This article appeared in my feed on Thursday, and it reminded me of… how damn much fun I had killing ISK farmers in my early days in EVE Online. Let me spin you a tale of a rookie PVPer, a mercenary corporation returning to piracy, and the weirdest extortion racket in lowsec.
(Forewarning: there’s going to be a lot of lingo non-EVE players may not get. I’ll try to provide links when I can, but the supplemental reading is dense.)
It was late 2007/early 2008. I was flying as Shae Tiann with a corporation called Under the Wings of Fury. They’re good guys, taught me how not to fit a ship, what to do during a wardec, and how to follow fleet command. When I joined them two weeks into the game, they were high-sec mercenaries, declaring war for the highest bidder, and would occasionally pirate down on the entrance into null-security space on the gate between Harroule and MHC-R3.
That pirating bug started to take over, though. Some of the guys missed proper piracy — not sitting on a gate waiting for unsuspecting targets to jump through and then demanding money in exchange for letting them go, but good, old-fashioned target-hunting. See, if you pirate in low-security space, you lose security status; lose enough “sec”, and you get hunted by police and even other players when you enter high-security space. In null-security, your character loses no status; piracy there is considered risk-free and kind of a cheap way to avoid consequences.
(I’ll add here that the rules have been changed dramatically with the implementation of the Crimewatch system in the Retribution expansion in 2013; from here on out, assume I’m whacking a walking-stick on the floor and complaining about kids on the lawn having it easy.)
So Atrocitas alliance — which at the time consisted of UWoF, Dark Star LLC, AnTi. and a couple other small corporations — decided to move back to UWoF’s old stomping ground in Kor-Azor space. We learnt the hard way that UWoF’s original base system of Schmaeel was now home to a pack of Russian null-seccers on holiday known as Beach Boys, so we re-settled in the next-closest system with a station, Arzi. Nice, quiet little loop off a “pipe” — a system with only two gates — just down from a high-security system. Location, location, location, as they say.
A non-verbal agreement developed between us and the Beach Boys: if we didn’t attack them, they wouldn’t attack us. We did poke the hornet’s nest once, just to see what would happen, and they dropped two carriers and a mothership on our dinky little gatecamp, to our endless amusement.
That was okay, though. There were other targets; namely, a mass of obvious ISK-farmers running hauling missions from the station in Arzi.
Allow me to sum up how that worked, as there’s been an immense crackdown on the practice in the years since then: ISK is EVE’s currency, just like gold in WoW and other games. One of the easiest ways to “farm” ISK back then was to run courier missions continuously; you talk to an NPC agent, they give you an item, you deliver it to another station a few jumps away, rinse and repeat. The higher the agent’s level and the better your social skills, the better the ISK payout. You also earn loyalty points which can be saved up and used to purchase high-value items and ships, which can then be sold on the market. The farmers would then sell that ISK to unscrupulous players for real-world cash via seller websites.
An endless stream of haulers running back and forth between two systems was a sure sign of a farming operation. We started popping them, in twos and threes and fives.
[15:21:53] be ture > shit
[15:22:37] erentukas > genocid:)
[15:23:03] Shae Tiann > … what the hell are you guys doing out there?
[15:23:20] Creesch > smartbombing
[15:23:20] Phelaen > smartbombing
[15:23:44] Shae Tiann > good thing I didn’t undock, then, eh….
Phelean and Creesch spent one afternoon sitting outside the station undock with area-of-effect weapons, and the wrecks just piled up while the locals complained in the public channel. The way we saw it, this existing ISK-farming practice was damaging “our” game and its economy (and CCP clearly felt the same way, because their open crackdown on farming started shortly thereafter).
It was about this time that I started operating as a diplomat for the alliance. I was good at telling which characters were alts and spies, and determining which groups were worth cutting deals with and which would make lucrative targets. I managed to get chatting with a few of the farmers whose English was passable, and they seemed happy to talk about what their job — because it was a full-time job — was like. Teams of five to eight guys, living in a single house, operating three accounts per person, in three eight-hour shifts. We calculated how much ISK they could make per day, and how much they could sell it for in real cash, and the value was staggering. They weren’t happy with us, because we were literally costing them paychecks with our activities.
Now, there was another alliance resident in Arzi, a bunch of players, who weren’t so happy about a random pirate alliance suddenly moving in. From what I gathered, they had made a deal with the farmers and were allowing them to operate unmolested in exchange for a cut of the ISK, and our farmer-hunting was hurting their profits, too.
For those who have a narrow view of EVE’s cutthroat PVP, I’ll point out that, to myself and the other players I operated with over the years in EVE, piracy is neither trolling nor bullying; piracy is a business practice. While the concept of e-honour may be mocked, it is what makes for a good reputation of being fair and even likeable ingame: you get repeat customers that way, and sometimes even end up with proper business deals to protect others’ assets in exchange for reduced price on ships and modules. Targets are offered a reasonable ransom demand — generally the market cost of their hull, although haikus, limericks and the odd singing ransom are sometimes requested if the player doesn’t have the available ISK or if we feel like being silly — and in Arzi they were put on a do-not-shoot list for the next 24 hours if they paid, allowing them to continue their activity for less than the cost of fully replacing their ship. When the Hellcats were working with The Bastards in 2009, a variety of operational passes were sold to other players for limited periods of safe activity within our realm of operations.
So the concept of selling out to a bunch of game-wrecking farmers made the lot of us curl our noses. While we were very much aware that these were real people we were dealing with, they were seen as the ultimate enemy: making playing a game into your real-life job in this way had the potential to lead to ugly political and legal issues which we didn’t want to see tied into EVE in any way.
I’m going to repeat that: we knew these were real people. We knew we were messing with their Real Life jobs and income. Our activities were the equivalent of someone walking into your office while you’re at work and smashing up your PC with a baseball bat… but only because your occupation has been deemed illegal by the local authorities.
It was vigilantism. We had no illusions about being Batman In Space, nor did we think we were particularly special or deserved any award for it. We just wanted them to get frustrated and leave the game, take their farming activity to another MMO.
I’m not sure if another deal was made or if they simply got fed up with us shooting their cash cow, but the other player alliance started putting signs on the gates warning that piracy was not allowed in “their” systems, and that the entirety of the Ravin constellation was under their protection.
The war lasted for a solid month, during which time a lot of very expensive stuff was destroyed, one of their towers was destroyed and another was ransomed and virtually stolen while they were in the process of removing it (it would have been stolen in the literal sense had one of our guys not been disconnected at a very bad moment and tipped the other player off that we were lurking under cloaking devices only a few kilometres away). The farmers added to the chaos by attempting to lag our game clients out every time a fight occurred and by stealing loot from ships destroyed in the conflict; we declared free-fire on the farmers during those fights, if we were confident that our ships could tank the sentry guns’ wrath.
It was a mess. Tempers ran high, smacktalk flooded the local public channels like a river of bile, brown-pants moments occurred on a daily basis. Arzi glowed red from ship deaths on the cluster map, a little point of Your Impending Doom Here in the otherwise quiet region.
And all because we decided to enact a bit of violent pixel vigilantism in a game. Our activity affected several dozen people’s real lives, and even after the other alliance gave up and moved out, it didn’t end until CCP stomped on the ISK farming business like a vengeful deity.
Do I feel badly for having affected so many people? About as badly as I do about any of my other ingame piracy: it’s a legal activity in the game, according to the EULA and Terms of Service, and it was a risk the farmers were well aware of. They did try to make a deal with us and we turned them down — none of us wanted ISK that was marked as being illegally gained and thereby potentially suffering the wrath of a GM on a farmer-banning rampage.
And that’s really all there was to it.