One of the oldest and most enduring complaints that players have about nullsec warfare is supremacy of "the blob". In most online games – and in most games, period – teams have an equal number of players. But in EVE, battles and wars can be incredibly one-sided from a numerical standpoint. It's no surprise that people don't like fighting outnumbered (when they lose, that is). However, I find the nature of the complaint as it is applies to EVE – the motives, the myths, and the implications – to be revealing.
Angst about "the blob" is not likely to go away any time soon. The highly successful Goonswarm and TEST alliances have over 9,000 members each and are growing every day. When defeated, the enemies of large coalitions have a choice: concede that they were outclassed by their opponents, or complain about the unfair numbers. The latter can be a tempting option.
Requests for a nerf to "numbers" or a nerf to "blobbing" come in many forms. One of the classics is the concept of a diminishing return or stacking penalty on the effect of focus fire, with each additional ship doing less damage to the target. Other ideas have included nerfs to common, cheap, useful ships (e.g. Drakes). SirMolle, the leader of the late Band of Brothers alliance, repeatedly asked CCP to remove ship insurance from the game entirely, hoping to give his elite tech II fleets a greater advantage over his tech I-blobbing enemies.
Whatever the mechanics, the core of the request is the same: put some kind of limitation on the usefulness of flooding the battlefield with as many soldiers as possible.
In this post, I will weigh the merits of the "nerf blobbing" argument. To summarize briefly, there are none. Those who wish to limit the advantage of a bigger fleet or bigger coalition simply don't understand the game.
Readers who are accustomed to enjoying – or suffering through – my essays related to highsec matters may be perplexed to find me writing about nullsec. In recent months, my name has become closely associated with highsec. There have even been repeated calls for me to run for CSM and serve as the voice of highsec.
Newer players may be surprised to learn that for most of my EVE "career", I spent all of my time engaged in nullsec PvP. I was a line member in Goonswarm during what I consider nullsec's formative years, 2007-08, when the Goons grew in strength enough to permanently block the Band of Brothers from attaining dominance. (Anticipating this development and desiring to witness it firsthand, I joined the Goons on August 17, 2007. This became known as "Black Friday" among BoB's chief pet, RISE alliance. The Goons created a wiki page simply entitled "August 17th" to commemorate the happenings of that fateful day. Neither had anything to do with me, however – I simply had good timing, you might say.)
In discussing this topic I will illuminate my points with historical context and contemporary examples. I recognize that some readers may find this frustrating. For example, newer players who have never heard of BoB may question BoB's relevance. Other readers may be annoyed by references to Goonswarm; enemies of the Goons sometimes feel Goons have too much influence in EVE and get undue emphasis in EVE-related material.
Although I understand both of those reactions, there are good reasons why things are they way they are. Centrally, EVE's history is the story of how the Goons rose and defeated BoB. Goons and BoB were two very different alliances with two very different ways of approaching the game. Goons won, BoB lost. As a result, the "Goon" way of doing things became dominant, and the "BoB" approach didn't. This has consequences for EVE today, and for the future of EVE in nullsec.
WHY PEOPLE THINK BLOBBING SHOULD BE NERFED
"Blobbing" shouldn't be nerfed, but it's important to understand why some people think it should. At its core, it's motivated by one of the great myths of EVE: the myth of the elite e-Bushido samurai who fights against a horde of skill-less noobs.
Whenever one alliance or coalition is defeated by a larger alliance or coalition, the losers comes up with all kinds of excuses to justify their loss. A favored rationalization is that the losers are superior, but were simply outnumbered by people who didn't "deserve" to beat them. That's the myth, in a nutshell.
The truth is, more often than not, the side with greater numbers also has equal or greater skill. There are exceptions, of course. Some highly-skilled groups such as Pandemic Legion have a history of fighting and winning against overwhelming numbers. Note, however, that winners don't call for a nerf to numbers. They generally like having lots of targets. The people who do complain, those who lose, are usually deluding themselves when they claim to have a more skilled force. Let me give you an example.
In the most dramatic development in nullsec this year, the coalition led by Against All Authorities (-A-) lost three regions in a very short time. -A-'s coalition was very large, but so was the coalition put together by their enemies (Goons, TEST, PL). Not only was -A- repeatedly outnumbered, the general consensus is that -A-'s fleet performance was laughably bad, and that its overall leadership was inept in every way. -A- was outclassed by its enemies on every level.
To make matters worse, -A- was infiltrated by spies who continually released audio recordings of -A-'s fleet comms. -A-'s main fleet commander, Makalu Zarya, became a laughingstock across EVE as recording after recording demonstrated his poor leadership. Some observers even began to suggest – not entirely in jest – that Makalu must have been acting as a double-agent, deliberately embarrassing his alliance. In all the years I have played EVE, I've never seen anything quite like it.
If ever there was a group of people who couldn't blame their loss on being outnumbered, it was -A-. Yet even they held onto the myth that they were really elite and more skilled than their enemies. Incredibly, Makalu continues to serve as their primary fleet commander.
The point of this example is to demonstrate that an alliance or coalition's capacity for self-deception is almost without limit.
THE MYTH OF THE E-BUSHIDO
The "nerf numbers" argument, like so much else, has its historical roots in the BoB vs. Goons saga. When people said BoB was "elitist", they weren't just trying to insult BoB. Elitism was the entire purpose of BoB's existence. The only glue that held BoB together was the belief that they were an "endgame" alliance with the best pilots, and that people should join BoB if they wanted to win every battle. BoB pilots compared themselves to samurai, quoted Sun Tzu, and made posts about "Bushido" and "honour". This would have been hilarious, except that they were entirely serious about it. They fully bought into in their own elitism.
Once it became clear that BoB wasn't invincible, and that in fact they could be consistently beaten by their enemies, there was no more reason for BoB to exist. That's why BoB faded away completely, while other, superficially weaker, alliances from that era are still around. I first diagnosed this problem and predicted the outcome in July 2007, when most observers still believed BoB was destined to conquer most or all of nullsec.
When I joined Goonswarm that summer, I was able to confirm my suspicion that BoB pilots weren't the elite fighting force they believed themselves to be. In fact, Goon fleets often outmaneuvered and tore BoB fleets to bits, even when the numbers were roughly equal. I also noticed that Goon fleet commanders were usually of a higher caliber than BoB's.
Goonswarm, of course, has its own origin story. Their founder, Remedial, based the organization on the concept of using large numbers of cheap ships to overwhelm their opponents. In Goonswarm (then "Goonfleet")'s early days, they did indeed use tons of rifters and other cheap ships to take down expensive HACs and the like. They also encouraged a lot of newbies to join the game and jump into combat immediately.
On its face, the Goon origin story seems to give credence to the e-Bushido myth. But by the time Goonswarm had evolved and began defeating BoB, the days of rifter swarms were long over. By diving directly into nullsec and concentrating on PvP, the newbies caught up rapidly. By the time of the Great War, Goonswarm was fielding fleets with tech II sniper battleships (the doctrine of the day), HACs, recons, and super-carriers. However, Goons continued to cultivate the image of a swarm of frenzied newbies, because they knew it infuriated their enemies and energized Goon recruitment efforts.
Contrary to the myth, there's nothing about a large fleet/alliance/coalition that inherently suggests the average pilot lacks skill. Nor should anyone assume that a smaller group is highly skilled. If anything, the opposite is true, due to the skills needed to form and organize a larger fleet – but more on that in a moment.
The desire to "nerf numbers", which first came to prominence with BoB and will continue for as long as EVE is around, is based on a kind of reasoning in reverse. The logic begins with the assumption that the loser is elite and awesome and should always win. Starting from that conclusion, the logic works backward and determines "blobbing should be nerfed" until the loser wins. At no point does the loser ever consider the possibility that his alliance was not, in fact, superior in any way, but was instead both inferior and outnumbered.
It should be no surprise that it began with a group like BoB, dedicated to the assumption that they should never lose. But this kind of thinking will always be around, as long as there are alliances that buy into the delusion of their own greatness.
THE KILLBOARD IS GREEN
BoB may have been the worst offender, but any alliance that takes itself too seriously can fall prey to e-Bushdio disease. Case in point: I'm continually amazed to see what I call the "Green Killboard Fallacy" still alive and well after all these years. Alliances have a tendency to focus too much on kill-to-death ratios, rather than achieving their objectives. The Green Killboard Fallacy takes it to a whole new level. Since it's so obvious, I am almost hesitant to explain the fallacy, but I'll do so simply because it's such a constant presence in EVE:
Alliance killboards give an alliance full credit for a kill as long as even one member of the alliance is somewhere on the killmail. If 99% of the damage was done by other members of the coalition, the alliance still gets full credit. However, an alliance killboard only records a loss if a member of the alliance dies; deaths from other members of the coalition don't count. There's no negative equivalent of a kill-assist, in other words. The fallacy applies to alliance killboards, corp killboards, and personal killboard stats.
Thus, killboards will always greatly exaggerate the kill-to-death ratio of any group you want to look up, providing "elite" stats for anyone who likes that sort of thing. Everyone's kill-to-death ratio can be positive, and all the killboards can be green.
That's it. Internal propaganda based on killboards should have debunked into nonexistence from day one, but the fallacy is just as prevalent today as it was when killboards were first introduced. Luckily, there has been a move toward killboards based on fleet battles as opposed to organizations; these attempt to present all participants from both sides in a battle, regardless of alliance, and compare kills/losses in a more reasonable manner. But you can be sure that alliances and corporations on the losing side will nevertheless scurry back to their internal forums and present their members with glowing statistics about their own group's KDR – theoretically, every corp/alliance can have a green killboard.
Once you've contracted e-Bushido disease, it's easy to believe the lie that you only lost because you were outnumbered. In doing so, you probably don't give much thought to the question of why you allowed yourself to be outnumbered. Let's consider that now.
If the myth about elite spaceship samurai being unfairly defeated by hordes of newbies is true, then every good samurai should consider why he doesn't just bring in his own horde of newbies. If TEST and Goons are destined to conquer nullsec because they have so many members, then logically, every other nullsec alliance should be scrambling to recruit a bunch of newbies and build a bunch of rifters. In fact, I recommend all the losing alliances try this, because the results would be interesting regardless of the outcome.
It is said that quantity has a quality all its own. I would argue that if an alliance can put a large quantity of soldiers on the battlefield, that's a proof of the alliance's quality as well. It's not easy to build a large fleet.
Note the key difference between a large alliance and a large fleet. Any alliance that holds space in nullsec can freely invite PvE'ers and accumulate members. Getting all those members into a fleet and having them actively participate in the war is another matter. After -A-'s coalition (SoCo) got kicked out of three regions began wailing about unfair numbers, their enemies were quick to counter with statistics about participation rates. Only a tiny fraction of SoCo's members bothered to show up and defend their own territory. In other words, it was SoCo's own fault that they were outnumbered. They need not have been.
When an alliance is able to recruit people who will even consider fighting to defend the alliance, that shows skill. Motivating those potential soldiers to actually show up in fleet also requires skill. As does equipping all those soldiers with proper ships and weapons. Doing all of the above repeatedly, even after losses, is another demonstration of an alliance's skill.
If your alliance assets aren't used for the benefit of ordinary alliance members, it will be difficult for your alliance to fully mobilize. And if some other alliance does use its assets to help its members fight, you're at a huge disadvantage. If one alliance puts its money into its military (e.g. the Goons' large-scale reimbursement policies), and the other alliance's money disappears into the ether (e.g., selling isk on eBay, padding leaders' wallets, handing out supercaps to senior leaders who already quit EVE, etc.), it should be no surprise who wins the war.
It goes further. Today, we live in the age of coalitions. Important battles rarely take place between two alliances acting alone. The size of one's coalition is hugely dependent upon diplomatic skill (and propaganda). Not only does an alliance need to build and maintain the coalition, an alliance must be careful when choosing its coalition partners. In the same way recruiting a new pilot isn't the same as getting that pilot on the battlefield, setting another alliance blue isn't the same as getting that other alliance to send soldiers. And if they do send soldiers, they need to be coordinated with the rest of the coalition. Then the coalition members must be persuaded to stay in the fight, even after losses are suffered.
Some of the tasks I listed above require so much skill and effort that those who perform them will find it almost offensive that I listed them in a sentence each. Taking all of those difficult tasks into consideration, it's almost as if the side bringing overwhelming numbers into the battle earned their victory.
THE AGE OF COALITIONS
The difference in the way BoB and Goonswarm dealt with friendly alliances is very revealing. In late 2006, when Goonswarm was in crisis and looking for a new home, they teamed up with Red Alliance and the Tau Ceti Federation. Red and TCF had problems of their own, and the team-up was very beneficial for all three alliances. Though it wasn't the first coalition in EVE, it was the first time I can recall seeing a genuine coalition identity. While still keeping their separate identities, the members often referred to themselves as the "RedSwarm Federation", combined their logos in propaganda artwork, etc. They knew they needed each other, they stuck together, and the coalition proved tremendously successful. Despite Goons' reputation for being scammers and lacking "e-honour", Goonswarm was among the most loyal entities in the game when it came to dealing with their friends.
BoB was on the other end of the spectrum. Once again, the elitism that defined BoB also served to be its Achilles heel. BoB was incapable of viewing any other alliance as anything but inferior. They treated friendly alliances like garbage, because they viewed their "friends" (which they called "pets") as being beneath them. And when a friendly alliance did show signs of strength, BoB still treated them like garbage, because said strength threatened BoB's ego and aroused BoB's suspicion.
BoB's most powerful ally was the Mercenary Coalition. MC's leader, Seleene, was interested in having BoB create a coalition (led by BoB) with MC and some other friendly alliances. Seleene believed the combined strength of the coalition could wipe out all opposition in nullsec. BoB rejected Seleene's idea and began invading its former "friends" instead. Later, as MC (which was still BoB's ally) grew more powerful, BoB became jealous of MC. BoB alienated MC by treating it as a "pet", and MC eventually turned against BoB.
The contrast is stark: Goonswarm was forced by circumstances into a coalition mindset, while BoB maintained an ego-driven alliance mindset. If BoB had gone down the coalition route, things would have turned out very differently. One look at the picture of nullsec today makes it obvious which EVE philosophy won: Coalitions rule nullsec, and they are here to stay.
Not all members of a coalition are equal in power. Coalitions are usually led by one or two of their most powerful member-alliances. Yet coalitions require each alliance to treat the others with some level of respect; they need to view each other as equals on some level, even if their contributions cannot be militarily equivalent. Some alliances succeed, but others fall into the trap of elitism. In the age of coalitions, alliances that take the BoB approach will eventually share BoB's fate.
If you find yourself heavily outnumbered in a war, don't throw up your hands and say "EVE sucks because your alliance needs 10,000 members to hold any space." Instead, reconsider how you're treating other alliances, and make an effort to understand why your enemies were able to put together a more powerful coalition.
THE NEXT BOB?
In recent years, there has been much talk about whether Goonswarm will become the next BoB and threaten to conquer all nullsec. With the rise of TEST, some make comparisons between BoB and TEST, or imagine a Goon/TEST coalition that dominates the whole galaxy. The next time Goonswarm or TEST wins a major war, don't be surprised if that kind of speculation intensifies. It won't be too long before Goonswarm and TEST have over 10,000 members each, and I foresee a lot of hand-wringing about numbers.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not someone who takes the approach that EVE's preexisting mechanics are perfect and that everyone needs to adapt. Sometimes nerfs and rebalances are necessary. For example, doomsday devices were horribly broken for a long time. (I would have passionately advocated changing doomsdays were it not for the fact that I already knew how they would be changed long in advance.) Sov warfare is far from perfect. The mechanics of taking and defending space in nullsec have always had major problems; fixing sov warfare has a permanent place on CCP's "to-do" list.
However, I believe the days when one alliance or group of alliances could threaten to conquer all nullsec are past. The threat died with BoB. There's a big difference between galactic domination by an alliance versus galactic domination by a coalition. For BoB, victory meant BoB holding sovereignty everywhere. If that happened, BoB's dominance would have continued until its leadership had some kind of crack-up. Total victory for a coalition would look quite different.
In the age of coalitions, galactic domination would not involve an alliance holding sovereignty everywhere; it would mean an alliance having the entirety of nullsec set blue.
Once it's set in those terms, you can see why it's extremely unlikely. First of all, most would find it undesirable to have nullsec filled with nothing but blues. Second, each member of the coalition that wants to gain strength could only gain it through conflict with its fellow coalition member(s). Without an external threat to bond them, and with endless possibilities for internal conflict, the galactic coalition would be a ticking time bomb.
Alliances should not delude themselves into thinking they are an elite fighting force that "deserves" to win through fighting skill instead of numbers. Alliances that find themselves heavily outnumbered in a war should recognize that they could very well lack fighting skill and numbers. Rather than despairing about the effect of "blobbing" coalitions ruining the game, they should view the diplomatic puzzle of always staying on the right side of the numbers as an essential part of the game.
No longer can an alliance view itself as an island. In the age of coalitions, everyone within traveling distance is a potential friend or enemy in every war you fight. Just as an alliance must take internal steps to maximize its own fleet participation, an alliance must also use diplomacy to maximize its coalition partners – and minimize its enemies'.