Betrayal, empires, and MAGA: Contained in the brutality of Atlas

Decked in a jaunty pirate hat, BurkeBlack’s brow furrows in concentration. His character stands on the deck of a ship crowded with other players. “Galleon’s moving again,” someone says over voice comms, and there’s the dull roar of a cannon firing. “Alright,” Burke says, calm and in command. “Let’s get sails to 50 percent and — what the shit?” A ship collides with a whale.

At first, the encounter seems like it could be just a natural occurrence, but there are too many whales choking the ocean. This is the handiwork of Black Butterfly, a notorious hacking company that spawned dozens of whales via an administrator account to damage and impede ships. Later, Black Butterfly’s hacks — and their access to an administrator account — will threaten to light the Atlas community aflame. For now, the players are still wrapping their heads around the impossible sight before them. BurkeBlack laughs and marvels, but eventually roars an order to “light ’em up!” His disbelief is punctuated by the percussion of cannons — dozens of rule-breaking whales or not, he still has to win this battle.

Welcome to the world of Atlas, the pirate-themed survival MMO from Studio Wildcard’s Grapeshot Games. The game has been wracked by controversy and criticism since its rough early access launch at the end of 2018. A successor (and competitor) to Ark: Survival Evolved, Atlas has players fighting both a hostile environment and other bands of players to claim land under their banner, build shipyards, and amass fortunes to fund pirate adventures.

The players who stayed aboard through launch issues, hardcore requirements, and frustrating progression have built their own fun. While the game is clearly in early access, riddled with errors, often exploited, and a repetitive time sink, it still offers something special to the players who enjoy it. Atlas mimics colonial politics, with leaders, vassals, and sprawling empires.

Unlike history books, Atlas’ world is significantly sillier on its surface. One of the largest global powers in the North American PVP server the Kraken’s Maw is the Sexy Cats Alliance, which borders the Big Dick Boys Alliance. Much darker are the veins of nationalism and racism that run throughout the community, spurred by an ongoing war between the game’s Asian and Western player bases.

Polygon spoke to a selection of players and influencers from around the world to create a history of Atlas’ origins, plots, and politics on its North American PvP server.

Atlas, by its very nature, encourages a fragmented and hostile player base, who band together in groups called companies. In Atlas, players must claim land in order to use it as a base. That land can be contested and stolen, especially if its owner is offline.

With a map 1,200 times bigger than that of Ark, Atlas’ developers claim that the map can handle 40,000 people at once. While it’s a large map, it’s separated into a grid. Each square of the grid can contain land or ocean, and can only hold a finite amount of players — 150 in theory, less in practice if server issues kick in. Players can build ships, ranging from rafts and sloops to mighty galleons, and customize them. Holding land allows players to build bases, construct more ships, tame animals, and acquire resources.

In a way, Atlas is circular. When companies acquire and hold land, they can rent it to vassals, who pay taxes. Growth leads to more growth, and companies often end up joining massive alliances to keep their share of land and holdings.

Over time, these alliances clash. Sometimes, there are internal struggles as companies within an alliance violate non-aggression pacts or step on each others’ toes. Other times, alliances and companies fight against foes to defend their bases or expand into enemy territory, claiming their land and turning it to their company’s holdings. Players track each others’ time zones and fill their companies with global crews so they can strike while their enemies sleep. Smart tacticians marshal forces into a grid to fill it and force opposition out via a player cap or lag.

Battle in Atlas is messy, chaotic, and heavily reliant on exploiting the game’s jankiness. Battle ranges from the psychological, such as customizing a ship’s sails to taunt your enemies in a series of racist, nationalist taunts, to the outright bizarre, like a hacker using an administrator account to spawn fighter planes and whales on their foes. Some players fill their pockets with comical amounts of crafting materials, then board enemy ships to sink them with the weight.

All of the above combined has pushed away many players. Those who remain have learned to roll with the punches, and have committed to fight over the vast map.

Darren, a player who sunk 80 hours into Atlas before his wife became pregnant, told me that the game’s launch was full of issues.

“Freeports [the game’s starting safe zones] were clogged with sleeping players [avatars in-game] tanking performance,” Darren said. “There were constant disconnects. Anyone who logged in after work found everything claimed.”

Another problem with Atlas’ early development was that the Ship of the Damned, a powerful NPC that haunted the seas by attacking rafts with powerful cannons. Players had to leave the freeports and find land, but they couldn’t afford to be picky. They needed to stop and build and refresh themselves before hitting the seas again.

There was a second barrier to entry for casual players, which was much more complicated. The game’s Chinese player base quickly gained a reputation among English speaking players as being incredibly coordinated. Many Chinese players entered the game in groups established from other games, and they were playing to earn early advantages.

The reaction to these players ranged from awe to outright racism, according to Darren. “People called the Chinese [players] locusts. You would land on an island and find it completely strip mined of resources and claimed, or they’d immediately sink you.”

Between all of these obstacles, Atlas’ first few days were a constantly running loop of sprinting, stopping, sprinting, stopping. Players were forced to settle where they could amid the lag, and build their empires from there.

I spoke to two leaders of successful company The Federation, who go by Captain Church and Lustria Church in Atlas. Captain Church is a streamer with a curated community, and Lustria has organized initiatives in other games like Fallout 76 under the handle SatelliteJedi.

The original core of players that made up the Federation made their way through Ships of the Damned and the dangers of the sea to find land — any land that was unclaimed and not hostile.

“We got to [our first] island with 20 or 30 people, and there was already an established alliance set up,” says SatelliteJedi. A larger tribe, named Black Snow, had brought smaller groups in under their banner, claiming the land and bringing its denizens to heel. Anyone who wanted to stay on the their land had to pay a high tax and pledge their future fleets to any military cause Black Snow chose.

The core group played along with it for a couple of days, but SatelliteJedi and Church scouted the other small companies on the island to see who would agree with a coup. Finally, at an in-game “state of the island” meeting called by Black Snow’s leader, things came to a head.

SatelliteJedi and Church made their demands for power and freedom within Black Snow, and their leader stood firm in denying them. “Everyone else here is on the same page,” he said.

“Actually, they’re not,” said SatelliteJedi, and the bloody coup began. Because the avatars were all assembled, it was a violent, hand-to-hand coup where players hacked those loyal to Black Snow to death with rudimentary weapons. Once their opposition was dead, banished back to starting Freeports, their holdings could be torn down and their land claimed.

Every player who participated in tearing down the existing power structure was brought into the Federation, a company that offered a fair alternative where folk could sail equally.

While smaller companies like The Federation started to build, the Chinese territory was expanding over Atlas’ map. North American and European players shared their concerns about this power dynamic, with many companies entering Alliances to protect their land.

One company, Make Atlas Great Again — MAGA for short — was particularly flagrant with its nationalist rhetoric. It made for an uncomfortable tension, and the community’s moderators had to work to keep the subreddit clean of racist speech and imagery from players. Posts could sometimes call on wartime propaganda and rhetoric, or contain a call to arms to protect Western lands from Asian invaders.

One post made on the Atlas subreddit shortly after the game’s launch by user VexusGaming is titled “We’ve begun to fight back.” In it, an armored avatar stands next to a skeleton, killed by hanging. The skeleton belongs to a player from CSTG, a Chinese company.

Despite these displays, the situation was more complex than Western players depicted. TPG and No No No are two companies with Chinese members where Western and Asian members work together against the larger, all-Chinese companies. “Chinese players call out the TPG and No No No,” said SatelliteJedi. “They call them race traitors, and blood traitors.”

From the outside, many Western players perceive these groups as a monolith. Atlas displays Chinese characters as unreadable blocks for players using the English language client, furthering the illusion of a faceless group. Taiwanese and Japanese companies, to their displeasure, are often grouped in with the Chinese companies by Western players.

I spoke to four Chinese players who asked to be kept anonymous via email with the aid of a translator. Two of them admitted to being in companies that had exploited the game somehow, justifying it as a necessary cost of war to beat Western rivals. Tensions and racist attacks further justified it to these players. I asked, were Grapeshot to provide a new server for Asian players, whether they would transfer over. They all answered no.

To them, the competition with global players isn’t just part of the fun — it’s largely the point. During ship battles and naval encounters, Chinese players fill global chat with endless displays of national pride. Their ships’ sails are often emblazoned with “CHINA #1.” It’s a brag they intend to prove. “I will play any game where I can win,” said one Chinese player I spoke to.

In response, companies like MAGA swelled with new numbers, but that player base ran unchecked. They quickly gained a nasty reputation among even Western players, partially for the way they represented themselves, and partially for their conduct.

MAGA attacked Western companies. At times, they would offer non-aggression pacts or alliances, and then wait until their new allies logged off to attack and loot. They were a force of chaos that embraced the current political rhetoric, and despite their antagonistic nature, they portrayed themselves in community outlets like the subreddit and Discords as a patriotic force out to protect the West from the “Red menace”.

“The acronym is not the only thing that pissed people off,” said Church. “The way they played pissed everyone off, until they were being attacked on the outside and eventually on the inside as well.”

MAGA’s eventual collapse came at its own hands. A player who had been granted administrator access by the company leader used his control to demolish the MAGA bases, freeing up their land and destroying their ships, storage, and buildings before kicking everyone out of the company.

These controls are granted to administrators for base building logistics and ship caps. A company can only have so many ships active at a time, and players often need to be able to build defenses or arrange bases, even if the original player who constructed something is offline.

Ultimately, MAGA collapsed when an admin kicked everyone from the company and demolished the company’s bases, causing the remaining members to scatter to the winds. MAGA had not been a vast empire, but they had carved a chunk of land out for themselves on the global map, and dozens of hours were lost. The frustration was enough to get most of the players aligned with MAGA to quit the game.

According to Julian, a European Atlas player I spoke to, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “MAGA acted as a quarantine,” he explained over Discord. “They were shit, but they were all shit together.”

At times, Grapeshot Games has stepped in to revert hacks or ban accounts that have exploited the game, but the developers have not remarked on the in-game politics or the ways they are expressed through ship customization and game chat. Grapeshot Games did not respond to multiple requests from Polygon to comment on hacking, in-game moderation, or community policies.

“In the game’s current state, it’s geared towards big tribe combat,” says Church. “It’s too hard for a small tribe. Griefing is where the game is now. The things that net you the most rewards are griefing, then twenty other things, then taking over land.”

In January, the Federation was still a relatively small group, but it had one big advantage: It had sunk one of the first Chinese galleons while it was still in dock before it had set sail. The Federation’s leadership took to social media to advertise the sinking and turned it into a recruitment drive.

“It didn’t matter that we were only a 30- or 40-man company at the time,” says SatelliteJedi. “We were recruiting and acting like we were one of the big guys already. Before anyone realized we weren’t, we were.”

Running a company like the Federation is largely done out of game, via channels like Discord and Google Drive. Many of the other companies, due to their past in other games, have this infrastructure already built and tested.

Once people are in the company, they must be vetted. The Federation has a strong anti-racism policy, and welcomes Asian players from around the globe into their ranks. This presented them with a problem — they had earned their initial reputation by sinking a Chinese galleon, and they didn’t hide their pride in that accomplishment. But they didn’t want to welcome MAGA players and let those with similar, hostile mindsets into their community.

Church notes that, moral principles aside, anything other than inclusion would be “stupid” from a tactical advantage. Having a global crew allows the Federation to maintain a watch over every time zone, even if it is more difficult to manage.

Tensions further deepened between the community — and the developers themselves — when Black Butterfly pulled off their hacking spree.

In January, live producer and lead community manager Jatheish Karunakaran took to the forums to explain a series of incidents. Naval battles were being assaulted by dozens of whales, World War II aircraft fell from the sky, and, worse yet, this was being done from a developer’s account.

“Earlier today, an admin’s Steam account was compromised and used to cause some devastation on our Official NA PvP Network,” Karunakaran wrote. “To be clear this was not caused by a hack, third party program, or exploit. We have taken the appropriate steps to ensure this does not happen again.”

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The community was outraged. Karunakaran’s statement was seen as a dodge. For many in the community, a hacking incident so egregious, so over the top, required complete transparency from the developers. What’s worse is that these players saw this as a repeat offense. Black Butterfly had immigrated to Atlas from Ark, where they played under the name TEA.

TEA had done the exact same kind of exploiting and hacking, and players alleged that Snail Games, the Chinese owner of Studio Wildcard, had protected them. The in-game damage done by TEA was so profound that Ark developer Studio Wildcard disowned their large-scale PvP servers and abdicated the responsibility to Snail Games.

This wasn’t the first or only time that hacking had happened in Atlas. Players reported hacks and illegal spawns shortly after the Black Butterfly incident … but this incident remains the most infamous and damning among the community.

According to SatelliteJedi, the developers are in an impossible situation. “I don’t think people give [Grapeshot] enough credit. They got [anti-cheat software] BattleEye up and running, they went and dev-wiped grids of companies they verified was cheating. I think they are taking some of the right steps. I am concerned with how they treated the Black Butterfly thing, but that might be because Black Butterfly knew what they were doing.”

While the player base eventually moved on to complain about things like elephant carry weight and stone durability, the Black Butterfly incident showed that Atlas — and the entire in-game experience — isn’t really about, well, Atlas. It’s about the people in the game and the competition; Atlas is just a stage, and one that is often compromised. Even in skirmishes, SatelliteJedi reports incidents like multiple headshots on fast-moving aerial targets from low-level players in a matter of seconds. Cheating is just part of the game now.

For the leaders of Atlas, the fight rarely takes place in-game anymore. “I play Atlas in Discord,” says SatelliteJedi. “I play it on the maps, I play it on Reddit, I play it talking to members of my crew and members of companies, be they enemies or potential renters or allies… but personally, I am not in the ground in the game a whole lot anymore.”

“Gaming isn’t just gaming anymore,” adds Church. “This isn’t blackjack that you play with your friends. It’s an everyday, eight- to 10-hour addiction that we have.”

The future of Atlas remains uncertain. The game’s player count has dropped since launch, and its subreddit is often more about players asking for features or complaining about bugs rather than sharing tales of their exploits. Mega alliances control the map, and many of the most dedicated players are spending more time out of game than in it.

By using shadow companies, vassals, secondary accounts, and deception, practiced companies can evade the long arm of developer law. The way to get around these unfair advantages, for players who don’t turn to hacking, is time, coordination, leadership, and willpower. According to Darren, that’s not something he has anymore.

“I loved Atlas and its politics, but when my wife got pregnant, I obviously knew I wouldn’t have enough time for it anymore,” he said. “There are some games that you can play with a family and a baby. Atlas isn’t one of them. I don’t think, with the player base it has now, it can ever be one of them.”

For players like Julian, the feeling of being part of something larger is part of the appeal.

“Atlas doesn’t feel like a pirate game,” he said. “It feels like a colonial kind of game. Sometimes we get a ping on Discord and we all log on to be the fastest ones into a grid. I watch Netflix and farm metal for the company.

Atlas isn’t really a game-game.”

If it’s not a game, I ask him, what is it? He pauses. “It’s like a history novel or military campaign, except all of the nations are named dumb shit like the OwO Empire, and everyone involved is kind of an asshole,” Julian said. “But I get to be there and be a part of it, and that makes it worth it.”

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