Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Something Awful and Something Good

Something awful happened that concerns millions of military personnel, religious and non-religious nationals, and citizens in multiple countries.  Something awful happened that effected thousands of gamers strewn across the world. Something awful happened that deprived hundreds of employees of  their co-workers, and something awful happened that took husbands away from their wives, and fathers away from their children.

Something awful happened in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012.

The irony of diplomats being  killed by extremists chokes my heart.

Watching TV today, I heard the line, "What can men do against such blind hate?" asked the King of Rohan in the face of an onslaught of orcs.  Aragorn responded, "We ride out and meet them."  But we can't ride out and meet this evil.  This evil slips away, dodges scrutiny and judgment like smoke. This hate, this red-hot, killing anger, was not manufactured by a single person, nor does it encompass an entire nation or community.  The hate is only an idea, deeply entrenched and impossible to target.

The politics and blame and investigations and discussions needed at higher levels will all take place without me. For my part, sitting here nice and safe in snug in my apartment, all I can reasonably do is hope that such hate can be partially countered by other ideas like communication, cooperation, and tolerance. Ideas that I believe were personified by Sean Smith.

Sean Smith was an intelligence employee, yes, and a husband, and a father, and a hundred other things to hundreds of other people. They will grieve in their own ways and I cannot presume to understand, much less speak, for their level of grief.

But Sean Smith was also a gamer.  And for that role, I think I can speak. At least a little.

It's difficult for non-gamers to understand the level of complexity of EVE.  In all honesty, it's difficult for many gamers that DO play EVE to understand its complexity, so it's easy to overlook how monumentally instrumental Sean was to thousands of people.

In my grief, I tried to explain Sean's loss to to my parents, whose level of gaming knowledge starts and stops with Mario Brothers and Zelda. I am explaining it all again here because I feel it is important for anyone who is interested, to know exactly what Sean meant to us.

I had my parents imagine the world of Zelda.  (Baby steps, here.)  Then take that world, and imagine it as just one planet in a solar system that can have dozens of planets, and each planet can have zero to dozens of moons.  Now imagine there are over 5000 such solar systems that are connected to each other by gates.  Add another 2500 systems with hidden gates.

Now we come off the planet Zelda entirely, and jump into a spaceship, capable of reaching any of those systems.

Put a half a million other people into the galaxy you're imagining, all capable of individual interactions in real time, sort of like Facebook.

What do you need first in any game?  Information.  Friends.  Money.  (We'll get back to those in a while.)

The tutorial starts you off by attempting to give you information and basic skills.  You are given access to a local and corp chat window with which to make friends. You also get a free ship, with which to earn your first bit of money.

You dip your toes into the money-making by running missions for non-player entities.  This helps you to learn the game more than providing any real tangible money, but it's a start.  You make more money, buy bigger ships, bigger weapons, and can go on bigger missions and hunt down deadlier virtual foes which pays more money for even bigger pixelated ships and bigger imaginary weapons and... you get the idea.

And if you've ever played games like World of Warcraft, you're familiar with the idea of pretending, of shooting bigger things for better gear.  However, that's where "theme park" games  like WoW end.  Once you get the biggest and shiniest in THOSE games, your play is mostly over.  There isn't anything bigger ad shinier to get, until the next expansion.

In EVE, that's only the first step.

The EVE universe is set up like a sandbox, where only the basic tools are handed out, but the player themselves decide the game and have their own private sets of rules.

The market is a second step. (I say "a" second step because it's possible to bypass it completely if you want to.) All those big shiny ships and monstrous weapons you want?  Other players have to make those- they don't drop from non-player enemy monsters as they do in other games.  Someone has to put them together. The making of them isn't as easy as "combine one of this and one of that in a box," either: First, you need the appropriate skills for what you want to make, which means you need the skill books for them, which you will need to buy.  You need blueprints, or copies of them, for what you want to make, which you will probably need to buy.  You need to locate a place to make it, and finally, you need the materials.

This is where it gets interesting.

The basic materials needed for any lower-level (called "Tier 1") items, are minerals.  These minerals can be fairly easily mined from asteroids in belts by even beginner players.  Small amounts of the most common minerals are often mined by small ships in relatively safe-ish regions of space known as "Empire" or "high security" space. (No place in EVE is ever "safe.") The police, known as "CONCORD," bring more-or-less swift justice to anyone attacking innocents. (They do not, I should point out, prevent attacks... only punish after the fact.) These regions of high-sec are highly populated by miners seeking easy (though by no means "quick,") cash. The bigger your mining ship, the more skills you have, the better the minerals you can mine.

But they still only build the lower level ships and items.

To get the good stuff (called "Tier 2"), you need better materials.  These materials come from moons, rather than asteroids.  (And to get the REALLY good stuff (Tier 3), you need to lock yourself and a team of buddies in a wormhole for several months.)  Getting to the moons, and their materials, needs a bit of work.  You need a control tower, for one thing--a place to set up your moon-mining operations.  Your tower needs defenses, because someone else will want your moon.  You also need the ability to get to your moon and back to wherever you're earning your other income- or at least somewhere you can sell your materials or refine them into the stuff to make your better stuff with. This is called logistics.

Your first wrinkle in the plan, is that moons can't be mined in high security space.  No, you need to go into low-security space, where pirates and gangs roam the trade routes, or venture into "null-sec" or zero-security space.  Nobody can help you there except other players.  Not even CONCORD dares to enter null-sec space, which makes up well over half of all the systems in the game.

So if  you want to enter null-sec, you need friends.  You need people around you who aren't going to shoot you when you pick up your moon materials, and you need a station you can dock in to unload your cargo, sell it, buy other stuff, re-fuel your logistics ships, or simply a place to re-clone after your avatar's inevitable fiery destruction, which means you need friends who have a station in null-sec.

Those friends will need to hold sovereignty in a region of space in order to have that station, and that stuff ain't cheap.  Those friends will want something out of the deal of letting you play in their area of space.  Think of null-sec as mob-style gangland, and you won't be too far off.

You may be expected to help defend them, or fight for them.  You may have to pay them fines, fees, taxes, or tithes.  You may have to spy on their enemies, or turn over a percentage of your goods, or sing over voice chat... the bartering possible is unlimited except by imagination.  There aren't many game mechanics that cover this sort of thing, it's all been made up by the player bases, their corporations and alliances of corporations that coordinate and work towards a goal which may or may not match your own.

So now you're set up with some friends and you have a tower on a little moon in a small region null sec.  Well, the enemies of your friends want your moon. It turns out, you picked a very profitable moon (good choice, way to go). What you may not have realized is that the moon was so profitable because major alliances are controlling the prices of the materials... by controlling the moons.  Your alliance, their alliance... both want it.  And the enemy is coming to get it.

The enemy has 200 players, and your alliance has 200.  What you need, is either more firepower than the enemy, better information than the enemy... or more friends.

You choose option D, all of the above.  Your alliance kicks into high gear, churning out better ships and weapons.  Your leadership trains its fighters.  Your spies infiltrate the enemy, gaining intel on their movements and plans. Your friends talk to their friends, and their friends' friends.

Unfortunately, your enemy also has friends.

This is where the diplomatic corps really shine. Good, trustworthy, charismatic people that can steal the horse from under a saddle, that's who you need.

You enter battle.  Your 300 extended friends, all in blue lights, against their 400 red lights.  You are determined to battle it out.  You listen to your fleet commander. You follow orders silently, swiftly.  The enemy is being picked off one at a time. Your forces' ships are being destroyed by the dozens.

An incoming fleet of ships arrives.  Another 400.  They're red... or are they?  Your dread, your certainty that all that hard work will turn into ashes, all your months of effort useless and wasted, turns to jubilation as the incoming fleet's lights change in a cascading wave from red to blue.

The friends of the enemy switched sides.

Why?  You don't know.  Perhaps they were offered something. Maybe they thought you would win, and they wanted to be on the winning side.  You may never know the real reasons why...

...but you do know WHO.  The diplos.  There are people who may or may not fight alongside you in a battle, may not mine beside you in a belt or in a wormhole, and may not help with your logistic chain or any of the other hundreds of tasks that need doing. They may not be one of the people you see chatting every day, because they have other things to do.  Like save your entire network and region of space with the magic words of a diplomat.

You don't know how the diplomats do it, but you imagine it has to do with earning trust, being personable, being able to see the other person's point of view and being able to communicate their own views in a convincing manner.

And that's what Sean did, in his online Vilerat persona.  There wasn't any specific battle like I described, but it could have happened, and similar things DID happen, and on much larger scales.

While Vilerat was part of a team of gaming diplomats, he also stood out and could be singled out.  He was mutually respected by friends and enemies alike. His actions effected hundreds of thousands of players, whether they even knew it or not, because the alliances in EVE change the landscape of how the game is played.  From setting the value of the most basic, a single unit of tritanium, to accessing the vastest regions of space, it's the diplomats who direct the winds of change.

Though he worked mostly in shadows as far as most of the populace of the game is concerned, I've tried to shed some light on just how influential Sean truly was. He deserves to be recognized as a person and for his honor and sacrifices. He deserves to be remembered for his brilliance, not as a faceless unknown.

Something awful happened, but this time a bit light will be remembered after the shadows have fled.

Something awful happened, but his family does not mourn alone.

No comments: