I've lately been pondering Empyrean Age and why it was introduced; what the function of the factional warfare is supposed to be, and why it was considered necessary enough to develop. I'm not a big fan of it - as far as I've been able to tell, it hasn't particularly revitalised lowsec, as it was apparently intended to do, and means that if we do happen to see a FW player in a system, we generally check outlying areas for lurking blobs before engaging. The number of FW gate- and station-camps my highsec hauler passes are enough to prove that highsec has just become more of a playground than before.
So what's the blummin' point?
Eve is marketed as an RPG on the MMOG scale, but a large quantity of the player-base don't actually RP any more than they would in any other game; yes, your character lives in a space station and flies fantastically expensive ships in a far-distant future galaxy, but for many players that's as far as it goes. Like swinging a crowbar and reponding to the name 'Gordon' for a few hours, or running around ruins pretending to be an exceptionally well-endowed archaeologist. Like a Choose your Own Adventure book, it's not so much roleplay as it is selecting options and seeing where they take you.
Eve has such a vast amount of background, which is continually being added to, that you would think RP would be easy. It's a game designed for roleplay. Look at all the character creation options you get! Read those descriptions! You get enough info in there that if you so desire, you can enter the game straight off in-character, a raw newbie fresh from pilot training, overflowing with natural questions for the more experienced pilots to answer. It's not quite to the point where you can pull a 'Commander Worf' and decide to start as, for example, a Caldari who defected to the Gallentean Navy, but once your character is freed of the yoke of the NPC bureaucracy, you are free to turn them to whatever pursuits you desire. You have a bio slot in which to flesh out your character's background a bit more, enough so that other players might understand why you play your role as you do.
But not many players take advantage of that. The Chronicles are fun to read, but how many people process that and work it into their own character backgrounds? How many people even stop to consider what it would feel like to control a ship, or think of the hundreds or even thousands of ship's crew who die when a ship is destroyed? A Titan loss is practically genocide, ingame. For many players, it seems to be less RP and more numbers and strategy. If I plug modules A, B, C and D together on X-hull and use Y-ammo, I get $bignum1-DPS output and can tank $bignum2-DPS input which should allow me to outlast Target Zed. Whoopteedoo, where's the fun in that? They largely just ignore the roles and play the game, to whatever goals we choose.
Us vs Them
If you look at other MMORPGs on the market, the biggest difference between Eve and, for example, WoW is the level of involved roleplay. People playing WoW may act the same ingame as they do in Real Life, but their level of involvement in the RP aspects is higher than the average Eve player's. The key really is the introduction of absolutes and barriers. In WoW, you pick a side right from the start. You follow that side's quests, take part in that side's actions, and can't even communicate verbally with the players you oppose. It is entirely black is black and white is white, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Eve, by contrast (ugh, pun unintentional) is grey. It's so grey you can't tell where one side starts and the other ends. Anyone can run missions for another faction, enter another faction's sovreignty without penalty (unless you've succeeded in utterly destroying your standings, but that's not the point here), fly alongside and support players whose characters are from other factions, pilot a different faction's ships without suffering a racial penalty. Communication is easy and even the Chronicles mention implants that translate languages for the players, covering any potential RP questions to that effect.
It's always easier to roleplay when you have defined sides to support and oppose. While Eve's background allows ample space for this, the game mechanics aren't so conducive to choosing sides. (Note: I'm not referring to the 0.0 warfare in this - that is a whole 'nother story and not related so much to roleplay as it is to the numbers games, anyway.)
Enter Empyrean Age. I'll admit, I don't really read Dev blogs, so I wasn't even aware of EA until less than a month before it was brought into play. I wasn't impressed when I first heard of it, since it reeked a bit too much of (as so many have called it ) WoW In Space. We were all steeling ourselves for the inevitable Eve-equivalents of 'For the Horde!' being capslock-typed into Local channels, and a few people worried openly about being the wrong race in the wrong space and being attacked by the NPC police forces. Apart from a few instances of 'Amarr Victor!', however, none of that has actually been an issue. Empyrean Age is probably the best - if not only - way to bring a little roleplay Us vs Them into Eve. Look at the way Empyrean was introduced - several hours'-worth of news reports and video clips which were absolutely riveting. I have to admit, it kept me hitting Reload every ten minutes or so to keep up with what was happening; it was exceptionally well-done on getting people into it, and I even managed to snag a few screenies of the Luminaire Titan under attack before the lag-monster hit.
With Empyrean Age, you can play that Caldari defector or that Amarr sympathiser. There are now five sides to choose from - the four factions and the neutral, or uninvolved - and players can create an entire character history explaining why their Gallente flies alongside the Minmatar in Caldari ships, or why they only run missions for, or which will not hurt their standings with, the Amarr. It makes the roleplay aspects of Eve not so much easier as more accessible, and pulls the matter of Eve, that which makes it what it is, closer to what it was most likely intended to express from the start.
Missing the Point
Of course, there are more than enough FW involvees who don't do the roleplay part at all. Some use it merely as a vehicle to obtain kills and action; some just enjoy the strategic aspects of conquest and struggle. Some people simply give first one side a try, then another, testing corporations' suitability to their individual needs and goals the way all players do, without paying much heed to the potential roleplay issues of loyalty and treachery. And of course, by introducing the factional issues, CCP have meddled in the sandbox Eve has always been proudly attributed to, rather like installing a pony-ride and fun-park boardwalk on a beach. Perhaps, in the end, that isn't such a bad thing for the development of Eve as an RPG, though it's rather a shame that it was thought necessary in the first place.
As much as we - as normal, by-the-numbers strategy players - may roll our eyes at the factionistas and their devotion to that strange religion known as Plot, it's important to remember that Eve was designed as much for their style of play as our own. Like a novel or film, the Eve universe is as active and alive as any fictional world can be. Instead of being merely spectators, we play the characters who give the world its final detailing and a coat of laquer after the God-hand of the Devs has roughed out the shape. A little thought as to the ultimate design couldn't hurt.