Lost Tonnage

AN-TCWwreckEarlier this week, I saw a confusing tweet from my good friend Mik; a battle had occurred in the massively multilayer online game EVE Online, which had resulted in an estimated $300,000 in damages. Now, I haven’t really played mulitplayer online games since Starcraft, so I wasn’t sure how such a battle could have a real price tag, but knowing that Mik doesn’t highlight such things unless they’re significant, I hit Google to figure out where the number came from.

That proved quite an education.

Turns out that EVE players can use real-world money to increase their buying power in the game; though they accumulate revenue through in game operations (I’m guessing mining or trade), a quick infusion of real-world currency can give them an in-game economic advantage. Using the exchange rate at which players can purchase in-game currency, observers have therefore estimated that $300,000 worth of tonnage was destroyed in a massive battle, which involved the fleets of as many as 4,000 players.

Fair enough. I’d question whether it’s wise to invest real money in a fictional universe… but since I’m one of the partners in a company that purveys in fictional science fiction wars, I think that’d be the height of hypocrisy.

Instead, let me first hope that all of the ships lost were paid for by funds earned in-game –– that real-world money wasn’t butchered in a digital war. Then, let me make a perhaps obvious point: ships are expensive.

While I was studying military history, one thing I was never really conscious of was the cost of the fleets that I’d read about. Much more important were the lives of those aboard the ships, the combat abilities of those ships, and their strategic importance. Considering how much emphasis is now placed on military procurement, I suppose that’s odd. People can get quite worked up talking about the cost of an F-35, or a new fleet replenishment ship (and fair enough), but it’s tougher for us to pay attention to the building costs for the ships of the World Wars. While we might speak in generalities about what a nation could afford to build, we didn’t usually dig into the numbers.

As part of research for Snapdragon, however, I tried to find those numbers.

Apparently, new Royal Navy battleships in the years leading up to the Second World War (think King George V) cost around £7 million each, while refits of First World War battleships (for instance, Warspite) ran around £2-3 million. That may not sound like much money, but after inflation, it would amount to £200 million for a new ship, and £57-86 million for a refit. Of course, technology has made things more expensive now –– the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers are reportedly going to run £3.1 billion each –– but it’s still a lot of capital (I’m pretty sure that’s where we got the term ‘capital ships’).

Consider: when Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese planes on December 10, 1941, something like $700 million went to the bottom of the Pacific. I have no idea how much capital went down with Hood, but between the cost of her construction and her refits, I can only assume it was a ton. And the dollar cost of the u-boat campaign during the Battle of the Atlantic must have been staggering.

HMS King George V reportedly cost around £7 million.
HMS King George V reportedly cost around £7 million.

Even ignoring the question of construction time, raw materials, and lives, replacing those sorts of capital losses must have been absolutely terrifying to the governments of the day –– but, of course, they had no choice. Unlike the intrepid commanders in EVE, those cutting cheques to build warships during the Second World War were playing a life-or-death game. Spend too much on the wrong type of vessel, or trust the wrong contractor, and governments could fall.

And again, none of that even begins to consider the human cost.

These days, procurement is a political football. The numbers are so big they almost seem comical –– how much for an F-35? –– and no one seems to wonder about the replacement cost, if war leads to the destruction of what we’ve built. Hopefully that’s a good sign –– an indication that the world is so different now that we can assume that our warships will age to death, instead of being destroyed.

But perhaps we should be mindful of the potential dollar cost of combat. Maybe this recent EVE experience demonstrates that, even through science fiction, we can shine a light on some of those expenses. It’s a small thing, but if the experience of watching a capital-intensive fleet be atomized on screen can help players and observers better grasp one other dimension of warfare –– and why it’s not to be taken lightly –– then I’d have to suggest it’s valuable.

Then again, I’m biased –– between the Equations and Defense Command, I’ve obliterated more fictional space-faring tonnage than you can shake a stick at. I’m just glad neither the Earther Admiralty, nor the Defense Command Navy, has asked me to foot the bill.

I’d be so bankrupt of fictional money…