The virtual galaxy of New Eden is under siege, and no one knows why.
On Wednesday afternoon, thousands of players across the lawless regions of null-sec space, where EVE Online's fabled player-created empires battle for supremacy, were ambushed by fleets belonging to a mysterious non-player faction known as Drifters. While hostile NPC factions have always been in EVE Online, they've never posed a collective threat to its entire playerbase. Until now.
I've reached out to several sources, but the full extent of the Drifter invasion is still unclear—as is the extent of the damage so far. What we do know is that almost all of EVE Online's biggest factions, like The Imperium and TEST Alliance, have had their home stations sieged by Drifter fleets, each numbering in the hundreds, while smaller Drifter squads are ambushing anyone travelling through nearby systems. It's chaos, and EVE Online pilots are scrambling to respond.
"It very much caught everyone by surprise," an EVE player named Rhivre tells me. "There was no warning or hint that it was going to happen, then suddenly reports came in from all across null-sec about structures being shot at."
At 2:44 pm EST, members of TEST Alliance, one of EVE Online's largest and most storied player empires, received an automated warning message:
"BOTmadmin: via notifybot Structure attacked: unknown 1029248651499 [Pharolux Cyno Beacon 94.60/100.00/100.00][B0RT] in BY-MSY Esoteria by [ ](Vigilant Tyrannos) Artemis Tyrannos @ 2019-06-26T18:43:00Z [a minute ago]"
This message was the first sign that something was very wrong, TEST's head diplomat tells me. His name is Dran, and he was logged in when the invasion first begun. As he explains, some of the automated warnings that began pouring in were "undocumented garbage" that couldn't be deciphered because TEST's player-programmed tools weren't designed to respond to attacks from computer-controlled forces. But one thing was clear: One of TEST's massive starbases was under attack.
But from who?
Players in the vicinity of the BY-MSY star system in TEST's home region of Esoteria were quickly able to confirm what was happening. As they warped to the besieged citadel starbase, a fleet of nearly 100 Drifter battleships unleashed volley after volley against its shields. Dran's first suspicion was sabotage.
As TEST scrambled to muster its pilots into action, reports quickly spread that attacks were happening elsewhere in the null-sec regions of New Eden. Chinese alliance Fraternity had at least one of their own starbases sieged, while The Imperium had to prematurely end a war campaign against a rival empire so it could quickly retreat home and mount a defense of its own stations. Meanwhile, Pandemic Horde had a special structure known as a jump bridge outright destroyed. More and more reports are coming in by the hour, leading to an unprecedented ceasefire between all of EVE Online's warring alliances as they focus on defense.
Until yesterday, Drifters behaved like most of EVE Online's non-player factions—but with a few improvements that make them significantly more deadly. For one, Drifters will follow you through a star system if you provoke them and try to run away. As Dran explains, players quickly learned to exploit this behavior by attacking a group of Drifters and running for the safety of a nearby starbase. The Drifters would give chase and effectively walk into an ambush as the player could then use the starbase's defenses to easily tear them to shreds.
It was possible to "farm" the Drifters this way, but that also came at a risk. If you drew the Drifters to a starbase and left them there, they'd slowly chew through its shields—though it would theoretically take hours given how small Drifter fleets typically are.
So when Dran saw a fleet of a hundred Drifters obliterating their citadel starbase in BY-MSY, he immediately suspected someone was trying to sabotage TEST from the inside using some kind of unknown strategy to gather such an enormous Drifter fleet. "I wasted at least an hour going through all our gunner [access lists] to find a spy that didn't exist," he says.
As more and more red alerts came in from TEST starbases throughout the region, it quickly became clear that this was beyond the scope of a saboteur exploiting a game mechanic. Dran tells me that within a period of 12 hours, over 38 TEST starbases were hit by Drifter fleets, though none were outright destroyed because EVE Online's complex siege systems are broken into separate phases.
Large player-created structures effectively have three health bars, and each time one is depleted there is an invulnerability window to give each side a chance to regroup and plan for the next battle. That ended up being the saving grace for TEST—and every other major alliance in EVE.
Even though TEST's fleet commanders were eventually able to marshall defensive fleets capable of destroying the Drifters, Dran says there were simply too many battles happening at once to defend everything. "How do you recognize the threat, ping an alliance, get a fleet of 30 to 50 dudes, ship up, undock, fly even two to three systems over, and engage a fleet in 14 minutes?" he says. "And that's assuming you get the notification instantly. We got ours a minute after it started, and then did that for 12 hours straight."
And what's worse, no one knows when this will end, or even why this is happening—except the developers at CCP Games, and they aren't talking.
But the Drifters are striking so hard and fast, starbases are frequently being put into their invulnerability windows far more quickly than thought possible. Normally, sieges in EVE Online can take up to 12 hours or more, but these Drifters are so powerful they're tearing through defenses in a matter of minutes.
Meanwhile, players travelling through null-sec space are frequently being waylaid by smaller gangs of Drifters who quickly obliterate their ships and everything in its cargo bay. One particularly painful loss was a Hel supercarrier, costing its pilot more than 16 billion ISK, EVE's in-game currency (this roughly translated to $150 since you can buy ISK in-game).
The Drifters are even attacking pilots' escape pods, which are automatically jettisoned from a destroyed ship so that players can retreat to safety. Losing your pod means respawning at a medical bay that could be on the other side of the galaxy. Until yesterday, Drifters would only target and destroy your pod if provoked, but now they're destroying them regardless—breaking all of EVE Online's rules.
While writing this, all of null-sec space in New Eden is still under constant assault. For TEST and Dran, it's been all hands on deck. He's only managed to get a bit of sleep in between helping coordinate defenses and his regular diplomatic duties—not to mention juggling a full-time job. "It's stressful, man."
While the EVE Online subreddit seems to be soaking in the chaos and carnage, those in leadership positions like Dran are understandably at the end of their rope. "Don't get me wrong, the balls it would have taken to set this mechanic on the game intentionally, I applaud it," he says. "The game needs more snowglobe shaking."
But at the same time, years of effort by tens of thousands of players is collectively at risk.
"If another player comes by and knocks down our sandcastle that's one thing," Dran adds. "Those risks are understood and part of the sandbox. We set up full well knowing the risks, and are prepared to fight anyone for our right to be here. We didn't set anything up knowing that at any point with no warning NPCs would materialize and blow everything up. NPCs don't sleep, they don't get tired, they don't have to wake people up or take off work to show up for a timer. They just exist one second, shoot, and then despawn. EVE is supposed to be a sandbox driven by human interaction and intrigue. This just feels contrived."
The leader of The Imperium, a man known as The Mittani, is especially annoyed with the invasion. "The Imperium was in the midst of prosecuting a war involving tens of thousands of real players," he says. "We are annoyed that we have had to stop our player vs player warfare and grind through what amounts to World of Warcraft-style raid content, but we have already broken down how the Drifter AI works and have successfully defended all of our structures thus far. I look forward to going back to real player vs player content, which is why I quit WoW for EVE in the first place."
But right now there is no end in sight, and CCP Games is refusing to acknowledge or explain anything. "We reached out to CCP employees, anyone we thought might know what was going on," Dran explains. "We couldn't even get confirmation that this wasn't a bug, or that it was a player or that there was some intended counterplay. Nothing. Silence."
At the time of publishing this story, CCP Games hasn't even acknowledged that half of EVE Online is actively on fire. That initially led many to believe this was all some kind of horrific accident or bug, but now the consensus is that this invasion was planned. After all, EVE Online's current expansion is called, well, Invasion. But because major shifts in EVE Online's delicate ecosystem have always been communicated months or years in advance, no one expected this.
I reached out to CCP Games personally, and a spokesperson said they "reached out to the Drifters for comment, but they rejected our hailing frequencies."
CCP did say, however, that it "intercepted" the above image, which is a map of EVE Online's different player-alliances. It hints that the Drifters (and, by extension, CCP Games) might not stop until all of EVE Online's null-sec territory has been wrested from the hands of its players.
If that's the case, EVE Online could be headed for its most dramatic upheaval in the 16 years since it was first launched. It's nearly been a full day since the invasion started, and Dran and the other players I've spoken to are confused, frustrated, and shaken. They've spent years building and protecting their empires, and now CCP seems poised to burn everything down.
What will happen next is anyone's guess.