Spaceships are big.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: the shifting rules of EVE Online.]

Ever since its inception, EVE Online has harbored a tight-knit community consisting largely of hardcore players. The small size of the community allowed developers to retain a certain intimacy with the evolution of their game and the opinions of their player base that most developers cannot afford to have. As the developers released patches and the players began to grow familiar with the intricacies of the game, they revealed several problems that were woven into the core design of EVE. Some of the issues EVE found itself facing remain unsolved in any MMO to date.

As EVE’s developers released their first content patches, they decided to create new and more powerful ship classes instead of expanding the uses of those currently in the game. However, only the most experienced players at any given time could fly these new, freshly minted ships. Experience in EVE has nothing to do with player skill or decision making, it’s simply a matter of age: the older your player character, the bigger ships you can fly. With its complex interface and ham-handed tutorials, EVE was already unfriendly to new players, and the content patches weren’t helping matters.

However, the main draw of EVE is its massive galactic wars and these new patches did nothing to diminish the innate draw of deep space antics; EVE’s player base grew steadily, albeit slowly. As the players began to explore the game’s limits and poke about its soft bits they found a wealth of powerful strategies and profitable exploits. The developers, however, were tied so closely to the game’s evolution that they began to patch out any imbalances as soon as they arose.

Space is big. Now, it is all well and good to try to keep your game balanced. After all, a game with a single dominant strategy dies quickly. However, to try to make each individual strategy equally viable is counter-productive. If you do not let certain strategies dominate, then your game will never evolve. Playing a game is trying to find a strategy that is better than your opponent’s. If all strategies are perfectly balanced, then you are not playing a game at all, but simply making a series of arbitrary and ultimately pointless decisions with pretty pictures attached. This was the danger EVE’s developers courted with their overzealous tuning.

This problem is not limited to EVE, either. This whack-a-mole style patching system is present in almost any MMO. The issue is, at its heart, a complicated problem that is tied to any persistent world. The player is asked to make a series of complex decisions, the meaning of which is obscured in flowery flavor text, between classes, races, hairstyles and eyebrow ornamentation. Some of these decisions are critical, some mean very little. The player is then asked to dedicate several dozen hours to developing this character. During that time, the game is essentially a single player RPG with the occasional group, rather than a multiplayer game. This is especially true in EVE, where neither your skill nor the time you dedicate to the game has anything to do with your level.

Of course, once you reach your maximum level, you become acutely aware that you are playing a multiplayer game, and it begins to get competitive. If a player has spent fifty hours leveling a Troll character, only to discover that Ogres are far superior, they’re going to get pissy, and rightfully so.

EVE's interface is complex. The problem is not a simple one, but it is possible to solve. If the core gameplay is deep enough, the game will continue to evolve with only minimal balance tweaks. That is to say, in a deep game, like Starcraft or Street Fighter, one player will develop a dominant strategy for a certain character type, and a counter-strategy for another character will emerge, which in turn is destroyed by an early strategy that had been considered weak, and so on.

Players in these games are encouraged to develop strategies in part because the developers will not release a patch that renders them useless. The problem, therefore, stems largely from the sense of entitlement that most MMO players have, the notion that the developers owe it to the player base to keep the game perfectly balanced and the eagerness of developers to agree.

EVE’s developers not only scrambled to keep the game balanced, but also began to introduce squishy rules. These rules governed actions that were impossible to remove from the game, but that the developers had declared unfair in the terms of service. Players could perform the action, but if they were found out they could get anything from a slap on the wrist to a permanent ban.

In abstract the idea is not bad, but in EVE it began to extend to anything the players complained about. The developers would decide on one occasion that bumping ships outside a protective bubble was perfectly reasonable, and then later on decide that it hurt the game. The developers began to reimburse players who complained that they lost their ships due to lag, or other circumstances that were unfair in one way or another. These constant petitions put another strain on the game.

Oh my God this game is pretty. However, internet-wide space glory is still universally appealing, and EVE’s player base grew steadily. Even though the game was constantly changing, the players still explored it, and it became evident that there was a meta-game within the game: reality. Immense lag was prevalent in almost every large scale battle, and occasionally entire solar systems lagged out under the weight of player traffic. Eventually, lag became integrated into fleet tactics, forcing commanders to rely on slow, safe strategies rather than try anything quick and flashy. Additionally, time zones became crucial as the game grew larger – certain alliances possess incredibly power simply because they can attack in full strength while the enemy is fast asleep.

Of the many evolutions that EVE has undergone, the meta game is one of the most fascinating and strangely enthralling, largely due to the sense of reality it adds. While the constant content patches have made the higher levels of gameplay all but a distant dream for new players and hampered thorough strategic exploitation, and while the squishy rules are enforced according to the whims and moods of the developers, the meta game showcases some of EVE’s incredibly appealing qualities.

To lie in wait for a player to log in, to attack under the veil of night, to log in on top of an entire enemy fleet, or to slip out of a system undetected at 4 AM – these are the kind of interesting tactics that emerge when players are forced to deal with the hard limits of reality.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who runs a part-time hippopotamus milking service on the side. He also writes a blog, of course.]