Phoenix Down: Inside the FCON Failure Cascade

JuriusDoctor 2017-11-13

‘Failure Cascade.’ These might be the two most socially and psychologically frightening words in New Eden; they are either spoken as a whisper of despair or a roar of triumph.

Almost a decade ago the Mittani wrote an article describing the nature and identifying characteristics of a failure cascade, and how coalitions and alliances might go about staving off such a catastrophic chain of events. Failure cascades are not a single event—though hindsight rationalization might cause participants to focus on their memories of one or two milestones—they are the result of many small defeats or frustrations mounting over time into a suffocating morass.

It is indeed very late in the process that it is even publicly evident one is underway, the signs foreshadowing the inevitable dismissed as the stresses, grievances, and complaints of members and member corporations who are singled out as squeaky wheels. This, of course, only serves to distance those who realize what is going on and marginalize their feedback, exacerbating the problem and accelerating the collapse.

From the outside, by the time the cheers and jeers go loud it’s already too late. The death knell rung out weeks or months before in the internal politics, economics, and identity shifts of the participants but went unheeded or unnoticed. Failure cascades happen very much in the same way as a massive myocardial infarction in an unrepentant glutton: on realizing they’ve suffered a heart attack, they plead and swear they’ll change for the better while rationalizing the litany of small choices and failures of judgment that led to the break, if they’re lucky enough to survive.

What struck me – and so many others – as odd about the imminent collapse of the member coalition that Phoenix Federation and Fidelas Constans built, is how quiet it was.

The Quiet Collapse

I’ll admit I’m not someone who sits on the bleeding edge of the news feeds. I work a lot of hours in the real world and I haven’t the patience or intestinal fortitude for Reddit. I actively lurk TweetFleet Slack and several Discord servers, but that’s about the extent of my everyday investment in knowing what’s going on. I’m not a spymaster and I’m not a diplomat, but I love a good story.

About two weeks ago I started hearing stirrings of FCON being in real trouble. They’d been steadily losing a war on two fronts: against Circle of Two, and Triumvirate on one side, and Northern Coalition, Pandemic Legion, and Guardians of the Galaxy on the other. Fleet and capital losses had begun to mount at an increasing rate, and there was word on the grapevine that some alliances might be quietly leaving the confederation that I’ll refer to as ‘Greater FCON’ going forward (to differentiate between FCON and PFED proper, and the larger coalition).

This is when I started investigating and no one was talking.

As outsiders, several of us among the writing staff had more than enough evidence to guess that a failure cascade was underway inside Greater FCON, but no way to confirm it. We had rumours or fourth and fifth-party accounts. All of the active parties involved in the war effort on FCON’s side were mum on the status of the war, participation, membership, and division. Those who had left, or were prepared to leave, were as quiet as though they were still operationally involved and actively maintaining op-sec. Perhaps some of them were. Indeed, it was as though the whole of Greater FCON had gone Red October.

Fumbling towards FCON

I reached out to several parties in-game, through Discord channels, and through adjacent or allied contacts within DRF (Drone Regions Federation – of whom Greater FCON are considered a member) but had very little success. I even went so far as to badger an FCON director whose pod I came across on a gate in Curse and decided not to blap in hope that it would buy me a meagre sum of courtesy and reciprocity. Still nothing. I even offered ISK rewards for leads to no avail.

Even Meredudd, co-host of the Mindclash Podcast had difficulty getting anyone from FCON to come on his show, and usually people jump at the opportunity to have their story told. Test and Tri did choose to appear on the show.

It occurred to me that perhaps the issue was the channels I had been using. Maybe even Discord was too close to in-game communications for comfort. So I turned my efforts to social media.

I posted a call to action in the twenty-five thousand member EVE Online Facebook Group, saying simply, “If anyone here is in FCON, or recently left, and is willing to talk about their experiences I am seeking leads for INN.”

Anyone who liked the post or responded I opened a conversation with. I greeted everyone with the same, “Hi. Thanks for reaching out. I’d love to hear about your experiences” and I extended everyone who would speak with me the same offer: their contributions would be anonymous. I would not cite them specifically or mention them by name unless they expressly requested it.

Contrary to the experience I was having trying to reach out to people in-game, people immediately opened up.

Cracks in the Foundation

In total I had between twenty and thirty individual responses. They can be divided into three groups: Internal members, external (allied) members, and active (participant) observers. Basically, those on the inside, those who had skin in it, and those who were there but had no stake.

The first voices to speak up were those who were new and little-invested in the internal politics, drama, or who had few friendships to risk in talking to me. Eventually, as people both responded to the public post and others saw my responses thanking those anonymous voices for coming forward, other voices began to speak up. Some were line members of the groups who’d already left. They had only their surface experiences of turning up to undermanned and inexpensive fleets that found themselves on the grid with Loki fleets and rapid capital escalations.

You may be inclined to dismiss these accounts as the hearsay of a flagging effort at the end of a long war, or the griping of low-experience pilots removed from the core of conflict. I wouldn’t be so hasty.

Several of these conversations opened doors and introductions to personnel much closer to the logistical, administrative, and military of efforts of both the participant member alliances in Greater FCON, and within PFED and FCON themselves. Eventually, I found myself talking to fleet commanders and current or former directors across the spread of the coalition.

Perhaps if they had started the war by reading The Mittani’s treatise on failure cascades, they’d have been able to stave off what happened next. At this point, it was becoming increasingly clear that the shroud of silence surrounding the collapse of FCON was the death shroud being silently prepared for a terminal relative. Either that or it was the greatest ruse ever concocted in the history of EVE, but by the time I was well into my interviews FCON was losing too many supers to support that much tinfoil.

What Happened?

As a rule: if you’re at a party that you think has gone flat, but you like the hosts, you don’t make a scene. You just leave quietly, and try not to hurt any feelings on the way out the door. This is how things were playing out.

How long does it take for even the most steadily loved, respected, and enjoyed groups of players to fold from within under continuous siege? The answer, it turns out, is about ninety days.

When asked about the culture of Greater FCON previous to three months ago the responses, from all interviewees, were unanimous. FCON was a great place to be. Super chill, down-to-earth, low-drama, and there were plenty of good times to be had in fleet. It was from the beginning a culture divided on PVP.

People had the freedom to make money as they needed, and the privilege of living in wealth and security. The active FCs were very well regarded, and opportunities for content were readily available even given the relative security of the region. The coalition – and the region it occupied – stood as a welcoming place for starter alliances who wanted to a chance to seed in null.

Which is perhaps the issue.

When Fidelas Constans left the umbrella of Imperium, they had the experiences of living within the rigidly hierarchical structure, logistics reach and depth, and combat discipline of an organized behemoth alliance. They did not have the experience of running a behemoth alliance, and these two are very different things.

When you have a leadership and membership who have developed within a drilled, experienced, and well-supplied army—for lack of better words—it can be difficult to separate oneself from those experiences and critically ask how such a thing gets built from the ground up. Your set point for understanding gets set at, “that’s how you do it”, or “of course you do it that way”, but FCON was taking in member alliances who had never been through that rigorous development and focus on PVP, and who would be hard pressed to adopt the same attitudes and cultural mores left to their own fiefdoms. Yet that is what was done.

One highly-placed inside source confirmed this, saying that coalition culture didn’t sufficiently shift to stand resolute against the mounting aggression. Further stating that efforts by various parties, internal and external, had urged that shift several times but the advice went unheeded.

Respondents from all camps agreed that alliances had joined FCON who wanted to grow their PVP experience and get a taste in holding sovereign territory, and at the beginning the experience was almost universally good. One interviewee said that excitement would build as expensive kills were added, but that in an absence of a clear and ready enemy before the war the cycle would drift between combat glut and blue starvation, with member alliances returning to complacency in the weeks between ops.

Then the war began.

Bloody Great Battle

What happened once the war began, and during the inevitable collapse, sees some very strong parallels with the battles of the Great War. Call it what you will—the Third Battle of Ypres, Flandernschlacht, le Deuxième Bataille des Flandres—this war would inevitably end with FCON’s own personal Passchendaele.

The war appeared to start with what should have been an even footing for the coalition. They had apparently solid membership, regularly more than 400 people in fleet for CTAs, and the financial and logistics support of a number of very industrial bear alliances. A lot of people were eager for the fights to happen, and a lot of junior—or ‘zero tier’—FCs were looking forward to being able to cut their teeth on timers and tactical fights with Tri. The idea was to initiate fights that FCON, with their size, could take while larger entities within DRF would take out CO2. That would allow a sweep of the remaining aggressors in the region.

That offensive strategy, like that proposd for Passchendaele, was controversial and had mixed support, because it was too narrowly focused and objective-oriented. Greater FCON wasn’t going into the war with a persistent war mindset and focus. They were going in with the strategy reserved for an asymmetrical flanking. They were preparing for a fight they thought they could win, with no attention paid to the vacuum that offensive would create or the opportunities it would present for larger interests.

This is supported almost unilaterally by respondents, though semantics differ in terms of the timeline and reported sizes of fleets. At first, it looked like a solid swarm offensive and win scenario; stomp on one side, then clear the other. They were overconfident, and because of it they weren’t prepared for a knife from behind.

Respondents from both internal camps—those who were allied members, and those who were core FCON—agree that the experiment called Phoenix Federation was a significant contributor to the overconfidence and the lack of preparation, both militarily and psychologically. Many of the alliances involved in the project had numbers which were artificially inflated by multi-boxing crabs and bears, or fielded FCs who were inexperienced or simply incompetent. There was a steady thread in the responses and personal experiences shared with me about the prevalence of toxic or criminally arrogant (and shortsighted, and irresponsible) FCs.

The coalition would make a push and win a timer or drop an effective fleet on a CTA, and then reassured by their victory people would return to the security of their space and field ratting supers, rorquals, and pointlessly blingy ships rather than favoring low-cost, easily-replaced wartime fits like AFK ratting VNIs or Procurers. Rather than keeping a steady flow of ISK flowing into the war chests, the coalition began feeding supers and more into enemy killboards. One of the greatest examples of poor judgment and scouting coming at the L-5 dreadnought fail; feeding dreadnoughts across a jump-bridge with an enemy Avatar-class titan and a Nyx super-carrier sitting on the other side.

One FC in particular (who will not be named, though I suspect is well-known to members) was very poorly reported. Over a period of months this FC displayed a staggering, even Nero-like, bravado and arrogance. FCs are often charismatic or polarized figures, but this one figure is reported to have single-handedly fed over a hundred and fifty billion ISK in less than two months. During this time, he would be questioned on the losses and would dissemble like a megalomaniac, pointing to his subordinate pilot skills, allies’ contributions, and poor intel as the ‘unforseeable reasons’ for his failures. All the while flip-flopping between condescension and demoralizing reproach for his corpmates and allies.

Failures to purge toxic FCs, respond credibly and tactically to increasingly devastating losses, address attrition and atrophy within the coalition, and form a cogent battle plan left FCON’s Skyteam functionally hamstrung for what came next. Member participation plummeted. People who weren’t part of FCON’s core contingent, and were only superficially interested in PVP, began to dropout or would put a body in fleet but three more out ratting. If that wasn’t bad enough, internal politics at the leadership level had for some time become stressed as the coalition began to drift from an allied persona to one of divided interests.

DRF increasingly had to step onto the field for fights that should reasonably have been within FCON’s capabilities. When GotG, NCdot, and PL entered the fray, it forced DRF to divide its line and left FCON on the weak flank. Skyteam and the core FCs had to do double- and triple-duty to meet fleets and make the grid for timers. Every iHub successfully defended meant three more were targets of entosis. Like the days of Lokta Voltera and BoB, they were excellently prepared for a fight on one front or with one place to strike, but abysmally equipped for persistent aggression throughout their space.

A View from Outside the Madness

Whistle Past-The Graveyard of Hooligans, an Alliance in DRF, volunteered the following telling perspective on the position which FCON was left in:

The last days of DRF’s involvement in FCON were strange ones as the diplomatic and military situation with FCON and friends thickened. The beginning of the war had been strong, but after the final morale boost of C02’s downfall, PFed (Phoenix Federation) couldn’t find another. Unfortunately due to their lack of SRP and weak leadership we were beginning to see less numbers from PFed proper and DRF, alongside Test, was basically playing keep away with a lot of major objectives for them as we realized we were fighting the war on their behalf. Morale decreased to non-existence on the PFed/FCON side to the point they didn’t show up for CTA’s in their own space, and DRF and Test simply couldn’t protect them anymore. This culminated around a month/two months ago when DRF started facing a major Scuffle with NSH’s ‘Great Wildlands Coalition.’

Having major objectives to secure in Etherium Reach and The Spire (Two Central DRF regions) the inevitable happened: DRF withdrew. The orders were given to restage caps to Etherium, and a small contingent of subs were left for some final timers. As of the last month, DRF has been completely removed of the southern engagements while we fight our own war with GOTG. The effects of this may be PFed going down, it may not, but at the end of the day DRF was going to get stretched out and snap, the right decision was made by leadership to focus on the homeland. I haven’t seen bad blood arise from this, but the sun is yet to set on PFed’s final chapter.

A director of one of the member corps was asked about the situation around this point and said, in retrospect, that ‘everything went pear-shaped’ when Tri and PL invaded. Leadership dissolved without a clear battle plan, and failures in communication and coordination grew increasingly common. With Skyteam left to carry the dead weight of an increasingly leaden coalition, the FC team rapidly began to crumble. Good FCs began to jump ship. At least three respondents I’ve spoken with point to the loss of Nour Samy in particular as a point of regret.

The view from outside the madness was that FCON was on its back foot, and couldn’t recover, like a boxer who’s had their bell rung by a good right hook. From the inside everything was a scrambled, desperate attempt to make sense of what was going on, while trying to keep fights supplied with ships that would mean sacrificing as little ISK as possible to hold onto positions. Zero tier FCs were prevented from fielding fleet compositions that would allow a strident response because the risk of their losses was considered too high. The confidence had gone out of the leadership, and it was rushing out of the membership like a tide.

As things began to dissolve, the coalition would increasingly field fleets of Claws for Sov defense, but be forced to melt when Tri would undock their highly-effective Loki fleets. The only reported wins were now coming when TEST stepped in to help.

The Ebbing Tide

If I had to categorize the fail cascade against a natural phenomena, it would be a tidal wave because the first clue to the queuing disaster is the withdrawal. The water starts to pull back from the shore as the tide goes out to feed the wave that’s about to collapse the whole show under its weight. As an investigator, I’d have to say that based on reports received the first sign of that withdrawal was in the PFED deployment to Wicked Creek in April.

From the beginning there was a democratic orientation in PFED, and in greater FCON. Members who would participate and be granted voting rights had to meet a minimum criteria for PAPs and fleet contribution. Once granted, these rights were treated like University tenure; damn near impossible to revoke without outright excommunication. Contributions of those same voting members could fall off almost completely and their voices would still be heard. Special interest groups began to form, louder voices prevailing over stronger wills, and it was this phenomena which drove the Wicked Creek deployment.

The deployment would prove to be costly, not just in time and fights, but in morale. Even before the major effort of the war began, the membership was beginning to notice the pattern presented by the fundamental cracks and disarray in leadership, coordination, and logistics. Expensive mistakes were not yet routine, but the repetition of avoidable errors and minor losses were mounting. The writing was on the wall, in pencil, and no one was really looking closely enough to put it together, but everyone could see the hand in motion.

Interests had divided at the alliance level before the war began in earnest. The ebbing tide began to suck the waters back at a time when the worst which could possibly happen did; Tarkinius, Alliance Executor and CEO, got busy in real life and had to step back from the game or ended up alarm-clocking for efforts only to disappear after fleet. This was painfully apparent to those at the top or in close proximity to the leader, and while it marked no death knell unto itself when measured against the aforementioned issues plaguing the coalition, it stands as a grievous wound.

The Last Straw

One pilot in particular stood forward with his story about the final days before the collapse.

Giribaldi was an FC and pilot, and contemporary of Nour Samy, who at the battle of REB-KR in Immensea on October 25 lost an Avatar, a Nyx, a Ninazu, and a Falcon despite being repeatedly told not to field them. Their loss represented over half of the fleet’s losses. While he was the only one who spoke to me of that day in particular, his role in the battle and his decisions were later confirmed by a reliable source.

Of the fight and the following days, Giribaldi said:

“Some would say my loss started the turning of the wheels leading up to the disaster. As they say a match to a gasoline soaked pile of wood… I felt that the fan to the flame was my titan loss. Because literally 2 days after it, talks of disbanding started. Shit just systematically started to fail.

The interview with Giribaldi revealed that, in hindsight, the Mittani may have been correct in his assessment that rationalizations follow a defeat, and that’s part of what allows the members of New Eden’s alliances to point-reset after a demoralizing failure cascade, rather than cascading right out of the game.

Asked about the effect of sustained fighting over a three month duration on the loss of his titan, Giribaldi replied:

… Fundamentally it was all leadership’s fault. Leadership promoted an anti-social behaviour. It bred hatred within the alliance. To set an example, the capital FC said and i quote “I didn’t jump (faxes) to save you to teach you a lesson”. This sort of attitude breeds an atmosphere where others don’t want to come to the aid of people or trust in the community.

… So it was fatigue, loss of interest, and a sense of purpose were all but lost ,as i said because leaders failed in their job to provide that purpose and to continue that motivation. Everyone knocks on former CSM progodlegend but the one thing I love about him is the man can lead. He is a leader. He provides motivation and purpose in every fleet and all aspects of his game play.

…You can’t use what you don’t have and if you don’t know how to be a leader you are going to do a terrible job at it. My belief is no matter the severity needed for a leader or to fill a position doesn’t mean you allow yourself to let go of a moral or a principle of that leader. If they don’t have it they don’t have it. Wait for one who does. Or one that you mentor into one.”

While Giribaldi’s retort about PFED and FCON leadership might seem like a deflection regarding his decision to field a titan in a fight that was going badly, in general he’s not wrong. Tragically, his position as an FC who made a strategically and tactically bad decision, against better advice from multiple parties, if anything paints him as the poster boy for the very issues he’s remarking on.

While this one battle in particular may have signalled that the end was nigh, it was less the bearer of bad tidings and more akin to when the water goes so far off the beach you suddenly get a real good look at the the tidal shelf. It’s that moment of perfect, horrible clarity, where if you’re looking the only reasonable statement is, “Oh fuck. Run.”

And that’s what people did. Quietly.

Post-Mortem

It’s been said that ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall’. While Fidelas Constans and Phoenix Federation may be the most recent examples of failure cascade, they aren’t the first and they certainly won’t be the last. Even in the aftermath of the last ninety days, Phoenix Federation may live up to their namesake and find that this is the best thing which could have happened to them.

It’s come to my attention that Jake Lightman will be taking over the running of Phoenix Federation and FCON, as part of a restructuring that has seen a break away from democracy and a return to the rigid dictatorship most large combat-focused alliances are familiar with. The restructuring will see a renewed focus on PVP, on a lower alliance SRP (and corp-run SRPs), and a greater drive toward small gang and small fleet tactics and competency.

When asked why Jake was thought to be the right man for the job, one anonymous source said:

A) He doesn’t tolerate bullshit and only so much diplomacy. He isn’t afraid to hurt feelings.

B) He’s German. 🙂

Tarkinius will be stepping back into a less-active role with FCON and PFED, the nature of which has yet to be determined or announced.

Since beginning the writing of this piece over a week ago, I have contacted and been granted an interview with Tarkinius. The publication of this interview will follow shortly.

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Comments

  • Jim

    Much better approach than crossingzebra’s. Good job

    November 13, 2017 at 12:08 pm
  • Lekly

    Very well put together, I’d been anticipating this article and it did not disappoint.

    November 13, 2017 at 3:46 pm
  • Rolfski

    Who was the notorious FC?

    November 13, 2017 at 6:31 pm
    • If you have to ask, it’s better you don’t.

      November 13, 2017 at 8:52 pm
    • Arrendis Rolfski

      The following dramatic teleplay is based on actual events. All names and locations have been changed to protect the guilty.

      November 13, 2017 at 8:56 pm
  • Nice writing, brotha-man! Enjoyed it.

    November 13, 2017 at 7:05 pm
  • Johnny Crowe

    Good job, I can dig it. Sucks when an alliance goes belly up but maybe they will be reborn like the Phoenix after all.

    November 14, 2017 at 1:45 am
  • I think you’re missing some of the most crucial information that led to this collapse…

    November 14, 2017 at 9:48 am
    • There are a lot of details which have not been included here, but I’ve been researching for two weeks and interviewing like mad. To tell the whole story of every contributing factor, from small to large, from every vantage, would be a book thicker than Empires of EVE. Not that it isn’t worth recording, but I’m not that big of a glutton for punishment.

      November 14, 2017 at 10:29 am
      • Well if you want a little more belated information let me know how to contact you.

        November 14, 2017 at 10:44 am
        • Same way everyone else does. YouTube, or Twitter, or Facebook, or Discord, or in-game conversation, or in-game mail, or passenger pigeon, or a Raven from South of the wall, or…

          November 14, 2017 at 10:48 am
  • Gavin Tremlor

    There is a lot of truth in this article. Good write up. As CEO of the largest (former) FCON Corporation, I can tell you that we felt a lot of what is laid out here.

    November 14, 2017 at 3:44 pm