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.

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.

*

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.

A fight underway in EVE: Online.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Vanessa Lubach
Show Hide image

Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear