WHY DIDN'T THE HBC AND CFC GO TO WAR?
Together, the HBC (led by TEST and Pandemic Legion) and the CFC (led by Goonswarm) control most of nullsec. If the two coalitions went to war, it would be the most titanic struggle ever witnessed in EVE. Not since the Great War has nullsec seen a conflict on such a scale. EVE players have long pondered the possibility of a war between the HBC and CFC. In the last several days, with Montolio (TEST's CEO) openly advocating war, it almost became a reality. But it didn't happen. Why not?
Shadoo, the leader of Pandemic Legion, informed Montolio that PL would not be going to war against the CFC. Montolio immediately announced that the war was off--and that he would be taking a short break from EVE.
News of this horrifying outbreak of peace was met with angst across the EVE galaxy. The enemies of the CFC and HBC were understandably disappointed to learn that their foes would not be devoting their time and resources to destroying each other. Null-watchers were frustrated to see a potentially epic story arc slip from their grasp. And some CFC/HBC line members just wanted a bit of pew-pew action.
According to conventional wisdom, much of the blame goes to EVE's game mechanics. Sovereignty wars involve a lot of structure-shooting and time zone nonsense. Shadoo posted an explanation for his decision on the TEST forums. Parsed carefully, one can see the presence of other factors involved--the recency of their last big war, the size of the CFC--but most have focused on the grinding nature of taking sovereignty. After the announcement, EVE forums everywhere lit up with complaints about sovereignty mechanics and how they spoiled a potentially great war. Nullsec is becoming a "sea of blues", they say, because the terrible game mechanics discourage people from fighting each other.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this line of thinking suggests that Pandemic Legion would have jumped right in, and a cataclysmic war between the CFC and HBC would have ensued, if only sov mechanics had been retooled to make it more fun to fight.
There's some merit in the complaints about sov mechanics, no doubt. People have been complaining about the mechanics of sov warfare from the beginning, and in spite of every "improvement" CCP has implemented. We can be certain that all of the leaders involved on both sides--with the possible exception of Montolio--took the "grind" into consideration when they contemplated war.
But is that the whole picture? Was the CFC/HBC tension ultimately defused by the prospect of boring game mechanics?
Well, no. Not even close.
A STRATEGIC DECISION
The biggest flaw with the "broken sov system" theory is that recent history has been filled with lots of sov war. A quick look at the EVE influence map over the past couple years shows that vast swaths of territory all across nullsec have changed hands due to sov wars. These wars frequently included--more often than not, in fact--the very same participants who supposedly can't be bothered to deal with boring structure shoots today. If we were to judge by actions rather than words, then we would say that Goons, TEST, and Pandemic Legion not only tolerate sov warfare, they love it. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that none of those wars was prevented by the soul-crushing boredom of sov grinding, but the CFC/HBC war was.
The EVE influence maps also show us that the proponents of the "stagnant nullsec" theory are wrong about the reason why much of nullsec is dominated by a "sea of blues". People weren't unwilling to fight; they did fight. Nullsec is dominated by blues because the reds died. Their space was conquered by the CFC and HBC, through sov grinding.
The repetitive nature of sov grinding is factored into the calculus of whether an alliance chooses to embark on an aggressive war. (Defenders have little choice but to participate.) Given the extent to which sov warfare has been occurring, the "boredom factor" can't be too overwhelming. Granted, CFC/HBC would require more grinding than the previous wars, but whether you're fighting a series of medium-sized wars or one big war, you're still grinding. That leaves the strategic factors.
Shadoo and Pandemic Legion decided not to declare war against the CFC not because they are unwilling to engage in sov war, but because they determined such a war would be strategically unsound.
Before going to war, most seasoned alliance leaders consider what they stand to gain by victory, what it will cost (including the boredom factor), and most importantly, the likelihood of defeat. As with all PvP in EVE, players generally engage in war only if they're confident of success or they're tricked/forced into it by an enemy who's confident of success. EVE players are risk-averse. There are exceptions, but the galaxy is not filled with exceptions.
In his CEO update, The Mittani claimed that a war between the CFC and HBC would be a "coinflip". I suspect Pandemic Legion's leaders reached a similar conclusion. Similar, though not necessarily identical, because they might have felt the odds favored them. But a 60% chance of victory is still a 40% chance of catastrophic failure.
Supposing the odds were good enough that PL was willing to risk them, they would still need to consider the cost and benefits. What would it take to win? What would they stand to gain if they won? That's where TEST's leader, Montolio, failed--he made no effort to persuade or communicate with his ally on either of those fronts. More on that later.
Note that strategic considerations were absolutely absent from Shadoo's official explanation for why PL would not go to war against the CFC. Perhaps it wouldn't look good to admit that the HBC wasn't going to war, in part, because they might lose. The Mittani was surprisingly frank when he publicly gave his own coalition 50/50 odds. Then again, he was trying to avoid war, and suggesting the CFC was favored could arouse the ire of the HBC and make his troops salivate for war; suggesting the CFC was disfavored would depress the troops and embolden the HBC. 50% was the most diplomatic figure, but probably an honest one nonetheless.
Thus, the HBC declined war against the CFC for the same reason that The Mittani wanted to avoid war: The benefits of such a war were unclear, and the risk of defeat was unacceptably high. That's what set this aborted war apart from all the wars that did take place.
IT'S THE COALITIONS, STUPID
The shift of nullsec's focus from alliances to coalitions has been so remarked upon these days that it's almost cliché to bring it up. However, the fact that people talk about it doesn't mean its implications have been fully grasped. They haven't, as recent events made clear.
As the tension between the CFC and HBC reached its peak, a fair number of EVE players asked an important question: Why all the propaganda? Why the justifications, narratives, and spin? Why can't the two coalitions just go to war, if that's what they want to do? It's just a game, after all.
In the old days--the very old days--alliances didn't always bother with propaganda and public image. Sometimes they did, but often they would just go to war. The Band of Brothers alliance became famous for simply saying, "Nice region, we'll take it." If BoB's leader, SirMolle, felt like it, his alliance would invade. If not, they wouldn't. As Montolio and Shadoo demonstrated, that's not enough anymore.
In hindsight, it's obvious. If actions are taken by coalitions rather than alliances, then alliance leaders can't declare war anymore. They must persuade the leaders of their fellow coalition members (the most important ones, at least) to jointly declare war. It may not sound like such a big change, but it makes nullsec politics much more complicated.
In the past, SirMolle might have taken his alliance to war because he wanted to expand his empire, or because the leader of another alliance angered him. Today, an alliance leader needs to think about a war in terms of how it would benefit others, not just himself. If you expect your coalition members to join you in the war, they need to be told--explicitly and in advance--what they stand to gain from it.
Note that some reasons for war may be taken off the table as a result. Suppose an alliance leader is angry or offended at someone else. That might give him ample reason to want war, but will his coalition partners be similarly motivated? Probably not. Other motives must be supplied.
That's where the propaganda comes in. As the conflict between the CFC and HBC escalated, The Mittani unleashed a propaganda barrage against Montolio. This offended Montolio to the point that he was willing to go to war. But it didn't give TEST's coalition partners reason to want war--the attacks were only aimed at Montolio. In fact, the propaganda painted Montolio in such a negative light that it likely reduced the rest of the HBC's willingness to join a war effort. The fact that your coalition partners must be persuaded into war means that your enemies have a new avenue of attack: They can persuade your coalition partners not to go to war. Military strength is now directly tied to public image to an extent that it wasn't before. Hence, all the propaganda.
Montolio was put into a tricky position. On the one hand, he could back down and seek peace, which is what the CFC wanted. On the other hand, if he sought war in response to The Mittani's attacks, he would appear hotheaded, just as the propaganda depicted him. So what was the correct move, and how can the deadlocked sea of blues in nullsec be broken?
Granted, Montolio didn't need Pandemic Legion's permission to go to war. If he wanted, he could have brought TEST and any willing HBC members into a war without PL's help. Line members of TEST who only wanted a brawl and who weren't much concerned about the consequences can't blame PL for spoiling things. But they would have faced the entire CFC. "Our coalition's space is being invaded" is a good argument for persuading your coalition partners to join the effort. If Goonswarm could count on the entire CFC, then Montolio needed the entire HBC (or at least PL). Perhaps the defender has an advantage these days.
Reading this post won't do much to allay the fears some people have about a stagnant future for nullsec. The fact that multiple coalition members must sign off on a war makes war less likely. So does the fact that nullsec is dominated by two coalitions who fear the other is too powerful to invade with sufficient confidence of success.
The answer to the problem of peace, again, has to do with the difference between alliance-based and coalition-based politics. Alliances are brittle, more likely to break than bend. When an alliance shrinks, it's because it's dying, having been beaten in a war. Coalitions are much more fluid.
If Montolio wanted to get revenge against The Mittani and Goonswarm, the answer wasn't to go to TEST and shore up support among his own alliance. Nor was the answer to go to Pandemic Legion and the other HBC members. The way to win a coalition war is to have a bigger coalition than your enemy. That means the answer is to go to unaligned third parties--and even to your rival's coalition members. They won't join you in a war effort today, but they might join you in peace. If a sufficient number of alliances are sufficiently drawn into your orbit, then your coalition becomes powerful enough to be confident of victory. And then they will show a surprising willingness to shoot structures and grind sov.
As time goes on, the wars of nullsec will increasingly be won not on the battlefield, but in the court of public opinion--on websites like this one. Today, some alliance leaders seem to realize this. As for the rest, time will tell.