‘Eve Online’ turns 15 today, and its history is epic
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.
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.
Murder and Butchery
With impending aggression right on their doorstep and Evolution banging its war drums, the leaders of Venal Alliance convened to determine their official response. The decision was unanimously made to stand by Taggart Transdimensional and wage war against the invading forces of Evolution.
Evolution was not a large group by any standard. It had only a few dozen players, but it was spectacularly well-organized. As such, Evolution was ready to go to war. Its pilots had outfitted themselves in some of the best ships available. They were ready and willing to show up for battles, and most importantly they enjoyed warfare. Venal Alliance, by contrast, was a group that was largely set up for monetary gain. Even its best pilots tended to be former pirates who had more experience picking on defenseless miners than engaging in large fleet fights.
Evolution came north from Fountain through the regions Pure Blind and Tribute, and began its attack on Venal Alliance’s trade routes and mining spots.
“The war began, and we got slaughtered,” said Venal Alliance’s Jade Constantine in 2014. “Just outright murder and butchery. We lost ship after ship after ship.”
Warfare in July 2003 was more informal, but also more hectic than in the modern game. There wasn’t yet a system in EVE Online for defining which player groups owned which territory. It was very much defined by cultural understanding. The players knew who owned which territory, and didn’t need official records.
But this also meant that in warzones there were no battle lines, and nothing to specifically be gained by short-term victories. With no official sovereignty to take from an enemy the main goal was to figure out how they made money and disrupt their operations. Evolution knew this very well, and it became equal parts famous and reviled for its “hit and fade” attacks. An Evolution fleet would show up, inflict as much damage as it could, and then disappear before the enemy fleet had time to gather for a response.
Evolution’s enemies mocked its perceived cowardice and unwillingness to commit to a full fight. Evolution mocked them right back for expecting warfare to be conducted like renaissance-era musketeers exchanging volleys in turn. A dance would occur between the two enemies that stretched around the clock. Depending on where in the real world each fleet primarily hailed from, they would be dominant at different hours. When Evolution’s commanders didn’t feel they could win a fight, they would leave.
Occasionally, both would catch each other feeling confident and sparks would fly.
Few details remain of the battles from this time. What we do know is that the bulk of the fighting centered around the system BKG-Q2 in the heart of the Branch region, home to a valuable station that everyone wanted to control. The specifics of the individual battles were less important than the general fact that Evolution was handing out a beating on the battlefield. Yet Venal Alliance was winning on another front.
Venal’s figurehead leader, Jade Constantine, was hard at work waging a war of propaganda. From the very beginning, Venal Alliance’s vision was that of a free north. Jade Constantine crusaded to keep the northern territories free from the type of corporate dictatorships—like Evolution—that had sprung up all over the rest of New Eden. In those places the law was simple: anyone who isn’t a confirmed ally was kill-on-sight. Even if they were unknown, kill them. The thinking was that it wasn’t worth the risk to have random people in your territory in case they’re spies, saboteurs, or pirates.
Jade Constantine the Verbose
As a result of Jade Constantine’s propaganda/public relations campaign, Venal Alliance started attracting numerous new corporations from Empire space who wanted to try their hand at warfare in nullsec. Some people loathed Jade, but others believed in her vision of a free port in the untamed north.
Venal Alliance had a strong financial backbone, and these new recruits provided the manpower the alliance needed to keep the defense strong at all hours of the day. So Venal began buying dozens of small, cheap ships for the new players it described as its “meatshield.” The combination of an effective narrative, a bevy of new volunteers, and strong finances allowed it to stabilize as sufficient defenders of the north.
Unfortunately, defense was all its pilots could manage. It could stand its ground against Evolution, but Venal Alliance was far from winning the war. Its miners were safe enough to keep mining, and the merchant ships stayed safe, but the battles weren’t being won.
It wasn’t long before the members of Venal Alliance started to notice that the members of Taggart Transdimensional—the people Venal Alliance banded together to defend from Evolution in the first place—were barely ever seen anymore. Battles would break out and Taggart members weren’t fighting them. Taggart was an exceptionally wealthy corporation with a population of players that made up roughly 40 percent of the Venal Alliance. In battles, however, it represented far less than that.
Jade Constantine and others called for another gathering of Venal Alliance’s war council to discuss how to deal with this. Taggart heard their arguments and offered to help out its allies in the Venal Alliance by selling them battleships at “only” a 20 percent markup from the cost Taggart incurred in building them. Which, it tried to justify, was 15 percent less than they sold for on the open market.
I like to compare this situation to a person asking their friends to help them move house. Except when the friends arrive to help, the homeowner doesn’t move any boxes. When the friends inevitably complain, the homeowner feigns sympathy and tries to make amends by offering to sell them a hand truck for a profit. It was a deal that was obviously rejected and was borderline insulting.
Around this time, SirMolle of Evolution reached out to contact Jade Constantine for a parlay. He spoke to Jade with his trademark patronizing tone, telling her that Evolution had been impressed by the “fighting spirit” of the Venal Alliance. However, what Evolution wanted was to hurt Taggart Transdimensional, and SirMolle was frustrated that Taggart was so often missing from the battlefield.
So SirMolle offered his deal: throw Taggart Transdimensional out of Venal Alliance, and Evolution would recognize Venal Alliance’s sovereignty in the north and call a ceasefire with everyone but Taggart.
This Treacherous Night
Jade took the deal back to Venal and called a meeting of what was known as “The Council of the Free Captains.” It was a midnight meeting where a dozen delegates from all factions within Venal Alliance got together to cast their votes.
Jade had gone to the leader of Taggart Transdimensional, a player named Ragnar, to discuss the meeting beforehand. She told him that she and her corporation—Jericho Fraction—were prepared to stick by Taggart if it started pulling its weight. Her proposal was to alter the Venal Alliance tax system which at the time mandated that each member corporation contribute 25,000,000 ISK per week to the alliance to cover ship replacements and ammunition for the war effort. Taggart was a very large corporation of over 200 people—several times larger than other Venal Alliance corporations—but it still only had to pay 25,000,000 per week, a tiny fraction of its earnings. Jade wanted to bring that up to an amount proportional to the massive size of the corporation.
This was a philosophical problem for Taggart Transdimensional.
Why? Because Taggart Transdimensional…were space libertarians.
Its leaders were stalwart believers in Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy both in EVE and in their ordinary lives. The name Taggart Transdimensional itself comes from Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, which stars protagonist Dagny Taggart as a vice president of a railroad company called Taggart Transcontinental.
The leader of the corporation was Ragnar Danneskjold (also a character from Atlas Shrugged,) the single wealthiest person in all of EVE Online, worth an unthinkable billions of ISK.
This idea of having to pay a heavy tax to a government that would seek to control his actions was horrifying to Ragnar. He refused Jade Constantine’s deal.
Sensing that there was a very real chance Taggart could be abandoned by its allies, Ragnar moved to consolidate power. He privately consulted with the member corporations of Venal Alliance, and lobbied them to side with him.
“There is a rift coming and there is one side that is safe and one that is not,” Ragnar told one such corporation.
The day of the vote arrived. The ballots were cast and counted. The vote was 6 to 5; six votes in favor of preserving the Venal Alliance and standing by Taggart, five votes in favor of tossing them to the wolves. Taggart managed to survive, and the Venal Alliance was preserved.
Evolution heard every word of the meeting. It had a spy—again Mr. Blonde—in Venal Alliance’s midst and he was relaying the minutes of the meeting. To put it mildly, Evolution was disappointed. Venal Alliance banding together could spell the death of its campaign. If Evolution couldn’t break Venal in the previous months there was no reason to believe it would happen now. Especially with all of Venal’s foreign volunteers still flooding in from empire space.
But just as the Venal Alliance council meeting moved on to other matters, a spokesman for Ragnar interrupted to deliver a prepared statement.
“Taggart Transdimensional does not recognize the authority of this council, nor the voting power of a corporation 1/10th of our size having the same power to limit our sovereignty. It is clear that the anti-Taggart effort has been led by Jade Constantine, who has been bought off by Evolution. We will start with a 100 million ISK bounty on Jade Constantine. Taggart and our friends will remain in Venal and we will openly attack all of the pro-Evolution people that have just voted against their one-time friends in Taggart. This is fair warning. Thank you.”
— Ragnar, CEO, Taggart Transdimensional
(Edited for clarity.)
The Venal Alliance council was stunned. In the view of these council members, this vote was just a natural process of inter-alliance diplomacy. At first, it wasn’t clear Ragnar actually understood what had happened. Maybe he misheard the vote count and thought Taggart was being evicted?
No such luck. Taggart Transdimensional understood completely, and had declared war on its former allies who had the audacity to vote against them. Almost instantly, the region of stars called Venal shut down, and became a war zone.
Jade Constantine commemorated the occasion with yet another epic, soaringly dramatic forum post.
“I, Jade Constantine, take up the mantle of Ragnar’s 100 million ISK of blood money and wear it proudly as a shroud to brittle avarice and all the works of foolish craven traitorlord below. Death to Taggart, Death to Ragnar, Death to the memory of this treacherous night.”
The Venal Alliance immediately demanded a re-vote in light of Taggart’s war declaration against its own allies. It should go without saying that this changed the minds of a number of swing votes. The original vote was 6-5 in favor of Taggart, but the new vote was 9-2 against Taggart (not counting Taggart’s vote.) It was partially meaningless given that Taggart had made no qualms about burning the alliance to the ground. But this was a moment for the other Venal Alliance corporations to reform and to clarify that their dedication was to Venal Alliance, not Taggart.
Venal Alliance as it once existed was now dead. The nine remaining members reformed and began calling themselves the New Venal Alliance, shifting their focus to destroying Taggart Transdimensional.
This was more difficult than it sounds, however. Taggart was still staggeringly wealthy and well-equipped. One of the first issues that divided the former Venal Alliance was that Taggart wasn’t showing up for battles. SirMolle himself was upset that Taggart wasn’t hurting enough. The members of the “New Venal Alliance” had just ended a large, highly destructive war against Evolution, and were now expected to fight a war against Taggart, which had barely taken any damage in that war. Taggart was fresh and flush with equipment for fighting a long war.
Taggart Transdimensional was not a fighting corporation, though. Its pilots liked to mine and make money, and they were exceptionally good at it. Taggart preferred to stick to its own niche while fighting its wars through proxies and mercenaries. It had all the resources needed to fight a war without the will necessary to see it through personally.
Taggart got together with the two other former Venal Alliance members who had voted to stand by it (former pirates who had been hired to become a makeshift military,) and the new group began calling itself the Northern Alliance. It attracted one more new member: the well-known pirate group “M3G4.” Taggart was now at the head of an alliance that featured some of the most feared pirate factions in the north of New Eden. It claimed Venal for its own uses and warned all others to evacuate.
However, Taggart had drastically underestimated the disastrous results of spurning its former allies when those allies voted democratically to stand by Taggart. It left an alliance of free spacers in favor of an alliance filled with hated pirates.
Jade Constantine’s propaganda machine used this to her advantage and was effective at painting Taggart in a horrible light. Jade rebranded Taggart Transdimensional as “Taggart Transpiratical.”
Over the next week the New Venal Alliance started receiving care packages from all over New Eden. People were sending ships and money and morale-boosting well wishes inspiring the New Venal Alliance to keep up the fight and wipe out the enemies Jade had painted as hypocritical capitalist snakes.
More foreign volunteers continued to come up North to fight with the New Venal Alliance. Venal Alliance had been through hell for the last two months, but its leaders understood better than anyone in New Eden how to make a war fun. It was managing to win wars while it was actually losing on the battlefield, because it understood that EVE players need to have a goal to stay entertained. The New Venal Alliance gave its members a goal using ideology, and attracted other players from around the New Eden star cluster because it offered these people something to believe in—a real reason to be playing this video game.
This alone would have been bad news for Taggart Transdimensional’s brand new Northern Alliance, but something else happened that Ragnar didn’t expect: Evolution was true to its word.
Evolution held up its end of the cease-fire bargain and stopped fighting the New Venal Alliance. Beyond that, Evolution went so far as to actually aid the New Venal Alliance in its oncoming civil war. Evolution supplied it with ships, minerals, and manpower, essentially making the New Venal Alliance into Evolution’s proxy for destroying its sworn enemies: Taggart Transdimensional and its gang of pirates.
The New Venal Alliance knew, however, that it wasn’t going to beat Taggart through force of arms. Taggart was simply too wealthy and could replace ships too easily. So Venal started training its new allies in unconventional tactics in order to disrupt Taggart’s income. One new corporation called Reikoku stood out from the crowd. Its pilots were new to EVE and Jade Constantine had recruited it as a mercenary unit and schooled its pilots in the dark art of “suicide ganking.”
The basic idea is to equip a cheap ship with 100% of the ship’s energy focused on burst firepower—with no concern for survivability—to almost instantly kill your enemy. This way you can attack them right in front of EVE Online‘s NPC police force in high-security Empire space, and still be able to secure the kill. The NPC police will show up and destroy the attacking ship as well, but it’s cheaper, easier to replace, and not filled with valuable mining cargo.
“We basically funded a suicide ganking campaign against Taggart miners in northern Lonetrek,” said Jade Constantine. “Which was the other front of the war. To be quite honest, Reikoku did more to crush Taggart than anybody else because they absolutely loved [suicide attacks.]”
This went on for two weeks. The New Venal Alliance fought a series of battles for Venal itself while Reikoku hammered the Taggart supply lines and trade routes throughout Lonetrek to the south. Only fifteen days after this fighting officially began, a delegate from Taggart appeared in the EVE Online forums.
“Earlier today Ragnar Danneskjold officially stepped down as President and CEO of Taggart Transdimensional and declared his retirement from EVE. […] We wish to put the controversy of recent times behind us, and as such are wiping the slate clean. Our kill-on-sight list is empty, and we are declaring a unilateral ceasefire effective immediately. All bounties have been revoked, and all existing alliances have been dissolved. In particular, while Taggart Trandimensional has never condoned piracy, we have in the past been members of alliances which have included pirate corporations. This is no longer the case, nor will it ever be in the future.
We look forward to reaffirming our diplomatic and trade relations with all other corporations and alliances, and working towards a secure and prosperous future for all.
— GunnyP, new CEO of Taggart Transdimensional
October 2, 2003
The day before, Ragnar had undocked his famously rare and expensive Navy Issue Apocalypse-class battleship and made a proclamation in front of his people.
“I’m going away planetside for a time,” he is said to have written (some speculate that he was going on vacation.) “Fight hard. Fight to the last. Never surrender.”
And then he logged off and was never seen in New Eden again.
Though Taggart tried as hard as possible to hide it, this was a surrender. Taggart’s figurehead leader, Ragnar, had left the game suddenly and without explanation, and leadership fell to people who no longer believed in this war. They wanted to go back to building wealth, not squandering it on a pointless war. Taggart Transdimensional evacuated the north and tried to get back to the peace that used to be considered normal.
Almost every other corporation involved in the fighting agreed to the ceasefire eagerly. SirMolle was still skeptical, and didn’t seem happy to stop killing Taggart ships, but he went along with it.
Taggart had been wounded badly through all of this. Its membership had dropped catastrophically, and it had grown to depend more and more on mercenaries. Then a player named Anla Shok broke its back.
A former director in Taggart Transdimensional, Anla Shok, recognized the corporation’s weakness for the opportunity it was and executed the largest corporate theft in the first year of EVE. The still vast coffers of Taggart Transdimensional (filled to the brim when the ultra-wealthy Ragnar left his fortune) were looted. In total, 1.2 billion ISK was stolen from the shared corporate account all of the directors used to pool their funds—an incredible amount of money for the era that would have paid for hundreds if not thousands of ships.
Anla Shok then took the ill-gotten gains and joined Evolution.
Ragnar’s fortune would become the seed money SirMolle needed to embark on a mission to fulfill his destiny and conquer all of New Eden.
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.