Interview with a Spy Master

 

written by Alastrom

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It’s 8:00AM on a Tuesday morning. I’m sitting alone in an empty Teamspeak server nervously checking the clock while I sip a hastily made cup of coffee. Some time last night I received a message I didn’t fully know how to comprehend. It’s the sort of cloak and dagger stuff you see in early 70’s spy films. A location and a time when to be there. It’s all very secretive and I’m starting to wonder if was being trolled or baited into some elaborate prank. I’ve got my headphones half way off my ears just in case someone decides to show up and blow my ear drums out. 8:05AM. Finally I hear the familiar tune “User joined your channel” and I’m confronted by an unnamed individual using a voice modulator. A very sinister “Hello Alastrom” broke the silence, surprisingly getting the pronunciation of my name correctly. I was a bit put off by this so I explained that I wasn’t sure what I was doing here and I didn’t want to have a conversation through a voice modulator. The man laughed and turned it off, saying he only thought it would be funny and had no intention of keeping it on. We were off to a great start. My headphones remained at the half way mark but so far the experience was entirely unexpected. He must be in his thirties. The sound quality of his microphone was excellent. I wondered if he worked as a weatherman or television announcer, he just had that tone about him. The next words kicked off a two hour conversation that changed the way I think about gaming.

 

“Would you like to know more about the people spying on you?” And yes, I very much did want to know.

 

He told me that he was a part of an organization that had infiltrated various organizations at the highest level and he had access to all manner of intelligence which his group intended to use to sow chaos and anarchy. He wasn’t here to share that information, instead he just wanted to talk with someone that he had apparently seen around RSI chat and, at least on some level, enjoyed interacting with. It was a lot to take in and obviously I was skeptical, so I demanded some sort of proof that he had access to the information he claimed he did. It’s at this point I should let you know that I’m not going to go out of my way to prove this person’s identity to you. I don’t technically know who he is, only that we’ve crossed paths at least once. Certainly, I could show you the screen capped conversations from several large organizations inner leadership but they’d quickly come out and deny those things were said and I’d have to deal with the aftermath. What I can say is that he either is who is claims to be, or has one hell of a Photoshop background. In my time as a Star Citizen org leader, I’ve seen a number of people claim the title of spy. These bright eyed folk are always the same. They come filled with great ideas and a complete lack of ability to execute. My new friend Mr. X (my name for him, not his) did not strike me as that same sort of person. If anything, he seemed quite the opposite. He understood exactly what his goals were and unlike the self professed espionage experts, he had another word for his craft. Meta gaming.

 

Meta gaming is a word that colors up a lot of very specific emotions in people. If you’re someone who takes part in it, you may have a much stricter definition that someone who doesn’t. A “meta-gamer” for one game might consider animation canceling to be the highlight of their strategy where as an Eve Online player might consider it to be logging into the game alongside a thousand other people in a very specific place and time. Mr. X claimed to be from an organization where meta gaming is everything. This isn’t an org, he explained, that you’ll find in the RSI rosters. They don’t have an official web page and you can’t publicly join their Discord server (yes, they use Discord and not Teamspeak.) Like my new friend, their organization doesn’t have a name which means they’re not “that one group” that some of you may be thinking of right now. For all intents and purposes, they want to exist as ghosts and they’ve allegedly planted themselves in various organizations that have been around since the early days of Star Citizen. It wasn’t clear at this point if mine was on their list but I continued to listen intently. That’s when my new friend began to do something that he wasn’t accustomed to in his organization. He told his story with as much honesty as he was able.

 

He’d played most of the same online games growing up as I did. Like me, he got his start in Dark Age of Camelot and eventually moved to Star Wars Galaxies. He played on Bloodfin, and I played Starsider but this didn’t surprise me as he explained that he had a PvP background. Bloodfin was, after all the PvP home for many players back then. It’s also where he met the group that he would play Eve Online with. Don’t worry, you’re not going to get a story about how the Fountain War “actually” began, Mr. X didn’t spend a lot of time in Eve. It did however open his eyes to two things. Space games and espionage. Both of which lead him to be an early and frequent backer of Star Citizen. As he explains, one of his old steam friends had become involved in the Eve Online espionage world contacted him one day and expressed that he had started a very special organization for Star Citizen. This group would be unlike any other that had come before. They weren’t going to recruit in droves and they wouldn’t go under a single banner. Instead, they’d join other groups, gather information and use it as best they could to disrupt large scale operations. Mr. X told me he loved the idea from the start and if nothing else they’d have a good time “doing it for the lulz.” It’s at this point I had to stop the conversation. Something about the story just didn’t add up for me.

 

Why would a self professed spy reach out to a seemingly random (and quite frankly, inconsequential) Star Citizen backer in a tell all fashion? It didn’t seem like he wanted to defect and if he did there are probably more effective places to go. Information is, as he explained, a commodity so one would assume you’d want to cash in on that commodity eventually. With what Mr. X had already shown me, I’m confident that he could go to any larger organization and name his price. It was then that the smoke dissipated and I achieved the rarest commodity of all in the game of spies. Clarity. Mr. X explained that he COULD go anywhere with this info and probably be rewarded for it handsomely. He’d seen the effects of a good spy in games large and small from Eve Online to Life is Feudal (another game we had in common.) Spies were dictating entire group movements. Based on the actions of spies, he’d seen clans fall apart and their members get scattered to the wind. For many people, the actions of just a few spies had all but ruined the game for them and not simply the game that was, but the game that could be. It was for that very reason, Mr. X explained, he began to have doubts about his preferred way to play. It sounded to me like the man had just grown tired of the meta game and in so many words, he agreed.

 

Star Citizen is a game that most agree isn’t coming out tomorrow. Or next week. Or probably even next year. It seems strange under those circumstances that the meta game has already begun for some people but this is exactly what Mr. X professes to be true. He explained that this was the premise for the people he associated with. By inserting themselves in various organizations they can create a rapport with the members of that group, laying in wait and preparing to strike. These “agents of chaos” are dead set on dictating the universe from the shadows using what a lot of people with a moral compass may find unsavory for the modern gamer. Mr. X admits that they don’t know exactly what Star Citizen will bring so his group does their best to keep their options open. At the moment, it’s a lot of information gathering, he explains. Sometimes it’s as simple as noting who gets promoted and demoted in the organization and making friends with those people. In other cases, it relies on complex software to gather information on members and dump it into a file to be used later. Yes, you read that right. Mr. X claims his group is creating dossiers on members both big and small from the groups they’ve infiltrated. He either wasn’t willing or able to elaborate further and I’m not sure I’d even know how to begin verifying the truth of these claims. I’m not sure I’d want to.

 

It wasn’t too long ago that we were having a discussion about how much information a company should be allowed to gather on us. The idea of a smaller group of individuals doing the same thing for the purpose of “winning” in a video game seems so trivial that we shouldn’t care. Yet somehow, it feels all the more dangerous to me. One has to wonder how far players should go in order to achieve what they see as “winning.” Is all fair in love and war or is there a cut off point where a player has gone to far? It begs the further question if Cloud Imperium Games should get involved? How could they, given that there are players out there that see this as part and parcel of the gaming experience. This whole conversation had only sparked more questions in my mind. I’ve always been open with my groups information, assuming I knew what could and couldn’t be weaponized against us. Anyone that has spoken to me probably has a good idea of what ships I own. My org size and contact information is readily available. In my mind, there wasn’t much else that someone would need to know. Sure, we had issues with spies in Archeage but it was simple stuff like where we were trading goods and how many people we were bringing to a fight. I never considered myself ignorant to the idea of metagaming and the strategy that went along with it, but perhaps I underestimated the lengths that people would go. Perhaps I underestimated how prepared I really was for this.

 

He offered me more insight into the world of a Star Citizen spy, discussing how the group plans on starting wars, stealing organization resources, blowing up key assets before major battles, so on and so forth. He even joked that they’d recently recruited a female “spy” and apparently she’d been gifted quite a few ships from her “plant” organization, as he called it. This carried on for over an hour and we went back and forth on how or why anyone would employ such tactics. It boiled down to a simple equation and Mr. X quoted Sun Tzu. “If you know yourself and you know your enemy, etc etc.” Somehow, I didn’t think this is what the Chinese strategist had in mind when he wrote the Art of War but the logic was solid. Placing these spies in various organizations gave you ample opportunity to disrupt the people you were pretending to play alongside. But normally, one group does this to another. Mr. X’s group seemed to be out for themselves and he didn’t suggest they were taking one side over another. It reminded me of another quote from a more recent philosopher that some may be familiar with. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

 

We reached a lull in the conversation and now our tiny corner of the internet had grown dead quiet. My coffee is long gone and I’m thinking about getting up and walking away from this discussion all together. “It just sucks.” he proclaimed. His tone is different somehow, like for the first time I’m talking to a real person and not some amalgamation of James Bond supervillians I grew up watching. He explained that this “spy stuff” had become an all or nothing effort and somehow it had managed to devour any semblance of fun from gaming. He mused that he missed having friends to game with and he wanted things to go back to the way they used to be. Sentiments we’ve all felt at one time or another. This approach to gaming thus far had left him with the understanding that no one is really your friend because you’re never really “there.” I’ve always believed that online gamer pals can form real relationships and it sounded like Mr. X would agree with me, though we didn’t explicitly discuss that particular fashion.

 

The conversation carried on for another thirty minutes or so and I finally got up the courage to ask if I could write an article the things we discussed. “Sure” Mr. X said. He was done with the spying, done with the metagame. It was his intent to settle down in a small organization somewhere and take up a life of shipping goods across the galaxy. He knows the metagame will continue without him, but for Mr. X, he’s decided to give it all up and maybe find a few real friends to have his space adventures with. I wondered if he’d face retaliation for sharing the information that he had, but the then I remembered we weren’t dealing with the real world here. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting Mozambiqued over a video game. At this point I’m not sure if I’ve been taken for a wild ride or given insight into a realm that I previously knew nothing about but it gave me a lot to think about all the same. I thanked him for chatting and he gave a quick “Mmhmm” which told me he was done sharing his secrets for the morning. “This was fun” he said. “Don’t worry none of us are spying on you, as far as I know.” It was a welcome sentiment but it didn’t give me much confidence. We said our goodbyes and disconnected to go our separate ways.

 

It’s hard to say just what the metagame is going to look like in Star Citizen, but it’s safe to assume that it’s developing alongside the rest of the game. I’d like to wish the best of luck to the late organization of Mr. X though I’m not sure I want to see them succeed. I can’t decide if these players take the game too seriously or they just want to stir up a bit of chaos and sit back to enjoy the flames. Either way, I have little doubt that they’ll be responsible for their fair share of mayhem when that day comes. It’s a reassuring thought to say that no one could have that great an effect on an entire group of people, but for those of us that haven’t experienced it first hand, we’ve certainly heard the horror stories.

 

As for me, it’s a little after 10:00AM on a Tuesday morning. I’m sitting in a less than empty Discord server with a fresh cup of coffee, trying to explain the conversation I just had to a few of my org mates. It’s a message that none of us want to begin to comprehend. The kind of stuff you only read about in other games. The story of a Spy Master…

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