Empires of EVE

by Andrew Groen

Cover image

Publisher: Andrew Groen
Copyright: 2015
Printing: 2016
ISBN: 0-9909724-0-2
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 171

Buy at Powell's Books

The version of this book I read was the hardcover Kickstarter campaign reward, since I was a backer. I believe it's the same as the hardcover currently available for sale from the author's site for those who didn't back the project. There are also softcover and Kindle versions. I've lost track of whether they have less sidebar content, or just less high-quality artwork.

EVE Online ("EVE" is not an acronym, just the developer's way of writing the name, so you'll also see "Eve" both for the game and for this book) is a massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game (MMORPG) based on interstellar mining, manufacturing, and combat. Its Icelandic developer takes a different, more emergent approach than most MMORPG developers: rather than fill the world exclusively with pre-scripted adventures and enemies (although there is some of that for those who want it), vast regions of EVE's world are left open to the players to govern, exploit, or fight over as they see fit. Player versus player combat plays a large role in that aspect of the game, and many actions that would be prohibited or made impossible in other games (stealing from other players, betrayals, tricking other players into fatal situations) are permitted and sometimes core components of the game. EVE is best-known for its economy, which is almost entirely player-driven and requires extensive mining and manufacturing work by large teams of players to build the largest and most powerful ships in the game.

Empires of EVE is an unusual type of book, one that I'm not sure would have been possible ten years ago. Subtitled "a history of the great wars of EVE Online," it's a history of a virtual world, but not one sponsored by the developer or part of the marketing or lore of the game. I love seeing this (which is also why I backed the Kickstarter). Video games have developed beyond just games to play into games to watch other people play (successfully competing, for me and for many others, for the role previously filled by professional sports), and now into emergent events that are complex enough, and dramatic enough, to warrant their own third-party history. I was quite surprised and delighted by how broad the audience for this sort of writing is.

And this is not a shallow effort. Andrew Groen is a freelance writer who does not, himself, play EVE. He approaches the complex political and in-game fighting with the attitude of a reporter and historian, cites sources (to the standards I would expect for long-form journalism, if not quite at the level of academic history), discloses where history has been lost or one side of some fight could not be contacted, and puts substantial effort into explaining the political strengths and weaknesses of the shifting in-game alliances. It's a proper political history of an imaginary world, including objective (so far as I can tell) reporting of times when developers were accused of assisting one of the factions.

If, like me, you don't play EVE and are primarily interested in this book to get a feel for the game, there are a few caveats to be aware of. EVE is divided into regions with game-enforced security levels. The ones near the center of the game galaxy are heavily policed by the game to prevent most of the player versus player combat and let new players get their feet. Those regions also offer various built-in missions that don't require interacting with other players. As one moves out from that central area, the game-provided security (and I believe the game-provided interactions) drops off. Empires of EVE deals exclusively with nullsec space: the outer regions of the game where the richest resources are, and where there is no law or policing except what's done by the players themselves. The game here, and as described in the book, is relentlessly blood-thirsty, but this isn't representative of the entire game.

Second, most of this book is devoted to ship-to-ship combat and missions of conquest and reprisal. But combat is built on top of a vast "civilian" infrastructure of mining and manufacturing, and there are players who focus on those aspects of the game and rarely, if ever, fight. Groen talks about this in passing, since it can have significant influence on the politics of the game, but spends little time describing the day-to-day life in the game for those players. The focus here is on the resulting combat.

Finally, Groen starts his history at the EVE beta in 2003 but ends it in 2009. Maneuvering and wars have, of course, continued ever since, but he has to stop somewhere. As he mentioned during the Kickstarter, it takes some years for events to become history, and for people to be willing to talk about them. The developer has kept changing the game, so some of the mechanics here will be mildly stale and the current political alliances are quite likely far different (although many of the players discussed in this book are still playing).

With those caveats, though, this is a fascinating book, even if this isn't your sort of game. Personally, I have a deep-seated dislike of games like Diplomacy where alliances, betrayal, and political maneuvering is sanctioned and encouraged by the game. I've never played EVE and I can't imagine ever wanting to, particularly after reading this book. But it's still a fascinating war history and analysis of slightly skew human politics. The alliances and backstabbing are reminiscent of real human history, but the game setting adds some significant twists: players can just quit if they're not having fun, the largest threat to strong alliances is players just not bothering to show up because they're not having fun or because the risk is too high, and without the stability and momentum of real-world institutions, in-game corporations and alliances can collapse overnight when players lose faith in them. From a distance, it's quite entertaining to see how those factors reshape politics and propaganda. (If sadly somewhat reminiscent of the sort of personalities that killed Usenet. I shouldn't have been surprised that organized Internet trolls made an appearance in EVE, although the nature of EVE politics meant they fit right in rather than doing much to spoil other people's fun, at least in nullsec.)

I can't speak to the other formats, but the hardcover is also a gorgeous book. The artwork isn't quite my style, and the in-game screen shots are a bit muddy and confusing (not Groen's fault), but the maps are clear and invaluable, the propaganda posters are amazing, and the hardcover printing is clearly of a very high quality. I felt like I got my $50 worth in terms of presentation and quality printing, and have a book that isn't going to fall apart in a few years. The one quibble that I have is that Groen picked a fairly thin and light font for the main text, which my eyes had some trouble with on high-gloss paper. Something thicker and darker may not have looked as good on the page, but it would have been easier to read. The font choice for the sidebars was a lovely high-contrast white on black, but I would have appreciated something a bit larger. If you have vision issues, you may find the ebook more readable, if not as beautiful.

Empires of EVE has apparently been very successful within its niche, which makes me happy. I would love to read more books of this type. I know I'm not the only person who grew up with gaming but has been increasingly drawn into watching other people game or reading about other people game. I love watching or reading about people who have put the effort into becoming very good at something they love, and when that comes with emergent history, creative propaganda, and a lot of assholes to root against (although sadly not many people to root for), the history of EVE makes compelling reading, at least for me. Recommended if this is at all your sort of thing; the ebook version of the book is fairly inexpensive.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-05-29

Last modified and spun 2016-05-30