Intrepid Crossing is dead. Long live Intrepid Crossing.
I say that IRC is dead with no satisfaction. It was my first alliance. I have many friends who are (and more who were) members. I honestly like the people in leadership positions there, and I respect the long history of the organization, despite how others have maligned it.
But the truth is the truth: Intrepid Crossing is going through a classic "failure cascade". Is this an obituary? Sort of. The IRC I have been a loyal, contributing part of for almost all of my short time playing Eve is no more. However, I also fully expect some part of it to continue on to find some new incarnation, as it has done before. Also, IRC has a long history, and I have only been with them since 2011, so what you have here is my personal perspecive.
You see, as anyone who does nulsec pvp can tell you, Cobalt Edge has the reputation for being a place you can always get a fight. This is partially a matter of the alliance's culture, and partially due to its unusual situation.
IRC is (was) an odd bird in the world of nulsec politics: a freestanding carebear alliance that defends its own space. Their only real long-standing allies were Solar Fleet, and frankly, Solar are not terribly good allies. Yes, Solar gave IRC Cobalt Edge as a home after IRC was kicked out of their original homes farther south in the original Dronelands War. But in recent times whenever IRC needed help, if it came from anyone at all, it came from elsewhere: Nulli, Black Legion, NCdot, or IRC's smaller cousins ROGUE, Black Core Alliance, STR8NGE BR3W, and other Drone Region residents.
Not long ago, IRC helped Solar by working to clear out The Kalevala Expanse alongside ancient ally and now finally resurgent Ethereal Dawn, so that SCDOT and others, could move in under Solar's wing. And before that IRC helped Solar boot Legion of xXDeathXx by destroying xXDeathXx's renter empire in Oasa. But in return, IRC has had no assistance from Solar in their own region of Cobalt Edge. And rumors - whether true or not - circulated among line-level members that Solar's MACTEP and the Goonswarm's The Mittani were penpals, and that MACTEP had something to do with the Goons kicking neutral-to-IRC NCdot from Tenal, to replace them with IRC's old-time rival, Razor. So despite IRC leader Oldma's loyalty to the relationship, many others within IRC have long believed Solar Fleet would never turn up to help again.
Another unusual aspect of IRC is that for years they held an entire region (and lately more) without any access to technetium moons or hordes of renters. This has made the economy in Cobalt unusual, especially after the nerf to drone alloy drops. With no large pvp protector ally, and no massive income stream, IRC has operated like a hybrid renter alliance. Individual corps did pay rent to the alliance, although at rates far, far below what a corp would pay in a true renter alliance. In return, each corp had control of one or more systems of its own to rat, mine, run PI, and build in. And when roaming reds and neuts come through, it was the responsibility of the individual members to drive them away so that carebearing could resume. With no tech income, there was no alliance-level ship replacement program beyond a partial logi-reimbursement program, although there were times when Oldma chose to personally reimburse pilots who lost capitals in defense of alliance assets. Instead, some corps ran their own SRP, and other corps expected their individual members to carry their pvp expenses personally.
This created an odd loop. In most alliances, there is an SRP that frees its members of needing to make isk. Which means that there is little economic incentive to fleet up to "defend the home space" against roaming gangs. This allows such alliances to become offensive (rather than defensive) pvp forces in the Great Game of nulsec warfare. And unless moons, sov structures, or jump bridges are under attack, members of most alliances can just dock up and mock the invaders from within their stations.
In Cobalt Edge, however, if you don't defend your space, you don't make isk, and if you don't make isk, you can't pvp. Amazingly, though, this worked. Despite its outside reputation, and despite its residents' extreme delight in complaining about the place, Cobalt Edge was a potentially very profitable place to live for quite a while. No, no bounties, no officer drops - no loot at all! - came from ratting in CE, but the Plush and Glossy alloys rogue drones carried in their wrecks fueled a very lucrative industrial machine that made a lot of people in the region quite wealthy.
Until the alloy nerf.
Not long ago, drones stopped dropping mineral-rich alloys and started paying bounties. No loot, mind you, just bounties. Suddenly industrialists were faced with much greater needs for imports from other regions to maintain their production lines. Yes, you could still rat to pay for your ships, but now the ships were more expensive. And if you are one of those people who finds spreadsheets filled with minerals and parts and production ratios to be fun? Well, maybe Cobalt was no longer a fun place to live. So pvp'ing became harder to pay for by the line-level yeoman-soldier, while simultaneously the motivation to defend the space took a hit.
Many nulsec alliances are very much like ancient Sparta: divided into warrior and laborer classes, with those who do building and supply and transport almost a separate culture unto themselves, sometimes practically invisible behind the overall warrior-ethos put forward as the "official" alliance self-story. In addtion, there have been some in the past who have tried to set up alliances that were more along the Athenian model: democratic, counsel-based, consensus-driven, egalitarian; these tend to fail quite famously. In the Russian Dronelands, the model was feudal: lord alliances that protected the lands of far-flung serf alliances, in exchange for huge rental payments from the fruits of their laborers.
IRC was not quite any of these. Perhaps the closest historical equivalent was ancient Thebes. In the spectrum of Greek city-states, Thebes was more Athenean than Spartan, but that's an oversimplification. Thebes was the leader of the Boeotian confederacy, a group of city-states that were governed by a wide base of land-owning aristocrats. During times of war, landowners and farmers formed the famed Hoplite units, but during times of peace the military would largely stand down and break up as the warriors quickly resumed their agrarian pursuits. It was egalitarian to a degree, but not truly Athenean.
Likewise, IRC is not ruled by councils and votes, per se. Rather, a handful of people that make up the "High Command" make all the calls, with alliance leader Oldma sometimes exercising benevolent dictor rights. And most of the High Command was drawn from founding corp, AWECO. During times of peace, the High Command generally left the member corps to do their own thing, within some basic prescribed boundaries. During times of war, High Command, working with Senior Fleet Commanders, would devise strategy, call ops, dictate fleet doctrines, and demand fleet participation from the entire membership. The only "vote" anyone got was the option to leave.
And that worked when things went well, and even sometimes when they did not go well. A culture built up in IRC that included an intense pride in this oddball identity of yeoman-warrior, citizen-soldier, carebear-with-teeth. And a part of the IRC self-story - galvanized during their trauma in the Dronelands War - is the firm belief that no matter the odds, IRC fights on. "Defend our space!" gets called out in response to a gang of 5 frigates showing up in intel. To some, that's crazy. But IRC very much evolved into a kind of junkyard dog: not pretty to look at, not easy to get along with, not terribly presentable, not always totally healthy, but determined to fight to the death against anything that crossed its territory, no matter how small, no matter how big.
So if you wanted a guaranteed fight, you went to Cobalt Edge. When other alliances docked up and blue-balled you, beating you with boredom, IRC folks were always eager to get in whatever shitfit ships they had around and go at you. Yes, if you stuck around too long, like a growing gang of zombies attracted by the sounds of struggle, the IRC fleet would grow into a blob that could eventually ruin the fun of a small gang. But what if you had a big "gang"? Yep, IRC was generally always good for those fights, too. Even if facing overwhelming odds.
And you could keep killing them, being sure of one thing: IRC reships. Like the Taliban, IRC was not often militarily very sophisticated, but they seemed very willing to blow themselves up for a cause. (Think what cloning technology would do for suicide bombers in the real world.) So if you had a big group of pvp'ers you wanted to keep happy, Cobalt Edge was an excellent place to get some "gud fites" in.
And it seems that's what Razor thought. And if Razor and IRC were left alone to have a friendly forever war of non-permanent border skirmishes, a certain crazed homeostasis would surely have set in. But wouldn't it be more interesting if Razor could use capitals? You see, to get from Razor's Tenal to IRC's Cobalt Edge, you have to take a fantastically long gate from SF- to HB-, crossing many lightyears past the jovian space in between. No jump drive or titan bridge can cross that gap. So fights in northern cobalt rarely involved cap ships, and IRC held a home advantage in terms of bridging. Likewise, when IRC went into Tenal (which was far more rare, given their economic focus), Razor held that advantage.
And beyond getting "good fights" there is an additional reason for Razor to want a permanent presence in Cobalt Edge: with HB- and a few other key systems under control, the CFC becomes able to project their force down toward Solar space through Oasa to the south.
So Razor started poking at sov structures in HB-, the northern gateway to CE - and, quite frankly, the only hostile border system in all of IRC space. What they found was that IRC was softer than they had been before. Since the alloy nerf, and since the burnout of FCs that happened in back-to-back wars in the drone regions to the south, IRC had lost quite a few people who were more pvp'ers than carebears. Farmer-hoplite soldiers are only truly effective when they have good military leadership. Without a General Epaminondas (or three), the line-level miners and builders tend to not put up a very effective fight.
What's more, IRC seemed to not take the threat to HB- seriously. Yes, sometimes an IRC CSAA would come under assault, and yes, sometimes a jumpbridge would get hit, but overall, IRC had spent years with only one or two serious threats to their sov. During the DRF destruction of the original Northern Coalition (NOTdot), HB- and its surrounding systems had fallen, but with the help of Solar and others, IRC reclaimed it. And during the war against xDeath, Pandemic Legion had sbu'd the CE capital system E-BY, temporarily pushing IRC out of the sov-hitting portion of that conflict. But in all these cases, IRC had come back into total control of the entire region.
But this time, the threat at first appeared to some to be just Razor acting out of boredom. Yes, some saw signs that this was much more, but not everyone did, and high command seemed not to react to it.
And so the station was attacked. And the initial turnout to hold it was poor. For the final timer, though, IRC put together a respectable defense force, including a large portion of their carrier fleet, finally getting off the ball and treating the threat with the seriousness it deserved. And then, in one of those dramatic strokes that makes playing this game so fun, a CFC cap fleet appeared on the field, having been quietly moved into the region the long way around. The IRC fleet went down in flames. But it was an amazingly fun fight for all sides. As the meme goes, "I was there." And as always, IRC reshipped and reshipped, but the combined might of all of Razor's allies in the CFC could not be held back.
Now, this would have been a perfect time for a Church-esque speech from high command about fighting in the fields, etc.; it's easy to discount the power of mere words, but they can make or break an alliance's morale just as much (or more than) events on the battlefield do. But no such rallying happened.
Yet, at first the old IRC spirit held. "We've been here before, we know what to do, we'll get through this." But this time around was different on many levels. Morale started to break as December drew to a close. Why was it different this time around?
First, some of the key members of high command had pressing Real Life stuff that was keeping them from being able to participate for long hours in-game, and this was happening around the holidays.
Second, the sudden shocking shift from fighting just Razor to realizing that, whenever a timer actually mattered, they'd have to fight the entire CFC - with cap ships - had a deeply demoralizing effect that was hard to hold off.
Third, over the past year, IRC had lost quite a few corps and too many critical-to-pvp members. Partially the alloy nerf was to blame. And part of the blame falls to FC burnout during several deployments and wars outside of Cobalt Edge. But it was also due to the fact that the more pvp-centric corps that had been recruited to bolster the carebear weekend drake pilots did not find the existing alliance culture compatible. People brought in to be part of the growing pvp wing of an otherwise fairly carebeary group became increasingly frustrated by poor fleet compositions, and sometimes thin participation by other corps. And so several pvp groups had left, and more than one FC had stopped logging on. Not all of them, mind you, but the the remaining bullpen was getting strained.
Finally, in an ironic twist, the carebear core's willingness to pvp had begun to dwindle. Why? Because IRC had started to become more successful at behaving like a capable war-ready alliance. Even the usual "LOLIRC!" folks outside of Cobalt Edge started to grudgingly acknowledge that IRC fleets were starting to tighten up. Fleet compositions were improving, which allowed for better tactical applications, and overall IRC was getting better militarily. Not quickly, but it was certainly observable.
Accomplishing this, however, had required a shift in attitudes at the leadership level, as well as some organizational changes. Each corporation was asked to put forward two or more Military Liasons whose job was to do quality assurance on their corp's contributions to fleets, assisting their own members with training, fleet stockpiling, and in general understanding what was and was not going to work in fleets. And what once was a relaxed policy of, "Well, if you can't fly what's called for, bring what you can," changed over time to an anti-drake, anti-kitchen-sink attitude that chased non-fleet ships out, sometimes with mockery and derision, sometimes with outright hostility and threats. IRC had seen first hand while flying with NCdot and Black Legion fleets how much fleet composition could make a difference, and some had decided to go that route. But can a carebear culture be turned around into a more traditional pvp one without just replacing all the members? Perhaps not in the long run.
The new approach tightened up their fleets. It also shrank them. Under some circumstances, it's a reasonable tradeoff to make, if made intentionally. Arguments could be made for or against this shift on these grounds. However, it also did one additional thing: it fueled increasing hostilities between industrial-focused corps and those with a pvp focus. Carebears who could fly fleet ships started to say, "Why fleet up with those dicks?" And hardcore combat pilots started to say, "Why are we carrying the water for those lazy bastards?"
Razor continued to push down the pipeline, making the northern part of the region permanently in danger of hot-dropping, now that they had titans and supers stationed nearby. Corps like my own who lived in that part of the region stopped making isk at all. Personally, this was not too difficult for me, because a) I am a pvp'er, not a ratter, and b) I have a basket of isk-making activities running that have nothing to do with the security of my home space. But it certainly hurt others in the area.
And as Razor pushed south, it became harder and harder to put together fleets. The official High Command strategy was to bore Razor to death, using stealth bomber fleets to go after sbu's and sov structures, much like we had done in Oasa vs. xDeath. Not a terrible plan, but for three things.
First, high command didn't overcommunicate. Yes overcommunicate. In large, multi-timezone organizations that are experiencing crisis, leadership is not communicating enough unless they feel like they are doing it way too much. Line level pilots crave a sense that someone is on the ball, and need a constant diet of reminders of this. Second, there was a growing feeling of urgent anxiety among many members that if HB- was not retaken soon, the sov level would reach the point where the system could be cyno-jammed, and then the situation would become permanent. And third, as said already, it was getting harder to get people into fleets.
And, with no chance of help from any outside force except from neighbors/former-IRCers in ROGUE alliance next door in Oasa, and perhaps occasionally from Black Legion, and with effectively only a couple truly experienced FCs left in the alliance, things started to quietly break apart.
Militarily, IRC could still make the grinding of Cobalt Edge take many months for Razor to accomplish. And it appeared that Razor themselves had become less aggressive about expanding their control. It gave me the image of Lennie from Of Mice and Men explaining to George that he didn't mean to kill the cute little things, he was only playing with them. The advance didn't stop, but the intensity dropped off a little.
But then VAF pulled out.
VAF - Vanguard Frontiers - was too central to the current incarnation of IRC for IRC to be the same without them. During the communication disconnect between line-level membership and High Command, a growing meme among some was that Tessa Yor, of VAF, was the only alliance-level leader who was communicating enough that people felt they had any real leadership. I think this slightly overstated Tessa's role, and cut short the at least good-intentioned efforts of people like Oldma, Takhion, wiseoak, and Millsy, but it was a real and understandable perception.
Furthermore, VAF was the keystone of the logistical backbone that made living in the dark reaches of distant Cobalt Edge economically feasible. From Cobalt Edge trade center E-BY to Jita is 35 gates, 30 of them through mostly hostile 0.0. So the average pilot in IRC came to depend heavily on the very well-run (and very profitable) "company store" set up via out-of-game brower, VAFMart. Through VAFMart people bought supplies, shipped things to and from Empire space, and bought and sold building materials.
If that weren't enough, VAF also made up a non-insignificant percentage of the regular pvp'ers in alliance. They weren't a strictly pvp corp, but they had members who were very good at it, and they were as a whole very good at showing up whenever needed. (As an aside, the hands-down best combat-prober and scout I have yet to see in all the alliances I've had an inside view of is a member of VAF. I'd mention him by name, but a) people who know him already know who I'm talking about, and b) I'm guessing he's happy to have people who don't know who he is left to wonder.)
Finally, VAF had been in IRC for so long (having joined in early 2010), they were part of the bedrock of the current version of the alliance. Their CEO was part of the alliance High Command, and they were the owners of the station in E-BY.
So when VAF gave a one-week notice that they were moving on, it was clear to me that failure cascade was imminent, if not already underway. IRC was about to tip. As my own corp (Abh Empire) made plans for a potential new home and a new 0.0 relationship, we continued for some time to participate in fleet operations. We've become quite pvp focused these days, despite our early industrial roots, and we wanted to help. And we wanted to give IRC one more chance to turn things around if they could. But to be fair to them, by the time we gave Oldma formal notice of this, it was probably too late for things to turn around enough.
And we of course weren't the only corporation with one hand firing guns while the other hovered over the eject button. Over the course of a week or so, corp after corp announced its departure. Some left quite quickly, leaving corp-held stations behind for the alliance to have to deal with on top of the sov war they were already fighting.
One corp in particular, Eve Protection Agency, started to draw members of other corps into itself. On a couple of occasions, Abh Empire members were courted to come join EPA, culminating with an invitation to fold our entire corp into theirs as they made plans to exit IRC to do something new, better, tighter and more pvp-focused.
Now, bcpro has his fans and he has his detractors. Personally, I get along with him, but as many can attest, I get along with almost everybody. As a bomber FC, he's knowledgeable. Having double- and triple-box scouted under his leadership during our southern wars, I'd come to get how he operates and to appreciate his military acumen. But I've been involved in real-world mergers enough to know that a clash of cultures would have been inevitable had we taken the deal. Besides, Abh Empire itself has a long history that its members are proud of, and I believed hanging up the corp ticker wouldn't fly with the membership, let alone the directors. As it turned out I was quite right.
But forget all that. During the meeting with my corp CEO and I in which bcpro proposed Abh merge into EPA to do new and exciting things post-IRC, the first and main thing I heard in my own head was, "There goes the last Senior FC; time to evac the remainder of our corp's assets!" (Yes, my inner monologue includes semicolons.)
And so that brings us to today. As I write this, all of my characters are strung out across multiple regions, lighting cynos for corp members, scouting routes, scanning for wormholes. We have not, as of this writing, officially withdrawn from the alliance, but that will likely have happened by the time this is published. Only hours ago EPA made their withdrawal official, making them the fifteenth corp to leave the alliance since HB-5 fell on December 8th.
It remains to be seen where Oldma will take IRC next. He may manage to get new corporations to come in and help hold part of Cobalt Edge for a time, but probably not. More likely he'll relocate the shrunken organization to Oasa, and make W5-V his new home. Or perhaps we will see a reengineered IRC hooking up with one of the other few non-CFC, non-HBC nulsec groups, like Red Alliance. Who knows? Hopefully the next version will let go of its isolationist inclinations and rules against talking in local, posting publicly, and generally attracting attention. Or not. Those, too, seem to be scarring from their previous trauma in Etherium Reach all those years ago. But knowing Oldma and the people in AWECO, I expect one way or another this isn't the last we'll hear of Intrepid Crossing.
The IRC that I joined as a six-week-old Eve player on July 7, 2011, no longer exists. I loved my time in IRC. I'm proud of what IRC has done, and of my own corp's long history with them going back well before I started playing Eve. And I wish them well in whatever new form they take up. But many of the people I came to like and respect and enjoy fighting alongside have moved on to Black Legion, Ethereal Dawn, Walltreipers Alliance, SCDOT, Nulli Legio, and other alliances. So this no longer feels like home.
Good luck, Oldma, and thanks for the fun.