A year ago the Imperium was seen as an absolute—a kind of immutable law of the universe in EVE Online [official site]. They were the biggest coalition backed by the richest players armed with the most cunning diplomatic team. Around their central alliance, the Goonswarm Federation ('goons'), were staunch allies who would hold the line if anyone dared invade. Their capital in the region of Deklein was thought to be an impregnable fortress from which flags with little bees waved in the solar wind. That's not what Deklein looks like today. Their home system, YA0-XJ, now has a new flag flying above it, and the Imperium's list of allies seems to be growing shorter by the month.
For important context and background on this story, we highly recommend reading Brendan Caldwell's article chronicling the start of the war.
I arrive in the Saranen star system to find it buzzing with activity. Over 400 pilots are in the local chat channel and among their disjointed conversations comes the occasional offer from a player who claims he will "double your ISK (the currency used in EVE)" if you send it to him. I find the Imperium pilots flocked around the Quafe Company Warehouse, which itself orbits the moon of a massive gas giant. On the 'undock,' where ships depart from the safety of the station, a ballet of frozen corpses gently turn in the vacuum of space. This is what the Imperium now calls home. According to their enemies, it's a refugee camp. But like everything to do with this war, the truth is a little more complicated.
"The Imperium as a whole convinced everyone in EVE that we were invulnerable for more than six months," The Mittani, leader of the Imperium, tells me. "We didn't come under any serious attack and we were horrifically overstretched. We essentially spent half a year enjoying all the profit from a bunch of regions we had no hope of holding in the long term."
And then two months ago a group of gambling kingpins decided to call that bluff. They funded a small conflict that quickly spiralled out of control until over half of the galaxy wanted to bring the Imperium to ruin. And so that's exactly what they did.
EVE Online's new great war has ended with a disappointing fizzle and not a glorious bang. Moneybadger Coalition, the army of alliances assembled by the bankers of EVE, marched on the Imperium, who promptly abandoned everything for the safety of 'low security space' which is owned by EVE's four computer-controlled empires. And though The Mittani still asserts with every breath that the Imperium is a force to be reckoned with, most of EVE Online is busting out the champagne and patting each other on the back.
But at the center of this whole conflict are the bankers who made this whole war possible and the gambling website that has forever upset the political ecosystem of EVE Online. To many, they are heroes. But, if you believe what The Mittani has to say, in banding together to cast out one villain, EVE Online's community might have just gotten into bed with a far more dangerous one.
Out With the Old Gods, In With the New
The Mittani has never been a more contentious figure in EVE Online than he is right now. On the one hand, his manipulating and strategizing led to the forming of the greatest superpower EVE Online has ever seen. But the scorched-earth tactics and soured relationships that form the foundation of that empire have made him largely unpopular with just about everyone but his own people. He was once a kind of celebrity in EVE Online, but nowadays he's considered the villain.
When I phone him over Skype to talk, it isn't long until the conversation becomes centered around EVE's new celebrities: the bankers.
Lenny Kravitz2, Eep Eep, and 1RONBANK. These are the three people who, by tapping their obscene personal wealth earned from a third-party gambling website called I Want ISK, funded the coalition that brought the Imperium to its knees. For many, these men are heroes.
But The Mittani understandably has a different view. After all, they purchased the boot that just kicked his ass. But he isn't terribly concerned with that at this moment. Instead, he's convinced that in the war to expel one villain, the pilots of EVE Online have created another.
I Want ISK isn't the first gambling website in EVE Online, but it might be the last. It works by allowing players to take the money they earn in EVE and exchange it for equivalent credits they can use to gamble in a series of games hosted on the website. Winnings can either be cashed out back into EVE or used to continue playing, and special tokens earned through spending can purchase scratch cards or lottery tickets.
The amount of in-game money that I Want ISK makes in a month is positively staggering. It was enough that a player like Lenny Kravitz2 could use his personal earnings to fund the largest coalition of alliances ever seen—trillions of ISK. For reference, the largest fight in EVE Online cost both sides 11 trillion ISK or an estimated $300,000 USD. Lenny Kravitz2 has that sitting in his piggy bank.
"Whoever controls the gambling essentially has an infinite funnel of other people's money that then flows into the game through their control," The Mittani says. "That control cannot be stopped, or altered, or impacted in any way."
As a sandbox MMO, EVE Online has always pushed players to find new and inventive ways to make money. When you fly into the largest trade hub in New Eden, the local chat window quickly fills with players peddling cheap scams like offering to double ISK or selling items with a few extra zeroes tacked in hopes that a wealthy player is bad at math. It's not only allowed within the rules of EVE Online, it's encouraged by its developers.
But I Want ISK represents a new frontier for EVE Online, and it's a terrifying place to be for members of the Imperium. Because I Want ISK exists out of the game, there's no feasible way to ever fight back—not without resorting to illegal methods like hacking and taking down the website. According to The Mittani, there's nothing keeping this new superpower in check.
"There is no counterplay when you are dealing with a distributed network of gambling addicts funding any given casino," The Mittani warns. "The only attempt to counterplay within the game itself is to attempt to set up your own gambling site and do the same thing. It creates an arms race to have bigger and better casinos. If you cannot stop a casino, then each side, in order to get a competitive advantage, must become ever more exploitative to the real human beings who are gambling addicts outside of the game to achieve parity within the game."
It's not the first time The Mittani uses that word—gambling addict. When I bring it up, he's blunt about his belief that websites like I Want ISK profit off of the misery of players with compulsive behavior. But while the dangers and cost of gambling have been debated for decades, The Mittani contests that gambling websites like I Want ISK are worse for one sole reason.
"Whenever you find one of these player setup third-party casinos that piggybacks off an online game, they're unregulated because they cross international boundaries, but they're also open to children. I think there's an extremely problematic, societal level issue, of having MMOs that have casinos that essentially are promoting and enabling under-aged gambling."
It's a pretty damning remark to make, and only the latest angle used to try and vilify the bankers of EVE Online. In April, an article was posted to The Mittani's website specializing in coverage of EVE Online that attempted to form an argument against the legality of I Want ISK by arguing that they were in violation of Florida state law.
The Man Who Sold the World
Lenny Kravitz2, the most forward-facing member of the bankers who started this war, likes to think of it differently. "We're not advocating gambling with real money," he says. "EVE is very focused on personal responsibility. I believe that people have a personal responsibility to follow the laws of their country. We just provide a service, and if you're not following the law, we can't be held responsible."
Lenny goes on to address the issue of gambling addiction, saying that, above all else, I Want ISK doesn't exist to exploit compulsive behaviours in players. "If you know you have a gambling addiction, you can always talk to a banker and we'll shut down your account and give you your money back. We want people to play responsibly."
But even CCP isn't sure that websites like I Want ISK aren't harmful to EVE Online. At this year's Fanfest in Iceland, I sat down with executive producer Andie Nordgren to get her thoughts.
"It's really interesting and really challenging, and there are lots of opinions about this in different directions," she says. "There is some outside the game stuff that we are explicitly allowing for people to charge ISK for, and we're continuously monitoring those activities to see if it's appropriate. But now, of course, it's a politically charged situation where any move we would make or not make potentially impacts the current conflict. You can argue for either side."
And that's exactly the line that Lenny Kravitz2, Eep Eep, and 1RONBANK crossed when they pooled their resources to hire out mercenaries and form the Moneybadger Coalition to bring the Imperium down. While the wealthy elite of EVE Online have likely always influenced politics behind the scenes, even Lenny admits that what he did was crossing into new territory.
I ask him whether he thinks websites like I Want ISK risk seriously upsetting the delicate political balance of EVE Online. "Yes and no," he says. "These gambling websites are all based on players going in there, trusting the sites enough to put their money in, and then they gamble." Lenny uses the Imperium as an example, citing their controversial tactics like pretending to recruit players and stealing from them instead or supporting despised groups like CODE, to demonstrate how valuable customer trust is. "They tried to create their own gambling engine and it failed because the majority of the playerbase didn't want to support it. If you have a gambling website that pushes its weight around and the community dislikes it, they'll stop using them."
When I follow up by asking what could stop him and the other bankers from using their funds to attack a different organization of the EVE community, he says: "We typically have a policy of neutrality. The only thing that broke that policy was SMA (SpaceMonkey's Alliance) screwing over the site (referring to the Zombie heist detailed in Brendan's article). If we're biased in any way, we'll lose money. One side of EVE or the other will choose not to gamble on our site."
That still doesn't address the fact of whether or not a single player in EVE Online should be able to fund an entire conflict with their personal bank account. While Lenny Kravitz2 might be kept personally accountable by his need to run a good business, there's a worthwhile debate to be hand on whether or not casinos create an "arms race" like The Mittani suggests.
"That advantage of exploiting the gambling addiction of players in the game is so extreme that it unbalances the entire financial and resource based aspect," The Mittani says. "Any kind of game that doesn't have an age gate should not be allowing gambling period. There is a real human cost to promoting and incentivizing gambling addiction."
It's only one region of an evolving landscape unearthed by this latest conflict in EVE Online, and like everything in EVE, it's mired in a sea of propaganda and bias. But whether or not CCP eventually decides websites like I Want ISK threaten the integrity of the sandbox by being too powerful or ethically wrong, it will be of little comfort to homeless Imperium.
But like all conflicts in EVE, the war isn't over just because one side said so. "Wars are over when you decide to stop fighting them," The Mittani says, and the Imperium and Goonswarm are going to keep fighting. Days earlier, a massive battle unfolded in Saranen, and amid the chaos The Mittani was right there on the frontlines fighting.
Despite what members of Moneybadger Coalition will say, Saranen is far from a refugee camp. Morale is high and every Goonswarm member I talk to seems to be having the time of their life.
"I have had the most fun I have ever had in EVE in the time I have been here," one pilot tells me. "I most definitely do not think the war is lost."
Another goon offers a similar opinion: "If there were no wars, the game wouldn't be much fun. I think I'm on the funner side of the war."
The Imperium might not own a hemisphere of New Eden all to itself, but the coming months will be the real test of whether or not it's an empire destined to rise again or to fade quietly into EVE's bloody history.