~ Mat Westhorpe, EVE: Into the Second Decade Collector's Edition (p.99), 2013
When EVE Online celebrated 10 years of commercial success and growth in 2013, it stood almost alone in the kind of MMO experience it delivered. The freeform, player-driven science-fiction universe quietly expanded to fill - and define - its PvP sandbox niche. Meanwhile, developers of the vast majority of massively multiplayer games looked hungrily at the more obvious successes of the undisputed giant of MMOs, World of Warcraft.
Itself essentially a clone, World of Warcraft borrowed heavily from other IPs, polishing MMO design concepts popularised by Everquest as well as replicating much of the tone of the Games Workshop's Warhammer universe. Looking back over the evolution of gaming, both of those IPs owe their existence to Gary Gygax's pen-and-paper RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn was the gamification of medieval fantasy as created by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937 with his genre-defining The Hobbit and its follow-up, Lord of the Rings (and if we dig even further, you end up in Northern European folklore).
WoW's absolute domination of the MMO genre was of course going to leave other developers wanting a slice of the WoW pie and, as a result, we've since seen dozens of variations on the level-grinding swords-and-sorcery trope (the 'Gygaxian' model as I refer to it in the quote at the top of this post). But the overheads of building and maintaining such content-heavy game experiences make them endeavours of incredibly high stakes and the MMO battlefield of the last 15 years is filled with the smoking remains or barely-twitching emaciated survivors of the desperate search for a WoW-beater.
The Evolution of Sci-Fi Gaming
The renaissance of sci-fi gaming and its charge into the open-world MMO genre is spearheaded by the more immediate gaming experiences of the well-documented Star Citizen (current public alpha, release ~2015) and Elite: Dangerous (current open beta, release Q4 2014). Both of which, while appealing to a similar demographic, offer very different game experiences to that offered by EVE Online.
No Man's Sky (2015 release) became the darling of this year's E3 expo, offering spaceships and the exploration of a vast open universe. Indeed, even Wildstar, while ostensibly being a sci-fi WoW, lifted EVE's successful PLEX payment system as an alternative to standard subscriptions, providing another indication that CCP Games was doing things right in the eyes of its peers/competitors.
The internet spaceship plate that EVE Online kept spinning for so long has suddenly become one from which everyone seems to want to eat.
Let's take a quick look at these new pretenders to EVE's crown.
An ambitious project from an unblooded development team which apparently includes former EVE Online staff, Seldon Crisis hopes to take EVE's player-driven sandbox template and improve upon it (no stargates, minimal UI), delivering an emergent gameplay environment based on Isaac Asimov's peerless Foundation novels. Or, as Chaos Interactive would prefer to phrase it, 'Seldon Crisis is a video game based on an original story written by Scifi novelist and huge Isaac Asimov fan, Riccardo Simone.'
In their own words:
'It is completely up to you how you will achieve this: Through diplomacy, intelligence, military strength or economical power. Have an impact on thousands of other players in a seamless single shard universe. Write your own story, forge a great empire or cause the next Seldon Crisis.
'The game is completely player driven. The economy, politics and even theinfrastructure is in the hand of the the users. You are unbound from preset paths and there is no linear progression to go through.'
At time of writing, a Kickstarter campaign was in progress, with a $8,058 of a $250,000 target currently pledged. Taking a leaf out of Cloud Imperium Games' book with their outrageously successful rolling Star Citizen crowdfunding programme ($54m and rising), Chaos Interactive are also hosting a pledge system on their own site, with a more relaxed end date. Notwithstanding any cease and desist orders from the Asimov estate, it will be interesting to see how this project progresses.
The recent announcement of Piranha Games' Transverse has been beset with some less than favourable coverage from many quarters, including the playerbase of their own free-to-play shooter, Mechwarrior Online. Offering their own take on a brutal universe of spaceship combat and exploration, early dev videos have hinted at an interesting variation on EVE's character progression, with skillpoints acquired whilst undocked at risk of being lost (and looted) in the event of player destruction.
In their own words:
'This future is not without danger and the very substance of humanity will be tested in the distant regions of space known as the fringe. Out in the Fringe, factions of humanity race to explore space, claim resources, and create new technologies to tip the balance of power; with this race for new power, all of humanity is plagued by conflict with the remnants.
'Out in the lawlessness of the Fringe humanity faces its greatest enemy: itself.
'In ship to ship battles, your precision maneuvering and sharpshooting skills are the difference between victory and defeat. The physically-inspired close range combat will require strategic management of your ship's systems. With each burst of weapons fire, high speed turn, and shield deflection, your ship will expend power and build heat. Find holes in your enemy’s defenses and go in for the kill. Every battle you engage in will play out differently.'
The crowdfunding model is once again the resource acquisition method of choice for Transverse (although notably not via Kickstarter), with development milestones at $500,000 intervals stretching up to $2,500,000 as detailed on their website. At time of writing, current funds amount to $7,820.
From a 10-man indie company called Novaquark led by Jean-Chrisophe Baillie, a man who previously ran a robotics company, Dual Universe is gunning for a more immersive first-person experience in a procedurally-generated sandbox PvP universe. While the concept shares much of EVE's DNA, notable differences (aside from the first-person emphasis) include multiplayer ship crews, editable environments and scriptable ship control.
In their own words:
'Dual Universe is about true massively multiplayer experience. There are no boundaries, instances, or zones. You can experience real cooperation and competition, forge intergalactic empires or giant cities, gather thousands of players in alliance events and tilt the balance of power with epic battles, or diplomacy.'
As far as I can tell, there's no current crowdfunding campaign in progress, so this seems to be a privately-funded enterprise at present. That said, the website contains only concept art and some grand aspirations, so the project appears to be very much in its infancy. In any case, it's certainly an engaging concept and I hope to see more from Novaquark.
Earth & Beyond, which launched in 2002 some six months before EVE. However, EVE emerged victorious from that particular clash, absorbing much of the losing game's playerbase when Electronic Arts closed Earth & Beyond down in September 2004.
Since then, EVE has pretty much existed alone in its niche and has flourished as a result. However, this new generation of internet spaceship games seems to indicate some believe EVE's success is ripe for exploitation. Whether this is because EVE's playerbase is considered to be fair game, filled with folks prepared to jump ship for a fresh experience, or that the niche itself is wider than previously believed with a demographic of sci-fi gaming enthusiasts currently underserved by existing games, only time will tell.
CCP should be both flattered and threatened by the imitations. EVE Online has had the advantage of a decade-and-a-half of development, both of the core game and the growth of the community, giving it unprecedented depth but also troublesome legacy code and ancient design concepts. This headstart is both EVE's strength and its weakness and there are interesting times ahead.
Watch this space. And that one. And the one over there...