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Inside Eve Online's game of thrones

One year, one journey.

Nearly a year ago I stood on a roof terrace in an unbelievable location, surrounded by icy blue seas and snowy mountains, breathing crisp Arctic air - and I was getting an absolute roasting. At that moment in time I didn't want to be in Iceland anymore. I didn't want to be at the Harpa building for Eve FanFest 2014 anymore. And I sure as hell didn't want to be talking to Alexander bloody Gianturco anymore.

I'd felt pretty confident going up to him. I hadn't played Eve Online - a persistent universe of intrigue, economics, and spaceships - but I'd written about it. I'd written about it enough to know who Gianturco was, certainly: a man better known by his character's name, The Mittani, and probably the most famous character in the game. I hoped he had read some of my work and had seen that I cared. He had read my stuff, it turned out, but that was the problem. He accused me of writing rubbish about him because I hadn't made an effort to really understand Eve.

It hurt. I stood my ground and things worked out but the confrontation had upset me. What a wicked, arrogant space emperor, I thought. What gives him the right to make me feel bad? What does he matter anyway?! He's just some guy in a game - why should I care what he thinks?

But I did. I cared. And I would show him: I would spend the next year trying to understand Eve.

It's not just because of him. Eve has been at the centre of an area of gaming I've been fascinated by for years: persistent online worlds focused on hordes of players fighting each other. Dark Age of Camelot kicked it off for me. I can remember clearly, with a bit of a cringe, gathering in an important castle to plan our realm's retaliation after our sacred relic had been pinched. Hundreds of us from an alliance of guilds were to storm into enemy lands as part of a grand manoeuvre to get it back. It was painstakingly organised and totally hush-hush, because their spies were everywhere. And it was a hell of a lot of fun.

In those moments Dark Age of Camelot was more than a computer game. Enemy leaders and champions became characters in their own right, far removed from the basic digital avatars they controlled. A few dozen people running a side of a game that hundreds, maybe even thousands, enjoyed? That was pretty special. But it turns out that it was chickenfeed compared to what happens in Eve Online.

Eve Online is so much bigger in every way. Whereas the Camelot playerbase was spread across clone worlds, a few thousand people in each, Eve Online puts everyone in one pot together. All 500,000 of them. "It's the only game that exists where you have half-a-million rats trapped in one cage," to quote a man who would know - to quote Alexander "The Mittani" Gianturco.

It means that whereas battles in Camelot might eventually swell to a few hundred people, in Eve Online they could involve a few thousand.

The Bloodbath of B-R5RB.

This picture shows the Bloodbath of B-R5RB, the most famous battle in Eve Online. It happened in January 2014, and involved 7500 people, according to calculations from CCP, Eve's developer. 7500 people! And between them they caused the equivalent of upwards of $300,000 in damage.

All of which explains the high stakes nature of the game's politics. If you're famous in Eve, you're famous to all of Eve, not just to the people in your clone world. That's why news of Eve Online's major events manages to travel far beyond the game's core community. Battles like B-R5RB ripple out to mainstream press, and with them stories of grand espionage, stories of mutiny, stories of white collar theft. So many stories! Eve Online is Dark Age of Camelot times a bazillion.

That's the story I wanted to tell today, the story of the mind games and personalities in lawless Eve Online space - an area that is more commonly called null-sec or 0.0 space, owing to it having no security. It's a ragged perimeter encircling Eve's more wholesome core, and it's as inhospitable to outsiders as its figurehead was to me that beautiful day on the roof terrace. Out in null-sec, players fight over star systems and the resources they provide, their great political machines constantly in motion. And that is what I wanted to bring to life.

I would tell it like A Song of Ice and Fire, a story told through the eyes of around 10 notable figures, a mix of the key political players and crazy fringe voices like pirates and mercenaries and wormholers. There's this famous broker dealing ships to everyone. There's this one, lonely guy funding a war of terrorism on The Mittani's empire. "The menace of the evil will be cleansed from New Eden!" rings his website war cry. (New Eden is the universe of Eve Online.)

But many interviews and hours of transcription later, many pages of notes and drafts down the road, I realised that what I had didn't work. I had 5000 words of perspective but no story. I had a good start but no journey, no destination. I wanted more than anything for the war so many people hinted at, a war against the colossal Clusterf*** empire and its leader The Mittani, to materialise, but it just wouldn't. Crazy and dangerous as it is, null-sec is also paralysed by politics, even after changes CCP made to stop people jumping so easily across the galaxy to join fights they weren't invited to. Political rigor mortis had set in long ago - and all the fingers of blame seemed to pointing at The Mittani.

Get out of your space castle! Stop blue-balling us! Stop only picking fights you know that you'll win! More than anything: stop taking it all so seriously! "Everyone gets to a point where they're just f***ing cancer to the game," says Elo Knight, founder of the hardcore player-versus-player alliance Black Legion, when I talk to him. All things considered, it's probably a good thing that he and The Mittani have already fallen out.

Alexander Gianturco has dealt with accusations of being a cancer on Eve Online before, of course. Years ago it was the dominant power Band of Brothers chastising Goonswarm for not playing by the same sportsmanlike rules they did. He answered that barrage with probably the greatest act of espionage ever in a game: he answered it by turning a director in Band of Brothers against his own and disbanding the alliance from within.

Losing your alliance: that's the death everyone really fears. That's why, despite all the animosity towards The Mittani and his empire, no one does a damned thing about it. To be sure, it would take a colossal effort to topple him, but even so, everyone's too afraid of losing, of really losing, to bet more than they can afford.

Wars are serious undertakings here, long and gruelling affairs, particularly for the leaders, the fleet commanders. These are the people controlling 256 spaceships at a time, in one big bait-ball of death. These clusters are carefully put together and there can be dozens of them in play at the same time, all adapting on the fly as the battle ebbs and flows. Imagine flocks of birds converging, and then imagine that some of these birds are four kilometers long. Imagine leading that into battle multiple times a week for months on end, for hours and hours at each sitting. No wonder people burn out.

But such is the admired size and organisation of The Mittani's Clusterf*** Coalition that they can rotate people to keep them fresh. "It's a war of attrition," Vince Draken tells me. He's a fleet commander himself, and the founder of NCdot, one of the richest and most powerful alliances around. They're also a key part of N3 coalition, the major opponent of CFC. "You throw as many people into the fire for as long as you possibly can, and obviously they always win that."

All it takes is doubt. Lose a few battles, field a few feeble armies, then watch your voluntary rank-and-file start to magically, despairingly, float away. You can try to lie and paper over the cracks if you like, and people do in the name of morale, but all the propaganda in the world won't convince people the sky is green. If the tide turns, you've had it.

"We've put four years of work into building Nulli Secunda," founder Progodlegend explains - Nulli being another key alliance within the N3 coalition. "And if Nulli Secunda ever died... I wouldn't be able to log into the game the next day and be like 'I want to play with my thousand-man alliance' again. No, they're gone - Nulli Secunda is dead. That's over. You have to build it all up again."

He pauses, lost back inside the machine, perhaps, inside the crystal nebulas that CCP has conured. "Eve Online," he says at last. "It's the only game where you can really lose. You can lose badly."

Wherever you begin, all roads lead back to him, to the man who was so mean to me on the roof terrace: The Mittani. It feels like there's an entire game rooting for his downfall, an endless queue of people who are frustrated but strangely powerless to reverse the effect he's had. Does he care? No.

He doesn't care what his enemies think. He doesn't have to. There are 40,000 characters in Clusterf*** Coalition, and while it's common for players to have multiple characters, that still adds up to thousands of people choosing to be there. He claims to take care of them and I've no reason to believe otherwise, given the sheer numbers he can muster. And not just numbers, either: he boasts of the "incredible talent" he's found, the lawyers and managers and accountants, the people working for Amazon or Google.

"Almost all of our guys fly for free," he tells me. "We take taxes in and we conquer territory and moons, which provide income in Eve, and we turn around and we redistribute that to our pilots such that when they lose a ship they get a reimbursement for the ship at cost. Our pilots can fight constantly; they never have to go: 'I was on an Alliance op and I got blown up and now I have to suffer for the mistakes of other people' or whatever. If they want to be fighting all the time, they can fight all the time.

"Inside the CFC," he adds, "we always try to make it rain for our guys."

He cares about his guys because they are the CFC - a point he returns to time and time again. And they are the people who care what he thinks, to answer the question I asked myself on that roof terrace a year ago. And this community transcends the boundaries of Eve Online, whatever common ground the game provides. He, as a person, as Alexander Gianturco, has genuine reach and influence because of it.

Example: a while back, he set up a website to report on Eve Online because he wasn't happy with the depth of coverage offered elsewhere. He used his character's name as a name for the site, because of the pull it has, and he used his influence throughout the community to find and convince smart people to write for him. Now the website is doing very well, and provides him his daily bread.

Another example came with him rallying the community to donate money to an old comrade who had developed cancer. Neither this man nor his family asked for the Goons' help but they got it nonetheless, $10,000 of it. He realises they've reached that milestone while we're talking on Skype, as it happens. Then I watch as he broadcasts a message on chat program Jabber, instantly reaching hundreds, possibly thousands of pairs of eyes.

This explains why he's so blasé about any mechanical changes CCP might make to Eve Online to make null-sec a harder place to control: he doesn't play it. "I never play Eve," he says. "I got bored of playing Eve by 2006." Instead, what he plays is a game surrounding a game: a game of people, and a game that CCP doesn't control. It's a game played in "a zillion" chat rooms on Jabber, across multiple screens in his office, his spaceship bridge. "I don't f*** around," he brags as he shows me his set-up.

"The game has never really stagnated, at least in my version of the game," he says, "because the game is the people and the organisations and the institutions and the way the people react. People are always different, people are always interesting. Spaceships blowing themselves up inside of a software client bored me after playing it for about a month, but you can always do something interesting with organisations and people and communication and psychology."

Break the power blocs down and they'll only build themselves up again, he shrugs. It's human nature.

"The people I have found who seem to think, at every opportunity, that 'this is going to destroy a bloc' or 'that is going to destroy a bloc' haven't studied history and haven't studied human nature," he continues. “In any situation where there's an advantage for humans, which are social creatures, to communicate and work together towards a common goal, they will do so.

"The tools that people have developed outside of Eve over the years of competition with one another in these warring groups have meant that we now have a level of institutional knowledge, organisational design, federated communication systems, that most people who are outside the blocs are completely unaware of. And these things are outside of the Eve Online client."

He shrugs again. "You can change the game all you want, but the people you go fly around the world with to drink and party with, and have friendships with, the game mechanic shift can't really change that."

There is a worry that battles on the scale of B-R5RB won't happen again, that CCP wants smaller stuff without people fearing the lurking shadows of empires anymore. It would be a shame if that came to pass, not because it wouldn't make the game more fun to play, but because it will be harder to create the kind of talking points which have have kept Eve Online growing year after year after year.

But on the other hand, this new way of war - where you can attack or defend but not both - means that if the people around the table really want to unseat the chip-leader, they're going to have to go all-in. And that will be some battle to behold.

That's the kind of fight I had in mind when I ran to my colleague's desk recently - a colleague deeply entrenched in null-sec war who's advised me every step of the way - to talk about the sovereignty changes CCP had just announced. Sovereignty refers to ownership of star systems in null-sec. Finally! These were the plans we had all been waiting to read, the ideas that will shape null-sec fights for years to come. Breathlessly I pestered him for answers. "Well?!" I blurted. "What does everyone think? How's it going down?" I needed to know.

Then, like a doomsday beam from a titan warship, it hit me. A year after my fateful encounter with The Mittani, I finally understood. Sure, I hadn't logged in. I hadn't even registered an account. But now I too was playing Eve Online. Playing it from the outside in: the human game, the one that never grows stale.