Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Squeaky Wheel of Player Power

"As a company CCP is I think largely viewed as one of the MMO companies that really genuinely listens to its subscribers - say what you like about recent events - but in the grand scheme of things we listen to our players a lot more than other MMO studios do. Now more than ever."
- CCP Headfirst, Associate Content Designer, Dec 2011

The relationship CCP has with its customers is fascinating. For the last nine years, the developers of EVE Online have nurtured their MMO creation into a multicultural boiling pot of online gaming activity. As a science-fiction sandbox gaming environment, there is little wonder that the universe of New Eden attracts such a diverse cross-section of players, from statistics-oriented combat purists to immersion-hungry content-seekers. Understanding and improving on the game experience for every kind of player must be a huge challenge for the developers.

Without access to demographical statistics, it is impossible to know exactly what percentages of players would respond positively to improvements to specific areas of EVE Online, however recent history (ie. the Crucible expansion) has shown that stats-balancing and refinement is a definite winning strategy, especially amongst the null-sec power-blocs. After a developmental own-goal last summer, the communication between CCP and subscriber seems to be once again improving. However, I hope that CCP is not now on the timid path of catering solely to the demands of the loudest voices.

The CSM: Arbiter of the Loudest Voice

The current Council of Stellar Management can rightly claim credit for their part in this improved relationship and they have worked hard to represent the wishes of the EVE players with whom they've had contact. Regardless of what critics may say, the CSM system has worked well to bring together an effective team of senior players to liaise with CCP for mutual benefit. Whether this was by accident or design is not important. The simple fact is, they got the job done.

With the elections for seventh CSM term approaching, those same individuals - stamina and desire permitting - are among the strongest contenders for the (now reduced number of) positions on the next council. They have an establish team ethic, have presumably fostered good relationships with CCP staff and they have experience. However, if the elections shake up the status quo, so be it. I'm sure some fresh blood would be useful too.

Concerns about the under-representation of particular communities or play-styles are irrelevant. An effective CSM should be able to represent the concerns of the playerbase irrespective of personal experience. It is down to the communities to convey their demands effectively to the CSM so they can be represented. This is why the present CSM comprises almost entirely null-sec alliance representatives, they're organised with ready-made voters. They know how to co-ordinate to be effective.

That said, it would be good to see some effective CSM seat challenges from other quarters if the candidates have something to offer. But just a few. The key is for each community to get behind a single representative rather than diluting the votes into ineffectiveness. It may be prudent for some potential runners to instead campaign on behalf of another or even to promote the CSM process in general for a fairer result.

Regardless of CSM composition, the importance of player involvement doesn't end with the elections. It is about giving persistent voice to all aspects of EVE in order to help the sandbox environment to thrive. A losing candidate should not recede into the shadows but should continue to champion their community.

A Voice for the Other Guys?

I have some concern that the established order (that being both CCP direction and CSM composition) has a bias toward the mechanics of EVE, without much consideration for the storyline and lore (I would be happy to be wrong). This is not to say that the gameplay mechanics should ever be compromised in favour of aesthetics, but equally I would not want to see EVE's ongoing richly-woven lore disregarded in pursuit of currying favour with the "player-driven narrative" of null-sec.

It is something I discussed with CCP Dropbear and CCP Headfirst in an interview last December. This is what they had to say on the subject:

CCP Dropbear: "Part of it comes down to how much demand we as developers can demonstrate for a certain feature to our bosses... If we can say 'hey, over the space of four weeks I've just managed to get 200 people to donate thirty billion ISKs worth of stuff for a fluff roleplay project that has no influence on any mechanic in the game'... It helps sell to them that there's interest in this."

CCP Headfirst: "Roleplayers are a powerful lobby. If you put your money and your time and your effort and your forum posts and everything where your mouth is, just like any other lobby you can get things done."

CCP Dropbear: "It gives us more ammunition to take back to our bosses and say 'hey we should allocate more time to this' or 'there's some real interest'."

The key message is that CCP are listening, but we as players need to speak the right language. The simple fact is it is a numbers game. If we can make the right people see that there is value in a particular aspect of EVE, the wheels WILL turn. But we all need to be pulling in the same direction. Again, this was best illustrated in the Dropbear/Headfirst interview, when asked about players influencing development:

CCP Dropbear: "The community has already made it more than abundantly clear that it wants fixes to faction warfare."

CCP Headfirst: "A prime example is ship spinning... on Incarna... the one complaint that everybody heard the loudest was 'what happened to ship spinning?' ... if enough people shout loudly enough and push in the same direction... there you go, ship spinning is back. Just imagine the power that that same group of people could've had if they were asking for incursions for all the other various factions or being able to accrue loyalty points with all these other pirate factions and spend it on pirate gear based on the incursion system... putting FW space between Blood raiders and Amarr, Serpentis and Gallente."

Bear in mind that the player-influenced change Headfirst and Dropbear referred to came at a time when CCP were considered to be single-mindedly pursuing a development path not embraced by (many of) the players and were trying very hard to ignore the increasingly loud voices. Suffice to say we now live in enlightened times and the measures that were required to effect that change are (hopefully) no longer necessary. Further proof that the Ear of Sauron is now sporting a shiny new hearing aid, Lead Designer CCP Soundwave has gone on record to state that Faction Warfare is very much in the frame for near future iteration. Some initial tweaks have already been made.

This player consultation process is exactly what the CSM is for, but the councillors can only be as effective as the messages they are receiving. Players need to get behind the CSM and communicate with them, via the CSM section of the EVE Online forums, individual members blogs, Twitter and so on. Equally, the CSM needs to support the players - of all play-styles. But the plain truth is that EVE development is about subscriber numbers. Those numbers dropped after a series of faux pas last year, but were swollen by the improvements brought about by Crucible. How EVE Online's future pans out and in what direction development is taken is what is now at stake.

Crucible was designed to please existing customers and entice lapsed subscribers to return. Whilst this trend needs to continue, CCP must also look to growth and attracting (and retaining) new subscribers. Without that fresh influx, eventually the EVE player base will wither until all that remains is the dedicated hardcore somewhere out in null-sec.

If the only issues that are brought to the attention of the CSM and/or CCP are those that affect subscribers that play the null-sec sov-war game, ask yourself why. It is, after all, the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

"It requires not a guarantee but a clear indication that there is interest in such things." 
CCP Dropbear, Content and Storyline Developer, Dec 2011

[CCP Dropbear and CCP Headfirst quotes were transcribed from a Voices From the Void interview which can be found here.]

8 comments:

  1. Best CSM related post I've read in, uhm, well a good while surely because I can't remember the last one! I agree with the outline of the issues you give, and how the problem is on both sides, and what both sides can do about it. Plus, good to see some 'insider information' tidbits. If players understand the process better, they can take that into account better, too. I wish CCP would share even more of this. That's one of the reasons I like going to Fanfest, poking and prodding the devs to get further insight into everything.

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  2. I disgree with CCP's notion that they listen to the players. One of the biggest complaints of the players is that CCP does NOT listen to them. Only this past year beginning mostly in the summer did CCP start really listening.

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  3. @Myrhial Thanks and I'm with you on the Fanfest attendance as a means of communicating with CCP devs. I was going to discuss that in this post too, but it was long enough so I'll save it for another discussion. But the Fanfest roundtables are a great example of ways players can get a point across without winning a seat on the CSM.

    @Harrigan Everyone is entitled to their own interpretation, but I view last Summer's events as the result of the bad implementation of a good (and bold) idea. Historically I think CCP have listened to their players more than most of their rivals. The continued survival of EVE after nearly a decade is testament to that. It may be culturally more difficult now due to their expansion.

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  4. In 2003 I joined a game that had Elite potential, I lured my mates on, played in various corps.  Founded a small griefer corp for threatening those who messed with our carebear corp.  That corp became our main over the years and then we all got bored with the point and click pew pew, the mountain of point and click admin and samey space and visual loneliness of the game.

    The Freebooters all cancelled.

    We revisited over the years and the game got prettier, new ships, the very interesting phenomena of corp collectives, alliance held areas, player driven law enforcement and raw real to the game.  It was clearly far scarier and ultimately better than the other mmporgs.

    If only there were space bars, out of ship adventures, first person piloting, orbital landings.  I'd never leave the computer....

    Luckily for me there wasn't.  My wife, career and health were saved from this Brabenesque fueled nightmare.

    2008/2009 - "Walking in stations you say.... Coming soon.... Ooooooh."

    The Freebooters were back.  Missing many original members, but back.  CCP tickled our fancy over the  next few years with lures of the fully immersive experience with Walking in stations, DUST.  It all had so much promise.  Rather than just point and click ship board shenanigans, it was going to step closer to that perfect game.

    Alas after teasing me like a doe eyed lap dancer, the null sec obsessives used union like block voting to elect csm members and steer the game to do the same thing its done for 11 years.

    Agggghhghh.

    I realised the lap dancer was in it for the cash and I left the building.

    A good thing too. I'd start to smell if I never left the computer.

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  5. Having known one former CSM member quite well during his two terms, I know that at least some and perhaps most members of the CSM do try to act in the interests of the whole playerbase, not just the area they play themselves. In fact if you read the recent CSM minutes, you'll find plenty of things in there which are not in the interests of the large nullsec blocs.

    However, confirmation bias is a powerful thing and for every person who believes the system is working you'll find ten who interpret every proposed change as a personal vendetta against their own play style. It's much easier to believe that these internet politicians are self-serving than it is to engage with the process positively, just as it's easier to see CCP as the enemy than it is to see them as an ally working to create a great game.

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  6. The CSM is effectively a republic in that we, the voters, elect them on the basis of their platform.

    After which, we have little or no way of controlling what they do, or engaging with the CSM as a whole group.

    In other words, once they're in it's a free for all until the next election. No accountability and, as we've seen, little or no communication from them (individual blogs aside).

    If they're just there as a sounding board for CCP OK. If they're there to represent us, the players, not so good....

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  7. @Greenbeard Colourfully put, but well said. I agree with your sentiments, if not your maths. the real question is whether like-minded players should continue to stick it out in the hope of some content and immersion love as I am, or to accept that the min/maxer lobby will always rule and walk away as you have. If the content-seekers can't find a voice, it'll only end one way.

    @Azual I agree, there are many that have a negative view of the CSM system. Refusing to have faith in it requires less effort than actually getting involved and it is the internet culture to piss on everyone else's bonfire isn't it.

    I choose to have faith in the CSM process - no EVE player that expends the energy required to obtain a seat on the CSM wants to see EVE fail. I'm sure in most cases the candidates have the foresight to realise that they need to champion more than their own personal interests for the good of the game throughout their term. As you say, it's the 9-out-of-10 disaffected players that are the problem.

    @H, I disagree with your claim that the CSM has no accountability beyond the election. It is in their remit to assess issues raised in the Assembly Hall and prioritise them for discussion with CCP representatives. The onus is on players to keep the pressure on the CSM just as the CSM needs to keep pressing CCP.

    Any failure lays as much with the prevailing player attitude as with any perceived flaw in or abuse of the system.

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  8. It took almost 2 years in EVE starting as a complete noob to understand the CSM role and it's impact in it's representation of various playstyles. I certainly didn't understand what the hell CSM meant in my first year. And I like to think I'm somewhat a informed player reading across a diverse array if blogs.

    One of the most unique thing about EVE is it's diversity and playstyles that in the end makes EVE work. But the voice and concern of many isn't been heard or represented properly but instead represented by those that can manipulate the chess game to seduce the voting block in their favor.

    Often I think who the he'll represent me and my playstyles and my concern. When I I look at any of the list none represent none of my concerns and their are many many that share my similiar playstyle in Industry, Economy and R&D. Who the hell represents our concerns are a core that keeps the engine running in EVE?

    I personally don't have enough of ego to want to run or care to run for CSM to try and represent those that have a voice in the sandbox but are not been heard over the loud shouts of a core group that control things as they are now.

    There are many players given the makeup of the CSM that are not represented to CCP.

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Lay it on me.