Bots are threatening EVE Online's economy and players are fed up

War is the lifeblood of EVE Online. It's the catalyst that creates dramatic, human stories of betrayal and heroism. But, right now, developer CCP Games is fighting a war of its own to preserve the integrity of EVE's dynamic, player-driven economy—and the EVE community is terrified that this is one war CCP is losing.

Unlike the battles EVE's players fight, this isn't a conflict against another rival group of pilots, but a rising epidemic of 'botters' using third-party programs to automate EVE's most tedious and reliable ways of earning ISK, EVE's in-game currency. It's been an irritation among the community for over a decade, but a recent revelation by one group of players has brought the issue into the spotlight.

Easy prey 

Several weeks ago, a player named Stu Miner, logged on expecting another routine evening in his wormhole-exploring corporation Hotline K162. By chance, his home system had a wormhole that bridged millions of lightyears to the region of space known as Omist. Known as a strategically useless backwater area belonging to the largely Eastern-European Drone Phoenix Federation, Stu Miner decided to poke around and see if there were any targets of opportunity.

"Every system I went into a Nyx [supercarrier] would instantly recall its fighters and warp to a [player-owned starbase]," Miner tells me over Discord. While these massive ships are a powerful force on the battlefield, supercarriers serve an equally useful purpose. Called 'ratting,' players will take these ships into 'anomalies' filled with computer-controlled pirates and kill them, automatically collecting their bounties in the process. If you can kill these pirates at a reasonable pace, which supercarriers do, it's one of the most reliable (and boring) ways of making money in EVE Online.

Each time Stu entered a star system in Omist, a different Nyx belonging to a corporation called  'Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic' would instantly warp to a safe zone. Suspicious that these seemingly separate characters were all actually one player running a script that plays multiple instances of EVE while the actual player is absent, Stu Miner set a painfully obvious trap. He flew to the anomaly the Nyx had been ratting in and placed a single warp disruption bubble, which traps any pilots caught inside until they manually escape or destroy it. Then he logged off and waited. 

In EVE, deployable bubbles like these prevent a ship's warp drive from working until they manually pilot outside of it.

"That's when I was 100 percent sure this was a bot."

Stu Miner

Some time later, the hunter logged back in and found something truly baffling: The Nyx had returned to the anomaly and landed right inside the warp disruption bubble. "It slowly crept out of the bubble and eventually warped back to its [safe spot]," Stu tells me. "It didn't lock me, didn't shoot me. Just aligned, traveled out of the bubble, and then warped. That's when I was 100 percent sure this was a bot and that all the other Nyxs in surrounding systems were likely bots too."

The Nyx could've easily destroyed Stu's Sabre Interdictor, but instead it made the baffling decision to warp back to safety behind the shields of its player-owned starbase—exactly the kind of behavior Stu and his fellow corpmates had seen in other bots they'd encountered. Furthermore, Stu Miner tells me that any supercarrier pilot would never have returned to ratting so quickly after seeing hostiles in his system. Supercarriers are extremely expensive ships that players love to hunt, so flying one requires extreme caution.

Days later, Hotline K162 found another wormhole leading them to Omist. With more players online, they decided to form a warband to see if they could catch any of the Nyxs using Stu Miner's strategy. Just as they had done before, they placed a warp disruption bubble where the Nyx was ratting and all logged off. When they came back in minutes later, the Nyx was again trapped inside. This time they destroyed it.

For the small warband, it was a rewarding kill. But after Stu Miner logged off for the night, other Hotline K162 pilots went on to use the same painfully obvious trap to kill another seven Nyxs—a staggering loss to have suffered outside of a full-fledged battle. Hotline K162 had seemingly stumbled upon a ring of botters.

On the EVE subreddit, Hotline K162 pilot 'funkydiddykong' shared his corporations' findings, and the issue boiled over. Not only did Hotline K162's story paint a pretty damning picture, but other pilots testified that they had seen these same players ratting constantly for years—a detail reinforced by each suspected pilot's record of ship losses. 

Losing eight Nyxs is a devastating loss to normal players, but is nothing compared to what botters can make in a month.

Losing eight Nyxs is a devastating loss to normal players, but is nothing compared to what botters can make in a month.

Pulling out the pitchforks 

If players are using bots to automate a relatively boring way to farm ISK, is that really a big deal? Redditor SvaraEir ran the numbers on how much money this specific botting ring could rake in based on the types of anomalies it was running, and the results are upsetting. "The monthly income the Nyx bots make is [roughly] 1.1 trillion liquid ISK per month if all of them are ratting for only [ten hours] per day, and [roughly] 2.6 trillion liquid ISK per month as a hypothetical 24h/day maximum," SvaraEir writes.

To put that in perspective, EVE Online offers a premium currency that can be sold on the in-game market for ISK. Called PLEX, players can use this to pay for special account services and even their subscription. Right now, 500 PLEX (the price of one month's subscription) costs $20 USD and sells for roughly 1.6 billion ISK on EVE's main trade hub. That means that in a single month of only ratting ten hours per day, this ring of bots could rake in around $13,750 USD worth of ISK—an exorbitantly high amount. "If you think this ISK is going anywhere but [real-money trading], you're totally delusional," SvaraEir writes.

Unlike other MMOs, EVE is played on a single server with an entirely player-driven economy. In World of Warcraft, for example, players can easily get the equipment they need from running raids, dungeons, and killing monsters. Gold in World of Warcraft has limited impact on your character's capabilities. In EVE, however, players are highly dependent on others for everything from ships to the modules that they install on them. In many ways, ISK is a direct measure of your character's capabilities. Even the highest skilled player is useless unless he can afford to buy and replace ships.

As more and more ISK floods the market from these botting operations, the value of ISK made by real players through honest means plummets.

The problem, then, is that as more and more ISK floods the market from these botting operations, the value of ISK made by real players through honest means plummets. In one Reddit post, player Loroseco laments how in five years he's been unable to accrue even a twentieth of the wealth these botters can rake in over a single month. "I feel completely worthless as a customer," Loroseco writes. "I feel like my effort over the years has been for absolutely nothing."

And he's not alone, either. In the last year, the price of PLEX has climbed 160 percent according to the in-game market history. Though PLEX prices are volatile and impacted by other variables, it calls into question just how deep an impact botting might have on inflating EVE's delicate economy.

The steady climb of PLEX prices over the course of a year via EVE Online's in-game market tool.

In speaking with several EVE players, it's evident that the bot ring in Omist was only the tip of the iceberg. Using bots to control a fleet of supercarriers is rare, but various regions of EVE are allegedly full of much smaller illicit operations. Perhaps the most common are fleets of Gila or Vexor Navy Issues cruisers, a much cheaper option than supercarriors, but still effective. There's also other well-known forms of botting, like mining or market bots that manipulate trade hubs to earn the botter a profit.

It's not just the value of ISK that can be impacted by these activities, either. If botters are able to accrue so much wealth, it's feasible that they could use it to shape EVE's delicate political landscape. Something similar happened last year when a cabal of players who ran a third-party ISK casino website used their exorbitant earnings to fund a war to destroy EVE's strongest player faction. Because these casinos couldn't be attacked through in-game means, they had a clear advantage over EVE's conventional economic machines. Unsurprisingly, CCP later banned all forms of ISK gambling. Botting presents the same risk, as honest players can't keep up with the ISK that botters earn.

SvaraEir's comment also struck a nerve because for years, EVE players have had suspicions about the economy being exploited by individuals who trade ISK for real money. Referred to as RMT (real-money trading), these players use websites like this one to sell their excess ISK for cash. It's a surprisingly profitable business that, according to current auctions for ISK listed there, has potentially earned some ISK sellers upwards of $50,000 USD.

Understandably, this discovery has many in EVE's community upset and disenfranchised. Many condemn CCP for not doing more, and, surprisingly, CCP agrees. "Those of you who’re concerned about botting ... are 100 percent right," community manager Paul 'CCP Falcon' Elsy wrote on the official forums. "It’s an absolute plague, and it’s something that every MMO feels the wrath of."

Elsy goes on to say that CCP has recently met with EVE's Council of Stellar Management, a group of player-elected representatives who lobby for community concerns, several times about the issue. Elsy says that over a single weekend, its security team has "taken out just under a thousand accounts that were complicit in botting" and more work is being done. Still, players are skeptical that CCP is actually doing anything at all.

Missteps 

At the time of writing this article, the alleged botters in Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic are still playing. Last week, this corporation was kicked from their alliance, Kids With Guns—who is also accused of using bots. I reached out to Kids With Guns to find out why. Though English is not his first language, Mac Noris told me that Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic was kicked because they failed to pay a fee for losing so many supercarriers in such a short period of time—a common policy to punish reckless players. "I could not get in contact with [Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic] leadership and had not received rent and fee payment from [them], [that's] why [they were] kicked from [the] alliance," Mac Noris said.

He also said that he had known Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic pilots for five years and never once suspected that they were using bots to farm ISK. "Any players who [are] using bots [or] scripts will be kicked from alliance and will be reported to CCP," he wrote.

I reached out to members of Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic and received no response.

"Those of you who’re concerned about botting ... are 100 percent right. It’s an absolute plague, and it’s something that every MMO feels the wrath of."

Paul Elsy, community manager

Whether Kids With Guns is lying—and whether Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic is actually botting—is a question that only CCP Games can answer. While players like Stu Miner can use basic logic to sniff out a possible bot, only CCP has the tools to confirm or deny those suspicions. Because CCP Games doesn't publicly comment on individual reports like the ones filed against Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic, however, it means players never get proper closure and simply have to trust that CCP is doing its job.

For now, it appears CCP Games considers Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic innocent. I reached out to CCP, but it declined to comment, saying that the next time they spoke about botting, it would be to unveil a concrete plan to alleviate player concerns.

But time is ticking and player frustrations are growing. This controversy comes at a bad time for CCP Games, who many feel is either incapable of stopping or willfully compliant with botters' actions. While the annual fan-gathering at EVE Vegas in October and CCP's announced game changes were received optimistically by fans, the company has quickly lost favor since then. Shortly after EVE Vegas, CCP laid off nearly 100 employees and closed its Atlanta and New Castle offices. At the time, Elsy said the layoffs would put EVE "in a more solid position going forward."

Then players learned that, as part of those layoffs, nearly the entirety of EVE's community management team was fired.

The communication and engagement provided by the community management team has been missed sorely since then. CCP announced several unfavorable features including frustrating user interface tweaks that many players actively hate. Then, last week, EVE Online saw its biggest battle ever in terms of active participants. Nearly 6,100 players showed up to fight over a vulnerable space station, but crippling lag and server problems made it impossible for either side to fight effectively. EVE's supposed 'million dollar battle' was a bust.

It's for these reasons that many of the players I've spoken with are skeptical CCP Games is capable of thwarting botting at all, let alone fixing EVE's other big issues. But the bigger problem is lack of communication between the developer and its community. With players convinced that Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic and others are actually botting operations, but no action being taken against them by CCP, a schism is forming. In response to CCP's inaction, players feel like they need to take matters in their own hands. That's what is leading one player to personally pay a bounty to anyone who can kill a botter and provide acceptable proof of their illicit actions.

For now, corporations like Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic are guilty in the court of public opinion and it seems that nothing short of CCP publicly weighing in will satisfy those who think botters like them are slowly damaging the economy—and EVE along with it.