Few things in EVE have garnered as much attention from the outside world as the art of spying and counterintelligence. That shouldn't be all that surprising considering it is an aspect of play that is almost wholly unique to EVE Online; few other games will ever reach the depth and scale to make spying not only profitable, but downright necessary in order to succeed. While flashy betrayals like the infamous Guiding Hand Social Club Heist might sit on the throne as the ultimate victory in a game of spies, the truth is spying is a much more subtle, often less dramatic kind of game.
Markonius Porkbutte, who I've talked with before, knows all of this as a "handler" in The Black Hand, The Imperium's coalition-wide spy organization. His designation is fairly similar to what you'd expect of a handler in a proper spy agency: He is the point of contact between his superiors and the dozen or so agents he has operating in various corporations.
"A lot of people don't like the spy meta-game at all," Markonius said. "It's really frowned upon by some because it's winning by legalize cheating." Being such a big game, EVE has many different "meta-games" that players get involved with, like diplomacy, leadership, politics, and more. But spying can be one of the more controversial ones since it trades almost exclusively in the suffering of its victims. No pilot enjoys losing a fight because the other team had better intelligence. Likewise, no one wants to wake up one morning to find out that their friend for the past six months had betrayed them and taken everything. "But it's totally fair in a sense that this is a sandbox and there are a lot of different ways to knock down your sand castle."
As painful as losing to the spy game can be, it's still a game any serious corporation needs to pay attention to, both for their benefit and to prevent them from being gutted by their enemies. From an outside perspective, the idea is tantalizing. The thought of living a double life and secretly feeding information to your enemies is probably the one of the things that inspired more than a few players to join EVE. But the reality is that spying, as necessary as it is, is nowhere nearly as climatic as it used to be.
Markonius described to me how, under the older sovereignty system that governed how players could capture and hold space, spying had a much bigger role to play. The system itself was crude and players rightly hated it, but it was also a system that relied heavily on trust between various members of a corporation.
The old system functioned by requiring players to place and maintain player-owned structures within a given system. This emphasis on structures made warfare a brutal slog, but opening up plenty of holes for spies to do dirty work. For one, operating effectively required corporations to give plenty of different players various tiers of responsibility, and as a spy, it was much easier to work your way into a position of power than it is now.
Much of that potential was lost when the sovereignty system was overhauled into the new Aegis system. Markonius explained how, as EVE continued to improve and develop new systems, more and more intel that could be discovered through spying could now be gathered through the built-in functionality of the game. "I'm not complaining," Markonius said. "But it's automating something that took a little bit more finesse originally."
That isn't to say that spying can't still be a crucial element to running a top-level alliance. One aspect where spies are still astoundingly useful is in combat. Spies will be continually feed the movements of one fleet to the enemy. Beyond that, spies will also relay information like the composition of the fleet and who the fleet commanders, secondary fleet commanders, and logistics anchors (the pilot who maneuvers the logistic wing) are. In some cases, they'll even be telling the other side which ships their fleet commander has called to target, in the event that the enemy fleet can prepare a defense quickly enough.
A large reason why spying seems to have settled into a lull is because, simply put, there aren't that many new tricks being deployed that people have seen before. "The human tricks of the trade are all very well known, so there's not a whole lot left to discover and improve upon. We have a pretty good sense of where our boundaries are."
Right now EVE Online is in an interesting place when it comes to the shifting landscape of null-sec politics. The Imperium, much to the dismay of players, continues to widen its reach as The Mittani strives to ruin the game for everyone who isn't his people, and without the epic Cold War struggles of old, like the Fountain War or against Band of Brothers, The Black Hand is instead focusing on smaller, easier to infiltrate targets.
Infiltrating The Imperium, however, can prove to be a much harder task. Though Imperium allies tend to have their own leaky hulls to deal with, infiltrating and leaking valuable information within Goonswarm (or any top-tier alliance for that matter) is a much harder task. For one, layers of authentication can weed out suspicious characters and most alliances are so familiar with spy games that they are able to mitigate any damage and prevent major security breaches.
In fact, some of the biggest betrayals and leaks aren't from expertly coordinated spy missions, but rather pure luck and a little disenfranchisement. Though an argument could be made that propaganda and other elements can play their part, the most devastating defections can happen simply because a player is no longer happy with the alliance he belongs to.
"It's way more likely that someone would get dissatisfied and leave an alliance than get flipped by a spy. If you're going to put in the hours and hours and hours of work, you're going to be pretty heavily invested into the success of that alliance. Flipping just because someone gives you a better offer just isn't often the case," Markonius explained. Even the infamous Band of Brothers betrayal, which led to Goonswarm solidifying their place in the galaxy, stemmed out of one player being merely unhappy and wanting a change. Though spying might have poisoned the dagger, it was still one disenfranchised player who plunged it in.
Even if the meta-game of spying might not feel like the wild west it was years ago, Markonius still derives an immense satisfaction from it. "I love the movement of people in the organizations and I think it adds a really dynamic level of gameplay that doesn't exist anywhere else. It's just really addictive," Markonius laughs. "Fighting on fields with spaceships is also fun, but when you can provide information that completely makes the playing field unfair that's even more fun. It's like a legitimate form of cheating to get ahead, and it's not for everyone. I like that in EVE there's a lot of different ways to win, and spying is a really great way to win."