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EVE Online: Sci-Fi Sharecroppers

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It was the sort of offer that RISE, an alliance based in Cloud Ring, couldn't refuse - not because of a mafia-esque strong-arming, but the more subtle coercion of greed. Leave their home in a resource-poor, cramped and irrelevant region to become a player on the board of the Great Game. New territory, richer than they could conceive of. Status - of the derivative, cape-holding sort - but far more than they had before. There was only one price: Rent. Each month, no matter what. Like so many others before them, and without thinking of the consequences, they eagerly accepted this devil's bargain. This choice sealed their doom: RISE had become a pet.

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Pets, vassals, tenants: there are many derogatory nicknames for these sci-fi sharecroppers. In the social hierarchy of EVE Online, they rank somewhere below Empire-bound mission runners and slightly above people who take WoW pvp seriously. Despite this, pets positively litter 0.0 space, and the 'pet system' has existed more or less unchanged for years. One of the largest alliances in the game, Shadow of xXDeathXx, is entirely comprised of the pets of Legion of xXDeathXx - and every month, like clockwork, the pay their rent.

For RISE, everything about the arrangement went well for the first few months. Their master, the now-defunct Band of Brothers alliance, had recently conquered the territory of Ascendant Frontier and needed someone to hold space in Feythabolis, Esoteria and Paragon Soul. RISE was settled into a constellation in Feythabolis and began injecting six billion isk each month into the BoB coffers.

Almost immediately, some of the catches became apparent to the more perceptive members of RISE: the alliance had to tower and fuel their rented space with their own isk and their own logisticians, yet without the benefit of any R64 moons (which usually fuel a normal alliance's fuel costs).  Not only that, RISE were obliged by their agreement with BoB to defend their territory against hostile incursions, which commenced shortly after they moved in. This was problematic, because RISE had not taken its new territory by force, so the military skills needed for effective defense had never been developed.

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On its face, both parties in the pet system accrue benefits. The master gets a steady flow of capital, an auxiliary military force that can be called upon in emergencies, and can claim sovereign territory without actually having to fuel or maintain towers themselves. The pet derives some status from being affiliated with a stronger entity, gains access to space richer than they would otherwise be capable of holding, and expects that the rented territory will be defended from a strategic assault by the master entity.

After the annihilation of Ascendant Frontier, Band of Brothers relied entirely upon the pet system to populate and defend their three newly-conquered regions. Almost every available constellation was rented out to pets like RISE, Confederation of the Red Moon, and Gods of Night and Day. This enabled BoB to avoid the problem of logistics strain associated with rapid territorial acquisition, provided steady income, and brought thousands of new players to the banner of the 'Greater BoB Community'. The result? Within a year, all of this territory was lost, the pet alliances who once lived there had disbanded, BoB was humiliated, and half of their territory was gone.

As BoB and RISE discovered, in practice, the pet arrangement is a grim thing. Much ink has been spilled over the shameful lack of e-honor and self-sufficiency of pets, as well as the greed and neglect of their masters. However, the pet system isn't merely shameful, it is actively harmful to the strategic interests of the master, and positively deadly to the health of the pet alliance.

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From the master's perspective, the pets turned out to be unreliable in the extreme. Sure, the rent was paid, but the renter had no particular loyalty to the landlord. The more onerous the rental agreement, the less reliable the pet. Since the pets did not take their territory through feat of arms, their military quality proved laughable; pet-held territory became a magnet for raiding by more experienced entities seeking easy kills.  Because the pets would recruit anyone interested in joining them who could help them pay their rent, they became riddled with hostile agents; this meant that BoB had to keep pets in separate fleets on strategic operations, which fostered resentment on both sides. Rather than useful military auxiliary, the pet system gave BoB a rabble of traitorous, fractious cannon fodder. When a pet's territory and towers came under assault, the inability of pet logisticians to time strontium correctly meant that territory once captured by the master swiftly fell. When a pet's rented territory was conquered by the enemy, the majority of the pet's membership saw no reason to continue fighting for their landlord, usually resulting in the disintegration of the pet alliance.

For pets, the danger of the arrangement was more extreme. A young alliance matures through the promotion of experienced leaders, particularly in the areas of fleet command and logistics. The pet system is a dead-end for those interested in advancement, because the strictures of the arrangement prevent aspiring leaders from taking a pet alliance in an independent direction. Instead, they aspire to join the master's alliance to shake off the stigma of being 'just a pet'. This results in a continual brain drain as talent is sucked out of the pet alliance to bolster the master. The master is likewise weakened, because the core identity of the landlord is diluted by the influx of former renters.

Worse, a pet alliance jumps ahead of the progression through which independent alliances learn the ropes of 0.0. Many pets are recruited directly from Empire. As renters, these alliances never learn how to be self-sufficient, because they haven't had to train up a capital fleet, siege and capture R64s, take down cynojammers, time strontium, or run a logistics network. When put under any pressure to do these things, they crumble. Pethood becomes a kind of alliance-level infantilism, where the renters never learn what it takes to stand in 0.0 on their own merits.

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Ultimately, the entire arrangement is a sham. For RISE, the ugly truth came crashing down upon them when their territory in Feythabolis was sieged by the RedSwarm Federation (Red Alliance, Goonswarm, and Tau Ceti Federation). RISE directors pleaded for aid and defense from their landlord BoB, yet none was forthcoming. Lacking military skills, RISE's defense was completely inadequate. When the territory began to fall, RISE had trouble making their monthly rent payment, since none of their membership could make isk in a warzone. BoB insisted that RISE pay. Amazingly, they did so; sycophancy had become so ingrained at this point that it was inconceivable that they would not. RISE lost their space. Adding insult to injury, BoB's leadership promised their erstwhile pets a Titan Bridge to evacuate RISE's assets - and then repeatedly stood the pets up. The duty and obligation between pet and master only worked in one direction. RISE broke, fell back to Empire, and disbanded a few months later.

Like many things in EVE, the pet system seems attractive at first, but becomes a deadly trap for the unwary. If you are thinking about taking the first steps into 0.0, or if you are an established alliance looking to expand into new territory or buttress your income, learn from the mistakes of others and give the pet system a pass. Who would you rather have on your side, a friend or a flunkie?
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