In the last entry I covered my first attempts at a rental scam and joining the player alliance called Goonswarm. This picks up there.
Shortly after I joined Goonswarm, they relocated to a different region of space in the north called “Deklein,” and more specifically the station in the VFK-IV system, which for years to come would be the de facto capital of Goon country. Almost immediately after moving they fought a war. Earlier in this series I promised not only a bunch of long, rambling stories but a bunch of long, rambling stories that contain potential game design lessons. Goonswarm’s war against another alliance called “Goodfellas” is one such story: it illustrates something I’m going to call the “Materazzi Problem.”I am going to explain what that means, bear with me.
Like I said, we fought a war. I don’t entirely remember the cassus belli for this one – Goonswarm had an ally in the region called TCF, and claimed that Goodfellas had broken some agreement with TCF or something, so now they had to go. The real reason was that Goons were big (thousands of members) and Goodfellas were small (merely hundreds, I don’t remember how many). Wars like this between mismatched opponents are sometimes called “evictions” and this was a classic example. Goonswarm employed a typical two-step strategy: 1. shoot stationary objects for hours and 2. station camp their opponents and shower them with abuse.
The first part of this strategy (shoot stationary objects for hours) is just the necessary busywork required for a change in sovereignty: various types of player owned structure (or POS) have to have their giant oceans of HP slowly whittled away over the course of days or weeks. It’s not super fun, but someone’s gotta do it. What’s more, depending on the type of structure and whether or not it’s been “stronted”That is, it has something called “Strontium Clathrates,” I’ll probably have to explain all this eventually but not right now. you may have to do it several times. My first hands-on experiences with nullsec war consisted of spending entire afternoons shooting conquerable NPC stations while playing online poker in another window.
More on the mechanical difficulties of sov warfare (and there are many) later in the series. The second part of Goonswarm’s strategy – “station camp their opponents and shower them with abuse” – is the one I want to write about now. You might think that it’s just superfluous gloating, a way of rubbing it in. You’d be partly right, but it’s also part of a larger strategy centered around the question of “how do we actually defeat them?”
This is a trickier question to answer than you might think. In EVE, no matter how many times you kill your enemies, they can always respawn in a new clone. No matter how many of their ships you blow up, they can always buy more – and what’s more, there are ways of making substantial ISK in almost complete safety. All this together means that there’s no real mechanical, in-game way to permenantly destroy a persistent enemy. They can always come back for round two, or three, or however many they’re up for.
Without a clear in-game victory condition, Goonswarm’s leadership settled on a meta one: breaking the enemy’s morale. The term of art that’s emerged to describe this process is “failure cascade,” frequently shortened to “failscade.” Back in the late 2000s, a Goonswarm bigwig called “TheMittani” wrote a series of articles for the website tentonhammer.com that explained what a failure cascade is. It’s difficult to find the original versions of the articles, but they’ve been rehosted at Goonswarm’s own website. This one in particular – called “Inside the Failure Cascade” – explains the process pretty clearly. One quote defines the term:
A failure cascade is the disintegration of an alliance caused by collective helplessness in the face of sustained and unrationalizable adversity through a process of pilot attribution shifting from the alliance to the corporation or the individual.
Failure cascades follow a predictable five-stage causal chain.
Sustained Adversity -> Failure of Rationalization -> Collective Helplessness -> Change in Identification -> Collapse and Recovery
When we say that an alliance is in the ‘early stages’ of a cascade, this often means that they are reacting poorly to sustained adversity. “Late Stage” cascade frequently refers to the helplessness phase, because changes in identification are rapidly followed by collapse.
This is an attempt to define the term in academic-type language, but I’ll try more colloquial terms: if you make things unpleasant enough for your opponents, they’ll stop playing the game. This wasn’t just some incidental trick Goonswarm employed, it was at the heart of their strategy as an alliance. At the time, new players (including me) were encouraged to go through a certain 30-day skill training scheduleIf you remember, in EVE you learn skills by ‘training’ them automatically in real time. designed to prepare them to fly a type of ship called a “Drake.” The Drake is a battlecruiser – a cheap, simple, straightforward, versatile ship with a ton of space hitpoints.
The Drake was more than just a cheap ship that most players can afford to lose. It was, on some level, a statement of strategic intent on Goonswarm’s part. Their grand strategy at the time was sometimes summarized as “Drakes, Drakes, Drakes” – endless, disposable, irritating ships that made you not want to fight anymore. From the last few paragraphs, you might think that my intention is just to dump on Goonswarm and say they ruined EVE, when in fact – given their strategic situation – their behavior makes a certain kind of sense. I mean, no wonder they won so many wars. Who would want to fight them? Easier to just log off until they go somewhere else.
This – finally – brings us back to the Materazzi problem. Marco Materazzi, if you don’t recognize the name, is an Italian soccer defender who played in the 2006 World Cup. The final match came down to Italy vs. France. During the course of the game, Materazzi was able to get under the skin of French player Zinedine Zidane so much that Zidane straight-up headbutted him square in the chest in front of the entire world.
Zidane was (rightly) given a red card and ejected from the game. Italy went on to win, making the United States 2006 co-World Cup championsBecause, earlier in the tournament, we tied with them 1-1 in the group stage, thereby proving ourselves their equals. My logic is impeccable.. What Materazzi did is something like what Goonswarm has done: turned toxicity into a competitive advantage. Zidane was a once in a generation playmaker and a key contributor to France’s team, but a few jokes about his “terrorist whore of a sister” (or whatever Materazzi actually said, we’ll probably never know) and he was watching the game from the stands like the rest of us. Victory?
The racist/misogynist elements of that confrontation were not a coincidence. If you want to fluster someone, brazenly crossing cultural boundaries is one way to do it. In Goonswarm, players were marinated in these juices, which prepared them to dish it out to other people. When I was there, Goons casually insulted each other all the time. Homophobic slurs were a standard part of the alliance’s vocabulary. The practice of making in-game money was referred to as “jewing.” The route used to take valuable materials back to highsec to be sold was called the “jewperhighway.”
This was not limited to Goonswarm. Later, I had characters in other nullsec alliances – while every one is different, with different lingo and in-jokes, they’re also largely the same. Toxicity is standard, or at least it was when I was playing regularly. This isn’t even limited to EVE either; later, trying to scratch the mass PvP itch, I tried other games, like a Korean MMO called ArcheAge and the World vs. World (or WvW) mode of Guild Wars 2. While some of these games were better moderated than others, all featured some level of toxicity among the “hardcore” players.
Developers should expect this to be the case for as long as toxic behavior can give players a competitive advantage. For some, it might not even seem like a problem. It’s easy to take the attitude of “if you don’t like it, play another game. This is the real manly man’s game for manly men, and occasionally women and others. If you aren’t ruthless and psychologically invincible, go play solitaire or something.” An easy answer, but a flawed one. MMOs depend on their playerbases to stay alive, and limiting your playerbase to those comfortable with constant insults is, in my opinion, a long-term loser of a strategy.
How to solve the Materazzi problem? I wish there was an easy way, but the only solution I can see is dedicated moderation. In my opinion, anyone starting an online game needs to have well-trained, numerous moderators to head off abusive behavior as best they can and as soon as they find it. I know this is financially inconvenient, but in my opinion it costs even more NOT to do it. Toxicity in a game’s playerbase reliably incurs hidden, insidious, long-term costs not immediately evident in a financial statement or balance sheet.
So that covers my first ever space war. There are more stories to tell, and more to be learned from them – I’ll continue next entry.
 I am going to explain what that means, bear with me.
 That is, it has something called “Strontium Clathrates,” I’ll probably have to explain all this eventually but not right now.
 If you remember, in EVE you learn skills by ‘training’ them automatically in real time.
 Because, earlier in the tournament, we tied with them 1-1 in the group stage, thereby proving ourselves their equals. My logic is impeccable.
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