THE LARGEST VIRTUAL BATTLE EVER

Sophia 'Alizabeth' S 2014-01-29

EVE Online, CCP Games’ flagship title, is a big game. In an industry where multiplayer matches are considered big at 64 players, EVE sees thousands of pilots all pile into a system to duke it in battles that can last days. In July of last year, the Battle for 6VDT-H saw 4,070 pilots in one system at once, with the total number of combatants over 5,000. For comparison, that is about the size of a US Marine infantry regiment.

The Battle of B-R5RB is not the biggest in terms of players in the same system at once, though the total players involved in the sprawling fight well surpasses 6VDT-H.  According to CCP, 7,548 unique pilots engaged in the battle.

The Battle of B-R5RB will be remembered, though, for the staggering amount of ISK lost. ISK, the abbreviation for Interstellar Kredits, EVE Online’s currency is the metric for almost anything that happens in the game. It is used to buy ships, ammo, materials, everything. Each ship hull has an associated cost of ISK. The average earning ability of a player can vary widely, but 100 million ISK can easily be made in an hour of active gameplay, more if the player is willing to risk more. The Battle of B-R5RB smashed the previous record of losses in a single battle, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre where losses were valued at  1 trillion ISK, by at least 11 times.

Null Security Space and Sovereign Actors

There are three parts to EVE Online gameplay, each distinct and different. All the big battles come from Null Security game play. Null Security is at its basic form anarchic-anyone can engage anyone else at any time, for any reason, and not be punished by game mechanics. Players naturally form groups to survive in such an environment. These groups are corporations. As corporations banded together, CCP introduced alliances. As alliances banded together, coalitions of thousands of players form.

Within Null Security, alliances are the sovereign actors in the anarchic state. They can take and claim space. They can colonize space they own with space stations. They declare and fight wars, sometimes officially, sometimes not, against other alliances. These sovereign acts cannot be performed by corporations, no matter how large, and coalitions do not actually exist in the game mechanics. However, the sovereign decision to go to war has mostly been surrendered by the alliance leaders to the coalition leaders.

There are only so many systems in Null Security for alliances to claim: 2,719. Each one is assigned a random alphanumeric designation, e.g., 6VDT-H or B-R5RB. Additionally, some regions and systems have better money-making potential than others. For years, the income of alliances was dependent on minerals harvested from moons that were needed for construction materials for advanced starships. Recently, CCP changed the game mechanics to make moons’ materials much less profitable.

This gave rise to rental income. Each system can be rented out to a third party. They can then exploit the system’s resources for a set price to the owner of the system. This is not an actual game mechanic, rather something enforced by the military might of the alliance renting the system. With feudalism now an established institution in EVE Online, every system became valuable.

The Casus Belli

The current war, known as the Halloween War, was started when the ethnic Russian alliances banded together to attack a coalition known as N3PL. N3PL had previously fought a war against one of the alliances in the new RUS coalition, SOLAR, and evicted them from their space. One of the alliances in N3PL, Nulli Secunda, had fought alongside a RUS alliance, Against All Authorities, almost two years ago and had been left out to dry. Needless to say, there was bad blood all around.

Following the initial attack, the other major coalition in the game, The Clusterfuck Coalition, i.e., the CFC, announced they would be deploying to the galactic east to assist the RUS (shortened Russian) bloc as ‘neutral third parties.’ N3PL had done the same when they fought with TEST Alliance Please Ignore against the CFC earlier last summer. One of the leaders of the N3PL coaliton, Progodlegend, announced at the time the whole purpose of N3 was the defeat of the CFC. Additionally, N3PL had welcomed in bitterly hated rivals of Goonswarm Federation, an alliance in the CFC. Needless to say, there was bad blood all around.

In the middle of December, The Mittani, the leader of the CFC, announced that the CFC would fully deploy to war, which included its full capital and super capital fleet. At that point, the bulk of Null Security sovereign entities were fully committed to the war. A third group, the Providence Bloc, would become co-belligerents of N3PL, although would not explicitly ally with them. At that point, trench warfare began.

The Conduct of War in Virtual Space

The game mechanics of breaking sovereignty of a system are slow. They involve blockading the system and attacking the sovereignty structions in the system. Infrastructure Hubs, commonly shortened to I-hubs, have tens of millions of hit points. Stations, one of the most potent claims to sovereignty over a system, have hundreds of millions of hitpoints. Each will enter a reinforcement phase after a successful attack; I-Hubs reinforce for one day, stations two days. Once they come out of reinforcement, they must be successfully attacked again and enter the armor reinforcement phase. The third successful attack destroys them. The I-Hub must be destroyed to attack the Territorial Control Unit, essentially the alliance’s flag planted in the system. Once the Territorial Control Unit is destroyed the system is vulnerable and another alliance can plant their own flag. It takes 8 hours for the Territorial Control Unit to come online, which can lead to running battles in which each side attempts to destroy the Territorial Control Unit before it comes online while guarding their own.

The deployment of capital and supercapital class ships is important, as only these behemoths are able to put out the amount of damage needed to quickly and easily attack sovereignty structures. Two hundred capital ships can put out the same amount of damage in five minutes that four hundred line battleships put out in thirty minutes. It was the capital and supercapital class ships that dominated the field at B-R5RB.

To understand the distinction between capital and supercapitals and subcapitals, one must first understand the differences in production and use. The standard line battleship of the CFC for the Halloween war is the Dominix.

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The production time is a set and forget value. If a player wishes to produce 10 of these ships, they simply put 10 times as many minerals as they would for one and set the blueprint to run for ten cycles. After a day and a half they come back to find 10 ships waiting to be delivered. One player can theoretically run ten production slots at one time, so if they had ten Dominix blueprints, it would take 35 hours to produce 100 of these ships

The preferred dreadnought of the CFC is the Naglfar.

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The production of a capital ship, supercapitals as well, requires the production of a large number of subcomponents. To produce a dreadnought requires over 230 subcomponents of eleven different types. Again, as each player can run 10 production slots, the actual construction time for one player to produce a dreadnought comes to just over 14 days.

The difference in the hit points is a whole order of magnitude higher than the Dominix. The damage output is over eight times better at twice the range. Additionally, capital ships have jump drives that let them travel several light years directly to the target system. A capital fleet can cover a distance in just a few minutes that would take a subcapital a quarter hour or more.

Nyx-class supercarriers were heavily fielded, as they do the most damage.

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Like the dreadnought, the supercarrier is constructed of subassemblies. The number required for a supercarrier is an order of magnitude higher than the dreadnought: over 2300. It takes one month for a single player to produce all the subassemblies themselves and then another 20 days to assemble the hull. The final 20 days are a major factor as supercapitals can only be produced in a Capital Ship Assembly Array, which has to be anchored by a starbase out in space and vulnerable to attack. Like I-hubs and stations, a successful attack on a starbase will send it into a reinforcement timer of about two days. Should the owning alliance fail to prevent the destruction of the starbase and factory, the ship is destroyed along with all the materials.

Unlike dreadnoughts and titans, supercarriers use drones, fighter bombers, to deal their damage. Turret damage is mostly based on the range to the target, as guns will do more damage to the target the closer the target is. Fighter bomber drones, on the other hand, will do the same damage to the target, regardless of the range. The downside is that the drones have travel times to the target and the drones can be destroyed by enemy fire.

The supercarrier’s little sister, the carrier, is able to use fighter drones, which do a significant amount less damage than fighter bomber drones, and the same drones used on subcapital ships. This can allow them to successfully engage and destroy subcapital ships, unlike the rest of the capital and supercapitals.

The Avatar class titan was heavily fielded by both sides in the B-R5RB fight.

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This is the biggest ship in EVE Online. 15 km long in game, it stands out on the battlefield. It takes almost 7,000 subcomponents to assemble. So much work is involved that almost no player ever constructs a titan alone; if they did, it would take two and a half months. Once the subcomponents are completed, the titan takes another 40 days to construct, vulnerable in space, like the super carrier.

A titan is, in itself, a symbol of sovereign might, much like dreadnought battleships were in the early half of last century. The Capital Ship Assembly Array has to be anchored on a starbase in an alliance’s sovereign space; it cannot be just anywhere.

The usefulness on the battlefield comes not from the damage on the gun turrets, which are on par with the much cheaper dreadnought class, but the doomsday weapon. Each shot costs roughly 30 million ISK in fuel and the weapon can only be fired once every ten minutes, but the 3 million damage all at once is well worth it. It can only be used on capital ships, but one shot can kill an unprepared carrier or dreadnought. Large numbers of titans coordinating doomsday attacks can even kill another titan in a split second.

Titans are useful off the battlefield as well. Capital ships are equipped with jump drives, allowing them to bypass system gates to travel. Titans can equip a jump bridge module that can allow them to bridge subcapital ships several systems in a manner similar to jump drives.

Fitting a Ship for Combat

The costs listed on the graphic are the production costs only. Before entering combat, a player will select different modules to fit on the ship. Generally they are divided into guns, modules that make the guns better and modules that increase health. The health listed in the graphics are reflective of a combat fitting for each ship, which can cost only a few million to tens of millions for subcapitals to hundreds of millions for capital ships to billions or tens of billions for titans and supercarriers. Some modules are constructed in the same manner as ships-a player mines the minerals needed and uses a blueprint and factory slot-but the best ones are rare drops from even rarer NPCs. They are then sold on the open market for ridiculously high prices. The value of the titan The Kan lost was over double the raw cost of the hull.

The Cause of the Battle

Like the dreadnought battleships of the early 20th century, decisive engagements with capital ships are rare, but becoming more common. The locked horns battle of supercapitals at the scale of B-R5RB has never before been seen, as alliances guard their strategic assets. Prior fights between the CFC/RUS coalitions and N3PL had seen N3PL severely dominating the supercapital side of the engagement. The one previous attempt to engage the N3PL supercapital fleet in HED-GP had resulted in the server going haywire with some players able to act and others staring at a black screen. The result was the CFC/RUS coalition’s staggering loss of over 85 dreadnoughts. N3PL’s planning had paid off in spades.

The battle of B-R5RB was not planned, but a meeting engagement that turned into a decisive battle, similar to the battle of Gettysburg. On the one year anniversary of the Battle of Asakai, a corporation within Nulli Secunda forgot to pay the sovereignty bill-a money sink mechanic-and the sovereign ownership of B-R5RB was lost. There were some claims by Nulli Secunda that the sovereignty drop was the result of a bug. Normally this would not be such a big deal, except that B-R5RB was the staging system of Pandemic Legion. The station was filled with hundreds of billions, or more, of ISK worth of war material and if the RUS/CFC coalitions could capture the station, the material inside would be inaccessible to Pandemic Legion. Note, this does not mean the conquerors would be able to claim it for themselves, just that they would be able to keep it from their enemies.

Battle is Joined

Nulli Secunda had started to anchor a Territorial Claim Unit, trying to retake the system. Since they controlled the I-Hub and station in the system, if they could successfully online it the system would be back to the normal sovereignty mechanics with the requisite timers required to successfully capture it. However, the RUS bloc took advantage of the situation. With no sovereign claim to B-R5RB, the station would not go into reinforcement timers and could be captured in one shot. At around 1400 UTC, January 27, RUS/CFC jumped a capital fleet into the system to capture the station, meaning that no one in N3PL could dock there. This meant that N3PL reinforcements would have to come from other systems, disallowing easy reinforcements and the ability to reship in the midst of the battle. With the station captured by RAZOR Alliance, a member of the CFC, RUS focused on anchoring their own Territorial Claim Unit and destroying Nulli Secunda’s. Had they failed, the station would have been as easily recaptured as it was captured.

The N3PL response was overwhelming and immediate. Using internet relay chat, XMPP and Skype, the leaders of N3PL got the word out to their players what had happened. Once enough had logged into the game, the formidable capital/supercapital fleet of N3PL was jumped into B-R5RB in engagement range of the RUS capital/supercapital fleet and the battle commenced in earnest by 1600. N3PL had gone all in.

It is a feature of EVE Online that once a battle becomes too large for the server to handle, which happens quite often, the server will slow down the perceptible time in the system the battle is in. This is called Time Dilation. Large fights can quickly boost Time Dilation to maximum: 10%. For players in B-R5RB, 10 seconds of real time translated to 1 second of game time. This gives each side time to pile reinforcements into the system as in the hour that it took to get another fleet together, only six game minutes have passed for the battle. Each side used the out of game communications they had set up, rallying players to log in and fight. Capital ships dozens of light years away formed in convoys to jump into B-R5RB. In all likelihood, some players reactivated accounts to come fight. Another feature of Time Dilation is that the eight hours needed to anchor a Territorial Claim Unit pass in real time, not game time. At 2220 UTC the system control would belong to RAZOR Alliance. Time Dilation also draws battles out, as the fight was still going strong by the time Western Europe and then the American players started logging on.

While the main engagement was going on in B-R5RB between the capital fleets, the CFC used its superior numbers to set up blocking positions. Subcapital fleets were sent to I-NGI8 and GXK-7F, other N3PL staging systems to interdict reinforcements. This worked out well for the RUS/CFC as the subcapital Interdictor and Heavy Interdictor ships that are needed to prevent a supercapital from using its jump drives to disengage were destroyed by the CFC Dominix fleets before they could impact the battle. Additionally, with the battle spread out, the EVE Online server was better able to handled the load.

The CFC/RUS Take the Advantage

At around 2200 UTC east coast Americans started to log in the game in earnest and join the fray. This proved to be the turning point as the CFC reinforcements in the US time zones far outnumbered N3PL’s. The battle does not always go to who has the most guns, but that is usually how it works. With a numerical superiority, the RUS/CFC capital fleet was able to stop trading losses with N3PL and start to kill unanswered. At 2200 UTC the titan loss count was 18 by N3PL and 7 by the RUS/CFC. After 2300 UTC, the CFC/RUS capital fleet had killed 32 titans in exchange for 5 losses.

At 0320 UTC on Jan 28th, the N3PL fleet commanders sounded the retreat. The objective was now to save the expensive and difficult to replace supercapitals, sacrificing the regular capital ships if needed. They also recognized that they could no longer destroy the RUS/CFC supercapitals as they lacked the critical mass of titans needed to doomsday simultaneously in order to destroy a supercapital before it would get repairs, i.e., heals. They switched their fire to dreadnoughts, determined to take anything they could with them in death. The last titan loss on the RUS/CFC side would be Chango Atacama from the CFC alliance Circle-Of-Two.

Thanks to spies-espionage is a huge part of the EVE Online metagame-the RUS/CFC commanders knew that N3PL had sounded the retreat and instructed pilots to switch to Interdictor and Heavy Interdictor class ships to keep the N3PL fleet pinned down. The CFC’s advantage in numbers and subcapital ships proved invaluable, as the only capital that is able to kill these ships with relative ease was the relatively weak carrier. The large gun turrets on the dreadnoughts and titans are not able to easily damage the smaller, more agile ships-imagine USS Iowa trying to shoot a speedboat with its 16 inch cannon-and the fighter bombers have the same problem. The only option available to N3PL was carriers, which are able to deploy sub-capital sized drones.

It was not enough. The only salvation for the N3PL capitals and supercapitals would come at 1100 UTC on the 28th, when the EVE Online server would be taken offline for regularly scheduled maintenance. At that time, all ships would be removed from space and players kicked offline. If a pilot did not log back in, their ship would not be visible to the other players. And to downtime the battle went. The final supercapital loss was that of Craedda, of The Kadeshi alliance, in a Nyx-class supercarrier at 1040 UTC. The CFC/RUS capital fleet continued to kill capital ships right up until the black screen. Predictably, N3PL gave their members orders not to log back in after the fight and the most expensive battle that EVE has ever seen abruptly ended.

The Losses: Values and Implications

CCP released their own dev blog relating to the fight. The numbers are staggering. 75 titans were killed. The CFC/RUS lost 16 and N3PL 59. Meanwhile, 13 supercarriers, 370 dreadnoughts, and 123 carriers were killed. The official figures released by CCP put the total economic loss at 11 trillion ISK. To put this in perspective, the previous battle with the most ISK lost was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, or the Battle of Uemon, where 12 titans were killed and the ISK loss was valued at 1 trillion. The Battle of Uemon was the turning point in the RUS/PL fight against the now defunct Northern Coalition, a group that had held the north of EVE Online Null Security space for years.

There is a lot of hoopla made in the news about these losses translating to actual money. This is both correct and incorrect at the same time. CCP allows players to buy game time and then sell it for ISK on the open market. At current prices, one USD trades to 35 million ISK. Somewhere between 300,000 and 330,000 USD would be needed to buy the game time codes to sell for ISK to make that much money. However, selling that many would crash the market, just like selling stock on Wall Street.

These losses are not easily replaceable, ISK notwithstanding. While many alliances do have reserve capital and super capital ships in the form of ships owned by players whose accounts have lapsed, digging into the reserves means just that. Actually replacing the lost titans might very well take a year as alliances decide not to risk using the vulnerable Capital Ship Assembly Arrays in war time. After such a stinging loss, it is almost certain that N3PL will be more cautious with their remaining titans.

Of other concern to N3PL is the loss of the war material rendered inaccessible in the station of B-R5RB, which is estimated at 200 billion ISK. This is not just alliance owned property, but the personal property of players as well. Pandemic Legion is going to want to try and get that material out. The most direct way to do that would be to recapture the system. The indirect way is to use spies-the metagame-to infiltrate an alliance with docking rights to the station and sneak out with it. Either way, the logisticians of Pandemic Legion are going to have to work overtime to haul in new ships, jump fuel, ammunition and modules to the front.

The aftermath of such a battle is always difficult to predict. One of the rules of sovereignty wars in EVE Online is that the morale breaks first. The last system is virtually never taken from an actively resisting enemy; once an army has been crushed, there’s not much in the way of enthusiasm to defend the homeland. War in EVE Online is a test of wills, and once the will of the enemy is broken, the actual mechanics of taking sovereignty are done in relative peace as a mop up operation. The CFC/RUS are already calling for capital siege operations, sending out communiques to their players. If N3PL fail to counter these operations, it will be indicative that the morale has broken and the war is mostly over. If the CFC/RUS ops are contested, then the trench war continues. Either way, the Battle of B-R5RB goes into the record books as the biggest and costliest virtual battle of all time.

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