Phil Hartup on videogames

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The EVE battle logs: Running With The Wolves

Phil Hartup concludes his series of reports from the world of EVE: Online, the largest virtual war the world has ever seen.

A fight underway in EVE: Online.

Yesterday Phil Hartup, our embedded reporter in EVE: Online, took part in his first major battle. In this, his third and final report from the biggest virtual war the world has ever seen, he explores the conspiracy theories that breed inside the game.

Although the experience of fighting in a massive battle had left me somewhat nonplussed, I was hopeful that I’d find a more engaging fight at some point, something smaller. Luck was seldom with me on this front however. Meanwhile, I kept an ear to the ground, listening to the reports of smaller battles and station attacks occurring outside of my time zone. The traffic was mostly one way and it was clear one side was feeling the pain more. CFC came into the war with a bulging war chest and the systems in place to turn those resources into ships as needed. Even if TEST had been able to turn those results around early on in the war the logistical structure of CFC could withstand the hits. But TEST wasn’t winning those fights and the disparity only grew.

The moment for a faster-paced battle came during the last action I fought before my subscription ran out, tackling as a part of a Wolf fleet. Our role was to pursue and destroy fleeing enemies. We hunted the remnants of an enemy fleet, chased down the stragglers, cut off their escape routes and hounded them back to their own space, killing several along the way. Well I say we, even in one of the fastest ships in the group it was a struggle to keep up with the pace of the orders. This was the game being played well above my level.

The fleet were having a whale of a time, and there was an urgency and pace to the operation I had not yet seen, but after a while I wasn’t feeling it.

The reasons for the disenchantment came down to two realisations about the game and about how wars work in online games.

The first realisation came after a battle fought between CFC and TEST forces that day. A small battle broke out between a few hundred ships from each side in the innocuously sounding system of Z9PP, with more being brought in as the fight progressed. Before too long this skirmish had grown into what looked to be the decisive battle of the war. TEST had gone all-in, deploying their fleet of capital ships alongside those of their allies from another alliance called Pandemic Legion. While TEST and PL might have thought that they would turn the tide of the battle by bringing out their big guns all this extra firepower served only to provide a juicier target for CFCs pilots and commanders, and they brought even more forces to the battle.

As the battle wore on it became apparent that there would only be one winner. CFC was bringing more firepower and was grinding through the enemy forces inexorably, the TEST and PL capital fleets had been committed hastily, and things were looking bleak. PL, thanks to some deft flying, managed to extricate their capital ships from the battle, saving them from destruction, but there was now no saving the TEST fleet, whose hopes of escape had faded and their only chance for survival now rested on hunkering down and staying alive until the scheduled server downtime.

Or so it seemed until an employee of CCP, while supposedly attempting to increase the performance on the server node running this system of space, pressed the wrong button and at a stroke ended the battle. Nearly the entire TEST capital fleet was saved, but my faith in the game and the way it is administered didn’t. Such a spectacular mistake from a company with ten years of experience running the game really puts into perspective just how silly the whole thing is. There is a schism between how seriously the players take the game in terms of how committed many of them are to it, and how seriously the game takes the players, at least those in nullsec. It becomes difficult to see the rationale to a game when events of such import can be determined remotely.

Conspiracy theories abounded, mostly because of the timing, it was a literal miracle for the TEST fleet, but it was clear enough now from how the battle had been going before the plug was pulled how the war was going to end. Both sides had shown their hand and it was clear which one had the four aces and which one had Mrs Bun the Baker, a Top Trumps card about triceratops and the reference for the rules of bridge.

It was perhaps this second realisation; that the war was now over bar the considerable administrative effort required to obliterate the many thousands of remaining enemy ships, which also led me to lose interest in the game. Going into this war it felt like I was going to see something exciting, a feat of strategy and skill at arms, albeit with oddly shaped spaceships in a video game. Instead what I saw was the cold, grim, reality of how EVE works on the grand scale. It’s not so much about being good with yours ships, nor is it about being clever with combat strategy. It’s about logistics. It’s about organisation. It’s about getting your players to turn up and put in a shift and getting your opponents to find a new hobby.

Every battle CFC was burning enemy materiel, but more than this, CFC was stretching the enemy’s will to fight to breaking point too. Fleets would be formed to offer battle and then stood down to frustrate the enemy, who would have to commit maybe two or more hours to every no-show. Constant, niggling asymmetrical attacks demanded the time and attention of the enemy players at all hours to deal with, and the superior numbers of active CFC players forced the enemy to work harder just to hold what they had. When a game becomes work it becomes less fun to play, and sure enough the enemy numbers began to shrink. Battles and fleet actions remained fairly common, but weight of numbers and superior organisation saw CFC bleed the enemy without losing anything it couldn’t afford to in the process.

To outsiders it looked like CFC had been contained, that their invasion was being stalled. In truth it was simply that CFC was happier to keep killing them by inches and after around two months of fighting TEST and its remaining allies were a shadow of the force that had fought us to a standstill at B-DBYQ.

When the stakes are high in a video game, and you start to lose, and you start to see what you had in the game evaporating in front of you, then you have two choices. You can dig deep into your soul and summon up the will of a champion, try your best to rally your friends to your side and fight over and over against impossible odds. Or you could play something else and come back later; that’s the player’s privilege, and a lot of players avail themselves of it when the chips are down.

This conquest was scary to see in action, especially from the logistical side, CFC is a war fighting machine. But something felt wrong. There’s this vast, unstoppable space-battle-winning machine, without any equal in EVE, and it fights to win with a ruthless efficiency, even against enemies it vastly overmatches.

It is hard to argue with results, and it is not like CFC was always on top. They learned strategy under the harshest circumstances, but it is not a plucky underdog any more. Maybe they paid TEST a compliment by treating them as such a serious threat, but part of me laments that the CFC forces didn’t simply smash straight into the target and keep smashing into them until everything was blown up on both sides. If you’re going to play the weight of numbers game, in terms of experienced and motivated combat pilots if not necessarily raw player count, it’s only polite to be bad at everything else. But that’s the commitment to game these guys have.

The concern for EVE has to be now where the next big fight comes from in nullsec, because assuming CFC goes on to lock down the valuable Fountain system that’s about that. The developers like to throw in the odd curveball to shake the game up and promote conflict in nullsec, but there’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant is dressed as a bee and it is very good at stamping on threats. After a decade of conflict in EVE it really doesn’t look like anybody will be challenging that elephant in a meaningful way, perhaps ever again.

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A few days after this article was written on the 29 July the Fountain War saw what will probably be its final large scale fighting, in the 6VDT system. This was the largest battle in EVE history and it has even been reported on in mainstream media outlets. It is interesting to see how it is reported however because watching the fight happening and listening to the information coming through from CFC it looked about as one sided an affair as could be imagined.

The actual fight lasted barely two hours before the TEST forces broke. This sounds like a long time, and it is when you’re sitting there in agonising slow motion trying to make a ship fight, but in the heavily time dilated battle space meant this only about ten minutes of actual shooting took place. So two fleets, each approximately two thousand strong, met in combat, and with about ten minutes of fighting one of them was in full retreat with massive casualties. That is not a battle; that is a massacre.

The reality that the stories seldom mention is that this war was done and dusted months ago, and there was little doubt of the eventual winner even when the announcement to invade was first made. When the 6VDT battle began, TEST were late, and they turned up in the best ships they could reasonably afford to lose, they were not expecting a victory or committed to gaining one. The TEST capital ships for example that escaped at Z9PP, for the most part they remain escaped. This was not an all-in last ditch defence of a system; rather it was an end-of-war party, with TEST offering up their own lame duck fleet as the buffet.

Lose an affordable ship in return for getting to say, "I was there at 6VDT, the biggest battle in gaming history." Congratulations to TEST for their contribution, because if they hadn’t bravely stepped up to be the EVE equivalent of those little metal ducks in a shooting gallery history would not have been made that day.