Last Saturday, Over 2800 Spaceships Clashed in a Battle Costing Thousands of Dollars

Despite my father’s love of science fiction, that headline is probably not something he ever imagined one of his children saying.

This past Saturday, one misplaced mouse click in MMORPG EVE Online sent a lone Titan spaceship hurtling into enemy territory, triggering a cascade of alliances somewhat akin to the run-up to World War I, and resulting in one of the largest space battles ever seen in the history of the game. At its peak, the battle involved over 2800 ships and 3200 players, slowing the already-robust EVE servers to a mere 10% of their normal speed.

It’s difficult to explain EVE Online to folks, even if they’re already steeped in science fiction. (Arguably, this is part of its appeal.) EVE is an MMORPG that lets you build, buy, and fly ships in a vast area of space containing over 7500 star systems. Some of these systems are part of empires or alliances that make up the in-game storyline, while others are hoarded by alliances consisting of your fellow players. Unless you want to spend a lot of real money purchasing in-game resources and ships, you’ll need an alliance, or a very out-of-the-way spot, to mine for resources that will allow you to trade for ships or build the ships from scratch. (Well, build the shipyards, then the ships. Well, build the mining operation, then the shipyards, then the… etc.)

Although set in space, the mechanics of constructing fleets, flying spaceships, and fighting in space are treated very realistically. EVE has its own economy, one that heavily mirrors our own. (And just like our own, it can be crashed.) Building ships and resources takes a lot of time, and requires you to be savvy about supply chains and manufacturing infrastructures. This often becomes so complex that it requires you to track information in spreadsheets or databases outside of the game and before you know it, you’re literally running a corporation consisting entirely of in-game resources.

Space battles and tactics have to be planned out well in advance due to the physical realities of how such a battle would actually go. The physics of ballistic weapons versus energy weapons, speed versus defense, fleet formations, and being able to withstand constant bombardment are all key factors to consider. (Fans of Larry Niven’s “Known World” series will find a lot of parallels here.)

EVE Online takes a lot of time and personal investment, leading to in-game actions having a profound effect on the real lives of the players. When an alliance forms in-game, it tends to extend to all facets of your life. People at the top levels of powerful in-game alliances have found themselves subject to actual espionage and have had to weigh friendships against in-game politics.

EVE makes you work hard for what you get, prompting you to defend what you have in the game just as fiercely as you would defend what you have in real life. (To wit, it’s very much advised that you buy in-game insurance for your fleet. Because once your ship is gone, it’s gone for good.) With over 400,000 players contributing to this culture, what results is a snapshot of what it might actually look like if humanity was able to span the stars. In essence, it would be just as messy and difficult and rewarding as life on Earth is.

Which is why, every few years or so, real-life politics, rivalries, and human error coalesce into glorious, mind-bendingly massive, accidental space warfare like what occurred in EVE on January 26.

Essentially, what happened is that users from Reddit and users from Something Awful got into a fight. This summary on Reddit does a good job of explaining it in layman’s terms:

Essentially, there are two “Mega” coalitions in the game right now, the Clusterfuck Coalition (CFC) and the Honeybadger Coalition (HBC). A coalition is a group of alliances that band together. […] The CFC’s core alliance is Goonswarm, which is based in and recruits out of your least favorite website, SomethingAwful!

Last night, a relatively small pirate alliance that controls a good bit of territory nearby Goon-land thought that the goons may try to attack them over a local moon; which holds mineral resources. They informed a fleet commander in Pandemic Legion that this may be happening, and PL set up to ambush goons.

What’s important to last night is that we chose to go with PL instead of goons, and we formed our own coalition; the HBC. Between PL’s ability to drop many of the most powerful ships in the game, and our ability to rush in with hundreds of support ships to back them up, it’s a potent force.

Goonswarm was indeed going to try and take that moon and were preparing to jump to it with their fleet using the biggest, best ship available in EVE Online: the Titan. Titans are extremely hard to come by and require massive amounts of time, resources, and territory to build. (Or, if you have a LOT of money and no free time, you can purchase a fully kitted one for around $7600.) Titans are basically floating fortresses and have the unique ability to transport entire fleets to other star systems via a technique called “bridging.”

The Pandemic Legion was expecting this attack and had set up ships to ambush the incoming fleet. What would have resulted would have been an exciting, if minor, fracas.

Except Goonswarm fleet commander “Dabigredboat” clicked “jump” instead of “bridge” in the menu and hurled his Titan alone into an enemy ambush. And what’s just as good as obtaining a status symbol like a Titan? Being the ones to destroy it.

Metafilter user “kyrademon” breaks down the events wonderfully succinctly:

3) When the people in the region realized the big expensive powerful spaceship was alone, they realized they had a chance of taking it out and called in all their buddies.

4) Their buddies then called all their buddies, who then called in all their buddies. As various alliances got activated and people saw a chance to settle old grudges, it became a massive pile-on.

5) Meanwhile, the big expensive powerful spaceship guy had called for reinforcements. By the time they showed up, however, they were outnumbered by the growing pile-on.

6) Big expensive spaceship guy, instead of giving up the battle as lost and taking a hurtful but survivable drubbing, said, “CALL IN OUR ENTIRE FLEET! TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT!”

And that’s just what happened (audio NSFW):

EVE Online is a game, but it’s also Serious Business. A lot of time, expense, and expertise goes into building fleets, alliances, and infrastructure. Whereas an MMORPG like World of Warcraft is more open, lower cost, and user-friendly, EVE’s complexity creates an actual real-world economic impact.

EVE players can purchase codes that grant an account more time to spend in-game, which they can then re-sell inside the game for ISK, the in-game currency. A few years ago, Jump On Contact calculated the real cost of each ship available in EVE Online, (alternate link if site is down) based on how much the time incurred would cost. The results were staggering:

Massive EVE Online battle utilizing over 2800 ships costs over $150,000

While EVE ships start at $1 and top out around $100, the Titan dwarfs them all by requiring around $7600 of time/investment. Thanks to a single wrong click on Saturday night, that money is gone, and thousands more with it (at one point the estimated number reached $150,000.*) thanks to other players trying to prevent and/or hasten the loss of a $7600 ship!

*The battle report on this is still being tallied and a lot more detail can be found here.

The point of this recap is not to assign blame or engage in schadenfreude (well, okay, maybe a little bit of schadenfreude) but rather, to revel in the unique aspects of such an impressive event. What were you doing on Saturday night? Play that back in your head, except do so knowing that a massive space battle was occuring at the same time. A space battle kicked off entirely by accident. A space battle so big it could not be simulated, it had to be crafted and pushed forward by human ego, so big it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and yet so small that you wouldn’t have known about it if you weren’t an EVE Online player. It’s beyond a microcosm. It’s downright microcosmic.

It is the year 2013 and these realities sit side by side with each other, but thanks to events like these it is increasingly hard to tell which one is supposed to be science fiction, and that is amazing.


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and didn’t so much write this article as translate it from EVE-speak.

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