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The impossible year-long plan to destroy EVE Online’s deadliest fortress

Hard Knocks Inc. are the boogeymen of EVE Online. For the past seven years, they’ve haunted the virtual galaxy of New Eden from an impenetrable solar system known as Rage located deep within the transient pathways of wormhole space. Each day, new wormholes connect Rage to one of EVE Online’s thousands of star systems—for the inhabitants of one of those systems, it’s like waking up to find Genghis Khan in your bedroom. 

Two years ago, Hard Knocks also made history when it built Fort Knocks, the first-ever Keepstar-class citadel. Standing 200 km tall, Fort Knocks is the largest space station in New Eden, and the closest thing EVE Online has to a Death Star.

With a vast armada of capital ships and some of the most skilled pilots in the galaxy—not to mention the apocalyptic arsenal of the Keepstar itself—it was widely believed that directly attacking Rage was suicide. But three months ago, one group used Hard Knock’s own clever tactics against them.

If Hard Knocks is a small but elite group specializing in guerrilla warfare, then The Initiative is the polar opposite. As of March 2019, The Initiative holds sovereignty over almost 100 solar systems across a vast region of space more than 20 light-years across. They have over 5,000 pilots at their disposal, and for good reason—they’ve been around for over a decade at this point.

This power bloc, however, is only one of many vying for control of space in New Eden. Most of the time The Initiative is tied up in the politics and wars of the null-security space that it inhabits. So you can imagine that the members of Hard Knocks were more than a little shocked to log in on Saturday, December 8, 2018, to find a few hundred Initiative players on their doorstep. The Initiative’s pilots pulled off what most of EVE thought was impossible, and they did it without anyone even knowing. 

The “Fort Knocks” Keepstar after it was first built in 2016.

Taking the initiative 

It was already too late when members of Hard Knocks discovered they’d been tricked. A fleet of over 300 members of The Initiative had—seemingly out of nowhere—appeared on Fort Knocks’ doorstep, ready to burn the entire system and everything Hard Knocks owned to the ground. Brisc Rubal was one of those invaders. As an elected member of EVE’s Council of Stellar Management, he’s part of a group of players working with developer CCP Games to improve the game experience, but he’s also a frontline soldier in The Initiative. On December 8, Brisc wasn’t playing politician.

In a game that’s been around as long as EVE, it’s rare to do things that have never been done before.

Brisc Rubal

When I asked Brisc about the motives behind this operation, he told me one of the reasons was something anyone could appreciate: money. Over the years, Hard Knocks had built several citadels, including another Keepstar beside Fort Knocks, to act as vaults for all their ships, weapons, and treasure. “These two Keepstars were loot piñatas,” Brisc said. The citadels would be worth billions if not trillions of ISK, EVE’s currency.

Unlike many other MMOs, your ship and your equipment are put at risk each time you undock in EVE. This risk is exacerbated in wormhole space where all citadels’ asset safety systems are permanently disabled. Upon the destruction of a citadel, every item stored inside is jettisoned into space. “Everything contained in those two [Keepstars] that couldn’t get out was going to drop, and that was a big draw,” Brisc explained.

Truly, though, it was “the desire to do something that folks thought couldn’t be done that drove the move,” Brisc said. The Initiative wanted “to do something that the EVE universe had decided was impossible.”

Sowing the seeds 

As far back as 2017, a plan began to form, one that would require massive amounts of ships, ammo, and supplies. Rage is found deep within the shifting systems of wormhole space—a place where unstable connections to neighbouring star systems change multiple times a day. Though there are some clues as to where wormholes lead, there’s no way to guarantee which of the 2,600 wormhole systems you might end up in until you jump through. 

And even if you do find Rage, you have to deal with Hard Knocks’ defensive fleet of carriers and dreadnoughts. Those who survive still need to tackle the multiple doomsday weapons and turret defenses of the Keepstar itself, capable of shredding entire portions of a fleet in a single attack. Even I thought it was impossible. Back in 2017, I said that it was “never going to happen, but feel free to call me out if it does 5 years down the line.” Consider me called out.

Since the wormholes leading to Rage were constantly collapsing, The Initiative couldn’t rely on traditional supply lines to stay in the fight. If they wanted to survive the battle against Hard Knocks, they’d have to stockpile an arsenal inside of Rage—all without Hard Knocks even knowing.

The secrecy of the whole thing was crazy. I couldn’t even tell some of my closest friends about the op before it happened.

Arisene

Pando, an Initiative fleet commander, told me that “the very first freighter served more as a proof of concept than actual seeding.” They stealthily moved it into Rage just to prove that it could be done. Once it was safely inside, the operation began in earnest. Over the next year, a team of pilots scouted entrances to Rage and maneuvered freighters full of supplies, hiding them carefully without Hard Knocks’ knowledge. When you log out of EVE Online, the ship you’re in also disappears after a short amount of time. The Initiative used this to their advantage, having alternate characters pilot freighters into Rage and then log off until the actual siege began.

One of those pilots, Arisene, told me about the immense pressure she was under. Compared to the high-profile transport of Hard Knock’s original Keepstar to Rage in 2016, this entire operation was much more akin to something from Metal Gear Solid but without the trusty cardboard box. “The secrecy of the whole thing was crazy,” Arisene said. “I couldn’t even tell some of my closest friends about the op before it happened.”

She described the most stressful part as “finding routes and getting a lot of freighters through low-security space to the connections into Rage.” If at any point someone had discovered them and their precious cargo en route, then the entire operation could have been compromised. They had some particularly close calls with their cumbersome Charon freighters, including when two hostile scouts zipped past the freighter as its temporary cloaking ran out. Another time saw her tackled and held by a hostile cruiser, only to have an ally rescue at the last moment before more hostiles arrived. “It was amazing they didn’t kill us then, and we were definitely afraid of someone figuring out where we were going and what we were carrying,” she said.

Charon freighters are massive and clumsy—not ideal for sneaking into the most heavily armored system in all of EVE.

Out of the entire original invasion force of over 300, you could count on your fingers the number of people who actually knew what was going on beforehand. After all, every new person who learned of the operation could have potentially leaked that intel to Hard Knocks. Loose lips sink ships. 

Knocking on the door 

After a year of planning, it was finally time to launch the full invasion. “Everybody was excited and a little scared. Pando had been hyping this as the ‘Mother of all Calls-to-Arms,’” Brisc said. The Initiative partnered with Goonswarm Federation and fielded nearly 700 ships. This was a massive event and everyone knew it, they just didn’t know who they were hitting or where. It wasn’t until the combined Initiative and Goonswarm forces were staring down at Fort Knocks that it became apparent what was actually going on. 

While Hard Knocks refused to speak to me about the event, we do have various sound clips and a recorded leak of their communications channels during the initial infiltration. To their credit, they handled it well. Past the initial shock, they immediately got to work on bringing more pilots home and scouting out the invasion. Despite their quick response, however, there was little that Hard Knocks could have done on such short notice with the combined forces of two of EVE Online’s biggest empires armed and ready for a siege.

Brisc told me that their first task was to “destroy a number of [smaller star bases] that were in the system” to replace with their own. Fielding fleets of bombers, The Initiative was able to demolish each of them in seconds and create a beachhead. In conjunction with those freighters that seeded the system so many months ago, the invasion team started setting up in earnest. Some 200 or so stealth bomber pilots discarded their vessels in space and transferred into much larger Raven battleships, each almost a kilometer long and outfitted with cruise missiles capable of hitting a target 300km away. “[It was] a laborious process that we had to do because we didn’t have a citadel to stage out of in Rage,” said Brisc. 

With the system in almost complete lock down, it was time to focus their efforts on Fort Knocks itself. Against such overwhelming odds, Hard Knocks decided not to sacrifice ships in order to mount a proper defense, leaving their Keepstars to hold their own. Even so, the Keepstars destroyed more than 60 ships during the first attack. But it wasn’t enough.

Above: EVE alliances like The Initiative make amazing propaganda videos.

Rendezvous with death 

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With its home overrun by, at this point, over a thousand hostiles, Hard Knocks had a major problem. It did the only thing it could have done and blew the proverbial Horn of Gondor for aid. Despite the anarchy that is wormhole space, the people who live there do tend to stick together and defend each other (usually).

Elly Artrald is a director and fleet commander of the alliance Of Sound Mind. As one of the first groups that Hard Knocks reached out to, she helped coordinate a rescue fleet. She said that the “overall reaction was a mix of ‘uh oh, this isn’t good’ and cautious optimism.” Even by combining their numbers with the likes of Lazerhawks, No Vacancies, Hole Control, POS Party, and other wormhole alliances, the outlook was bleak, but defying the odds is what wormholers do for a living. “[It] was a lot to deal with and we didn’t expect Initiative to be by themselves.”

Hard Knocks allies formed around 300 pilots and were determined to give it a shot. If they could just find an entrance to Rage they stood a small chance at defending the wormhole and its precious Keepstars. The rescue fleet was on its way.

The first step was to begin “rage rolling.” In EVE Online, this is the process of continually collapsing wormholes, which opens new ones until you get a lucky connection to where you want to go. It’s a tedious process that uses very heavy ships to destabilize wormhole connections until they suddenly collapse. Do the math wrong and you’ll end up deep on the wrong side of nowhere, probably without a route home. Since The Initiative held control over the current entrance to Rage, the rescue fleet had a 1/500 chance to find an alternate route. Elly mentioned Michael1995 of Lazerhawks in particular: “They’re astonishingly fast rollers and seem to have infinite stamina. I don’t know what keeps M1995 awake but I want some.”

Some 35 hours later, well into the invasion, the rescue fleet breached through and made its connection to Rage. Friendly ships poured in, rushing to rendezvous at Fort Knocks with Hard Knocks. They all knew that facing The Initiative head-on was never going to work. Instead, they had outfitted hundreds of Muninn heavy-assault cruisers. These ships boast extremely long range artillery capable of harassing The Initiative’s fleet. As a much smaller and more nimble ship than The Initiative’s Ravens, they were consistently able to warp away before being hit back. Given the relatively light armor plating on the The Initiative’s Raven battleships, it was a good choice. But, as happens all too often in EVE, one tiny mistake ruined everything.

The combined defense fleet was triangulating enemy positions using scanning probes in order to pin down and warp to specific distances from the attacking fleet. But when you’re wrestling with 1,500 ship signatures, the information overload can force errors. “The [fleet commander] tried warping to a few Ravens, couldn’t, and warped to a [different ship] instead,” explained Elly.

When the other cruisers followed their commander, they warped into perfect range for The Initiative to perform a short-range bombing run on them, annihilating almost all of them in an instant. It was a mistake that led to the demise of the one and only major defensive effort. “This was basically like 50 percent UI glitch and 50 percent the kind of mistake that happens when people are tired and under a lot of pressure—it happens, but it sucks that it happened at this time and in this way,” Elly said.

It was probably one of the most fun experiences that I’ve had in EVE.

Brisc Rubal

By the time the dust had settled, there was little left for Hard Knocks to do but escape with all the valuables that would fit in its ships and destroy what couldn’t. The final hours saw the defeated corporation self-destructing its own capital ships and consolidating what else it could before The Initiative rolled over Fort Knocks and the surrounding structures. It might’ve taken a full year, but The Initiative pulled off what most thought impossible. All that was left was to sell the spoils.

The final bill stood at 150 ships lost to battle on each side, with hundreds more found in the Keepstar debris. The carnage brought with it about 2 trillion ISK worth of damage—mostly to Hard Knocks and their allies. Considering that 1.9 billion ISK will buy you a month of game-time (valued at $20), a rough conversion gets us to over $20,000 estimated losses. That’s more than some of EVE’s biggest heists ever.

“In a game that’s been around as long as EVE, it’s rare to do things that have never been done before,” Brisc said. “It was probably one of the most fun experiences that I’ve had in EVE.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Hard Knocks’ loss, but then again, they asked for it. When Fort Knocks was first built in 2016, senior director Jerzii Devil told us as much. “Nobody was invading us anyway,” he said at the time. “Maybe this will make them try harder. People say we’ve painted a huge target on our backs, and that’s exactly what we want.”

And that’s exactly what they got.

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