Riding the Failure Cascade

Guilds are really just volunteer organizations, and consequently, they suffer from a lot of the same problems. Guild leaders function as coordinators and morale officers as much as they do running the group, because volunteers are easier to lose than they are to come by. And once a guild begins to lose a steady trickle of members, it’s only a matter of time before that trickle turns into a full-on waterfall. This phenomenon is called the “failure cascade.”


Failure cascades aren’t limited to guilds, but their effects are easier to track in an MMOG called EVE Online. EVE‘s player base isn’t broken up into servers, so events take place in one universe, which means it’s impossible to run from a conflict by jumping to another server. Since player-vs.-player combat is widespread, people tend to congregate in large groups; the largest corporation (EVE‘s equivalent of guilds) fields over 3,000 members. And these mega-guilds can form alliances with one another and go to war.

The term failure cascade was popularized in February 2007 by “The Mittani,” one of the directors of one of EVE‘s largest guilds, GoonFleet. He wrote, “A failure cascade is a ‘tipping point.’ Once the point has been reached, failures by an organization cause stresses that lead to more failure, at an ever-increasing pace.” In short, when a failure cascade begins, one misfire will increase the chances of another happening until the guild falls apart.

A recent victim of failure cascade was an alliance called Lotka Volterra (LV). They inherited a niche of space after the previous alliance in that area decided to move. They had an estimated 2,500 members at their peak.

War broke out between LV and a rival group of alliances, in January 2007. LV lost a few early battles in key sections of space, which allowed their enemies deeper into their territory. In just a few weeks, the advancing enemy destroyed LV’s titan ship – the largest, most expensive ship in EVE, which takes weeks to build. Days after that battle, Lotka Volterra’s directorate went missing. From that point on, LV’s resistance grew weaker as they lost more and more territory. They disbanded in April 2007 but had stopped operating as an entity two months before. I tried to interview a former Lotka Volterra member about what the last few weeks were like. Before declining, he said that those were bad times.

The Psychology of Failure
When you look at groups that hit a failure cascade, you notice patterns. If you were to chart an alliance’s membership over time, once you reach the failure cascade, you’d see a downward-sloping curve with a dispersal of cliffs. These are the two forces at work in that alliance’s failure cascade: the individual and the guild. Individuals leaving the alliance cause the shape of the slope, and the cliffs signify the points at which an entire guild has left an alliance.

This happens because the failure cascade is the inverse of a network effect. Websites like MySpace define their value by the people that use the service just as guilds define their quality by their members. As bad events cause players to leave or become inactive, the quality drop leads others to do the same in a spiral that rarely stabilizes, until no one is left.

To an individual, a failure cascade brings with it a change in that person’s identity. Instead of saying he is a member of an alliance, he shifts his perspective locally, to his guild or himself. These changes can fracture an alliance and set the stage for its member guilds to fight among themselves.

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The Mittani explains a typical chain of events on the guild level as: “Those loyal to their individual corporations campaign to have the corporation leave the alliance, blaming players from the other corporations for the failings of the entity as a whole. Finger pointing happens at every level; alliance leaders are lambasted, imagined slights are magnified and oftentimes massive witch-hunting for spies takes place across the whole organization. As those targeted by the witch hunts are almost always innocent, this causes ever more strife as people line up to defend the accused.”


What happens at the terminal stages isn’t pretty. Imagine you decide to sit down and play for an hour. You log in, and a guild member is blaming the leader for letting such a defeat happen last night, screaming at him over TeamSpeak. Fifteen minutes in, a friend you mentored when he first started tells you that he’s leaving to join a rival guild. You’ll still see him around, but it won’t be the same. Thirty minutes in, an associate that started playing when you did says she’s quitting. Forty-five minutes in, you decide to leave your guild. Why stick around a guild where your leader can’t inspire, your friends are becoming enemies and the people you grew up with are leaving to play World of Warcraft?

Avoiding the Cascade
A high susceptibility to failure cascade is a symptom of how guilds define themselves. Many try to lure new members by saying they control money-rich locations. Others boast about their unmatched PvP skills. These kinds of selling points set guilds up for destruction by hinging on a culture of success. Things are fine while members make money and win battles. When these conditions change, people don’t have any incentive to stick around.

One group in particular has remained strong due to its members’ nationality. The primarily Russian Red Alliance has been to the brink of collapse and back. In 2006, several of Red Alliance’s rivals took all of their territory except for a small pocket, and all of the non-Russian guilds left the alliance. Those who remained persevered because they shared a common lineage. Finding help from new allies, Red Alliance was able to reclaim its lost territory and become a superpower.

An alliance’s structure can provide it some immunity. One glowing example is GoonSwarm. Instead of having members spread out between member guilds, the majority of the alliance’s members belong to just one guild, GoonFleet. With this setup, there’s less inter-guild fighting, which diminishes the chances of a failure cascade.

Of course, GoonFleet’s members, like Red Alliance, share a lineage of sorts. GoonFleet is the EVE representation of comedy site Something Awful‘s forum members, called goons. Their allegiance isn’t to an in-game entity, so what happens in the game doesn’t shake the membership as much.

An effective protection for any guild is to simply have fun. GoonFleet regularly provides events for its members with no purpose other than having a good time. One of these is their famed “suicide ops” where members that take part are expected to die by the end of the night. While conquest is on the GoonFleet agenda, the first priority is to make sure everyone has fun.

A failure cascade is about how people react when they hit the valleys rather than the peaks. Looking for ways to sidestep a unit’s disenfranchisement when enduring a loss is as old as congregation itself, but there’s much to be learned in the real world from the people in EVE, even if the chief lesson is blood is thicker than water.

Joel Gonzales is a game developer in upstate New York and secretly a power ranger.

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