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13 Mar 2010

The first session I attended on Thursday was entitled "Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Gameplay of EVE Online".

To be perfectly honest, I attended this session solely for personal enjoyment. I didn't expect to take away anything particularly applicable to the general craft of game design or specifically relevant to either my indie work or my work with LightBox... I just wanted to spend an hour geeking out about EVE. ;)

Luckily, speaker Alexander Gianturco did a great job extrapolating the underlying factors that make EVE's espionage gameplay possible and valuable. In fact, he ended his talk with an exhortation to developers to incorporate espionage gameplay into more games, and games in other genres and styles. He impressed upon the audience that espionage gameplay need not be unique to EVE, nor more generally to MMOs or hard sci-fi games.

A little background: Gianturco is a player, not a game developer. His in-game persona is The Mittani, director of the GoonSwarm alliance, which had until recently been embroiled in a multi-year war with rival alliance Band of Brothers. Recently, a BoB director defected to GoonSwarm, and Gianturco and other GoonSwarm players managed to convince him to disband the BoB alliance. It was a brilliantly underhanded overnight victory for GoonSwarm and a major event in EVE's rich player history.

Early in his talk, Gianturco indicated the importance of EVE's player-created factions, drawing the distinction against other MMOs which force players into factions created by the devs. "The more personal the struggle, the more intense the espionage gameplay becomes," he explained while suggesting that the Great War might never have begun if the players in BoB and GoonSwarm hadn't been able to create their own alliances which then became intensely personal to them.

A key element to espionage gameplay, Gianturco said, is risk. He claimed that "espionage cannot exist in an arena where nothing is risked". It comes down to establishing value for in-game things: building a Titan is a monumental achievement, but if nobody can steal it from you, or permanently destroy it, then you don't have an opportunity for espionage.

Recently, the significance of widely-publicized acts of espionage in EVE has been measured in terms of its worth in real-world dollars, derived by the effective exchange rate for in-game currency as established by the game's official PLEX system (which allows players to exchange in-game currency for game subscription time). RMT is a major factor in EVE, and something developers CCP have taken steps to mitigate, in part by instituting the CCP-regulated PLEX system. Interestingly, Gianturco pointed out that when it comes to risk, "It is unquestionable that the inclusion of convertible currency and RMT raises the stakes of the game."

Espionage gameplay isn't only about risks to players, though: there are also significant development risks. As Gianturco explained, an espionage metagame requires that you accept that some players will lose, but nobody likes losing. Devs must adopt a "laissez-faire attitude towards the feelings of players", a point which runs somewhat counter to the conventional game design wisdom of today, but does make sense in context of the fact that espionage gameplay must be "somewhat beyond the control of the devs" in order that it be truly player-driven, and thus compelling.

Gianturco made an interesting point about the typical MMO grind: XP and levels. He noted that "MMOs with the most vibrant espionage lack a level based system", referencing EVE, Ultima Online, and Darkfall as examples. He explained that "leveling reduces the relevant population for player factions", which by extension limits the opportunities for espionage. Some of EVE's greatest espionage stories are those where underdog players gutted major alliances, destroyed Titans, or made off with billions in scammed isk. In a level-based system, it seems unlikely that these agents would ever have even had access to their victims. What makes the story so compelling is the *lack *of balance.

The back half of the talk focused on the importance of out-of-game methods of espionage, with Gianturco making the surprising revelation that he almost never plays EVE any more, but instead spends most of his time on chat and forum communication with his alliance members, pulling the strings from beyond the confines of the game client. He talked at length about the shadier side of espionage: spying on or even hacking rival alliances' private forums, scraping IP addresses from forums to compare access times with timestamps of in-game events and access locations to an alliance membership's predominant time zone to root out spies, starting internet flame wars to goad spies into accidentally outing themselves, and even an amusing (if somewhat unsettling) anecdote about one spy who wanted to find out where an opposing alliance leader lived in order to *shut off the power to his house *to keep him out-of-game during a critical fleet operation.

It was fascinating to see the inner machinations of what was perhaps the largest and most important war in EVE's history to date, and Gianturco was an exemplary presenter who did a great job communicating the story and breaking down the details without turning the session into a total nerd-off.

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