Combat in EVE Online is conducted on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. From an alliance war declaration that rocks the political landscape to an obscure border skirmish that is forgotten the next day, the decision to engage is always made according to what each party has to gain or lose. Other player interactions are also based on the same economically rational patterns of thought – buy and sell orders, contracts, scamming, mining operations and wormhole expeditions – but these instances are hardly surprising.
What sets EVE apart from the MMO norm is that when two players, gangs, fleets, corporations, alliances, power blocs, or any other arrangement bring their arms to bear, the order to engage or to mobilize for war is not given based on the answer to a subjective question like “will this be fun?” but is instead framed by an objective question like “what do we stand to gain, and does that outweigh what we stand to lose?” This peculiar, inexorable consideration that is forced upon the capsuleer is is source of the foremost complaint about PvP in EVE – “blobbing” – and the quasi-mythological status of its opposite, the “1v1.”
The choice to engage in PvP combat is made according to a cost-benefit analysis because the “death” of the player – the destruction of their ship – is final. Destruction is a possibility that the player must confront and accept every time they undock a ship, whether it be to other players, NPC belt pirates, or an accidental click of the self destruct button. However it happens, once a ship is destroyed, it doesn’t come back. The player doesn’t rise as a ghostly apparition out of a nearby graveyard, make the trek back to the scene of his death, and slip back inside his pristine, intact ship. When a ship dies, the player doesn’t just lose the time and effort he put into getting the ship, but also the time and effort attached to the modules, rigs, cargo, and – if he is unlucky – his pod and its implants.
The numerical measure of a ship’s existence is how much it and its accessories cost to obtain, as is the measure of its destruction. Killboards everywhere tirelessly tally and record the ISK forever consigned to space dust; according to BattleClinic, I’ve helped send over two billion ISK to its cosmic grave. Money flows in and out of EVE every day, entering the world through the magical printing presses of Game Time Cards, bounties and loot, and leaving it again in thousands of brilliant blue flashes. It enters and exits through incessantly flashing wallets, leaving each player to make the call when the time comes to throw themselves headlong into PvP. How much they will lose if they die is the cost factor of the analysis.
The benefit can take several forms, but it is essentially the same monetary measure of how much the opponent will lose. Sometimes – such as in alliance fleet battles – it is enough to inflict the monetary loss, betting that the enemy’s will to continue fighting cannot outweigh the costs they incur. Piracy aims to extract money through ransoms or high security ganks, manifesting the cost differently. Complications aside, the deciding factor in whether or not two forces come to blows boils down to at least one of the two coming to the conclusion that the potential benefits outweigh the potential losses – the risk of death is worth taking.
Though they may accept the cost of combat, pilots naturally go to great lengths to minimize the cost. One way to mitigate the cost that comes with the destruction of a ship is not to fly expensive ships; in EVE, the more expensive ships – specifically Tech Two ships – cannot be insured for their market cost, meaning that the cost of losing them is much greater than the loss of a lesser ship. But greater expense means greater power, which means a better chance of besting potential foes and reaping the benefits. Beside, once a ship has been introduced to the game, it is impossible to simply ignore or swear off – even stealth bombers still get a little love from time to time.
The alternative is blobbing. “Blobbing” is a contentious term that gets thrown around a lot in EVE, suggesting that there is no solid definition. Rather, the definition of blobbing is variable; when a ship or group of ships encounters an enemy that outnumber them to such an extent that individual ship types, fittings, character and player skill no longer matter, they have been blobbed. The point of a blob is to reduce the cost of combat to zero for the blobbers, by reducing the possibility of defeat to zero. The only counter to a blob is to bring a bigger blob, and thus EVE‘s system of combat – when unfettered, as in nullsec space – spirals into the impersonal numbers game that reduces tactics to calling primary targets and dulls the capsuleer’s individualistic spirit.
From this disillusionment arises the hope for something more pure that hearkens back to a nostalgic, rose-tinted age of better PvP. This hope found a home in the idealization of the 1v1. The 1v1 is essentially the absolute opposite of the blob; not only is it a lone player facing off against a single opponent with no interference, its motivation is not rooted in the cost-benefit analysis that gave rise to the blob – 1v1s are just for fun, for competition’s sake, superiority determined by sheer skill. By reading the countless complaints about dishonored 1v1s, it becomes clear that players sorely wish 1v1s were more than a romantic receptacle for their desire for better PvP, for fights conducted purely for fun instead of material gain. I have only ever had two 1v1s – and they were both honored – both were during my wanderings of ship and thought, and it showed me that EVE‘s holy grail of PvP exists in the most stunning environments, even on a nullsec gate straddling the doorstep of a raging interalliance war. I’m still not sure what to make of those experiences, but it is clear to me that an honorable 1v1 is a rare treat – and an aberration.
The absolute destruction of a ship – and hence of time and money – that comes with defeat in EVE is what forms the foundation of the universe’s indifferent harshness, an egalitarian coldness that players have run with since the onset, creating a brutal online culture in which players are practically obligated to inconvenience, harm, and kill one another. It is this ruthlessness that makes EVE the great game that it is, but it is this desire to do harm and win that is at the core of blobbing and dishonored 1v1s. Players will eventually have to accept it, and undock their precious ships into the black maw of space, lined with glistening teeth made of stars, greedy to gobble endless amounts of time, money and hard work into the gullet of the abyss.
Steven Croop publishes disparate thoughts at Open Salon when not suicide pod-bombing corpmates. Maybe he’ll get a real website one day.