Secrets of a Solar Spymasters #20: Inside the Failure Cascade
Nothing in online gaming quite matches the incandescent drama of a dying alliance. It is only in EVE that player organizations routinely exceed 1000 members. If you think World of Warcraft guilds are a hotbed of infighting and ridiculous squabbles over loot, imagine the consequences of a 2500-man alliance tearing itself to pieces. When you take into account the ancillary impacts of alliance death, the carnage gets all the more satisfying: the political destabilization and power vacuums, the birth of new and bitter grudges between formerly friendly corporations, and the absolute and unrecoverable material losses. If you have a thing for chaos and destruction - or even a mild sadistic streak - nothing beats watching the death throes of an alliance. Actually, that's not entirely true. Participating is more fun than watching, and being the architect of an alliance's death is a sublime experience that you simply cannot get in any other game.
style="font-style: italic;">Does one major defeat cause an
alliance to collapse?
Nothing in online gaming quite matches the incandescent drama
of a dying alliance. It is only in href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/43"
player organizations routinely exceed 1000 members. If you think style="font-style: italic;">World of Warcraft
guilds are a hotbed of infighting and ridiculous squabbles over loot,
imagine the consequences of a 2500-man alliance tearing itself to
pieces. When you take into account the ancillary impacts of alliance
death, the carnage gets all the more satisfying: the political
destabilization and power vacuums, the birth of new and bitter grudges
between formerly friendly corporations, and the absolute and
unrecoverable material losses. If you have a thing for chaos and
destruction - or even a mild sadistic streak - nothing beats watching
the death throes of an alliance. Actually, that's not entirely true.
Participating is more fun than watching, and being the architect of an
alliance's death is a sublime experience that you simply cannot get in
any other game.
One of the many fascinating things about human behavior is
that while individual people show great variation and unpredictability,
groups of people show striking similarities in the way in which they
behave. The more people in an organization, the less variation, and the
more predictable they become. Once a certain threshold of membership is
passed, alliances in EVE
begin exhibiting a somewhat standardized death-cycle. This is
unsurprising, because alliances are demographically similar (barring
certain ethnic exceptions, they are made of geeks from the 'West'),
they exist in the same bitterly contested arena of conquerable 0.0, and
all are forced to jump through the various gameplay hoops which CCP
dubs 'sov mechanics'.
In the past four years, I've witnessed more than twenty
alliances disintegrate, and I've had the benefit of directly
orchestrating a good number of those. Better than just hammering at
them from the outside, I've been able to witness the process from the
inside concurrently by way of our spy network. While watching Lotka
Volterra explode in much the same way Veritas Immortalis had, I dubbed
this death-cycle the "failure cascade" due to the way in which the
process rapidly accelerates from small errors into thermonuclear drama.
Delightfully enough, even our most vehement enemies have chosen to use
target="_blank">nomenclature, as well as the more
target="_blank">media. Apparently the term has
some preexisting engineering use, but href="http://lmgtfy.com/?q=failure+cascade" target="_blank">Googling
it now turns up mostly yammering about spaceships.
style="font-style: italic;">Is it a series of minor setbacks
that destroys an alliance?
Despite the popularity of the term, a failure cascade never
been properly defined. Like the obscenity standard before the Supreme
Court, you 'know it when you see it'. While it is impossible to bring
scientific clarity to bear on how exactly one goes about ruining the
day of thousands of people in a spaceship game, based on my purely
anecdotal experience and the unique access our spy network has afforded
me, I am going to do my best to define a failure cascade in formal
terms, explain how and why I think this kind of implosion happens, and
show how you can identify an alliance in the midst of a cascade, and
how to possibly structure your own alliance to defend against it.
(this took way, way too long to come up with):
A failure cascade is the
disintegration of an alliance caused by collective helplessness in the
face of sustained and unrationalizable adversity through a process of
pilot attribution shifting from the alliance to the corporation or the
Failure cascades follow a predictable five-stage causal chain.
-> Failure of Rationalization -> Collective Helplessness
-> Change in Identification -> Collapse and Recovery
When we say that an alliance is in the 'early stages' of a
cascade, this often means that they are reacting poorly to sustained
adversity. "Late Stage" cascade frequently refers to the helplessness
phase, because changes in identification are rapidly followed by
style="font-style: italic;">Does invasion stamp out
Phase One: Sustained
This is both the most obvious and the least well understood
phase of the cascade. Adversity can take many forms, all of which
amount to "bad things happening". An alliance whose towers are being
sieged by an enemy force is experiencing adversity. So is an alliance
whose ratters and miners are being ganked, or whose jump bridges are
being camped or disabled, or who loses a capital fleet in a dramatic
fashion. When thinking about adversity, commanders often assume that
massive, crushing loss is the most effective way to send an alliance
into a cascade. Taking out a capital fleet or a titan is the most
commonly-cited method of sending an alliance down the tubes. It is also
completely, utterly wrong.
Psychology has shown that humans have an incredible capacity
to cope with great tragedy and personal adversity. When asked if they
could imagine life as a paraplegic or after suffering some other sort
of horrific event, most respondents confidently assert that it would
devastate them and leave them permanently adrift. Yet in practice,
victims of awful fate swiftly recover their 'set point' of personal
happiness. If the ability to mentally cope with great loss did not
exist, the species would have certainly died out by now. In alliance
terms, collective 'great tragedies' are terribly ineffective at sending
an alliance into a cascade. Innumerable Titans have been destroyed,
capital fleets wiped out with shocking ease, and these events do not
reliably correlate with cascade. It is true that a major loss can have
an impact, but only as part of a larger context of sustained adversity.
Why is this? Loss in isolation is something that people are
wired to rationalize away. A titan loss can be written off to pilot
error, lag, or the fault of the pilot lighting the titan's cyno field.
The loss of a capital fleet becomes a one-time affair, the error of a
bad fc, or made irrelevant by proclaiming it 'already replaced'.
Despite this, people continue to assert that if only a titan or a
capital massacre can be achieved, the enemy will surely cascade. This
is because of the inherent flaws in human prospection; we're terrible
at imagining how we and others will emotionally react to events in the
future, so we imagine how we would react to a titan loss, come up with
'Oh god, that would be horrible, I'd be completely demoralized,' and
assume that our enemies would react the same way. Wrong!
the toll of constant conflict wear down an alliance?
Some examples: Band of Brothers lost several capital fleets in
laughably one-sided battles as well as multiple titans through its
history, yet these 'major losses' did not dent them. Nor did having all
of their sovereignty removed by a spy in their ranks. In cases where
BoB gave up and failed, such as the fight for DG- in Detorid and the
Querious campaign, it was after a long period of sustained attrition
and many small failures, rather than major losses. Goonswarm has lost
more capital fleets in embarrassing ways than I can count, including
losing our first titan. In the first invasion of Delve in early 2008,
Red Alliance lost a titan but this did not impact their participation
in the offensive at all. In fact, the whole coalition suffered what
remains one of the largest losses in style="font-style: italic;">EVE history (before
the disbanding and purging of BoB) during the attack on a BoB CSAA in
F-T. Not only did the whole coalition lose 100+ capitals in order to
destroy the CSAA, the CSAA was completely empty! Yet no failure
Rather than relying on shocking incidents, adversity must be
sustained and mundane to the point of being banal. Regular fleet
losses, regular ganks, the boring stuff which no one bothers to report
which still sucks. Unglamorous, everyday loss. A war which takes place
in intense bursts does put an alliance at risk of cascade. In
Feythabolis and Esoteria, RED.Overlord, Against All Authorities and
Stain Empire launched attacks on Goonswarm stations at an extremely
slow pace. A station would be attacked and captured, but then there
would be weeks of time before a new attack occurred. Because the
adversity was not sustained in time, even though Goonswarm was
undeniably losing stations, the process had little impact. Had those
losses been part of a nonstop campaign of conquest, things would have
been very different.
Adversity must also be inescapable. If an assault only impacts
one system at a time, and there is very little hostile activity
elsewhere within the victim alliance's territory, there is no great
risk of cascade. Pilots can choose to put themselves at danger or avoid
it at will, so they feel little pressure to change their views of their
alliance. This is one advantage of having a geographically large
empire; it is difficult for an enemy to put inescapable pressure on
your pilots until you have lost more space. Smaller alliances with
little territory are often rapidly crushed because it is simple for a
hostile force to ensure that every pilot in the victim alliance is
under pressure at all times. Empire does not count as an escape; not
only do attacking alliances often declare war on their intended
victims, a pilot hiding in Empire is not a pilot fighting for his
alliance's territory in nullsec.
Phase Two: Failure of
long as an alliance has an external force to blame for its failure,
life is good.
Rationalization is a critical psychological defense. It allows
pilots and alliances to face adversity and keep fighting - and it is
amazing how powerful rationalization can be in the face of evidence
(cf. target="_blank">creationism). In internet space
there are a bewildering variety of rationalizations for the pilot
facing failure. By far the most common is to blame lag, followed by
blaming CCP and accusing the enemy of exploits or href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/70968" target="_blank">hacking.
These are so common in PvP games that they become universally
understood jokes, and despite their humorous connotations they are
still earnestly used in a time of need. One moment a pilot will be
laughing about how his enemy 'didn't want that ship anyway' and how it
has 'already been replaced'; after he explodes, suddenly he feels the
need to brag in local about how many other of those ships he has fitted
and ready to go, and so that loss didn't matter. Or it didn't count
because his enemy 'blobbed', or behaved without following the precepts
of e-honor, etc. These rationalizations tend to be hilarious when we
aren't the ones making them, but our belief in them is genuine when
we're the ones spouting them.
no one left to blame, and alliance must look to itself as the cause of
It is in this stage of the cascade that the propaganda war
takes a deeper significance to all parties. It is usually during this
phase, in the face of mounting failures, that there is the most forum
blustering from both sides. At the beginning of a conflict, the
aggressor is often restrained in their bragging in case the attacks do
not go as planned; the defender has not yet experienced sustained
adversity, so it is here that we see the most "good fight" rhetoric
with each side congratulating the other. As soon as things turn bad for
the victim, however, rationalizations are mustered with alarming
vehemence. Accusations fly on the part of the victims as they try to
explain their failures away. Similarly, the aggressor does his level
best to force the victim to confront the href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance"
target="_blank">cognitive dissonance between the
facts and their defensive rationalizations. This is why there is almost
never a 'clean' war, without accusations of impropriety - those
accusations are part of a critical psychological defense mechanism that
is ingrained in all of us. This is also why using espionage to leak
negative commentary from within a victim alliance is such effective a
propaganda method, as the dissident voice of a fellow alliance member
is much more difficult to explain away.
Yet regardless of propaganda, if sustained and inescapable
adversity is applied to an alliance it becomes difficult for the
victims to rationalize their losses as failures mount. Say you trip and
fall down the stairs once and break your leg. Perhaps you
were merely unlucky, had a bad day, slipped on a banana peel, were
startled by a loud noise, or were wearing uncomfortable shoes. The
broken leg hurts like hell and is certainly bad, but it doesn't mean
that you are a clumsy person. However, if you stubbed your toe on
something every single day, you would find it hard to deny that you
were a klutz - even though your stubbed toe is far less painful than
the broken leg. So it goes with alliances: dramatic, painful losses are
easily written off, but repeated more mundane failures are difficult to
rationalize. If your alliance keeps losing fleet fights and your small
gangs are getting pasted, and you lost yet another R64 moon, it becomes
difficult to maintain that your alliance is doing well. When
rationalization fails, helplessness sets in.
as an alliance can find identity under a national banner, so too can it
find indentity in hopelessness.
Phase Three: Collective
Helplessness is a state where a pilot comes to believe that
his actions on behalf of the alliance are pointless, impotent, or
irrelevant in the face of adversity. This can be because he cannot
ignore the failings of his alliance and must acknowledge them: "This
alliance sucks, what's the point." It can also be because he
feels that no action he can take will make an impact on the situation:
"I love my alliance, but I can't do anything to keep us from getting
rolled." Regardless of the reasoning, helplessness takes the pilot out
of the war until the helpless state is overcome, which will depending
on the pilot's href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explanatory_style"
target="_blank">explanatory style. For
some, helplessness may be swiftly overcome. Some pilots never give up
in the first place, others keep fighting with only short breaks until
the bitter end. Others throw in the towel after the first loss.
Individual variation is minimized when dealing with a group of
more than a thousand pilots, however. It doesn't matter much to the
alliance if any given random pilot has given up and needs some time out
to recuperate, but if the level of trauma reaches the point that the
alliance cannot muster an effective military defense, a state of
collective helplessness results. There is a certain military threshold
of effective resistance, and once the victim alliance loses the ability
to resist, adversity accelerates rapidly. Failure after undeniable
failure knocks increasing numbers of pilots into a state of
helplessness, further degrading the alliance's ability to defend itself.
It is difficult to come up with an example of an alliance
which has recovered from this late stage of the cascade. But there are
some examples of alliances avoiding this state altogether, even after
the failure of rationalization. One of the significant mysteries of
modern 0.0 warfare is Red Alliance's incredible 2006 defense of C-J6
against the combined assault of Lotka Volterra, Ascendant Frontier, and
the rest of the Southern Coalition. RA was outnumbered six to one, more
so if you consider that the average RA pilot in that battle was
multiboxing. They had no allies to help them (as this was months before
Goonswarm and Tau Ceti Federation joined with them) and were considered
pariahs in the 'EVE Community' on account of RA's adoption of
'dishonorable' tactics in the face of these overwhelming odds. Red
Alliance had lost a massive amount of territory and had one single
station left. By most theories of alliance disintegration, Red Alliance
should have been rubble. But somehow they resisted and turned the tide.
sharing the same ethnicity outside of the game strengthen an alliance.
The conventional wisdom says that this is due to the ethnic
nature of Red Alliance; they did not cascade because they possessed a
unique, out of game culture. Yet there were multiple ethnic-Russian
alliances in EVE
at the time (RISK and Against All Authorities) and other ethnic Russian
alliances have since hit failure cascade. Why did Red Alliance survive?
Because they were not helpless, even in the face of sustained,
undeniable adversity. The average skill level of the RA pilots was far
beyond that of their enemies. While RA did lose territory, in the
battle for C-J6 and elsewhere the Red Alliance battleship sniping
groups devastated their opponents, even if they lost battle after
battle. Red Alliance pilots repeatedly destroyed Southern Coalition
capitals in an era where capitals were far more valuable than they are
today. Adding further confirmation that they were not helpless, RA
pilots could see evidence of the impact their efforts made when Lotka
Volterra and Southern Coalition pilots would whine on the forums and
accuse RA of 'not dying fast enough'.
is lonely without allies. And a single corporation is vulnerable.
Phase Four: Change in Pilot
A change in pilot identification is the primary method people
use to escape helplessness in a failure cascade. Identification is how
a pilot views and describes himself in the context of the game. When a
pilot begins the game, he is alone in Empire and friendless, so his
identification is only with himself, adrift as an individual and
concerned only with his own interests. In time, he will find and join a
corporation, and become integrated into that corporation's social
milieu. If asked "Who are you?", many pilots at this stage would say "I
am Pilotname, a member of Blah corporation," much like how people who
live on the East Coast of the US identify themselves with their
professions (I hate that). Should the corporation join an alliance with
a strong identity, the pilot may come to label himself as a member of
the alliance, particularly if there are frequent alliance events
(fleets, battles, mining ops) where members from different corporations
can interact and bond.
There is a natural tension between the interests of a
corporation's CEO and the alliance leadership. An alliance's resistance
to adversity is directly linked to its ability to retain pilot
identification, so it is in the interests of the alliance to convince
its membership that they are members of an alliance first and foremost.
But the power of CEOs comes from their leadership of a corporation and
the obedience of the membership to them, not to the alliance. Even in
an alliance with extremely strong identification, member corporations
will often have corp-only activities to retain a unique identity. Most
alliances are run by a lose oligarchy of the CEOs, but some
corporations - usually those with the strongest military - have more
influence than others. These leader corporations tend to be the ones
pushing weaker corps towards ever-increasing identification with the
alliance, while maintaining a separate corporate identity. This tension
becomes exacerbated in a time of war as the stronger corporations call
upon the weaker to shoulder the burdens of the conflict. In a cascade,
the push-pull of corporate vs alliance identification explodes as CEOs
and pilots begin to stop thinking of themselves as members of an
alliance and begin to look out for their own corporate or individual
A shift in identification happens because it is one of the
only easy escapes from a state of helplessness, besides quitting the
game entirely. A pilot who identifies himself with a helpless alliance
in the midst of a cascade experiences helplessness himself, and to get
out of it all he has to do is change the way he thinks about himself.
Rather than being a member of a failing alliance, he thinks of himself
as a member of a perfectly effective corporation in an alliance full of
failures. In one moment of rationalization, he absolves himself of the
helplessness and reassures himself of his superiority over everyone
else not in his corporation.
shift in identification can be an escape.
As more pilots are knocked into a state of helplessness by
sustained adversity, more shift their identification away from the
alliance. Pressure on the CEO grows from this disaffected membership to
get out of the ugly situation and abandon the alliance; that pressure
is exacerbated by the tension between CEOs at the leadership level.
Collapse becomes inevitable as personal animosity grows and
corporations begin target="_blank">quietly evacuating their assets
unbeknownst to the rest of the alliance. This is the phase where open
infighting within the alliance becomes common, as corporations blame
each other (or their allies, another popular scapegoat) for the
alliance's failures. For example, when announcing their loss of the
Great War, Band of Brothers claimed that they had been a ' href="http://eve-search.com/thread/1099625/" target="_blank">sacrificial
lamb' for their allies.
as ships need maintenance, somebody has to pick up the pieces after an
Phase Five: Collapse and
There is a significant stigma against being a corporation who
flees an alliance 'too soon', so the collapse of an alliance at the
terminus of a failure cascade resembles an href="http://evemaps.dotlan.net/alliance/Intrepid_Crossing/corporations"
target="_blank">avalanche. No corporation wants to
be the first to go, so when the first corporation finally screws up the
courage (or, more usually, finds a likely-seeming excuse for how
they've been wronged by the alliance leadership) to leave, they are
rapidly followed by those who were holding back. The collapse has an
incredible inertia, as it provides its own motive to leave for those
corporations who did not originally intend to. Remaining in an alliance
which has cascaded is extremely dangerous as it has no more military
power, and since the majority of the member corps already left there is
no shame in exiting. Often there will be a small core of corporations
who stick with the collapsed alliance, usually those corps who wielded
the most power in the alliance.
The post-collapse alliance has two options remaining besides
disbanding. It can try to make a life for itself in non-conquerable 0.0
space, claiming to be 'free of the shackles of POS warfare.' History is
full of cascaded alliances moving to NPC 0.0 vowing to return, only to
dissolve within a matter of months. The raison d'etre of the nullsec
alliance is to hold space, and after being stripped of this common
interest the core corporations of the failed alliance often find they
have nothing to hold them together any longer. In addition, there is a
significant public stigma associated with cascaded alliances, and
usually the process of the cascade has seeded significant animosity
between the remaining corporations.
The other option is to become an alliance of temporary
refugees, with the post-cascade core of the alliance moving into the
territory of a stronger, stable ally. Depending on how patient the
caretaker alliance is, in these circumstances it is actually possible
to recover from a cascade. This is not only because the refugee
alliance is no longer suffering from inescapable adversity but also
because having allies who will aid a defeated alliance is enormously
reassuring (and rare).
choice between being a lone refugee and join a new alliance
In either situation, the impact on the former corporations and
pilots in the aftermath of a cascade is minimal. Most alliances style="font-style: italic;">in EVE end up
collapsing due to hostile invasion, and if the experience was that
traumatic, the losers would stop playing the game en masse. In truth,
the experience -is- traumatic, judging by the posts made by the
helpless pilots in the moments of their suffering. But as soon as they
have escaped from their helpless state and their failed alliance, the
soothing balm of rationalization comes to the rescue, and memories are
helpfully adjusted. Post-cascade pilots remember that they put up a
great fight and never lost hope, while it was those other guys in that
other corporation who ruined everything. Regardless of the
circumstances, a cascade is always the other guy's fault.
alliance can defend against collapse by being monolithicly loyal.
Defenses Against Cascade
The best defense against a cascade that I have discovered is
having a monolithic alliance structure, where the 'alliance' amounts to
one corporation. It is much harder to put a corporation into a cascade
than it is an alliance, because CCP has structured corporations as
dictatorships with one absolute authority. Alliances have competing
CEOs and a variety of different interests; the monolithic corporation
may still have some amount of infighting and scheming, but much less
than the more common oligarchy. The only example of a monolithic
alliance that I know of is Goonswarm, which is the Goonfleet
corporation, plus several much smaller member corporations. Rather than
having an oligarchy and shared power between a number of member
corporation CEOs, the monolithic alliance has only one leader, and the
consent or membership the ancillary corporations (while helpful) is not
It is also helpful to have an ethnic, national or cultural
identity outside of EVE
to bind the pilots to identifying with the alliance. There are a number
of ethnic organizations in EVE,
and these tend to be more resistant to cascade than non-ethnic
organizations. The smaller the ethnic group or more isolated the
language, the better a defense against cascade there is. Right now,
Russian and German players have a number of alliances which they could
join, so the need to stick to a particular alliance is minimal. There
is only one Polish alliance, by contrast, and perhaps two Hungarian
alliances. Those pilots are very invested in their alliance's
In practice, this means that a monolithic or
ethnic/national/cultural alliance can be repeatedly brought to a state
of helplessness, but it is very hard to shift pilot identification and
may sound like a bunch of psychobabble, but alliances are really little
more than relationships.
What the Hell is All This
Does this all sound like unscientific bullshit? It is! This is
a purely anecdotal theory that I've pulled out of my ass based purely
on extensive observation, and you might wish to discredit it merely
because I'm an obviously biased Goonswarm partisan. That said,
everything else I included about learned helplessness, rationalization,
failures in cognition and the inability of humans to predict their
future states accurately has been tested rigorously and is taken from
behavioral economics or psychology. Here's some links about this kind
of research to help you waste time at work and/or avoid common errors,
such as a persistent belief in classical economics and/or
target="_blank">Dan Ariely wrote
target="_blank">Predictably Irrational and gives a
pair of very cool talks at TED.com. href="http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_ariely_asks_are_we_in_control_of_our_own_decisions.html"
target="_blank">Dan Gilbert wrote href="http://www.amazon.com/Stumbling-Happiness-Daniel-Gilbert/dp/0676978584/ref=ed_oe_p"
target="_blank">Stumbling on Happiness and hey,
wow, he also gives a couple of href="http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_gilbert_researches_happiness.html"
target="_blank">Martin Seligman wrote a
target="_blank">crapton of books, uncovered the
theory of href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness"
target="_blank">learned helplessness, and
coincidentally enough also has given a href="http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology.html"
While this has nothing explicitly to do with the theory of the
failure cascade, if you're interested in psychology or espionage or
just really enjoy manipulating people, you should probably read href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cialdini"
target="_blank">Robert Cialdini's href="http://www.amazon.com/Influence-Psychology-Persuasion-Business-Essentials/dp/006124189X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247636859&sr=1-1"
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