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The Five Year Spree, Part 1: Nova

This summer has seen the end of the lengthiest and most fulfilling gaming experience of my life: five years helping to run the Eve Online corporation, StateCorp. A five year plan? More like five years with no plan, but with endless drama. The corporation is currently in the process of moth-balling and disbanding, and so we took the opportunity to look back at what made those sixty months of Eve so fascinating, why we became so involved, and why it had to come to end. This retrospective comes to your courtesy of everyone who has been a member of StateCorp over the years.

In this first episode I want to set the scene and to touch on the most important themes. We'll move onto some specifics about the game mechanics and how the influenced our play in the next episode. For now though, a beginning...

By mid 2004 I had been playing Eve Online on and off for a year. The game had been largely ignored by the PC gaming world up to that time, and yet the ideas it embodied were fascinating. The dynamic nature of player interaction, the intricacy of economics and combat, the emergent politics: it was heady stuff. I decided to write an eight page feature about my experiences for PC Gamer UK, assuming that this would be my final word on the subject. Needless to say, it was just the beginning. Members of the now defunct State gaming forum read the piece and raised the idea of starting up a corporation for its members. A handful of the forumites had already been playing the game, and were keen to team-up. Others would create characters from scratch and join in with the project. I would take the lead.

Our early days saw us undertaking typical beginner behaviour: messing about in the friendly areas of Caldari space, running the game's very basic missions, and practising PvP combat in frigates. We had about a dozen people, and the corporation would never get beyond around twenty five active members in its history. A handful of those who were there at the start are still playing today. In these early days StateCorp trolled the nearby low-security systems for pirates, without much success. It was only when three of the beginners were out and about in their new cruisers that we were to encounter our first real enemy: a battleship pirate called Nekrosis. Having spotted the miscreant in space our newbies pootled about as bait. Myself and another older player, meanwhile, raced to the scene in our battleships, from our bases several systems distant. It was to be a process that we would repeat thousands of times in the following five years: finding a target, offering him a reason to engage, then lasering the crap out of him. He wasn't happy.

Of course the only reason we had any firepower at all was that we'd begin to grasp how to fit ships to do proper damage. Knowing what types of modules to fit, how to fit them, and then what ranges to engage at once we had fitted them, was an arcane art, and one that even I was only beginning to get the hang of. My year headstart had given me money and skills, but my theorycraft was still weak. Early fights such as those against Nekrosis gave us a taste for blood and the confidence to leave the safety of Empire space.

Boosted by humble victories we explored nearby regions, rapidly losing our battleships to smarter, more experienced players. At this point the corporation was aimless, with little more to its ambition than allowing the members to have someone friendly to chat to. It was clear that Statecorp needed more of a challenge than this low-profile existence could provide. After a few weeks we migrated into the 0.0 (nullsec) space of Great Wildlands, where I had previously made friends via my player corporations from the from first year of the game. That first year would prove to be extremely useful to us in the five that followed, because success in Eve so often relies on contacts and personal relationships. Again and again the people I'd flown with in the first few months of the game would pop up to help with StateCorp's evolution.

We spent several formative months in the Great Wildlands region, to which we would subsequently return many times. This was our first taste of the alliance game, in which large groups of corporations combined their powers to control, police, and exploit a region of space. Our alliance, the first Foundation, and soon found itself at war with a hostile alliance called Keiretsu. I spent weeks learning about long range battleship combat - one of the staples of Eve's multi-layered PvP over the years - sniping enemy ships from a hundred kilometres or more distance. Many of the Foundation veterans had been fighting out here for months, and they took the lead in teaching us how it was done.

StateCorp found itself dragged into huge fleet fights featuring scores, sometimes hundreds, of ships. We learned the value of speed, and the thrill of interceptor duels. We learned how to take losses gracefully, and how to make money quickly and safely. All good lessons for the future, but we remained inexpert fighters. Months would pass before we would begin to feel confident as a collective.

Soon another alliance made a play for the region. As the war unfolded over the course of several weeks, it became clear that Foundation was to be defeated. The fleets began to diminish in size as support ebbed away. Eventually the conflict compelled us to move on from this starter home, and it was the first step in a tour of the galaxy that would last another five years.

We used our Foundation connections to find a second home. This time it was The Forsaken Empire, a couple of regions away in an area known as Tribute. The first few weeks were incredibly exciting. The new owners of Great Wildlands, Veritas Immortalis (-V-) Alliance, attacked, along with a series of pirate gangs, and the Forsaken Empire fleets found themselves embroiled in constant - although not serious - conflict. That was okay by us, because we got to make huge amounts of money from Tribute's rich assets. Anything that was destroyed could easily be replaced. We began to learn how to scout out our enemies, configure to engage them, and to win fights against formidable foes. The trademark of StateCorp: a specific plan for small-scale combat, rapidly conceived and executed, began to germinate around this time, with some spectacular small engagements taking place - the height of which was probably my rescue from an enemy system by a small team of State pilots. At this point I also began to learn how to command fleets of dozens of players, swallowing intense humiliation as I lead a sixty-man gang to its death at the hands of a disciplined -V- fleet. Everyone knew I had fucked up. I swore not to let it happen again. Understanding how Eve's solar-systems could be exploited for tactical advantage was something I would spend the coming years mastering.

Soon, however, The Forsaken Empire's leadership was to make the misstep that would define the future of StateCorp. The alliance was dragged into a wider galactic conflict against a fierce PvP alliance known as The Five. Our excitement at being involved in a huge coalition of alliances soon faded into concern as The Five's most militant corporations moved into stations close to our region. This concern became panic as these new, potent enemies began routine attacks on our systems, decimating the alliance's less experienced members. By this time The Forsaken Empire was a populous, flabby target, and our enemies revelled in racking up hundreds of kills each day. The leadership was so desperate that they even implemented a "stupid tax" on those players who got killed because they had not paid attention to warnings. Morale was slipping, and our grip on the region was going with it.

Eventually the Forsaken Empire commanders pulled together the entire alliance, as well as their local allies, to besiege the enemy corporation in their main base of operations. The "siege of HPA" - a long, painful, series of sniper battles - probably only lasted a couple of weeks, but it seemed like a lifetime. It went on and on, with neither side able to win a convincing victory. Eventually a backroom deal was cut, and The Forsaken Empire's bosses decided on an armistice with The Five, the terms of which meant we had to attack our former allies. It was a backstab that StateCorp could not stomach, and we decided, again, to move on. Politics was going to be something that we would generally avoid meddling in, but would always feel the influence of. In the years to come it would often be the political decisions of larger powers that often decided how our game played, and where we ended up residing.

For now though we wanted to avoid extended conflict with large powers, and had to look for something a little more downbeat. Options at the time were numerous, thanks to the large number of smaller alliances that the game supported. We read up on their agendas and manifestos, and decided that the tiny Frege Alliance sounded like it was aligned with our values. However, we were now ferociously independent, having flown and fought together for months. We elected not to throw our lot in entirely with this new alliance, and based ourselves at the nearby ISS Borealis.

This was one of the most fascinating projects of early Eve - a publicly funded space station - for which anyone could purchase shares. ISS had, in what was a huge logistical and security exercise - built their second station near Frege space, and was looking for tenants. As a neutral entity to all ISS allowed us to base there for a fee, and it meant that we were set apart, physically, from the rest of the Frege pilots. This decision had a social effect that would bond the corporation closer together than ever: when we left the surrounds of the station, we did so as a group. Even though we were part of another alliance, the most important thing was the cohesion of StateCorp itself. We became totally self-reliant, within the larger whole.

Possibly our finest moment in this theatre was in combating war targets in high-security space - pirates who had formally declared corporate war on Frege - when we once again baited and destroyed a high value target. This time, however, it was a faction battleship, called a machariel, which was equipped with the most expensive items the game had to offer. We could not believe our luck, and the outraged pirate took his rant to the official forums - understandably livid that his prize ship could be destroyed by a small fleet of a fraction of the value. As the years unfolded, the loot dropped by overconfident foes were to come to fund an astonishingly large amount of our activities, and cause bitter enmities.

Frege's time was troubled. They attempted to merge with another alliance, with unhappy outcomes. Soon there was in-fighting, and then a civil war. We took the lead at this point, stomping the dissenters and earning a reputation as some of the most confident members of the small alliance. (One brutal stand-up fight against raiders from far away industrial megaplex Ascendant Frontier sticks in the memory of our pilots to this day, and the battle cry of Frege's alliance leader was adopted as our own tongue-in-cheek response to ill-considered calls to combat: "Rapid Deployment!") It was a formative time, although little more than skirmishing next to what the coming years would hold. StateCorp learned the kind of routines that would keep us alive in thousands of battles to come. We also learned to be distrustful of pilots we'd not got the measure of, no matter how friendly they might be: strangers didn't always follow orders, and that could get you killed.

As the civil war sputtered out, and the region lapsed into nothing more than occasional pirate raids, we began to realise that we were rather more experienced than we'd thought. The months of war the Forsaken Empire had hardened and focused us. We decided we wanted another, wealthier region to operate in, while at the same time still working within an alliance that shared our values of fairness and anti-piracy. It turned out that this alliance was The Huzzah Federation, which was occupying a region on the far side of the galaxy. The move to Huzzah was to be the making of StateCorp, and set us on the road to the height of our powers.

Next: The "Zoom Zoom" Years, the joy of logistics, and the largest war machine ever assembled. Read part 2 here.

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