Why the EVE Online industrial espionage econopocalypse is "fun"

Recently, the spreadsheets-in-space game EVE Online was rocked by a huge scandal -- one of the largest virtual "corporations" in the game was infiltrated and toppled through in-game espionage. Much phosphor has been spilled over this, but master game designer Raph Koster has the smartest analysis I've seen -- explaining how this scandal was inherent to the nature of what made the game fun.
In any PvP scenario which has a temporal component – even one as simple as leaderboards – you need to “overturn the anthill” or else you will end up with a static power structure. The guy who held the record will hold it forever. The top guild will stay the top guild, etc. This is why you often see leaderboards offer different time spans – “best today,” “this week,” “all time,” etc. Otherwise, it’s hopeless to compare yourself against statistical outliers who always win.

In the case of something like a PvP-centric team-based game, there’s really two ways to accomplish this overturn. One is to wait until the empire rots from within (security breeds carelessness, inattention, and eventually vulnerability). The other is to aggressively force the rot, by attacking the hubs and attempting to co-opt them.

This has been used as a business tactic: World of Warcraft consciously pursued the guild leaders of the largest and most influential guilds in its successful attempt to dethrone Everquest. By recruiting them over to the new game, they managed to harm the social fabric of EQ while also creating a ready-made community within WoW.

In the case of a self-contained (and richer) simulation like EVE, there’s assets to worry about. The loss of one director might be a blow to BoB, but the real blow is the destruction of its assets, largest of which was the alliance itself, the group’s identity, but which also include the money, ships, and so on. Without those things being scattered to the winds, there would be no overturning of the empire.

So unless a traitor can empty the bank accounts and disband the alliance, it’s very unlikely that BoB would fall. And the game, as a game, does want BoB to fall, because from a purely mechanical point of view, what is fun about EVE is the struggle, not the victory condition. The victory condition is boring.

The EVE upset

(Image: Destructoid)


  1. Ahh, Goonsquad triumphed in the end. It is interesting to note how many “major” shifts in power in EVE resulted from backstabbing/trickery. In fact I believe BoB only got to the top because several of their leaders were actually developers of the game.

    It is actually very interesting to see the dynamics of how Goonsquad/TGG led to their victories(and few defeats). The quasi-anarchic method of leadership and resource allocation has its ups and downs, but what eventually led everything to work together was a common goal, which in this case the destruction of BoB and delicious pubbie tears.

  2. It’s funny that EVE players are discovering what every seasoned table RPG player or LARP player knows: fail can be fun. Spectacular fail can indeed be more interesting than win. For a good game, too much stability is boring. Nobody likes invincible rulers. You need ways to challenge the powerful, if not the game reaches a locked state.

  3. I still can’t see how computer RPGs can replace the dynamics of tabletoppers. They basically seem like games for junior accountants, with only statistical and numerical development. No character is ever developed and there never comes a point where a real risk, with real failure, makes the character’s uniqueness shine.

    I hope there’s an eventual turnaround, when people start seeing face-to-face table top games still have something to offer.

  4. I saw it here first:
    “Much phosphor has been spilled over this”
    A first?
    A simple google search yields no other instances.
    It will be a commonplace phrase soon, I believe.
    And I was there at its birth.

    from http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/48/messages/237.html

    The phrase ‘much ink has been spilt over [a question]’ is a humorous variant on ‘much blood has been spilt over [ditto]’. Likewise ‘much ink has been shed’ and ‘there has been much inkshed’ are echoes of the more violent ‘bloodshed’. I see from OED that the noun ‘inkshed’ has been traced as far back as 1672.

  5. The Guiding Hand Social Club took down one of the larger corporations some time ago after a year long infiltration scheme that resulted in the assassination of the CEO. That kind of game isn’t my cup of tea, but there’s some fascinating stuff going on in it.

  6. #5

    “I still can’t see how computer RPGs can replace the dynamics of tabletoppers.”

    You’re right, but the problem is, getting together is hard.

    The most active WoW guild I belong to is made up entirely of my wife’s friends from highschool. While we’d all love to get together twice a week for a little D&D or something, the closest of them live over 100 miles away, and the furthest live over 1000 miles away.

    The convenience of being able to play together from the comfort of our homes outweighs the inferiority of the game itself.

  7. This is what the game is all about. I know one guy who has had one character stranded in BOB space for over a year. He was finally able to get it out and make a good deal of profit salvaging wrecks on the way out.

    The world doesn’t grow unless the seasons turn.

  8. This is one of the reasons why EVE is pretty much unique amoungst the MMOs available out there. In most MMOs like WoW, the world is static and player interactions have absolutely no outcome or large scale consequences for anyone in the game world. Everything in the world is scripted out for the player by the developers, and players are not even ancillary to the general narrative. PVP takes place in a “safe” environment where any achievements can easily be reset back to 0.

    This is not true of EVE because the world itself is intended to be a giant sandbox for the players. Unlike the “planned economy” system of WoW, players drive the story, the markets and the action. Players struggle to survive and to carve out large territories in space as they compete with each other. Death is harsh, resources and territory once lost may not be regained ever again. A wise alliance may earn your survival where a bad one will bring you ruin.

    This event is quite significant for the gamer world as it is somewhat unprecedented and shows the kind of unintended creativity and emergent behaviors that players will exhibit when they have both a stake and an effect of the outcome.

    Goonswarm did something that would have earned them stripes or a star on the wall at Langley if they had done it in the real world.

    They turned a high ranking officer of an opposing force, ran him with a handler much like you would do if you were dealing with a real intelligence asset, used him to further infiltrate their opponent and then use his power to totally annihilate their opponent’s infrastructure and cripple them.

    The best part is that this would be completely impossible or meaningless in a “planned economy” game like WoW.

  9. As a player in EvE, I can tell you that the impact hasn’t been quite as great as everyone believed it would be. Yes, it was a major upset, and yes it was great copy for a while. However, in the end the territory shift wasn’t huge (and that part of EvE game play is all about territory):
    Before: http://go-dl1.eve-files.com/media/corp/verite/20090203.png
    Immediately after: http://go-dl.eve-files.com/media/corp/Verite/20090205NoText.png
    Now: http://go-dl.eve-files.com/media/corp/verite/influence.png

    If you look at the lower left corner, you’ll see BoB’s space has grown. The lower right corner, you’ll see GoonSwarm’s space has shrunk.

  10. I used to play D&D in high school a bit. Are these online RPG’s any good? I do not personally know anyone who plays these. I suppose my circle of friends is not quite geeky enough.
    Can anyone suggest a good way to test the waters of this online RPG thing? I’m willing to check it out!

  11. This article appears to be written by someone who doesnt understand EVE, much less the situation. For one, in EVE its GoonFleet, not GoonSquad, and for two, its an Alliance not a Clan. The betrayal of Haargoth was profitable but not immensely so; the area BoB controls generates as wealth as was lost a week or at most two. Most of what was stolen was capital ship assets, not money directly; actual money stolen was relatively minor.

    I agree that the interesting aspect is the social dynamic. Mittani, the GoonFleet spy master, called it a “cultural victory” over BoB, as if this were an elaborate multiplayer Civilization. At the same time, I’d like to see some understanding of what went down, which of yet has not happened.

    The most important aspect of the disbanding of brothers saga is without a doubt the loss of sovereignty. In deep space in eve (0.0), alliances errect player-owned-structures in space that work to lay claim to “Sovereignty”. If you are the dominant holding power in any given space long enough your Sovereignty Level increases, granting you the ability to deploy further tactical aids in defense of your area, such as jump bridges which permit ships to move instantly across large spaces and cyno jammers which prevent capital ships from warping in to a system. The Disband of Brothers reset all sov claims, turning Delve from a well defended well stocked fortress into a minor stronghold. All their structures still exist and are well defended and they still have enormous assets in the area, but with their Sovereignty upset, they have to hold their structures without the normal Sovereignty cyno & jump bridge defenses. They have a huge head start given how many structures they have deployed but they’re at least on equal footing with everyone else and not further entrenched via Sovereignty, giving the RedSwarm Faction the opportunity to strike.

  12. @Sheetzam

    That’s extremely interesting. Thanks for providing a visual. Any word on the “KenZoku” guys who appear to have replaced the BoB territory there? Are they leftovers from BoB?

  13. #11

    As we speak, I am now typing this with a hook. DAMN THOSE CRITICAL FAILURES!

    Actually, I should say, real in game risk. That is, no automatic resurrection and the actual chance of losing your character completely.

  14. @Sheetzam

    Kenzoku is basically an alliance of the same members that BoB had.

    They appear to, right now, have the same territory as before, but what’s actually happened is that the sovereignty on the systems has been reset, so they don’t really have as strong control over it as they did before the incident.

    Before, they could run cyno jammers to prevent capital ships (the big guns) from jumping in. But as of right now it will take weeks or months for that sovereignty to accumulate back to the point where they can use those again. In the meantime, GoonSwarm is dumping its capital fleet directly onto former BoB’s production facilities in an attempt to cripple their ability to make more capital ships. (All this information is available on public news site, so I hope I’m not violating any opsec stuff by posting this.)

    So, yes. There’s still plenty of fallout from this, and plenty to still come.

    Disclaimer: I’m a goon in space too.

  15. @ #13 SKRAMBLE:

    I only know about EVE Online, so someone else will have to pipe-up about the other MMORPGs.

    You can try out EVE Online by going to the main game website and downloading the game. Then you create a trial account and log on. The website explains all of this fairly well, so check it out: http://www.eve-online.com/ .

    It can be cold and unwelcoming at first, but you’ll find your warm and fuzzy place in the game eventually. The length of the trial account should establish whether you want to continue playing for a much longer time.

  16. @Strophe – as Expiredpopsicle points out, kenzoku is made up of former BoB members, just reformed under a new name.

    @Expiredpopsicle – yeah, Goons and everyone else, as well! It’ll be interesting to see what things look like in a month+ once sov4 is re-established.

    I was more making the point for others that while the alliance called BoB is gone, the players are not, and are back and fighting. So, not as huge a shakeup as the article implied. Huge setback for BoB? Definitely. Game changer, maybe; remains to be seen.

    Has definitely made the game more interesting for everyone paying attention to politics in the lawless area of the game.

  17. Not a Goon, nor a BoB, myself.

    But even to a carebear like myself it’s apparent that the real effect of this was the hit to BoB’s sovereignty.

    Sure, they still have all there defenses. Sure, they still have most of their players. Sure, BoB and their vassals will reform under a new alliance name. Sure, they even still have most (though not all) of their capital ships.

    But with cyno jammers they’re toast if the Goons and everyone else comes for Delve in a serious way. To regain Sov 4 is just too long, there’s no way it’ll happen if a concerted effort is made to seize space in Delve.

    And to my ears, which are mostly listening to rumor, that effort is taking place. I’m seriously thinking of getting back into the 0.0 game myself just to try to get into the Delve wars myself. This is a prime time for an alliance to seize some of the most profitable space in EVE. Heck, it’s a great time for a corporation to seize some excellent real-estate, as long as it’s politically astute about who it makes friends with.

    I just can’t see BoB regaining Sov4 over their space. I really can’t.

    And that’s what made this news Epic Win.

    Thanks Goons.

    -abs may not be a Goon, and may generally dislike the Goons, but boy does he have a man-crush on them right now, in fact he has only one thing to say to GoonSwarm “Will you have my babies?” (well beyond the traditional “Can I haz ur stuffs?”, but that’s what everyone in EVE says)

  18. Yeah, its not about the dice. In fact, the less dice, the better. Think about it like writing a story and generally having no idea what the main characters are going to do.

  19. As someone who was all about the Stain Alliance/Stain Empire back when it was big, I say ‘pshaw’ to all this new-fangled stuff. Does look like a better game than it was in my day, but basically I hated the fact that it was possible to lose everything.

  20. “was infiltrated and toppled through in-game espionage”

    Nope. One of BoB aliance bosses was playing alt-char, which later became member of Goons. And he found Goons more likeable than BoB for whatever reasons. And then one day handed BoB assets to his new Goons friends and kicked all members out of BoB alliance (a game design oversight IMO, as alliance of thousands of players should not be 1-click-destructible).

    So it was not infiltration nor espionage at all.

  21. If you’d rather test your real flight skills try Vendetta Online They call it ‘Twitch based’ in that you actually have to fly the ship yourself. A bit like Traveller in a realtime universe. There’s a nice community over there and the game runs on Mac, Linux & Windows. I used to play, but didn’t really have the time for it.

    For Tabletop gamers separated by distance try Battlegrounds or Maptools over at RPtools.net They’re ‘virtual tabletops’.

    Battlegrounds is Windows and Mac, whilst Maptools is Java based. My Bro’ and I have had it running on a PC, Mac & Acer Aspire one.

    We used to game on a regular basis, but then he moved to a different town. We’ve check out all of the above to try & carry on our hobby over the distance. At the moment we’re using MapTools as it’s free & I can prepare Adventures on my Acer in dead time at work.

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