Snakes In The Grass

 

Some time ago I wrote a short guide on spying in EVE Online for a friend’s blog. It was quite popular (and still is) and so I decided to revisit that theme for my column here. Of course it would be pointless to repeat what I wrote there. Furthermore, my function at Crossing Zebras is to write about the metagame. Correspondingly this article is intended as a discussion of the playstyle and its ramifications, not as a guide.

The Path Of Shadows

Next to alliance or coalition leadership and politics, spying is the ultimate form of metagaming. It requires discipline, patience, self control and good acting. The most important skill of any spy is the ability to hide behind a facade, an assumed identity, and conduct operations without the knowledge of their targets.

This playstyle takes its toll on the psyche. Living a double life within the often tightly knit social circles of EVE with the intent to destroy or at least maliciously mislead those around you is not an easy thing to do for a long time. Hiding the traces of your activities is also not a simple feat in an environment where many are constantly watching for signs of treachery. Consequently spies often burn out or make mistakes that end their career.

“Spying used to be my main activity in game but it became too tedious. Now it’s about a 75/25 split w/ 25% being spy and intel stuff.”
– Anonymous burnt out informer

It is almost impossible for a spy to present the fruits of their efforts publicly. They may influence the outcome of a war or even facilitate the failcascade of an entire alliance, but if they do not retire after such an achievement, if they want to keep working as a spy, they will not be able to brag about it. In the end, only them and their employers will know what they did. If their contacts and handlers are doing their thing well, they will not be talking about a spy’s activities either. Even after retirement it can be risky to talk about past achievements. People in EVE can hold grudges for a long time, and some of those are serious enough to spill over into real-life. Exposed spies sometimes have to deal with actual real-life harassment. More on that later.

There is one aspect that sets spying apart from many other ways to play EVE: it favours newbies and women. There is no in-game skill requirement for a spy. Certainly, a prospective agent needs social skills and a keen mind, but it does not matter which ships they can fly. Some spying roles require participation in corporations or subgroups which demand particular skills, but there is no skillpoint requirement per-se. Indeed, people who appear harmless and inexperienced often have an easier time because nobody perceives them as a threat.

Women have an extra perk when it comes to infiltration. Because they are so rare in EVE, they are like a precious commodity and will often be welcomed with open arms.

“In the past I used my wife’s voice on coms to infiltrate wormhole corps for two reasons. 1, to provide targets for my PVP gang and 2, to gain access to SMA’s so that I could eject ships and bump them out. If they didn’t give my wife some kind of fuel roles after a few weeks in the corp.”
– Longinus Spear, wormhole podcaster.

One famous spy – T3mp3s7, I will come back to her later – was interviewed on that subject for the podcast Voices from the Void. Unfortunately that recording is lost because the podcast page was taken down by the owner, but T3mp3s7 talked at length about how easy it is for women to enter a corp and cause drama. [1]

“The girlcard definitely works on people in EVE […] As a female spy you don’t even deny it. You are a spy and you are just being yourself.”
– T3mp3s7 on Podside podcast.

Even if a woman were suspected of being a spy, there would be people who jump to her defense. The back-and-forth of accusations and white-knighting can cause even more dissent among the ranks. Whole pacts have broken apart over a girl in the past.

If you want to take any advice away from this article, then let it be that you should always watch any woman in your ranks closely if you are worried about spies.[2] Also watch everyone who gets close to her – they might turn into white knights later.

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Agents Of Mayhem

“The exciting spy stuff only happens to people gunning for corp theft, or people who get lucky.”
– Anonymous cynical spy

Some are not in the spy game for the long haul. Their goal is to cause as much destruction as possible in a short time and run off with the spoils.

Awoxers, griefers, corp thieves – back when I was still working in the field I used to love those guys. They cause drama and internal denunciations which can seriously destabilize the social cohesion of a corp or even an alliance. A skillful manipulator can leverage this to create a full crisis. The damage to corp assets caused by such betrayal is sometimes only an afterthought from the perspective of an embedded spy. The best effect it can have is to divert attention away from the subtle operator who quietly weaves a web of intrigue and misinformation while supplying information to the enemy.

The metagame of the malicious infiltrator relies on laxity of security and background checking. Targets are often either gullible, too keen on growing quickly or they simply do not care enough. The aspiring backstabber usually employs some subtlety, but wouldn’t go too far out of their way. There are often other targets to choose from if one proves to be too wary.

“I sold a few characters and decided to buy a new one to use as a spy (people are dumber than you would think). I got into a few of the -A- allies left in the south after the HBC formed. Robbed them as they geared up to leave and jumped to the next.”
– DirtyAddict, professional corp thief

“Found a great little carebear corp and was welcomed with open arms. I played the returning noob, who had some knowledge of the game from a previous trial some years ago…(covers any slipups I may have given of experience).”
– Anonymous infiltrator

Players like that are often in it for the tears as much as the money or killmails. They are the spying equivalent of suicide gankers. They choose a suitable target, infiltrate it and then pull off their heist in a hit and run fashion. One doesn’t make friends that way, but it is an activity which holds less risk of creating a permanent grudge. Sometimes one surprisingly does make friends.

“I actually contacted one of the folks from the corp after and took him on some low sec roams. He is the only person that made me feel some compassion for the group. Got him some kills and had a good time.”
– Anonymous infiltrator

Going for that style of betrayal also puts way less long-term strain on the mind by having to operate in secrecy for months. It also provides a release at the end. Usually, one can not repeat the same feat with the same character, so bragging about it on the forums is possible. There is nothing left to lose and just some more tears and claps to gain from the community.

Spooks And Spiders

The majority of spies who are embedded long-term within an organisation will be alts of someone who flies with the enemy. That carries its own risk of course. Many alliances can trace their members through forums, mumble, the EVE API and other means. Alt spies often get exposed that way by savvy counter-intelligence operatives.

True career spies are a rare breed and they often do not hold out for long. If you read my other article on the subject, you will encounter that long list of prerequisites for the successful spy and the many methods to protect a covert operation. Of course I only scratch the surface on the latter. Like stage magicians, spies will never tell you all their tricks. No other style of playing in EVE is shrouded in more secrecy. Even campaign plans for major wars are protected less than intelligence operations. The factors I name result in a high entry threshold for the field of spying. Most of those who progress further than just simple theft and betrayal do so on a slow path of development. If I use my own story as reference: it was mostly a series of opportunities and lucky breaks during which I slowly refined my methods.

Long term success can be achieved by forming an organisation specialized in spying or intel gathering. EVESkunk and EVEIntelcorp are two such organisations. The latter does counter-intelligence and security auditing as well as infiltration. They do contract work much like mercenaries do.

“EVE Intel Corp is completely open to anyone who pays. I started out just doing history and activity reports on individuals and have expanded to more corp sized projects. Testing security, war dec planning / war dec defense and finding thieves and spies. I try to take on any request as long as it is interesting.
– Shadow Broker, founder of EveIntelCorp

EVESkunk is – or at least was – an example of a full-on spy ring. I have only a vague idea how it formed, and I used to think that a player called Mister Black was the founder. Later it turned out that Mr. Black is actually a woman with the character name T3mp3s7. She started paying EVE as a teenager, got involved with spying, and ended up being a partner in the group behind EVESkunk. During a presentation at EVE Vegas 2012 she outed herself. The result was major drama which resulted in the dissolution of the original EVESkunk crew.

To the outside, EVESkunk leaked information from alliances which individual spies had gathered through API keys. They also encouraged everyone else to submit more API keys through their website. On the inside it was a shadowy network of spies and agents most of whom did not know who the others were.

The solo spies are definitely also out there, but if you are not one of their customers, it is unlikely that you hear anything from them or about them. They are like ghosts in EVE if they do their thing well. Like myself, many of them will try to find a permanent employer who pays them a regular salary. That creates its own challenge: how does one build a trust relationship with a customer when one’s speciality is deception? Those who are like lucky like me, have a real-life friend in an alliance they want to work for. Otherwise it can be quite difficult. In my previous piece I offer a few suggestions on how to do that.

The Psychological Effect

I have mentioned before that the spy game can be psychologically and emotionally demanding. Many will find ways to project negative feelings onto their targets to deal with betraying them or  working against their interests from the inside. Long-term embedded spies are also constantly exposed to the fallout of their actions. It can be particularly hard if an innocent gets blamed for what a spy has done. The hatred that some direct at such a person can be shocking to observe. A spy has to put it out of their mind what would happen if they were exposed themselves. Actually they will have to encourage the witch-hunt. Nothing is better for a hidden agent than a target who think they just got rid of a spy and feel safe.

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I mentioned that a negative attitude towards the target can function as a coping mechanism, but working inside an organisation one dislikes is not the easiest thing either. I once infiltrated a nullbear corp of TEST Alliance and I thought it work would out well because I had a serious aversion against that organisation. I had to give up in the end because I seriously couldn’t deal with their culture for too long. Ironically, despite horrible counter-intelligence, they had an indirect form of protection against someone like me.

It can happen over time that spies lose themselves in the manipulations and mindgames they are playing. It becomes a way of life in-game and even when logged off. The further they go, the deeper they can become immersed and it becomes almost impossible to see anything else. Everything is viewed in terms of possible ways to exploit a weakness or manipulate someone. Personally, I even began to try and convince people I knew in real-life to work for me as agents.

In the end there were two things which wrenched me out of that reality tunnel. One was a dear friend who no longer plays EVE. I tried to convince her to work for me because her then CEO had just started an association with a major nullsec bloc and I saw a great possibility to get in there. She did not only fend off my attempts,.She actively challenged my playstyle while never attacking me personally, and she did so persistently.

The other thing was the fallout around T3mp3s7’s coming-out. There is an old podside episode [3] where she is talking about the aftermath of her presentation on spying. Because of harassment she was forced to change her phone number and take down her facebook profile. That story of a fellow spy horrified me. I had kept a low profile, but I certainly did not want to be stalked and harassed in real-life if I were ever exposed.

In conclusion I would still say that the spy metagame is an exciting and complex field. I do not regret having participated in it. Despite being unable to brag about what you do, it can become your own secret pleasure. While others stress themselves about their corp or alliance, their killboard stats or their reputation, you spin your intrigues in the background and slowly spread poison through the ranks. Nothing in any other game even remotely compares to that experience. Even writing about it now conjures up that feeling and makes me smile.

To sum it all up, let me paraphrase a quote from Petyr Baelish – a character in Game of Thrones:

Spying is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to their alliance or their e-honour or in-game buddies. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

 

[1] If you have a recording of that episode, maybe you can link it. It was Episode 62 IIRC.

[2] This is not meant to say that every woman is a spy and none of them can be trusted. If they are spies, though, they tend to be the most dangerous and disruptive ones you could have in your corp.

[3] The part where T3mp3s7 talks about the harassment she had to deal with begins at 40 minutes. Also note what she tells about CCPs reaction.

Partial Image credits go to Andreas von Cotta, concept artist for CCP and others.

Special thanks to all the anonymous and not-so-anonymous individuals who have helped me writing this piece.

Tags: intel, spying, tarek, theft

About the author

Tarek Raimo

Former nullsec spy (no not under that name of course) and current failure at lowsec solo PVP, Tarek spends his time not logging in to the game as much as he keeps thinking about its social and metagame nature and sharing some of those thoughts with the CZ readers.