Sins of a Solar Spymaster #13 - The Participation Game

The Great War in EVE Online continues in this week's Sins of a Solar Spymaster. After his eventful (and painful) trip to Las Vegas, the Mittani had to help rally the Swarm and get their participation levels back up to drive off the KenZoku horde that was assailing their borders. But how does one go about getting hundreds of pilots to log into EVE? Read on to find out! From an outsider's perspective, one might think that this would be easy. EVE is a game, and games are fun, right? But this is EVE, and the bleeding-edge of alliance warfare is often deadly boring if not an exercise in outright masochism. The core mechanic of conquerable space, which is to say placing, defending, or destroying player-owned starbase (POS, 'pos warfare') is widely acknowledged - even by its aficionados - as being about as entertaining as engaging in a little 'freestyle dentistry' on oneself with a claw hammer. Due to the magic of strontium clathrates, players get to enjoy this delightful hobby at a time chosen by their enemy - usually at an ungodly hour in another timezone requiring that players set an alarm clock before having the privilege of applying hammer to tooth. To read the rest of the Mittani's EVE Online column, click here!

I returned home from Las Vegas with a two-day hangover and the unsettling realization that my alliance, Goonswarm, was on fire. Not 'on fire for Jesus,' either - we were getting our collective asses handed to us by KenZoku, our anime-themed nemesis, and the eighteen other alliances they had brought to the party. Even worse, just as our enemies launched their bid to seize Querious from us, GS participation was in the gutter. Out of an alliance of six thousand, with our space being invaded by our enemies - enemies who were not merely competitors, but detested foes against whom we've prosecuted a three-year grudge - Goonswarm couldn't muster a fleet of more than one hundred pilots in our prime timezone. Chaos ensued. Once more, it was time to do the 'Participation Dance,' the frantic series of gestures and utterances that alliance leaders and fleet commanders go through in order to try to inspire their players to actually log in and play EVE. But compared to more mundane challenges - such as how to manage a coalition of tens of thousands of players, how to invade and conquer hostile territory, or how to manage a capital production chain, player participation is by far the most poorly understood facet of 0.0 warfare.

EVE 01

From an outsider's perspective, one might think that this would be easy. EVE is a game, and games are fun, right? But this is EVE, and the bleeding-edge of alliance warfare is often deadly boring if not an exercise in outright masochism. The core mechanic of conquerable space, which is to say placing, defending, or destroying player-owned starbase (POS, 'pos warfare') is widely acknowledged - even by its aficionados - as being about as entertaining as engaging in a little 'freestyle dentistry' on oneself with a claw hammer. Due to the magic of strontium clathrates, players get to enjoy this delightful hobby at a time chosen by their enemy - usually at an ungodly hour in another timezone requiring that players set an alarm clock before having the privilege of applying hammer to tooth.

It's not so bad, one could argue; it is through pos warfare that alliances claim sovereignty and secure the riches and status of 0.0 space, a galactic hazing ritual writ large. There are massive fleet battles with capital ships dying en masse, surprise turnabouts and dramatic espionage coups to spice things up. But losing isn't fun, no matter how much some alliances try to tell their members that they don't mind the process. A pilot can escape a bad time in EVE simply by not logging in, so when the enemy's boot begins hitting their face, quite a few choose this option. Since the dawn of combat in 0.0, alliances have struggled with the question of how to get people to fight when the going gets tough. Some plead, some threaten, some pen nationalistic appeals - and no one has yet figured out the secret. The most common methods are explained below:

Just the Facts: Sometimes, people simply don't know what's happening on the front lines. An objective accounting of the course of the war is a brave step, because there's always a degree of deception between an alliance's leadership and their members, especially when things look bleak. Rather than trying to cushion recent losses, one can hope to inspire participation with unfiltered truth. The only problem is that this could backfire and send your alliance plunging into a failure cascade if the average member sees the fight as hopeless.

The Inspiring Post: A much more common and safer option than the truth, this is a bit of forum demagoguery making a nationalistic call to arms, an old-fashioned rallying cry. The biggest risk with these types of messages is that they've become so common that it's hard for an older player to get fired up by them; worse, if participation isn't actually boosted by the rallying cry, it can be seen as a crippling leadership failure.

The Big Speech: Similar to the Inspiring Post, the Big Speech takes place on teamspeak or ventrilo. This relies on the natural charisma of whomever is making the speech, and charisma is in short supply in spaceship nerd circles. However, the biggest advantage of this method is that it gets a horde of pilots online at one point in time, and it's a short step from listening to a speech to logging into the game itself. Goonswarm has used this method to launch offensives for years now; after mustering 600 people in one channel to hear a 'State of the Goonion', we ask everyone to log in and go on a rampage.

EVE 02

LOTKA.ORG: Named for the very deceased Lotka Volterra alliance, 'going all lotka.org' has entered EVE parlance as a metaphor for heavy-handed moderation. Lotka's forums were infamous for moderators who would censor and delete any post made by a member which was not sufficiently optimistic; dissent or expressions of worry about their strategic situation were vigorously quashed. Predictably, anyone so censored became immediately disenchanted with the alliance leadership. Their participation flatlined, and Lotka Volterra was annihilated within a paltry 47 days. Despite this link being obvious from the psychological perspective (censorship -> disenchantment -> death) innumerable alliance directorates have fallen for this trap.

The Red Pen: About the only thing that Veritas Immortalis left behind was this gem of an alliance mail from their leader, Light Darkness, in the throes of a participation slump:

"2006.10.27 06:53
Ok.

I got this descission. But i have to descide so.

Every Corp they dont show up 100% of all thier members (they are online) in
RYC have to descide if they want to stay in V. or i will help in thier descission !!!

Iam really pissed off. I dont sleeped this night to defend our POSes (-V-) POSes
in RYC.
But from 80 in Alliance was ONLY 15 in RYC. in the next 10 hours everyone
have to regroup in RYC.

That means = 150 online -> 140 in RYC !!!

AND IF RA/GOON build up a POS there we will destroy this POS immidiently.

Everyone he have a CS have to prepare his CS and i dont accept any excuses.

And guys. Iam pissed off and i thought we are a alliance where we work
together. But if that failure. I will fire the red pen over the Alliance.

/LD"

We're still not sure what exactly he meant, but "Red Pen" sounds intimidating. Over time, it's grown to represent a broad range of vaguely incoherent threats to show up on ops, or else. "Don't make me fire the red pen."

Tax Hike: Negative reinforcement rarely works, yet alliance leaders continue to invent new ways to punish their membership into engaging in a voluntary activity. Among the more commerce-focused organizations, during combat operations the leadership will temporarily set the corporate tax rate to 100%, rendering it impossible for a pilot to earn isk, in hopes of forcing a pilot who has logged in to join on an op. In practice, this always backfires; pilots who don't want to go on the op will simply log out, spending less time in New Eden - eroding their attachment to the game itself. Whoops!

EVE 03

Chat Porn: Nothing inspires the troops quite like reading about the sorrows of the enemy. Publishing spy reports from hostile forums has always been a morale-booster. Unfortunately, this is useless in the midst of a participation slump, because the enemy tends to be gloating. But when on a surge, posting chat porn has become standard practice to keep the troops full of energy.

Outright Bribery: Rich alliances have tried this method since the servers opened. In many cases, it can actually work. Most alliances have loss reimbursement programs; by pumping up the payouts for ship classes the alliance needs in battle, pilots can lose ships without any personal loss - until the alliance wallet runs dry, that is. Reimbursement programs also gives the member-level pilot an obvious reason to fight for the goals of the alliance; while the arcane mechanics of sovereignty warfare may be beyond him, everyone understands how awesome free ships are.

Faced with an enemy invasion and on fire, the Swarm directorate would have to do something - anything - to pull their participation out of a tailspin, or Querious would be lost.

KenZoku chose I1Y, a station in Querious right at the edge of Empire, as the focus of their assault. For days, Goonswarm bled towers in I1Y and overall manpower. Since early April, I had been personally using the 'Just the Facts' strategy with some success, writing a war update every morning explaining exactly what had taken place the day before.  But now that we were on the back foot, the raw truth wasn't keeping our fleets full. Within a week of the I1Y offensive it became painful to write about. The truth was becoming a recitation of our failures, and we were flirting with a despair-fueled backlash. What else could we do to try to inspire our pilots to log in? Chat porn wouldn't work, since Goonswarm was busy being on fire - the updates themselves had become chat porn for KenZoku, another reason they had to stop. Lotka.Org, Red Pen and Tax Hike are options only chosen by failures, a recipe for certain death. No matter what, the policy of truth would have to be sacrificed to expediency. That was fine by me - I've never been a fan of truth.

Glossing over the failures of the next two days in increasingly brief and vague updates, the directorate played for time, scrambling for a variation of Outright Bribery - a very public reform of the reimbursement program. A plan was hatched with our allies to arrange for a mass offensive on the upcoming holiday weekend. Diplomatic muscles were flexed to give the Swarm some good news - new allies from the Northern Coalition agreed to intervene in the war to help stave off the nineteen enemy alliances fighting us. In the end, we had to fall back upon the oldest trick in the book, the Inspiring Post:

This weekend is Memorial Day. On Friday, we go on the offensive. Our allies are returning from the North, having handily slaughtered Triumvirate, and bringing new 'friedns' to the party. Our Eurotime contingent will be restored, and we will be smashing enemy fleets and towers nonstop. I expect pitched battles in every timezone. It is time for us to bring out the long knives and the cruelty, to meditate upon the unending faggotry of all things Molle, and to lust for vengeance.

Querious, Molle says, is where this war will be won. His plan is now obvious. KenGoku intend to sink their roots deep into our buffer region and drop outposts to transform it into a secure staging point for long-term warfare against Delve. After I1Y falls, ED (next door) will be hit, and then a single new outpost will give him a Sov4 adjacent to empire. This is critical for his bandwagon of pets, who own no space and mostly live in lowsec; they must have a 0.0 station close to where they belong.

In order to accomplish this, over the past week our enemies have dropped more than a hundred towers, mostly in our bridge systems and R64s. P4, which contains two R64s, is a particularly egregious example; there are 33 KenZoku towers there, and no station - yet.

EVE 04

We must scourge this cancer from Querious before it spreads and strengthens. If KenZoku is allowed to settle without opposition, their membership will surge and we will be starved out of Delve. Querious contains 40% of our alliance income as well as our logistics route to empire. Without it, we will be cut off and Delve will wither and die. We have been slowly losing stations while our allies were away, but they are returning and now it is time to regain lost ground.

Avail yourselves of our expanding reimbursement programs. Enjoy the resources you have ripped from Molle's grip. If we capture and secure more R64s, these programs will continue to expand. Fleet BS, Dictors, Battlecruisers, Stabbers, Mallers and Covops are currently offered. Logistics and Heavy Interdictors are being considered next. After that - IF we secure our space - the sky is the limit. This is your alliance, and you will be rewarded for your efforts.

There are no other fronts. There is only Querious. See you Friday. Through Monday and beyond, we fight.

The next morning, as soon as the servers booted up, 410+ pilots were on the coalition's teamspeak server. Over the next few days, every single hostile tower in I1Y was destroyed. Fourteen titans were parked on top of the KenZoku staging tower in I1Y in a display of raw, excessive force. KenZoku's gains of the previous two weeks were ruined, and they found themselves in a situation where they were actually worse off than before their attack on I1Y.

How did this happen? Was it the bribery? The inspiring post? The timing of the holiday? The announcement that allied help was on the way? Or was it something much more mundane, such as the end of 'finals season' in college, a natural and predictable decline around mid-May and mid-December each year? One of the most frustrating truths about the participation game is that there is no verifiable way to determine which method makes an impact, just judgments after the fact based on observation and the characteristics of a particular alliance. We are like shamans, beating drums and looking to the sky for rain.

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