Header art by Empanada
This is the fifth and final chapter of the diplomacy series I started over a year ago. Part five was intended to examine how diplomacy develops in a vacuum, and what occurs when one party moves out and makes room for independent states to fill the seats of a larger entity who has lost interest or viable traction in a region. To some degree, it does still address these things, but in writing this article I have realized that there was a fundamental flaw in my original premise. So I’m going to run with it.
The Shape of New Eden
EVE Online is in a good place. The game has seen more new development and the removal of old code in the past 18 months than I have seen in the previous six years combined. Change and growth – in terms of in-game offerings – is coming more quickly and with greater ease than I would previously have thought possible of CCP. With the recent sale of CCP Games to Korean developer Pearl Abyss, CEO Hilmar Petursson was asked about the status of the player base in an interview by VentureBeat.
“The (monthly active users) fluctuates a bit, but it’s 200,000 to 300,000 people.”
Players who’ve been in the game pre-2015 will remember times when the subscribership, or at least the activity of the subscribed players, appeared to be much higher with daily concurrent logins sitting at a floating point of about 50,000 to 60,000 players at peak times. While the active logged-in numbers haven’t yet returned to that level, I think it’s just a matter of time.
CCP has been focusing heavily on new development and polishing the environment, with greater investment on infrastructure and removing old code. The promise of a 64-bit client and the recent release of transportation structures, to provide parity with player starbases, is promising. The Triglavians bring an exciting edge to the game which is extremely marketable.
If Hilmar is to be believed about the MAU, and we assume most of those active are multi-boxing, then we can deduce the active number of characters sits somewhere in the region of 550-600 thousand. This is allowing for skew from whale accounts, and putting those who only have one or two accounts, and those who have 12+ at either end of the bell curve.
If, like Hilmar, the numbers posted on coalitionsin.space are to be believed, then null security space coalitions account for roughly 182,500 of those characters – about one third of all characters.
People are also more likely to have a high number of alternate characters (alts) if they belong to a null sec coalition; dreadnought alts, force auxiliary alts, ratting carrier pilots, subcap and utility alts in interdiction boats and command destroyers. This isn’t even counting dedicated mining alts. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t belt-mining hyper krabs in high security space, just that it’s less likely on a whole. It’s plausible that the number of people in the game follows an even narrower split than one-third. Perhaps only a quarter of players live in null.
Now, there’s been a lot of assumptions stated here – and I stand by them – but if we follow this out it means that as much as 65 to 75 percent of the game’s players aren’t represented in most of the news about EVE. While the numbers of players living in EVE has been steadily climbing for years, even a very conservative number would be half; the rest live in high sec, predominantly.
Diplomacy in the Vacuum
Speaking of null, EVE Online has seen some big recent activity in the null blocs. First and foremost among them are the battles in UALX-3 and X47L-Q, and the cease-fire brokered between Imperium and Guardians of the Galaxy.
We have also seen in the last year the durable and obdurate Drone Lands begin to fragment and shift, a Russian Winter thawing to the change and consolidation that seems to be happening throughout null. We’ve seen GotG fragment and withdraw from whole regions, with Chaos Theory being unraveled from within. The North has been losing some very big fights, and shrinking their footprint, even going as far as to reset Dead Coalition. Even the Imperium has not been unfazed, with Snuffed Out departing the coalition. Pandemic Horde has begun moving out of Geminate and Perimeter, focusing instead on Branch, all the while poking at Sort Dragon and his followers.
Diplomacy takes a second seat to survival in the aftermath of wars. Not-insignificant areas of null space are now empty or only passively defended, the previous threats of supercapital response fleets just steamrolling through have fallen off as an immediate threat in a lot of space. Many people are independently very conscious of their expensive assets and less eager to use them indiscriminately. They’re used frequently in response to threats, but not as a heavy hammer except in home space – see: Delve.
There are power vacuums, and a small number of mid-tier entities are stepping in to fill the gaps, but not enough of them to completely fill the void. Whole regions have more or less emptied out, left fallow for ratting and passive income. Null has always been a place where you can often traverse between eight to 12 star gates without seeing someone; in many places it’s now more like 20.
Some groups are returning, though, and still others are growing as discontent with the larger alliances promulgates. Somehow Circle of Two are back in the game, a mix of returning players and recruitment. Albeit nowhere what they once were, they are building momentum and attempting to find alliances on which they can rely. More still are growing in or straddling the line of NPC null.
As wallets and memberships rebuild, and alliances join forces or begin new offensives we can expect to see more warfare and more great battles to come, but in the meantime there has never been a better time to carve out some sovereign territory for your group. Diplomacy is really only important if you’re interested in talking to your neighbours, or to stave off being trampled by a larger group. But in the areas where both of these things aren’t imminent threats, we should be seeing a flood of new opportunists taking advantage.
So why aren’t we? Specifically, why aren’t we seeing more low sec and high sec groups entering null?
The Invisible Wall
I have, over the course of the last six months approached over fifty high sec corporations and alliances, whether through their appointed contacts or leadership, and in that time I’ve received precisely three responses. One was a polite ‘not interested’, one was a flat-out ‘don’t talk to me’, and the third was a curious counter-inquiry that sprawled way off-topic.
I wanted to know what diplomacy looked like for smaller or mid-tier high sec corporations, but as it turns out, it really doesn’t exist. With the exception of groups like EVE University and Red vs Blue, there really is no point.
I approached a knowledgeable group via Slack about the lack of traction I was finding, curious about the invisible wall that I was hitting. One respondent said:
“High sec corps do not really engage in diplo, no, except in rather rare cases. And the ‘invisible wall’ is ‘fear of effort’. [Sov] might be open and easy to claim now, but you still have to be able to defend it from other people trying to take it, or the eventual days when a big bloc comes knocking. A lot of high seccers don’t want to have to deal with that kind of stress.”
When I inquired why groups like roleplay-focused corporations don’t claim an area of Sov to put their stamp on the game, the same respondent pointed to Curatores Veritatis Alliance (CVA) losing Praetoria Imperialis Excubitoris (PIE), a hard-RP focused alliance, after moving to null.
Aldrith Shutaq added, “Yes, the necessities of null and straight power games utterly kills RP identity. If someone else does not play by the same rules, they have an advantage.”
Makoto Priano of the Arataka Research Consortium (ARC) chipped in, “Interestingly, in the old days, even the ‘non-RPers’ had an RP angle, often. SirMolle/Shrike really played up the Sarumite reclaiming-by-the-sword element.”
Roleplay is something we see reflected in Andrew Groen’s seminal Empires of EVE, in the use of in-character propaganda in the old forums by coalition leaders. Long, boastful or self-effacing soliloquy used to be the order of the day. I asked what changed.
The consensus was that “Goons came along being strictly ‘lol RP’… and it’s just expanded from there.”
A lot of things have contributed to the “invisible wall”: CCP no longer reports on the goings in null like they used to, large coalitions make it hard for the smaller groups to grow and claim things for their own without being swallowed up, and areas which were meant to help foster engagement such as Faction Warfare didn’t work out the way they were meant to.
“No one captures (FW) systems for what you can do in the system; no one cares about owning the systems for themselves, or holding something for their own group of friends.”
That same attitude carries out into null security space. High security corporations just aren’t interested in owning the Sov; it’s not a significant part of the narrative of those organizations, nor is it something their membership is willing to lose ships over. Not when making an income, trading and running anomalies, and engaging in fun gameplay is what drives them.
“And from my experience null play is anything but fun. Lucrative? Yes. Make a name for yourself? Sure. Fun? Not really.”
I wanted to see if the consensus was shared, so I went to Jin’taan to ask his opinion as a member of the Council of Stellar Management and someone who spends a lot of time reporting on the movements in null.
What follows is a digest of his response:
“The lack of movement from HS to NS is something I’ve been poking around at, and honestly it’s just because for the majority of corporations, they simply don’t see the benefit in fighting. I don’t really know what causes it, but honestly I’d make the guess that the large NS ‘newbie’ groups have an awful lot to do with it. Why would you set up your own corp when you could join one that’s more well funded than you could reasonably hope to make your own, at zero cost to yourself? The only reason is because you want to stay in High Sec.
“And about every 2-3 weeks someone will tell me they’re starting EVE, and I normally don’t do much in the way of guiding them (though I do always give them small skill injectors if they keep playing). Almost every single one joined Brave Newbies or Horde, the others joined Karmafleet. Most of them aren’t what I’d call traditional EVE players, sure, and they don’t stick around for long. But it’s insane how pervasive and effective they are at soaking up any and every pilot who wants to be part of a ‘big story’. Why make your own when you can be lead along to one?
“Even people who end up in non-aggregated corporations now typically spend 1-2 years ‘training’ in these newbro alliances. Before finding their true communities. I don’t really think there’s a way to go back to it either – no alliance is going to give up the insane amount of power these organisations provide militarily and financially. And I’d be very against CCP intervening.
“The lack of a pipeline has less to do with game mechanics and far more to do with social mechanics. The time has never been better for people to launch attacks from HS and carve out a chunk. Most coalitions are happy to have the content nearby at this point, but there’s simply no-one to lead, or be led in something like that. How are you going to out-recruit the 3 major powerblocs in the game, who spam mails, cans and any form of advertising they can out to people? It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. And people tend not to do hard things in EVE, unless they have to.”
Diplomacy as Barrier
This is where the flaw in my original premise revealed itself: I had started with a false assumption – I had assumed that people in high security space with ambitions of starting an alliance wanted to own sovereign space in null, for the financial benefit and the recognition. These are, after all, the things which draw so many people to the game; the news stories in PC Gamer and IGN, the cinematic trailers extolling our history, and the gargantuan fights.
However, the reality which has revealed itself is that the diplomacy and power of null sec blocs is itself the first barrier to the spread of small entities in sov null. Groups which want to bridge the relative safety and freedom of high sec and enter null either have to sacrifice some (or all) of their culture to join a larger group capable of providing that security or capitulate to neighbouring alliances demands and extortion, or face being repeatedly farmed.
While diplomats may soften the blow by attempting to prevent proverbially “overfishing the pond”, diplomacy is a little bit the lipstick on the pig. The farming will happen and efforts will be made to recruit or overwhelm smaller entities to keep them from becoming future threats.
I can hear the collective sigh of resignation and muttered ‘Duh’s even as I write this – the attitude in null is almost unanimously one of fierce Nietzschean individualism and will to power. In sum, if you’re not strong enough to defend your space you don’t deserve it. This is, ultimately, what I believe has created the hard division between high sec and null sec. The problem is cultural, not a lack of opportunity, so to some degree the tiered benefits conferred on low and null sec – in terms of refining rates, bounties, rarer ores, etc – are wasted as a game design lure for players in high sec.
It’s simply not a problem diplomacy can solve for, unless everyone agrees to change how small alliances enter null. This was part of the dream for Fidelas Constans and the Phoenix Federation, but we all know how that went. The will-to-power and the natural tendencies of null blocs and their politics, and some very bad decisions, eroded the foundation they sought to build for new entities and it all collapsed.
The New Normal
While there is an apparent vacuum in sov null, or several vacuums, it appears more and more like the landscape of the blocs is moving away from being a fractured continent towards a disparate, concentrated series of archipelagos.
Alliances are starting to learn from the Delve example, of concentrating your people and your power in a single region so that people can maximize their time and effort doing the things they enjoy while making a virtual living doing it. The October Monthly Economic Report (MER) also reflects the value in endorsing this behavior, which is to say Imperium accounts for a sizable majority of the game’s production value.
As blocs and mid-tier alliances consolidate more of their power and withdraw from the old model of sprawling rental empires and weakly defended expanses, we will begin to see greater gaps between the powers. Spaces where small entities can make their homes, but likely won’t.
Because there are two EVEs.