My friend's keeper

Rodgers and Hammerstein's popular portrayal of the 19th century American mid-west depicted strain amongst rural countrymen.  The Farmer and the Cowman seems prescient of intra-alliance strains in an online game called Eve-Online in the 21st century:

One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, But that's no reason why they can't be friends...  [oh really?]

Noting  the tensions separating friends is useful for two reasons.  First, it would suggest a more complicated structure to their relationship than outside appearances might indicate.  Second, given enough scale - for example, a decision process involving potentially 1000's of cooperating players in Eve-Online - it might be useful to cast the process in political terms rather than a straight up-and-down management or "command and control" problem.

For discussion, let us characterize broadly two player interests that occupy the same territory and share common purpose in its security and economic vitality yet differ in approach and apparent priorities (fn1).  Let us label one constituency as cowmen, and the other as farmers.

Consider then the house they have built together.

Let us call the cowman the professional (Player-versus-Player) PvPer.  She is the combat jock who will volunteer for a gang for a four to eight hour stint on weekend nights chasing cows until her horse is shot out from under her.  She protects the alliance borders, conducts raids to harass enemies and volunteers for foreign expeditions to assist other alliances in sometimes far away places - thereby earning "diplomatic capital" for her tribe.  In other words, she likes "pew pew" (2nd definition) and spends a great deal of time doing it and is good at it.  All alliances dread not having enough of her stuff around.

Then there are the farmers, the builders and the users of the machinery of the alliance system.  They are the miners, the manufacturers, the logisticians who feed and run and maintain POS (Player Owned Stations).  They are the researchers who develop improved blue prints (for manufacturing).  They are the blokes who trade, earning profit and redistributing the gears and goods of war so that alliances can function more smoothly.

The tension separating the farmers and the cowmen can seem palpable when alliances are under stress.  Some alliance forum discussions singe hairs:  the cowmen say the farmers are not pulling their weight in combat.  The farmers say the cowmen are imprudent with the resources they are paying for.

Alliances in Eve-Online are large player organizations whose membership can number in the thousands.   They can be composed of many "corporations" - which are analogs to "guilds" in other MMORPGs. In the NBSI discussion we started to look at alliance security from the perspective of group relationships and how that translated into rules-of-engagement dilemmas for individuals.  In Scarcely rare we started to parse the economics and security underpinnings of the alliance system resource game.  Both of these posts depict the alliance system as an adaptation to a stressful PvP (Player-versus-Player) environment wrought by game design.

Alliances have many different types of players pursuing different game interests that can come into conflict under stress.  From the perspective of an alliance, the diversity of types of players is vital to its success.  Yet, the challenge is then how to manage cohesion given diversity exposed to stress.

A reader of the earlier discussions will note that alliances employ multiple layers of defense to protect their territory:

    1. There are those trying to protect the perimeter ("gate camping")
    2. There are those roaming around (or manning scout points) looking for those who slipped through.
    3. There is everyone else, some percentage of which will muster at any moment should an alarm be raised.

The detail-work here is interesting.  To my view it seems to go something like this.  (1.) And (2.) tends to attract the "professional" PvPers in an alliance - or in the organizational vernacular, those from the "security" wings.   Yet (3.) is where the critical heavy lifting comes from, simply because for most alliances that is where their numbers are.  Yet it is there where the disruptions from conflict seem less welcome.  A careful reader will have noted terms such as "carebear" having surfaced in comment in our previous discussions.

In Eve-Online a "carebear" is mildly derogatory term used to describe a player who is seen as forsaking in-game PvP (combat) for the more sedentary arts - such as PvE (Player-verus-Environment, see fn2.), mining, manufacturing, research, station logistics, or the trade-craft.  In NBSI I focused on mining as the primary economic activity of alliances.  It is foundational, but it is not the only building block of economic power: manufacturing is as important, research (blueprints) is a critical enabler for many alliances, and so too is trade.  It might have been more accurate to have said instead:

"The bread and butter of these alliances is the territory they control: ...From territory comes the space and resources to empower carebears to drive economic systems that can build ships to fight wars."

Yet, drawing a hard distinction between carebears and combat players seems misleading.  Just about every player engages in the "carebear" activities to some extent.  Yet there is an interesting asymmetry: it seems less true to say that every carebear is also an active PvP pilot.  I think part of the reason is because it is still worthwhile to be an amateur miner/ tradesperson/ manufacturer, but the converse is much less true - casual PvP seems less productive.  It is important to distinguish here an alliance carebear player who doesn't normally "do combat" but will in a crisis jump into a ship and help out. 

Skilled PvP in Eve-Online seems to demand a commitment - in preparation, and to participating in long-winded operations (that can run many hours), as well as a fluency with tactics and equipment.  This can, I think, discourage casual dalliance.  Command positions are an exaggerated example of PvP specialization.  Within any alliance there seems to be a small circle of players who share/rotate the "FCs"  (Field Commander) positions.  Selection of members of the circle is merit-based: they tend to be good at it.  So critical are FCs (and as illustration of how non-fungible they are as a resource), to my experience it is not uncommon for an alliance to retreat from an engagement if qualified FC's are not available in-game rather than trying to work with a less experience player and risking a fleet.  This decision process can be as much bottom-up as top-down: when trying to get players to "gang up" (in the terminology) for supporting missions, the absence of experienced/qualified leadership can discourage volunteers. 

There are two aspects of leadership. The first are the character skills a player's character must first acquire.  I think that character skills can be viewed as an important accreditation step.  They are also prerequisite to "unlocking" many in-game command features that make it easier for a player to actually command.  However, the most important "leadership" quality is the player(s) who can on Team Speak display confidence and competency to an audience of often dozens and sometimes upwards of 100's players at a time.  Some of this was discussed in "The face of information" (with excellent comment).

Small alliances - or those without a lot of PvP expertise under their belt - seem more likely to risk over-working a small experienced PvP pool.  This leaves them more vulnerable to not having the right players available at critical moments.  It also encourages - in my opinion - a strategy pitfall, to overreach.  An easy win when the entire team is online is vulnerable to loss when they log-off and there isn't a talent pool to back their gains. 

Large alliances would appear to have a considerable advantage with their larger pool of PvP players.  In addition a larger alliance is often more able to strategically recruit corporations with players from across the (real world) globe to insure a more even distribution of players online.  An alliance compromised of mostly North American players would be at a disadvantage should an alliance with many European players attack (time zone difference).

All players will carebear to some degree, more so in smaller corporations where generalists dominate.  Yet my sense is that with the larger and more disciplined alliances, increased specialization seems an outcome:  carebears seem to become more carebear like, and the combat types more warrior exclusive.  The reason for this, I think, is simple efficiency.  The knowledge/skill-complexity of the Eve-Online game favors specialists.  Skilled carebears in specialized fields take a long time to train up.  Good PvP players (especially with command ability) take time to develop.  Conversely, the information mastery and resource investments required to excel in trades and manufacturing, for example, is substantial.

I'll mention in passing the important detail of wealth transfer within alliances.  A careful reader would have anticipated this basic dilemma: "if carebears make all the ISKs (money) and PvPers lose most of the ships..."  How does that work?  The answer is that part of the charter of corporations and alliances is to manage wealth transfer between these two interests.  For example, most alliances will insure your vessel against loss if it is lost on approved missions, etc. Alliances fiddle with a range of policy choices for a desired effect and pay for it through some combination of:

    1. Taxing the carebear pursuits directly (e.g. transaction taxes),
    2. Levying user fees (station docking fees)
    3. Exacting membership fees (per capita tax)
    4. Requiring mandatory labor contributions of members (e.g. corporation mining support 1/week or some such, which earns revenue for the group),
    5. managing station trade monopolies (profit margin skimmed to coffers), etc. 

Small alliances and corporations filled with generalists may eschew sophistication and instead leave everyone to subsistence farm as best they may to pay for their weekend warfare jollies.  Larger / more sophisticated groups can afford more specialization and this can lead to a strategic efficiency when fielding large fleets.

As I said earlier, in a crisis there can be a substantial pool of players to draw upon for defense should an alarm be raised.  Some, but not all players will answer a muster easily. There appears to be an inclination by those more heavily into the economic pursuits to be less inclined to volunteer.  It is also true that players don't view all requests for help as equal. 

As a general rule, muster percentages seem to me to improve when:

    1. The distance of the threat from the home systems (or where the players are located) is nearer.
    2. The ratio of the friendly to enemy forces improves (better odds = greater willingness)
    3. There is improved clarity of "moral" purpose of the home forces.  For example, ally support operations for murky reasons (e.g. currying diplomatic favors with another alliance) would tend to generate less enthusiasm, whereas an arch-rival aggrieving a mining operation of a popular corporation is likely to generate much enthusiasm.

Should there be a threat and the muster is seen as inadequate devices are available to encourage turn-out:

If the last (highlighted) point seems draconian and perhaps even counter-productive - it should be also noted that DMX has pointed out (in comment) that even the subtle punishments (e.g. economic) are hard to manage over the long term:

One interesting thing I've seen, is that many alliances, under severe stress from invasion will resort to a 100% taxation regime to, seemingly, maximise war-chest funds and encourage the more capitalist minded members to pick up a gun and join the front line.

This DOES however seem to backfire wildly however, as the corp churns thru its strategic reserves of ships (if it has them at all), and players left financially destitute after the war, leading to what some have refered to as the "failure cascade" when players and corps leave wholesale for empire to try and rebuild and tend wounds, leaving a profoundly injured alliance to succumb to the ravages of war...

It is tricky business navigating the divide between cowmen and farmers.  A careful reader in the previous threads might have seen in the discussion hints of how some of the large alliances in Eve-Online are forming vassal arrangements with lesser alliances to better manage the schism, at least on a macro-level.  The theory here (as I perceive it) is that the core alliance can remain more PvP-centric while outsourcing the carebear duties to the vassal alliances.  How feudal.

I note that the tension separating farmers and cowmen can vary greatly over time.  The degree to which an alliance is stressed is a factor.  The culture and composition of an alliance in terms of members is also important.  The maturity of the leadership can also be decisive, one way or the other.

As a number of people have pointed out in our discussions leading up to this post (see earlier citations), the structures here seem feudal.  The 12th-14th century Wales analogies I recall.   Or perhaps it is more like Oklahoma! circa 19th century. 

What next then, and how does it unfold.



This post builds upon introduction to Eve-Online in these previous posts (if you are unfamiliar with the subject):

  1. NBSI and the grey problem
  2. Scarcely rare


Typically hunting NPC "rats" that harass miners and travellers.  These NPC rats typically drop ship gear that can be recycled. Another form of resource extraction.

Comments on My friend's keeper:


This is great Nate, but a spell check would have made it even better. ;D

Posted Sep 29, 2007 9:25:30 PM | link

dmx says:

Its me, I'm the DMX in the quote.

Posted Sep 30, 2007 5:25:06 AM | link

nate_combs says:

> spell check
> "DMX"

Thanks, feedback of all flavors is useful. I'd like to pull this (running) series of Eve-0nline primer posts into into a consolidated (and updated) online reference document.

Posted Sep 30, 2007 9:24:44 AM | link

dmx says:

In one of those GameShack articles on Eve, there was a comment that I really liked suggesting that with the narratives Eve provokes, someone really needs to sit down and build a real history of the game.

Honestly, a well written book on the history of the in-game drama would be a fantastic read, both for the punters, but those who take an academic interest in the little histories of in-game worlds.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 1:34:13 AM | link

Andrew Crystall says:

There is no one "history", though. A lot of what happens is perceptions and shadows, a lot of what happens is influenced by deals which never rise into visibility and it's not that uncommon for both sides to consider a particular campaign a strategic win or loss.

As someone who's been in corps on both sides of several wars (not at the same time, I'm no spy..), the perspective and history told is completely different.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 6:22:54 AM | link

Dirt McGirt says:

Well, history's written by the victors; that's nothing new. And it doesn't have to be the authoritative be-all-end-all history; a "he-said they had a logistical failure, she-said a spy stole the POS fuel" sort of thing would be interesting. It probably would be better to wait until Eve is more or less over, though, since there's probably still spies in deep cover or diplomats with secret agreements who would have interesting stories to tell after all the shooting stops for good.

Posted Oct 1, 2007 5:40:21 PM | link

Erillion says:

About FCs (Fleet commanders) ...

To have competent commanders is the MOST important asset you have in EVE alliance gaming. And you need REAL WORLD skills. A calm teamspeak presence, a sound knowledge of the game, multitasking ability, instinct, valor ....

You can have characters with all the right in-game skills, implants, command ships and warfare link modules, upgrading the whole fleet with "buffs" ... and they will still be useless if there is an incompetent and/or inexperienced player behind the keyboard.

A wrong decision by a commander in EVE in a critical battle (e.g. FAT, 9-9, 66- etc.) will (has :-) cost thousands of ships, dozens of capital ships, maybe even a supercapital ship. And with it pilot clones, implants and ship fittings ... for a total value of several hundred billion ISK. You can buy a Ferrari in RL if you ebay that amount of money.

I dont know another MMORPG out there with such a massive scale of conflict and such a pressure on its PvP leaders.

Have fun

Posted Oct 10, 2007 5:07:01 AM | link

dmx says:

Considering I've seen FC's literally melt down in tears from a single bad decision, yeah. Its a bit of a heavy task.

That said, one of the best FC's I've seen was a 3 week old newbie, that we let FC for bit of a lark. The guy had us mop the floor with a really large opponent fleet that ambushed us. Turned out the guy was in real life some sort of Army dude, and he reckoned it was pretty much the same decision making thing, with the added bonus that ship losses are not real casualtys

Posted Oct 10, 2007 7:42:43 PM | link

dmx says:

That said, Teamspeak has Something to do with it.

Theres something about some people who's voices just command respect. And its hard to pin it down. For some reason Brit guys tend to have good voices for it. My two favorite FC's, one guy has a voice almost like some sort of SciFi Dr Who bad guy, and the other is notorious for being drunk as hell and just whipping people into a kill frenzy for a suicide attack on an enemy fleet or whatever. Both of them its in the voice, but for different reasons.

Can't pin down what it is, but I'm going to take a guess and say its confidence and swagger.

Posted Oct 10, 2007 7:58:28 PM | link

Erillion says:

Its confidence. Coolness under pressure.

An FC may order you to jump into a heavily entrenched enemy (= jumping into a new EVE system with the enemy waiting and you know that you will be watching a black screen for a long time until the system loads and the lag gods favor you). Its essentially a suicide mission. But there is such calmness in his/her voice that you do it anyway. Because you know that the FC may get important information by sacrificing your ship (enemy ships from killmail e.g.) ... information that allow him to win the overall battle. Or he KNOWS that a part of his fleet will be lagged out and will end as flaming wrecks, but its a price he is willing to pay to achieve the overall objective.

Faith in a FC is the glue that drives EVE PvP. That and superior tactics allows small gangs to beat much larger forces.

But even if the FC is a drunken roaring stand up comedian on the Teamspeak, you just might have so much fun being in his fleet that the complete loss of a whole gang at the end of a crazy killing spree is irrelevant when compared to the sheer fun you had in those hours.

Have fun

Posted Oct 11, 2007 10:35:45 AM | link

Vimes says:

This is fascinating stuff, Eve seems to be a good barometer of human fancy and ability online at present it seems. The developers of Beyond Protocol, a SciFi MMORTS in closed Beta atm, are attempting this on a scale atm and this article is proving valuable hindsight for us in the community. Do you think that scaling it all up on the PvP level, with MMORTS, will produce the same or similar dynamics, or something wildly different?

Posted Apr 2, 2008 10:54:11 AM | link