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Getting to know the wonderfully mad community of EVE Online at their 2017 fanfest

EVE Online has the nicest, craziest fanbase you could hope for. We explore their 2017 fanfest.

EVE's Space Pope & entourage. Image Credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

Sometimes this job takes you to weird and wonderful places. I've sat in a Tekken presentation with Snoop Dogg, watched X-Factor drop-outs dance around a newly revealed console and even survived that bizarre Cirque du Soleil Kinect reveal with the space ponchos at E3 - but EVE Fanfest has just shot to the top of my list of weird and wonderful gaming events.

The thing about EVE Fanfest is that unlike the weird celebrity endorsement moments or overly expensive presentations, it's earnest. EVE Fanfest doesn't just have heart - it's all heart. It's hard not to walk away from it deeply endeared to the community. I mean, look: I've installed the game. That's what it did.

"EVE Fanfest doesn't just have heart - it's all heart. It's hard not to walk away from it deeply endeared to the community."

EVE Online isn't the biggest MMO in the world, but its fanbase is hugely dedicated and the game is incredibly unique. In many ways the fanbase is the game, and I'll touch on this a little more later on. The point is that the result is a fan gathering in Iceland that is unlike any other I've attended and runs the gamut of all the things that define the EVE community.

Things start out relatively standard for such an event. We sit through a presentation where fans go nuts for statistics and minor updates, whooping and hollering wildly for things that sound pretty mundane to me. Then things twist. There's a live-action role-play. There's a presidential-style political debate. Things come to a head on an official pub crawl where the EVE brass has shuffled people into groups, each a mixture of CCP staff, fans, and journalists. My group is rounded out by a player who is an in-game politician, democratically elected by other EVE players to the Council of Stellar Management - because yes, that's something that EVE has - real politics. That guy is basically a celebrity throughout the pub crawl - player after player comes over to shake his hand and buy a drink. Towards the end of the night I see him paralytically drunk, being carried away for his own good.

These sorts of stories have been done a lot in the games media over the past few years - stories of people like me, wide-eyed and oblivious, learning about how real EVE feels compared to other MMOs. These stories are usually led by tales of serious alliances, spying and wars, and stunning video footage of massive battles that prove enormously costly. Seeing it all in the flesh really drives it home, however.

EVE Online Executive Producer Andie Nordgren takes to the fanfest main stage. Image Credit: Brynjar Snaer / CCP Games

I have a few interviews scheduled throughout the week, but it's the random chats with players that really showcase just why this game is special. At one point I see a woman taking a knee in front of a guy dressed in religious robes. She is full of sin, he announces in a booming voice, but she can be saved. The woman is actually crying as he explains to her how she can be absolved, and when dismissed she stands, bows and scurries off. It's all part of an elaborate live action roleplay that's going on throughout fanfest, and the results will impact the game world too.

Later on I bump into the woman and get to ask her about what I'd witnessed, and goodness it's been a long time since I've seen anyone so excited about anything. She beams proudly when she realises what I'd seen. She's flown to Iceland from the US and she hasn't even been playing EVE for that long compared to many at the event - but she is completely and utterly invested. "EVE lets me do things I could never anywhere else," she says. "To me, it's about expression."

One high-profile player shared a conspiratorial whisper with me after another player briefly stopped to greet him. "He's going to get it," he cooed. "I've been planning for a while now."

This sort of thing is where EVE Online's heart really lies. Yes, Fanfest has some glorious excess such as the adoration reserved for CCP's in-house rock band Permaband (amazing name) or the DJ set from the big bloke who plays Hodor in Game of Thrones. Panels include in-game issue debates ran by players, development updates from CCP and even lectures on real-life planet discovery from scientists way too smart for me to understand.

Then there's the Space Pope, a lovely chap who has had something of an in-game congregation spring up around him - so now he comes to Fanfest in full papal robes, as pictured at the top of this piece. I legitimately see people bow as he walks past or kiss his hand. He carries an EVE universe religious book with him, though inside it is no text - just a booze-filled hip flask. When he's not the Space Pope he's Charles White, and his day job? NASA. Obviously.

The stories of space skulduggery are delicious too. I'm told some amazing war stories over the weekend including the well-told story about a war that broke out after somebody's partner was insulted at Fanfest. I couldn't help but laugh when one high-profile player shared a conspiratorial whisper with me after another player briefly stopped to greet him. "He's going to get it," he cooed. "I've been planning for a while now."

That stuff is mad and amusing, but it's meeting people who have clearly found a greater purpose in EVE that really blows me away at this event. Some tell me about how skills learned in EVE allowed them to enter or advance dream careers. One tells a simple story of a game and community that "helped to bring him back from the brink" when suffering from crippling depression. Fanfest is home, of course, to both a wedding and marriage proposal, something far more rooted in reality and juxtaposed to in-game events such as the LARP or the resolution of the latest election, but all owe something to this mad little game about spaceships.

EVE players gather around Fanfest's real-world war table to plan.

The politics of EVE are an area that fascinate me in particular. In a sit-down with three of the elected members of the CSM a picture is painted painted of a political system that's a microcosm of reality. Many eligible voters simply don't, their opinion being that the system is largely rigged and won't change no matter the outcome. Some council seats are considered 'safe' because their owners are from large conglomerates that'll push their members to vote a certain way, while others are fought over heartily.

The CSM members get to fly out to Iceland to meet up with the CCP development team a couple of times a year. They're able to feed back what's working and what isn't and get briefed on what's going on behind-the-scenes. They act as a middle-man, and to hear the CSM members I spoke to tell it this is a system that has slowly developed but now is finding a groove that really works for it.

"More often than not the legends are real - these battles, fleet commanders and corporations weren't plot points designated by CCP but were real people who just naturally ended up being drawn in to create some of the most significant events in this game's 14-year history."

One of the group actually describes EVE Online as a game that has "crowd-sourced development" - and you can see it. While CCP is doing everything in-house and keeps their changes and additions on a tight leash, much of EVE Online is defined by its player base. The CSM is key to ensuring anything from new features to balance changes are as close to correct as possible first-time around, while EVE's narrative feels almost entirely player-driven.

During the LARP and across the course of the long weekend in general I hear a lot of this - people speaking of events and of characters as legend, though more often than not the legends are real - these battles, fleet commanders and corporations weren't plot points designated by CCP but were real people who just naturally ended up being drawn in to create some of the most significant events in this game's 14-year history. These moments are rare in games, even in other MMOs, and EVE Online's whispered legends are so compelling that I leave fanfest especially keen to try to take part - EVE's allure is that sense of shared history, something their snazzy new intro movie seeks to underline.

"It really stems from the choice to have a single world that everyone shares. For many of these other games, when you have players spread out on different shards you just don't get this shared history," EVE Online executive producer Andie 'CCP Seagull' Nordgren says. This philosophy and history is also why CCP continue to iterate on EVE after 13 years rather than gearing up for an EVE 2.

"With EVE Online, it's more like if... you've all made something together, and you want to keep that history," she explains. "It's never felt like an option to throw it out. It's physically painful, almost, to think of the idea of throwing this out."

Nordgren seems to be having an incredible week. Every time I see her she's mobbed by adoring players. She walks out on stage for the closing ceremony draped in the colours of many in-game factions - she couldn't just pick one of the things given to her throughout fanfest to wear, so she wears them all. The LARP thing is new for Fanfest and is, it turns out, down to her - she's a LARP nerd outside EVE and wanted to bring a bit of it to the game. The fans instantly fell in love with it.

In many ways her attitude towards the game sums up what makes it special. Ahead of the pub crawl I see her standing on something clutching a bottle of Icelandic spirit, those around her rapt and keen to get started on the boozy night ahead - a chance to make new friends and natter to developers. Those happy faces and that high level developer engaging with fans at street level defines fanfest. This is true right across CCP: even the CEO is out there at the fan meet-ups and parties. He always gets the biggest cheer.

Fans sign a wall at fanfest with messages both in and out of character.

"EVE is the nicest community of monsters you'll ever meet."

One thing that's key for Nordgren and her team is increasing EVE's player-base, and everything they've done in recent years has been to service that goal while keeping existing players happy. Key to that was going to free-to-play, but a lot more work has been done besides this and a lot more work is yet to come.

Some of this is grassroots, with the community setting up groups in-game designed to take in newbies and help them. One member of such a group tells me with a laugh that sometimes newcomers refuse help, convinced by EVE's reputation that an offer of a more powerful ship for free has to be a trap.

"EVE is the nicest community of monsters you'll ever meet," he adds.

CCP is also doing more to directly assist newbies. They've just launched Inception, the first phase of their 'New Player Experience' that aims to guide newcomers more carefully through the opening hours before spitting them out into the wider world. This covers the first few hours, but further NPE updates that cover deeper areas of the game and more gameplay systems are under development right now.

I left fanfest keen to dive in, so I'm going to do just that. You can expect a little more on the current status of joining EVE Online as a newbie from me pretty soon, plus some more words on CCP's approach to inviting in new players from the developers themselves.

For now, though, I guess I'll sign off like a bit of a softie: EVE Fanfest is the kind of event that's a strong reminder of just how special and impactful video games can be on people's lives. This community could sell me just about any game.

Disclosure: This article came off the back of a trip to EVE Fanfest 2017, obviously. CCP provided travel & accommodation.

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