The Press Pass braves the cruel cosmos. (All screencaps by Eric Grundhauser)
Inside EVE Online, a colossal multi-player science fiction game, space is vast and space is gorgeous, with blazing nebulas, a rainbow of different suns, and countless bits of unknowable future technology.
At least, the vistas we could enter without being blown up.
EVE Online got started in 2003 and currently has around half a million registered users (EVE does not release exact user numbers) from all around the world. Unlike many other standard MMORPGs, EVE takes place almost exclusively in outer space, not in some kind of fantastical Earth, as you guide your ship through a staggeringly vast universe of star systems and galactic regions. Space warfare is its primary driver, with mind-boggling ship-building, resource management, and economics systems, and an intricate and ever-evolving system of political wars among the huge player corporations. The crunchy, minutia-driven mechanics of EVE Online have led to the game often being described as “spreadsheets in space,” and that isn’t exactly an incorrect description.
But what many people often forget amongst the stat blocks and backstabbing is that these are some beautiful fucking spreadsheets—and we just had to explore them.
A journey of cosmic exploration deserves a futuristic soundtrack. Hit play.
As the in-game story goes, in the year 7987 CE, the now star-faring human race discovered a stable wormhole that led to a far-flung quadrant of space, ripe with new planets and resources. The EVE Gate was built around the wormhole to stabilize it and the human race began colonizing the worlds beyond the gate in a region that came to be known as New Eden. But just 74 years after the gate was built, the wormhole mysteriously collapsed and the expansionist humans were trapped in their distant portion of the galaxy. Cut off from Earth, the colonies began dying off or simply reverting back to simple survival societies on their new planets.
Warp to (pun intended) roughly the year 23349 CE and mankind has built itself back into a quartet of warring empires whose battles play out among the stars of New Eden and beyond using fleets of ships large and small, piloted by clones encased in protective capsules (player pilots are known as “capsuleers”). When you start the game you create a character, and must choose one of the four races of humans to join. There is the Amarr Empire, a militant theocracy; the Minmatar Republic, a rebellious, tribal society; the Gallente Federation, full of hedonistic dilettantes, and the Caldari State, a proud, loyal people. Once these choices are made, you are given a starter ship, and shunted out into this brave (and dangerous) new galaxy.
Somewhere between a red sun and a planet.
And it is nothing less than a bit daunting. Senior PR and Social Media Lead Ned Coker for CCP Games, the company behind EVE, says that there are over 7,900 solar systems, 67,000 planets, 342,000 moons, 5,900 space stations and 66 regional markets in the playable EVE universe. And those numbers don’t include the countless asteroid fields, mysterious monuments, and wormholes throughout the game world.
Then there is the player base. EVE Online differs from many MMORPGs in a few major ways. Many MMORPGs split players across a number of segmented servers, but in EVE, there is only one server that everyone plays on, Tranquility. So, the massive player base is all flying around a single galaxy. The exception is Chinese players who play on their own server because, as Coker says, the laws in China do not allow a Western company to operate virtual worlds in the country.
The other major difference that exists in EVE is that player-versus-player combat is always on. This means that at any time, anywhere in the galaxy, an aggressive player (or more often, group of players, known as “corporations”) in a stronger ship can come and blow you out of the sky. However this is not to say that space is a lawless wasteland. Each system is broken up into different security levels, policed by NPCs from the various races. High security systems (hi-sec), will quickly respond to any indiscretions in force; low security systems (low-sec), will do the same just with less of a force; and then there are the unguarded systems (null-sec), regions that are lorded over by often-violent player corporations, which are dangerous for any capsuleer daring enough to travel through them.
Travel through the vast expanses of space is achieved by either slow impulse flying, or quicker warp travel within each star system, and using stargates to travel from system to system. The easiest way to get around is to plot a course on the map and throw your ship into autopilot as it slowly takes its course through sometimes dozens of stargate jumps in real-time. This means that traveling from one far-flung portion of the galaxy to another can often take over an hour, if you survive.
In EVE a stargate will take you much farther than Egypt.
For our purposes (and because we did not have the six months to a year it can take to truly delve into many of the mechanics, as much as we would have loved to), we focused simply on the simple exploration of the most interesting and gorgeous bits of the EVE universe.
To narrow down our search, we contacted the master of EVE exploration and author of the awesome EVE Travel blog, Mark726. In his Buzzard-class Covert Operations ship, Professor Science, Mark726 has been tooling around EVE since 2007, rooting out the hidden wonders in the dark corners of the galaxy. He is one of a small group of players who gravitate not towards the space combat, but towards space-faring itself.
Mark726 suggested a few of his favorite places (and full disclosure, explained exactly how to navigate EVE space as I was floundering) and I set off in my little Velator-class Gallente rookie ship. I named my ship the Press Pass in the hopes that it might dissuade any hostile players from preying on me as I traveled (it did not).
Random warp bubbles will force you to stop and smell the comet dust.
The first thing about traveling in EVE is that it is simply awe-inspiring. This is no journey through a black expanse dotted with single points of light, but instead your little ship throttles past bright red suns, huge planets that blot out the sky, and colorful nebulas that are locked realistically in space so that their aspects change as you travel to closer or further systems. It would be easy to just randomly drift through space forever, just taking in the cosmic vistas. Combined with the constant threat of being attacked and destroyed, exploring in EVE gives a very real sense of one striking out into the great unknown.
Getting a little more focus, the Press Pass warped and jumped to what was by far the most highly recommended landmark, a huge monument known as Titanomachy. (Mark726, Ned Coker, and even Creative Director, Torfi Frans Olafsson all suggested that I check it out). The in-game memorial was created after the Battle of B-R5RB, a 22-hour player battle that gained widespread media attention, and was said to have cost the gamers $300,000 of in-game assets. Over 600 ships were lost in the fighting including an unprecedented amount of enormous Titan-class ships, the largest in the game, which take thousands of play hours to build and learn to fly. After the fighting stopped, the destroyed hulks were made permanent floating fixtures in space, along with Titanomachy itself, a colossal statue, affixed to the broken prow of a Titan.
Despite it taking me through various low and null-sec systems, I got there just fine and was not disappointed. The scale in EVE is often hard to correctly communicate in pictures, but the Press Pass was thoroughly dwarfed by the wreckage and monument itself.
Titanomachy surrounded by the shattered Titans of the Battle of B-R5RB.
Titanomachy in scale.
Flying away from Titanomachy I stopped by a semi-common landmark in the current EVE universe called a Jove Observatory. These huge, mysterious spires are thought to have been created by a secretive fifth race that originated in New Eden, the Jove. The purpose of the floating spikes is unknown, but their titanic scale and cosmic mystery bring to mind the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of H.R. Giger.
I was scared to get too close to the Jove Observatory.
Emboldened by my successful trip to the carnage of B-R5RB, I next set course for a place Mark726 called the Infested Comet Remains located with the Contested Canyon of Rust. This ruined space station was overrun by rogue robots and had to be abandoned and is now hidden deep within a series of ancient warp ramps. Unfortunately the the drones that created the wreck still infest the area. Having devoted no time to honing ship combat, when the first ancient warp tossed my ship right into a cluster of the angry drones, the Press Pass was destroyed for the first time, but definitely not the last.
When a ship is destroyed you are ejected as a little survival pod that can get your capsuleer back to a station to take control of another ship, although the capsule too can be destroyed by determined enemies. Luckily there was a space station nearby and the Press Pass II was soon soaring through the galaxy.
The ancient warp ramp that would spell the doom of the original Press Pass.
Goodbye Press Pass I.
A naked capsuleer.
Inspired by the brush with death, the next landmark to visit was known as the Capsuleer Cemetery. Unlike Titanomachy, or the Jovian monument, which were permanent fixtures created by CCP Games, the Capsuleer Cemetery was created by players as an unofficial monument to all the dead clones that have died in New Eden over the years. A player or players have placed number of capsuleer corpses in permanent beacon markers orbiting a disused space station that seems to be encased in an impenetrable warp bubble. The hundreds of bodies floating there in space make a memorable statement about the constant dangers of the EVE universe.
The anomaly that marks the site of the Capsuleer Cemetery.
This beacon holds the corpse of a dead capsuleer.
Finally I set out to visit Steve, the first Titan ever built in EVE Online back in 2006. The huge ship must have been a frighteningly impressive sight when it launched, so of course it was only a few months before a corporation of players banded together and shot it down. Being such a momentous craft, its remains were also made a permanent monument in the spot where it was shot down. The only problem: Steve’s grave is located 30-some jumps through null-sec space. Given the relatively non-violent reaction the Press Pass had so far received (angry NPC robots aside), this didn’t seem like it would be a big problem. But not all systems are friendly.
When I reached the first null-sec system in the jump chain, I warped across it to the next stargate, but the ship came out of warp far short of the gate. It had been stopped by warp-dampening field surrounding the gate that was swarming with hostile player ships. Within seconds, the Press Pass II was destroyed, and a second later the escape capsule followed, leaving behind a dead, naked clone floating in space.
The attack had happened so fast that it was hard to tell exactly what had happened, but now the capsuleer’s conscience was back in the starting station, light years away in-game, and about half-an-hour away in real-time. But Steve had to be reached, so the Press Pass III took flight towards the wrecked Titan, to see if maybe the hostile players had left by the time we got back to the stargate.
By the voyage of the Press Pass VII or so, it soon became clear that reaching Steve may be unattainable without some upgrades to the ship. We tried accessing the gate at different times of day, flying to it manually, and even pleading over the general chat channel. But in EVE space, no one cares to hear you scream. Thus we were unable to reach Steve.
One day… the ancestors of the Press Pass I will meet Steve.
EVE Online is such a huge universe, and carries such an emphasis on impersonal number-crunching that it seems almost hilariously antithetical that exploring it can feel so singular and unique. But it’s instances like my inability to reach Steve the Titan that make it so exciting. Visiting that landmark must be earned, and not simply by finding a way to outwit a computer, but by taking part in the living universe surrounding New Eden. The galactic politics and wars that are so often the focus of EVE sometimes obscure the awe-inspiring backdrops in which they take place. But if all so-called spreadsheets were this pretty, everyone would have an office job.
A special thanks to Mark726, Ned Coker, and Torfi Frans Olafsson without whom I would very literally never have left space dock.