“They’ve gotta be on the other side of this gate.”
There were 12 of us in the fleet, out on a roam within the deep south of <redacted>*, a region of nullspace — EVE Online‘s barren no-mans land. There are no safeguards here, so our group were out for the blood of the “reds”, our alliance’s standing enemies. We had been jumping from system to system for hours, tracking anyone who dared face our horde, using a complex mix of cloaked scouts, heat maps and scanning systems. Like most players in zero security space, the bewildering array of acronyms and buzzwords such as “bubble”, “POS”, “scram” and “paint” were flown liberally around the operation’s own Teamspeak channel. At the helm was one of the respected leaders of the alliance, at one moment joking with the fleet, while seconds later silencing the chorus with an impatient muttering of ”check, check” — meaning “everyone needs to shut the hell up, I need to issue some orders”.
We had found ourselves in a unique sort of standoff: while we were heavily armed, well-trained and well-lead, like most encounters in EVE, we were unsure what awaited on the other side of this warpgate. In all actuality, it could have been a single player, one we had tracked through 4 systems. An easy kill, one that my bloodlust-filled corpmates had been baying for over the past hour.
“Remember that scene in Jarhead when the scout snipers are just about to take that shot”, one of the guys jokes over Teamspeak, “and the commander walks in and says “don’t bother?”. We laugh. “I just want the blue mist!,” he cries, referring to the puff of blue “smoke” that appears amongst the debris of a fresh ship implosion. We all mutter in agreement. If there’s one thing that is essential in EVE Online, it’s patience. An open world PVP expedition in nullspace can end after hours without a single kill on the board.
But while we joke, our leaders mull over the possibilities. What if there is a 20-man fleet on the other side of that gate? Not only would the alliance be shamed with such an embarrassing loss, but both the corporations and the players would lose millions, if not billions, of in-game credits (known as ISK). “It’s just not worth the risk”, our leader laments sadly, “I want the kills as much as you guys, but there has been so much activity on the maps tonight. We have to go back.”
We all groan and moan in unison. The previous night had netted a whopping 10 kills, but also a number of quite major losses. Both of these situations are recorded on public websites called “Killboards”, that detail everything from monetary loss to player participation and damage. They are frequently used as a barometer of player performance and bragging rights.
My TS overlay lights up suddenly. “PLUS ONE. PLUS ONE.” Without warning, a neutral player warps into system, smack bang into the middle of the fleet. “BUBBLE UP. SCRAM THAT F**KER”, one player yells while others, almost instinctively, activate their weapons and tech. A Warp Distruption Field, or “bubble”, as it is affectionately known thanks to its spherical shape and bright blue colour, pops into space, surrounding the gate and players. Like a snare trap, this bubble prevents our prey from warping out of the area, while other players lock on and begin firing.
But he’s good. Almost instantly, he activates his cloak and attempts to activate his afterburners to move out of our range. But it’s too late – an enterprising member of our gang has already drained his ship’s available energy reserves, and he pops back into existence.
Just in time for a plethora of rockets, railguns and pulse lasers to not only take apart his ship, but his pilot’s pod as well.
Teamspeak erupts in screams of laughter and excitement, the whole fleet celebrating the kill as one. To an outsider, this may look like an unfair fight, and to an extent, it is. But what’s special about these engagements is that they are wholly unpredictable. Single players are more than equipped to escape situations such as these, and in many cases, such lonely prey have been able to escape the multitudes of webs and expensive tools that are deployed by enemy ships. Everyone has a specific role that is largely unique and, unlike PVP in other MMOs, requires extraordinary speed, micro and intricate knowledge of elements such as range, accuracy and timing to do a single point of damage or restrict a ship’s movements.
Players spend hours, days, weeks and months customising their ships, which can be built from scratch using pre-bought blueprints and put together via a mind blowing number of various weapons, ammunition and tech. Few ships, even if they share the same model, are rarely alike without conscious effort to build duplicates.
I think back to how different the previous night’s battle was, in contrast to the slow roam we just completed. EVE‘s permadeath system creates two different types of in-game personalities; the renegade and the realist. Taking on ten enemy ships is not as simple as it sounds – dropping into the middle of an ambush is frighteningly intense, as you have literally no time to think before you react. A good comparison would be with Battlestar Galactica, when fleets warp directly on top of one another without any warning. EVE‘s combat system relies on RTS style controls, where locating and locking targets is done via an onscreen interface, with attacks and techniques actioned in “cycles” (say, every 5 seconds or 30 seconds). You can choose to manually fly your ship in and out of range, or simple chose an orbit or restriction on distance based on your style of weapon (missiles, for example, can be fired from tens of kilometres away).
So unlike arcade-style space sims, taking on enemies of varying strength, skill, courage and experience is a harrowing affair. Everyone has a lot to lose — especially those sitting in capital or “Titan” ships worth billions of ISK. But it’s that element of fear, and how simple it is to lose such a strong investment, that makes engagements so bloody exciting. We were lucky the previous night, as we had the drop on our enemy. We were prepared to both prevent them from running, and had a complement of ships to simultaneously pummel with them with everything from heavy pulse cannons to a plethora of uranium tipped rockets. Leaders bark orders so everyone fights as one force, the screen lighting up with intense firepower as ships pop one by one. The renegades squawk across chat and Teamspeak of their damage on kill mails, while the realists sit back to survey the damage and how much ammunition they used up.
But back to the present. After a few more minutes of celebration, we ceased the virtual high fives and remember that we’re still deep in space, 30-40 mins of travel away from our home system. It’s getting quite late, so we decide to call it a night. To save time, we utilize the alliance’s pre-dropped jump bridges, which allow us to bypass the “public” warpgates and carve out a more direct route back to “safe” space. The conversation on the flight home turns quickly from our last minute kill, to the overarching goal for the week. A friendly alliance had graciously offered our ships safe passage through their space so that we could capture a neighbouring system held by a particularly notorious Russian coalition. It wasn’t going to go down easy.
While the mechanics of conquering and “owning” space in EVE Online would take easily more than a paragraph to explain, the crux was that we needed to take over their station (a public hub for trade, repairs and such) and destroy their military infrastructure.
It’s worth noting that in NullSpace every single element, from stations to defenses, trading and logistics, is run entirely by players. There is zero influence from NPCs or the developers, meaning that everything has to be trucked through very dangerous space, from ships to equipment, to establish or take over areas. As a result, these events are planned to a tee — from designating rules of engagement to fleet ship fittings, on top of plotting the logistics of moving immense amounts of weapons, minerals and equipment across massive expanses of space. Leaders of corporations require so much time and dedication to the game, that is not unheard of for them to give their mobile numbers to officers in case of surprise attacks or other emergencies. Enormous in-game emails are sent with specific instructions for sub-alliances and sub-corporations in regards to movements, payments, refueling and rearming of military infrastructure. It’s intense.
Our first major engagement is still a week away, so the leader of my corp wants to have a chat with me. Apparently, I’ve been doing well. Helping the newbies, contributing to alliance operations, and offering advice. Do I want to help recruit new members? Sure. He upgrades my permissions within the corporation, and I embark on the horribly detailed, political minefield that is the EVE meta-game. What have I gotten myself into? All I know is that the deeper things get, the harder it will be to go back to reality.
*My alliance has requested, for security, that I do not disclose the region they are based in.
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