The EVE Online Project Discovery logo
© CCP Games

How EVE Online’s Project Discovery is helping real-world astronomy

We talk to CCP Games about Project Discovery, which has shifted EVE Online beyond the boundaries of a mere game, with players helping to discover genuine, real-life exoplanets beyond the stars.
By Phil Barker
5 min readPublished on
In an age where Space X have just blasted Elon Musk’s own personal Tesla Roadster car beyond the atmosphere and off towards distant planets, space exploration is once again a hot topic – and MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) EVE Online is giving us mere mortals the chance to explore the outer reaches of space, and not just fictional space either.
Set some 21,000 years in the future, EVE Online is a space-based exploration game that blends activities like trading, manufacturing and piracy with the ability to explore and discover more than 7,800 star systems in an online galaxy. EVE is far more than just an online game though, and the latest addition, dubbed Project Discovery, shows that it’s actually capable of making a difference when it comes to real-world astronomy and discovery. Developers CCP Games spoke to us about Project Discovery, filling us in on how the EVE Online community have enthusiastically embraced a citizen science project.
At first glance, Project Discovery looks like a mini game within EVE Online, where players can solve problems for an independent police force called CONCORD. Players receive in-game rewards and rankings by participating, and due to the thematic tie-in, they’re also helping to develop EVE Online’s galaxy, New Eden. Beneath the surface, however, Project Discovery is a whole lot smarter and more meaningful, and players are actually being tasked with analysing real-world astronomical data.
Bergur Finnbogason, development manager at CCP tells us, “Players are looking at long-term measurements of luminosity of distant stars (known as light curves) from the CoRoT telescope (COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits), which was launched into outer space in late 2006 as part of its continued mission to discover extrasolar planets.
“It fits perfectly into EVE Online, since EVE is a space game where players can, among other things, explore the galaxy of New Eden. Many EVE players are science buffs – they follow technology and enjoy trying new things, and they enjoy exploring uncharted territory and solving complex problems and challenges.”
The project is done in collaboration with Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS), the astronomy department of the University of Geneva. “We work closely with MMOS and the scientists to solve technical issues,” explains Finnbogason. “While the scientists work through and process the data that EVE Online players submit, MMOS is the bridge between us and the scientists.”
A cruiser ship in EVE Online
Just one of Project Discovery’s in-game rewards
Keeping people engaged is an area that EVE Online has excelled, and it’s made all the difference to Project Discovery. “One of the main challenges of citizen science is retention,” Finnbogason explains. “People tend to not stay engaged for a long time when participating in citizen science projects. MMO games like EVE Online have solved the retention problem, managing to keep players engaged. MMOS’ idea was to take their learnings and with that create a citizen science project that felt like a seamless experience inside the game.
“Scientists spend a lot of time on tasks that are just too complex for computers to solve, because computers cannot process visual data the same way the human brain can – which is why CAPTCHA, a type of challenge-response test used on websites to determine whether the user is human, works,” Finnbogason says.
“The hypothesis for Project Discovery was that EVE players can achieve tremendous results given the right tools. Needless to say, this hypothesis ended up being completely correct!”
When starting Project Discovery, the team came up with the following, clearly defined set of rules:
  • It needs to be of altruistic nature, something that helps the well-being of others.
  • It needs to be thematically fitting for the game; immersion is a critical factor, and searching for exoplanets is a complete home run for a spaceship MMO.
  • It needs to take a consistent time to solve; we want to have a clear promise to our players of the time they can expect to commit in order to complete a set amount of submissions.
  • The dataset needs to be of critical scale/size; EVE players are always eager to take on challenges and thus their participation always exceeds expectations.
  • It needs to fulfil a certain level of complexity as we don’t want to undermine our players capabilities.
A screenshot showing Project Discovery in action
Discover more about exoplanets
It’s not the first time that EVE Online has used the Project Discovery banner to carry out scientific tasks, with an earlier iteration of Project Discovery enlisting players to help to identify proteins with the Human Protein Atlas in Sweden. While successful in its own right, the latest version of Project Discovery feels like a better fit, with the search for exoplanets proving the ideal challenge for EVE players.
Finnbogason points out that players are a lot more eager to participate if a project is challenging, and that’s where Project Discovery comes into its own. “Simply put, we are fortunate enough to have the best community in gaming, period. They are dedicated and engaged, willing to take on demanding challenging and always exceed expectations.”
So far, 425,000 players have participated in Project Discovery, resulting in more than 65.7 million submissions. Among other discoveries, EVE players have found and identified hundreds of different light curves, with events being analysed in more detail by astronomers at Geneva University and cross-checked with other astronomical databases. According to the team in Geneva, the pilots of EVE Online have shown themselves to be incredibly effective, real-life explorers of the galaxy, making a remarkable impact on the analysis of the CoRoT light curves.