Player-versus-Player (PvP) games mean winners and losers. Player-versus-Environment (PvE) games means you might whack trolls and no-one else is for the poorer. PvP means you whack a troll and some other player is playing that troll. PvP can also be subtle, e.g. economic competition: you are trying to out-market someone else. Etc.
In many ways, I think, how a game world handles the losers says more about it and its participants than how it handles the winners. If a game system can tolerate more losers (not scare them off) it can more richly reward the winners. Yet, to have winners a PvP game must be able to recycle its losers. If the losers feel like they are only serving as the redshirts to the fantasy of a few yellow-shirts (fn1) they will leave.
With most online arena games the price of failure is minimal. Often, it seems that the hint of the possibility of winning on the next go and perhaps a bit of smack-talk is all that is required to keep players coming back. In starker PvP games like Eve-Online, where losses can be horrific (e.g. player months of time investment can be lost easily in a single battle), the problem is compounded. Consider just one weekend campaign involving a thousand ships, say 500 winners and 500 losers. Ignoring that winners lose gear - try telling 500 participants in any other casual social organization that their efforts over the last N weeks or months has just evaporated.
Eve-Online seems to not only have been able to recycle its losers, it has built an ecosystem to nurture them for another day. In its own way I think this speaks some to the ways social systems under stress can be resilient.
I believe Eve-Online has developed an in-game culture that helps retain losers.
First it has to a large extent (I reckon) redefined winning from the perspective of the individual away from simple metrics. Winning to some players is belonging to an "leet" (elite) corporation or alliance. To others it means reveling in (e.g.) "pirate" /trader /miner /mercenary /miner etc. subcultures. Pirates may be poor, without a permanent home and with bad breath. But what counts to them is a code of conduct that seems to bind them, for example.
Corporations and alliances seem more easily graded by territory, ISKs (money) and killboards (fn2). Individuals seem more willing to be graded by their tribal affiliations.
Second, the Eve-Online game culture has also developed, I think, a number of narratives that allow players to more easily detach themselves from their losses:
1.) conspiracy theories and the shadow-world stories (subterfuge) distance blame
2.) the scale of the alliance struggle dwarfs individual losses
3.) the "intel" / information superiority game introduces a helpful fiction (not bested, but undone!)
Beyond cultural considerations, I think there are at least two structural elements that help recycle losers:
A.) There is an interconnected social/economic/security ecosystem that spans the three distinctive types of "terrain" in Eve-Online: "0.0" space (alliances), "low-security", and "Empire Space".
B.) There exists a high degree of organizational fluidity that can exploit the ecosystem of (A.)
The combination of (A.) and (B.) above seems to faciliate the ability of players and player organizations to adapt to changing circumstances.
For a hypothetical example based on the terms and examples introduced in "My friend's keeper" - defeated alliances may fragment with some of its corporations retreating into Empire Space to lick wounds. From there, the players within a corporation may fragment along cowmen and farmer lines. The cowmen may recuperate in "low-security" hired out as mercenaries, and the farmers may concentrate in "carebear" activities in the safety of Empire Space. After a period of time they may reform - flush with new resources, and move back into 0.0 under the old or a new alliance. Just one scenario that illustrates the number of ways the security, social, and economic terrain of the Eve-Online system may be exploited to regenerate the health of a tribe that once lost.
I have jotted some additional thoughts on this in "Anecdotal research". Yet, I'd like to close here with a longer introduction to Empire Space. Consider it a misunderstood friend with an important role to play in this running tale.
In "NBSI and the grey problem", "Scarcely rare", as well as "My friend's keeper" the focus has been on the security, economic, and political stress-points of the alliance game in Eve-Online. This early focus could be misleading to outsider observers - Devin pointed this out in comment:
"(i)t's pretty significant to the understanding of... EVE has large areas of "high-security" space wherein only special, legally-sanctioned and paid for wars are in effect (and few 0.0 alliances seek to engage in those wars) as well as much "low-security" but (NPC) Empire-claimed space where rules of engagement are typically relaxed in a friendly direction (Some corps in my alliance prohibit killing neutrals in lowsec. Mine doesn't, but we generally only go after them if we're on the hunt, and we usually have better things to do than hunt in lowsec). To put this in perspective, imagine that there are cities, and no one shoots strangers there. There are large areas of wilderness, and it's dangerous but rarely fully interdicted. And then there are clan strongholds, and a few of those ...are open to strangers, but most alliances, if they catch you on their land (or rather, in their space) will shoot you."
For a graphical depiction, consider the latest Eve-Online political map (fn3). The colored regions are spaces controlled by the largest alliances. There is a swath in the middle labeled "Empire Space." That is where most players, I reckon inhabit. It is too where most of the commerce occurs. Empire Space is as Devin wrote, the "big city."
The fringe around Empire Space that is called "low-security" space. Low-security space is an estuarial place where Empire corporations and alliance interests meet-up. It too has wealth (minerals) and pirates. Alliance areas are everywhere else beyond the "low-security" areas.
It is misleading to think of "0.0" or alliance regions as lawless. As I've tried to depict in my earlier posts in this series, these are surprisingly lawful places. It is just that all the law-abiding parties may be at war with each other. "Low-security" is in my opinion where chaos reigns. It is a buffer of chaos that lies between a lawful empire and an at-war alliance system.
It strikes me as simplistic to look at the relationship between all the different areas I've described and their niche subcultures and tribes in static terms. Instead they appear to me dynamic in their organization and relationships and quite agile. As such they are exploited by players adapting to changing and often times harsh in-game circumstances. I think one of the greatest functions of this ecosystem is to be able to recycle the players who have lost.
It would seem to me, indeed, the moon is a most harsh mistress (fr Robert Heinlein).
From Wikipedia: A redshirt is a stock character, used frequently in science fiction but also in other genres, whose purpose is to die soon after being introduced, thus indicating the dangerous circumstances faced by the main characters. The term comes from the science fiction television series Star Trek, in which security officers wear red shirts and are often killed on missions under the aforementioned circumstances.
Killboards are in Eve-Online are third-party websites where players post their losses (ships) and other ships they have destroyed. Corporations / alliances usually require their members to perform this book-keeping, e.g. requiring it for loss reimbursement etc. In addition to "keeping score" they are analyzed for "intel" value: what are other alliances fielding against them, composition, deployment, etc.
Verite's influence map is perhaps more detail (a more accurate depiction for its level-of-detail).
Kotaku cites this post (10/14/2007, "What about the losers?..."); additional interesting comment over there.