Two summers ago, I spent a month and a half playing playing EVE Online. In terms of subscribers, EVE is the second-most popular MMO, though it has only a fraction of the subscribers of the monolithic World of Warcraft. It was a enriching experience in a fascinating society. It’s too bad the game isn’t very good.

I returned recently, lured partially by the release of the Incarna expasion (the fifteenth free expansion since the game’s 2003 launch) and partially by the fascinating meta-game that had continued in my absence.

A bit about EVE for those not familiar: it’s a spacefaring MMORPG in which the player is embodied by a large spaceship (i.e. not fighter craft but proper BIG SHIPS, from frigates up to monstrous capital ships). It has the look and feel of a classic open-world space-sim (Elite and all its prodigy), but this is merely an aesthetic. At a basic level, EVE plays very much like a standard MMORPG – a genre that I tend to dislike because it’s so focused on progress (leveling up, acquiring loot) over EXPERIENCE. In a typical MMO, combat isn’t a pleasure in an of itself, but a grind to acquire, and it’s our insatiable lust for wealth and power that keeps us playing. Remove the reward elements and few would bother to engage in the gamic systems, because they simply aren’t rewarding in and of themselves.

In this respect EVE is even worse than most. At least World of Warcraft and many of its ilk play at a solid clip, a steady stream of enemies falling at my blade. Not EVE. A combat engagement with a single fleet will typically take 30 minutes, and in that 30 minutes I do very little. I fixed my turrets on the enemy, try to keep at range, and wait. If I take damage, I warp out, repair myself, and go back. That’s it. Really. It’s sleep-inducing. And, like most MMORPGs, combat is at the heart of the game. There are other things to do and various ways to engage with the combat, but it’s always there; it drives the economy and the politics alike.

The question, then, is how on earth did this game become so popular if its core component is so flawed? The answer, as I alluded to before, is the “meta-game.” The meta-game of any game is never clearly defined, but can be summed up as the elements that surround and encapsulate the core components of play, the tactics and expectations that emerge from the interactions of the systems. And in EVE, the meta-game is wonderful. Choosing and fitting ships in preparation for combat is consistently thought-provoking, and eight years in people are still debating the relative worth of various ships, weapon types, and fittings. PVP takes this to a new level, with a vast array of special weapons systems and ship types requiring vast organization and leadership. At this larger level the insultingly simple combat of EVE becomes MORE complex than its peers.

The greater appeal of EVE – and the “trapping” that makes it worth playing – is its sandbox philosophy. The core of the galaxy is relatively safe, patrolled by NPC police ships; but the majority is a lawless tyranny rife with piracy. At the fringes of space players can build their own stations, claim ownership over star sectors, and wage wars. Corporations (the game’s version of clans) form alliances and create webs of intrigue, including vast spy networks (see this interview with spymaster Mitanni for a fascinating look at this section of the game). The economy is a radical version of free-market capitalism, with nearly all goods researched and manufactured by players.

But it’s the narrative that emerges from this is by far greatest draw for me. There’s so much human drama, whether it’s the corporate intrigue or the massive debates over the future of the game and its design. Two days after re-joining, a perfect storm of controversial design decisions and horrendous PR had the players in a frenzy. Jita – the game’s trade-hub system – was occupied, and I flew in to witness 1500 players spamming protest chants and fire their weapons on a memorial. It was insane, and in some ways misguided, but amazing to behold.

I doubt I’ll subscribe for another month, even if I’m unemployed. To really enjoy EVE, you must join a corporation and dedicate some time to it, and the result is that one is left with little to no time to play other games. That makes me sad, and – for a “consummate gamer” like me – remains the biggest downside of the MMO. But if I ever care to dabble, EVE is where I’ll go, horrendous combat and all.