It's been six days since every major alliance in EVE Online fell victim to an unprecedented alien invasion. Attacking out of nowhere, the non-player faction known as the Drifters laid siege to thousands of citadel starbases and destroyed more than 5,000 player ships—obliterating hundreds of billions of ISK (EVE's in-game currency) and initially crippling many of EVE's biggest alliances as they scrambled to respond. If there was ever a day EVE Online stood still, it was the 26th of June.
That didn't last. And now the EVE community is mostly just annoyed.
When I first talked to EVE Online players last week, the chaos of the invasion was palpable. On Wednesday afternoon, players all across the galaxy of New Eden began receiving automated messages stating that their citadel starbases, jump gates, cynosural beacons, and other player-created structures were being assaulted by an unknown force. But even after they identified the assailants as Drifters and began marshalling defense fleets, there was little concrete information. All anyone knew was the attacks were widespread, unrelenting, and, at the time, dangerous. For a brief moment, it felt like EVE was on the verge of an apocalypse.
"The lack of forewarning that normally precludes an event like this took a lot of the playerbase by surprise," Seraph Padecain tells me. He's a fleet commander in TEST Alliance, one of the many player factions that has been repelling Drifter invasions for nearly a week—a coordinated effort that requires dozens of TEST Alliance pilots working at all hours to protect their space. Elsewhere in New Eden, every other alliance is working to do the same.
But as Seraph and other pilots close to the situation have told me, EVE Online's first alien invasion seems to be more of a boring grind and frustrating nuisance than anything.
I'm told an "unprecedented" meeting of nearly every major alliance is now in the works, with the aim of collectively firing back at developer CCP Games by "trying to ruin other parts of the game," one source says. In an attempt to shake EVE up in an exciting way, CCP Games might've just started a war with its own playerbase instead.
Part of what made the Drifter invasion so terrifying was the lack of information. Seraph was one of the first pilots to make contact with the Drifters on Wednesday, shortly after they besieged several TEST citadels. As he tells me, that initial engagement was unnerving. Though Drifters aren't a new enemy to EVE Online, no NPC faction had ever staged an assault like this. In our original report, TEST Alliance's head diplomat stated he thought someone was exploiting unknown game mechanics while others thought this was a glitch—a belief shared by many EVE pilots that day.
Seraph didn't have time to speculate. Some of the first citadels hit were critical to TEST's infrastructure and he needed to figure out just how dangerous this enemy was. "We had to stop them," he says. "Especially when you know how powerful the Drifters are against standard sub-capital ships. They are faster, do a lot more damage, and can take quite a beating."
The real problem, however, was that Drifter battlecruisers normally pack a Doomsday weapon capable of obliterating all but the biggest ships in EVE Online. Having a few dozen of those going off at once could've been catastrophic for an unprepared defensive fleet. Seraph, with his leadership's blessing, wanted to test if these Drifters were packing their usual doomsdays.
"I engaged the Drifters and realized that while they had [some of the same mechanics] that the Drifter battleships do in their [normal] fleets, they didn't use their doomsdays—slight sigh of relief there," he says.
Though Seraph didn't realize it, this was the first sign that the Drifter invasion was compromised to prevent them from causing truly serious damage. A few hours later, major alliances had already come up with their own methods for battling the Drifters. TEST was relying on its extensive network of fleet commanders to coordinate supercapital defense fleets, while other alliances had pilots manually wield citadels' defensive weapons to fight off Drifters.
Of all the pilots I spoke with representing some of EVE Online's biggest alliances, there was one common theme: They very quickly figured out how to effectively and efficiently defend their space from Drifter fleets. And though new Drifter fleets would spawn sometimes every minute—on June 29, The Imperium leadership said they weathered 170 individual Drifter attacks in a six hour period—it quickly became clear that they weren't all that interested in causing serious damage.
Above: A 2015 trailer first introducing the Drifters.
Though a few smaller player-built structures have been destroyed, so far the Drifters have yet to seriously damage even a single citadel—the key piece of infrastructure of any null-sec alliance.
As I explained in my original report, citadels can't be destroyed during a single assault. To help balance the complicated playing field of EVE Online's player-versus-player wars, citadel sieges are broken up into three phases that can be days apart to give both sides adequate time to muster their armies. To fully destroy a citadel, you have to win those three separate battles. But the Drifters seemingly have no interest in following up on weakened citadels. They'll win the first phase but won't come back when the citadel is ready to be attacked again, making the whole assault kind of pointless.
But because nothing like this had ever happened in EVE Online before, players aren't about to risk an expensive citadel on that assumption. "Since none of the mechanics were announced, nor tested publicly, the precedent was set for things to change at any time for any reason without any warning," explains Dran, TEST's head diplomat. "Even though we knew [the Drifters] were not a threat, we had to treat every one like it was because it could have been. It was the worst of both worlds."
Since Wednesday, TEST has been hit anywhere between 20 to 40 times a day by different Drifter invasions. Each one requires a coordinated response by upwards of 20 players—but TEST is also one of the most well-equipped and organized groups in the game. "TEST has a pretty big [fleet commander] team and we have a lot of citadel gunners," explains Seraph. "So, while it has been a lot of attacks, it has been more of an inconvenience to us as we have had to send gunners out all over our space."
Other alliances echo that annoyance. Asher Elias, a fleet commander in charge of one of the largest military forces in EVE called Goonswarm, was in the middle of one of the most destructive eviction campaigns of the past year—a concerted effort to uproot Goonswarm's two biggest enemies, Northern Coalition and Pandemic Legion. Though that campaign was largely over, Asher tells me Goonswarm leadership was in the middle of some final missions and considering new war campaigns when the Drifter invasion forced them to retreat home. "I don't mind adapting during a campaign—the amount of times we've had one of our enemies deploy to attack our home space while we've hit another is very high," Asher says. "I disliked being compelled to go home by CCP design decisions involving NPCs, especially without warning. It's the antithesis of player-driven sandbox content."
"Campaigns this size take months to plan and the work of hundreds of people, so it's not trivial. I wonder if CCP is cognizant of that," Asher adds.
Over the weekend, EVE Online saw an unprecedented drop in player-versus-player hostilities between rival alliances as each focused on defending their own space. But the Drifters are a poor substitute for human opponents, especially given their reluctance to actually hit an alliance where it hurts. "I feel like now we've adapted to the point where it's more a developer mandated chore than it is dynamic content," says Asher. He likens the event to a mini-game that takes money from your in-game wallet unless you log in each day.
"I play for the players, for the players in my alliance, and together we play to compete against other players," says Hedliner. He's the leader of Pandemic Legion, one of EVE Online's most notorious alliances. "We choose to exist within the predominantly player-driven dimension of the game and PvE is largely a means to an end, to obtain ISK to allow us to continue to compete against other players. For me, those I play with and those we play against we seek that human element and interaction. That is what has kept me playing for well over a decade. I would question whether it is right for NPC or PvE elements to encroach upon that to the extent that they appear to be at this time."
It's clear that the leaders of the biggest alliances aren't a fan of this new chapter in EVE Online, but they might not have to worry for too much longer. Though accounts vary, many of those I spoke with said that the Drifter invasions stopped at some point yesterday or Sunday evening. Because CCP Games is refusing to openly comment on the entire ordeal, no one knows whether this ceasefire is temporary or merely the calm before a new storm, but given that this invasion is closely tied to an in-game narrative that CCP has been spinning for years now, it's plausible that a new phase of the invasion could begin soon.
But if it does, the null-sec alliances it will inevitably affect are ready to fight back—not just against the Drifters, but CCP and EVE Online itself. During my conversations with different alliance leaders, I learned that many of the biggest player empires in New Eden have decided to temporarily set aside their differences to figure out how they can make a coordinated protest to voice their displeasure over these recent events.
I'm told that this "cabal" of leaders hasn't yet decided on a single course of action, but already some of the biggest groups in EVE are taking their own measures. Both The Imperium (a coalition of alliances headed by Goonswarm) and Fraternity, EVE Online's first Chinese alliance, have decided to "localize" their economies, effectively starting a trade war that they believe will weaken all of EVE Online.
Normally, empires like The Imperium ferry some of the valuable materials they harvest out in dangerous null-sec space back to the safety of high-sec, where EVE Online is a lot less dangerous and a lot more friendly. High-sec is also home to EVE's largest markets, like Jita, which keeps its player-driven economy turning. But by placing embargoes on high-sec markets and localizing its own economy, The Imperium and any other nations hoping to join in the protest are hoping to send EVE's economy into a tailspin that will, eventually, negatively affect the overall game.
Because EVE Online has historically struggled to attract and keep players, the idea is that by making EVE worse for everyone and hurting CCP Games' bottom line, null-sec empires can influence changes that they feel are more conducive to their PvP playstyle.
It's not the first time that null-sec players have protested unpopular changes by blowing up EVE's vital in-game marketplaces. Every few years events like Burn Jita encourage players to create blockades around EVE's biggest markets, destroying anyone who happens to be hauling goods for sale. These events create enormous economic damage that can be felt throughout New Eden. Whether that's enough to cause CCP Games to sweat is impossible to tell, though I think unlikely.
But, from what I'm told, this new alliance between EVE's biggest empires is a first. Assuming infighting doesn't pull it apart, it will represent the biggest unification of EVE Online's disparate alliances since its launch in 2003—all with the express purpose of punching back at CCP Games for daring to interfere in their player-driven politics by forcing pilots to shoot NPC aliens instead of real players. For now, nothing is certain. Though the Drifter invasion has seemingly ceased, only CCP Games knows what lies ahead for the pilots of EVE Online. And even CCP doesn't know how its players will strike back.