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The true cost of Eve Online's massive space battles can't be measured in cash alone

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If you want to know what’s going on in Eve Online, talk to a pirate. If you happen to have one on speed-dial and need to have something in the game explained to you, there are few better sources. They're only worried about themselves, and have the privilege of existing on the fringes of the game.

"I’m a low-sec pirate. Very few things in the larger world of Eve impact pirates, because pirates play their own game. They prey on the weak, and they prey on the stupid," infamous Eve player Helicity Boson told Polygon. "That’s what pirates do, and anything in the world at large is largely irrelevant because null-sec alliances can’t fight us. We have no space for them to take. We have no assets for them to destroy. So this sort of thing doesn’t affect us."

"This sort of thing" is the largest battle to ever take place in Eve Online. CCP, the game’s developer, officially calls it the Bloodbath of B-R5RB, while others have referred to it as the Clash of the Titans. It's been claimed that between $300,000 to $350,000 worth of ships were lost in the battle. Those numbers aren't the whole story, but neither are they false.

The reality of what happened, and the final destination of that value, is trickier than that large number. And it takes an economist and a pirate to explain what happened.

How real-world value is assigned in Eve Online

Trying to explain the numerical dollar value of the goods lost during that epic battle gets very complicated, very fast. The in-game currency in Eve Online is called ISK, and it can be used to purchase an item called "PLEX" that allows you to play the game for a month. It’s like purchasing a subscription, except that PLEX exists as an item in the game. It can be bought and sold for in-game currency, but it also carries a real-world value since it’s tied to the cost of the service. Therefore, PLEX gives us a way to assign value to in-game items using real world dollars

"So some people might have bought a PLEX for in-game currency or a ship, taken it to the battle and lost it. Indeed, I’m sure some people did. Other people worked for weeks, worked for months, acquiring a certain type of ship, before taking it to the battle and losing it." Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson told Polygon. Guðmundsson is Eve Online’s lead economist, and it’s his job to keep an eye on all this madness.

"...War in Eve is the consumption of Eve Online"

You can create an idea of how much each ship is worth by understanding the cost in ISK, translating that cost into PLEX and then converting the amount of PLEX into real-world currency. What you have to remember is that this doesn’t mean players paid that amount in currency to get the ship, nor does it mean that amount of cash has been lost. CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson discussed this concept of value in a recent talk at D.I.C.E.

Converting the cost of a ship to ISK, converting ISK to PLEX, and then looking at the real-world value of PLEX is just one way of assigning value. In truth, many of the ships were built using only in-game currency, or assets from the player’s corporations. There might have been some players who simply purchased their ships using cash, but many of the ships were earned through playing the game and taking part in its extensive economy.

"To me, as an economist, that doesn’t really matter. In both cases this is economical value that is created by people’s work, either in real life or in virtual life. They put their blood, sweat and tears into making stuff so they can have an advantage in a battle, because in this battle like in any other battle in meet worlds, in real life, it is the resources you have available," Guðmundsson said. "It is the manpower that you have available, it is the organizational skill that you have available that win the day."

So it wasn’t real-world money that was lost in most cases, although you can convert the ships into that equivalent value in actual currency. It’s just much more attractive the frame the conversation that way. The fact remains that a massive amount of value was remove from the game, and that has far-reaching implications.

"For me as an economist it puts a really big smile on my face, because war in Eve is the consumption of Eve Online," Guðmundsson said. Whether the $300,000 to $350,000 worth of ships destroyed are valued by their worth in real-world currency or simply the time and in-game currency used to construct them, the removal of that work and value change the face of the game in interesting ways.

"Now all of these ships have to be replaced, you have to mine the minerals to build a new one, you have to reorganize new people, train them up so that you can be better in the next battle. This is the engine that drives Eve Online, so this is a really healthy thing for the economy. It’s a healthy thing for the universe of sorts because it makes it live, it makes it dynamic," Guðmundsson said.

The 11 trillion ISK that was lost may seem like a large number, and it is for a single event, but it’s only a small part of EVE Online as a world. Eve Online is a single-shard universe, meaning that every player in the game exists in the same world, playing on the same server.

That world contains between 700 and 800 trillion ISK, for reference. The loss of the 11 trillion in currency may be a small drop in the bucket when it comes to overall value in the game, but the impact on the economy could potentially be massive.

It comes down to minerals.

When war meets production

75 Titans were destroyed in the battle, and to put that in perspective only 12 Titans were destroyed in the two next largest battles in the game. But that’s only part of the story. 365 Dreadnaughts were also destroyed. 117 carriers were taken out, as were 13 super carriers. That's not counting what has to be an enormous number of fighters. But you can’t think of the value in terms of ships, you have to look at the minerals that go into their creation.

Tritanium is a common mineral in Eve Online, but it’s also one of the most needed. If you convert the battle’s losses into the Tritanium that was needed to create each ship, you can begin to understand the impact the battle will have on the game’s economy.

"To build a Titan takes a colossal amount of Tritanium. A stupendous amount. If you were just one guy in a mining barge, you would be at it for months. That’s how much," Boson explained. "The total amount of minerals that were forever removed from the game in this battle is without parallel. There has never been anything of this scale before in Eve. That’s why it’s significant.

The economy won’t be adjusted to deal with this new demand for minerals; since this variance translates into game play. Dealing with the economy, including the supply and demand for materiale to create ships, is part of the game’s design.

"We will just allow the market to adjust to the increased demand and the increased demand will then create its own supply over time. But overall the markets in Eve Online are player-driven and we would not let an event like this one, even though we would see a big impact, we would not let it change that opinion," Guðmundsson explained. "We would allow the market to adjust for itself. There are enough resources within the game to replenish the damage after this loss."

I followed up with Guðmundsson a few days after our first conversation to see what effects, if any, this rush on minerals had on the game’s economy. It turns out… not much.

"We have seen increased trade volume, more than 100% increase in some cases, for all of the key low end minerals," he said. "These are historically high trading days. However the impact on price has been modest. In cases where there is a large increase in traded volume prices have risen but within historical ranges."

"The most likely explanation is simply that people have minerals in stock and miners can react quickly to increase demand."

The measurable impact on the game’s total economy has been minimal. A few miners got slightly richer as trade increased, but that was the extent of the changes. The game, in all its complexities, shrugged and absorbed the loss.

The value in people

While the in-game economy may have been able to deal with the massive loss of ships, the universe may be getting slightly more crowded. These battles lead to a rash of stories about the game, just like the one you’re reading now, and this draws new players into the game as well as attracting existing players who may have stepped away to return. War in Eve Online, just as it can be in real life, is good for business.

A CCP representative stated that they sometimes hear about commanders contact people they know in real life and offer to pay for their subscription if they re-enter the game to aid in battle. When the stakes are this high, you pull in every ship you can to throw at the enemy.

"If they [do anything dumb,] we catch them and we kill them"

Again an interesting parallel to real life warfare: When ships become an asset and real value is at stake, retired or inactive units are re-activated and sent into the field. People who hear about the action and want to become part of battles like this sign up and begin to play.

These large battles are also good for the pirates, as Boson pointed out during our conversation. Players can often make mistakes with their ships while they're rushing towards the battle, and the pirates are more than happy to take advantage of those errors in judgment.

"Whenever there’s a huge fight like this, we send out our scouts to as many places as we can that are liable to be stops for capitals en route to that system, to see if anyone does anything dumb," he explained. "If they do, we catch them and we kill them."

The pirates operate outside of these big battles and, since they have no space to take and no large assets to target, they would never survive a stand up fight against one of these massive alliances. That doesn't mean that the pirates can't remove large ships from the equation if its found in the wrong part of space.

This is the lesson of Eve Online: Everyone is touched in some way by these large, player-driven events in the games world. CCP itself doesn't know what wars of this size will take place, because they're not designed or created by the developer.

The battles can nudge players into making silly mistakes, making them targets for pirates. The amount of minerals lost can lead to a rush on those materials on the open market, which benefits the miners and anyone sitting on a stockpile. Existing players return to the game and new players join. The economy handles it all with only a few ripples. And people like Boson are more than happy to take advantage of these events for personal gain.

"They tend to forget that we do have the capability to destroy whatever they might send if its alone in null-sec," Boson said. "We are more than capable of blowing a Titan up in a couple of minutes. It’s a mistake they make over and over again in their over confidence. It’s really funny, actually."