EVE lets its players run wild through a single, non-sharded virtual world that sometimes sees more than 19,000 people logged on at the same time. Most of the time, those "pod pilots," as they're often known, are shooting not at computer-controlled enemies, but at each other. Of the more than 5,000 interlinked star systems that make up the EVE galaxy, only about one-quarter of them are patrolled by non-player-character police who will shoot down any PvPers in the vicinity. The other three-quarters are known as "alliance space," a vast and lawless region where groups of player corporations known as alliances vie for control over vast tracts of space, destroying each other's starships on a daily basis, fighting for dominance over space stations, star systems, moons and important travel routes.
With the game's most valuable resources located in the dangerous reaches of alliance space, EVE hardly seems an encouraging place to launch a business. But in October, two enterprising pod pilots did just that, transplanting a real-life business structure into the virtual world in an unprecedented fashion. The remarkable thing is, no game mechanic allowed them to accomplish it. Instead, it was made possible by one of the rarest resources of virtual worlds: trust.
Count TaSessine and Serenity Steele are the heads of an alliance known as the Interstellar Starbase Syndicate. Twelve hundred pilots strong, ISS is unusual among the EVE alliances located in lawless space in that it's a "carebear" organization, for the most part - i.e., its pilots are more interested in mining, hauling ore, and manufacturing ships and ship components than they are in popping other players' pods and claiming sovereignty over star systems (though ISS does have a combat wing). Still, ISS located its business in the heart of one of EVE's most dangerous regions. So far, it's been a success.
Their business plan is an ingenious one: Rather than engage in the wars that rage through alliance space, ISS has chosen to take a neutral stance, building a huge player-operated structure known as an "outpost" that provides repair, refitting and marketing services to all comers. In a star system known simply as KDF-GY, ISS has established a little Switzerland in space, where pilots of rival corps and alliances can dock to do business, sell loot and kit out their battlecruisers for the next engagement. And according to Martin Wiinholt and Shayne Smart, the 30-something players behind Count TaSessine and Serenity Steele, respectively, business is good.
But business is good only because it's not actually ISS that owns the outpost. An ISS corp operates the outpost (and technically, within the game's mechanics, owns it), but real ownership has been vested with the pilots of EVE, through what has become the first publicly owned company in the game.
Via an in-game initial public offering in October, ISS sold 3,600 shares in the outpost, at a price of 10 million InterStellar Kredits each, or about $2.25 a share at prevailing eBay prices. That's a whopping $8,100 in ISK to support a business that earns money through EVE's game mechanics, charging pilots for services such as docking and factory rentals, spaceship repair and the clones that must be kept at the ready, should a pilot's life-support pod get popped by an enemy. Players and investors don't seem to mind that the company is entirely virtual; shares in the outpost now trade for anywhere from 16 to 20 million ISK each. For many investors, ISS has already doubled their money.
Getting the outpost up and running, though, wasn't easy. To protect against hostile pilots, the entire operation was carried out under a shroud of secrecy. Construction was begun during the weekend of the EVE fanfest and at an hour when the galaxy's server cluster is commonly at its lowest ebb of population. On October 24, two weeks after the IPO had been completed, the outpost went into operation.