Rent disputes threaten to ignite the next all-out war in this massive space MMO
Another massive war is brewing in EVE Online, the always unpredictable sci-fi universe that's gearing up to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. By some lights, the war has already started – now it's just looking for a cause.
Since the conclusion of the year-long World War Bee 2 in 2021, EVE Online's galaxy of New Eden has seen a lot of changes. Developer CCP Games has been working on renovating large swaths of its uniquely complex MMORPG, with major updates changing the way factional warfare works, adding new mechanics and storylines, rebalancing fleets and adding new ships. Those changes have combined to make New Eden a noticeably different world than it was at the outset of EVE's last big player-driven war, which ended with the Imperium – better known as the Goonswarm – breaking a months-long siege of its home system and rapidly reconquering territory abandoned by the retreating "PAPI" coalition of the PanFam Alliance, Test Alliance Please Ignore, and countless other, smaller player-controlled corporations.
World War Bee II may have finally drawn to a close, but that doesn't mean things have been quiet in Nullsec, the lawless area of the galaxy where players have free reign to either make or break the law. Most of that vast territory is claimed by one or other of EVE's major player-controlled corporations, and so border skirmishes and incursions – and even daring heists – are fairly common occurrences. Lately, though, this normal jostling has been heating up, and in the past month it's ignited at least two major battles that each destroyed more than a trillion Interstellar Kredits, or ISK, EVE's in-game currency – for financial context, the biggest heist in the game's history involved more than 2.2 trillion ISK, estimated to be worth around $22,300.
MMO swindler uses space capitalism to steal $22,300 in record-breaking heist
CCP Games' community developer Peter Farrell reckons another big war is probably in the making, it just needs the right tinder – or the right story.
"Right now, it's a lot more casual," he said. "People are mostly just trying stuff out – and trying to shoehorn a reason to be fighting each other in there."
For now, the pretext for the fighting is the practice of renting space. Large alliances that control huge reaches of Nullsec space will, for a fee, open up systems they control for independent pilots to engage in "ratting," EVE slang for shooting down NPC pirates and collecting bounties. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement: small independent groups can safely farm Nullsec space for the higher ISK payouts, while the corporations who control the systems pull in a reliable and mostly passive income for granting the privilege.
The Imperium, which is now prodding its way into space controlled by the Pandemic Horde and a China-based alliance called Fraternity, has sided with players who complain that renting space is unhealthy for EVE Online, saying that renting space encourages the use of bots, crowds out any potential for new empires to take root, and is a way to launder ISK gained through real-money transfers – buying currency, in other words, which is officially forbidden in EVE Online.
All of EVE's major alliances have run rental empires at one time or another and the Goonswarm is no exception, as the Imperium's critics and enemies have been quick to point out. The reality is, however, that the argument itself isn't particularly important when both sides are itching for another big fight.
There are several reasons for this state of heightened tensions. While World War Bee II may be over, some long-standing grudges remain between corporations on opposite sides of the conflict. PanFam, Fraternity, Test Alliance Please Ignore, and others captured a huge amount of Imperium-controlled systems during World War Bee II, and the resurgent Goons, now under new leadership, aren't about to forgive and forget.
Farrell said another major factor playing into the current tinderbox is the rebalancing of several popular ship designs as part of EVE's Uprising expansion, which launched in November. Before that update, a Rupture class heavy assault cruiser called the Muninn dominated the EVE meta.
"They had quite a high skill cap," Farrell explained. "They were very nimble, and had a very high escape power. So while they were the best, and everyone was using them, pretty much every pilot hated flying them as well, because when you win a fight in this type of meta, the ships are so nimble that you don't even kill a lot of them. You'll just kill a couple, and then the rest will just be able to run away, and you can't really do anything about it. It's just a hollow victory, so you never really feel like you're winning."
The Northern War of 2023
The best space games to star gaze in right now
To address this, the design team introduced some changes to the Muninn in Uprising: Four of its five turret mounts were converted to missile hardpoints and its maximum targeting range was reduced by 25 kilometres.
"It's still viable now that we've made it more of a missile boat," Farrell said. "It's much better in medium and small gangs rather than the big fleets."
The changes to the Muninn, along with iterative changes to many of EVE's battleships, mean new tactics are required for major fleet engagements, and many EVE players across New Eden are itching to test out their latest theories. A pseudo-ideological spat over the ethics of space rent is as good a reason as any to, as EVE players and developers like to say, get out there and shoot each other in the face.
The first real shots in what CCP Games is tentatively called the Northern War of 2023 took place in 5ZXX-K, a Fraternity system located in a region called Pure Blind. The Imperium and their allies in B2 had been ramping up activity in Pure Blind, ostensibly to prevent Fraternity from acquiring more rental space, and PanFam, the Winter Coalition, Northern Coalition, and others in that group began moving assets into the area to respond.
"In the beginning of March, we have this powder keg situation where about 160,000 players are sitting real close to each other," Farrell said. "And really, anything can happen."
Living in your head rent free
"We have no idea what's going to happen next. Anything can happen when all these pilots are so close to each other."
What did happen, on March 15, was a battle that raged across for 13 hours across four systems in Pure Blind. By CCP Games' count, some 4,600 players were involved, and they did a combined total of over one trillion ISK in damage, the vast majority of that to PanFam alliance ships and structures. The Imperium and its allies destroyed multiple citadel space stations, including three Keepstars, the largest structures players can build in Eve.
Opportunity knocked again a few weeks later. The Imperium had been harassing ships and PanFam infrastructure in a region called Pure Blind for several weeks, particularly targeting a Fraternity system designated X47L-Q, which serves as a major staging area for the PanFam alliance. The Imperium realised that most of their members would have extra time to play EVE over the Easter holiday, while Fraternity's Chinese players would not. It was a window of advantage the Imperium couldn't resist.
The battle of X47L-Q began April 7 at around 10am GMT, and lasted almost a full 24 hours. About six thousand EVE players joined the conflict over the weekend, and they destroyed a total of 3,381 ships and structures worth over a trillion ISK. While the Imperium group fared slightly worse regarding financial damage, they managed to destroy a critical Winter Coalition Keepstar and a local jump gate.
Both the Imperium and PanFam sides have come up with self-justifying narratives in the wake of the two battles, Farrell said. The Goons retroactively decided that the four Keepstars in Pure Blind were their objectives, and with those destroyed, victory had been achieved. For their part, PanFam and company have said that there never was any plan for Fraternity to claim more space for renting to begin with, and that they've won by getting the Imperium to waste trillions of ISK on an imaginary threat.
"We have no idea what's going to happen next," Farrell said. "Anything can happen when all these pilots are so close to each other."
War never changes
Both sides will need to do some rebuilding to replace what's been lost in the fighting so far, he said, but the Imperium currently has the initiative – it's likely they'll continue picking small fights along the frontier, just for fun if nothing else. The new EVE meta is still in its infancy, and working out new battle tactics is an exciting opportunity in a game about to turn 20.
In the meantime, conditions remain ripe for a full-on war to erupt at any time.
"All it takes is one personality to overstep and anger the Horde or anger the Bees in one way or another, and, you know, things kick off," Farrell said. "Both of these groups collectively are pros at what they do, and they can create situations to motivate their members to keep them going if they really had to. It's just a matter of how much desire is there from either side to keep this going?"
That level of desire for a war will depend largely on the narratives EVE players construct in the huge penumbra of dedicated subreddits, Twitch channels, forums, and other online discussions that exist outside the game client, but are nonetheless central to what EVE Online is.
Image credits: CCP Games / Razorien
More? Here are 10 of the best MMORPGs to play in 2023.