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Eve Online is getting crushed by its own success

What happens when too many people show up for your star war?

A tangle of warships backlit by the curve of a planet, explosions, and more.
Ships locked in battle above M2-XFE in Eve Online.
Image: Razorien/CCP Games via Polygon
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco is usually energetic when I chat with him, but today he sounds downright manic. Eve Online’s most famous warlord has been pressed up against the edge of the in-game map for nearly seven months now, his Imperium faction the target of a massive and well-funded coalition of his enemies, called PAPI. A little more than a week ago, the Imperium won a controversial victory in the spacefaring MMO, one that broke the back of the largest in-game fleet ever assembled. So you can excuse him for still being a little jazzed about that.

There’s just one problem. Turns out that the enemy fleet wasn’t actually destroyed. The reason that Gianturco won the Battle of M2 (as it’s being called) is that so many people showed up for the climax that Eve Online literally broke down.

Had the Battle of M2 gone off without a hitch, it would have been more than twice the size of the largest conflict that has ever been fought in the game’s nearly 18-year history. But there were hitches aplenty, and that’s how Gianturco won.

And see, that’s the real problem. When Eve broke down during the Battle of M2, it effectively split the massive enemy fleet in half. The larger half was left lingering outside the battlefield, waiting for its leadership to give the next order. Meanwhile, the smaller half got stuck on the battlefield. In fact, they’re all still there, present but invisible. The players who control those ships are forced to stay logged out of the game.

More than 330 titan-class enemy ships — some of the most powerful and expensive weapons in the game — are floating, invisible in space but intermingled with Gianturco’s own fleet. If the players controlling them log back in, they’ll quickly be obliterated. But, if Gianturco’s forces in the sector fall below a certain number, those enemy players can log in and tear his own fleet to shreds. So both sides are stuck here in what’s known as a “hellcamp,” and it sounds about as grueling as it does petty.

But hellcamps are not against the rules in Eve Online, and so the strange sort of siege goes on. Gianturco and his allies in the Imperium continue to sweat it out until 5 a.m. every morning. Because they have to. Because the battle could flare back up at any moment.

Tall, slender starships like office buildings ring far larger, disk shaped ships which are exploding with yellow light.
A cluster of PAPI titans show up at the Battle of M2, only to get obliterated as the servers buckle.
Image: Razorien/CCP Games

“I would feel a bit more comfortable if I had something like 200, 250 of their titans trapped,” Gianturco told me in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “If your forces fall below a certain point, do you really have them trapped, or are they just lurking? At some point, it’s unexploded ordnance.”

There’s another group with a slightly more serious problem, and that’s CCP Games. The developer of Eve Online is suddenly very much the victim of its own success. For nearly 20 years, the game’s marketing has promoted these kinds of massed fleet battles as the pinnacle of the in-game experience. Now that Eve is experiencing a kind of renaissance — in no small part because of its move to a free-to-play model — there are simply too many people showing up to fight.

“All of the players combined, there were approximately 35,000 online that day,” Jessica Kenyon told Polygon on Tuesday. Known to the community as CCP Aurora, she is Eve Online’s community developer. “Some 35% of those players were in just three systems attempting to join this fight. [...] So that’s over 12,000 players attempting to enter a single system.”

Had the servers held up, it would have shattered the previous record of more than 6,500 — which had only been set just a few months before. Prior to that, the record was slightly more than 5,000. It’s a kind of exponential increase in player concentration, the team tells me, that no one at the Icelandic studio ever expected.

In a blog post on Jan. 4, just hours after the fateful battle, CCP Games essentially threw its hands in the air, saying that it can no longer “predict the server performance in these kinds of situations.”

Many, many starships seen from a great distance. In the background lasers flare, and a massive installation called a keepstar looms.
Imperium and PAPI forces fight in the Battle of M2.
Image: Razorien/CCP Games

Throwing up your hands is not the same as throwing in the towel, explained creative director Bergur Finnbogason, also known as CCP Burger to the community. But the kinds of changes needed to allow for 12,000-plus player battles are still years away.

“We need to continue the march that we were on,” Finnbogason told Polygon during an interview on Tuesday. “We need to continue improving our servers and our software to be able to, you know, grow this. We need to also not lie to ourselves that there are silver bullets that can fix this.”

To understand the issues that CCP is working with, you need to know a little bit about computers. Most modern processors are multi-core. The 18-year-old code that CCP is working with simply can’t take advantage of those additional cores. Instead, its game architecture needs those individual cores to get faster and cheaper. However, in recent years, the rate at which individual processor cores get faster and cheaper has slowed down.

“We’ve run into a situation where Moore’s law has kind of come to an end,” said Kenyon. That means CCP needs to change the game’s architecture. Some improvements will come when parts of it are slowly migrated to the cloud over the next several years. But the biggest improvements won’t come until the game is remade in a way to take advantage of multi-threaded cores. And that change won’t arrive in time to have any impact on the PAPI starships trapped by the Imperium at the Battle of M2.

So how is this hellcamp going to resolve itself? No one really knows. CCP has said that it won’t be moving any of the PAPI starships to safety. No one whose ship was destroyed when the servers buckled will be reimbursed, in-game or out, for their loss. These have always been the company’s rules, and that’s why you’ll hear very little grousing from the player community about it. They knew what they were getting into when they went to war, and now they’re going to have to get themselves out of it.

Much the same way that CCP has to dig itself out of the technical trouble it’s found itself in.

“We want to continue this journey,” Finnbogason told Polygon. “We want to make sure that the battles can be more dramatic, that feelings can flow and emotions can take control. And, ultimately, our ultimate goal is that we are the backdrop to these emotions. We’re not the reason [for them].”

Meanwhile, Gianturco just can’t stop himself from gloating.

In his opinion, PAPI’s leaders never should have made the decision to start the battle in the first place. Eve Online’s servers were simply too full, and even though PAPI had a superior force on the field, Gianturco’s fleets had a better position. His enemies should have known what would happen if the servers failed the way they did.

“It’s like an admiral complaining about losing a naval battle because he failed to take into account the conditions of the sea,” Gianturco told me, bursting into a fit of laughter. “It would be like at the Battle of Agincourt complaining, ‘Oh, yeah, well, we totally should have won. But there’s lots of mud! We charged up the hill into these guys with long bows, but if it wasn’t for the mud.’”

On the other side of the battle lines, one of the opposing commanders — he goes by the in-game handle Gobbins — sees things a little differently. He’s a leader of the Pandemic Horde, a large fighting force within the PAPI coalition. He’s also a member of the Council of Stellar Management. The CSM is a player-elected advisory council that works with the developers at CCP to change and enhance the game.

Gobbins thinks that one of the ways forward for Eve is to change the rules of the game to de-emphasize these kinds of massed battles in the first place. But that kind of change, if it were to be made, is nearly as far off as the changes that need to be done to the game code itself.

That leaves PAPI good and truly stuck, more than 330 of its finest ships overextended and trapped.

“When the war started I told my guys that the war would end when either [Mittani’s faction] break, or PAPI breaks, or the server breaks,” Gobbins said on Discord when Polygon reached out to them on Wednesday. “The servers broke first. The future of the war hinges on CCP being able to guarantee a reliable playing field and the conditions to fight, otherwise [these large-scale wars] will stagnate because coalitions can simply grow until they are ‘too big to fail.’ In other words, to the size where bringing enough people to defeat you breaks the server before the fight can happen.”

And so the battle between the Imperium and PAPI — and between the developers of Eve Online and their players — continues.