Reflections on FanFest 2011

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Last week was Eve Online's FanFest 2011, the third FanFest in a row I've been to, and it was, as usual, a great time -- perhaps my favorite FanFest yet, though that has less to do with the organization of the FanFest itself and more the fact that I was finally not the only CAIN member hanging out there.

I got in on Tuesday morning, like I did back for FanFest 2008, and managed to get in my hotel room right away, which was a nice change from my first FanFest when I had to wait until noon to get in. After a short nap and a quick shower, I was feeling almost human and spent the rest of the day hanging out in the Nordica, just catching up with people I hadn't seen in a while (and a few people I'd only talked to online). Since the rest of CAIN wasn't getting in until Wednesday afternoon for the most part, that gave me some time to talk with everyone else, since I suspected I would be hanging out with CAIN most of the rest of the time.

After an early night, I got up early Wednesday morning and went on a jeep tour of Thórsmörk, an area southeast of Reykjavik near Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted last year. We had the same guide this year as we did on 2009's tour of the Golden Circle, and he didn't disappoint this year either. Though most of Iceland was covered with snow (for the first time I've been there), the sights here were still spectacular. There are several large waterfalls in the valley between the two glaciers that bound it, as well as some amazing looking mountains. We also went out along the southern coast, where the beach is completely made up of volcanic ash from previous eruptions.

At the Burst Rock.JPG
The formation behind me in that picture was probably one of the most amazing sights on the trip; the giant crack in the rocks you can see there was made because last year's eruption was trapped under the glacier on top of the volcano, and the pressure it created shattered the rock here. It's kind of amazing to see something like that and know that it was created a little less than a year ago, and the kind of power that must have been required to do that. Just so you have some idea of the size there, that crack is probably a few stories high, since I am a few hundred feet from it on a ridge in that picture.

Like last year, it was an all-day tour, so that ate up pretty much all of Wednesday, and by Thursday morning it was time for the main event. The two previous years I'd been to FanFest, in 2008 and 2009, had been great experiences, and I'd really been looking forward to this one for a while. Despite the fact that my desire to play Eve had been waning somewhat, the player community here at FanFest is one of the things I really miss about the game. It's one of the few places you can go where there is no shortage people who are passionately interested in something I feel the same way about. Even better, this year a number of CAIN members managed to make the trek to Iceland (mostly from Scandinavia), and it was really nice to put some faces to the names I'd only seen on the computer screen for the last five years.

Since they weren't staying at the Nordica where I was, I had breakfast with some other friends I'd made on previous trips to Iceland and then headed over to the venue, and after a short search I managed to link up with them at the EON booth, where they were hanging out -- thanks to some snazzy hoodies that Kenji had gotten made. I had missed out, unfortunately (that'll teach me not to read the forums), but it wasn't hard to find the rest of them. After a short bit of catching up, we headed downstairs, since a few of them wanted to sign up for the PvP tournament this year. While about half of us went off to sign up for that, the rest of us took a look at the schedule to figure out what we wanted to check out next.

Perhaps I should have known better than to let those guys go off on their own (just kidding, guys :), but when they came back, they told us that CAIN wasn't just going to be entering one team in the tournament, but two, since they had signed us up for it as well. I hadn't even been on a patrol in a few months, so I was pretty sure it wasn't going to go anywhere and we'd be out in the first round or two, but I figured what the hell, it might be fun. That didn't start until Friday though, so we had plenty of time to see the opening ceremony, complete with a bit of an awkward speech by Reykjavik's mayor and a new music video from Permaband (they of "HTFU" fame) -- more on that later.

After that, we sat at the Design Democracy presentation, where one of CCP's concept artists made a (really ugly) Caldari battlecruiser with the "help" of the audience, and then I stayed in Tranquility for the Alliance and CSM panels. The Alliance panel was...well, the presentation from one of Systematic Chaos' leaders on why they had suddenly collapsed in the last month or two and from Noir on their mercenary operation were both pretty interesting and showed that some thought had gone into the presentation, and I have to admit the presentation by the Mittani on the Goons had it's good points, but I suppose I was a bit to "serious business" to enjoy the Test and Dirt Nap Squad presentations -- neither is particularly known for being, well, especially mature, and I'm fairly sure both presenters were quite drunk by this point.

The CSM panel, on the other hand, was a lot more my speed, and I was really interested to hear how they felt their role was evolving in the wake of the uproar last summer after their June summit in Iceland and the fallout from that. Based on other stuff I heard during FanFest, it sounds like that might have been a bit of a wake up call for some of the people at CCP, though how much of that was just to placate the players and how much it signaled a real change from the company, only time will tell. The addition of the new "small fixes" team led by CCP Soundwave was a welcome change though, and whether that was ignited by the CSM or their open letter only encouraged it to go forward, I think for many people that has been one of the best things to see for the game lately.

By the time those two panels were over, we were ready to get some dinner and go over our strategy for tomorrow's PvP activities. One of us had to peel off and head back to his hotel, but the rest of us went out to one of the bars downtown that was offering a FanFest discount. While we sat there talking about Eve, FanFest, and everything else, it turns out we were sitting right next to a bunch of WoD Online devs, who (unsurprisingly) had overheard us talking. They asked if this was everyone's first trip to Iceland (which for everyone but me, it was) and asked if we'd had the local spirit, Brennivin.

Now, I stay away from shots (I don't drink to get drunk, generally, and I don't understand why you would have a drink where the entire idea was not to taste any of it), and I certainly wasn't really in a hurry to make my first one a liquor known as "the black death." However, after the WoD guys bought us all a round, peer pressure set in. Now, when the principle use for something is to wash the taste of rotten shark from your mouth, you can sort of expect that it is going to be strong, but damn. It tasted like superstrong mouthwash -- not disgusting, but definitely not something I would be having again.

After dinner, we headed to the hotel most of the CAIN folks were staying at (Hotel Bjork) and spent a few hours going over fittings for the next day. Mostly, we were looking at high-damage cruisers, especially the Rupture, with an assault frigate to tackle. We came up with a few different options as we took over the tiny lobby of the hotel, chatting with 5-6 other Eve players who happened to stop by and overhear us. The rules for the tournament -- no tech 2 tanks, no electronic warfare, no remote logistics -- made it clear that the order of the day was going to be mostly about who could kill the other team the fastest, but just how much that was the case wouldn't become clear until the next afternoon.

Friday we all met back up at the venue and got ready for our PvP matches. Unfortunately, the tournament was running a bit late, so we ended up spending most of the morning waiting for the first team's match to start. Unfortunately, this meant that we missed a lot of presentations I wanted to see -- the Content panel, TonyG's IP presentation (which is always interesting, regardless of how I feel about some of the Eve fiction), and the women in Eve roundtable. However, around 1315 or so, our first team finally went up to fight.

They were up against a team of Goons who had appropriated the name of Pandemic Legion for their team (winners of the previous few Alliance tournaments), and after a short but hard fought battle, the CAIN team went down in flames, unable to capture the point after getting soundly defeated during the first engagement at the capture point. It was disappointing, but the Goons were a strong team, and I have little doubt that they had put a fair bit of thought into their fitting as well, and I have no doubt they were well-coordinated. Losing that first engagement really breaks up momentum, and that is what ended up killing our team.

However, that first battle gave our second team -- me, Derrys, Saiva, and Swed X -- a leg up on the other competitors. We spent the next hour planning, discussing what did and didn't work, and trying to figure out how to make our next chance better. We realized a few things pretty quickly:

  • Assault frigates were largely worthless. They were too squishy, especially without a T2 tank and remote logistics, and drones just ate them for lunch. The only way they could survive was to avoid engagement and stay at longer range, which meant they couldn't be used to hold the control point, which was key.
  • Staying in a group was important. Our first team, after losing the initial engagement, returned to the point in dribs and drabs, trying to get on top of the point in order to keep it from counting down. This just meant that they died faster. It was better to let the other team get a free 2-3 minutes on the counter than to try and engage them without a full team; you'd never be able to push them off the point like that anyway. The majority of the teams that lost, I think, ended up making this exact same mistake.
  • Tanking was an afterthought; putting as much gank as possible on your ships gave you a huge edge in being able to win that first engagement, get a few extra minutes of time on the point, and chase away any future aggressors much faster, and time was the name of the game. The lack of a T2 tank against T2 weapons meant that even the strongest tanks, like the Moas we kept seeing during the course of the tournament, merely died a few seconds slower than the weaker ones, and put out much less damage. As a result, we filled our low slots with gyros and tracking enhancers for the most part, and our only low slot tank was a Damage Control.
  • Range was also largely worthless. One of the counters to the high-damage close range setup was to have a bunch of long-range Caracal missile cruisers; however, we figured out that even if they managed to wipe the field, it would take several minutes (giving us free time on the clock). Even then, it would take them time to get to the middle of the map and take the point, giving us time to reship and return, after which our higher damage output would quickly wipe out anything at the point.
  • The medium neutralizer we'd planned to put in the high slot wasn't really worthwhile; a lot of teams were fielding Ruptures, which didn't need their capacitor for much of anything, and assault frigates died quickly to drones anyway. So we replaced that with another missile launcher.
  • Tackling wasn't really worthwhile either -- since you had to stay close to the point in order to capture, maneuverability was of limited use and even fast ships would likely get taken down by drones or taking fire from multiple angles.
  • Bookmarking the capture point was important -- we needed to do it right away after getting into the middle. It gave you a critical advantage coming back into the fight from reshipping; a lot of other teams would have to warp in at 20-50 km from the beacon, exposing them to fire for a critical 20-30 seconds before they were actually keeping us from holding the point.

Armed with that information, we went into our first tournament battle, and six minutes later, we had won the first round after hammering the hell out of the other team in the first engagement, and then picking off their second wave as it slowly came into the arena piecemeal. I think we lost two ships in the first engagement, and those were our only losses. A lot of the credit for this goes to the members of our A-team that didn't make it -- Kenji, Demion, Calder, and Alexande -- who helped us refine the fittings and cheered us on to victory.

The experience gave us more information to work with; we realized that our assault launchers weren't really necessary (mostly because of the fact that range and assault frigates weren't an issue), so we decided to swap them out for heavy assault launchers for the next battle, giving us some additional short-range firepower. We also realized that one of the beacons near the capture point was much closer than the others, giving us a few extra second head start on a team that didn't warp in there.

The only bad thing about winning our match meant I was going to miss even more presentations -- we managed to sneak away from the PvP room to see at least part of the keynote, but shortly before it was over we slipped out and headed back downstairs for our next match.

I have to admit, I still felt like our chances were pretty slim, considering how rusty I was and how many pretty notable corps I was seeing were in the tournament; the Goons had already proven how dangerous they were against our A-team, and I saw tshirts for some of the Rooks and Kings as well (if you've seen the Clarion Call videos, that's them), among others, so I knew there were plenty of experienced PvPers in the mix. I was starting to get back in my groove, though, and CAIN has always been pretty focused on small-gang, lighter ship PvP, so I figured we might make it another round or two at least.

Things went better than I expected, to say the least. We won the next battle, and the next, and so on until we found ourselves in the semifinals at the end of the day -- up against the Goon team that had given our first team so much trouble. We knew that this would probably be our toughest battle yet -- like us, they'd been using four close-range Ruptures the whole time, and doing a good job putting their opponents down in good order. They'd even come back from behind in their quarterfinal match, something I don't think any other team had managed to really do -- for most of them, the team with the early advantage ended up winning. We decided to modify our setup one last time before the semifinal match, getting rid of our afterburner and replacing it with an invulnerability field, to give us a little extra tank; without the afterburner, we'd only lose maybe 10-20 seconds, but the extra tank would let us pour on the damage that much longer.

After a bit of good-natured shit-talking between the two teams, battle commenced, and we got to the point fairly quickly, even without our afterburners -- right about the same time all but one of the Goons warped in almost 120 km off the beacon. One of them, unfortunately, had warped in much closer, and we turned our guns on him right away. As the three ships farther away warped in right on the point (a tricky maneuver that was pretty clever, but I think it was probably not as efficient as warping to the closest beacon), their first ship was almost dead, giving us a big advantage in the ensuing melee. We lost two ships, but managed to hold the field and destroy or chase off the rest of the Goons. Our two losses went to reship as we waited for the second wave, the counter on the capture point slowly counting more towards our side.

Knowing that the Goons had managed to come back from a similar loss in their last match, though, we knew we weren't out of the woods yet. Luckily, our reinforcements arrived almost simultaneously with their second wave, and again we managed to fend them off and hold the point, by which time they couldn't stop us from getting the five minutes we needed to win the match. When I talked to one of the Goon players later at Saturday's party, it was clear what had given us the advantage; their setup had been very similar to ours, though they'd kept an afterburner in the mids and loaded it up with armor in the lows, instead of the damage and tracking mods we'd put in. The extra damage, multiplied by our four ships on the field, had given us the upper hand; their armor had only given them a few extra seconds, and it wasn't enough to keep us from finishing them off.

With our toughest match so far out of the way, we were through into the finals, and no one was more surprised than I was. I'd missed pretty much everything else on Friday because of it, which was disappointing (and I hope next year, the tournament keeps closer to the schedule so participants can do more stuff outside of the tournament), but we were going to be having the finals in the main room the next day, and we'd already taken second place at the very least, which meant we were leaving FanFest with a new video card, if nothing else.

There wasn't much left of Friday after that; most of the other guys had signed up for one of the pub crawls with a dev, so they were taking off for downtown to do that, and I headed back to the Nordica and met up with some other friends of mine, and hung out with them most of the evening, before finally making my way back to bed to get ready for the next day.

Saturday morning we reconvened at the Nordica at a little before 1100, and you could tell that not everyone had quite survived the pub crawl intact; Derrys and I had skipped out on that, and it looked like Saiva and Swed had survived it in decent shape, but Alexande was definitely looking a little green around the gills (a lot more green a little later at the venue), but hopefully we'd still be in fighting shape for the finals at 1300. We spent another hour or so hanging out in a very sparsely-filled event hall (evidently Alexande wasn't the only one still trying to recover from the pub crawl) and then went on over to Tranquility to get ready for our match.

Despite the fact that Derrys and I kept telling everyone it was just another match, and that we should just focus on what we had to do, I can't deny the thought of getting up on stage in front of a few hundred people, where our prowess (or lack there of) would be visible for all to see, was a mite bit intimidating. When they marched us up on stage and we started taking our places, I think that's when the nervousness really took hold. We must have sat on the stage for 15 minutes or so, just waiting to log in and start fitting, and that was the worst. Once we could log in and start fitting, at least then there was something to focus on to distract me from the rapidly-filling hall. The commentators started their spiel on stage and in just a few minutes we were undocking to begin the fight. You can see for yourself what happened here:

It seems like the other team had tried to come in with three artillery-fit Ruptures and a tanked Moa to hold the point, but one of them had accidentally warped in on the beacon with the Moa. As discussed before, this wasn't really the optimal strategy, but the miswarp pretty much condemned them to a quick death, and like so many of the teams we'd faced before, that first engagement set the tone for the rest. We lost one ship even so, and Derrys had to warp back to the station afterward with very little structure left, but that pretty much decided the match right there. Since he only had to repair, Derrys got back to the point just as the first ships from the other team started to trickle back into the arena. Coming in only one or two at a time pretty much doomed them, and we tore them apart (though I almost went down at the end).

After that, we went up to get interviewed by StevieSG, though that ended up waiting until after the third place match, when the team we beat in the semifinals, the "Pandemic Legion" Goon team, took a win with a rather comedic laser-and-smartbomb party. I think we were all pretty surprised they won with that, but I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the Goons were pretty well coordinated, even with a comedy fit, and that the other team, through a fluke of teams not showing up, had only fought one battle in the tournament -- their semifinal -- and they had lost it, so they hadn't had the opportunity to refine their strategy that most of the other teams had had. If you want to skip right to our interview in that video, by the way, you can fast forward to 26:10.

After the PvP finals, they cleared the room to get ready for what is usually the main showcase of FanFest, CCP Presents. In previous years, this has been used to announce the content of upcoming expansions -- in 2008, it was used to reveal Apocrypha to great acclaim, for instance. This year, though, it was a little lackluster. Honestly, it felt a little like it was more of a presentation for potential investors or for industry folks and a lot less for the fans, though. A lot of the presentation was taken up by a discussion of Carbon, CCP's distilled framework that is forming the new "guts" of Eve, WoD Online, Dust 514, and presumably most of their other projects going forward, and a significant chunk of the rest was them bringing Nvidia guys up on stage to talk about the stuff CCP is working on in partnership with them.

From a technical point of view, Carbon is really an interesting project, but because it's mostly infrastructure, there's not a lot of red meat for fans to sink their teeth into (as indicated by the skit about a CarbonFest during the presentation) and the Nvidia stuff tended to come off as a lot of technology marketing wankery. Telling players that the current technology could only render a few characters on screen at once, but in five years we'd be able to have hundreds of character on screen at once, isn't really something to get excited about -- after the last year's troubles with CSM being told that Eve is going to be stagnant for 18 months, you'd think they'd be very wary of the "just wait a while" line of discussion.

As far as new stuff for Eve goes, all we really got were a few glimpses of the Captain's Quarters stuff for Incarna that is supposed to be rolled out this summer, some new turret graphics and animations -- admittedly they looked cool, but most PvPers tend to turn off turret effects anyway, so response was somewhat muted -- and a new trailer for the "future vision" of Eve, which, while really cool, didn't really show players what they would be getting in the next year or two, and quite frankly I think a lot of people are skeptical can ever really be pulled off. CCP seems very confident about it, to be sure, and the idea of a seamless transition from ship combat, to walking in stations, to boots-on-the-ground combat in Dust is a really amazing concept, but the proof is in the execution, and CCP has had a little trouble with that as of late. A lot of people I talked to were a little upset to see CCP shooting for the moon when they thought there was a lot of major stuff in the game right now -- sovereignty, planetary interaction, and factional warfare, for instance -- which still need a lot of work before they really live up to people's expectations. I guess we'll just have to see how it goes, but here's the trailer with a taste of what CCP sees for the future of Eve:

With that out of the way, we all went to get some dinner before coming back to the venue for the Party at the Top of the World, which is what closes out the FanFest every year. It's one of the biggest parties in Iceland each year, I'm told, which has ended up being both a bit of a blessing and a curse.

On the good side, it's a great party with some pretty good musical acts (though nothing this year came close to the DJ with the full orchestra last year, which was amazing) and a lot of hanging out with a thousand of your closest Eve compatriots. Our tournament win (and the fact that I'm one of a small -- but growing -- number of women Eve players at the FanFest) made our small group a pretty visible one, I guess, and I had a lot of great conversations with players and a few devs over the course of the night, and I really enjoyed myself -- I stayed until the party wrapped up at 0200.

Unfortunately, like last year, CCP decided to open up the party to the general public. I don't have anything against Icelanders -- in fact, I've found the country to be really great and welcoming -- but opening up the party to 2000 outsiders changes the tone of the party a great deal, especially since a lot of the people coming in don't seem to have any idea what the party is actually for and seem to treat a lot of the Eve folks with a bit of disdain. The party changes from one celebrating Eve players to one where we're merely tolerated, and barely at that. I can understand why some of the women coming in might not really enjoy being the center of attention, but complaining about how many "nerds" are at the party (as one of my friends there over heard them saying last year) does not really make any of us who flew thousands of miles and paid thousands of dollars just to be there feel too great about them. I can't say for sure, either, but I suspect a lot of the theft at the party was not by Eve players either -- one woman I talked to at the Nordica Sunday morning said she'd lost her coat, cardigan, and everything else at the (unmanned) coat check, which sort of sucks if you're no where near home.

I understand why CCP decided to do this -- they are Icelanders at heart, and I think they want to give their hometown a good party, and god knows it'd be nice if it wasn't such a sausage fest, but I really think that for a FanFest party, it's really important to make sure the party is for the fans who have come so far to be there. Next year, I hope they give Eve players some place that they can call their own -- either a nice big lounge near the main hall where we can just hang out and talk, without worrying about the locals or another hall or something. This, along with the more marketing-style pandering spiel at CCP Presents and even the new Permaband video, which had almost nothing to do with Eve and a lot more to do with how e-famous the last video made them, gave a lot of the previously best parts of FanFest a bit of an icky feeling that I hope is just a temporary blip.

As it was, I spent most of my time at the party outside in the cafeteria area, hanging out and talking to folks, since the main room was just too loud and too crowded to find anyone, let alone really talk to anyone. There were a lot of folks who I'd have loved to spend some time talking to, but I could barely hear them and my voice was already going, so I had to just sort of cut the conversation short. I was really glad to get the chance to talk to those I did talk to, and I look forward to seeing them all again next year, when hopefully the atmosphere will be a bit more conducive to hanging out and chatting.

Sunday and Monday were recovery days, and I spent most of those days just hanging out in the Nordica bar -- the rest of the CAIN folks went out on a Golden Circle bus tour, so I was on my own for most of the day. We got back together for one last dinner though, and then said our goodbyes and took one last group photo (which, unfortunately, I don't have, since my camera ran out of batteries). Monday's flight back was pretty much without incident, and I happened to sit right next to Ned Coker, one of the Eve PR guys, and had a really interesting talk with him for the first half of the flight, which hopefully wasn't too boring for him (I am known to ramble at times). I also met Kyoko Sakoda on the flight back (he the ex-Omerta, now-Veto guy who did some amazing movies like this one) and chatted with a few other Eve folks at the baggage claim in Boston.

Overall, I had a great time, and it really reminded me what I love about Eve -- not just the scope of its vision but the great community, and I really look forward to going next year. It's even managed to inject a bit of Eve fervor back into my bittervet bones, so I've been logging back in for the first time in a while this week, looking forward to some more good action with all my old buddies in CAIN. Hopefully, next year will be even better and we'll have an even bigger presence!

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This page contains a single entry by Chas Blackwell published on April 3, 2011 11:39 AM.

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