Martijn Vellinger

The Machine War: how an Eve Online pirate inadvertently started a war for the purity of the game

The Machine War: how an Eve Online pirate inadvertently started a war for the purity of the game

We've been covering Eve Online a great deal lately, due to the fact that  even at ten years old Eve is still far and away the most fascinating game in the business. But after our story about Ali Aras, the nuclear scientist/Eve fleet commander, we decided to get the focus back on other games. But right when we decided to give Eve coverage a break, we were contacted by someone who claimed to be a pirate “of some infamy”... and he wanted to talk. How do you say no to that?

“I am an evil pirate, and that is what I do. I killed, if you add them all up, I think 30,000 ships. I killed all these people with words. I've probably done more damage than several null-sec wars combined with just written word.”

His name is Helicity Boson, at least, that's the name of the pirate persona who has caused untold amounts of grief and frustration for thousands of players in Eve Online. It's obvious that he revels in it.

He's one of the most creative pirates Eve has ever known. Yet, at the same time, telling the story of his greatest achievement in piracy is also to tell the story of the time he waged a war to save Eve from the game's true criminals.

War against the machines

Martijn “Helicity Boson” Vellinger should be well-known to fans of Eve Online. He's the player who leaked an infamous document in 2011, a CCP Games internal newsletter, which discussed the introduction of microtransactions into the game. It ultimately ended up sparking the Summer of Rage which saw thousands of subscriptions canceled, and resulted in a 20% staff cut at CCP Games.

But at the time, in 2009, Vellinger was just a low-sec pirate with a great kill:death ratio (by his claim today it's, 3000 kills to 89 deaths) who wanted to do something that would have a bigger impact, and more importantly, an event that would bring together the disparate pirate clans of Eve space.

The result was an event he called Hulkageddon. The idea was simple: kill miners (people who sit in asteroid belts and ice fields collecting minerals to sell on the market.) Particular emphasis was placed on so-called “high-sec Carebears,” or players without the guts to venture into the more dangerous, low-security areas. The person who kills the most miners gets the grand prize.

This is a little tricky, because high-sec space has a vigilant NPC police force which annihilates any aggressor. To take out miners in high-sec, pirates will load up cheap ships with huge weapons with one round of ammunition in hopes they can kill their prey in one shot before the NPC law-keepers can react. It's a crude method, but it works.

The joy of piracy

“The first time we did it… it was trivial,” he said. “We killed a couple hundred ships.” He said. They still thought it was pretty amazing at the time though.

“And people got so butthurt about it, and we got hate mail and death threats mailed to me,” he said with a bit of joy behind his Dutch accent. “A little while after the first Hulkageddon I was getting bored, and I figured, 'eh, let's do it again.' People are scared of it now… that makes it more fun. The impact the first time was minimal, so I set the bar higher.”

By now, the word had got out about Hulkageddon, and suddenly no one felt safe. To make matters worse, Helicity Boson said the second event attracted the attention of wealthy benefactors.

“This time a friend of mine gave me 1 billion ISK for the main prize, which was much more than the first time,” he said. “And then my inbox was ticking over time, every five minutes someone had given money toward the event. I think we had close to 30 billion ISK for prizes just sitting in my hangar. And I thought… I should just take all this stuff.”

He admits that he was tempted to flee with the money and reward ships, but he decided not to abscond with the massive 30 billion ISK prize pool. He's a pirate after all, and that would have been an amazing heist. Even his friends - the people he'd have been stealing from - wouldn't have really been angry, he said. They're all pirates too. “There's no honor among scumbags,” he said.

The only reason he said he didn't just run off with the money was that he wouldn't be able to run Hulkageddon anymore. “I wasn't quite done with this yet,” he said. He could do more damage long-term if he maintained this twisted form of trust.

An image posted on the Eve forums after Helicity was banned in the wake of the release of an internal CCP newsletter which cause massive unrest in the community.

Discovering the bots

Hulkageddon began as blatant griefing on the largest scale, but this second version of the event was much larger. So large, in fact, that they made some discoveries about the miners in high-security space.

“If you are at your keyboard and you've fitted your ship properly, you're not going to die to two [pirate attackers],” he said. When he says “at your keyboard,” he means two different things.

First, he's referring to miners who will set their ship to auto-mine, then go do something else while ignoring the game. If you're not even looking at your ship in a dangerous game, you kind of deserve what's coming to you.

Worse, as they found out, some people weren't controlling the ships at all.

“As we discovered, to our dismay, in the second event where many many more people died… we started to notice something very strange,” said Helicity Boson. “When you kill a ship, the pod stays behind in the exact same spot and usually the owner warps off to wherever they can click in hopes of not losing their capsule. Then we started noticing these pods sitting there for a very long time… like 10 minutes, then warping to a station, docking, undocking, then warping right back to the exact same location.”

When terrorism became righteousness

When you lose a ship in Eve, only the ship and its cargo are lost. Your character is jettisoned in an escape pod which can also be seperately targeted and killed. It can be resurrected with a penalty, but it's a pain. So, logically, most players leave as soon as possible. And, of course, the last place you'd want to go after losing your ship… is right back to the place you were destroyed.

“There were many of them doing that,” he said. “No human would do that. Which was the moment when we determined that the majority of miners in high-security space were probably bots.” 

These botters were most likely ISK sellers. People who would run many, many versions of the game at once while running a sophistocated auto-pilot program to gather minerals, sell them on the open market, then sell the resulting in-game currency for real-world currency.

“And then, of course, it changed. It started as malicious terrorism, and turned into 'The Good Fight' against our botting, cheating enemies. It became a crusade against the evil botters,” he said.

These types of bots exist in every MMO, but they're especially reviled in Eve because the in-game economy is so closely tied to every facet of the game. Players who cheat that system by buying or selling gold are corrupting what makes the game special.

Hulkageddon began as terrorism and ended as a holy war for the purity of Eve Online's sandbox economy. They'll never win the war against the bots, but the event itself was quite “successful,” resulting in the destruction of thousands of mining ships. The poster above was made to commemorate the first milestone.

And the Hulkageddon name lived on in three more events of escalating scale until Hulkageddon V became the last.

“The last time around I was able to arrange sponsorship from the Goonswarm's ample wallet, and they paid people for every 10 hulks they were able to kill. And they're still doing that, so I don't really have a need to run the program anymore.” Just like everything in EVE, the players have added to the story, and there is now an incentive in place to attack and destroy the bots. The system takes care of itself, even if that mechanism began as a way to grief others.

Goodbye, space pirate

I spent over an hour talking Eve with Helicity Boson, and I was told no shortage of hilarious anecdotes, epic tales, and intriguing insights. We capped our conversation with the amusing note that we'd never gotten around to discussing what we intended to talk about, which was that Boson wanted to dispel the belief that Eve is a dangerous, inhospitable game for newcomers. 

He had a strange way of doing this: by telling me about Hulkageddon, an event of spectacular carnage which specfically targeted players in the safest zones.

That said, every time I hear another story about the piracy and skullduggery of Eve Online it only makes me want to play it more.