Phil Hartup on videogames

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The EVE battle logs: Going To War With Goonwaffe

Phil Hartup becomes the first embedded reporter in the largest virtual war the world has ever seen.

A fleet attacks. Photograph: CCP

On Sunday 28 July, the universe of EVE: Online experienced the largest battle it had ever seen. Almost 3,000 ships were destroyed in a clash between the two corporations which dominate the game. But the battle wasn't the beginning of the war; instead, it was the dying embers of a protracted struggle. Phil Hartup has been embedded within CFC for the last month. These are his reports from the front-line of the biggest virtual war the world has ever seen.

Like many men with too much time on their hands in the early part of the twenty-first century I have dabbled in the dark arts of the MMORPG, the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Of course very few of these are actually massive, most relying on small isolated zones with limited numbers of players in called instances. Fewer still involve anything like what anybody who has ever rolled a twenty-sided die in anger would consider role-playing. Some barely qualify as a game, becoming arbitrary time-sinks, boondoggles for the age of the internet, absorbing time and enthusiasm like great soulless sponges. But not EVE: Online. EVE is the real deal.

The best way to think of EVE is as three distinct games, each one based around being the captain of a spaceship and each one defined by the level of in-game security present in the areas in which it is played. In Empire space, which is the most secure, EVE is a game of commerce, of adventure, of hunting pirates, buying spaceships and flying around with your friends, safe in the knowledge that you are probably not going to be killed in an unpredictable and violent fashion. In low security space, known as Lowsec, things are a lot more dangerous for players. Gangs of other players hunt these regions, not necessarily in large numbers, but in this cut and thrust world of do unto others and cheese it with their cargo the game is played at arguably its highest level in terms of player skill and risk. Lastly there are the lawless areas, Nullsec, where alliances of player groups numbering thousands do battle over territory, bragging rights and personal grudges.

EVE: Online is now a little over a decade old with a subscription base that has grown over the years though which has never been exactly high, in contrast to most MMORPGs which start high, drop around 75 per cent after the first month, then quietly go free to play a year later. Even the fact that EVE maintains a subscription model speaks to its somewhat anachronistic nature, although it has begun to allow players to buy in game money, called ISK, with real money via game time tokens. Many players who have dipped into MMORPGs will have given EVE a try at some point over the years though most don’t stick around for too long. It is an old school game, cutting the player loose in a hostile universe with no direction, no planned level path, and most importantly, a user interface that feels like the bastard child of a scientific calculator and a pager.

In fairness to the user interface, it is ugly but it is powerful. Like a mad scientist’s mutant lackey the EVE interface will, once sufficiently tamed, explain everything that is happening around you, allow you to easily fly your ship and smite your enemies, even allow you to browse the internet, run voice communications with other players, send emails within game and spend all your hard earned money on shiny new spaceships. It is a loyal beast, just try not to actually look at it.

I have played EVE off and on since 2004, mostly off, keeping an eye on it but seldom playing. I watched the old alliances rise and fall, I watched the emergence of the Goons, a horde of players out of the Something Awful forums, tearing through the game in cheap ships, showing no respect to anybody and being generally hated for it. I watched them grow over the years. Watched attempts to stamp them out and even went to war with them myself in one of my earlier groups in the game, although saw no combat. Despite all efforts by the old guard and elite they kept going. They grew and grew, tearing down the old order, to an extent replacing it.

My experience with Goons in other games was uniformly negative, though always second hand. Nobody had a good word to say about any of them, and nobody ever seemed to talk to them. I was told they were ill mannered teenagers, the worst Xbox Live ranting kiddie stereotype you could imagine. They were a horde of mouth breathing idiots who only played the game to ruin it for other people, the barbarians at the gate, and the end of gaming civilisation. They were the other, the savages, but damn it all, they seemed to know what they were doing.

With that in mind, when the opportunity to join what is now called Goonwaffe and ride along with them and the rest of the Clusterfuck Coalition (CFC) during their, at the time, impending invasion of The Fountain region of the game appeared, seemed rude not to go.

Joining Goon is a remarkably sophisticated process, because it needs to be. I’ve seen plenty of gaming clans struggle under the weight of administration just to keep a few dozen players, a web forum and a voice comms server ticking over. Goonwaffe has thousands of members so recruitment, training, communications in and out of the game, forum admin, tech support, even security are all major concerns. You can’t just round up thousands of players, point them at the bad guys and type go in local chat, at least not anymore.

Getting squared away on the assorted secure communications programs, the Pidgin server, the forums, this all took place very quickly, the process largely automated, backed up by a brusque yet effective tech support team who consider the capacity to properly set up your various permissions and peripheral software programs as a kind of final entry exam. Considering this is a group that is based on volunteers everything about it was slick, polished and professional. No corners cut here, like the football fans that make it to every away game, braving Russian cold and Italian knives, many EVE players take their game very seriously.

Finally ending up in the recruit forum with a gaggle of other new and equally starry eyed players I felt strange, like I had been thoroughly processed, even absorbed. I have experienced friendlier welcomes to gaming clans, but there’s nothing like the feeling of being passed through automated scrutiny and acknowledged, accepted and issued the appropriate clearances to make you feel officially at home, recognised by the system. My character in game got the mail a few minutes later, the offer to join, one of the few parts of the process that has to be done manually by another player. Like magic, the tags appear on my character. It was official, I was a Goon.

Tomorrow: battle begins.