How EVE Online’s Players Started a War That’s Cost $700K

It may not receive the mainstream attention of massively-hyped games like Cyberpunk 2077 or annual franchises like Call of Duty, but EVE Online has been a pillar of the gaming community for almost two decades. Books have been written about the rise and fall of major factions, of the different eras of its 17 years of history.

Now, it’s likely another book will be needed just for what EVE has experienced in 2020. For the past five months, its community of more than 300,000  players finds themselves embroiled in a war that’s sent its entire galaxy into disarray and has (so far) caused nearly $700,000USD in digital property damage.

The Basics of EVE

For the uninitiated. EVE Online is an MMORPG set in the galaxy of New Eden, where alliances – comprised of thousands of real-life players – use spaceships to battle for supremacy.  Or just build and sell spaceships. Or just mine asteroids for materials to sell to the players who just build ships and sell them to the players who like to battle for supremacy. EVE is unlike many other MMOs for a couple of reasons, the first and most important being that it truly is a role-playing game.

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EVE’s economy is almost entirely player-driven. Nearly every item in the game must be built from scratch by actual human players – so, for example, if you don’t want to mine the minerals needed to build key components of your spaceship, you have to pay someone ISK (InterStellar Kredits, EVE’s in-game currency) for their time. It creates jobs, hierarchies, an uncanny mirror to our normal routine – some players set alarms to get to their “shifts” on time. This not only provides new or casual players with a means of earning ISK, but it also incentivizes groups of like-minded players to band together to form what’s known as Corporations (similar to Guilds in a fantasy game) to secure the supplies and manpower to mine, build, and – most importantly – defend their assets en masse.

Over time, Corporations who operate with similar in-game philosophies will often band together to form political Alliances. Eventually, these Alliances tend to form even bigger groups – known as Coalitions – usually due to sharing a territorial border with each other in the game. Forming these groups is not always a straightforward process, and the major Alliances and Coalitions will have players who specialize in diplomacy, whose job is to try to keep things running as smoothly as possible for the group which they represent.

The major Coalitions live in what’s known as Nullsec, an area of space with no security status (i.e. no CONCORD, the in-game police), where groups of players can occupy and effectively own regions. The ISK rewards for mining asteroids and running combat sites (the equivalent of dungeons in other games) in this area of EVE are bigger than in the safer, higher security regions They are, therefore, very desirable to live in and to exert control over who comes in and out.

And this is where the next most important part of the EVE puzzle comes into play: all of the players in Eve are on the same server, and that server never wipes or refreshes. This means that the actions and battles in the game have lasting consequences. And, like any red-blooded capitalist society, disputes – no matter how trivially they may begin – are often settled with violence, and in EVE’s case that currently means war on a galactic scale.

The (New) Great War

This most recent interstellar dust-up may not be the first time the entire galaxy has taken up arms against one another, but it’s certainly the largest. The major players are the Goonswarm Federation, who – along with a handful of friendly alliances – make up a coalition known as The Imperium. Goonswarm is an immensely powerful alliance with a penchant for impudence (and has been for many years), and find themselves defending their considerable wealth and territory against… well, basically everyone else – specifically, a group of coalitions from across the galaxy known collectively as PAPI.

The conflict started in July, when a collective known as the Test Alliance (Please Ignore), part of the coalition known as Legacy, announced it would cease participating in a non-invasion pact (NiP) with the bordering Goonswarm territory – effectively declaring war on The Imperium.

The fleet commander for the Test Alliance portion of the PAPI group, who prefers to be referenced by his in-game name Vily, said that his decision to leave the NiP was strictly a strategic one, not personal – despite being a former Goonswarm commander himself. “As the smallest of the three major blocks, [Legacy was] being eroded from both sides,” he explained in a recent interview with IGN. Legacy Coalition’s borders with both The Imperium and their northern neighbor PanFam, according to Vily, were under constant threat of encroachment –  “we were forced to make a decision of which one to group with,” he says.

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Given The Imperium’s reputation throughout EVE – veteran players still remember one of their older slogans, “We are not here to ruin the game, we are here to ruin your game” – one might be surprised that TEST had initially offered an olive branch to the GSF. “We offered to go with The Imperium against PanFam first,” Vily said. “They were only willing to half commit to it – if at all – and we decided to go the other way.”

The Imperium, of course, sees things differently. “Their narrative method is to cover over the fact they were planning to backstab us,” says Alex Gianturco, better known by his in-game alias: The Mittani – the charismatic leader and face (at least for those who tune into his weekly Imperial propaganda broadcasts on Twitch) of Goonswarm Federation. “We caught them, and the war started before they had a real plan,” he says.“They were not prepared, we know they did not have a plan.”

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IGN’s UK team interviewed Gianturco in 2013

Of course, one might say the fact that Vily and TEST Alliance gave Goonswarm a full two weeks notice that they were about to abandon the NiP indicates they did have a plan, but – arguments over preparedness aside – the real question now is: where does it go from here? One of this war’s major battles was massive – consisting of more than 8,000 players, enough to earn EVE two Guinness World Records – and the conflict will almost certainly continue for a very long time – with the online propaganda posted in places like Reddit likely to become increasingly bitter. As Vily puts it “The reality is, to a degree, that it IS a war to the death.”

Breaking the Enemy

Even EVE’s developers, Crowd Control Productions (better known as CCP games), are following the war with bated breath. “Internally we regularly give war updates,” says CCP’s Community Manager Jessica Kenyon, “cheering for mayhem and destruction as it happens.”

Kenyon – who used to be a fleet commander before joining the development side of EVE – explains that both sides of the conflict have more than enough ISK to let the fighting continue for several months, and that this conflict – like so many others – will ultimately be an issue of how effective each side’s propaganda is, and how many players choose to keep supporting each faction.

“Almost every war that I’ve seen in EVE,” she says, “never comes down to running out of ships or money, or anything like that. It’s always a social victory, in a sense, because the morale of one group eventually breaks.”

This might sound like an exaggeration, but player fatigue is real. You can only ask someone to set an alarm for a 3am fight, or to phone into work sick, or miss an evening with their partner to fly strafing runs so many times. If your members are happy and logging in when you need them to, then you will be in a great position to capitalize on the key moments of the war.

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Both sides realize this, as well. “You’re not trying to break sov [capture territory],” Vily says, “you’re trying to break people, unfortunately.” PAPI has, so far, been mainly fighting a war of attrition, making slow but steady progress into Imperium territory. “By no means are we on a clock,” he says. “A slow strangle them approach, it really means we do have to take our time. As we complete each successive victory we are in a position where we can really make the enemy feel it by creating the oppression that follows.”

Gianturco, meanwhile, does not believe that these minor victories will matter to his Alliance members. He sees the very fact that maintaining morale is such an important issue as the Goonswarm Federation’s secret weapon. “The way you keep your guys motivated,” The Mittani says, “is to make sure they love each other at a certain level. The difference between The Imperium and these other organisations is that it has very little to do about me.”

GSF’s members certainly have had more than their fair share of bonding experiences over the years – this isn’t even their first galactic war. In 2015, the Federation – whose curmudgeonly bee logo earned the conflict (and the current one) the nicknames “World War Bee” and “WWB2” – found themselves backed into a corner by EVE’s other major factions, eventually retreating from a war started when a player was scammed by another (now ex-) faction in The Imperium. To this day Gianturco maintains that it was stacked unfairly against The Imperium by what he calls “dark ISK” – financing provided by online casinos that have since been banned by CCP.

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An IGN News report on the 2018 conflict.

“I am a competent administrator, I’m very good at scheming… but I am not the person who makes our guys love each other and keep logging on,” says Gianturco. “Throughout our history we have always known that there would come a time like this again, where all of the game bands together against us […] and it would require all of us and everything we had to be able stand against it.”

This involved The Imperium contacting roughly the 63,000 people on their forums to get anyone who had ever been involved with them – in any capacity – to come back and help out. Gianturco called it “sounding the Horn of Goondor”, and as ridiculous as that may sound, it worked – hundreds of GSF players returned in some form or another. “As part of that we have people who can’t play turning up and saying look here are trillions of ISK worth of assets, here are my Titans because I have kids now, because our society means so much to our people – plus they’re still pissed about The Casino War.”

Endgame

Currently, however, there is no indication that morale on either side is cracking, with players on both sides are still logging in to join daily fleets. PAPI’s progress through Delve – the region of nullsec The Imperium calls home – is consistent and deliberate, while The Imperium have had a couple of political victories in getting a couple of midsized alliances to switch sides. The war is currently in what might be considered the calm before the next storm – which will likely be another record-breaker when it finally hits.

PAPI’s “constant grind” strategy involves capturing and keeping control of Infrastructure Hubs (iHubs) in target systems for 35 days so they can limit The Imperium’s defenses. These are easier to capture than they are to defend, and despite establishing a significant presence in Delve, PAPI has failed to successfully hold an iHub there. Once they do, they will be able to hinder Goonswarm’s deployment of Titans (the biggest ships in the game), allowing the next big push into Delve territory. There is also the possibility that one of the members of the PAPI Superblock betrays another, though Vily doubts that will be the case. “It’s been a line of propaganda and wishful thinking from our enemies that any day now we will turn on each other and the knives will come out,” he says. “We’ve got – quite literally – decades of deep-seated hatred, grudges, and contempt [for Goonswarm] that is really coming out here, where all of these groups – whether they’re big fans of each other or not – are all committed to the purpose.”

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If Vily is correct and his soldiers keep logging on, and the Coalitions in the superblock put aside their past conflicts and stick together, it seems likely that PAPI will eventually prevail – at the very least evicting Goonswarm from their home region, which in EVE is a huge nuisance. For The Mittani though, he’s been here before. Where there’s an “if,” there’s a way; if political cracks begin to form in the opposing groups. he’ll do his best to find a way to exploit them.

Ultimately, and as with everything else in EVE Online, it’s up to its players. “This is where we lose control,” says EVE’s Creative Director Bergur Finnbogason – almost giddily. “I have no idea how this will play out and who is going to survive the mental pressure of keeping the war up. The beauty is that we won’t find out until the war is over – and possibly way later – because people will be telling stories about this war for decades to come.”

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Lorinda is a trader and tourist in Eve Online a long way from the fighting. His only bias is that he hopes that the war continues for as long as possible, and continues to generate opportunities for him to profit. He can be found chatting about Eve, Hearthstone, and Chess on Twitter and sometimes streams those games too.

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