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The Great War

At the beginning of 2008 I wrote this feature about an ongoing war within Eve Online for PC Gamer UK - and I want to thank them here for being progressive enough to commission such an unusual virtual chronicle. This conflict had been called "The Great War" of Eve Online, and involved two huge power-blocs: Band Of Brothers and their allies, vesus the RedSwarm Federation and their associated alliances. Things have changed radically since then, with Red Alliance all but disbanding, and Band Of Brothers returning to fight a ferocious campaign against RedSwarm allies. This feature, however, charts a tract of Eve history, between around the middle of 2006 through to early 2008, which remains one of the most startling illustrations of the enormous scale of Eve Online's PvP ambitions.

There's a war going on. It's one of the most bitterly contested conflicts imaginable, fought over many months by an international cast of veteran warriors. An entire galaxy is at stake. You probably even know someone who is caught up in it, fighting for his life and those of his comrades. As many as twenty thousand people have fought in its battles. This war is the Great War of Eve Online; the largest virtual conflict ever waged.

Unlike the twenty minute conflicts that characterise other multiplayer games, this is a deathmatch that has taken place between fleets of hundreds in a continuous process that has lasted years. It is the greatest imaginary conflict yet conducted, and in what follows I'll be tracing its glories and mapping its horrors. The Great War is the war between the mighty Band Of Brothers and the grand coalition of Red Alliance and GoonSwarm, aka The RedSwarm Federation.

Something Russian

Our tale began three years ago, when the Something Awful forumites began to appear in Eve space under the moniker of “GoonSwarm”. The Goons were rapidly drawn into a major war with the old and then superior Band Of Brothers (henceforth BoB), a conflict which set the mood for much of the animosity that was to follow. The Goons suffered heavily in this initial encounter, and both sides were set to be at odds for the years that followed. When BoB moved on to find other targets, the Something Awful armies regrouped and looked around for a suitable ally for their future exploits. It's the consequences of this conflict that we are still seeing play out in the battles of Eve to this day. That, and the masterful play by a group of talented Russian players.

In the early part of 2006 BoB had been engaged in a long territorial war against the largest military-industrial bloc in the game, Ascendant Frontier. The thousands of players who made up that bloc were no match for two thousand hardened BoB pilots, and the bulky empire rapidly began to crumble once BoB's pilots begun their assault. It's not hard to see why BoB would want to attack the biggest alliance in the game: the riches were there for the taking, and the alliance leader, one Cyvvok, piloted the first (and then only) Titan class ship in the game. It was a giant behemoth that has been valued in real world cash at around £4000. BoB seized the first Titan kill in controversial circumstances, and sealed the fate of Ascendent Frontier.

With the highest-profile kill of all time under their belts, BoB were riding high. With Ascendant Frontier defeated BoB were able to begin setting themselves up as Roman-styled imperialists. With a nod to the classic tactics of history, vassal alliances were installed in the conquered territories. Right across the map smaller alliances sided with BoB, or paid rent to be able to exploit the resources of the BoB station systems. By this time the military masterminds had dominion over eight regions, which was the largest single empire since the opening months of the game. The money poured in and BoB cemented a reputation for being the most effective fighting force in the Eve universe.

While the vassals made money and the industrial corps produced capital ships, the drilled, trained BoB military began to look for another target. This slight delay in identifying and attacking this other target was possibly where BoB's momentum stalled. Their defeat of Ascendant Frontier had been gloriously profitable, but while they consolidated their conquests RedSwarm was rapidly growing in power and support. BoB, failing to capitalise on the alliance that was already arrayed against the RedSwarm fleets, would end up facing their old enemies on their own.

At this early stage of the war, in the summer of 2006, much of the rest of the game had aligned against the Russians, and Red Alliance had been pushed back to a single station. In August an alliance consisting of perhaps ten thousand pilots fielded a 500-man fleet to take the system. I was part of that fleet, and seeing several hundred people in the same teamspeak channel, as well dozens of capital ships heading out from a single station gave me some perspective on what the Reds have achieved by beating them back. After a weekend of constant fighting at “the Siege of C-J6," the allies withdrew. The game mechanics, they argued, made their losses too great to continue. Lag and disconnects took too much of a toll on the immense gangs for the battle to come out in their favour.

From that point on the Russians would gain unstoppable military inertia. The coalition designed to drive Red Alliance the game had failed, and the hard-working Russians made sure to capitalise on that fact. After some extensive talks, initiated by Russian commanders, they were joined by their GoonSwarm partners. Both alliances would expand rapidly, while also signing up formidable allies such as the feared southern alliance, Against All Authorities. The alliances - most notably Veritas Immortalis and Lokta Volterra - that had previously been aligned against RedSwarm would begin to fall. By Christmas 2006 RedSwarm had found their stride and valuable station systems were being captured weekly. Station by station the allies faltered and then fell. Perhaps if BoB had intervened at this point and joined the fight then RedSwarm might have been beaten back. But it was not to be. Once great alliances such as were stripped of their territories and forced to retreat.

Eventually the RedSwarm began to encroach on the territories BoB had taken from Ascendant Frontier and BoB high command decided it was time to fully engage. The masters of Eve launched a massive assault on the RedSwarm systems and the war, that is still ongoing [as of early 2008], was underway.

Empire Building

The conflict that was to follow pulled in a dozen other alliances, and would see a vast coalition arrayed against the previously unbeatable BoB empire. Where once it had been Red Alliance that faced a ten-thousand man force, soon it would be Band Of Brothers. The alliance, supremely assured in its talents, had come to be seen as arrogant and worth fighting simply because they were in a position of power. At the height of the war more than half of Eve's PvP players were allied in the war against Band Of Brothers. Not that the great PvPers were cowed, for a while it looked as if the war could go either way. The northern alliances, led by the powerful “D2” were to open up a war against BoB on a second flank during spring 2007 – a tactic that ultimately proved costly for them, as BoB killed their titan and knocked them back. It wasn't until the most recent months of the Great War that the northern powers returned and began to take territory from the exhausted Band Of Brothers. RedSwarm pressed on, and stations began to fall. The BoB blue was disappearing from the map.

Tristan Day, one of BoB's most experienced commanders, observed that there had been something of a political goldrush in all the major players aligning against his alliance. “The most interesting thing has been watching groups of people taking the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" mantra a bit too far,” he said. “There are people aligned against us that are [allied] to each other that really do not like each other at all. It's quite amusing.” This is perhaps understandable in the light of the third front of the war: Eve's forums. The propaganda, arguments, trolling, and general lunacy has seen gamers put about as much effort into BoB-war threads on the forum as they have into the game itself. Eve's players have become obsessed with the machinations of their PvP elite, and each announcement or battle-cry is seized up by enemies and allies alike.

So let's take a moment to illustrate why gamers become so enthralled by all this. To best understand the scale of this sweeping war, take a look at the maps across the pages of this feature [Don't have these to put online, sorry! Best I can do is recommend a player-made set of maps here]. The annotations detail who did what, and when, and provide an idea of the flow and ebb of the war over the past year. On the final map, for example, you can see that Band Of Brothers now face a position that as astonishingly like the one faced by Red Alliance eighteen months ago.

It's been fascinating to watch not only Eve's history repeating itself, but events in the war shadowing the kinds of events we've seen from war in the real world. As I mentioned previously, BoB we quick to install vassals or “renters” in their unused regions. They might have held sovereignty but their attention, and their fleets, were elsewhere. It's a classic empire-build strategy, that has been in use for centuries. RedSwarm have employed similar tactics, albeit in creating space for allied forces. Help out the Federation and you'll be rewarded in territory, as well as military support.

Most recently, however, there has been another outbreak of parallel histories: the internal civil war, and alliance with outside powers. This has happened dozens of times during wars across history (from the wars of the Greek States to the French Revolution) where once-allied powers have suddenly turned on their fellows under the shadow of a much larger conflict. Just after Christmas 2007 BoB lost their strongest ally, when the huge consortium of pilots for hire known as Mercenary Coalition declared BoB's second home region of Period Basis (the other being Delve) to be their own. Tortuga, as the rebel empire was to call itself, tore a hole in what was left of BoB's central powerbase. The end, it seemed, was at hand. As I write this BoB are being forced back into a single region, having lost most of their territory to the swarm Northern and Goon forces. The fighting, as intense as ever, could see BoB lose it all.

What Endgame?

What is perhaps been most fascinating about the continuing war is the stream war stories – the tales of commitment and tenacity from both sides, over the months. Whoever you talk to, they'll have a story of how their fleet mounted a 48-hour continuous defence of a single system, or how they set alarm clocks at 4am so they could be up to finish of an enemy installation when the time came about, or how they tricked the enemy into losing some priceless piece of hardware.

Lessons were learned, week after week. BoB commander Tristan Day told me that much of what his alliance learned was focused on how to manage large groups of people and keep morale high, rather than simply mastering the game itself: “Primarily that you to keep participation up, which is critical for space holding and conquest. You need to keep Eve fun. It doesn't have to be fun in Eve itself, but when you're all on teamspeak you must make sure people are enjoying themselves.”

It can be tough to feel like you're having fun when you spend hours waiting for something to happen, or when your assets get blown up because your fleet just had to go to bed.

Day, like many other commanders in the game, is well aware that his team has to strike balance between military efficiency and simply having a good time. “Whilst we run a very militaristic chain of command in BoB we make sure that we remember that Eve is, after all, "just" a game. The best game I've ever had the honor of playing, but a game nonetheless. If anything you must learn not to get attached to your virtual assets, you can't take them out of EvE, after all.”

Nevertheless people do take the game very seriously, and those arguments held on the Eve forums are penned with attitudes ranging from mere playfulness to terrifying, hysterical bitterness. The “BoB thread” became legend on the Eve forums, because they would almost always attract absurd egos, unlikely insults, and frenzied propaganda from both parties. The exchange of words left many people feeling unhappy. The nature of insulting “smack-talk” by players both in and out of the game has left a mark on the game, and on the recollections of the players. But there have been deeper problems too, such as allegations of corruption on the part of CCP itself, the developers of the game. It was these meta-game conflicts, all of which arose from the war, that led the CCP to set up a player Ombudsman and oversight committee – unprecedented in gaming – to make sure that developers could not abuse their power in the future.

In asking Day how he now feels about the war today, there was sense of residual displeasure at the actions of the Goons, and the CCP developer who scandalised his own alliance: “There are two parts to my answer, one which involves the initial war against Goons alone. It's fuelled by their incredibly distasteful laughing at the real life death of a fellow Eve gamer. Something that I still find quite distasteful, especially as the man's father plays Eve. The second part, and indeed the main driving force outside of our own in-game belligerence and aggression over the last four years, was the "t20 Dev BPO" scandal.” This, just to explain, was the allegations by Goon that BoB had been helped out by developers, allegations that turned out to be true, at least in part. Day continues: “I think I can safely say that all of us are pretty disgusted that t20, who was and remains a good friend, would do such a thing and, even more so, that a professional company like CCP would even allow him to publicise it. RedSwarm Federation used this as a big factor to draw in probably 80% of the military 0.0 residents against us to push us back to Delve.”

Strategic Mistakes

While BoB's own previous chest-beating probably had something to do with the Goons being able to rally support against the previous heavyweight champions, it's fair to say that the scandal did nothing to help BoB's reputation as tough, meta-gaming alliance that would stop at nothing to achieve their victories. The Goon commander Isaiah Houston is fairly forthright in his opinions about this: “BoB's sense of arrogance and superiority ended up killing their more worthwhile and useful allies,” says Houston. “At the same time we were able to unite with Northern friends and work for a common goal.”

Houston is well pleased with the way his once-wild horde of Something Awful forumites has handled itself in the war: “There have been some minor strategic mistakes along the way, but nothing absolutely critical. I really feel as though we've done an exemplary job throughout this war. You have to understand, at the beginning things were very much not in our favor; BoB was the oldest, richest, and had the most experience at this sort of thing.” Now, of course, Goon hold a vast tract of space and are arriving at the gates of BoB's home systems.

Nevertheless, despite their current dire straits after a year of war, Day is philosophical about BoB's position: “At the end of the day the end result is the same: we're getting a lot of combat without having to do any travel. As much as it annoys me that CCP allowed all of our achievements prior to that date to be rubbished by one persons actions, we're having more fun now than at any time ever before... so we're not complaining.” [In fact soon after the piece was written BoB killed a Red Alliance titan and threw their enemies back, restaking their claim on the regions of Delve and Querious and ushering in several months of relative stability.]

So, taking the long view that we started with: was the war simply about Goon getting revenge for those initial, lost conflicts in the early days of Eve? Perhaps, but Houston says the Goon motivation was more about carrying out their general mandate as the gaming world's most excellent griefers, than simply revenge: “It was about griefing the oldest and most established players in the game, making them eat their own words just happened to be the best way of doing that. We've had some scores to settle along the way, it's true, but really the impetus has just been us staying true to our roots as Goons.”

And would our BoB commander do it all again, given the chance? “In a heartbeat,” says Day. “Only better.”

[Band Of Brothers are currently conducting a new campaign "MAX" which is doing serious damage to the northern powerbloc that had previously aligned itself to RedSwarm. The Goons and their allies have not yet made a significant response.]

Thanks to Roburky for the screenshots.

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Jim Rossignol