Yes, there are RP corps out there, and RP forums, and even sporadic CCP run Live Events that make attempts to hold up the RP side of the game. And if those RPers are enjoying Eve through roleplay then more power to 'em. But it doesn't work for me, and I'll try to put down why. I'll note that this is why I chose not to roleplay with Jakob as a new player.
The strong anti-RP player culture dominates from Day 0This is the biggest one. There is a reason that many MMOs have separate RP and non-RP servers, but of course part of the appeal of Eve is the "single shard." If you're like me you create that first character with a couple hours of website-reading on the game already behind you, trying to make sure you don't do something that will deadend yourself right off the bat. I made my character with a real name, in a Gallente style, rather than as "xxCoolDudeKillerxx" like some self-obsessed teenager. That initial web research will quickly show you that RPers are not respected in the game. Yes there are some good fiction blogs out there, but I didn't see any of them when I was starting the game.
As soon as you're through character creation (more on that in a moment) you'll see local. It is immediately obvious to anyone that writing in character in local is going to be counter productive. It's not so much immersion breaking as that immersion never has a chance to get started. Local is not billed as an "OOC channel", though the newbie help channel could be, and if anything Local's premise as a system-wide broadcast communication could be a nice IC immersion creator. You mix in the rampant homophobia, racism, and other dregs of human behavior and its no wonder that I think most people only use Local for the count of how many capsuleers are in system.
Broken PromisesCompare all that to what you did right before. The character creation itself sets you up for incredible promise. Good, concise levels of detail about each faction and the three bloodlines of each (I blanked on what they're called and had to look it up, probably because they are irrelevant to the game.) The promise is there. Even with the reading I had done on Eve by the time I made Jakob I couldn't help but get my brain going about what it would mean to be a Gallente Activist. The Amarr/Minmatar possibilities are even stronger. Surely there is going to be some compelling social complexity out there that is going to tie into this promise, right? No.
You make a very detailed physical representation of your character, as good as in any MMO I've seen. That won't matter either. You'll only ever see the face, unless for some reason you actually use the Captain's Quarters. I don't think players would have taken to calling them "space barbies" if you actually did anything, but I suppose the tragedy of Walking In Stations is a broken promise beaten to death by many people before me.
But back to the promise of the factions and bloodlines. Your chosen faction has theoretically just spent some huge sum of ISK to make you a capsuleer. They have tied your brain into into a immense, galaxy spanning information network that makes you practically immortal. In exchange you can expect to be tied to that faction, working hard to prove that you were worth that investment, that your loyalty is assured. Or you can find a away to break free of these factions and become an independent capsuleer, forever on the run from the faction whose gift (and indenture) you have rejected. Right? No.
The Sandbox is not an excuse, it is a victim
I read many posts arguing that this is because Eve is a sandbox. This completely misses the point. The fundamental design decision to make Eve a sandbox could be so much stronger if the factions and their attachment to each new character actually mattered. As an example I'll point to Achaea, a Fantasy PVP MUD that I played for quite a while.
When I played Achaea had three cities and eight or so guilds (classes). Each city and guild was patronized by a God played by a NPC GM, but the actual government of each was done all by players. A substantially smaller player base than Eve base, I might add. The players drove the politics as each city and guild strove to build itself up and drive the others down. There were NPC city guards (think Concord) but they were possible to sneak past or forcibly beat down. If someone invaded a city to attack newbie players or assassinate a leader (yes, death mattered, more than in Eve) then the loyal city dwellers would have to be the ones to drive them back. It was possible for a lowlevel player to influence such battling either in direct combat or in the various ways of gathering power (essentially mission running, though in an area more analogous to lowsec and nullsec). The game was built around a complex PVP system (sound familiar?) and someone small throwing in a spell/poison/dps could make a real difference. I see looking at the Achaea website now that one of the cities from I played has fallen and been rebuilt under a new banner. Change is possible, though tearing down a major force became more difficult as you pushed them closer to the edge, keeping it from one force to rapidly become ascendant. Of course, with so many cities and guilds kicking about (plus player-run organization) there was always a good chance that the many would turn on the one. In short, it was more of a sandbox than Eve.
Would an alternate Eve be even better with more RP Sandbox action?I think Eve could get to an even more sandbox-y place and it is an amazing opportunity. I've spoken before on the idea of letting players control the factions. If the pirate factions come into play that would make it even better. Give players the reins to run the four major factions and the pirates. Make Concord beatable and give players the responsibility to keep the hearts of faction space safe for their industrial brethren (who, let's face it, are largely their alts anyway). You can keep Concord and the Faction Navies around to make low-level lawbreaking in line, but have them shout on a faction-specific channel once they spot (and point) those miscreants and provide a warp-in for sworn players.
Have new players start in the debt of these faction powers (heavy negative standing towards their enemies). Their immortality is not an irrationally-granted gift, but a pledge to loyalty. In the case of Amarr, perhaps the term is a nuanced slavery. Set up L4/L5 missions that allow someone to reach out to illicit elements that could free you of your faction's control of your brainscanning equipment. Or perhaps this is forbidden technology that the folks in nullsec could be glad to grant you. Of course if the factions know that you have slipped their control they aren't likely to trust you anymore.
With players in charge of these factions the range of intrigue widens up towards what we see elsewhere in Eve. Empire space remains more stable than null, with the GMs able to influence things through the NPCs and the general populace. If your space becomes overrun with raiders then the people may rise up in anger, pushing more ISK into faction navies and less into the general coffers that the player-driven government use to reward themselves and their allies. Security status would swing as players make choices on what systems need extra defense and firewalling from their enemies.
Perhaps we'd see Caldari and Gallente band together and declare war on the Amarr. Imagine a bounty on all Amarr-flagged player ships, paid out of those tax coffers. Or perhaps the Minmatar leadership would decide that a neighboring nullsec corporation had become too bold and declare war on them. The distinction with nullsec would be that the NPC population is smaller but also less demanding in terms of policy (more control, less reward).