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80. EVE Fanfest 2017 — thoughts on meeting a community

An enormous, beautiful building on the edge of the water in Reykjavik. A space station in a universe where a deadly plague has broken out. A meeting of dedicated fans, passionate creators and friendships spanning the galaxy.

For a few days in April, these three were one and the same. But even as the space dust settles and my plane takes off from Iceland, I can say that I’m taking a bit of Fanfest home with me.

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So what is it?

Fanfest, as described in the words of one of the attendees, is “a place where you meet friends you mostly see on screen, and where you buy those people who screwed you over a beer”.

It’s a yearly fan event for people who are in love with the computer game EVE Online. Held in Iceland, it’s three days of panels and talks, roundtable discussions, showing off cool stuff, playing games and socializing.

Especially socializing.

In its essence a meetup for players and developers. Here, bitter ingame enemies can share a laugh, famous legends turn out to be friendly people and hotshot game developers are just a handshake and an introduction away.

Some elements I found extra interesting were a tattoo parlor (for those who find more meaning in a Caldari logo than a Hindu symbol), an energetic dance party DJ’ed by the actor who played Hodor on Game of Thrones, and arcade style cockpits where people could try the Virtual Reality powered EVE: Valkyrie game.

Fanfest is something quite special. To understand why, one needs to start by looking at the game itself.

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A truly unique game

One of the reasons for this is EVE itself. It’s a Massively Multiplayer Online game, set in space. Players are spaceship captains, that fly huge ships through fantastically beautiful star systems. You don’t see the pilots, however, just the ships.

There’s also a backstory about the player characters being immortal no-longer-quite-humans called Capsuleers, that can download their consciousness into a new clone body if they get killed. It’s a good solution that explains how the players can have their spaceships blown up time and time again, and still play on.

All that is well and good, but the thing that makes EVE unique is that it’s an almost completely player-driven game. Resources are mined from asteroids by players. They are transformed into ship upgrades by players. Ships (and even space stations!) are also built by players. And ingame groups (corporations and alliances) are created and run by players.

To this is added a layer of consequences that not every MMO has. When a ship is blown up in outer space (usually by another player!) most of the resources that went into are lost. Forever. This means that the gigantic space battles that sometimes happen in EVE see the destruction of insane amounts of resources in the game. And the players love it.

All this makes EVE a formidable storytelling machine, and the war stories that have come out of the game are truly exceptional. Players have infiltrated groups and pulled off wild heists. Thousands have fought in massive battles that have become real world news items. Trade monopolies have been created, and maps of the galaxy have been drawn and redrawn.

Not surprisingly, there are some players who produce ingame news reports, players who write fan fiction and players who spend more time diving deep into the lore that has been created through around 14 years of play.

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A caring community

A direct effect of all this is that the game creates bond between people. At the heart of EVE is human interaction, and though people spend a lot of time blowing each other up, there’s a an extremely friendly and inclusive community.

Trickery and schemes are celebrated, and as oke of the players I met told me “Sure, you may get mad in the moment. But that’s what creates the good stories, and we all know that.” when describing how he’d been part of a large fleet action, where part of the armada had suddenly turned on the other part and obliterated it.

That culture shone through during Fanfest. I never encountered anyone fun-shaming others, talking badly about others or being unpleasant. There were jokes and preferences, but the tribalism was good-natured, and there was a lot of respect across groups that in the game are bitter enemies.

I come from larp communities that have some of the same qualities, but there’s a lot more inter-tribal bad will to be found when talking about “the others”. This made it refreshing and humbling to be a part of this community for a few days.

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I’m not an EVE player. But I was, once.

I played EVE way back in 2003, but not for long. The game sucked me in, and I become a diplomat in a small, 40-person strong group/corporation. I loved the roleplaying aspects of the game, and found others who shared that outlook. I loved the player-vs-player driven narrative, and sunk a lot of hours into being a Minmatar pilot.

For me, the brilliance of the game was also its downfall.

During a forum discussion about mining, all of us in the corporation wrote down when we expected to be online. There was no expectation of a certain number of hours, or any guilt-tripping of those who played only a little. It was just done to coordinate efforts. After all, it’s easier to do a team mining raid into dangerous territory if the players are actually online at the same time!

Two things are stuck in my memory from that forum thread.

  1. The leader of our corporation wrote that he was usually online about 8 hours pr day, and more in the weekends. He had a job, where he could have EVE running, and both he and his wife played, so weekends were EVE-time in their home.
  2. I wasn’t anywhere near his hours, but I had a solid amount of ingame time, and as our lead diplomat I had a good hook to play even more.

I realised, that to play the game at the level I wanted, I’d have to put in a lot more time and effort. I had recently been blown up by other players, who were guarding a stargate leading to a system containing juicy secrets. At the time, the developers had just introduced rumors of a new race/empire/faction; the Jovians. Everyone wanted in on the action, so naturally, a few powerful corporations had declared the system where the Jovians had supposedly been spotted, off-limits. And it become very clear to me that if I wanted to be part of the Jovian storyline, I’d need to be one of those on the inside of it, rather than one of those on the outside getting blown up.

You can’t expect to be one of the movers and shakers without putting in the required dedication. And I couldn’t do that and still have time for my primary passion — live action role play (larp). I’d also started doing larps for a living not long before, and knew that being an entrepreneur in a field that didn’t exist yet was going to require not just blood, sweat and tears, but also time. I didn’t see a way to combine that with my passion for EVE.

So I quit.

And I never looked back.

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What was I doing at Fanfest, then?

Fast-forward a handful of years from me ending my Minmatar life. A good friend of mine from the Nordic larp movement had just been hired by CCP, the company behind EVE Online. Her name is Andie Nordgren, but to EVE players, she’s better known as CCP Segull.

In 2014, Andie became the Executive Producer of EVE. As a fellow larper, she’d been looking for ways to incorporate larp elements into the game, and with CCP’s 20th anniversary and Fanfest 2017, she found a place to do it. To help make this happen, she pulled in Christopher Sandberg from The Company P. Among Christopher’s many credentials are two Emmys for Interactive Fiction (the formal title is something fancier), spectacular larp events and creating interactive experiences together with people such as Tim Kring and Joss Whedon.

He’s also an old friend of both mine and Andie’s, so when he needed a larp production house to carry out his vision, it was natural that he reached out to me. He’d even been a professor at the original College of Wizardry in 2014, so people from all over the world has seen videos of him as Professor Miclariotic. We’d talked about doing a big project together since then, and when Andie opened the door to EVE, it was time to test that collaboration.

It was quite special — and kind of poetic in its way — that I returned to EVE after 13 years of absence as a professional larp producer; exactly the thing that had made me stop playing in the first place all those years ago. It also meant that while I was in no way up to speed, I at least had a basic understanding of the game and what makes it so special.

I could have been one of these people. Now I got to be a guest in their world for a few days, running the Kyonoke Inquest event with Christopher and a team from Dziobak Larp Studios. I played the sensationalist reporter Ret Gloriaxx (from The Galactic Hour with Ret Gloriaxx) and to say it was fun would be something of an understatement.

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It blew me away

There are many positive things I could say about this weekend. But I’m going to limit myself to five major points.

  1. The players. The total player number for the game is in the hundreds of thousands, and of these only a tiny fraction (800, I was told) were to be found at Fanfest. Still, those that were there, were a smiling, engaged crowd, that gave us a warm welcome. The amount of positive response we got was simply amazing, and I got the feeling of being welcomed as “one of the tribe” even though I’m not a player.
  2. The company. I can’t speak as to how CCP functions on a day-to-day basis, but here, I’d describe the atmosphere as one of “casual competence”. They were relaxed, bantering and very much at home, but still ran a tight ship, with a high level of professionalism. This was an event with a lot of people-hours sunk into it, and it showed. Also, it was humbling and gratifying to hear high-up CCP people candidly call what we did “an eyeopener”. Admitting that you didn’t know everything isn’t an attribute that everyone has, but here it was done without shame.
  3. The location. Harpa is a social and cultural centre in Reykjavik, and it is nothing less than astounding. Wow. It’s a huge building of glass windows, geometric patterns and unusual spatial design. I’ve read that it has won prestigious architectural awards, and I am not surprised. Among other things, Harpa houses the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and the concert hall — which was used as the main stage during Fanfest — is nothing less than mindblowing. It’s not the biggest stage I’ve stood on, but it is the fanciest.
  4. The response. Without going into a lot of detail about what we actually did at Fanfest, I can say that it involved players choosing to participate in an incrowd larp at the event. They could take on missions for the different factions (empires), work on solving the puzzle of creating a vaccine for a deadly space plague, and be part of diplomatic negotiations that would affect the online world of EVE itself. And they really loved it. We got so many heartfelt compliments afterwards that my ears were all aglow. The words “I hope you do this next year” were repeated more times than I can count.
  5. The parties. We didn’t get to party a lot, since we had long working days that wouldn’t have done well in combination with large amounts of alcohol. To be honest, I think even non-drinking partying would have been too much, with the schedule we were keeping. But I talked with many, whose eyes were shining, when they talked about the official pub crawl (you could buy special EVE beers in several Reykjavik bars). And both the party on Saturday night and the following CCP afterparty were pretty crazy affairs. On the list of things 2003-Claus never thought he’d do, dirty dancing with the CEO behind EVE Online was definitely present. 2017-Claus doesn’t have that kind of list anymore. He has seen too much wild stuff to file much under “Never happening”.
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Now I’m bringing home the elixir

In Christopher Vogler’s 12-step Writer’s Journey model, the last step is called “Return with the Elixir”. Here, the hero brings the knowledge that has been gained back to the community. Returning from Fanfest, I want to share a few elixir drips, and reflect on a few key insights.

  1. The transmedia opportunies are vast. During the final hours of the Kyonoke Inquest (as the game we ran was called), players could stand in the Inquest Hall inside the space station H4RP4 (the Harpa building) and look at a huge screen showing a live feed from a spaceship orbiting the same station (inside EVE Online). The players were here playing their online characters in physical form, looking at other players playing the game in digital form. Players could (and did) strike deals in the physical game that then had an immediate effect on the online game, and the movements of online fleets could affect the offline event. There are so many things that can be done to dive deeper into the rabbit hole. I’ve been aware of this in a distant way, but now, the possibilities are racing through my mind. It’s stopped being idle dreams and has become plans that might be realised.
  2. No, seriously. REALLY vast. Imagine playing a larp on a huge fleet carrier, hurtling through space. The carrier exist as a ship in EVE Online, and is piloted by a player in the game. On that carrier are fighters, and each fighter has a pilot. Whenever a pilot goes on a mission, the player sits down in an arcade style cockpit and puts on VR goggles, flying that mission inside EVE: Valkyrie. When the ship reaches a suspicious asteroid and explores it, the scouting party are taken to a room, where movie-level scenography has been used to create the asteroid surface. The exploits of the asteroid mission are filmed by an ingame camera crew, and their footage is used not only for SCOPE reports, but also as part of an EVE TV series. A book is written about the carrier’s mission (which might fail!) and while the crew of the ship is relaxing in the game, they read the newest New Eden short story anthology created by fans. The pins the carrier crew receive at the end of the mission give them access to a closed one-hour party at Fanfest, and the players who were part of the fleet that protected the carrier in its online form get to vote on the title of the next Permaband song to be recorded.
  3. And that’s just EVE. What if you could have gone to an event for Harry Potter fans, where the experience you had and the choices you made decided which of the Weasley twins were to die? It could just as easily have been George instead of Fred, and it would have been the same from a storytelling perspective. But to those superfans, who had been at that event and been part of influencing that decision, it would have felt incredibly powerful. Books have been created out of roleplaying game sessions. If American Idol can be decided by audience voting, why shouldn’t people be able to vote between presidential candidates in The West Wing? Instead of letting the writers decide whether Robb Stark or Stafford Lannister wins the Battle of Oxcross, let it be played out as a gigantic live action fight with latex weapons. Traditional one-way storytelling will always have its place, but we can do so much more.
  4. I’ve gotten my respect for lore re-ignited. I used to be a world builder. I stopped that, many years ago. Instead, I focused on creating experiences and building communities. I’ve often said that I don’t care about fiction, but I care about connection. I don’t find joy in creating lore or in crafting a detailed world, since lore in larps is a tricky beast. What does it help if it’s defined that the King of Spain is named Ferdinand in a larp about Christopher Columbus’ journey to America when half of the players can’t remember that detail anyway? In a computer game, it’s easier to “hard code” lore, because it’s possible to establish what’s true and what’s not. There is still plenty of room for rumors, misunderstandings and lies, but there’s a kernel of hard fact underneath it. That makes for an interesting design space, and EVE’s combination of author/developer-created truth combined with player-created truth holds a strong appeal for me.
  5. Iceland. I only saw a little of it, but it’s definitely not the last time I visit Iceland. Beautiful nature. Friendly people. Small distances. Exotic, yet close. An adventure, but with a safe feel. Welcoming, accessible and alluring. I understand now why so many people are fascinated by the small island nation and it’s 320.000 inhabitants.
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And so ends the Kyonoke Inquest

On the way to Iceland I wrote a blog post about how things looked a bit dark and grim. Returning, I feel invigorated and reaffirmed in my belief that if we take our passions and pour enough energy into them, we might end up in places we’d never have imagined. This is as true for CCP and EVE: Online, as it is for me personally, and though I don’t believe in fate and “paths”, it definitely felt like this was a step in the right direction.

This is both Ret Gloriaxx and Claus Raasted, signing off.

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