EVE Online: Spy Game
The elusive figure of The Mittani reveals a tale of Doomsday machines, sleeper agents, and massive fleet battles within the space-based MMO.
7:00 EST: The Tau Ceti Federation, a French corporation friendly to GoonSwarm, begins a surprise assault on the 1V- system, held by the enemy Lotka Volterra alliance. Lotka Volterra holds a sizable chunk of virtual real estate. GoonSwarm does not.
10:14: Then-GoonSwarm leader Remedial issues a call to battle, rallying his troops to assist their allies. "This is our moment of triumph and we shall not fail," cries the empassioned director. "Move to the battlefield and engage the enemy immediately." All this before lunch.
14:00: A tense stand-off ensues as GoonSwarm and its allies lay siege to the system. Hundreds of spaceships gather in one writhing armada, their sole purpose to knock out Lotka Volterra's stations in a single coordinated strike. All is going well, until their shocking opening shot is countered by an even more startling reply.
16:08: "Fucking hostile cyno 200 above the gate was tense but nothing came of it," comes an ominous report from GoonSwarm member Piggyblink. He speaks too soon.
16:10: A small light appears amidst the blackness of space. The spark then expands into a furious cloud of energy, chaotically spiraling around the seemingly-innocent cynosural field. The worst scenario has become a reality: Lotka Volterra's first Titan-class starship--a Death Star-like behemoth long kept secret from even the corporation's upper echelon--has revealed itself for the first time, activating its Doomsday superweapon from inside the system.
"I just had Rycar run your IPs," he finally informs me. He just what?
The resultant blast-wave stretches from one corner of the sector to the other, instantly vaporizing all but the most hardened vessels. When the confusion has cleared, hundreds of GoonSwarm, Tau Ceti and Red Alliance pilots are left floating in their escape pods, defenseless and dismayed. In-game assets totaling in the billions of ISK--the currency of EVE--are gone in the blink of an eye. All seems lost.
But even as the EVE forums discussed Lotka Volterra's impressive ambush, the allied pilots recovered from their losses, and The Mittani and his associates went to work. In the immediate aftermath, GoonSwarm would incapacitate five enemy stations and win key victories, becoming the sovereign power in the system after only a few days. In the weeks to come, a war of attrition between the two powers raged on throughout the southern territories. Within mere months, Lotka Volterra's corporate franchise was allowed to expire permanently--the once-powerful alliance had been wiped from the galactic map.
"That was easily the most intense day I've had in EVE," The Mittani tells me, chatting from his office in much the same way he would with an agent. "It was the [Lotka Volterra] members who were left shaking their heads and demoralized, thinking 'We even had a Titan, and they still won?'"
Arranging an interview with the famed spook, I wasn't sure what to expect. Sporting the classic forum avatar of Dr. Strangelove, his presence in GoonSwarm is legendary; his words sometimes curiously honest, and often intentionally duplicitous. As the founder and director of the GIA, an anomalous spy organization serving the thousands-strong, SomethingAwful.com-derived GoonSwarm alliance, The Mittani has seen over a hundred agents and sub-directors working underneath him over the past year. All have been devoted to one cause: the downfall of GoonSwarm's enemies, by any means necessary.
Supporting tens of thousands of players, the resources within the EVE Online universe are constantly fought over. At its most basic level the game is presented as a web-like star map, displaying various star systems connected by jump-gates, like a 3D series of intersecting roadways. At the core of the web is the friendly PVE territory, while dozens of outlying, sovereign player vs. player systems remain up for grabs. Territorial resources become a tightly controlled commodity, as does the information related to its management. Corporations--EVE's form of a guild--range from small pirate organizations, to massive world-conquering alliances.
Following the latter mold, GoonSwarm has risen as one of the largest such alliances in EVE, known for its comedic, yet unrelenting approach to the cutthroat universe. In a game that many find boring, GoonSwarm creates their fun through sheer force of imagination--and The Mittani is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.
Throwing once-cultivated in-game virtues such as honor and fairness out the window, the GIA was controversial in its creation. As The Mittani puts it, "EVE is considered by many to be a 'sandbox' MMO, and in such a place, only the ruthless survive. The list of nasty things you can do is only limited by your creativity and your capacity for cruelty." In a persistent world where all deaths are final, ruining someone's day often becomes necessary on the path to glory. This presents the same ethical questions that face real-life politicos: Where do you draw the line in a lawless war?
The answer, as it often boils down to, is based on simple mathematics. Faced with a teeming horde of eager, yet un-skilled pilots, GoonSwarm had to get its hands dirty in order to compete. After some debate, the GIA was established in early 2006, becoming the only open-recruitment spy organization--and one of the few in-house agencies--in EVE. "Eventually we realized, much to our surprise, that there simply wasn't any competition," says a proud, but somewhat disappointed Mittani. Spy games are more fun with two or more players.
For instance, Mittani claims that one of the strongest organizations in the game--the famous Band of Brothers, or BoB--has an intelligence community on par with Mr. Bean. "When we got access to BoB's director forums it was a huge disappointment," he tells me. "For them, member-level posts on our forum, which is the single largest and most-spy ridden forum in the game, were a big deal. It was like finding out that there was no Santa Claus."
Though The Mittani may miss out on the fun of participating in a fleet action, quietly shuffling pieces across the starlit board brings its own reward. "If you're even mildly sadistic, or at least enjoy seeing the lamentations of people you dislike, this job is amazing fun," he explains while showing me a copy of Lotka Volterra's private forums, pointing out a few particularly amusing deceptions. He refers to his "job" as a "meta-game," a game-within-a-game. Like the Men in Black, he is above the system--beyond the system. Anonymity is his name; the GoonSwarm battle cry of "fofofo" his native tongue.
Much like a real-world bureaucracy, running one of the largest spy agencies in EVE is no easy task, requiring constant vigilance. In fact, The Mittani rarely logs into the game, preferring instead to act as a prime mover--an outside force, more concerned with the big picture than the day-to-day skirmishes and operations of the Swarm. Communication becomes a game in itself. "I'd get 20+ [reports] a day and, at one point, had 35 separate Trillian windows open," he explains. "AIM for Americans mostly, MSN for the Euros, and ICQ for the Russians."
The GIA's primary assets are its deep-cover employees--those agents who infiltrate enemy corporations in the guise of anonymous characters. These top-secret soldiers are required to run at least two EVE accounts to maintain their secrecy, voluntarily living out a video game double-life. The spies are forced to log enough play-time within the target organization to keep up the illusion of dedication, and because they are often enrolled as members of inept corporations, this can be a tedious affair. As real-life spies will tell you, the work is usually not as exciting as it sounds.
"Being an agent is a full-time job," The Mittani says of the in-game profession he helped establish. "It can be extremely dull and tiresome depending on the target, but it's necessary. Most fail horribly or lose interest, but you get a good number of solid agents, and every now and then you'll get a real James Bond type."
Of course, when one deals with James Bond on a regular basis, it becomes hard to break the habits of routine paranoia. Early on during our conversation, I can tell The Mittani is growing suspicious of my questioning. At one point there is a pause. Something is up. I consider escape.
"I just had Rycar run your IPs," he finally informs me. He just what? I look over my shoulder on reflex, half expecting to see some internet commando behind my back, gently pressing a knife to my throat.
Turn the page to find out whether or not this article comes to an abrupt end._PAGE_BREAK_ "You do indeed seem to be from Michigan and the phone number you gave fits that," The Mittani concludes in a nonchalant manner, as if locating my house were on par with a handshake. He tells me that it's the nature of my request that has him on edge. "Anything that appeals to my vanity I'm always really suspicious of because it's such a weak spot with people."
In the world of internet espionage, double agents are always a risk. "We're constantly paranoid about that sort of thing," Mittani continues. "We've had a good number of obvious spies try to sign up, and we tend to place them with the organization we believe them to be from, then watch them."
The possibility exists for both sides, though only once has a GIA agent ever turned coat. Early on in the group's existence, an agent tasked with keeping tabs on a pirate clan became a little too friendly with his targets, eventually switching sides for good. "He still provided us useful intel, but is so far the only GIA agent to ever 'go native' that we know of," The Mittani assures me.
For the most part, agents quietly carry out their tasks, notating enemy conversations, or reporting on daily fleet movements and tactics. On the eve of a major battle, these reports can often explode into a flurry of time-sensitive alerts, as in the case with the Lotka Volterra campaign.
The Mittani's account of the Doomsday incident is triumphant in its accomplishment, but also tinged with regret. "We had multiple agents in the hostile gangs, including a director-level agent, so I was confident that we had things under control," he recounts. His agents deceived by a tight circle of Titan-privy insiders, Lotka Volterra pulled off a stunt that caught the GIA with its space-pants down.
"Suddenly, one of my agents sends me an AIM: 'Someone just said Doomsday on [TeamSpeak]'," he continues. "My two monitors exploded with Trillian windows opening as basically everyone on our side freaked out... We were, I was certain, lost."
After the calamity rocked the fleet, one GoonSwarm member named ashp posted in jest, "wow what the fuck MITTANI WHERE WAS OUR WARNING," followed by a courtesy smiley-face. Mittani wasn't smiling at the time, however. He would later write on his director blog: "I felt a crushing loss, like that was the end, it was a Titan, I hadn't been able to find it..."
But the GoonSwarm and its allies have rarely been ones to give up when faced with overwhelming odds. In a corporation spawned from a humor website, its members are constantly at war with the dramatic nature of EVE's political machinations. The Swarm's victories are often derived from countless suicidal missions. Overwhelming defeat only brings on a satisfying laughter.
According to Mittani, rather than succumbing to their loss in a rout, they instantly rallied, mustering a new fleet 500 strong to resume the destruction of 1V-. Rather than feeling demoralized from the catastrophic detonation, most thought it was actually pretty cool. "These days we're kind of blase about being shot at by a Titan, because it happens every day and it's not a big deal, but [at the time] I was really shocked, stunned, and left feeling giddy about the fact that even a fucking Titan couldn't stop us."
One EVE Online forum post by a GoonSwarm enemy read, "I don't think I've ever been in a battle where killing 600+ enemies still results in losing 3 poses." Thus is the Swarm.
Months later, The Mittani would have his revenge on Lotka Volterra--but first his agents had work to do.
There are many ways EVE intelligence operatives can cause havoc amongst an enemy camp. One basic method involves using a planted mole as a Cylon-esque sleeper. When a conflict crops up, the mole is used as a Trojan Horse in a sort of barnyard caper, raising the proverbial gates and dropping the enemy's defenses in a single decapitating strike. "With a well-placed agent, [player-owned stations] can be entirely removed in less than an hour," The Mittani says. "This inevitably burns the agent's cover, but it is the fastest way to completely change the tide of a war."
In an undercover twist on the Rockstar title, "Grand Theft Spaceship" takes place when an agent discovers an empty ship parked outside one of his target corporation's stations. The sleeper simply grabs the ship up for himself, adding it to the Swarm collection without leaving a single trace of his theft. As The Mittani explains, "This tends to set off a rash of witch-hunting and infighting in the target organization as their members cease to trust each other, and suspect the people they dislike the most for being responsible for the thefts." This kind of infighting is indicative of another EVE battlefield, where psychological warfare is the weapon of choice.
"Dangling" is an operation wherein members of Goons--sometimes hundreds of the bee-like Swarm--will offer to sell classified information to enemy corporations. "If they accept the proposition, the intelligence will either be faulty and deleterious if believed," continues The Mittani, "or the Goon will take the money and immediately begin insulting and mocking the target." Either way, the seeds of doubt are sown. "Very quickly the enemy becomes jaded and disgusted, and will cease to believe any actual traitors that approach them in the future."
Of course, no intelligence agency would be complete without a militaristic branch. The literal cloak to the GIA's dagger, GoonSwarm's Black Ops divison uses cloaked covert operations ships to bait, confuse, or seek out the enemy.
"The Black Ops is one of my proudest creations as they have pioneered a new form of warfare in EVE, and since become one of the most-imitated combat groups in the game--though of course those who imitate them will no doubt vehemently protest that accusation," says The Mittani, who elaborates by setting up a scenario where a cloaked ship enters an enemy system, thus triggering a hunt by its defense forces. "With a cloak, they cannot find a Black Ops ship, and after an hour or two will likely assume that the Black Ops pilot is [idle] and resume going about their normal business in the system, exposing themselves to attack. In reality, the Black Ops pilot is not [idle], and soon another victim is added to their tally.
"In this way, a very small number of pilots can completely shut down entire constellations and regions, simply by flying around cloaked and remaining online for long periods of time... We found a champion in one of our directors, Alctel, who really spearheaded the organization and made it what it is today. He and his successor, Widebrant, have become experts in disruption and sowing discontent."
Whether you're mining space rocks, flying from system to system, or infiltrating a vast hierarchy of suspicious players, EVE has always been a game about patience. So it was that the GIA would finally exact its revenge on Lotka Volterra, payback for their titanic attack.
Continue reading for the explosive conclusion of Lotka Volterra._PAGE_BREAK_
While other men were busy caressing sweethearts on Valentine's Day 2007, the GIA was capitalizing on a quiet night of covert gaming. The Lotka Volterra director in charge of station defense was not alerted after the JV1V Titan-producing facility was probed by a late-night GoonSwarm attack. Around the same time, a director-level GIA spy revealed that the station had only enough fuel to sustain a 24-hour siege. Crosshairs placed squarely on the unassuming fetus, Swarm forces quickly positioned themselves to take advantage of the situation. They could not allow a Titan gap.
In a stroke of luck for the Goons, Band of Brothers--the largest alliance in EVE, and no friend to GoonSwarm--was called away to deal with other insurrections, leaving Lotka Volterra to deal with its own problems. Even without BoB's involvement, one of the largest battles in the history of EVE soon ensued. Estimates place the strength of Lotka Volterra's Titan-defending fleet at some 300 ships, with the Redswarm Federation--the 15,000-player strong coalition consisting of GoonSwarm, the Russian Red Alliance, and miscellaneous allies--fielding between 400 and 600 ships. Around 70 capital ships were involved, each worth over a billion ISK.
In advance of the engagement, long-time GoonSwarm fleet commander Sesfan issued a directive to his forces, calling on those available to join up in preparation. Some Goons couldn't believe their luck, and perhaps remembering Lotka Volterra's previous ambush, read their enemy's lack of station fuel as the sign of a typical Ackbarian trap. "I do not think they fucked up at all. All indications point to a plan," said Swarm pilot Tevlent. "It was way too easy getting into JV1V, they want us here."
One Goon named Raivin summed up the moment in a Lando-like reply: "I share your concern for our cap fleet but we absolutely will not get a better shot at this." One way or another, the Federation forces were going into battle. As the massive Goon-lead fleet jumped into the system of JV1V and crashed the Lotka Volterra blockade, spirits were high.
Yet at the highest of fantastical highs, reality can bring a crushing low. Unable to sustain a 1,000+ ship assault, the EVE Online server began dropping players left and right, leaving those stuck at the EVE loading screen like Vile Rat to ask, "So for those logged in and doing things how does the gate look?" Meanwhile, those Federation pilots that managed to log on continued the fight, and in one glorious, lag-ridden exclamation, destroyed the nascent Titan. Cheers erupted over TeamSpeak. The Picard Song echoed through the air. The operation would forever after be referred to as the "Titan Abortion."
In the aftermath, Lotka Volterra leaders petitioned the loss of the Titan based on server-failure unfairness, but EVE developers CCP denied their request. At the time, The Mittani would inform the Swarm on the internal status of their enemy: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a failure cascade."
The subsequent report from a GIA spy in the Lotka Volterra directorship was appropriately terse: "Leaders of LV have completely evaporated. They aren't logging on anymore. Haha he said "tactical retreat". Entire alliance is going to C3-. A talk of a surrender is going on in order to get their assets out. Oh god what happened to all of [their] fittings in G-D (I stole them). Carrier being built in XGH!"
As the leadership of Lotka Volterra disintegrated, The Mittani would exploit a bitter LV member--the same player blamed for the destruction of the Titan fetus--to buy control of that same XGH capital ship assembly array, among other notable assets, during a massive fire-sale. As Redswarm capital ships glided from system to system on the war path, many LV strongholds fell with little or no resistance. Not only had the Swarm extinguished Lotka Volterra's will to fight, but they had also secured much of the spoils of war without having to fire a contested shot.
The absorption of Lotka Volterra's territory gave the Redswarm Federation a comfortably-sized home with which to build upon. However, though their kingdom crumbled, Lotka Volterra's members moved on, and the Titan from the 1V- incident is still at large within Band of Brothers territory. Now mortal enemies, Band of Brothers and Redswarm continue the eternal struggle for power in EVE, thrusting their combined resources against eachother for territorial dominance.
As for The Mittani, the man that established an entire art form of massively multiplayer spying quit playing EVE Online altogether following the CCP controversy. Content to pass along his duties to a new generation of spooks, he claims to have no official connection to the GIA, and remains a mere casual observer.
But then, who would believe him?