Eve: The most thrilling boring game in the universe

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"All of it surprises me."

Alex "The Mittani" Gianturco is a long-time Eve Online player. In real life, he's a retired DC attorney. In Eve, he's a ruthless space dictator. Thinking about his journey from fresh-faced player to being arguably the most powerful person in the game, he tells me none of it was planned. "If you were to tell me five years ago I'd be living in Wisconsin and running a space empire full time, I'd think you were crazy." But that's what he now does. Most of his days are spent managing people in his space alliance, running his own video game news website and doing yoga.

I've sought out Gianturco because I want to understand the draw of the game. Whenever Eve Online makes headlines, there's a good chance Gianturco has had something to do with it. A quick search of his name reveals that he's helped start wars, spied on enemies, orchestrated espionage missions and made a name for himself by leading the biggest and baddest group of players in the game. His experience with Eve has been so full of drama, back-stabbing and deception, there's enough juicy fodder for a tell-all memoir.

As someone who has tried to play the game and quit multiple times out of sheer boredom, all of this surprises me.

Few games have such a conflicting outward image. Eve Online is famously exciting, but also notoriously dull. Eve Online will lure in players with its stories of spying, trust and betrayal, but even long-time players will say that most people tune out before they even get past the tutorial. Eve Online is the most fun you'll ever have in a game. Eve Online will put you into a coma.

I want to know what I'm missing. Is the game really just "spreadsheets in space," as many players have joked? Or have players like Gianturco found the key to another part of the universe that I've not yet seen?

"The fun stuff in Eve is something that most players don't get to experience until they've played the game for six months to a year," Gianturco says. Patience is key. It takes time to learn the game's mechanics. It takes time to learn the game's economy. Most importantly, it takes time to realize everything is connected, whether the players like it or not. "Everyone is trapped in the same galaxy," Gianturco says, "like rats in a cage."

Origins in Iceland

I meet with the developer of Eve Online, CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson at the company's exhibition space during the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. Most publishers at E3 have brightly-lit booths, often accompanied by loud, thumping music and strobe lights to draw attention. CCP's booth is tucked away in a room upstairs, far from the main show floor. The room is deliberately dark — an attempt to mimic the sensation of being in space. Speakers play the sound you hear when you're sitting in your ship in Eve Online (think: the hum of a hardworking air-conditioner).

Pétursson takes a seat opposite me in a cordoned-off room. There's a calmness and patience to the way he speaks and carries himself. He has a thick Icelandic accent that makes his words sound like they're underlined. If he told you he was disappointed in you, you'd believe it. He tells me he just came from a meeting with Hollywood executives — they were having talks about turning the stories from Eve Online into a television series.

"About those stories," I say, interrupting him. I tell him what I've heard. I tell him about the stories of spying, of huge battles, of intrigue and espionage. I tell him I know that Eve Online has these stories, but as someone who has flown around in one of its little spaceship myself, I have no idea where they're coming from.

Eve Online is, in gaming terms, a "sandbox" game. Like a sandbox found in a playground, the game has provided players with the tools and environment to make and do what they want. There's no story to follow and unravel. The game doesn't give players a good guy to help or a bad guy to defeat. Everyone plays on the same server.

Within the server are solar systems and regions, each with different minerals that players can mine and use to craft items. These items and resources can be bought and sold on the in-game marketplace using the in-game currency, ISK.

ISK is an unusual video game currency. For one, it's not stagnant. It fluctuates like real-world currencies do. It also has a real-world value, which many Eve players take advantage of. ISK can't be converted into real-world money, but it can be used to buy an item called PLEX. PLEX can be used for two things: it can be converted back into a sizable chunk of ISK, or it can be used to buy game time. The cost of a monthly subscription to Eve is approximately $15, so as the price of PLEX fluctuates on the in-game market, the real-world value of ISK also fluctuates. This means if someone makes enough ISK in the game, they can use that ISK to buy PLEX, and use that PLEX to pay for their monthly Eve subscription. That's the simple side of it, at least.

When you're floating in Eve space, you'll see clouds of space dust in the distance. You might see some space rocks. And then there are tables and charts. These charts tell you what is within your vicinity, whether those things are stargates that will transport you to other solar systems, other players or moons from which you can mine things. Am I meant to find this fun and exciting?

Pétursson laughs. The short answer, he says, is "Not quite." The long answer starts in the mid-1990s.

In 1997, and he and a group of developers (who would later form CCP) had an idea to make a game that was more about the players than the game itself. They decided to raise money for it by first releasing a board game called The Danger Game. The game sold more than 10,000 copies to Iceland's 80,000 or so households. With the help of private investors, the company managed to raise something to the tune of $3 million.

"We had never made a computer game, and we didn't even know anyone who had made a computer game," Pétursson says. "But we had done a lot of things. We'd done 3-D, we'd done multi-user, we'd done a board game. Then we came up with this thesis of, 'OK, we have $3 million, we have 30 people, so we have to do as little as possible and be very effective in what we do. We can't just create a lot of content for the game because that is labor-intensive, and it's a much bigger production.'

"So we basically built an operating system for a world, and it's a world where you can make all the things in it and sell them on an open market. You can form corporations, and those corporations can claim territory and vie for strategic dominance. That sounds like a system that can be done by 30 people, and then the people who join the game after that, they will do the rest."

After three years of development and some time in alpha and beta, Eve Online launched in 2003.

Pétursson says he had some theories about how people might play. When people first started, they would try to conquer territory. But many would not be strong enough to defeat the game's computer-controlled pirates at first, so they would call in their friends and team up with each other. The world wasn't as connected then as it is now, so most players would call on friends they knew in the real world, which led to huge blocks forming over geographic locations. This led to something unexpected.

"The game was very popular in Russia. There's something about space and world domination — it was very inherently deep in the Russian psyche."

Pétursson takes my notepad and pen and draws four squiggly blobs. He labels them: "R" (Russians), "S" (Scandinavians), "A" (Americans), "F & G" (French and German).

"So in the beginning, this region was claimed by the Russians," he says, tracing the blob next to the "R." "This region was claimed by the Scandinavians," he says, doing the same for the Scandinavian blob. "Then there were the French and Germans," he says, tapping at the "F & G," "and the Americans," tapping at the "A." "The Russians couldn't figure out why they couldn't conquer the regions from the Scandinavians. The game was very popular in Russia. There's something about space and world domination — it was very inherently deep in the Russian psyche."

The Russians kept attacking the Scandinavians, but the Scandinavians seemed to have an endless supply of ships and weaponry. The Russians couldn't figure out how a group that wasn't even that big within the game was able to stand its ground so well. Through weeks of espionage and sending their own people into Scandinavian and American corporations as spies, the Russians learned that the Americans were secretly funding the Scandinavians through huge supply lines.

"The Scandinavians were asking the Americans for help, and it was secret," Pétursson says. "Nobody knew. It wasn't until the Russians found this out that they got the French to attack the Americans, breaking the supply line. Then the Russians were able to conquer Scandinavian territory."

This all happened within the first few months of Eve's launch when the game only had 30,000 players. The game now has more than 500,000 players.

"We're not controlling them or telling the story of the game," Pétursson says, handing my notepad and pen back to me. "The game is the players."

Power in numbers

There is no right or wrong way to play Eve Online. There is nothing to stop a player from jumping in solo, mining for minerals, running missions (many of which involve going to a place, mining a thing, selling the thing, fighting a pirate, lathering, rinsing, repeating), manufacturing, holding cargo and manipulating the market. Some players are completely content to do this. Others find it mind numbing.

"Where things really become interesting is having conflicts with players over territory, over resources and even over identity or philosophy," says Bjorn "Kesper North" Townsend, who is on Eve's Council of Stellar Management, a player-elected group that communicates with CCP about ways to improve the game. In real life, Townsend is a product manager in his 30s from New Jersey. In Eve, he runs an alliance of more than 3,400 members, takes them into battles and is knee-deep in the politics that have emerged in Null-Sec in the years following the game's launch. Eve is divided into three security zones: High-Sec (an area policed by CCP), Low-Sec (a less surveilled area) and Null-Sec (an area with no security where anything goes).

According to Townsend, the game has gotten as big and exciting as it has because players have learned how to be more efficient and effective. The early activities of the Russians, Scandinavians, French and Americans are a cakewalk compared to how big and complicated the conflicts and factions have become.

It all starts with the basic idea of escalation. Two players are vying for space. They could fight each other one on one, or one player could bring in a friend to fight with them, which increases their chance of victory. Seeing this, the other player calls upon 10 friends to fight alongside them. Both sides continue to one-up each other until someone wins. This kind of escalation can also be seen in the more mundane tasks in Eve. If a person were to mine for moon minerals on their own, they would have to mine them, transport them, and process them. If they rope in two friends, they can have one person focusing on each step of the process. If they rope in 30 people, they're now producing 10 times the amount of resources in the same amount of time.

When players team up together, they'll often form a corporation. The head of the corporation is the CEO. Townsend says being a CEO in Eve Online is a lot like being a real CEO. "You have to deal with human resources issues," he says. "You have to deal with security issues. You have to provide leadership to the people within your alliance, giving them the strategy for what you'd like to achieve and telling the narrative of how you want to go about it.

"You also have to ensure that your alliance is profitable because in Eve, in order to expand, wage war, have a conflict, you need to be able to fund it financially in the first place."

There are no limits to the level of escalation because players determine their own goals. Some corporations might just want to mine resources efficiently so they can manufacture weapons and go out to pick fights with other players. Others might want to own territory, and a lot of it at that. Whatever it is, it's power in numbers. Some corporations will join forces to form alliances. Some alliances will then join forces to form coalitions.

"Every single major achievement in the game absolutely requires the concerted effort of a group of people, whether it's five people trying to make it through hostage space together, or 3,000 people trying to conquer a region," Townsend says. "You're forced to work together to achieve goals, and that fosters a strong sense of teamwork and community. You're able to take pride in your accomplishments, and your accomplishments are very tangible and have a lasting impact on the game itself. You can point to an area of space and say, hey, I conquered this space with my alliance, or I destroyed this massive titanic ship here, and that gives you a history and friendship that you bond over for the rest of your life."

Loveable losers, the broker and the mafia

Not everyone who plays Eve Online has ambitions to win the war of sovereignty. Not everyone wants to own space and exert their dominance.

Dennis Gilmore is a 45-year-old operations manager for a manufacturing company in Washington. In Eve, he's better known as Del DelVechio, the head of two corporations that perhaps exemplify the Eve sandbox. Gilmore runs a corporation named Red and another named Blue. The two corporations regularly come together to fight each other. They're engaged in a perpetual war. For Red versus Blue, this is a game within a game.

"Everybody knows what we are," Gilmore tells me over the phone. "We're kind of the loveable losers. We fly cheap ships. We're not serious about it. We're in it for the fun. If you show up and slaughter us all, we'll just come back for more. We're known for doing what we do, which is just going out, destroying ships, and having a good time."

Gilmore organizes Red versus Blue in the same way a football coach might organize two teams at training. Players move into either team, ensuring the numbers are close to even. Each team has its own fleet commanders who decide what the tactics will be, what kind of ships they will fly and what types of ammunition they will use — and off they go.

Some players aren't even interested in spaceship battles. Christer "Chribba" Enberg is one of the most well-known players in Eve Online. He started playing in the spring of 2003 and has carved out something of a niche for himself, both in terms of what he does and what he is known for.

"Chribba — he is the guy you can trust," says Kasparas "Chitsa Jason" Jasiukenas, a member of the Council of Stellar Management from Lithuania. "He acts as a third party between two entities if they want to trade something really big and expensive. People know him because you can trust him. He will never cheat you, which is kind of a rare thing in Eve."

Enberg is a broker. Mechanically, such a role doesn't exist in the game — the players invented it themselves to meet their own needs. Before brokers like Enberg came along, players could easily scam each other in large trades. If a player wanted to sell a Titan — one of the biggest ships in Eve Online — to another player, there was nothing to stop the buyer from taking the ship and never paying. Similarly, there was nothing to stop the seller from taking the money and never handing over the ship. Cue Enberg, a middleman who takes both the ship and money and ensures that a fair trade is made. He charges 300 million ISK for deals made in Low-Sec and 500 million ISK for deals made in Null-Sec. While the value of ISK is relative, if someone is in a position to trade an item so big and expensive that they require a broker, 500 million ISK is loose change. Enberg hasn't changed his rates since he first began offering the service in 2007.

By day, Enberg is a 33-year-old who works at an online casino in Sweden. When I speak to him, his real-world persona is not too far from the friendly and trustworthy reputation he's developed in Eve. He tells me he's not part of any corporation because part of being a broker means he has to remain neutral. He would not be neutral if he was flying somebody else's flag. He tells me he realizes that a lot of people see him as the "The Man You Can Trust," but he hopes he is not the only one. He tells me that he could have scammed people, but it's just not in his personality to do so. "At this point, I have no reason to scam at all, because whatever I would scam now would be far less than what I've earned by being honest," he says.

Chribba's trustworthiness is known throughout Eve. "If you were to cast Eve Online, Chribba would be the hero and The Mittani would be the villain, even though they don't hate each other or fight each other," says Ellen "Ali" McManis of the Council of Stellar Management. The two are often compared to each other to highlight the altruism of one and the dictatorial nature of the other.

The Mittani runs the Goonswarm Federation alliance of 10,000 and an even bigger group called the Clusterfuck Coalition of 40,000. Enberg mostly plays the game solo. Goonswarm and the CFC have more sovereignty than any other coalition. Enberg has no interest in owning space. Goonswarm and the CFC frequently engage in the headline-making wars. Enberg has no interest in fighting other players.

Enberg isn't competitive. He says he just likes helping people.

DNS doesn't fight for space, but whatever it does fight for, it fights to win.

On the other side of the competitive spectrum is the Dirt Nap Squad, a corporation of 80 or so close-knit, hyper-competitive players. DNS doesn't fight for space, but whatever it does fight for, it fights to win.

The head of DNS is Bradley "DNSBlack" King, a tough-talking horticulturalist and wrestling and football coach from Michigan. He runs his corporation seriously ("There's a role for everybody in Eve to be part of a great victory or a great loss"), he treats its members like they're on a sports team ("There's always gotta be grunts, there's always gotta be the water guy or the equipment guy"), and he expects his members to be driven and focused ("They're out there working hard for the team").

King invites me to one of DNS' meetings over the voice communication service TeamSpeak. Most corporations have ways of communicating with their members outside of Eve. Some have their own forums, while others rely on Jabber, Skype or IRC. For some players, most of the game happens outside the Eve client.

Before I log into TeamSpeak, King sends me the meeting's agenda. There's a bullet point for opening statements, one that covers corporation projects like moon surveying and a jump freighter service. There's mention of ship fittings, a siphon initiative, and something about scratching a pole. Then there's a bullet point titled "Zachary King Wrestling." King's son is a wrestler at school. The wrestling team is fundraising so it can travel and compete against other schools. King explains in the call that if anyone in DNS wants to chip in and help out, the school would really appreciate it.

"DNS is not about the ones and zeroes," King tells me. "We're about the people and the friendships. We're about the human side of the game."

The corporation prides itself on being a tight-knit and focused group that picks its battles carefully. "I know the people who join DNS, and they don't want to be part of the whole sovereignty grind," King says. "They don't want to be part of the whole, 'Hey we're important, look at us!" thing. That's the mafia, no-base organization I'm talking about. We live in the back alleys, but we get involved in those fights. We get involved in those fights with our friends."

Spreadsheets in space

As I leave the DNS meeting, I begin to understand why so many players enjoy Eve. If Eve didn't exist, the members of DNS would likely play a different game together. It just so happens that Eve gives them the wriggle room to do what they want, whatever flavor that may be that day, week or month. They could change their minds tomorrow and decide they want to fight everyone, and Eve would allow them to do that. They could decide they want to become the wealthiest corporation in the game, and the mechanics in Eve wouldn't stop them. But I keep coming back to the joke I was told before I started playing: that the game is a bunch of spreadsheets in space.

None of the players I've spoken to have even mentioned spreadsheets.

"You should talk to Mynnna," Townsend tells me. "He's The Mittani's finance guy. He'll be able to help you."

I track down Michael "Mynnna" Porter, a 27-year-old engineer from Colorado who is also on the Council of Stellar Management. He's a member of the Goonswarm Federation, the alliance run by The Mittani. His primary role is being a director of finance for the alliance. He also manages Goonswarm Federation's rental empire. Porter is only one of several finance directors in Goonswarm Federation. The Goons run a well-oiled machine. With thousands of members, tasks are delegated. There are people who manage the alliance's resources. There are people assigned to manufacture ships and weapons. There's an HR unit. There's a division that focuses on training new players. There's a department devoted to espionage and counter-intelligence. CCP didn't dictate that players had to structure their corporations and alliances in any particular way. The game's players came up with these structures themselves. Porter tells me most of what he does is fairly straightforward, and yes, it does involve spreadsheets. Most of Goonswarm's money comes from minerals its members have mined. "The moon minerals in and of themselves are not useful, so you have to run them through a series of reactions to turn them into something useful," he says. "We sell them to corporation members who want to run those reactions, because it's profitable for them to do so."

The rental empire is a relatively new Goonswarm initiative. The alliance — being one of the most powerful in Eve — owns a lot of space. It owns more space than it can use. Like any landlord with too much property and an eye for profit, Goonswarm rents it out to its alliance members. "It's like managing a space apartment, except people can freely shoot at your tenants," he says.

With the amount of space Goonswarm Federation currently holds, Porter estimates it has a maximum earning potential of 700 billion ISK per month. For context, that would buy a player about 1,000 warfare ships in Eve. Most of the rental empire is managed outside of the game. If a corporation wants to reside in Goon-controlled territory, it knows to email Porter.

When he's not managing Goonswarm Federation's finances, Porter likes to manipulate the Eve marketplace for profit. I ask for an example. He gives me one. He has to explain it twice. It's complicated.

About a year and a half ago, CCP updated Eve Online to encourage players to fight each other in player versus player combat. Under this update, the player who won a fight obtained Loyalty Points, which is an alternate type of currency. The amount of Loyalty Points awarded was based on the value of what was destroyed. This value was based on the average price of an item. This is how the average price was calculated: Each day, the game keeps track of every item sold and the price at which it was sold. From this, it generates a daily average. The Loyalty Points system looks at the average of that average over a period of time. That final figure determines the value of a destroyed item, and how many Loyalty Points a player earns by destroying it in PvP combat.

Porter and his friends figured out this connection and took advantage of it.

"So we took an item with both very low quantity sold and a very low price, and then went and sold a large quantity at a very high price to ourselves," he says. By doing this, Porter distorted the average price of the item. He and his friends would then kit themselves out with the item, kill each other in the game, reap the Loyalty Points, and use them to buy more of the cheap items, resulting in an enormous profit.

"That ranks up there as one of the most complex things I've done in the game," he says. "It took associating these two barely related systems, and then figuring out how to make them play off each other for unintended consequences."

Playing the market also has some parallels to real-world commodities markets, he says. The value of a resource fluctuates depending on the demand for it. Sometimes the cycles are weekly, sometimes they're monthly, sometimes a war will break out and the cost of resources will skyrocket as corporations scramble to ramp up their forces. They'll buy dozens or hundreds of ships and pieces of equipment all at once. It all comes back to the sandbox. There isn't an infinite supply of weapons that players can just buy from a virtual store. Every item is made by someone. Once that item is destroyed, it's gone.

The Mittani

I hear about The Mittani before I even start playing Eve. Every player I speak to knows the name and, depending on which side they fight for, has a different opinion of him.

"He is a very deep, strategic thinker," Townsend says. "He also has a fine grasp of human nature, which is something you don't often find in a gamer. He is very good at understanding the motivations of people and exploiting them to his own ends, which I say with considerable admiration. I consider him a friend and have never been disappointed by backing his plays."

"The Mittani is famous because he is a spy master, a dictator, and head of the CFC," McManis says. "He engineered the downfall of the Band of Brothers alliance, which was the previous superpower in the game. He runs an organization which ruthlessly and efficiently wins at most of the things it tries."

"He's a douche bag," says a player who asks not to be named.

If there's a faction you don't want to cross, it's the Goons. If Eve is a game where powers lie in the numbers, then Goonswarm Federation and the CFC are arguably the most powerful. When members join, they are automatically given a combat ship. If they go out and destroy that ship in battle, Goonswarm will give them another. The alliance is powerful and wealthy enough to not be precious about its resources. It's one of the reasons so many players flock to Goonswarm Federation: The message they send to new players is come with us, kill some enemies, have some fun.

The Goons are a group of players who came from the Something Awful community, a comedy website with its own forums, comics, reviews and blogs. When asked what they were known for, aside from being the current superpower in Eve, one player described them as "professional shit-stirrers."

During my chat with Alex "The Mittani" Gianturco, the retired attorney regales me with tales of the mischief he and and his teammates got into when they first started playing in 2005.

One of the leaders of the corporation he was part of came up with an idea for a scam. In the early days of Eve, players couldn't warp their ships to a stargate — they could only warp themselves within 15 kilometers of one. So after warping to a location, players would have to spend the next 15 clicks getting themselves to the actual stargate so they could enter a different part of space. Players tried to circumvent this through bookmarks, which are the precise coordinates that would get them to a specific gate. Eve players would have hundreds of bookmarks, one for each region in the game. This system would later change, but before it did, Gianturco took part in a bookmark scam.

The idea was to sell a set of bookmarks — they would be completely accurate, except for one which wasn't actually a bookmark for a gate. "What it did was it sent you into a horrible death trap at this player-owned station we'd set up, which was covered in guns," Giaturco says. "So most of our activities in the early days was sitting around this station we had set up in Low-Sec and watching people who had bought this bookmark set just splatter into it like a bug on a windshield. We'd then loot their stuff and laugh at them.

"We're Goons — we've pretty much always been griefers from the start."

The Goons didn't set out to rule Eve Online as ruthlessly as they have. In fact, Gianturco says the game's previous superpower, Band of Brothers, provoked them into being what they are today.

In Gianturco's version of events, when Goonswarm formed, it tried to be a group of good citizens. Spying, scamming and smack-talking were disapproved by the culture at the time, so it tried to fit in. The corporation didn't own any space and flew around in non-threatening ships called rifters. Eventually, those rifters became bigger ships, and the corporation started taking its first steps into sovereign Null-Sec. Band of Brothers, the most powerful alliance at the time, decided it had had enough of the Goons and began forcing them out.

"So this was July 2006," Gianturco says. "They declared Goonswarm must be destroyed. After that, we got nasty." Gianturco says it's about the principle: He believes Goonswarm was unfairly targeted because they were seen as outsiders, because they came from Something Awful. In his eyes, the Goons had done nothing to warrant this treatment. The gloves came off. "We spent the next three years prosecuting, burning everything they had and salting the earth."

In this particular war, the Goons were outnumbered. If this was a war fought solely with ships, it is unlikely they would have won. Band of Brothers had too many allies on their side. But the Goons did win. They don't call Gianturco a spymaster for no reason.

A member of Band of Brothers in a director's position secretly defected to the Goons in 2008. In 2009, some three years into the war, Gianturco had a realization while sitting at his desk job in DC. In a moment that he describes being like "a brick to the head," he realized the defected director was in a position to disband the entire Band of Brothers alliance in a matter of clicks.

The spy had the delegated ability to remove other corporations from the alliance. He could kick out all the corporations, steal all the money and assets from the executor corporation and finally, when the alliance was empty, close the alliance. And that's exactly what happened. Gianturco didn't even have to log in to the game to orchestrate the disbandment. Like most of the impressive feats achieved in Eve Online, the plotting and scheming took place outside the game. When the plan was in place, all he had to do was tell the director to pull the trigger.

Band of Brothers lost everything in the space of a few clicks.

"If you looked at the map before and after the Band of Brothers alliance was disbanded, you can see at one point the picture just snaps and all that sovereignty changes," Townsend says. "It was like a shockwave that resonated throughout the Eve universe because, while it wasn't graphically impressive — there was no big explosion, no titanic detonation — you could see the effects that were felt on the map of the game in terms of the big players."

Band of Brothers lost everything in the space of a few clicks. Goonswarm moved in.

According to Gianturco, the Goons have remained in power in part due to his ruthlessness. In his first tenure as CEO of Goonswarm, he says he was a terrible leader because he tried to create a democracy within the corporation. "Eve teaches you all sorts of horrible things about people," he says. "There has never been a successful democracy in Eve Online. They either implode or they get steamrolled."

"People want to be led by someone who's strong and someone who's bold," he says. "If they see weakness, then everything begins to collapse."

To ensure the success of Goonswarm Federation, Gianturco runs the alliance with an iron fist.

"How do you deal with dissenters?" he says. "A lot of people, when they encounter someone who says they're a shitty leader, they will do the two most common things: They will have a big screaming drama on the forums, or meet with the dissenter and try to listen to them. Obviously if someone has a valid criticism, you should try to fix those. But a lot of the time, people just try to stir shit.

"So what you actually do is quietly shoot them in the back of the head when no one is looking. You don't make a big deal out of it. You don't announce it. When nobody's looking, just remove them. No man, no problem."

Gianturco has been in power ever since.

Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers tried to reform after the disbandment, but a mechanic in Eve that requires players to wait 24 hours before they can form a new alliance meant they were too slow. Most of their sovereignty was gone. The alliance flew under the name Kenzoku for a few months before the corporations went their separate ways.

The face of Band of Brothers, Par "Molle" Molen, still runs his own corporation, Evolution. Molen is a 46-year-old start-up manager who lives on the East Coast of the U.S. By his own admission, he was probably one of the most hated people in Eve.

"We were very arrogant," he says. "We were not shy about the fact that we were good and we could stomp on everybody. We were not shy about it at all."

The point of contention between Band of Brothers and the Goons was a philosophical one. "Scamming people, betraying people ... that was definitely not our way of doing things," he says. "Our philosophy was more: OK, I'm going to come up to you; I'm going to punch you in the face; I'm going to let you know I'm punching you in the face before I do it; you will know that I am doing it and you will know the intention I'm doing it with; I won't do anything backhanded; I won't scam, I won't betray.

"It's two totally different philosophies. Goons are ... I just won't comment too much."

The day Band of Brothers was disbanded, Molen didn't even have to log in to Eve to know that something was wrong. He signed in to the alliance's IRC chat room — there was complete chaos. Molen says he immediately knew who was responsible, because only so many people in Band of Brothers had that power, and only one of those people was online the time it happened. To this day, he still hasn't spoken to the director who did it.

Thinking back on what happened, Molen says he is mostly annoyed that the mechanic existed at all. But there's no ill will. It's a game. You can be serious about your game, you can be serious about your friendships, but it's a game, he says.

In his own grand narrative of Eve Online, he believes he's won, anyway. "There's no question about it," he says, "because I met my wife through Eve. So I've won no matter how many times people shoot me down."

It's real

There's a story Hilmar Pétursson often tells about the moment he realized Eve Online was "real." It was 2003, the game had just launched, and he was on paternity leave. While playing the game, he borrowed a friend's ship to help his corporation mine minerals. As he got up to use the restroom, he set his ship on autopilot. When he returned to his computer minutes later, the ship had been attacked by pirates — all that was left of the ship was its shell, its contents looted.

"I wanted to scream," he says. "I wanted to throw my computer out the window. I was sweating. It was like, why is the game doing this to me? What's going on?"

As chief technical officer of CCP at the time, Pétursson could have easily created another Thorax by typing in a few lines of code. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. It felt wrong to create something from nothing, especially when every other player in the game was working so hard to mine minerals to manufacture everything they had from scratch. "And that's when I felt it," he says. "The items in Eve Online are real things. They might not be physical things, but they are real things. Like ideas and politics and religion and theories, they are real things, even if they are not physical things."

"It becomes a hobby," Townsend says. "And I don't mean a hobby in the way that people like to unwind after a long day at work by playing Call of Duty. It's a hobby more in a way that people spend days, weeks, months meticulously building wooden boats or model train sets or learning to fly airplanes. It's a complex set of skills, and you have a community that you become involved with."

The game and the relationships formed in Eve seem inextricably tied together. Most players understand the game is just a game, and they should only take it so seriously ("Let the game be a game," Molen says, "I'll shoot you in the game. I'll buy you a beer on the side"). But there is something real about their experiences. The time they put into the game is real. The impact they have on the game is lasting. And the stories they create echo far beyond the world of Eve.

I'm brought back to the mafia-like DNS meeting, where every person in the TeamSpeak channel was friends, who chatted as they fought and laughed as they schemed and bonded as they flew through the galaxy as a kind of space mafia. I'm reminded of the Goons, who fought ruthlessly and rule with an iron fist because no one tells a Goon they're not welcome. I think of every Eve player I've spoken to, who discovered their love for the game after playing with other people.

I decide to give Eve Online one more try. I undock my dinky frigate from the home screen and drift through clouds of space dust, eying the rocks in the distance and the complex tables with stargates. Hundreds of thousands of people are connected by this one universe. All of it surprises me. Babykayak

Illustrations: Kyle T. Webster

Coloring: Tyson Whiting