Sins of a Solar Spymaster #53 - A Tripolar Galaxy
The political landscape of EVE is a tenuous thing at this moment. With the abrupt and total collapse of Atlas and subsequent demise of their bloc-partner, Against All Authorities, the number of functional power bloc in the game has reduced to three. Even during the dramatic polarization of the Great Wars, there remained at least four blocs in New Eden; we presently face a political vacuum where former blocs have either been killed off entirely or merged with each other. This is a shame, because within the last year we had six blocs active simultaneously; the more blocs, the more combinations, the more pieces on the board of the great game to manage or manipulate - or die trying.
2009 saw the apex of the traditional bloc as an entity. At on point, there was Pandemic Legion, Goonswarm, IT Alliance, The Northern Coalition, the 'Drone Russians' (Solar Fleet, Legion of Death, Red Alliance), Atlas Alliance, the 'Southern Russians' (AAA, Red Overlord, Stain Empire). Each of these entities had roughly independent political destinies, different leadership styles, and was a force to be reckoned with in their own right.
Since that zenith, Pandemic Legion has become a nonterritorial mercenary entity, Red Overlord has lost its wealthy patron (SerLordex) and best FC (Nync), sinking it to backwater status. AAA began to work closely with Atlas, merging into a new bloc, but both Atlas and AAA got obliterated messily in the past two months. Goonswarm imploded and was replaced in the Southwest by IT; after recovering its swagger, Goonswarm has essentially merged with the Northern Coalition by becoming the stewards of Deklein.
This leaves us with, de facto, only three power blocs. The Northern Coalition (plus Goonswarm, etc etc; the debate about whether GSF is 'in' the NC or not is both tedious and irrelevant to a practical analysis). The Drone Russians will likely persist indefinitely (regardless of their quite substantial military might) by simple virtue of the fact that no one but them wants to own the Drone regions. White Noise, a Russian alliance which works closely with the Drone Russians, can be included with them. IT Alliance's bloc functionally includes The Initiative, the biggest winners of the Atlas/AAA purge, as well as ancillary entities in Fountain. Meanwhile, Pandemic Legion offers contracts to work for these blocs, making it a very powerful wildcard but not a traditional bloc.
This is not good, as it reduces the politics of nullsec to that of a Mexican Standoff. Charting the actions of seven blocs is fascinating; predicting what three will do is frustrating. Given the basic rules of war and politics (the enemy of my enemy is my friend, peace is boring so always be at war with someone) calculating who will do what in an optimal arrangement is childishly simple.
In the aftermath of the AAA/Atlas defeat, Pandemic Legion is 'off contract'. Legion of Death and White Noise, which had been spearheading that campaign (and hired PL) have headed home. As of last week, the Northern Coalition has launched an invasion of the Drone Regions, loudly proclaiming that this is not a serious sov contest but 'just pew pew'. While this is actually the case (since no one but the Drone Russians want Drone space) the attack is widely perceived within the Drones as an actual strategic assault. For those completely unable to follow the bouncing ball, there's only three blocs here. NC invades Drones, what do the Drones do? Reach out to IT, perennial enemy/frequent invader of the North to draw off the heat. IT does the same thing that Sir Molle does every time he invades the North (base in Pure Blind NPC, push up towards Branch). Depending on who has the most isk, someone hires PL and they join one side or the other. Hilarity ensues.
This ought to keep us amused for a while, but the coming conflict (should it pan out in the most obvious way) will feature many of the things we have learned to loathe about Dominion - massive supercapital blobs, endless fleets of Drakes/Scimitars, and lag, lag lag. Due to the inherent advantage of defenders in Dominion (Defenders need to win only one battle of a roughly week-long contest for each station system; Attackers must win four such contests consecutively) and the completely alien timezones of each of these entities (IT and the NC have roughly equal powers in the euro zone; Drone Russians live in their own Moscow timezone, pre-Euro, and Goonswarm and the other Americans in the NC have the US timezone on lockdown) it's hard to believe that the coming conflagration will result in much territorial shift. Historically, under the Dominion sov system, alliances typically only lose space against equal attacking forces if they have collapsed internally; both AAA and Atlas were weak and rotten from within when they came under assault. That describes none of the remaining blocs.
What we are seeing as a trend in EVE is a narrowing of diversity. Fleets are increasingly homogeneous due to the way balance has been ruined by Logistics ships; your subcapital options are either an Armor HAC fleet or a Drake/Scimitar gang. Everything else gets pasted. Your capital fleet is almost exclusively supercarriers and a smattering of Titans, but primarily everyone there not in a supercarrier is madly training/working to get in one as soon as possible. Dreadnaughts, like Battleships, are a threat only to POSes. And this narrowing even extends to the political realm, where a year ago we had seven blocs and now we have three.
Amusingly, things are so bad and obvious in the diversity department that even CCP has taken notice; CCP Chronotis has recently begun to post about nerfing Drakes, as if it was the Drake's fault that the Scimitar and Basilisk reign supreme in shieldfleets. Chronotis is most famous for his 'moon goo rebalance', which was intended to end the primacy of Dysprosium and Promethium in the economy of nullsec; his 'fix' unleashed the Technetium bottleneck, even though he was openly warned that his planned changes would do this months in advance of Dominion. Technetium is, of course, more valuable than either Dys/Prom at their peak, and unlike the ubiquitous dys/prom, is located in the Northwest of the galaxy. The cynic in me expects to see an over-nerfed Drake, which will simply mean that the three remaining blocs will field only Armor HAC fleets, their one other subcapital option ruined.
Is there hope? For martial diversity, CCP could make a couple of quick fixes. Bomb damage could be changed to be based on ship speed rather than signature radius, which would tone down Armor HAC gangs and see some use of battleships. The Dreadnaught siege cycle could be brought to match the Carrier Triage cycle of 5 minutes, giving Dreads more flexibility in the age of hilariously overdominant supercarriers. For political diversity, there's not much that CCP can do without tinkering with the Dominion sov system to make it more dynamic. Additionally, while there isn't an obvious rational connection between the decline in fleet diversity and the increasingly homogenous political environment, I can't help but feel that they are somehow correlated.