Ridealong is a new monthly feature where Brendan travels deep into game worlds to meet, question and journey with the inhabitants that dwell within. This week, the EVE Online pilots that are plundering H1Z1.
The Goons are invading. They're coming over the top and killing everyone in sight, without remorse, without even a word of warning. But this isn't an invasion into one of the unruly star systems of EVE Online, the usual scene you picture when you think of the brusque citizens of Something Awful. This is an invasion into an entirely different game. The Goonswarm has spread to H1Z1.
Jason Spangler, aka Commander Spanks, is leading the operation into H1Z1. He is The Mittani's right-hand man and describes himself as a "boots on the ground" officer, holding weekly meetings with "Mittens", the leader of the EVE Goons, about the progress of their invasion. I went into the post-apocalyptic wilderness of H1Z1 to meet him.
"I don't have a base," he says. "What I do is I travel around and play with all of our different squads. This is what I do as the Commander of the Imperium. I stay nomadic, I travel around. I make sure our forces have got everything that they need."
The Imperium is the new name for the alliance of Goons and other groups inside and outside EVE Online. The Mittani rebranded the group because their previous name was not "marketing friendly". Their previous name, for the record, was "Clusterfuck Coalition".
Currently I am standing in a misty forest, awaiting instructions from the Commander. For the moment, I am only in touch with him on comms.
"I think these past few months I've done more talking than I have shooting," he says. "Which I think is probably the sign of a good leader. I don't need to be a good shot. I got 227 guys to shoot for me, you know what I mean?"
As impressive as this sounds, 227 is a small number compared to the organisation's member list in EVE Online. It makes the H1Z1 players seem more like a splinter group of viking settlers than the stampeding hordes envisioned by The Mittani when he first made his call to arms in May this year. And although The Mittani says around 5000 of his men have tried H1Z1 since he sounded the war horn, only this small number is sticking around. But the chief's trusted Commander seems to recognise this as a problem.
"I'm not happy at 227, Brendan. I wanna continue to grow our organisation. I'm already eyeballing 300. We're gonna go to 400. And then we're gonna go to 500. Myself and my officers are constantly talking about how to grow our community. How to dominate this sandbox... and it all revolves around strength of numbers. I'm not necessarily concerned with whether you're a good shot or not."
This is a classic Goon tactic. In EVE the Goons are dominant professionals of aggressive propangandising and recruitment. Like many groups, they treat their rookies like horrible little princesses, promising huge sums of money to get started and free implants and ships that would be unaffordable to a regular, unaffiliated newbie. Their most famous propaganda campaigns actively boast about their swarmlike numbers and suicidal techniques. In H1Z1, the same applies, to the extent that TheMittani.com has partnered with the devs to create special loot for Imperium members, including a machete engraved with their leaders famous slogan: "His Regards".
But why did Mittens choose this of all games? H1Z1 is regarded by many as a poor man's DayZ. A too-late entrance by Sony into the zombie survival genre. What attracted EVE's khan of khans to this game in the first place?
"From what I understand of it," says Spanks, "Mittani and John Smedley are friends [John Smedley is the former head of Daybreak, the studio making H1Z1]... and John is an EVE: Online player himself - he wanted to see what a large successful organisation from EVE Online could do in his sandbox. And a deal was struck. We were given skin packs and we were given a private whitelist server and told 'come and beta his game'... help show them where the flaws were. Because if there was a flaw a Goon was gonna find it, right?"
So it was as much a business decision as anything. Daybreak and TheMittani.com have partnered to send Goons in, effectively acting as testers (I would later ask The Mittani himself about the exact nature of this deal. "We can't really go into any business details," he said. "Boring but expected reply")
It's time to meet the Commander. But the map of H1Z1 is vast. I spend a ridiculous few minutes spamming the "/respawn" command over and over again, watching myself die and respawn in random locations. I am looking for co-ordinates close to Spanks. This respawn method is used so often by the Commander that he has hot-keyed it to a button on his mouse. He kills himself that much.
Finally, I appear at a spawn point where we can meet, a forested hillside. After a few minutes the man himself finally appears at the bottom of the hill. Emerging from the fog.
He's here to take me to the Wake Hills settlement, where there's been an incident. Some intruders have been killed by the two Goons posted there: a player called Angel, and another called Changers, both ranked as 'squad leaders' of the Imperium.
On our way, the Commander teaches me to make a bow by shredding my trousers and combining the cloth with some tree branches. H1Z1 has a somewhat obtuse click 'n' drag crafting menu. But we soon have a bow each and some arrows. Both the Commander and I are now standing in our underwear. Neither of us mentions this.
We arrive at the camp. Changers, one of the guards, is a terrifying man in aspect. He wears a ghillie suit, has a giant sniper rifle and wears a face mask with a skull on it. On his feet: a pair of red converse. But when he speaks, its the ordinary voice of a young gamer. There are a couple of others lurking around the settlement. A man called Angel and another called Budberry.
This is the Goons' method of invasion. They plant lots of small groups in various locations on the map to avoid overwhelming comms chatter. Then partner up or travel around when necessary. The Mumble is separated into geographic camps, a lot like how outposts in EVE are often organised, but on a much smaller scale.
"This is the repair shop" says Spanks. "We just smoked a guy here. Here's his bag right here."
The victims body is gone, but a backpack remains. The Commander offers it to me. I rummage around and get some trousers. I'm told I can shred these too and use the cloth to create some bandages. I look at the Commander in his underwear and decide not to shred the trousers.
The Commander shouts.
"There is a guy in the antique shop! Guy in the antique shop! Draw your bow and get ready."
I look at my bow. I have no real plan to use it but I follow the Goons to the action. They home in on the trespasser. We are within a few feet of him when suddenly we are all disconnected. The server has hiccuped. We continue to be harrassed by disconnects for the following half hour. It is something many Imperium players have accepted as the price for playing early access. Gritting their teeth through server problems is simply an act of honouring their side of Mittani's bargain with the developers.
Back in the game, the Goons look for their would-be victim. He's nowhere to be seen. I ask the Commander about the rules of engagement. Are there any?
"When we say enemy, what we mean by that - because we are KOS [kill on sight] - is someone who doesn't have a chevron [an in-game symbol floating over their heads] or is not on our Mumble or is not friendly to us. Everyone on the server is either an enemy or a friend. There are no neutrals."
I look around Wake Hills. It is a fortress-like checkpoint. It stretches across a main road, wooden barricades and a wide roof that gives an excellent view of the road. But there are other buildings around. Angel and the skull-faced Changers take us on a tour. We jog around the decayed picket fences and through the old gardens of the settlement, looking at the run-down shacks. I wonder how much of Wake Hills is Imperium-controlled. The answer is: almost everything.
"We pretty much made everyone move out," says Changers, taking us around the houses. "Most of 'em are abandoned. Those three by the repair shop are abandoned. This one over here on the otherside of the cafe is also abandoned because we blew them out."
There's only one building in town inhabited by 'hostiles'. A fairly large wooden cabin just 50 or so metres from their own fortifications. Do the Goons ever have disagreements with them?
"Yeah, they don't like us. Pretty much, they don't like us because we don't speak their language and they don't speak English. We're 'kill on sight' to them."
We study the cabin. The foreign neighbours aren't home right now.
"So, yeah," says Changers. "We're going to blow up their base eventually."
The Commander is proud of his men. Almost boastful. He takes the opportunity to praise their efforts.
"It is safe to say Wake Hills is controlled - not that there's a territory map. But if there was an influence map you would see a giant circle around Wake Hills and it would be controlled by Imperium."
He estimates that about 40% of the map on this server is controlled by his forces. Sadly, there are no tools available to substantiate this claim. Such a big presence, however, is bound to attract attention. Has anyone ever tried to attack them en masse? Other groups?
"Yeah," says Changers, "there've been groups of like 4 or 5 people that'll run around together."
"We had almost 20 guys helping someone up somewhere near Lone Pine, didn't we?"
"That was like 30."
"One of our bases was getting raided. And someone basically jumped on channels asking people for help and then ones that could help out, we all went down there... basically KoS-ed everything away from their base..."
Do they have any idea of the casualty numbers for that? How many people died?
"Too many," says one of the men.
"There was probably a few of us that went down. But we pushed them back to get 'em away from the base."
And do they carry out their own raids?
"Oh yeah. We've done a few raids."
"Yeah, we just had a raid - what was it? - three days ago."
"Just basically proving a point that we control the area, so GTFO."
The Commander and I are on the move again. He has other camps to check in on. But what exactly is he looking for when when he goes between outposts? Why does he drift from place to place?
"I don't want to be bogged down. I don't need to have a base, I don't need to have a box full of juicy explosives, I don't need to give our enemies an excuse to hit our headquarters because if I build something that automatically could be construed as the Imperium headquarters.
"So by not having a headquarters what do we have? Well, we have 50 or 60 Imperium bases all spread around like McDonalds. We're all serving the same menu. So if you think about it from that perspective I'm literally like the district manager travelling around checking in on each of my McDonalds making sure that everyone's serving the same menu and that the Imperium 'brand' is being represented at each of our franchise locations."
The next "franchise" on the list is called Dirty Deeds, which I'm told will be unmanned right now. The Commander is marching on ahead of me. As we make our way through the woods, we snatch blackberries off the bushes as we pass, to keep ourselves from dehydrating. Night has fallen. The Commander is still in his underwear.
"Wolf," says Spanks calmly, then unloads a shotgun shell into a grey shape in the dark.
"Normally you want to hit them with melee."
We hear more howls as we travel through the brush.
"There's a wolf up here, see him? We gotta punch him," says Spanks. "Punch this wolf here."
He begins laying his fists into the second creature.
"Get up here and punch him," insists the Commander.
I walk up to the fray, not really certain what to do, but the wolf dies before I swing even once. I'm sort of relieved. We march on and I flicker my flashlight on and off idly.
"So you definitely want to NOT use your flashlight."
I turn it off. The Commander says this is known in the military as light and noise discipline.
"Which, by the way, I am former US Army, I'm also a veteran as well, so..."
He trails off. It's something I've come to learn of hardcore online worlds. They contain a lot of military and ex-military people. Is this true of the Imperium as a group?
"Yeah," he says, "the Imperium does have a very strong military [and] prior-military community. It's one of the things that drew me to the Imperium. EVE, or just gaming in general, is just very therapeutic for me. And just talking about my experiences in Iraq with other people who have served is very therapeutic as well. It's not the only type of people that are in the Imperium but there is a strong military presence... Now, this is interesting... do you see this?"
There's a glow beside a tree. It's a fire.
"Someone made it," says the Commander. "Someone made it to either purify water or cook meat. So there is activity in this area..."
But there's no sign of the person behind this fire. And we never do find out who made it.
"Let's push into Deeds," Spanks decides.
We arrive in a poorly lit industrial estate. On a concrete wall, I can barely make out the words 'Dirty Deeds Disposal' in the gloom. It is the entrance to a linear cave system stuffed with barrels of toxic waste. We enter the caves. The ground inside is covered in thick, yellowish sludge. A fire burns inside a barrel in a damp corner. This time the flames are just scenery, instead of something player-made.
"Unofficially, Dirty Deeds is our motherland, our home turf," says the Commander. "We spent a couple wipe cycles here, learning to play the game, beefing up our forces, learning to raid, learning to build..."
My steps are slowed and I have to drag myself through the yellow slime. It's very sludgy, I observe.
"Well," he says, "it's a toxic cave."
He says that the caves haven't always been in their hands. Recently, they lost control of Dirty Deeds to a group called THC. This would not stand. The caves were their adoptive home in H1Z1. The Imperium went to war.
"They were a tough opponent because they ran with hackers. They really tore into our forces, just headshotting us, magic-bulleting us. But again, this is a sandbox, we kept coming back, we kept digging in, we kept showing a presence, we kept reporting the hackers and eventually we won the battle. Their hackers got banned, their legit players couldn't keep up with our forces and we drove them out of the area."
Part of the Commander's strategy includes "being a complete pain in the ass to anyone who is not our friends". This is also a mainstay of the Goon's EVE strategy. They openly aim to make it unpleasant for their opponents to even log into the game. To make enemy grunts react with apathy at the very thought of picking up a gun.
Dirty Deeds also has a couple of warehouses where fertilizer spawns with regularity, a key ingredient in IEDs - homemade bombs. The Goons use a combination of these explosives and ethanol (made from corn, wheat, water and sugar) to raid and destroy their opponents' bases. They pile these devices up aginst the gates of an enemy fortresses and detonate them to open a way in.
It can take about 50-70 of these bombs to blow a gate, I'm told. But laying down stacks of ethanol and using a single IED as a blast charge is "the preferred method for breeching gates."
But it takes a long time to set up, says the Commander. He tells me the best technique is to have four men run up to a gate with backpacks full of ethanol, sometimes under enemy fire, and plant the stuff down in a huge pile. Then one man will light the fuse on an IED and try to join the others in escaping before the whole thing blows. The resultant explosion creates "a high probable chance that you'll one-shot that gate."
He tells me that Dirty Deeds is not a particularly busy area when it comes to passers-by or enemies. The Imperium has heat maps that allows them to view player activity - the "traffic" of each area.
This word "traffic" is very EVE-like too. In fact, a lot of the vocab of the Imperium in H1Z1 seems to have been influenced by their ancestral home among the stars. I also heard one of the Wake Hills boys ask another if he had "eyes on" when they thought they discovered an intruder. This military phraseology is a common EVE query, and it seems to have followed the Goons from their space stations to the wasteland.
The Commander takes me up to the rooftops of some nearby warehouses. I ask him to stand still for a moment, so I can take a photograph of him with the moon in the background.
"I would like to have pants on," he says.
"No," I say, "it's better this way."
The sun comes up and we get on the road again. The Commander finally did find some trousers in an abandoned caravan - a pair of camoflage combats. We pass a weird stretch of wooden decks, half-finished. This, he tells me, is the planned "Imperium Highway", made out of wooden platforms, stretching from one of the organisation's outposts to another. An ambitious project.
We are on our way to the Pleasant Valley camp, when we run into a zombie. It is the first zombie I have seen all game. It shuffles along, Romero style, dragging its heels towards us and gurgling. Spanks is not the least bit worried. He stops to do something on his computer. The zombie, about 20 metres away, keeps shuffling slowly towards us. Is he not going to kill it?
"No I'm not going to waste ammo on him because I don't want people to hear me... I don't want people to know we're over here."
We leave the zombie alone and continue to make our way over hills and along the roads, strewn with abandoned cars. Spanks is explaining his background, telling me again how he served in Iraq, when he cuts himself off, and begins dashing in another direction.
"Here's a player right here."
The player has spotted us. The Commander breaks off and immediately gives chase.
The player keeps running, frantically. I can see nothing distinctive about them, except that it is one of the female models recently added to the game. The Commander sprints after her, calling out for her to stop. Spanks is trying to get close enough to see the player's name but she keeps on running. He fires a shot off.
"She's clipped once, that means she's bleeding."
She keeps running over the grass. Frantically seeking cover.
"One more shot, she'll go down."
Spanks calls to her again. No answer. He fires again.
"Fuck, I missed it."
He continues to run after her but he is losing patience. He fires a third time. The player falls into the grass.
"There we go."
She's lying in the grass, face-down. Dead. There's nothing worth taking from her body. She was unarmed.
"Let's get out of here."
Night returns soon after we arrive at Pleasant Valley. This is the last Imperium stronghold on our trek and it is the outpost where we will find a place to hold up. Spanks puts a call out on comms for a safehouse and a voice soon answers. We are directed to a large, dark cabin with two watchtowers. A wide outer gate swings open and a man with a 9mm pistol is standing inspecting us.
"Get in," he says. "Quick."
We scurry up the ramp like fugitives. I stop to take a picture of the player hosting us and he closes the inner gate without looking. I am now trapped in the "airlock" space between gates. I look around in my tiny space while the others chatter on. This must be what jail feels like.
Inside the house itself, the Commander is wrestling with Mumble and inducting a new player to the Imperium. A young man called Stim.
I begin to wonder how much under the whip of the Mittani these marauders really are. I would ask The Mittani himself this question later. "I don't see a risk of there being a schism from our multiplatform operations," he said. "That's not how we work." But when I asked his boots-on-the-ground Commander about this, he was candid about his men's attitudes. He thinks it is more complicated than them being desperately loyal to Spymaster Mittens, and the old guard of EVE.
"There is definitely a loyalty built-in to being an Imperium EVE Goon. Because that is the top of the the political structure of EVE Online but when it comes to the Something Awful members or the Steam members, Mittens is a name they will hear in comms or if we start talking about EVE. He doesn't play with us, or hasn't played with us in H1Z1 in quite some time. He turned the keys over to me. He's very busy with his website. He's very busy being a space tyrant. There's definitely a loyalty to the TheMittani.com and that culture, but not necessarily to Mittens himself."
As for the Goons of the Pleasant Valley camp? Many of them are members because they had lived in the Valley before the Goons even showed up. When that happened, they either died, escaped or were absorbed into the Imperium themselves, like Germanic tribes embraced by Romans on the march, indigenous people marrying into settling viking clans, raiders grown tired of pillaging.
"We brought them into our comms, brought them into our culture," says Spanks. "But having said that, they have their own culture, they have their own friends. They don't come from EVE Online. They are slowly learning what Imperium is about."
I log out and say thanks to the Commander. Behind me, in a dark cabin in Pleasant Valley, the fresh recruit Stim is taken into the fold. The Imperium now numbers 228. Welcome to the swarm.
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