In the months and weeks leading up to his Kickstarter for A History of the Great Empires of Eve Online, freelance writer Andrew Groen was terrified that it was all about to go wrong. That he was about to watch everything crumble and vanish, the way it has for so many of the MMO power-players he is writing about.
“I had this feeling that someone else was just going to swoop in and take it from me,” he says. “The analogy that I used to describe how I was feeling to my wife was, ‘I feel like I just sat down at a dinner party to this giant feast. And everybody else is ignoring it. And I’m the only one who knows it’s there. And I’m starting to eat it, and take little bites of it… and I’m just praying nobody else just comes and starts eating it and taking all the food away.”
With $75,000 in Kickstarter funding for his book, Groen may have his banquet to himself. Now he just has to prepare one of his own for hundreds of expectant backers and a community of some of the most demanding and exacting MMO players in the world.
In the beginning, there was EVE, and there was an overworked freelancer with a pain-in-the-ass deadline.
“When I was working at the Penny Arcade Report, we had this really stressful schedule when it came to features. Because you had to have a feature ready every day at 9 AM. And it was non-negotiable,” Groen explains. “You did not come to work without a feature ready. …So, when you have those kinds of deadline demands, you have to be very sure of where your articles are going to come from. You can’t hope something is going to come up. You have to know where you’re digging for gold.”
Groen’s solution was to work smarter. He realized that there were two areas that mainstream games outlets tended to ignore, EVE and eSports, and started working those beats for stories that were both reliable and interesting. It became a trademark for him and the PAR, somewhat to editor Ben Kuchera’s frustration.
“I wrote maybe six features over the period of really only a couple of months. It got to the point where Ben was like, ‘All right. No more eSports. No more EVE. We’re a general gaming site, you have to focus on other stuff. You can’t keep doing this.’”
Groen laughs. “And I didn’t fully listen. I still snuck in a couple more EVE things after that.”
Beyond self-interest, however, there was this: “EVE is one of the very rare subjects in videogaming where you can actually get human interest stories,” Groen says. “It’s very rare and very difficult to get human interest stories when it comes to games development. …But in EVE, everything is human interest. You get to work with these human stories that are just compelling on a basic level.”
Gate is green
The Penny Arcade closed last year, and Groen found himself out of a job. [This is also a good time to mention that Andrew is a friend and former coworker, and one who has done some eSports work for PCGamesN in the past.] While Groen was looking for his next gig, the interest in EVE continued to grow. After years of the freelance hustle, he was ready to take on a bigger and more consistent challenge, and he knew he had a chance to do something really special.
While he started to lay the groundwork for his book, Groen also knew that there were other factors that could complicate his efforts. Chief among them was the fact that EVE developer CCP had no idea what he was up to, and had just announced their own partnership with Dark Horse comics to retell EVE’s history in a series of graphic novels.
“I was definitely worried that they wouldn’t let me do this. Or that they would try and put a copyright claim on the stories of the players, which I wasn’t sure how that would pan out legally,” Groen admits.
He eventually got in touch with CCP’s PR staff and was told that he now had a meeting with “Torvi and Thor.”
“And I’m like, ‘Cool, ‘Torvi and Thor…’ Then I go on Google and realize that Thor is the business director of CCP and Torvi is the creative director of CCP. So this is a serious meeting! They’re taking two of the top guys at the company to talk to me about this.”
The two CCP chieftains didn’t hesitate. Once Groen told them what he wanted to do, they immediately gave the project their blessing.
In retrospect, Groen thinks he understands CCP’s eagerness. “A lot of times players get touchy when CCP gets too involved with telling those stories, because CCP has been regrettably involved in that sometimes. They’ve made mistakes, or their employees have been caught giving advantages to certain alliances. That sort of thing,” he says. “I think that’s one of the reasons they’ve been so kind to me working on this project. They didn’t have to give me the rights to their IP to work on this project, but they did because I think they recognize the value in having an impartial reporter come at this.”
Winning over CCP was one thing, but the EVE community was another. One side effect of CCP’s laissez-faire approach to their universe is that scammers, con artists, and spies are allowed to thrive. EVE is a place where people are paranoid because, as often as not, someone really is out to get them.
“When you first start out reporting in EVE, nobody really knows you or trusts you. It’s unique. It’s EVE-trust. Because there is such an ingrained fear of strangers in that game. Where even when I announced this Kickstarter project, there were people who were very legitimately concerned that this was a metagame scam. That I was just trying to dupe everybody.”
Then there are players who still, long after EVE’s player-driven history has largely diverged from the narrative sketched out in CCP’s lore, honor what the game used to be.
“A lot of the early alliances were roleplaying alliances. So the way that they played and interacted was informed in a lot of ways by the lore,” Groen says. “Stain Alliance were formed before the game even launched, and they were an Amarr roleplaying alliance. I actually got in touch with their old leader, named TRIGGER. And he’s still in-character to this day. He wouldn’t talk to me until I created an alternate character that was Amarr-race.
“I was a Gallente character prior to that, and he wouldn’t answer my emails until I was the proper race. I swear to God. That’s old school. I don’t know that there are many players around that are still like that. “
With CCP’s cooperation and the grudging trust of some key players, Groen was ready to launch his Kickstarter. His plans were modest, and so were his expectations.
Groen asked for $12,500. “My expectation was that right now I would be sitting at, hopefully, 85% funded. Then we would take the last three or four days and maybe get over-funded by like $200. And it would be cool.”
A History of the Great Empires of EVE Online now stands at about $75,000, with over three days to go. Groen’s expectations and plans are out the window.
A neutral third-party
In some ways, Groen’s history is the story of changing norms and eroding trust, how a community slowly descended into something out of Hobbes.
“The EVE we know today did not exist when it started back in 2003,” Groen says. “There were wars, but when you talk to people about what changed EVE — this is something I asked a lot of people in the early days: what is the defining moment in the history of EVE? And everyone points to 2005, with a corporation by the name of the Guiding Hand Social Club. It’s a heist / assassination story.The destruction of Ubiqua Seraph.”
The Guiding Hand heist caught worldwide attention because it was such a bizarre story. It was a plot as sophisticated and ruthless as anything crime syndicates and governments get up to. It involved dissimulation on an unprecedented scale. A major corporation was destroyed from within by a long-term sleeper agent, and caused by a secret assassination contract against its chief.
A lot of EVE’s players always wanted EVE to feel “real”, but more in terms of bringing sci-fi to life. The possibility of living inside a sprawling fiction is what animated a lot of its early community.
“Roleplay influenced a lot of the ways that players interacted with each other in the early days,” Groen explains. “And you’ve seen that kind of bleed away over the last decade. Where prior to 2006, there’s this sort of — nowadays they call it e-honor or e-bushido. Players were expected to act a certain way or fight a certain way, and a lot of that comes from lore.”
The Guiding Hand job changed how people understood the game. It also gave EVE its biggest press to date, and every player who joined afterwards did so in the shadow of this one pivotal event.
“Suddenly everybody realized that all bets were off, and it was every man for himself. Suddenly you had to be worried about this now. You had to be worried about people infiltrating you,” Groen says. “That concept of e-honor has been eroded over the years in these very big jumps. So you have Guiding Hand Social Club, then Haargoth Agamar disbanding BoB [then one of EVE’s most powerful coalitions].”
Since then, the legend of EVE’s Machiavellian politics has been fueled by Goonswarm, their massive PR efforts, and their chronicler and frontman, The Mittani. But Groen wants to get beyond the Goonswarm-centric narrative that’s often defined EVE in the past.
“The thing about Goonswarm is that …they have been extremely successful at probably overstating their impact on the EVE universe, and overstating their power and organization. Because it benefits them to tell that story,” Groen explains. “There are MANY, MANY players in the EVE universe who don’t get the credit they deserve because they don’t make themselves available to the press, they don’t go out and brag constantly.”
Eventually, it has to be asked: why should anyone keep giving Andrew Groen money to fund a book that’s already so far past its original goals?
He laughs. “What do you expect me to say to that question? But, I have an answer for that, though. And the answer is, ‘Yes. Keep giving me money.’”
The problem the Groen faces now is one of scope. His fundraiser has made a lot of new things possible, but they also push him into unknown and potentially expensive territory. Starting with the fact that his digital book will now also come in a large hardcover with lavish artwork.
“This isn’t like a videogame where it’s a digital reward and everything else…is just gravy,” he explains. “The thing to remember is that no matter what happens, no matter how much money i make, you have 50% gone to printing and shipping. Another 5% to Kickstarter fees. Another 4% to design. Another 5% to art. …If I had just done the softcover, I might say, yeah, there’s no need anymore. I’m just going to create this nice book and it’s going to be great. …But when we added the hardcover tier, I basically made the decision to throw every penny into this book.
“At this point, personally, I’ve done the numbers. I think I take home a couple thousand dollars out of this. Almost everything is going into the book. But I’ve decided I’m not going to do much freelance on the side of this. I’m just going to — my wife and I will basically subsist off of her income while I put all this money into the book. I believe that is the best thing for everybody. To put every dime back into the book. Because for me that’s a better investment, financially. And for them, it makes more sense for me to spend more on better art, better paper, all of these different things.”
The development of EVE has been one of the most remarkable stories in gaming over the last ten years, and one that only a handful of people got to participate in. For those of us who missed the ride, and who may never quite manage to fit an alternate world into too-busy lives, A History of the Great Empires might just be the best way to enjoy the fascinating, cruel, and ingenious world that EVE Online and its players have built together.