Drifter Onslaught—What We Know, What We Think, What We’ve Heard

Bill McDonough 2019-07-01

Header art by Major Sniper.

On Wednesday, June 26, Drifter forces began attacking capsuleer structures all over New Eden’s null-sec regions. The sudden assault came as a surprise (though some have claimed ‘I totally knew it was coming’), and reinforced or destroyed structures from Esoteria to Geminate. Fleets of ships have been thrown at the problem. An entire bloc-level war was for all intents and purposes called off as a result. At the time of this writing, the Vigilant Tyrannos Killboard extends for seventeen pages before even reaching yesterday.

So what the hell is going on? Dran Arcana, of TEST, took a swing at this one on reddit, but there a few things he got at least partly wrong, or which may have changed since then. So, let’s take a look at how things actually break down.

Three States of Knowledge

What can we say with certainty, what do we suspect, and what sorts of things are being shrieked about in wild-eyed speculation by shadowy figures in smoke-filled back rooms? What more is out there that we don’t even know we should be wary of? This conundrum of imperfect intelligence and the fog of war is, of course, best summed up by an American poet of the early 21st Century, D.H. Rumsfeld in his work, The Unknown:

As we know, 
There are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know 
There are known unknowns. 
That is to say 
We know there are some things 
We do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, 
The ones we don’t know 
We don’t know.

So what information do we actually have in this situation, and what does it mean?

What We Know

  1. Drifter forces are attacking nullsec.
  2. They are consistently hitting the same systems across multiple days.
  3. Drifter fleets consist primarily of three types of ship: Apollo Tyrannos, Artemis Tyrannos, and Orion Tyrannos.
  4. There has consistently existed a window of time after DT when Drifter attacks pause.
  5. Once spawned, Drifters will attack anywhere in the system: They have hit people on gates, structures, planets, an in anomalies.
  6. They’re hard to see coming.

1. Drifter Forces Are Attacking Nullsec

Ok, so lets look at this. First, obviously, they’re hitting nullsec. No Drifter attacks have been reported in low- or high-sec, and this is clearly a part of, or counterpoint to, the Triglavian Invasion event. This is not, as was suspected and loudly declared by many on the first day, some kind of bug or error in the code due to the patch that went live on Tuesday, June 25. This is intended behavior, and it was released when it was released because that’s when CCP wanted it released. That’s the mind-bendingly obvious stuff.

2. Drifters Consistently Hit The Same Systems Across Multiple Days

Drifters hit specific systems on the first day. They hit those same systems each day after, and continue to focus on those systems. In his post, Dran says, “They don’t target low power cit spam, they don’t show up to timers on purpose, the only things they will realistically kill will be jump gates that they can pop before anyone with structure manager logs in and re-onlines them. (Hey CCP how about a revamp on that one yeah?) The chances that they respawn in the correct system at the correct time for a structure’s fifteen minute vulnerability, and select the correct warp point, is unbelievably low”.

And he’s right, they’re not showing up to timers on purpose. They don’t have anything in the code that says ‘we RF’d X, it comes out at [time], we need to shoot X at [time]’. And while it’s perfectly understandable that CCP doesn’t want to have to maintain a timerboard, it’s a little disappointing. The lack of follow-through means even though these attacks are fairly relentless, they’re not relentless in a useful way.

If they followed-up on armor timers, it would be a useful exercise for newer FCs: ‘you need to be able to get to X system at Y time, with a fleet, and be ready for the enemy’. In an age of titan bridges and capital proliferation, how long it takes to move a subcapital fleet from point A to point B gets lost in the shuffle. One of the longest-standing tropes in the Imperium is being late to get places. Once you get formed up, you often hit Time Dilation (TiDi) just traveling to the target. If the Drifters showed the behavior of an actual opponent, they could be used to train appropriate responses. It’s just a shame they don’t.

3. Drifter Fleets Consist of Apollo, Artemis, and Orion

There’s an element of ‘so what?’ to this. Do we really care what the rats are called? Well, when trying to understand what they can do… yes. We’re seeing Apollo and Artemis, the ‘standard’ Drifter battleships, as opposed to (for example), Hikanta Tyrannos, which hits harder. We’re seeing Orion, not Cassandra, and not Scylla or Charybdis, the EWAR-wielding cruisers in Abyssal Deadspace. That means that the Drifters are relying on pure dps. They’re not using the more EWAR-heavy platforms that would let them completely immobilize a hostile fleet. At the same time, though, they’re not using the most powerful dps ships in their arsenal. But more on that in the ‘what we think’ bits..

4. Drifter Attacks Stop After DT

Right after DT, the attacks stop. They stay stopped until a relatively random point in the day. This came later on Thursday, and earlier on Friday, then earlier still on Saturday. We can’t say anything for certain about this, of course, except that it happened.

5. Drifters Hit Everything In Sight

Ok, we don’t actually have solid evidence of attacks on POCOs. So maybe not everything. But they’ll warp to celestials, including gates, asteroid belts, etc, and anomalies. And, of course, structures. If there’s something they can shoot once they get there, they’ll shoot at it. They’ll even bounce between multiple structures on the same grid, shooting each of them (or defending fleets) as they bounce.

6. Hard to Find

Drifters can’t be probed down. They don’t show up on the Directional Scanner. So once they bounce off someplace, you need to shotgun the system to get eyes on them again. In order words, a bunch of busy-work just to be able to figure out where you need to be defending. And it’s the kind of work you don’t need to do against real enemies: they can be probed. You can warp in on them. You can’t even warp in on the Drifters when you’re already on-grid, because combat probes don’t show them. That distinction is important, because it means that response forces have to change the toolsets they use, and sacrifice manpower to just finding the target.

Beyond Certainty

Moving beyond the things we definitely know, there are things we think we know (but can’t be 100% sure of). This is mostly where things are anecdotal, usually in the vein of ‘there’s totally logs, I just don’t have them myself’. Without being able to produce the exact data, we can’t say these are conclusively ‘known’. Just that we’re pretty sure that we’re pretty sure.

  1. We don’t think they’re DDing ships.
  2. They seem to be breaking damage caps.
  3. They only show up within 4 jumps of a Drifter Wormhole
  4. CCP is manually starting this up every day.

1. Doom

The biggest of these is the Drifter Doomsday behavior. Apollo and Artemis both have DDs that normally hit for 750,000 damage across the resist spectrum. Orion’s DD hits for 72k. In the past, these DDs fired off in 2 situations: When the Drifters’ extra layer of shielding, or ‘Overshield’ is exhausted, or when there’s a sufficiently large and potent target to shoot. Normally, a titan would always qualify as ‘sufficiently large and potent’. But we’ve seen, in both KQK1-2, and in Delve, titans engage these Drifter fleets without getting DD’d. We’ve seen Feroxes and Cormorants tear down the overshields without triggering the DD.

It would be nice to say ‘ok, so we know they don’t Doomsday’. But we don’t know that. What we know is that they haven’t seemed to be DDing ships. So where’s the DD? That ties into the next ‘we think we know, but maybe not’:

2. Cap This…

Right away, on the very first day of all this, we heard that the Drifters were ignoring the damage cap on structures. Multiple sources from all over nullsec have logs of Drifter fleets RFing structures from FLEX navigation structures, to Raitaru and Astrahus (really, what’s the bloody plural of ‘Astrahus’? Astrahusen? Astrahouses? Astrahii?), in 5 minutes or less. CCP Lebowski quickly assured people that no, of course the Drifters weren’t ignoring the damage cap… but those logs continue to exist, and that timeline continues to present itself. So what’s going on?

According to logs from one Imperium cit gunner, the Drifters showed up, applied DPS to an Astra, and Lo! There were deflections! Great, right? Awesome, they’re hitting the cap! Thanks for calming things down, Lebowski!

And then the DDs fired. There’s no weapon listing in the logs, but the numbers look right for the Orion’s 72k DD. And those shots weren’t deflected. At all. A number of ideas for why this happened exist. The simplest is ‘DDs are broke and OP, and that’s why players can’t use targeted DDs on structures’. My own line of thinking is that the DDs aren’t hitting the cap—and aren’t showing a weapon listing in the combat logs—because it’s not a ‘weapon’. It’s an ‘effect’. And there’s just something quirky in the code that doesn’t check ‘effects’ against the dps totals for damage caps.

So do we know that’s what’s happening? Do we know ‘Drifter Doomsdays aren’t registering as weapons, and are ignoring damage caps, skewing how fast these structures die’? No. We don’t. But we do strongly suspect it. Those suspicions are based on observation of RF speed, and combat logs, but we can’t conclusively prove our suspicions.

3. Hole Control

One popular theory for ‘where will they attack?’ is that ‘it has to be within 4 gates of a Jove Observatory’. There’s only one problem with that. This is the map of Delve, with the systems the Drifters have been hitting outlined in black, Jove Observatories in green, and the systems not within 4 jumps of an Observatory (and thus, a Drifter wormhole location) in red:

Four systems in Delve don’t fit the ‘4 jumps’ criteria. Just four. When your filter is ‘everything but that one’… it’s not much of a filter. So while we can say that we suspect that might be the case, that’s about as effective as saying ‘it’s only happening in systems with stars’. We can’t really claim that’s definitely a criterion, so… not a hard fact.

4. Push Butan, Get… Drifters?

This doesn’t look like it’s an automatic thing. If it was, there wouldn’t be a big window after DT where no attacks happen. The timing wouldn’t vary by as much as 3 hours during the week, and then actually finally show up not that long after DT on the weekends. So it looks like something a dev or a GM has to actually initiate every day. That fits in with the behavior patterns we’re seeing from the fleets themselves: they have an anchor ship, which seems to be the one the AI is focusing on. Everything else just follows that ship’s lead. Blow up that ship, everything else goes a bit buggy and unfocused.

We saw this basic sort of behavior months ago in Semiki, when CCP devs used a possibly-unrelated event to test Drifter fleet AIs. Then, when the ‘focus’ ship died, a new one could be designated, and it would take over. The behavior all seems more or less the same, including attacking player citadels, except now, they just stay ‘bugged’. In Semiki, once the devs were out for the night, the fleets just stayed around and aimless, and were destroyed. If the current fleets are being set in motion by a similar manual execution, that would explain why they ‘break’: there’s nobody watching to see if a new ‘anchor’ needs to be designated. That would also explain why we definitely appear to be seeing them in waves—one in EUTZ, then another distinct set of spawns in USTZ.

Wild-Eyed Speculation

At this point, a lot of the rampant speculation’s started to get tamped down, at least in null. That hasn’t stopped high-sec players from continuing to confidently state how happy they are that ‘all of null will burn down’ or how this will hurt the big blocs and be great for the little guys, and similar things. So, let’s start putting things to bed:

Null is Burning

It’s really more accurate to say null is pissing on sparks. The Drifter attacks aren’t an existential threat to groups of any size. Groups with a lot of people have had to protect their citadels from other groups with a lot of people. In most cases, from groups with more people. So they have players who can gun their citadels. Most of them enjoy it.

Gunning a citadel is pretty fun. You know you’re not going to blow up (unless it’s the hull timer), and you don’t have to give a crap about positioning. Your weapons reach out to God’s own range limit, and your bombs actually chase their targets. So while the structure of this may mean that those gunner cadres will expand some, and need to be ready to bounce over to a specific system at a moment’s notice… the big groups can do that, pretty comfortably, and have been dispatching Drifter fleets pretty handily. Those seventeen pages of Vigilant Tyrannos kills I mentioned above, after all, didn’t show a single structure kill bigger than a navigation structure.

They’re Attacking The Busy Spots

As Dran points out, they’re not. There’s no correlation at all between how active a system is, and how likely the Drifters are to hit it. There’s no correlation between how many structures, or even what kind of structures a system has, and how likely the Drifters are to hit it. 1DQ1-H, the Imperium’s central market hub and home stager, has had 200 people in it pretty much the whole time we were all deployed somewhere else. There are three Keepstars, two on the same grid, where they’re surrounded by dozens of faction fortizars and other structures. There’s a Jove Observatory two gates away. D-W and 5BTK, two jumps on either side, have been hit. But it hasn’t been touched.  So no, that’s not what’s going on.

They’re Clearing Structure Spam / They’re Hunting Bots

Yes. They are certainly doing both of those things, to the same degree that RAID drive errors and heart disease are doing both. Which is to say: they’re not. If the Drifters hit a low-power/abandoned structure, it’s by accident. If they kill a botter in the course of their normal bouncing around a system, it’s by chance. It would be wonderful and amazing if they were. Holy crap, if that’s what these things were doing, we would be so behind that that it’s just not even funny.

But it’s not. They don’t prioritize low power structures any more than they actively try to get back for an armor timer. They don’t hunt botters, unless you consider ‘shoot everything that moves and anything that doesn’t that we can target’ to be ‘hunting botters’.  Yes, the Drifters have killed botters in anomalies. It happened by pure chance.

Great For the Little Guys

This is one of the most perverse, deluded, and frankly callous of all the zombie ideas people keep re-animating and setting loose to eat other players’ brains. Whenever something happens in null, a wave of ‘hah, look at how this is going to break up the blocs’ goes up. And a week later, those same people are raging because how dare CCP do [whatever], since it’s clearly intended to benefit the big blocs.

The sad truth is that the big blocs, by virtue of having more manpower and better organization, will always be able to better adapt to changes. It doesn’t matter if that’s ‘taking advantage of opportunity’ or ‘weathering hardship’. If you’re better-organized, and you’ve got more people to pitch in, you’ll do better. In-game, out-of-game, doesn’t matter. If players think CCP will somehow come up with a brilliant solution that defies literally the entire span of human history, well, it’s not going to happen.

Does that mean the little guys should just shut up and die? Of course not! We need small groups in null. Small groups grow. They get together with other small groups. Small groups also provide incredibly important viewpoints and willingness to forge their own paths. We need that. The game needs it. But you’re not going to get it by CCP trying to make living in nullsec a monotonous tedium—most of us already have jobs, and 1-2 (or more) space-jobs. Putting small groups in the path of a freight train calibrated to give Legacy, or Horde, or the Imperium a hard time is just fucking mean.

So Now What?

As things are, the Drifter side of the Invasion expansion is ‘meh’. If I’m being extremely generous. It’s a tedious grind with crap salvage, unimpressive drops, and an optempo which alternates between insane and inactive. CCP released it with the Drifter fleets still prone to bugging out. They provided little to no incentive for most of the targeted players to really want to engage with this gameplay. In the process, they took a crap all over the player-generated content they’ve relied on for over a decade of marketing and news coverage. So where does this go?


The biggest impact from all of this may not be felt in null at all. Highsec players, many of whom are currently celebrating this attack on null, may bear the real burden. By forcing the nullsec empires to hunker down and defend, CCP has given all of nullsec the one thing they have never had before: a common enemy. As a result, we are already seeing the formation of something that has never happened before: a true ‘blue donut’. The 2013-2015 version, where stagnation in the game reached its apex, still consisted of two major blocs warring with one another.

Now, every major nullsec organization in the game appears poised to focus their military on defense, and their economy on offense. If this strategy holds, all T2 production in highsec—modules, hulls, ammunition, all of it—will grind to a halt as moon goo supplies dwindle. Market manipulators—including those in EVE Mogul and TEST, which currently hold the majority of the non-Jita-4-4 trading volume in highsec—will be able to crash or spike prices with relative impunity. And it may get worse from there.

Trade Wars as Protest

In many ways, this response is a reaction to years of CCP progressively making nullsec gameplay worse. Aegis sov has made sov warfare—both offense and defense—downright burdensome and not-fun. Most nullsec players absolutely hate it. Citadels are widely considered to be too powerful in defense. Supercapital fleets, especially titans, can only really be countered by other supercapital fleets. And small groups don’t dare even try to have supers, because without a keepstar, the big ship becomes an immediate disadvantage: it locks a character away, where the larger groups, who can defend a keepstar, can use those same characters in regular caps or even subcaps, whenever they like.

This has created a situation where many null players feel CCP’s actions only make the game we play worse. This latest bit of additional tedium, and gameplay nearly as engaging as repeatedly walking headfirst into a door frame, only makes things worse. The economic warfare is aimed as much, or more, at CCP as it is at highsec players. But there’s another group with a similar laundry list of grievances and years spent waiting for things to get better: Faction Warfare.

If the embargo hurts people trying to build or obtain T2 modules, ammo, and ships, might the FW groups join in? Faction modules, ammunition, and Navy hulls, would become more valuable in a T2 shortage. Joining in with the embargo could make many of those groups vastly richer than they already are. In addition, more and more players joining in the clamor and outcry makes it more likely CCP’s new owners in Korea ask ‘what the hell are you doing?’

However this plays out, for now, nullsec is manning the ramparts and loading the citadel guns. Just what changes actually come—and whether CCP reverses course, or escalates—only time will tell.

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  • Garreth Vlox

    Yes. They are certainly doing both of those things, to the same degree that RAID drive errors and heart disease are doing both. ” This is beautiful.

    July 1, 2019 at 8:35 am
  • Rammel Kas

    Question: do we know what the fleet comp does bring exactly… like in points/webs etc?

    July 1, 2019 at 12:17 pm
    • Arrendis Rammel Kas

      Standard drifter webs – which are very weak – and scrams. They’re fast enough to kite ab cormorants, have frigate tracking on battleship guns, and take less than one server tick to align… even if the prior tick was landing from warp going the opposite direction.

      July 1, 2019 at 8:51 pm
      • Rammel Kas Arrendis

        I’ve heard elsewhere the unit size starts at 6-8 then climbs to wholesale fleets of these things. So you probably want to not gate past systems with them.

        Puts it in the same level as the Africanized rats you get in incursion system gate camps.

        I actually hope for a day soon when the slower-on-the-uptake “elite pee vee pee” crowd realize what they are. We should probably be able to hear their reddit howls near the moon if that pans out like I think it might.

        July 1, 2019 at 9:50 pm
        • Arrendis Rammel Kas

          First day, we had 200+ in one system

          July 1, 2019 at 9:53 pm
      • Sounds like CCP finally designed a ship that can efficiently cope with the cancerous player-ship meta they’ve forced on us over the last few years lolololol

        Shame we’re not allowed to fly them

        July 2, 2019 at 4:12 am
  • Guilford Australis

    Excellent summary. This content is all tedium with no payoff and seemingly no purpose.
    So the Drifters show up periodically, bounce around systems, and shoot structures randomly yet without any apparent mechanism in place to actually destroy those structures. And if you’re out ratting or mining – or simply passing through stargates or jump gates – they’ll warp onto you without warning and kill you very dead. Hard pass. I refuse to engage with this content in any way.

    I’m not sure what CCP’s goal was for this event, but if it was to frustrate nullsec players pointlessly so they are less inclined to log in, then they’ve done a good job. The only acceptable outcome for the ‘Invasion’ storyline is for CCP to pull the plug and all of us to agree never to speak of it again.

    July 1, 2019 at 12:57 pm
    • Rammel Kas Guilford Australis

      Oh it’s even better than that. They have aligns within a tick, bounce to where you are, lock you down then blap you at a perch. They also can’t be seen on probe or d-scan. And randomly just spawn in without any visible UI indications when they are about to arrive. There is no apparent counter for skilled players to avoid the “content” once a CCP dev decided it’s your time. Your only option alluded to above is to be gunning a citadel and delete the NPC fleet as best you can then hope the CCP dev didn’t want to troll you further.

      I’m kinda looking out for the first hot dropper or roamer to start voicing their concern at the balance of this once it becomes apparent how broken frigate tracking is at 500km.

      July 1, 2019 at 3:51 pm
      • Guilford Australis Rammel Kas

        Maybe MiniLuv is right, and highsec is the endgame after all. We’ll all end up there after a few months of CCP going full YOLO on nullsec.

        If it’s true that devs are controlling these appearances directly, doesn’t that fundamentally change CCP’s relationship to the game? They’ve always claimed EVE is a sandbox and that they don’t interfere with players and player-driven content. Wouldn’t it be a significant and terrible precedent if it turned out the devs are persecuting their own players?

        July 1, 2019 at 4:18 pm
        • Rammel Kas Guilford Australis

          That is the suspect part of this and the way it rolled out.

          July 1, 2019 at 4:45 pm
        • Erick Asmock Guilford Australis

          Forced PVE in Null Sec is the definition of CCP interfering in the sandbox

          July 3, 2019 at 12:28 am
  • Menaiya

    It would be more fun if the drifters did actual roams from system to system. But to be honest. Without the ability to dscan them….

    July 1, 2019 at 2:46 pm
    • Alaric Faelen Menaiya

      Agreed. If CCP wants players to get behind content like this, simply make it more like fighting other players, not less.

      Owning a lot of space often means spending more time traveling to content than engaging in it. Having a ‘gud fite’ near home is invaluable both for quick, fun content for the masses, but also excellent training for FC’s.

      July 1, 2019 at 7:31 pm
  • Alaric Faelen

    Relying on bad game design and player – led embargoes is a crappy way to make FW relevant content. I’m all for CCP iterating on something other than sov after years of letting the rest of the game stagnate. But I think many people are frankly afraid that CCP’s attention means their content will only get worse.

    It’s great to eliminate AFK content and botting, but tedium is not the answer.

    July 1, 2019 at 7:21 pm
  • Dirk MacGirk

    Great article. We needed a summary like this rather than all the wide-open spec. Obviously there are still a lot of unknowns, one of the biggest being “how long will this last,” but thanks for the summary.

    July 1, 2019 at 7:49 pm
  • Dunk Dinkle

    “an American poet of the early 21st Century, D.H. Rumsfeld” – Bravo, good stuff.

    July 1, 2019 at 8:01 pm
  • Excellent write-up. Which do you think will be better-received in retrospect: the Drifter invasion or GoT season 8? 😛

    July 2, 2019 at 4:08 am
    • Xandryll Ganthrithor

      This is a tough question to answer but an excellent question to ask lol

      July 3, 2019 at 4:32 am
  • Erick Asmock

    CCP, our game mechanics generate the exact opposite of their stated intent.

    July 3, 2019 at 12:26 am
  • concerned whiteman

    CCp appear to be about to remove local. That going to be interesting. Debating whether i will resub in January now

    July 5, 2019 at 3:37 pm