Why is EVE so compelling? On the surface, one can point to things like internet spaceships -- duh! -- and the glorious vistas one can see. (Check out Into the Ether, link found on the right, to see some nice pictures. Reading that blog helps me to recall some of the wonder I had when I was newer, and that I still have from time to time when I step back from the spreadsheet and actually look at things.)
But the visuals are not the heart of the game. We all know this because we spend most of our play time zoomed out, barely seeing anything more than some boxes and crosses in the midst of the spreadsheets. And ditto for the spaceships. No doubt their appearance adds a lot to the game, but many other games have had pretty spaceships.
One thing EVE gets right is production. I love making things in every game I have ever played. Many games have little you can make; others a fair amount. But inevitably, crafting becomes dull because it is either a grinding activity, or because it is pointless, or because there is no market and your needs are very finite. Making your first +4 sword is a rush. But after you have one +4 sword, or maybe two, you don't need any more. And then there's really no point in making more.
EVE takes crafting to a higher level. How does it do it? The immediate reason is the market. You may not need another +4 sword, but someone else does, and you can sell it to him. So you might make swords even if you don't need them. But why would he need a sword? We have generalized the question from one player to all players collectively, but not answered it. We must look deeper.
The reason there is any substantial trading in EVE's markets is that in EVE there is consumption. People require constant supplies of ships, fittings, implants, POS parts, etc. Some fraction of this demand is coming from new players entering the game, but only a modest amount. The real reason is that the existing stock of all goods is being constantly reduced. EVE is full of destruction.
Ships and their fittings are blown up all the time in EVE, and the only way in which new ones appear is that someone, somewhere in the game, builds them. (Well, almost only. A tiny fraction of goods are created via gifts and missions, but nowhere near enough to supply the game.) Similarly implants are lost in pods, POSes themselves are blown up, etc. In highsec only, it is possible to have a "buy once, use forever" ship. But nowhere else in the game, and even in highsec it is possible (if unlikely) to be ganked even when the gank is uneconomical.
One aspect of destruction that is obvious to EVE players, but should be mentioned here in case others are reading, is permanent loss. In EVE, when something is blown up, it is gone. It never respawns. You will not be given more. And the server is never reset. The only way to replace a lost object is to build another new one, or to buy it on the market from someone else who built it.
So, EVE "works" for the producer because of its destruction. Loss means consumption, which requires production.
Of course, not all players are interested in crafting. Some love it. Some hate it. To most it is a modestly interesting grind. What do most players play EVE for? PVP. Let's now consider that.
Certainly EVE's PVP is compelling, but why? When we experience it, we know why: because it gives us the rush of adrenaline. We are "amped up"; we have to pee, we feel cold, our hands shake. In victory, our brains flood with serotonin and we feel awesome. In defeat, we log out and try to forget it, feeling crushed. But why do we feel these things? Why do we care?
The proximate reason we care is that we just stuffed a real live person out there (or were stuffed by). An actual victim is required. I have lost a handful ships to EVE's PVE. It is embarrassing, and even gets a little adrenaline going the first few times, but it fades rapidly. You know that it did not mean much. You will use a better fit tomorrow, with better skills, and never lose a ship that way again. And nobody is crowing over the loss.
We care about victory and defeat only when they are against real people. But why? Here the trail ends. We care because we evolved to care. We are evolved apes, and beating a rival in physical combat meant good things to our ancestors' genes, whereas being beaten was potentially deadly. EVE allows us, risk-free, to stimulate the ancient reward and punishment circuits in our brains.
But the gaining of dominance or or being forced into submission is not all of the story. I have played many games online, involving killing an enemy's units, or being killed. And though it is certainly fun killing the enemy's units, and vexing to lose mine, few games have had the sheer intensity of the gain or loss that I find in EVE. Why is that?
I submit that we care because we value our ships and pods. We value them in our real life, not just operationally within the game context. And we value them because they were expensive; because they actually cost us something real and substantial. We got them by farming/grinding in the game, or via real money (injected as PLEX). A loss is more than just a repositioning; it means dollars or hours of your life, and those are precious. No game that respawns your character without serious loss, or which gives you stuff just for starting a scenario, can approach the emotional impact that EVE has.
It is that value that connects the PVP game in EVE to the production game. The value created is the value destroyed. Just as the concept of good necessarily requires evil, the elation of victory requires the relative boredom of farming.
Permanent gain and permanent loss, tied together. Yin and yang. This is what makes EVE great. Every ship you lose means time grinding. And that gives it real value to you. Conversely, without ships constantly dying there is no point in making ships, meaning no point in the economy, no point in crafting.
There are a lot of other good aspects of EVE's design. (The skill system, for example, is a clever design.) But the creation of elating victory is the most fundamental. And also, it seems to me, the most obvious. And yet, I know of no other game that combines EVE's three key elements:
- permanant gain and loss
- player run market
PLEX are not part of this design per se; EVE existed and was addicting people long before PLEX were introduced. But PLEX interact strongly with the system in interesting ways. That (and RMT) is the subject for another post.