|February 11th, 2009|
Edit: I don’t actually play EVE, just watch from afar. I’ve corrected some errors below that players of EVE mentioned to me.
A few days ago, everyone wanted me to write about the massive destruction of the Band of Brothers alliance in EVE Online, and how Goonsquad GoonSwarm finally triumphed via an act of betrayal.
But honestly, another day, another giant EVE scam. Ho hum. Is there anything really good to say about this?
For the uninitiated: there was a huge aliance named Band of Brothers. There was another clan named Goonsquad GoonSwarm who hated them (edit: well, everyone, really) and worked against them, but was not nearly as big or powerful. Goonsquad GoonSwarm would recruit BoB members in order to scam them. A BoB member joined under these false pretenses, but then chose sides and rather than be scammed, asked to join for real — and offered up BoB as his price of entry. He was a high-level admin of BoB, and he basically disbanded the whole thing, destroying it from within, and Goonsquad GoonSwarm made piles of virtual money.
The most intriguing aspect of the whole thing to me isn’t the way it happened, but the overall social dynamics of it — the fact that it was completely inevitable. There’s been lots of talk about how this was basically a sort of exploit, that one person should not have enough power to destroy the work of thousands. But I’ll make the case that this is exactly what CCP should want to have happen.
Band of Brothers was an alliance, a network of networks, so to speak. It existed within a preferential attachment system, meaning that the clans of EVE are a system whereby the big tend to get bigger. A new entrant into the system tends to attach to an existing, larger group, over time.
Because of the external pressures of sheer survival, you tend to try to join a clan of a reasonable size, and then the clan gets drawn into alliances of a certain size, and so on. There is safety, and strength, in numbers, and the game system is essentially zero-sum for any given conflict. And given the way in which time equals power in EVE, there is a natural tendency towards growth, solidification, and continued existence.
What you end up with is an ecosystem with a classic power law distribution of social group sizes, a scale-free network which is extremely hard to destroy.
This isn’t the first time we have seen this phenomenon in competitive virtual worlds. Famously in Shadowbane, single guilds would tend to come to own entire servers, because the game system there was also zero sum. The result led to boredom, because in a game premised on conflict, the notion of a single eternal empire is dull.
Scale-free networks are notoriously hard to kill. In fact, mathematically, if you start randomly removing connections in the network, you have to remove a ridiculous percentage of the total to make it cease to exist as an entity. This is how guild social structures can survive for years.
But there is a way. The characteristics of a scale-free network are that there are hubs. And the hubs are the vulnerable spots in the network. Take out hubs, and you can make the network fragment to disconnected bits, because the hubs hold subgroups together.
Band of Brothers was a hub, and the before-and-after images show clearly that separation into component pieces, each then no longer indomitable.
This was good for the game under its own terms, because the game is premised on conflict. In any PvP scenario which has a temporal component — even one as simple as leaderboards — you need to “overturn the anthill” or else you will end up with a static power structure. The guy who held the record will hold it forever. The top guild will stay the top guild, etc. This is why you often see leaderboards offer different time spans — “best today,” “this week,” “all time,” etc. Otherwise, it’s hopeless to compare yourself against statistical outliers who always win.
In the case of something like a PvP-centric team-based game, there’s really two ways to accomplish this overturn. One is to wait until the empire rots from within (security breeds carelessness, inattention, and eventually vulnerability). The other is to aggressively force the rot, by attacking the hubs and attempting to co-opt them.
This has been used as a business tactic: World of Warcraft consciously pursued the guild leaders of the largest and most influential guilds in its successful attempt to dethrone Everquest. By recruiting them over to the new game, they managed to harm the social fabric of EQ while also creating a ready-made community within WoW.
In the case of a self-contained (and richer) simulation like EVE, there’s assets to worry about. The loss of one director might be a blow to BoB, but the real blow is the destruction of its assets, largest of which was the alliance itself, the group’s identity, but which also include the money, ships, and so on. Without those things being scattered to the winds, there would be no overturning of the empire.
So unless a traitor can empty the bank accounts and disband the alliance, it’s very unlikely that BoB would fall. And the game, as a game, does want BoB to fall, because from a purely mechanical point of view, what is fun about EVE is the struggle, not the victory condition. The victory condition is boring.
Lots of folks lose their livelihoods when an empire falls, and players invested in BoB are likely upset that years of work were lost. But EVE is not a game about the height of the Roman Empire. It’s a game about the sacking of Rome by barbarians, so that they can become the next short-lived top dog. BoB existed to be torn down, and anyone who dreams of permanent glory in a game like that should understand that their destiny is to be taken down by the next upstart, in a dog-eat-dog world.
If anything, the fact that it takes a betrayal by a single high-level user with extraordinary powers reveals that perhaps the network is a little too strong; it should have been easier for Goonsquad GoonSwarm to take BoB down, because the system as it stands now means that political intrigue is where the excitement lies, and that leaves out (in a power-law distribution of clans and alliance sizes) the majority of the users.
And for once, wouldn’t we love to hear an EVE story about the single newbie who found a way to destroy the dominant political body through sheer cleverness and determination? Because the same-old-same-old stories of well-organized mafias taking each other down gets repetitive.