Online games have a particular problem dealing with player death. There has to be some risk, some consequence for losing a fight. But harsh penalties have a way of making for unhappy customers, so the trend over time is to make the penalty smaller and smaller. Dying in World of Warcraft has almost no consequence at all, and WoW players mostly just laugh when they get killed.
Eve Online takes a very interesting alternate approach. If your spaceship is destroyed in a battle, you lose the ship. It's gone, blown up, as is most of your cargo and ship fittings. (A bit is left behind for a pirate to scavenge.) It's pretty punitive, although it's not so bad for newer players as the cheaper ships can be insured. But for a seasoned player in a HAC with faction modules the cost of losing their ship is quite significant.
The result? Ship to ship battles mean something. When you lose your ship, it smarts. And it's quite a pleasure to kill a pirate and loot his fancy engines and guns. The significance of death means the game is more intense.
Eve also has a very clever game dynamic that makes dying even more exciting: your pod. When your ship is blown up you, personally, don't die. You eject in an escape pod. And your pod is in the battlefield, a very vulnerable and juicy target. If you're fast you can usually get your pod out before you're blown up, but it's intensely stressful. Because now you're dying a second death, a more real one because it's you, not just your spaceship. Clever idea.
Sadly, I've stopped playing Eve Online. Because as brilliant as the game is, it's not fun for me. The politics, economics, player created content are all fantastic. But the core game mechanics of spaceships shooting each other just isn't very good. Takes too long to find a fair fight and the fight is over too quickly. But I'll miss the joy of winning a fleet battle and destroying our enemy's materiel and the adrenaline fear of being attacked by a pirate and just barely escaping with my ship on fire.
Eve has an unusual skill system. In a typical MMOG like World of Warcraft your character levels up skills and power as you play. Kill more monsters, get more experience, get levels. The time it takes to level in WoW is fairly predictable, but players are rewarded for being online and grinding more often.
Eve isn't like that. In Eve your skills level whether you're online or not. And you don't level faster based on what you do; it's entirely based on the clock. If I set my character to train Battleship level 3, it will take 36 hours to get there. It will take the same time whether I'm busily shooting NPCs in my Battleship or not, indeed whether I'm even logged in.
At first blush this sounds crazy; where's the reward for playing? But it works very well. I never do some boring repetitive action to level up; skills train at their own pace. I can take a break from the game for a few weeks and not feel like I've lost anything. People with way too much time to grind don't gain a big advantage over more casual players. And older characters are uniquely valuable; they've had the most time to accumulate skills.
In WoW a primary goal is levelling up; in Eve it's just something that happens. That frees the player to concentrate on more complex goals like "develop a traderoute in Megacyte that makes me rich". I'm not saying Eve's better, exactly, but it's different. And it works.
Most contemporary gameplay design is about complete control. Designers, level builders, and testers spend hundreds of hours making sure that their game plays exactly the way they intend. When players figure out something unintended it's usually a glitch or an exploit. Eve Online is great at giving players a lot more freedom than that, both on purpose and by accident. Buddy lists and instajumps are two kinds of accidents.
One example of Eve Online's emergent gameplay complexity is the economic system. MMOG economies are generally marked by hyperinflation, simplistic valuations, and little opportunity for generating wealth except killing things. By contrast Eve is a complex and balanced economy. Hunting NPCs, mining, mercenary PC killing, trading, hauling, and manufacturing are all reasonable ways to generate wealth.
There are three things of value in Eve: currency (called ISK), minerals, and ships/ship parts. Players generate wealth by mining minerals and hunting NPCs for ISK bounties. Ships are for the most part built by players out of minerals. Minerals and ships are traded on the regional markets where prices are set by the players. Demand for goods varies by day, week, and location, so there are plenty of people who make a fine living doing arbitrage.
Eve markets have a locality that makes the economics even more complex. The 66 regional markets are disconnected, so players can't easily see the prices across the entire universe. I've made a fair amount of ISK by buying stuff cheaply in one region and selling it in a more expensive region, exploiting the information inefficiency. There's also a locality effect caused by the difficulty of moving goods around. There's no mail or NPC courier service, stuff has to be moved by people. This takes time and risk, so prices tend to vary quite a bit in different areas depending on local conditions.
Eve seems less prone to inflation than most MMOGs. There are plenty of sources of wealth in Eve, but there's also a giant sink: PvP ship battles. When a ship is blown up it's value is destroyed. So even experienced characters worry about wealth. There's even a mild RTS element to the game with alliances wars over several weeks causing attrition of corporate coffers.
My war profiteering of last week was successful. The invasion of my station never happened, so I got to keep the cheaply acquired minerals. The dreaded BoB Alliance did raise a lot of hell (see this 300MB video) and have been blowing up so many ships that prices of minerals are going up all over the universe. Unfortunately now that our guests in my region are gone no one is buying my goods; I'm debating whether to hoard my minerals until market conditions improve or just haul them somewhere and sell them at a profit.
The computer game that's been holding my attention for awhile now is Eve Online, a space MMOG from Icelandic company CCP. It's a fascinating game full of spaceship combat, piracy, economics, and beautiful graphics.
There's a lot to say about Eve Online, but the primary thing that attracts me is that it's unique among MMOGs in relying on emergent gameplay. The scripted content is not very good, but the game mechanics are rich and well balanced. And all 115,000 players are tossed together in the same server to interact with each other. The result is complex politics, nuanced economics, and a lot of fun.
I've recently become a war profiteer. My corporation built a couple of space stations and controls a small territory in lawless 0.0 space. That's a big deal, few corps have done that. We have some guests who use our stations who recently heard a rumour that we were about to be attacked by a dreaded enemy alliance. Rather than risk losing everything our guests have decided to cut and run.
That's when I saw my opportunity to become a cold blooded merchant. Because they're leaving in a hurry, our guests have an urgent need to upgrade their engines and sell what they can't carry. So I've been filling the market need, selling parts to the fleeing pilots for 10x what they cost to make and buying their minerals for 1/10 their value. It's a ruthless sort of opportunism, but I'm the only one willing to take the risk so I set the prices. If I pull this off I'll triple my wealth; if my station gets taken over I'll end up losing about half. I'll know how it works out in a few days.
What's fantastic about this little story is that no one wrote it for us; it's all a natural consequence of the rich and complex game design. Players can build space stations, but they are at risk of being conquered by other players. Players can build wealth by mining minerals, but it's hard to haul minerals around. There's an open market where prices are set by other players. Put this all together and complexity emerges; in this case, my war profiteering.
That's just one small example; Eve is full of stories like this. It's a refreshing change from the entertaining but simplistic scripted gameplay of mainstream MMOGs like World of Warcraft. If you want to try it out, there's a 14 day free trial. It takes awhile to find the fun parts, so if you play for a few days but can't find anything enjoyable email me.