You don't really know EVE Online until you're crammed into a hot tub full of drunk, naked Finnish players and two developers chatting excitedly about chaos and wormholes. I've traveled thousands of miles to end up here, in a stranger's house on an island called Kemiönsaari in mid-August, the boondocks of Finland. My journey to this county of some 6,000 Swedes and Finns isn't just for pleasure. I'm here to cover a historic event: EVE Online's first-ever Fanfest held inside a player's house.
Normally these events are held in developer CCP Games' home of Reykjavík, Iceland, and thousands of players from all over the world fly to party with the developers and learn about what's next for EVE Online. Last year, though, CCP Games decided to take their show on the road and also solicit invitations from players to host a Fanfest from their very own home.
Fanfest Kemiönsaari (or, more simply, Fanfest Home) is a surreal combination of a traditional gaming convention and a house party—keynote speeches and Q&A sessions spliced with barbecue burgers and vodka shots. When I told my parents about this trip, they were convinced it was an elaborate murder plot that would end with me flayed in a torture den somewhere. They did not predict the pale parade of nude, drunk EVE players shuffling to and from the sauna and hot tub. It's a fitting opening ceremony for this next chapter of EVE Online, one that its developers promise will bring mayhem to its hundreds of thousands of players and their precious empires.
The winner of Fanfest Home's contest was a player named Lilianah, a construction worker and member of a Finnish-only wormhole corporation called Avanto. As a serious EVE player who often hosts parties for his corporation, Lilianah has all the necessities: good internet, plenty of space, booze, and the all-important sauna and hot tub (a staple of Finland, I'm told).
"When I heard that six developers were on their way here, I was [confounded]," Lilianah says, laughing. "Here. Six devs. But I thought, what the hell. The sauna is warm, this is what we do." That spirit is shared among the dozen of Lilianah's corp-mates here, a rowdy group of Finnish men ranging from their mid-20s to late-50s. They had a lot to say about saunas.
Like any EVE Fanfest, the event started with a parade, only this one was composed of about a dozen people and only lasted the length of Lilianah's driveway. Everyone then piled inside Lilianah's house where his wife had generously prepared snacks and drinks. Slipping through the back to look at the hot tub, I stumble across his two children—one deeply engrossed in a round of Fortnite on his PC. Lilianah's family cleared out later that evening once the sauna and hot tub were fired up.
Instead of a normal keynote presentation, CCP Games creative director Bergur Finnbogason and CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson livestreamed a three-hour fireside chat, talking everything from EVE Online's sci-fi inspirations, original designs, to vague plans for the future. But the most relevant part of that chat had to with the nature of chaos, EVE Online's inherent inability to create it, and why CCP Games is now stepping in to make some of its own.
Agents of anarchy
EVE Online has officially entered what CCP Games is calling The Chaos Era. It's a time of significant upheaval, CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson tells me. On June 26, 2019, that chaos took the form of a surprise alien invasion that all but paralyzed the massive player empires found in null-sec space. Entire wars were called off as invading armies retreated home to save their precious starbases, jump gates, and industrial facilities from what many feared would be complete annihilation.
Then CCP Games announced a communications blackout across all in-game chat channels in null-sec space. Now when you venture into null-sec, the in-game chat interface no longer lists what other players are in a solar system with you. Now players or roving armies can move from system to system without having their presence immediately given away.
These surprise invasions and changes serve a greater purpose than just upsetting EVE Online's delicate political and industrial machines, however. It's a radical experiment to save EVE Online. "If you look at the game from the vantage point that we look at the game every day, the game starts to speak to you," says Finnbogason. "You follow the economy, you follow the meta, and you start to understand that there is pain, the game is in pain. It needs hand holding because we don't have the systems to automatically regulate it."
"Most things in life go through a period of disruption," Pétursson tells me. "You have an established paradigm, then it disrupts, and then you end up in another stable paradigm. This renews—it is often a form of creative destruction: It breaks up monopolies, it topples industrial giants, it creates new space for things to bloom."
Pétursson references cell phones and the internet as two real-world examples of these earth-shaking disruptions. But there's just one problem: "The conditions of EVE Online are not perfect," Pétursson explains, "and EVE Online lacks a good ability to renew itself in this way."
"Right now the situation in the game is such that the stagnation has been setting slowly over a few years and there is no end in sight," Pétursson says. "It's just going to stagnate. You don't want your sandbox to turn into cement, so it needs to be moved around a bit. And we, as the caretakers of the universe, have to step in. We want the game to be built, owned, and operated by its playerbase. But right now we have to."
Masters of control
Though EVE Online has expanded significantly over 16 years, players have largely been playing and mastering the same game—consistently smashing hypothetical boundaries along the way. Player-made alliances like The Imperium boast 40,000 characters. Supercapital ships, once the prize of only a few players, now number in the thousands like an ever-increasing nuclear stockpile. Even wormholes, the transient network of hostile, isolated systems were designed only to be temporarily explored. Players started colonizing them permanently instead.
"The conceit of EVE is that it's a chaotic sandbox for you to reign and to order, and we give people the tools to organize themselves," Pétursson explains. "The amazing alliance leadership of EVE has leveraged their ability to organize people at scale, and now the world is too orderly and not chaotic."
Unlike most other features in EVE, which are often announced months ahead of time, The Chaos Era represents a new, terrifying standard where sweeping changes can come and go at a moment's notice. Pétursson wouldn't commit to defining what will happen next or how long The Chaos Era will last, but it's clear this is just the beginning.
Right now, CCP Games is manually injecting chaos to disrupt its own players' ability to organize and create order. But Pétursson says the company is investigating options with procedural generation and artificial intelligence to empower EVE Online to create its own kind of chaos.
In the same way that the destructive effects of global warming are a consequence of industrialization and consumerism, EVE Online could one day possess a kind of sentience that allows it to counteract the will of its players. Dynamically generated cosmic disasters, more surprise alien invasions—anything could be possible. "If there were environmental effects in EVE from all this industrialization and order, that would be a great thing," Pétursson says. "Then the system could balance itself out and oscillate between order and chaos."
You'd think that this kind of chaos would be scary to EVE's players, but many welcome it. The members of Avanto, in particular, are eager to see "chaos come to wormholes".
After Finnbogason and Pétursson finished their fireside chat, the stream stayed on with cameras set up in different rooms of Lilianah's house to film the Fanfest Home attendees as they mingled and chatted. Meanwhile, Finnbogason grilled burgers (his nickname of CCP Burger is well-earned) to feed everyone.
I spoke with several members of Avanto who were eager to see how CCP could shake up their way of life. To date, The Chaos Era has only affected the large empires found in EVE Online's null-sec region of space, but they're just one quarter of EVE Online's four major player groups, each which has its own needs and preferred playstyle.
Wormhole corporations like Avanto, for example, are a fearless bunch who have colonized the treacherous, uncharted solar systems known as Anoikis. When wormholes were first introduced in 2009, CCP never imagined that players would actually live inside of Anoikis star systems. The wormholes that connect them to the known parts of EVE's universe are constantly moving. Every day you wake up with new—and potentially hostile—neighbors. It was too chaotic, CCP thought.
But in the decade since wormholes have come out, players have cracked the code of how these connections work and built an entire science around manipulating them. They can estimate with alarming accuracy just how long a given wormhole will last, where it'll go, and how much mass can pass through it before it collapses. Though there are inherently greater risks to living in wormhole space, players like Lilianah have learned how to minimize them.
"Wormhole mechanics are pretty much used up," Lilianah says. "New winds would be a nice addition to the game. If chaos reaches wormholes, that's just a good thing. In general, wormholers are a really resourceful group. We shouldn't even be able to live there. So let the chaos come, we are looking forward to it."
Hot tub space-time machine
That desire for chaos was reflected again and again as the night went on and, inevitably, clothes were shed. Being from Canada, I had no idea what a sacred ritual saunas were—or that there were so many different philosophies about how best to use one. "The Germans," one Finnish man tells me, wiping sweat from his face as he dumps another cup of water on the coals, "they are very strict about sauna. They have rules, like you have to stay for at least five minutes and you cannot sauna if you are too old or too young. But us? Not so much."
Pestered about chaos coming to wormholes, Pétursson and Finnbogason already had a growing list of ways to make life in Anoikis space scary again. Whether those features actually end up in a future version of EVE Online is uncertain.
During the car ride back to Helsinki the next day, it became clear that Finnbogason and Pétursson have some ambitions ideas about what shape EVE Online is going to take as it begins to enter its third decade of life. After so many years of working on the same MMO, their connection to it borders on supernatural, at least the way they describe it, and their expectations of what EVE can become are borderline science fiction.
"Think about it like EVE is an organism. EVE does not like where it's going. It's no longer limber. It's lost its stamina and mobility. It feels a little stiff. EVE comes to me in a dream and says, Hilmar, release the hounds of war," Pétursson tells me, referencing his decision to implement The Chaos Era. "That's how it happened. It came to me in a dream and it said, 'This cannot go on. I do not like this, this is not what I was meant to be.' The game has a purpose. It wants to finish its mission, and its mission is much larger than what it has executed in the last 16 years."
When I ask what EVE Online's purpose is, Pétursson is silent for a minute. "I think its mission is world domination," he finally says. "I think it wants to establish a new invention. At some point we didn't have countries and now we have countries. We didn't have companies, now we have companies. At some point we didn't have Facebook and now we have Facebook. At some point we didn't understand what a virtual world that's more meaningful than real life was, but EVE is on a mission to make that happen."
But before EVE Online can become the metaverse so many nerds have spent years dreaming of, Pétursson says, it needs to better simulate the conditions of our own reality. EVE needs to learn how to make its own chaos. And before it can do that, CCP has to understand what chaos really is.
"If you're trying to figure out how the universe works, you put two atoms into a particle accelerator, you smash them together, and you look at the debris," says Pétursson. "The Chaos Era is a little bit like that. We are not smart enough—nobody is smart enough—to understand what we might find. It's not even the exercise of trying to predict what it is. You just have to have the courage to walk into the chaos."