By Ashlee Vance
Six men in their 30s and 40s have gathered in a trendy Reykjavík hotel bar. They’re trying to stave off the brutal mid-December cold while they wait for Death. He’s their friend and the leader of the 30,000 strong Legion of Death alliance. He’s also taking far too long primping in a room upstairs. “Can somebody call and get Death down here?” says one of the group. “We need to go.”
Death’s real name is Mikhail Romanchenko, a Russian immigrant who owns a glass installation business in New York City. His nickname comes from playing Eve Online, a sci-fi video game. Players pay about $15 for a month’s worth of game time, during which they assume aliases; earn, save, and spend virtual money; and build spacecraft and band together to fight epic space battles. They also become part of a mythology that rivals anything depicted in Star Wars or Star Trek. “It’s part game and part soap opera and part shadow economy,” says Ted Brown, a video game designer and Eveaficionado. “There’s basically a whole virtual society that has emerged inside of Eve.”
During the peak of its power in 2010, the Legion of Death ruled roughly one-quarter of the Eve universe; each of Death’s 30,000 soldiers represented a person under his command, tapping away on his computer. To the winners go prime territory rich in trade and industry, while losers are pillaged and banished to lesser areas. “You don’t understand what it’s like to manage that many people,” Romanchenko reflects. “It’s not playing a game. It’s like having a second job.”
He and the others were in Iceland’s capital to meet with executives from CCP Games, the company that created Eve. The seven make up the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a group elected by other Eve players and flown by CCP to Iceland every six months or so to discuss how the game should evolve. It’s a kind of super-user focus group, but also a channel for players’ complaints. In 2011, when CCP rolled out some controversial changes, the company summoned the CSM members to Reykjavík for an emergency meeting in an effort to stem a user backlash. “At the time, I had been dating a girl for only three weeks and was terrified,” says Joshua Goldshlag (Evename: Two Step), a 35-year-old CSM member and computer programmer from Massachusetts. “I certainly did not want to mention that I had been elected as an Internet space politician.”
Romanchenko, Goldshlag: Ethan Hill for Bloomberg Businessweek; Heard: Dirk Bruniecki for Bloomberg Businessweek
Released by CCP in 2003, Eve has cultivated the most loyal following of all the massively multiplayer games and turned into something of a controlled experiment in human nature and unfettered capitalism. It’s also the brightest spot in Iceland’s real-world economy. In the wake of the 2008 global credit crisis, as the country’s banking sector smoldered, CCP plotted its expansion and put the finishing touches on a new office. Last year it brought in about $65 million in revenue. The company employs close to 600 people, or 0.2 percent of Iceland’s population. (An equivalent U.S. company would have about 626,000 employees.) And unlike fishing, aluminum smelting, or Iceland’s other major industries, running a digital space empire does not deplete natural resources. About 500,000 people play Eve, more than live in Iceland; CCP employees never seem to tire of pointing that out, and other Icelanders note it with pride. In early March, New York’s Museum of Modern Art unveiled a video game installation that celebrates the artwork of about a dozen iconic titles. The exotic space cruisers of Eve were picked to sit alongside Pac-Man, Tetris, and The Sims.
CCP just raised some local investment capital—the first public fundraising event of its kind for an Icelandic company since the recession—that values the company at about $350 million. It’s preparing to spend some of those funds to launch a console complement to Eve for the Sony PlayStation called Dust 514. The release, which has been delayed several times, should finally happen this year. It’s a huge gamble for CCP—and, if you believe longtime players, a dire threat to the Eve way of life. Dust 514 will connect to the Eve universe that players have spent years co-creating. Eve devotees already are starting to think of the Dust crowd as houseguests who’ve overstayed their welcome.
So as the December Stellar Management summit gets under way, there’s much to discuss. Romanchenko, Goldshlag, and the others join CCP’s top brass, marketing executives, and game designers in meetings for three days straight. Each raises his own concerns. One fights for more customization options for his space house. A couple of others debate the effectiveness of a new bounty hunting system. All of the CSM members are skeptical of Dust 514. “The gimmick is that Dust ties into Eve,” says Mark Heard, an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense and CSM member who goes by Seleene. “Well, as someone who is pretty plugged into this s---, I could not begin to tell you what the appeal will be. If this new game will affect my spaceship game, I would like to know how.”
To play Eve, you first download some software, choose the hair, scars, and clothes of your character, and pick from among four races. You can opt for a free trial or purchase Plex, a month’s worth of game time. Next up comes the—gulp—90-minute tutorial. The game revolves around three basic tasks: You mine asteroids for minerals, use the minerals to build spaceships, and deploy those spaceships in battles. Things get complex quickly. The Eve universe comprises thousands of interlocking solar systems. In safe zones, attacking someone’s starship is frowned upon—an automated police craft will appear instantly and destroy your vessel if it senses wrongdoing. In another area called NullSec, anything goes.
CCP’s founders deny intentionally modeling Eve on Iceland’s volcanic, nearly treeless landscape or its Viking heritage, but do allow that their collective subconscious is reflected in the game’s look and structure. Eve is a dark strategy game underpinned by libertarian philosophy, which helps explain why it attracts government operatives and hedge fund managers as much as space geeks. “You’ve got this dystopian, dark world in which people use spaceships to engage in piracy and world domination,” says Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CCP’s red-haired, red-bearded chief executive officer. “There’s certainly something that speaks to the national psyche. Have you looked outside?”
CCP’s offices sit at water’s edge next to a shipyard in Reykjavík. At 10 a.m., the sky is still pitch-black, so welders set up bright lights to guide their work on the underbellies of giant fishing trawlers docked for repairs. Inside CCP, things are downright Silicon Valley, with ultramodern office furniture, open work spaces, pool tables, fish tanks. The company provides free meals to employees; as food is quite expensive in Iceland, workers’ entire families show up for dinner.
The company was started in 1997 when a handful of people bailed out of OZ Interactive, an Icelandic dot-com that gained some measure of fame for cooking up impressive virtual reality technology during the early days of the Internet boom. The founders wrote the beginning of Eve’s plot and sold prospective employees on this vision of creating a space game. They just had no money to fund the effort.
The founders invented their way out of this dilemma by devising Hættuspil, or the Danger Game. It’s a board game in which teenagers gather brain cells by attaining certain skills. “You must stay away from drugs,” says Reynir Harðarson, one of CCP’s founders. “That’s the very dangerous thing.” Of the 80,000 homes in Iceland, a remarkable 10,000 own Hættuspil, which earned the founders about $300,000 to put toward Eve.
In the years that followed, CCP raised more money from angel investors and then more still from venture capitalists. Harðarson and the other founders worked on the mythology behind the game, creating four tribes. The Minmatar, for example, are an imagined mix of Máori warriors, Vikings, and ancient Germanic tribes. The Caldari are some sort of regimented warlike group. “Like Third Reich Germans mixed with Japanese industrialists and straightforward Finnish machinists,” Harðarson attempts to clarify, without success.
By 2003, CCP finally had a finished version and presented it to the public. “The game is not about you vs. the computer or some story the computer is telling you,” Harðarson says. “It is about building a world where everything is an action and reaction to what other players are doing. It targets the base human emotions. People have always formed tribes, and someone always wants to be king.”
CCP’s business model is getting people to buy the monthly subscriptions to play the game and, to a lesser degree, selling in-game knickknacks. The goal, of course, is to keep people addicted. To do that, CCP every year releases one and sometimes two Eve expansion packs, which introduce new territory, rules of engagement, and items from warships to decorative monocles for avatars. Typically, these expansions bring in more revenue. Occasionally, things go wrong. The players, for example, were outraged by the Incarna expansion pack in 2011, because it let people pay for special items instead of earning them through hours of toil. In protest, users fired their spaceships’ lasers for days on end at a symbol of the company. It was an in-game riot that, says CEO Pétursson, “had sort of an Occupy feel.”
To make purchases within Eve, players use a currency called ISK, also the acronym for the real-world Icelandic krona. The total value of goods produced by activity inside ofEve per month is about ISK135 trillion, or $5.2 million. Millions of items are traded—minerals, booster rockets, armor, warp drives, and spaceships that cost upwards of $10,000.
In a first for a gaming company, CCP hired a proper economist to manage all of this activity. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson left his post as dean of the faculty of business and science at the University of Akureyri to work full time at CCP in 2007. Guðmundsson loves his job. He’s an economist who can monitor every sale of every good in a bustling market in real time. “Our mission statement is to make virtual worlds more meaningful than real life,” Guðmundsson says. “For me, real life has stopped being interesting. The economy of Eve is what I care about.”
Pétursson: Chad Ingraham for Bloomberg Businessweek; Guðmundsson: Arnar Valdimarsson
As with any thriving economy with a growing population, the world of Eve has inflation that can get out of control if left unchecked. Guðmundsson, who maintains an in-game consumer price index, has created some countermeasures. One automatically kicks in at the end of a battle. When a spaceship is destroyed, a certain percentage of the goods stored on board are erased from the system. Players in the vicinity of the battle can scramble to pick up the rest. “You can set all kinds of rules and see how they affect human behavior,” Guðmundsson says. “It’s about running tests without threatening real life, so to speak.”
Economists have written dozens of papers celebrating the sophistication of Eve’s economy and the amazing level of industry among the players, who basically create everything within the game from scratch. “It feels like a real economy instead of one rigged by a gaming company,” says Vili Lehdonvirta, a researcher at the London School of Economics who’s studied virtual games since 2004. “Since there’s no legal system, the economy resembles that of a developing nation where people trade based on trust and social relations.”
The thought of Eve advancing economic teaching provides some measure of comfort for Icelanders who’ve grown to detest the presumed economic whizzes in the real world. Just down the road from the CCP headquarters, the Harpa, a giant glass opera house, glows in different colors at night. It symbolized Iceland’s banking boom. Now it may have to be torn down, because it’s too expensive for the country to maintain. CCP held its most recent Christmas party there.
Before heading back to the CCP headquarters for Day Two of deliberations, the Stellar Managers tuck into a hearty hotel breakfast. It helps prepare them for the endurance test ahead and quashes the hangover from the previous night’s debauchery. The morning tête-à-têtes also provide an opportunity for the CSM to relive battle glories—“You didn’t beat me. I beat myself. It was hubris!”—and map out strategies for maintaining their clout among Eve players. It’s also a time to reminisce about a council member they lost last year—Sean Smith, aka Vile Rat, an actual diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service.
Smith spent six years playing Eve while stationed in Baghdad and the Hague and was known as one of the deftest political operatives in the game. On the night of Sept. 11, Vile Rat communicated with his alliance members in Eve, writing that he planned to photograph his compound in Benghazi, Libya, the next day, “assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.” A short while later, he typed “F---” and then “Gunfire.” He never returned to the game. Smith was among four killed in attacks that also took the life of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
As Benghazi became a political firestorm, people inside Eve mourned Smith’s passing. Thousands of players flew their ships to an agreed-upon location and spelled out RIP VILE RAT with what amounted to space candles. More than 50,000 people have watched a recording of this ceremony online, and the players have helped raise $127,000 for Smith’s wife and children. “In real life, Sean was a low-key guy,” says Heard. “In Eve, he was a puppeteer and could change the whole game with a single conversation.”
The outpouring of grief surprised none of the Eve faithful, who see the game as an extension of their lives. Unlike other addictive multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, Eve doesn’t tell players what to do by handing out missions or setting goals, nor does CCP isolate players on separate servers. In Eve, all half a million players inhabit the same universe at the same time, and players decide what the game should be about. “It’s like a modern petri dish that shows what might happen if you created a new society from scratch,” says Jamin Warren, the founder of Kill Screen Media, a company that tracks video game culture.
Players come to know each other over the years and internalize the game’s history. Myriad places exist on the Web that document the great sagas of Eve: People concoct their own narratives of battles and interview famous players. “It’s just a very different experience to something like World of Warcraft,” says Warren. “Eve allows for these very immersive storytelling experiences. People talk about Eve the way they talk about professional sports.”
Players tend to specialize in certain jobs. Some are happy to be grunts, mining asteroids for years and never seeking the limelight of battle. They get precious minerals and sell them at trading hubs. Others learn to build spaceships from blueprints. And then there are generals such as Death. Some dedicated players never even venture into the heart of the Eve universe, preferring to sit on the sidelines using Excel spreadsheets to find arbitrage opportunities.
At times, the competition spills offline. Real-life Russian tycoons have been known to buy game time for teenagers who then return the favor through their manual labor by mining asteroids and building ships for days on end. Players were once caught plotting to cut the power lines to another player’s house to leave him exposed during a major battle.
The Eve community stays together because the players have spent years sharing the adrenaline rush that comes with a great victory and the intense depression that follows a loss that demolishes in an instant months of hard work and thousands of dollars of goods. It’s this depth of commitment that CCP risks shattering with Dust 514. According to CCP executives, the PlayStation game will have people running around planets shooting each other. Because the computer servers behind Eve and Dust will be connected, Dust players need only call out to Eve players for help, and a swarm of spaceships will show up and rain down laser terror from above.
Soon enough, CCP also plans to release a video game based on the White Wolf role-playing games, which CCP acquired in 2006. The themes from the games—werewolf and vampire clans doing battle—were popularized to a wider audience in the True Blood TV show and the Twilight films. CCP is betting it can build a game with spectacular costumes and gameplay appealing to women, broadening its audience.
At CCP headquarters, the morning’s round of CSM meetings captures the love-hate relationship between the company and its loyal yet curmudgeonly players who insist that CCP’s blunders may one day force them to leave. The controversial launch of Dust 514 hovers over the discussions. “The game is broken,” grumbles Death. “I don’t even play it anymore.” And yet, later that evening when he finally shows up to meet the group, Death chats about his ambitions for getting reelected to the CSM, so he can spend all of his vacations in Iceland.