Today is the 15th anniversary of the legendarily fascinating virtual world EVE Online, a massively multiplayer spaceship game that has become famous for the incredible stories that sometimes emerge from the community about heists and wars between thousands of players.
EVE is so interesting that it even has its own historian, Andrew Groen, a video game writer formerly of Wired who studies the politics and sociology at work in EVE's virtual community over its 15-year history.
Groen raised $95,729 from a Kickstarter campaign to independently publish his first book, Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online, which has now sold 17,000 copies worldwide and is in its third printing. He's currently Kickstarting a sequel which has already brought in more than $115,000 in support and concludes this week.
Empires of EVE is half Star Wars, half Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is a true and fact-checked account of what happened inside EVE Online from the years 2003-2009 as player factions began to accumulate power and eventually wage a years-long war between more than 50,000 real players. It's a space opera that takes place on our own internet, and all the characters are 2003 internet users attempting to build their own digital fiefdom.
The excerpt that follows is chapter four of Empires of EVE, and takes place near the beginning of the story.
A civil war in the north
On May 6, 2003 EVE Online officially launched to the public.
Thousands of players from hundreds of corporations (EVE's equivalent of "guilds" or "clans") excitedly logged into the game for the first time and made their move. Everybody had their plan when the game first launched: how they'd become rich, how they'd become powerful.
However, one of the greatest conquerors in New Eden's history chose to remain still.
A group of hardcore strategy gamers from the community of a previous space-based multiplayer game called Homeworld decided to try to make a name for themselves in EVE. They called themselves "Evolution," and they were led by the chiseled sneer of their tyrannical leader, a player who called himself "SirMolle."
In real life, SirMolle was Par Molen, a 40-year-old Swede living in Denmark. He fixed air conditioners by day, and by night he commanded the most feared fleets in New Eden.
In an interview in 2014, SirMolle told me that Evolution's original plan was to quietly take over "New Eden," the name of the star cluster where the game takes place. It set out to become the Illuminati of EVE Online. The plan was to maintain a low profile, creep into the ranks of larger entities, and then use espionage to simply take over without anyone having noticed.
But Evolution found that espionage in a virtual world is long, dreary work. It takes months to earn the trust of your superiors, and the only way to do that is by acting normal. So infiltrating a corporation has more to do with being a diligent miner and soldier than being a stealthy assassin.
Rather than trudge through that boring work just to maliciously deceive people, Evolution's leaders opted to stay silent and observe. Evolution had enjoyed quite the reputation as an organization of elite players during the beta phase, and that extra attention made things more difficult for its leaders. So they chose to hit reset for a month and quietly build. The leadership was waiting to see what the optimal move would be. And so, for the first month EVE Online was live, Evolution stayed quiet, building ships and plotting its move.
When it did make a move it headed toward Fountain, a region of space in the West that wasn't controlled by a major alliance. There were a few corporations operating out of that territory, but none that individually posed a large threat to an organized force like Evolution.
It's important to remember that the gaming world was much different in 2003 than it is in 2018. Today, voice communication and a strict chain of command are the default in EVE, but back then everything was informal. Many corporations only used in-game text chat which was much slower than being able to talk to your allies. It took a lot more effort and commitment to become a tight-knit group that could coordinate times to play together and talk on TeamSpeak. Evolution was highly organized. It had its own website, forums, and TeamSpeak server. This fact alone made it a formidable foe.
But Evolution's players were also exceptionally devoted. Evolution itself was a communist organization focused almost exclusively on military pursuits. Each pilot had to submit an application to join, and if they were accepted they were expected to give up all of their belongings to the control of SirMolle, for the glory of the greater whole.
"I believe the first official war we had was with some entity in towards [the region of] Fountain," said SirMolle to me in 2014. "We had like a three week war where we destroyed them, and they posted on the forums 'Okay, we're defeated.'
"That was the kind of level you had in the wars back then. It was very isolated with two corporations. It was 30 people altogether. It was concentrated to two or three systems, and you actually had honorable wars as in 'I declare war on you.' That changed over the years."
But Evolution had trouble pacifying "the locals"—as SirMolle diminutively called them—and they resisted Evolution's attempts to take over. The local corporations were successful at preventing their own eviction, and eventually a ceasefire was brokered which joined the corporations together as the "Fountain Alliance."
However, the newly unified Fountain Alliance wouldn't last long. Several Fountain Alliance leaders I spoke to described Fountain Alliance as a group that eventually became bogged down with bureaucracy. Five hour weekly council meetings became the norm as they discussed logistics, territorial mining rights, and endless other laborious topics. Nobody was having much fun, and EVE became work. A lack of fun is the silent killer of alliances in EVE.
The boredom and bureaucracy of Fountain Alliance became too much for Evolution over time. In a matter of just a few months Evolution left Fountain Alliance on amicable terms, said their farewells, and headed North.
SirMolle wanted to fight a war, and he was prepared to manufacture one if he had to.
Meanwhile, in the northern regions (Fountain is in the West,) a group called the Venal Alliance had formed and was in the process of consolidating power. The corporations of Venal Alliance worked together for mutual benefit, and made a lot of money in the process. What the Venal Alliance didn't know was that one of its main corporations—a group called "Taggart Transdimensional"—had a bullseye on its back. Taggart and Evolution had fought months earlier in the EVE Online beta, and now that Evolution had left Fountain Alliance in the west to search for a war in the nearby north, there was no better target than its old enemy.
But Evolution couldn't just march in and declare war against an innocent corporation. That would paint it as the villain, which would harm its recruitment, and potentially draw new allies to Taggart's aid. SirMolle's Evolution hoped to ruin Taggart's reputation to get their allies in the Venal Alliance to abandon them. Evolution needed a proper reason to fight, and it set to work trying to manufacture one. A player by the name of "Mr. Blonde" turned out to be adept at this type of spywork.
The plan Mr. Blonde concocted was to send small raiding gangs into Venal Alliance territory and take cheap shots at Venal ships, the goal being to simply raise the blood pressure of the region. He wanted to make Venal afraid and get its leaders thinking about a fight. Venal Alliance didn't take the bait though, and Evolution was forced to play along.
Text conversations still exist between the leaders of Evolution and Venal Alliance from this time as Venal Alliance sought answers for why its allies were being targeted. In the logs, SirMolle feigns ignorance and claims the shootings were surely caused by a spate of new recruits who didn't understand Evolution's sterling code of conduct. SirMolle assured Venal Alliance leaders that he'd look into the problem and get back to them. He gave Venal's directors the runaround in every way short of asking them to submit a complaint to Evolution's department of personnel. Then he posted these conversations in Evolution's forums to have a laugh with his comrades in a forum thread titled, "Who? Me? What why? Naaaaaaaaaaaaaah."
Venal Alliance wasn't ready to go to war. It was wealthy enough that a few ship losses weren't very meaningful. Especially when its leaders had been assured by their would-be enemies that these were isolated incidents that would be dealt with.
So Evolution kicked things up a notch. Mr. Blonde—also known by the nom de guerre "Femme Fatale"—set to work concocting a new plan to paint Taggart Transdimensional as the secret aggressor in a new war, planting evidence that Taggart Transdimensional was going behind their Venal Alliance allies' backs to hire mercenary pirates to attack Evolution's people.
"Independent sources are now stating that M0o, Sinister and Rus (well-known pirate factions of 2003 EVE) received payment from Taggart Transdimensional for [Evolution] ships proven destroyed," SirMolle wrote in July 2003 on the public EVE Online forums.
Again, there are surviving conversation logs from this time showing Evolution players attempting to convince pirates from the accused factions to play along. In them, SirMolle sends a message to Stavros—leader of the most infamous pirate faction in EVE history, "M0o" (short for "Masters of Ownage,")—and smugly tells him he's going to give Stavros "an opportunity." SirMolle requests that Stavros lie and say his alliance was paid to attack Evolution. But Stavros informed him that he's mistaken and no such payment occurred.
SirMolle's reply: "Meh." He asked him to confirm it anyway.
Ultimately, Stavros refused, and SirMolle never found someone to lie on his behalf. So he had to do it himself and pretend he couldn't say where he got the information from out of a need to keep his sources confidential.
You have been tried and found guilty. The verdict is simple; Annihilation.
Among the various accusations are these;
- Paying known pirates ISK (EVE's currency) for hits on Evolution.
- Supplying same pirates with Ships/Equipment.
- Withholding information and blatantly lying.
These accusations have been reviewed internally, and the answer is simple. Taggart Transdimensional will die.
SirMolle, CEO, Evolution
Just days later, Evolution determined that public sentiment (which it judged by conversations with allies and responses on the Corporation, Alliance, and Organization Discussion section of the official EVE Online forums) was favorable enough for it to start its war. SirMolle's pilots were behind him and the average player wasn't willing to rush to the defense of Taggart. Evolution was being given the benefit of the doubt. And so, still feigning shock, Evolution formally declared war against a confused Taggart Transdimensional.
Some people demanded proof of Evolution's allegations against Taggart Transdimensional, and SirMolle replied with such a transparent lie it's a miracle it wasn't figured out.
"Our statement is clear, we have no wish to try and convince anyone," SirMolle wrote on the forums. "This statement is good enough for us, and our sources are valid. That is all that matters. You may make up your own minds. That is not our decision. Our decision is made."
In other words, SirMolle said Evolution didn't care if the public approved of his cause for war or not—an obvious lie given that that he was declaring the war and its causes on a public forum. He wanted the EVE-playing public to take Evolution at its word even though it would take mere seconds to copy the supposed evidence into a forum post.
Eleven years later, SirMolle tells stories like this with a laugh. He's more than happy to admit his insatiable love of starting political fires, and he still clearly gets joy out of recounting the tales of his conquests over truth.