Engagement is often touted as the key goal of any live service game. There are many ways to measure this somewhat woolly term, though time and money spent will figure in most such metrics.
While good basic indicators, time and money are hardly aspirational outcomes for a medium that is capable of so much more – and they are not going to portray the industry in the best light to our critics. So shouldn’t all games be actively looking for something more, a higher-purpose of engagement?
For instance, games can teach skills, both soft and hard, that players can apply to other aspects of their lives. And games can form social bonds and friendships, every bit as relevant as those you have in your immediate, physical, community.
Such games would actually benefit their players – and who doesn’t want a more skilled, more socially capable and (potentially) wealthier community – plus they would also aid the cause of gaming as a whole, helping to prove our naysayers wrong.
Sounds like a dream? Maybe not, Eve Online has achieved it, and CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson now has the research to prove it. It’s time to talk about the Eve Effect
A BRAVE NEW WORLD
As you likely know, Eve Online is one of the most immersive and demanding virtual worlds to have ever been created. With creator CCP’s company mission being nothing less than to “create virtual worlds more meaningful than real life.” Quite the aspiration.
During the present pandemic, such a statement comes under even greater scrutiny, can a game, any game, really be more meaningful than real life during such a crisis? But Pétursson is adamant that the virtual nature of the experience doesn’t discount its validity. And that the present situation actually plays to its strengths.
“Eve, for over 17 years now, has proven that you can be socially connected without being physically close, that in a way proves, once and for all, to everyone that it can be done.”
“Alliances in Eve Online span the globe. They span culture, time zones and generations”
And while we cannot directly compare society’s life-and-death struggles with corona to the competitive struggle in Eve, there are parallels. In a myriad of ways, the last few weeks have been tough for many, but that added difficulty has motivated many to pull together in ways we have never seen before.
Similarly in Eve, the sheer difficulty of the game, “an extremely ruthless, darwinian social sandbox,” as Pétursson describes it, forces players to “learn to cooperate while being physically apart” on a scale seen in few other titles.
“Alliances in Eve Online span the globe. They span culture, time zones and generations,” he points out. “And if players have found a way to bridge all of that, now the world is figuring out how to bridge all of that for the first time ever.”
ADAM AND EVE
That high level of difficulty, requiring both co-operation and skill to overcome, has been a key element in creating the beneficial Eve Effect. But difficulty alone will not suddenly bond your players together and teach them socially-useful skills – Battle Royale games are arguably difficult but relatively few create brand-new lifelong friends or directly teach socially-useful skills.
Instead, the Eve Effect comes out of a blending of factors, of which difficulty is just one. The original game was not designed to teach skills or make friendships, or even specifically to be difficult. Though all these things did stem from its original design pillars, and those pillars were intended to provide a sense of meaning to everything players do.
For starters there’s a big, persistent, single universe – so that all players, and everything that they do, is potentially significant for all other players. Second is that the world should be driven by player action, not by the activity of NPCs. And finally, the very idea that “loss should have meaning,” with the destruction of a player’s ship having some serious consequences for their financial wellbeing.
Player death rarely has any serious consequences in most games, it’s a regular inevitability with relatively minor setbacks. Losing a ship in Eve can be a serious blow, especially to newer players. Your character will simply be re-cloned, but the financial consequences of the lost ship and cargo can be serious, as you’d expect in a world that strives to have meaningful economic consequences on both the micro and macro scale.
Pétursson argues that Eve’s economy is actually more real than, say, the UK’s. Because CCP has total knowledge of Eve’s economy, it has literally a perfect model of it.
“The major economies, when you look at them, they’re statistical measures of human behaviour. They only exist as models in central banks. They’re only loosely based on actual things that happen in those countries. So you could actually argue the point that the Eve Online economy is more real than the UK economy, because we know everything that goes on in Eve. We’ve had economists write PhD papers at various universities to explain this notion.”
Even putting aside such high-minded arguments, we can see that the game’s persistent universe, its complex economy, and the meaningful consequences of player actions upon their position and status within it, all come together to generate meaning. And that’s at its most powerful at times of loss – which is why CCP is now providing ‘grief counselling’ for players when they lose their first ship.
So Eve is a tough place to spend time. But unlike the real world, players can easily leave if they’re not enjoying it, so why don’t they? And that’s the question that kicked off the Eve Effect research, explains Pétursson.
“Given the game is this hard to get into, why are people still playing Eve Online? Why does the game still exist and why is the game still, in a way, thriving? And maybe most importantly, why are there people, many thousands of them, who have played the same game almost every single day for 17 years?” muses Pétursson.
But surely there are obvious reasons why people like the game, why they put so many hours into it?
“It has increased their skillset in a way that is highly applicable to the rest of their lives.”
“Yes, the game is known for its massive fleet fights, thousands of spaceships coming together shooting it out for 48 hours, setting world records.
“But is it because of that? No. That’s often why people join it, it’s not really why they stay with it, they stay because of this concept we call the Eve Effect.
“Through research and interviews, anecdotes, and the data from players, we have found that the two primary reasons why people continue to play Eve Online for decades is because they have made new friends through the game and the game has increased their skill set, not just in the notion of playing the game, it has increased their skillset in a way that is highly applicable to the rest of their lives.
“And in our research, we have come up with a model to think about it, and we call one aspect ‘the friendship machine’ and the other aspect we call ‘skills for life’.”
THE ONE WITH THE HUGE SPACE MMO
While social distancing is a new and certainly extreme barrier to making new friends, our pre-pandemic world was already struggling to provide us with close companions, explains Pétursson.
“Friendship is an endangered species in the world today. In a major study in New York, the average New Yorker in 1977 had more than seven friends. By 2017, it was down to 1.2 friends per New Yorker.
“It connects into something called the loneliness epidemic, that big, dense, urban areas, such as London, Seoul or Shanghai, are not very good at allowing people to make friends.” This is indeed a widely discussed phenomena, which the UK government recognises, having expanded a ministerial role in 2017 to take on the issue, appointing an Under-Secretary of State for Civil Society and Loneliness.
Eve, however, is doing its part to push back: “When we researched our player base, we found 73 per cent of Eve players have made new friends as a result of playing the game. That is an extraordinarily high number.
That wasn’t news to the community of course, who coined the phrase: “The best ship in Eve is friendship,” quips Pétursson, explaining that: “Whatever fancy ship you dream about having in Eve, if you don’t have friends, you’re not really going very far.
“We were inspired when we found out that Eve was fighting this [loneliness epidemic] in its own way. And through this journey, we’ve developed many psychological models to understand this.”
CCP went out to look at theories of how friendships were created, to better understand what was going on in the game, so it could better serve that positive outcome.
“So to make a new friend, you need proximity, frequency, duration and intensity,” Pétursson begins. “So, imagine if you meet the same clerk in a store every time you go to shop for food. You have proximity, you have frequency, but you have short duration and not a lot of intensity. So that doesn’t amount to a friend.
“But imagine if you go to kindergarten when you’re small. You spend a lot of time, you go there every day, your proximity to other kids is very high. But a lifelong friend happens when say you’re bullied by older kids and somebody comes in and helps you. It’s an intense moment and you have a friend for life.”
And all the elements of that scenario are present in the game as well. “The fact that Eve Online is so harsh and hard and offers so many epic moments, like when tens of thousands of people come together to fight each other, due to the fact that the game is so hard, and so there’s this intensity aspect, that is where the new relationships are forged.”
And those relationships are then further solidified by the game’s laissez-faire capitalist design. It’s very easy for players to betray each other in Eve, the game doesn’t protect your items and assets in the same way as most MMOs. You genuinely have to trust the other members of your corporation.
“You really have to rely on others,” Pétursson concurs, adding that players who self identify as ‘helpers’ have the highest engagement. “So the people who play the longest, who have the most minutes per session, are the people that most like to help others, they play close to 100 minutes per session, more than people who prefer combat, competition or exploration.
And to quote a player from the Eve Effect study: “So the first time I realised this game was for me, and I will stick around, was when a group depended on me for an important task.”
SKILLS FOR KILLS
So Eve relies upon friendships born out of intense experiences and forged in trust, both in each other’s character, and in each other’s abilities. But with the game having both a complex economy and combat system, those abilities are more analytical than twitch.
The game’s players make use of complex spreadsheets to calculate the optimal economic and combat outputs. “They are something to behold!” exclaims Pétursson. And the mindset required here is quite broadly applicable to the real world.
“So, the other aspect of the Eve Effect is this notion that players have developed skills through playing the game, which they can then use in their own life,” Pétursson explains, and provides us numerous quotes from players in the study.
‘Eve has given me a well-paid project management job,’ said anonymous respondent, and ‘assisted in my career in real life as an elected politician.’ While another respondent said he has learned ‘leadership, product management, understanding of different cultures and communication skills.’ Another example stated that: ‘I used Eve to land my current job. I’m a business controller for one of the biggest construction companies in the world.’
Pétursson tells us that when one respondent was asked about his leadership experience, “he brings up his corp alliance leadership over the past nine years. Imagine organising thousands of people across cultures and time zones for nearly a decade.”
Excel skills are the most commonly noted in the research, but there are many more. Language skills for instance, writing skills, this is even a game that can teach supply chain management: “Where you do your manufacturing, where you acquire minerals, where you sell your products,” expands Pétursson.
And then there are soft skills: “Ownership with authority and responsibility, healthy scepticism and resilience, improved people and networking skills, personal development, trust and loyalty, curiosity, leadership management, broader horizons, an interest in politics… If you were to take an MBA at Stanford, I’m pretty sure you would see similar ingredients,”
“And this is all sourced from the players themselves. We’ve learnt this through analysis and surveys, interviews and so on. And 56 per cent of Eve players say that they’ve used skills they learnt in Eve Online in real life. ‘My boss adopted the spreadsheet for the whole department,’ said one, this just keeps coming up.”
And to sum it all up: “70 per cent of Eve players say they believe the skills acquired through Eve can help them get better jobs.”
But those players need backing from our industry to normalise the idea that skills learnt in games can be applicable to real world jobs. Much in the same way that employers have long valued the soft skills many people learn playing competitive sport.
“A part of why we are presenting the Eve Effect is to help the narrative around computer games a bit. It’s currently on such a primitive level that often Eve players are shy to talk about [their skills] in public,” Pétursson tells us. “But they’re obviously not shy to talk about it with us, because we know all about it.”
“It is time that the conversation around computer games starts to mature, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. It’s not just kids wasting their time. In the case of Eve Online, it’s professional adults learning valuable things and making lasting friendships.
“When I wrote the statement to ‘make virtual worlds more meaningful than real life’, it was based on a feeling, a belief. And now, a decade plus later, we have all this data, we can start to have rational conversations about it. But it was a difficult conversation to have even inside CCP just three years ago.
“It is really just recently, as recently as almost last year, where I could without any caveats, just say these things, and people would universally nod. So if a company like CCP, where we’re quite close to the cutting edge of what’s been done in games. If even we struggle with it, then I think we are on a journey that will probably take ten years to get the mainstream of human society onboard with a fascinating concept like this: that you can make real friends, and learn real skills, from playing a computer game like Eve.”
The data which CCP now has at hand is undoubtedly a big step forward in making the argument about the value of games to society – both interconnecting us and training us in useful ways. And as we noted earlier, it seems that there’s an even greater opportunity now, created by the pandemic, to push forward games’ case as a force for good in a world which may become, going forward, more remote and will value the ability to organise under those circumstances.
Of course, at present, it’s impossible to predict how a crisis like coronavirus will effect change in our society – for better or worse. But we know it will change things. In an odd coincidence, CCP recently undertook creating its own ‘global’ crises within Eve, although these crises were specifically designed to tackle certain issues.
Put simply, the order that we impose upon the world is constantly under attack by the force of entropy. Which is neatly summed up by Marvel’s less-loved baddie Ultron, who noted: “When the Earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it, and believe me, he’s winding up.”
However, for a virtual world such as Eve, there is no entropy, no grand random curveball coming to kill the dinosaurs or lockdown the planet. “We unfortunately were not smart enough 17 years ago to create the world such that it could orchestrate its own creative destruction, so we have to help it along.” And that help had a name: The Chaos Era.
“The Chaos Era is an execution of the concept of creative destruction, the game was stagnant, it was getting bureaucratic, because everything was predictable. And predictable inputs lead to stagnated outputs. So, what we were looking for was to shake off the conditions and change the game, such that people had to innovate their way out of it.
“That is hard to execute when you are dealing with a game because we cannot orchestrate an outside force that is not of human origin. But this was our way to do it in Eve. And if you look at something like the coronavirus, that is obviously going to lead to a form
of creative destruction too.”
“I don’t want to be the bad guy, but somebody has to be the bad guy.”
The Chaos Era has already seen huge fleets of NPC ships attack player-controlled stations, caused a game-changing local communications blackout, alongside a variety more conventional economic interventions.
While some may be pointing fingers in the coronavirus crisis, blame will likely never be clearly attributed to any single group or practice. However, Eve’s own trials and tribulations undoubtedly come from Pétursson and his colleagues, so how do you shake things up in a game without actually alienating the players from the development team?
“I don’t want to be the bad guy, but somebody has to be the bad guy, When the game is stagnant, somebody has to take on the role of doing the unpopular thing and addressing it. And while there is obviously a team of people behind me, which are making it all happen, it is just a very human thing to pinpoint it on somebody. So I just stepped in front of it, and it’s me.”
Grand instigator isn’t a role Pétursson revels in, though, as it’s the players who are supposed to be the key agents of change in Eve, not CCP.
“It’s a role we have very rarely stepped into, it maybe happens once per decade. Because it’s ultimately not what we want to do. It’s not the principle of the game. We want to be the janitors, we want to be making sure the lights are on and everything is operational, we don’t really want to be in this role.”
ACTIVATE SELF DESTRUCT
“More players than ever are playing the game, we have less bots, there was a lot of predictable gameplay that was easy to do through AI, that is now in a much healthier way. We’ve reduced by 80 per cent what we would call ‘unhealthy engagement’ from bots, or very low engagement gameplay. And we have a much healthier ecosystem as a consequence.
“There is still a lot to do. It’s an endless job to keep an economy like this going. But this was kind of a kickoff to a new phase for Eve, which is gonna be a little more, for the lack of a better word, chaotic.”
It now seems somewhat perverse to be upsetting the virtual applecart just at the point when the world needs stability, but The Chaos Era plan predates the current crisis, and a refreshed and more challenging Eve should be a better creator of friendships than its stagnating predecessor. And in future Pétursson hopes that the game will take on the task of entropy itself.
“So our Chaos Era was human induced. But we are now building more and more ways that Eve Online can do this on its own, so it doesn’t have to be helped. But obviously, the universe has had 16 billion years to practice. What we’re now experiencing is a form of nature reacting to the fact that there’s a lot more people on Earth right now than there were 100 years ago. And when that happens, this is what can happen.”
While we must always be cautious in making comparisons between people’s real-world struggles against an often deadly disease and a game taking place in a virtual world; it would also be foolish to say that games have no comment to make on our current predicament or that they can’t be a force for good.
But that won’t happen unless we collectively find and provide evidence from within our games and communities to prove that point. Because by showing the benefits of games clearly, we can still further amplify our industry’s potential for good.