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.

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.

A fleet attacks. Photograph: CCP

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

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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