And the ability to gain massive amounts of in-game currency and then use it to gain control, or destroy the control of others, is part of the game's core appeal.
"I think this is what Eve is made for, in so many ways," Andie Nordgren, the game's executive producer, told me when I asked her about the current war. "There are many other aspects of the game and people play it for many reasons, but I think these big conflicts are really the thing that can only happen in Eve.
"It's beautiful," she said. "However it ends, however it started, it's beautiful to watch."
So how do you design a game for war? I went to Iceland, in part, to try to find out.
The Harpa is a giant glass structure in Reykjavik, Iceland that sits by that water as if it were a landed spaceship. It's a beautiful piece of architecture, but also dizzying; it seems impossible to find a right angle once you get inside. The building is made up of odd connections and strange lines, as if it were built inside a diamond on Cthulhu's pinky ring.
The structure was recently home to over 1,000 Eve Online players, 200 developers and 50 members of the international press for Eve Fanfest, a yearly celebration of all things CCP Games, the Icelandic company that created and maintains Eve Online as one of the most interesting and hardcore online games in the industry.
Eve Online is a sandbox game set in space, and one of its most compelling selling points is the fact that CCP Games keeps its hands off the world. The company may create the sandbox while setting some basic rules, but after that it's up to the players to write the game's story, including its wars. If you want to rule the universe, you can certainly do so. But you're going to have to fight for it.
"Ultimately it's a game about territorial conquest," CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson told Polygon during Fanfest. "One of the concerns we had, dating back before the game was released [in 2003], is what happens once all the territory has been claimed? Well, if the population is growing, then there's going be pressure, and people are going to start fighting over territory that has already been claimed."
What's fascinating about this process is that it often feels like the game itself rebels against the idea of any kind of sustained order. If one group becomes too powerful, or things get too peaceful, players will naturally want to burn things down. A stable game, it could be argued, just isn't that much fun.
Trying to take out something powerful is a natural part of playing the game. When, hypothetically, anyone can be in charge, you begin to resent the people who have the time and resources to actually take control.
"I think it's a little bit like the real world — leave us human beings to our own devices and we have a natural way of destabilizing things," Pétursson said. "The game is built around that: creation, destruction, stabilization, destabilization. So when we see a large destabilization like this going on, then that's a good thing for the game."
The war currently taking place in the game is being funded, in large part, by someone named Joe, who lives in Georgia. Joe has a lot of money, and Joe decided he wanted to take down the Imperium, the overwhelmingly powerful player-run organization that used to be called the Goonswarm.
The reasoning for this is a bit hard to understand for outsiders, but it seems to have to do with destroying the group to bring it back to its roots.
"I would love to see the old Goonswarm come back," Joe told Polygon in an earlier story. "The 2007, 2008 version of them. Back then, they were obnoxious and uncouth, but they weren't malicious. They were funny. They were goofy. But they were also kind of scary, because they had astronomical amounts of people. ... I want them to go back to their roots, go back to where they were."
What better way to make an establishment group act more like its old self than to humble it, and to break up its in-game power? If the goons used to be punk rock, the Imperium has become the airport version of CBGB, and Joe wants to burn it all down. The Imperium became too powerful, and this is what happens. The game fights back.
For CCP, this sort of thing is all part of the plan.
War in Eve Online is big business. The game is in the headlines, with these characters and events often discussed by the media as if they're actually happening in some distant part of the world instead of a fictional game. The stories can feel like reports from a sort of alternate dimension.
If you control Eve, or do enough to conquer those that do, you're guaranteed a bit of real-world notoriety.
The Imperium is led by Alex "The Mittani" Gianturco, who used to be a Washington, D.C., attorney but now runs a variety of media outlets, with a focus on Eve Online.
The Mittani, by all reports, wasn't at Fanfest this year, although in previous years I've found him on the deck of the press area of the show, holding court and telling intricate stories about the game. Whether you're looking back at the history of Eve or trying to figure out where it's going, The Mittani always seems to want to make sure he's in your viewfinder.
"The marketing department of [CCP Games] has attempted to capitalize on this event by promoting the conflict as similar to infamous Great Wars of the past despite the reality on the ground being very different," The Mittani told the International Business Times in an interview that took place before Fanfest.
"I haven't read that article, so I don't really know how to respond to that," Pétursson said when I described this claim. He laughed a bit. "But I think he's probably playing up the PR value by writing that article."
The Mittani didn't write the article, but it was based on an interview with him. The International Business Times also saw leaked IRC transcripts where The Mittani boasted of being able to get the press to print whatever he'd like.
Everyone involved has something to gain when these stories, including this one, are published. Eve Online gains customers and fame when the game is written about and people learn how much they can do from within the game's structure. The use of the media by the game's stars and power brokers to further their own agendas also keeps the game in the headlines while potentially furthering the agenda of in-game corporations.
Even if either or both sides of this current conflict are attempting to use the media for their own gains, CCP benefits from the tacit possibility that if you were to sign up for an account today, you might soon also be as powerful as these star players, and perhaps even make news.
"It's one of the things we learned from Ultima Online. I played Ultima Online quite a bit," Pétursson said when I asked if he had ever been tempted to step into the game as a Lord British-like figure.
Lord British was the in-game avatar of Richard Garriott, the creator of the game and "ruler of Britannia." He was designed to be impossible to kill, although that didn't stop players from trying all sorts of creative ways of doing so, and in some cases succeeding.
"I disliked the notion that somehow a single person could do something like that, and I as a player could never do that," he continued. "It made the world feel like a toy for the person who could do that. The disempowering feeling of that? I never liked that. So when we were designing Eve we wanted to stay out of a certain level."
CCP Games would make the game; it would create the technology; but it would never place it under the control of a virtual emperor. It was up to the players to take the space they wanted to keep, and then amass the power needed to keep it.
Nordgren also waved away any thought that she desired to have a more direct impact of the game, perhaps as a character or pilot.
"As a developer we have huge power over the world, but there's a layer that's fine for us to impact, and it's where we change the mechanics the game, which is then the same for everyone," she said. "And what players do with those? There we just have to stay out of it as much as we can and take a neutral stance. It's not that we don't have power and we don't interfere — we do — it's just that there's one allowed way to do that. Which is to change the fabric of reality inside the game."
The game is, in fact, designed to make sure one group can never gain too much power. Every structure has a weakness.
"We put quite a lot of thought into it, to find the balance between safety enough so that people will use it but not so safe that it sits there forever," Nordgren said.
"We're designing in a way where you should be playing other people, rather than just the game. You need to learn and use the game mechanics, but the point of that is to take action against other people who are doing the same."
These huge battles, it seems, are good for the game. War destabilizes the universe, and allows the balance of power to shift. It creates headlines and energizes the players. You can stay in areas of the game that are relatively safe and still feel the impact of the war without having to put yourself, or your ship, in much immediate danger.
Any way you slice it, though, war is good for business. I asked CCP Games if these conflicts lead to a rush on new accounts or re-activated legacy accounts.
"Yes, if there's a particularly large grudge match between alliances we see it — say when one Alliance's space is being invaded by an equal or greater force," Ned Coker, senior PR and social media lead at CCP Games, said. "Of course, for the current universe-spanning 'World War Bee' it's even more pronounced, with Alliances bragging about the return of legendary fleet commanders and people actually taking screenshots and posting to social media when famous personalities are spotted for the first time."
There is a PR cycle, in other words, and it takes place both inside and outside the game. This article is part of it.
But it can all seem a bit strange to be talking about these battles in real-world terms or to see someone seeming so delighted at the instability of a universe that can often seem so real. War may be good for the game, but seeing depictions of war, complete with in-game propaganda, can be a bit unnerving.
"I struggle with the ethics of it, and I always defend the line in CCP where virtual war is fun, real war is never fun, and it's never a joke," Nordgren said when I brought this up. "I try to be really careful with analogies to real war, because certain things don't belong in context with each other."
"They are not about real human life, and that's the line for me," she continued.
The problem is that sometimes it does spill out into real life, and the game has the possibility of carrying real-world consequences.
"They can't really hurt me financially," Joe told website Rock, Paper, Shotgun about the war. "The worry was they would try to single me out, target me as an individual out-of-game, so we kind of kept everything under wraps." Joe claims, in fact, to work for the Department of Defense.
Bullying has been an issue in the past, and The Mittani himself controversially mocked a player thought to be suicidal while encouraging that player's real-world harassment. He was temporarily banned from the game, along with other punishments.
"When you think of business dealings, when you think of the business world, [and] one company is doing a hostile takeover of another company, these are pretty intense actions," Pétursson told Polygon. "People could lose their jobs, lose their control, lose a lot of money, gain a lot of money. It's like high stakes, intense stuff."
"I could be trying to buy your company and you don't want to sell it to me, but I'm not going to go over and punch you in the stomach. It's not going to help the situation," he continued.
"So Eve Online is a little bit like that," he said. "There are big feuding alliances, you can almost think about them like companies in the real world, and generally things have been very civil, just like business. ... In the past 13 years it hasn't really been an issue. There have been incidents, but we've really taken a very hard line on that."
So these wars are fun, and are meant to be fun, as long as they stay within the bounds of virtual space. The development team itself is fascinated by watching the story unfold.
"Sometimes there's a really big battle that happens, and then there's sometimes a call, but usually we know a little upfront, and then usually we're like 'Ooh, let's watch it live as it happens,'" Nordgren told Polygon.
If CCP has a bit of a heads-up that something big is going to go down, it can make sure those locations are on "extra beefy" server nodes to help with the strain.
"We actually had some devs come together and [watch] some streams from the first big battle that happened in this conflict," she said. "So we're certainly watching."
Those ships they're watching blow up are worth real money, both to CCP and their pilots. And the struggle for power is real, in that it shapes the course of the game and even secondary businesses launched from Eve Online. You might even make it into a book about the history of the game, if you do well enough. The story is fictional on its face but, compared to what's at stake in other games, this is all very real, and often very bloody.
"People know what they can do, and they can reach the highest height of Eve Online," Pétursson said. "And it's completely theirs."