Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Monday, 23 February 2009

The struggle among the stars

Screenshot from Eve Online, Atari
All players of Eve Online share one vast virtual galaxy.

By Flora Graham
BBC News

It's a credit crunch nightmare.

The chief executive of the world's biggest corporation gets a phone call in the middle of the night. Thanks to industrial espionage, the company has been bankrupted, assets stripped, bank accounts emptied. When trading starts the next day, even the company name will be gone.

If this were real life, the executive might consider jumping out the window. But in the online game of EVE Online, it's all part of the fun.

"It is another challenge," said Par Molen, the leader of the "corporation" Band of Brothers (BoB), who got the late-night call.

"That's what we live for."

Mr Molen and his online colleagues had spent four years building BoB into the dominant force in a game where 200,000 players battle it out in an online galaxy of spaceships and planets.

Unlike other multiplayer online games like the hugely popular World of Warcraft, which is split into smaller groups, the thousands of EVE players are in it together.

In one virtual galaxy, players build, fight, and trade, joining together to form "corporations" to gain control over sections of the huge starscape.

This creates a complex society where anything can happen, and often does. Rules are few, and all of the lying, cheating and stealing that occurs in real life can also happen in the game.

A player called "The Mittani" is the shadowy spymaster who runs dozens of agents for his corporation - GoonSwarm. He got the call of his career when a disgruntled BoB director contacted him to say that he was thinking of switching sides.

With the director's access to BoB's internal workings, the pair were able to disband the corporation and steal all the assets they could lay their hands on.

To add insult to injury, GoonSwarm then re-registered the Band of Brothers name for itself, leaving the former alliance nameless and broken.

It's a finale that has been compared to "Apple dissolving Microsoft", and led to some players calling for the game's developer, CCP, to "roll-back" the game to the previous day and cancel the change.

Screenshot from Eve Online, Atari
Eve Online is about the struggle between giant corporations

"Any one director should not have the power to destroy the work of so many people for so many months and years with two mouse clicks," wrote a player called David on an EVE-related blog.

But CCP is well-known for keeping its hands off action within the game. Since no rules were broken, the changes stood, and thousands of BoB members woke up to a very different world.

Scams in space

This is not the first time that rogue bankers and credit fraud have made EVE Online seem more like the financial pages than a space cowboy video game.

In January, a player absconded with over 80bn ISK, the game's virtual currency, from an in-game bank. Although the 80bn is only worth a few thousand pounds if exchanged for real money, it represents hours of in-game toil.

In an online echo of the real-world banking crisis, the bank's chairman issued a statement to calm a run on deposits, writing: "Dynasty Banking will get over these times and we will continue to strive to earn the public's faith as one of the leading banks of Eve Online".

Another scam on an epic scale beyond the fantasies of real conmen was perpetrated in 2006, when a player ran off with 700bn ISK from another EVE bank.

"Think of me as a space Robin Hood—steals from the rich and gives to himself," wrote the perpetrator in an EVE-related internet forum.

Such swindles left some players in awe of EVE's potential for realism, whilst others called for a stronger code of ethics in the game.

But spymaster Mittani scoffed at calls for in-game morals, noting that without dirty tricks, GoonSwarm would have had no chance of toppling a more established corporation like BoB.

He said: "We don't have any advantages, so we can't obey your stupid 'space bushido'. We're going to spy, we're going to use defectors, we're going to lie, cheat, steal and be bastards."

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