VI – If You’re Too Big to Fight, You’re Too Big to Exist

As the longest war in EVE’s history winds down, as Goons and their allies do a galaxy-sized victory lap, as PAPI fractures and does damage control, and as the families of EVE’s brave combatants rejoice at their loved ones coming home (or at least, away from their desk) we should keep one thing in perspective: for CCP, this war was an unmitigated disaster.

Yes, having such a meatgrinder down in Delve was good for chewing up minerals and (arguably) giving the Scarcity economic period a reason to exist.  I am of a mind that the war did not actually boost login numbers, but only CCP knows for sure.  And only time will tell if this war yields a healthier nullsec[i] ecosystem, or another cold war so long and stagnant it kills off another generation of players.

But one thing is clear: the best thing for EVE that comes out of its giant wars is the free publicity from giant battles, which grab headlines in broader gaming media and bring in waves of new players hoping for the next one[ii].

Somehow, in the longest war in EVE’s history, those great battles didn’t happen.  Yes, there were plenty of big battles, but only two that really breached general gaming media, and only one in a good way—indeed, the utter meltdown of the servers in the second M2- battle in many ways overshadowed the unprecedented success of the first.  I’m sure many at CCP look at this war as a massive disappointment, a huge wasted opportunity to get that free publicity that is so important for a nearly two-decade old game.  I look at it as a tragic first step for a boon of new players who joined to do something in covid, and have spent their entire EVE career in war—I expect, (and would love to be proven wrong) that many will quit now that the war is over, after being taught a degree of complacency terminal to one’s chances at success in a sandbox game.

I’m not here to talk about CCP, though.  No one knows how they really feel, and I’m sure their opinions on the war are as diverse as ours. 

But I’m also not going to shy away from a great chance at some backseat development, some I-told-you-sos and my own galactic victory lap (followed by some light vomiting… I can barely run around a constellation).  

I want to take this as an opportunity to talk about what I see as the single biggest issue facing EVE today: concentration of the population into giant nullbloc alliances.  I’ll try to keep it short and on topic, and doing this will mean only discussing a few of the myriad evils a condensed population has created.

In essence, though it comes down to this: if you’re too big to fight, you’re too big to exist.

In the “golden age of EVE,” a period generally considered to span 2009-2013, Peak Concurrent User counts on the server began to climb to levels double what they have been for the last few years, and nearly triple what they have fallen to this summer, with the lifting of COVID restrictions and (I will argue) the stagnation of the big war.  In the same “golden age” timeframe, the largest alliances in the game had 5,000-8,000 characters, about one quarter the size of the largest alliances today.  The old Northern Coalition, the then-biggest coalition in videogaming history, was about the size of the game’s largest single alliance today.

Alright, I’m done.  No, really, that is sort of my whole point.  In the period of “empire building” development from 2014-19, EVE’s concurrent users simultaneously halved, including the introduction of a free-to-play account, the Alpha, while the biggest alliances in the game quadrupled in size.  The lasting damage from the increasing concentration of a decreasing playerbase is hard to really wrap your head around, presents the single biggest challenge for EVE today, and probably won’t be fully understood for a long time.  I’ll unpack some of the key points, and then relate it all back to the war that just ended.

First, let me say that this is not entirely the fault of the players.  While I do believe nullbloc leaders have pursued the growth of their organizations to the detriment of the game as a whole (the videogame world’s equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction) most of the blame goes back to CCP for a feedback loop of changes throughout the “empire building” era[iii].  But to blame players entirely would be to misunderstand the economic and political principle of a “collective action problem.”

Essentially, a collective action problem is when what’s good for the individual is bad for their community, and therefore also bad for the individual.  A good example detailed by Vice News is the Dollar General stores popping up across the US[iv].  While these stores provide goods cheaper to the individual consumer, they are also able to operate with fewer employees and undercut local competition, strangling small businesses and depressing the local job market.  Buying something at a Dollar General is cheap, but also means you’ll make less money tomorrow.  It is therefore immediately good but ultimately bad for the consumer and their community.  This effect is also seen repeatedly in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, in which many characters echo the statement of the plowman employed by the bank to drive his neighbors out of their homes:

“I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day.’’ 

“That’s right,’’ the tenant said. “But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?’’ 

And the driver said, “Can’t think of that. Got to think of my own kids.”[v]

There are many collective action problems in EVE—and the presence of them, which requires complexity and agency to develop, is further evidence that EVE is its own world, not just a game.  But the biggest collective action problem is the concentration we’ve seen in nullsec, and moreover of players moving from other areas to nullsec.  Just as Steinbeck is able to humanize both the plow driver and his victims, we can’t find ourselves demonizing the individual players who find their way to nullsec alliances.  But it works like this:

For the individual player, nullsec alliances have historically offered security, moneymaking opportunities, varying degrees of fleet PVP opportunities, and varying degrees of community.  Essentially, they are one way for the game to be taken more casually.  In one of these groups, you don’t need to build your own infrastructure or log on every day to fuel and protect it; you don’t need to generate PVP fights or really know what you’re doing in them; you don’t need to have your own goals, as you can work towards the goals of your group.  Especially for new players, this is a great deal.  CCP has abdicated responsibility for developing new players for years, allowing the nullsec blocs to scoop them up—and ask anyone who’s started EVE in the last 7 years, almost all of them will have come through one of these organizations at some point or another.  For these individuals, the big groups provide all the resources they need to have an easy start in a very hard game.

As these alliances grew and gained strength, they also sucked players out of other regions of the game, both condensing within nullsec and across the server.

Nullsec alliances, working under their own collective action problem, teach their pilots to make money, to avoid drawing attention to their space, to avoid fighting except for strategic reasons[vi] and to join fleets, which are built inherently not to develop skills but to encourage multiboxing (as I detailed in Post II).  Furthermore, for their own security, these alliances form broad coalitions and try to avoid wars.  This is the design of the “empire building” era of EVE – to create a constant cold-war scenario, in which making money and accumulating assets is the single most important factor in winning a war.  This makes every single action have some degree of strategic value, and was done because horizontal growth is simpler to monetize than a game that asks its players to get better.  Again, we can’t fault the alliances for correctly assessing how to win at the game, and doing it.

But the genius of EVE is its dynamism, its ability to generate content through the tension between spontaneous accidents and long-term planning.  When your pilots are trained to avoid fights, because this draws more hunters to the area, and to wait for fleet pings instead of trying to find their own content – and when you wind up with 2 or 3 gigantic groups instead of hundreds of little ones – the uniqueness of EVE is undermined, and the game becomes fundamentally indistinguishable from its competition.

By introducing empire building mechanics and making them tantamount to game domination, CCP created a collective action problem for individual players and alliances alike that encouraged them to concentrate and stagnate for their own benefit, thus ultimately reducing their chances at fun in the game.

To a large extent, those collective action problems still exist.  But they have also pushed a fundamental culture shift in EVE.  While game developers once famously released “Harden the Fuck Up”[vii] they also pushed for years to increase dopamine rewards, decrease skills expression, and promote horizontal growth across an ever-shrinking playerbase.  The other day, I had a 7-person fleet run from my 4-person fleet, saying in local chat that it was “not worth it” to engage us, even though their 7 Feroxes were the posterchild of trivially cheap, expendable ships.  While in a single scenario, that might have happened in 2013, played out 100 times, it would have happened much less then than it would now: more often than not, back in the day, people would have taken that fight.  That’s because the basic objective of EVE used to be achieving things, and now it is accumulating things.  Simply put, the 7 players that wouldn’t fight me last week calculated that the assets, however cheap, were worth more than a possible achievement of victory, because assets are always worth more in a world where every action, and every asset, has global strategic significance.  I wrote extensively on this in a Reddit post last year, and though I took a different tone in it, especially in the closing, than I take on this blog, I stand by it[viii].

So, CCP created collective action problems by trickling strategic significance into even the tiniest action made by a nullbloc player, thus driving a concentration of the population into a few huge alliances, and fundamentally shifting the culture of the game.  This leads us to the current problem.

In nature, populations are controlled by factors such as disease, food abundance, and competing lifeforms.  The COVID-19 Pandemic is a good example.  Whatever origin story you prefer, it is undeniable that the virus was prolonged and worsened by global overpopulation and interconnectedness.  Simply put, there are too many humans alive right now to control the spread of a novel virus.  This happens to other animals all the time, when they get overpopulated and overconcentrated to a point where a disease can spread very easily.  In the case of most plants and animals, that disease devastates the population and resets the overpopulation problem.  We’re just not used to it happening to us.

EVE presents us with a world free from disease, climate change, and nuclear apocalypse.  It is, in some ways, more stable than our world on Earth, even though the servers could shut off at any moment. 

But EVE’s servers have hard limits.  Even using military-grade hardware, and with a major game company prioritizing increasing server capacities for years, in the second battle of M2-, the defenders were nearly able to max out what the server could handle on their own, while comprising about a third of what would have engaged without server issues.  This is not because EVE is globally overpopulated, as Earth is today.  It is because nullsec is overconcentrated, to a degree the servers can’t handle.

This is the same phenomenon as deer becoming overpopulated due to a loss of predators and then starving, because there isn’t enough food to support them all.  In EVE, content is food.  Battles not only bring in new players, they sustain old ones—they give PVP players something to do, and industry players a reason to build.  And right now, at least in nullsec, a confluence of years of game design, in-game politics, and shifting culture has caused giant nullsec alliances to concentrate their populations too densely for the available sustenance.  The biggest groups in EVE are too big to fight. 

If they had quadrupled in size because the game had quadrupled in total players, this wouldn’t be such an issue.  But right now, they exist in spite of smaller groups, because they have grown while the game shrank.  That means if they’re too big to fight, they’re too big to exist.

I have a lot of opinions on how CCP could spread the population back out.  Of course, I think most of them are right.  But this blog is about the meta-sphere of EVE, so I won’t delve into them too much. 

What I will say is that in the past, when I’ve brought this up, on Discords, on Reddit, and even on voice comms, the nullbloc players I’m talking about respond with a feverish negativity, because they feel their playstyle under attack.  I hope that my long digression into collective action problems has shown I bear them no ill will and don’t ultimately hold them accountable for the issues at hand.  I also hope my analysis has made it clear that they are themselves denied content by these issues—after all, we didn’t get the big battles we all wanted out of this war.

I am also not advocating from a political position, such as saying that Goons are too big but others are alright.  Rather, I think the best solution would be to reduce the size of all nullbloc alliances relatively, so that Goons would remain the strongest, and all others would retain their relative places as well, but the players leaving these groups would start others, spread out around the map, and allow for more dynamic gameplay. 

Would the entire map still pile in on the biggest fights?  Absolutely.  But only after the fight was already ongoing, some groups were already committed, and only after themselves earning their involvement by moving across the galaxy, managing diplomatic relations, and planning ahead.

Though we have again circumvented nature and survived COVID-19 without a significant loss in population (at least so far), it doesn’t seem a safe bet that the same would happen in EVE.  After all, we have to live on Earth.  Deer have to live in their local forest.  EVE players can just go to other games. The failure of this war to provide EVE the headlines it deserves is a dire warning about the health and sustainability of the game.  That’s what you get when your game is nearly as complex as the real world: you also have to play by the world’s rules.  Let’s learn from the many times our planet has enforced those rules, and understand that denial is hubris, that a developer, like even a god, can proceed in either to their own demise through the loss of those who sustain them.

[i] For non-EVE players: the ungoverned outer ring around the map that players are free to control and fight over.  This is where 90% of the stories you hear about EVE take place, including just about all of the last war.

[ii] Let’s do something fun: instead of me linking you to articles, why don’t you Google “greatest EVE Battles” or something like that, and see what comes up.  That’ll prove my point.

[iii] I’ve got a lot of opinions on these, but this blog is about EVE’s meta-sphere, so I’ll stay away from them as much as possible.  But for the sake of clarity, for the EVE readers who know what I mean: Rorqual buffs were an obvious money-grab based around reducing skill ceilings and encouraging horizontal growth (as I detailed in Post II on this blog); citadels were the single worst MMO expansion ever, very nearly singlehandedly killed the game, and remain only half fixed now, over half a decade later; skill injectors were needed to allow new players to catch up, but were introduced in a way that heavily favored experienced players; capital and nullsec infrastructure changes made condensing into tiny areas possible, leaving much of the map fallow and reducing gate traffic.  Moreover, the game moved from an achievement-oriented culture to an accumulation-oriented one, and in doing so welded itself to designs not just predatory and addictive, but intrinsically destructive to EVE’s uniqueness.  I’ve written about the latter part in a previous Reddit post:


[v] Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, Location 1630.

[vi] Check back in next week for a long essay on Strategic versus Recreational mindsets in PVP.


[viii] See link in endnote 1.

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