Updated Thu, Jul 16, 2009 by The Mittani
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 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.
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 my nomenclature, as well as the more traditional media. Apparently the term has some preexisting engineering use, but Googling it now turns up mostly yammering about spaceships.
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.
The Definition: (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 individual.
Failure cascades follow a predictable five-stage causal chain.
Sustained Adversity -> 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 collapse.