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Into the Wormhole: An afternoon with EVE Online's least understood demographic

At Fanfest we stumbled across the smallest and rarest group of players in EVE Online--the wormhole players.

In the spring of 2013 TechHive journalist Cassandra Khaw ventured to Reykjavik, Iceland to investigate Eve Fanfest, the annual gathering of EVE Online players from around the world. These are her stories.

"We're not null-sec players; we're Wormhole players."

It was like falling down the rabbit hole and asking if you're in Oz instead. The smiles are knowing, friendly and just a little bit sly. People have obviously made this mistake before and the Wormhole players, in turn, seem to enjoy correcting it. Maybe. There's a nagging feeling that, any minute now, the white rabbit is going to pop up to tell me that it's my turn for decapitation or--given that this is an EVE Online convention--death by many lasers.

"Wormhole?" I repeat, feeling like a fish out of water--or a newbie in null-sec territory.

"Wormhole." Affirmation. Satisfaction. A touch of smugness, even.

The members of Aperture Harmonics and The Dark Space Initiative all wear something emblazoned with a symbol of their allegiances. The former are garbed in matching white hoodies, the latter more discreetly furnished with customized caps. They stare at me. I stare back.

According to EVEopedia, wormholes are essentially stargates--passageways into another solar system. Unlike stargates, however, wormholes aren't stable. They collapse as easily as a neurotic bureaucrat. They cause strange things to happen to your ship. They play host to the most lethal denizens of the EVE universe. Wormholes are a lot of things, but they certainly weren't meant to be home.

"We're a really weird part of EVE," declares one of the Wormhole players.

Everyone laughs, but as the chortling dies down the group takes a moment to make one thing clear: they don't like null-sec players, people who hang out in the unrestricted zones of EVE Online's virtual universe where anything goes.

There is very little love between wormhole residents and those dwelling in the Mos Eisley-like corners of EVE Online's zero-security areas. The wormhole players proudly meet intruders with unified hostility--often, the whole neighborhood will come together to get rid of the visiting miscreant.

"After that, we go back to shooting each other."

And there is definitely no shortage of shooting. Gleefully, in turns and bursts, these hardcore MMO players I'm speaking with in Iceland explain what life is like within this little-understood subsection of virtual space.

Living in a digital wormhole

Wormhole players do not formulate large, thousand-man alliances or corporations. While null-sec players might dally with political machinations, wormhole players fire indiscriminately at the world.

"We just shoot at each other, really, or group together to attack a common target. Of course, we might also just change sides altogether and shoot at each other," says one Fanfest attendee. "At one point, we might all be shooting one target and be like, 'Eh, it's more fun shooting this guy' and start shooting him instead."

More laughter, louder this time.

"We shoot at each other, then we have beers at Fanfest."

Fanfest is where we're having this conversation, of course. It's an event that CCP Games hosts every year here in Reykjavik, the place where EVE Online was born. Though the idea that people would travel to Iceland to attend a gaming convention might seem ludicrous at first, it's an annual pilgrimage made by hundreds of players from around the world. Judging from the air of camaraderie lingering over this group of Wormhole players, this journey is one they've all taken many times before.

But not every EVE player is treated with the same camaraderie. For those unwilling to play nice, these wormhole denizens have only one response: the roar of plasma-fueled gunfire. Respect is a big thing for the wormhole players, and ungracious players are unwelcome because life within wormhole space is anything but easy.

"We know what everyone has to go through to get what they want."

Another guy steps up. He's shorter than the rest, kitted out with Coke-bottle glasses and a perpetually serious expression. Later, I'll learn that he's the logistics officer for Aperture Harmonics, the man in charge of the herculean task that is cataloging and mapping the wormholes in the entire EVE universe. With so little official documentation available, it is a job that can only be delineated as nightmarish.

We talk.

Mapping virtual space

"The thing about wormhole space is that the connections between wormholes are time-based. Normal systems have gates to connect them, wormhole space does not. For us, every 24 hours, the map is completely different. Systems shift, connections shift. Today, we might be connected to them." He points at a member of another corporation. "Day after, we might be connected to someone else."

The complications continue to pile up.

"Through our wormholes, you can only take a certain number of ships. Like, through a gate in 'known space' you can take anything, whereas we can only take two capital ships and a few battleships because our wormholes are mass-dependent. If you put a bunch of mass through it, it'd be -

"- gone, and it'd reopen somewhere else again."

" - er, yeah. We don't always have an entrance to get our stuff out of there. We kill our enemies and they give us items, which we then need to move into known space to sell. There's a lot of logistical work. The thing is, when you're hauling loot out, you're going to use a freighter and there are some systems where you can't fit one of them out of so you really need to think about where you're going in this chain of wormholes or you'll find that you can't actually haul them out."

A player named Alec Freeman from the Dark Space Initiative cuts into the dialogue. "It's a very, very different kind of fighting style as well. We are limited by what we can bring into combat, whereas in null you can simply have as many people as there are online. There are more challenges to it."

As more people join in, eager to share their experiences, the sense of excitement mounts. People begin talking faster and faster, overlapping one another in elucidatory fits.

"Here's another thing that separates us from everyone else. We, if we do it right, make a LOT of money."Alec grins.

The rewards of being a wormhole privateer

The jabber halts. There is a sense of weight to that proclamation, the kind you'd associate with gold bars and big safes. Those are the words of a rich man in the company of equally affluent gentleman. The group nods. Then, the babble begins anew:

"We make a lot, a lot of in-game money compared to solo people and other fleets. So, you'll find that our fleets--they're made up of Tech III ships."

"We put a lot of expensive mods on them. Our ships are 4 to 5 times more expensive."

"Because of our numbers, every ship needs to count so we need to get the best on the ship."

It continues to escalate. Jargon flies everywhere. They tell me about the website, about the experiments that they've conducted in order to better understand EVE Online's wormholes. They tell me about the absence of local chat and how the only real way to tell if someone has snuck up on you is if you're dead. At one point, somebody explains how they have 50 billion ISK--the in-game currency--stored away in player-owned structures that could be destroyed at any moment. Somebody else coyly asks for the location. The first player happily surrenders the information.

"Please come kill it. It'd be an epic fight."

"You're on!"

Suddenly, the group is now focused on the enthused pair. A fight is brewing and the sharks can smell blood in the water. Regardless of how amiable they might be, the wormhole players are still EVE capsuleers--they're villains, rascals and cut-throat brigands. As I watch the unfolding chaos, the stern-faced logistics officer offers a final observation:

"Nothing was ever really known about the wormholes. The developers didn't tell us that the wormholes were mass-dependent--they just told us that there are these wormholes, go figure them out. It's like real-life Wild West pioneering. They didn't tell us the rules of the game, so we just had to figure it out ourselves."

"That's why everybody who went into wormhole space early feel like brothers," says this anonymous player who's thrown his lot in with the Dark Space Initiative. "Because it's such a hard thing to do, because we have to use so much teamwork, we have a lot of respect for each other. You see, if you manage to survive in such a situation, you're worth something."

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