Eve Online: The Mystery and Allure of the Alt

I experienced a bit of serendipity last night on the EVE Online website. I had reset my settings for Aura (a fantastic app for the Droid that helps me monitor my skill queue and look up gear and ships while offline) and needed reenter my character’s API key into the App to get things synced back up. I knew I could retrieve the key from the main EVE website but, as with most things on the internet, I wasn’t sure exactly where the page was located, so I did what I usually do: poke around and explore.

At one point, I was asked for my login and password and without really thinking about it I tapped out a familiar userid, hit submit, and was met with the following message.

This was an odd enough error to pull my attention fully back to the screen, and I realized that good old muscle memory had taken over — I’d entered in a different userid than the one I actually used in EVE, but one which I had used quite often in the past.

Like, for instance, four years ago.

My curiosity piqued, I told the site I’d forgotten my password, gave it a likely old-school email address, and a few minutes later I had a reset password for the defunct account sitting in my inbox. A few more clicks, a quick chin nod toward Paypal, and I had reactivated the long-abandoned account.

My mild curiosity had gone rabid — updating Aura was a distant memory — I logged into EVE with the new/old account information and was greeted by a dust-covered slightly resentful-looking capsuleer (who still had an insurance company’s condolence EVEmail in her inbox for her training ship getting blown up). More importantly, I was greeted by a character who predated the fairly recent changes to EVE’s skill system, and who had, as a result, accrued a double-handful of maxed-out starting skills and a significant pile of instantly-redeemable skill points to do with as I saw fit! I could…

I could…

I… didn’t know what to do with them.

I had found that strangest of all EVE-creatures: an Alt.

Pondering some kind of plan for my newfound alt got me thinking about the nature of alts in EVE and how they differ from the way such things are handled in other games (for good and bad).

The basic split between EVE and most MMOs lies in the way in which character progression is handled. In short, you don’t earn experience points and you dont’ level up in EVE — you improve by increasing your skills, and your supply of skill points is effectively infinite, governed only by the length of time it takes to learn a given skill (you can only advance one at a time). A basic skill might only take 8 minutes to learn at level 1, but will take the better part of a week to max out; more complex skills might take almost two months just to train from level 4 to level 5.

This sounds bad until you learn that your training time continues to tick by even when you aren’t online, which means that you can queue up a particular tricky skill just before you leave for a two-week vacation, and will return to EVE tanned and refreshed, with the skill learned and ready for use.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

The only restriction on this is that only one character per account can queue up skills for training.

Wait… you can only what-now?

I was surprised when I first logged into EVE and saw that there was room for a mere three characters.

“But there’s four main factions!” I muttered. “And a bunch of sub-groups within those factions. And… other things I don’t even understand yet, but I’m sure I will soon! How can I really explore the game if I can’t make up a dozen little alts to try out all the variations?”

(Yes, I’m totally that guy.)

My reaction was based on other games I’d played, but the reality is that I’ve only ever played one character on that account; the other two character slots are filled with handsome people who languish from inattention.

Why? Because I can only train one character at a time.

In any MMO you care to name, you can make up more than one character — in fact, most players do. While everyone — even that guy with a stable of max-level characters — can point at a particular character and say “that one is my main”, there’s nothing really stopping you from logging in someone else to mess around and have some different brands of fun.

That tendency comes to a screeching halt in EVE, because in order to do anything useful with a new alt, you need to stop training your main, simply because a new character has virtually NO skills and won’t even be able to make it out of the tutorial missions without training stuff — in some of those missions, training new skills is what you do. At some level, to play your alt, you have to take away from your main character.

“Big deal,” I hear you say, “every time I log in an alt to any game, I’m taking time away from my main.”

Sure, that’s theoretically true, but the reality is that until you logged in, you weren’t playing anyone anyway, so your main character wasn’t losing out. If you choose to play another character when actually you do log in, nothing really changes for your main: you already weren’t playing them, and now… you still aren’t. Big deal. EVE changes this dynamic by introducing the idea that the character — a singular character — is advancing all the time, which in turn means that every moment is an interruptible moment. It isn’t just about the time you spend playing, it’s about attention — which character do you want EVE to actually pay attention to: your main, or some little alt you’re screwing around with?

For most people, that answer is obvious.

Two other elements play into the lack of same-account alts in EVE, and they also stem from the skill system.

First, as I mentioned, there is effectively no limit to the number of skill points you have to spend, and there is effectively no limit to the number of skill you can learn — it’s theoretically possible to learn every skill in the game, but no one’s done it because it would (at last calculation) take approximately twenty actual years of continual training, and the game hasn’t been around that long. This also means that there is always something else to do with your main character; something else to learn and get good at. You might be able to cap-out your skills within a limited area of knowledge (say, mining and manufacture), but as soon as you do, someone starts talking about running a player-owned base in the middle of warp space or stealthily exploring all the landmarks in the galaxy, and you have something new to try. I’ve hit the level cap in several games, and while there is usually some end-game content to explore, reaching the (current) pinnacle of character progression usually means you’ll have time to try out other characters, but those concepts are somewhat meaningless in EVE. When it’s possible to contribute to the highest levels of content with characters right out of the tutorial, where’s the “end-game”? When are you done with your main (or even “done enough”) if you can always work on something new? The point where you can say “I can take a break from this guy for awhile and try something else” is a moving target.

It’s kind of annoying.

Second, there is a problem with the whole idea of “trying something different” with an alt. If I’m playing a typical fantasy MMO, for example, and I decide to give my tank a rest and try out a healer, I can reasonably expect to have a completely different play experience. In EVE, every character and every ship is potentially the tank, the DPS, the healer, the crowd control, the buffer, or the debuffer. Also, while there are many ways your alt’s skills can branch out from your main, it takes awhile to get to that point, so you’re denied the little dopamine kick that comes from “this is something new!” EVE’s skill system relies on a broad and deep set of core skills that virtually every character will (and should) learn, which means that your alt is going to feel a LOT like your main character for the first month or more of training.

Except they're not as good at anything and their ship looks like a handheld vacuum.

You can get to the point where you’ve really differentiated your alt from your main, but that takes time and, as I’ve already said, that’s time that your main is at a standstill; ignored in a very palpable and trackable way.

Which isn’t to say Alts are Useless

Not at all: far, far from it, in fact.

EVE is actually famous (some might say notorious) for encouraging players with multiple accounts. It didn’t take long for the playerbase to figure out that the best (perhaps only real) way around the alt-problem was to create a second account that could train a second(ary) character without interfering with the first. That’s efficient both in terms of character progression and “teamwork”, because you can then bring both characters along (on two different installations of the same EVE client) for mission running or mining or virtually any other activity and get — you guessed it — twice the efficiency out of the activity.

Even better, the idea of multi-boxing — a horribly complex process in most games — is made far more simple in EVE: why worry about buggy, half-tested, third-party software to run two characters at once when you can simply train the right skills on your character and issue commands to your whole fleet, simultaneously? In a very real sense, parts of EVE seem made to run multiple characters at once. Why run back and forth with a full cargo hold of ore if one character can mine and the other one follow along with a gigantic hauler? Why not run the much more challenging, better-paying missions if one of your characters can devote all there resources to a solid tanking ship with big guns while the other one keeps their defenses at full power?

Why not, indeed.

Except for the cost.

No one’s ever accused CCP of being stupid — the way the game is set up encourages a particular mindset in players (a reluctance to ‘ignore’ the main character) in which the easiest (and, in fact, most beneficial) way to handle an alt is to pay them more money for a second (or third, or fourth) account. I hope no one missed that reactivating my dusty old account required a little PayPal love — I guarantee CCP is glad I stumbled over that old user ID.


So will I keep the second account open? I’m not sure — I’d like to get my main character deeper into cruiser-related abilities, but at the same time I’d also love to go exploring wormholes , and for that I need to spend a lot of time training up covert ops and science-related skills. If I try to do both on one character it’ll be three months before I reap all the benefits, whereas if I split things up and put my old/new character on the path to cloaked recon frigates and scanning equipment, I’d cut that time by half, if not more. I don’t know.

Anyway, since I just reactivated the account, I have a month to decide.

A month to get used to the idea (and ease) of two accounts.

Which is of course how they get you, in the long run. Well-played, CCP. Well-played.

Like most things in EVE, it doesn’t matter if you like or hate what the other guy is doing — you have to respect the skill the move required.