Sins of a Solar Spymaster #39 - The Twilight of the Great Powers
In the aftermath of the cataclysmic self-annihilation of Goonswarm - and its immediate rebirth as SOLODRAKBANSOLODRAKBANSO [LODRA] alliance - I've found myself in the unusual position of assisting in the reconstruction of an alliance from the ground up. Usually, alliances grow organically, and their structure is more a reflection of environment and circumstances than deliberate, fully informed choices by their leadership and membership. For us, everything must be decided from Day One - income structure, directorate structure, reimbursement structure, goals, enemies, friends, you name it. And in this extremely busy process, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the Great Power model of alliances is a thing of the past, cruelly murdered by the new mechanics of the Dominion sov system - and this is not a good thing.
The Great Power model has brought EVE Online much of its drama and media attention over the years. To describe it briefly, a Great Power alliance holds territory and aggresses militarily much in the way of the imperialist powers of the early twentieth century. Wars between Great Powers have spanned the entirety of the galaxy, and spawned a series of alliances and blocs which left a web of delicious complexity and political intensity. Great Powers could talk seriously of owning half of the conquerable space on the map; they might not succeed, but it was a possibility that had to be guarded against and fought over. They made war and conquered for the joy of conquest above all.
With Dominion, conquest for its own sake has been abandoned for a game of galactic bean-counting; alliances making war for the sake of war are hamstrung by escalating sov fees. In the past, a Great Power could seize a territory of little military consequence and adjust the amount of towers and defenses put into it. A station system could be held by a token tower, but should there be a military attack, the systems defenses could be bolstered on the fly - raising the cost to hold it, but also with the ability to scale down after the threat had passed. After Dominion, an alliance attempting to seize a neighbor's territory had best hope that their enemy doesn't collapse or implode (a la Goonswarm) lest the sudden influx of new sov fees bankrupt the aggressor completely.
This leaves us with an ugly question of purpose. While there have always been 'niche' alliances - roleplayers (CVA, Ursha'kahn), would-be neutral merchant organizations (Big Blue, ISS), and innumerable tenants/pets/slaves, the grand narrative of nullsec has always been driven by the Great Powers and their warring impulses to dominate and control. It is because of the Great Powers that legions of empire dwellers and thousands of people who don't even play the game follow EVE politics like a spectator sport.
Now, not only must would-be Great Powers abandon conquest for its own sake, the niche alliances must also focus their attentions on feeding the ravenous isk-sink that CCP has created. When the patch was being sold to the subscriber base, much noise was made about 'making nullsec profitable' compared to the risk-free isk faucet that is level four missions in Empire. Shortly before the patch hit, CCP Hammerhead backed off this desperately needed fix, and indeed Dominion has vastly increased the costs of conquerable space with no commensurate increase in income generation from that space.
An alliance living in conquerable nullsec has a bare few options available to it. It can add no real infrastructure upgrades in the form of cynojammers and jump bridges in order to keep costs down - yet then why bother with conquerable space? It can pack its space full of renters and tax them, which was one of CCP's objectives - yet due to the lack of an increase in profitability, the space in conquerable nullsec lacks the profit potential to support the amount of renters necessary to afford many sov upgrades. Indeed, IT Alliance, which has rapidly expanded after the galactic suicide of Goonswarm, has been unable to afford even jump bridges in its new space, despite being the largest alliance in the game and with its new territory absolutely full of renters.
So again the ugly question of purpose. For many of the Great War vets, the prospect of playing Slumlord Online is positively nauseating. When managing tenants was a means to the end of more conquest, having renters was fine - many alliances pre-Dominion used renters as an income method, and it funded their wars quite effectively. Yet now we seem to be consigned to be the galactic landlords of little fiefdoms, unable to expand - and worse, rather than being able to use those rents to the benefit of alliance members in the form of reimbursements and infrastructure, the isk simply vanishes into a CCP-created black hole.
Alliances trying to maintain conquerable space in the Dominion system are much weaker when trying to handle the inevitable vicissitudes of war. Should a massive hit to the alliance finances take place, such as a lost capital battle or theft or simply an exodus of renters, the alliance may find itself behind on its sov payments like a struggling homeowner in the United States - and if even one bill is missed, sov drops instantly.
Of course, there are other methods of making isk in EVE: Reaction hubs, large scale invention projects, the obligatory moon mining (now we chase Technetium, instead of Dysprosium! Change has come to New Eden!). Yet none of these are unique to conquerable space, unlike the developer-intended renter model; they can be used in NPC space or even in lowsec with equal effectiveness.
The logical outgrowth of these design decisions is to stop conceptualizing alliances as conquest-focused war machines and instead think of them as a business. The bitter fruit of this analysis leads us to abandon the idea of holding any significant amount of conquerable nullsec, walking away from it entirely until the income/expense ratio has been radically adjusted.
The most ideal model of a post-Dominion alliance appears to be the 'hybrid/iceberg' model: an entity which has a minimal foothold in conquerable space for those few functions which remain truly unique to that space, and which otherwise keeps its assets and income in adjacent NPC 0.0. Hybrid alliances have their 'tip' on the sov map with the rest of their assets 'underwater' in NPC nullsec and lowsec. Unlike an alliance entirely in conquerable space, hybrids accrue all of the income benefits of living in nullsec without having to divert practically anything to CCP. Moreover, hybrids are at far less risk of loss than a traditional alliance, because the bulk of their assets are sheltered in stations which cannot be taken.
There have been hybrid alliances before Dominion, such as pre-Fountain Pandemic Legion and Triumvirate, and these are infamously hard to dispose of in a permanent way. Yet this model wasn't popular at the time, because war for the sake of war was a viable and entertaining option that the majority of alliances were eager to partake in.
The brutal truth is that post-Dominion there are only two practical functions to conquerable space: the construction of supercapital ships and a discount on tower fuel for running vast reaction hubs. Pre-Dominion, holding sov provided handy fuel benefits even for one tower, but now one needs to have at least ten towers in one system before the fuel discount outweighs the minimum CCP-mandated isk sink. One might even argue that reaction hubs are better run in NPC space, because of the ease with which the at-risk reaction material can be stashed in an unconquerable station should the hub come under siege by hostile forces.
We have entered a new era of gameplay in nullsec, one in which wars and options are severely restricted by crushing financial burdens. Those who try to play at the old Great Power game will find themselves desperately trying to stay afloat or bankrupt; those who remain in conquerable space but give up conquest as a raison d'etre will find themselves stagnating as they wallow in their space-slums. And the hybrids will be laughing all the way to the bank.