed that way: “There's nothing to it, there's no minigame to play. But when you're in dangerous sectors, you feel like you're tresspassing, even if nothing happens.” Hilmar leans in again with another take on it. “Because it's so passive, people have so much time to socialise and communicate. They're naturally filling the vacuum.” The mining mechanic is the perfect confluence of developer-led decision making and community-led chaos.
Arnar Gylfason – EVE's senior producer – touches on another behavioural trait that years of theorising and designing skipped entirely: alliances. EVE's social structure is stratified into a few levels. Corporations are closest to other MMOs' guilds in playerbase, but humongous intercorporation alliances can swell into the thousands. “We didn't anticipate players grouping up to the extent that they have – seeing player alliances of 5,000-plus players, perfectly organised, taking over huge swathes of space and maintaining perfect logistical networks.” Fleet battles with 500 participants became commonplace, players wanting to club together for safety, for commerce, and for the greatest chance of seeing a whole load of spaceships blow up all at once.
Fleet battles are EVE's trump card. The greatest of these have become folklore, scenes powerful enough to yank the eyes of people who'd never willingly play internet spaceships. Thousands tune into the Alliance tournament livestream, as Derek Wise – EVE's senior technical director – excitably informs me. He explains how the pilots involved fly wildly complex ship variants into battle. I can feel him straining to tell me more, explain the benefits of exact fittings, but my simple grin when he describes how a gang of drakes isn't always the best PvP option warns him off. It's comforting to see this level of genuine passion, especially from someone exposed to the game's inner guts on a daily basis.
Reynir's getting excited now, gesticulating down the camera. “We have warfare that lasts for years, involving thousands of people. There's propaganda!” He tries to remember the largest number of ships involves in a single fleet battle and mumbles numbers. Hilmar leans in and – half proudly, half fearing for the reaction he'll set off – corrects him. It's 3,400. Nearly three and a half thousand people sat in their rooms, but also sat in space, watching the same scene unfold from different perspectives, living the same experience from their independent viewpoint. I'm excited just about the verbalisation of the concept.
I know this excitement well. That maxim about Deus Ex – every time someone mentions it, someone else has the urge to install it – also applies to EVE. Unlike any other game, EVE has generated stories. In November 2010, the SOMER Blink Corporation was played out of 110 billion ISK (EVE's in-game currency) by a longterm friend of the corp's leadership. The news hit most major gaming sites within hours of confirmation, joining a host of similar stories in post archives. I asked the team for their favourite EVE event, one that pushed outside the game boundaries to reach wider gaming consciousness. Arnar recalls a specific time early in EVE's life, when a set of hyper-organised bastards camped moon-gates, sniping incoming enemies like highwaymen.
CCP's resident economist – Dr Eyjólfur Guðmundsson – sees the arrival of the Goonswarm alliance from somethingawful.com's forum as one of the biggest surprises. Traditionally deployed into an MMO to break the game, the Goons used EVE's loose boundaries to develop new combat techniques. “I remember when they came in and started to attack large capital ships with swarms of low-level players. It was ingenious, and it showed us that the fundamental design of EVE was still functional.” The Goons' rise to a kind of chaotic power was a late-stage proof of concept, showing the rules of the universe hadn't crystallised around a set way to play.
Sean Conover, before he worked at CCP, was better known as Darius Johnson. He's now known as 'Sean Conover who is also Darius Johnson'. As his internet alter-ego, he led the Goons for a year between 2008 and 2009. In February 2009, he was present along with a handful of associates at the defection of the director of one of EVE's oldest alliances: Band of Brothers. He smirks as he recounts the story – and he's got every right to do so, using underhand tactics, negotiation skills and a flair for offensive tirades to achieve his aims.
The alliance he headed up set about EVE with the hyperactive ridiculousness unique to an army of bored forum kids: in doing so, they carved a niche of internet history. Torfi expands on the idea internet fame. “With other games, you might be the hero of your server, known to 30,000 people; in EVE you're making an impact on all those players' lives in-game. I remember when playing years ago, there was a pilot who was famous for killing everyone. I was mightily starstruck when he podded me.”
This fame comes with a price. In June 2006, a CCP employee used their position to obtain a set of blueprints that constituted an unfair advantage for their chosen alliance. Reynir recounts the experience as one of CCP's biggest mistakes to date. “It was such a minor thing, but the rule is, do not cheat. Players were super-concerned because we did not fire him on the spot, and that was probably a mistake in hindsight.” EVE's utterly balanced economy – where everything is mined, manufactured and sold by the players – means that injecting outside sources into the production stream has repercussions potentially universe-wide.
I push for more mistakes, probing the cracks in the foundation of the company. Other developers might paper over the missteps, but Reynir grins a grin that means, 'How long have you got?' “At one point, we released a patch that sent people's computers to the blue screen of death. We accidentally destroyed like 2,000 computers. The players were actually okay about it, strangely.” Along the route, he makes it clear there were coding bodges and bad decisions – but these are technicalities. I ask for major catastrophes. “We haven't really had any,” he says, pondering. He sounds quietly amazed.
At the edge of the world, the new universe is coming along nicely. EVE is seven years old now – old enough to have its own legends, its own founder mythology. Give it a few years and it'll have its epic poetry and its own social constructs. Give it 20 and it'll become home like Iceland did to those insane enough to set sail in a boat for a landmass they'd only imagined.
EVE's an electronic landmass, more ethereal than the volcanic gob of rock in the north Atlantic it sprung from. But it's not going anywhere soon. After all, it took Ingólfr Arnarson 1,100 years to convince 300,000 people to live in his world; EVE managed that feat in only seven.
If you want to jump in and give EVE a try, then feel free to join fellow readers in the PCG guild at the forums.