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The Unpaid Bill That Launched a Thousand Starships

The 21-hour battle for B-R5RB resulted in more than 11 trillion ISK in damage, all thanks to a lapsed bill by one very important user in the EVE Online universe.

Manfred “Manny” Sideous was away from his computer when it happened. “It” was an unpaid bill. When you forget to pay your cable bill, you get a warning and move on. Maybe it goes off for the day. When Manny forgot to pay his bill, it was the catalyst for the largest clash in EVE Online’s 11-year history.

Manny, the man at the center of B-R5RB.
Manny, the man at the center of B-R5RB.

A friend sent Manny a text, and alerted him to the issue.

“We’ve got problems [laughs],” he said.

He wasn’t joking. This battle resulted in 11 trillion ISK in damage, according to developer CCP’s estimates. ISK is EVE Online’s in-game currency, and when 11 trillion ISK is converted to USD, it's more than $300,000. (ISK cannot be legally exported to real-world money, however. It would mean CCP could be treated like a bank and be subject to financial regulations.)

All of this over a bill? Yes, but this particular bill was very important. It was the sovereignty bill for a system called B-R5RB. There are thousands of systems in EVE Online, each controlled by a variety of warring factions, but B-R5RB was controlled by the alliance Pandemic Legion, and Manny leads Pandemic Legion. B-R5RB was one of Pandemic Legion’s staging systems. Staging systems are used to coordinate and launch ships. Thousands of players could be operating out of one during an important mission.

Despite being set in the future, paying bills is still a pain in the ass in EVE Online. Manny told me most players refer to the interface for such matters as a “sucking chest wound.” Manny didn’t forget about the bill. In his mind, it was paid. The interface seemed to reflect the payment, and he moved on. Two other members of Pandemic Legion even double checked his work. But the bill, whether through oversight or a glitch, wasn’t paid, and it was owed to the CONCORD, EVE Online’s NPC police force. When that bill went unpaid, that territory was no longer in control of Pandemic Legion. It was up for grabs.

“Even if CCP came back and said ‘hey, this was a mistake, we’ll reverse the sov,’ it’s not going to change the fact that we had this giant fight and all these ships were lost,” he said. “They can’t undo all that. What’s done is done.”

Even if the bill payment was a mistake on the game's part, Manny doesn’t have much room to complain. Pandemic Legion benefited from a glitch in the EVE Online matrix just a few weeks back.

But before we continue, let’s set the stage.

What’s happening in EVE Online right now is known as The Halloween War, an ongoing clash between the N3 coalition (a grouping of Northern Coalition, Nulli Secunda, and Nexus Fleet, a trio that formed up during the fallout of a massive war from 2012) and the Drone Russian Federation (aka “The Russians”). N3 recently intervened in a clash called the Fountain War, which was unfolding between CFC (Clusterfuck Coalition, primarily led by the massive, troll-y Goonswarm Alliance from the website/message board Something Awful) and the TEST alliance (which stems from Reddit).

This intervention upset CFC.

“We don’t fuck around when it come to sov wars,” said Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco. “The reason people don’t like fighting us is [because] we’re a very well-oiled machine.”

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The Mittani is one of EVE Online’s most notorious figures. He was the one behind some infamously alcohol-fueled remarks towards another player from 2012. That incident prompted CCP to ban Gianturco from the game for 30 days, and forced Gianturco to resign from the player-run Council of Stellar Management, a governing body that acts as a liaison between the players and the developers.

Right now, Gianturco estimates he controls roughly half the galaxy in EVE Online.

CFC focuses its efforts on sovereignty war in EVE Online. It’s why Gianturco can talk a big game: he has the destroyed ships to back it up. Sovereignty war is where much of the intrigue happens in EVE Online. By design, it often ends up in long stalemates. Each side is able to move the equivalent of tanks and healers into position, and no one gains any substantial ground. That’s where the EVE Online metagame comes in, the world of spies, deception, and sabotage. Gianturco, for example, splits his time in and out of EVE itself, managing this metagame. (He was also good friends with the well-known diplomat Vile Rat, who passed away in the attack on the Benghazi embassy in 2012.)

A few weeks ago, CFC found itself in a bad way in the battle of HED-GP. CFC and the Russians had sent a “whole shitpile” of dreadnoughts--a capital ship designed to destroy other capital ships--to attack N3. But the servers couldn’t handle what they'd thrown into HED-GP. Instead, the screens of the CFC and Russian players went dark, but the game kept moving forward. (CCP later published a blog explaining what happened.)

“All of our guys were black screened and it was a turkey shoot,” said Gianturco.

There was nothing anyone could do. With no effort at all, N3 destroyed the “whole shitpile” of ships.

When massive fights break out in EVE Online, fights much larger than usual, there are several ways the game tries to accommodate for it. One way is that CCP can anticipate a battle and beef up server capacity. Some of this anticipation is informed by the players themselves; CCP has a courtesy form players can fill out to slide CCP a virtual note about an upcoming attack. What’s more common, however, is time dilation. EVE Online is not real-time, so in response to large-scale warfare, the game clock slows down, reducing the number of actions happening at once. Most of the time, this works out fine. But not every single time.

Unsurprisingly, this only further upset Gianturco and CFC, but glitch or not, it was a victory for N3. CFC was sent licking its wounds. Then, Manny forgot to pay a bill, and this gave CFC a big opening.

When Manny received a text message from his friend, he went racing back to his computer. Losing control of a single area of space is not a big deal. In most circumstances, what happened to Manny and N3 would, like I said, be the equivalent of missing a cable bill. But B-R5RB was not N3’s cable bill. It was a staging system, an intersection of travel and commerce equivalent to a major trading hub like Boston.

"Typically speaking, in a sovereignty war, you don’t attack a staging system. It’s like hitting somebody’s capital. If you’re invading America, you don’t attack Washington D.C. first."

“Typically speaking, in a sovereignty war, you don’t attack a staging system,” said Gianturco. “It’s like hitting somebody’s capital. If you’re invading America, you don’t attack Washington D.C. first. If you did, it would be called a headshot attempt or a decapitation strike or something. Usually, those backfire. You don’t normally do that because the enemy has all of their strength there. They usually defend successfully, and then, their morale is increased and they’re better at fighting. So they did the equivalent of leaving their capital undefended by accident, which is horrible.”

The bill went unpaid at an especially inopportune time. EVE Online, like any other online game, never really stops. If you’re not in the game, the world keeps moving. Part of the reason alliances form is based on the geographical makeup of the players. If you’re primarily a North American set of players, you might want to partner with a set from Europe. That way, when you’re offline, someone can cover your back. This is critical for building the most powerful ships, which must be crafted out in the open.

When the tax man came for Manny’s money, only the Russians were awake. The Russians bided their time, and waited for N3 to begin reclaiming the system with a device called the territorial claim unit (TCU). Building another TCU is not enough, though. A TCU doesn’t come online for eight whole hours, which means N3 had not only lost a crucial stronghold, but it would have to successfully defend it from invaders for hours on end.

One hour from the system coming back online, the Russians struck. The TCU had been destroyed. If the Russians had allowed the TCU to come online, there would have been moments where the TCU was invulnerable, making what happens next less appealing to those who desired war.

“[This turned] the problem from a pretty big problem to a major problem,” said Manny. “ […] If you’re from another video game, it’s like a boss fight. It’s the main boss. It has a lot of health, and it takes forever to kill it. So when you’re taking a station, it’s the same thing. You have to grind the station down until there’s no health left, and it changes hands and ownership.”

The Russians brought in their own forces and began building their own TCU to capture the territory.

In this screen shot, every red or orange dot is either a ship or a drone participating in the enormous B-R5RB conflict.
In this screen shot, every red or orange dot is either a ship or a drone participating in the enormous B-R5RB conflict.

Losing B-R5RB was a big problem for N3, but not much of a gain for CFC and the Russians. But for N3 to regain control of B-R5RB, it would have to commit substantial resources to do so. This was the opportunity in front of CFC. It was a chance to deal a huge blow to N3’s overall war assets.

In particular, CFC wanted to target N3’s titans. When one titan goes down, it’s enough to cause a headline on EVE Online websites. A titan takes more than a month to build, costs in excess of $40 billion ISK to produce (roughly $1500 USD), and is EVE Online's equivalent to nukes. The more titans one side has, the more likely the other side is to back off.

Prior to the battle at B-R5RB, the most titans ever destroyed in a single battle was 12. That was considered historic. 75 titans would eventually go down in flames during B-R5RB’s conflict.

A big reason N3 has been able to throw its weight around recently is its enormous fleet of titans and super capital ships. When faced with its B-R5RB problem, N3 decided to bring out the Wrecking Ball, the pet name of its extremely powerful fleet. Manny and N3 were hoping CFC would blink.

“It’s like shoving all-in in poker,” said Gianturco. “You’re shoving all your chips into the middle of the table and hoping the other guy doesn’t have better cards than you. Most of the time, the other guy will fold. Except in this case, we came across over the top and took all their shit away.”

B-R5RB was not the only part of the galaxy where N3 was dealing with unpaid bills. B-R5RB was merely the flashpoint. Manny was forced to split his forces, and hope the Wrecking Ball would prove enough to turn CFC away. Unfortunately for N3, that wasn’t the case. CFC happily took the bait.

“I wasn’t able to be in two places at the same time, and that’s what snowballed the problem into the situation it grew into,” said Manny.

“They put their dick on the table, and we chopped it off,” said Gianturco.

Gianturco was comfortable pulling the trigger due to his spynet. Spies are a huge part of CFC's strategy. It has eyes and ears everywhere doing the less spectacular grunt work that allows Gianturco to adopt such an aggressive posture. Double agents informed Gianturco that Manny had exhausted his resources. After Gianturco did the math, it became clear CFC could eventually overtake N3’s forces.

And though Gianturco and Manny are the faces of this, they were just one of thousands of actors involved.

Mishirosen is part of the Goonswarm Alliance within CFC, and one of the more than 2,670 pilots who took part in the 21-hour battle. He’s a capital ship pilot, giving him certain levels of security clearance within CFC, and he was part of a dreadnought in the very middle of the conflict.

This is what the conflict looked like at this point, by the way.

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At this point, time dilation has kicked in, and the game is moving at 10% of normal speed. EVE Online becomes a pseudo-RTS at this point, with planning happening minutes or hours in advance. During the battle, Mishirosen was constantly paying attention to a Mumble server. Mumble is a voice communication tool used by many EVE Online players because it scales well to many users. As fleet commanders called targets--“all dreads shoot ‘z man’”--he would line up his target and fire.

“As dreadnaught, it’s fairly simple cause your whole ship is built around massive guns," he said.

The battle proved so chaotic and crazy that Mishirosen even had to dial down his graphic settings. But with time dilation kicked in, the action was progressing much slower than usual. With the battle raging for hours and hours, this gave Mishirosen opportunities to, uh, take care of business.

“With everything so slow you can leave for a couple minutes and come back and not too much has changed,” he said. “You won’t be as efficient as you could be but I’d rather not be optimal than piss myself.”

Zachary Pligge was another pilot in the thick of it, albeit for different reasons. He’s a longtime pirate, which is why he was comfortable allowing his real-life name to be published, rather than his EVE Online handle.

“All I know is battles this big don't happen so often, and I have total disregard for my safety in EVE,” said Pligge. “This is one of the reasons I enjoy EVE so much.”

Pligge was recruited by friends in N3, and joined the fight in a support role. The battle took place while Pligge was at work, however, so he executed directives from in-game commanders via a laptop at his desk.

“My boss has actually stood over my shoulder a few times to watch and ask questions,” he said. “He was intrigued as well.”

All told, Pligge spent about six hours plunging in and out of the conflict, even though he ended up fighting for the losing side.

“‘Won' sounds so bad since so much was lost by both sides,” he said.

CFC was the clear winner, but it’s understandable why someone would look at the screen and wonder how anyone could come out alive. As CFC and N3 started to trade the defeat of titan ships, CFC started to gain ground. It eventually became clear N3 would be unable to mount a comeback, and started pulling its ships out. CFC would not allow N3's escape to happen easily, however. It had been freezing N3’s ships into place with warp disruption bubbles, preventing ships from warping. By contrast, N3 was unable to keep most of CFC's ships inside the battle, which allowed them to escape and heal without worry about the spray of space gunfire.

“Any ship that isn’t caught in a bubble at this point gets the hell out of there and the rest are basically just left to die because they can’t go anywhere,” said Mishirosen.

N3 ended up losing 59 titans in the skirmish, a brutal blow.

Manny said the next move for his side is to “reassess” but admitted it’s a huge setback.

“We had the hostiles on the ropes,” said Manny. “We had dealt major defeats to them over and over for a pretty good time. This has not only stopped all progress, but I feel it is going to undo all of the progress that we made and we will probably losing a lot of ground in this war. It’s monumental on the effect it has.”

Gianturco believes the first mistake Manny made was not capitalizing on on his earlier successes.

“They should have, if they were smart,” he said, “given everybody a bunch of coffee and uppers and said ‘alright, guys, we’ve won this great battle a couple of weeks ago, and now it’s time to twist the knife.’”

“I’ve communicated with the enemy leaders. We’re gonna take these three regions, give them the finger, and then fuck off. That’s the price they pay."

But Manny didn’t do that, and now N3 is the one going into hiding. According to Gianturco’s spies, it will take months for N3 to recover. Gianturco doesn’t intend to squander this opportunity, but he won’t crush N3. Instead, he plans to take three regions from N3 and hand them over to the Russians.

“I’ve communicated with the enemy leaders and told them [that] I’m only going to take three regions from them, and then I’m going to let them live,” he said. “We’re gonna take these three regions, give them the finger, and then fuck off. That’s the price they pay for coming after us in Fountain.”

Both sides expect this will lead to a small period of peace within EVE Online, at least as peaceful as a game like EVE Online ever becomes. Inevitably, there will be more conflict. It’s the way of the game.

“I never wanted to conquer half the galaxy, but whatever, man. I’m rolling with it,” said Gianturco.

The momentous battle will not be forgotten anytime soon, either. CCP is currently building a memorial called "Titanomachy" to permanently mark the bloodied occasion. It will serve as a reminder of what was lost, what was gained, and the hubris of assuming you'll always be on top.

"All empires rise and fall, they all come and go," said Manny. " [...] We let the chips fall where they may and that was that. That’s all you can really do, and that’s what we did. We fought like lions. We held nothing back."

Patrick Klepek on Google+