Monday, 16 April 2012

Fanfest 2012: The Round Tables


Not being from a corporate background, I'm never quite sure what to expect from these "round tables". My experience at last year''s Fanfest left me disappointed at the lack of jousting and chivalry and it made me realise that there wasn't even a requirement for the table to be round.

This year they did away with tables all together, opting for a more audience/presentation delivery style. I understand the principle though - to allow developers and players to interface on an equal footing to discuss specific aspects of EVE Online. It is a great way to get a better understanding of the mindset of the development team responsible for your favourite (or least favourite) parts of the game.

Throughout the three days of Fanfest, there were four rooms playing host to these Developer-run round tables and whilst they were scheduled not to conflict with major keynote presentations, there were many other aspects of Fanfest with which they did conflict. Mainly each other. It is unfortunate that sacrifices have to be made and some potentially interesting sessions have to be skipped. I think there is an argument here for making Fanfest longer, to afford better access and coverage to the attendee. The "engine room" stuff like round tables could take place earlier in the week, clearing the schedule for the juicier high-profile activities later on. People could attend for the number of days to suit their tastes/wallets/annual leave entitlement.

Press Zombies Need Brainzzz

On the first day of Fanfest, I was unable to attend any round tables due to compulsory "press orientation" stuff, which mainly involved an early look at things that later featured in public presentations largely relating to DUST 514. Frustratingly, we were then asked not to talk about anything we'd seen. So for fear of leaking, I wandered the halls of the Harpa Centre alone, with a haunted look in my eyes. I avoided everyone I recognised for several hours, clutching my head and forlornly mumbling "I know things" then shambling away to the press cave down in the basement. Curse these corporate mind games.

On the second day my time was more my own. But annoyingly, there were many scheduling conflicts with the round tables themselves. I chose to dig in at the round table 3 room which had a number of interesting sessions back-to-back. My selection had a bit of an agenda to it, as I wanted to make contact with some key CCP developers to thrust some pre-prepared documents into their hands relating to various concepts discussed on Freebooted over the past year.

"New Player Experience" Round Table

The New Player Experience was led by CCP Legion and his Player Experience team (sadly now missing CCP Dropbear whom they have no plans to replace - I asked). The discussion largely covered issues that were discussed in Blog Banter 33 which was inspired by CCP Legion's devblog asking "...where and why people lose interest in EVE...".

Unsurprisingly, amongst the round table contributors were representatives from player-run training organisations like EVE University and others who would have a lot of input on this topic. It was interesting to note that much of the player suggested improvement was an echo of issues raised in the Blog Banter 33 Summary. Overwhelming evidence of the issues of greatest concern methinks.

From a new player perspective, it was widely agreed that good work was done during the Incarna phase, with the vastly more immersive and engaging avatar experience and audio-led Aura tutorials. It was evident that these improvements were a casualty of last Summer's upheavals with a noticeable drop in the quality of the tutorials where the latest revisions end and the old career tutorials begin. CCP Legion hinted that the existing career-pigeonholing pathways may be ripped out and something more dynamic would replace it.

One thing that I (and others) suggested was better use of the Captain's Quarters screen. The existing looped information soon becomes wallpaper and simple tutorial-driven "flash animations" of basic piloting principles would be a valuable visual aide to the new player. Imagine an animated diagramatic explanation of optimal orbiting, explosion velocity, range and fall-off, transversal explanations etc. Not only would it provide unique content to the Captain's Quarters, done right it could be quite entertaining.

Imagine if Aura went a bit "Gla-DOS" with her explanations, or alternatively, if there were a variety of characters voicing the tutorials according to faction. There could be a shouty (and slightly deaf) Minmatar artillery specialist explaining projectile gunnery, a hyperactive and unhinged interceptor veteran who's been cloned too many times describing tackling principles, a laid-back and sarcastic missile specialist detailing launcher techniques and so on. They could even make a little more use of the Carbon avatar engine and give us some talking heads without having to stress about multiple player environments.

CCP Legion was quite cagey about his plans, I got the impression they're still at the data-collection stage, but I like to think that the session was productive and may have reinforced some ideas and planted a few seeds that may bear fruit in the future. There were many other concepts discussed too, so there is much scope for improvement of the New Player experience. Best of luck to CCP Legion and co.

"The Future of Live Events" Round Table

The jolly Scottish giant CCP Goliath led this session enthusiastically, supported by CCP Affinity, CCP Abraxus (aka Hjalti Danielsson, author of The Burning Life) and CCP Gnauton. CCP Goliath explained that the Live Events team comprised individuals from other disciplines who got together on an ad-hoc basis. It was CCP Goliath who was behind the organisation of the CCP Christmas caravan events.

There was an interesting portion of the session where the Live Events team asked for suggestions for future live events. At this point the creativity of the player base shone, with a multitude of suggestions from interwoven multi-event narratives to the idea of a market/industry event to finally get Malkalen station fixed. This was interesting as a precedent has already been set by the donation of 30bn ISK's worth of items which led to the construction of Arek'Jaalan Site One: Antiquus in Eram, Metropolis.

Enquiries about the status of Arek'Jaalan had a curious response. Whilst CCP Goliath pledged to continue A'J in some form, there was a more measured reaction from CCP Gnauton and CCP Abraxus. CCP Gnauton explained that Arek'Jaalan was very much CCP Dropbear's project and his alone, so no-one else was that familiar with what has come to pass thus far. That said, CCP Gnauton mentioned that CCP Dropbear's documentation of the project had been "meticulous" and it would be entirely possible for them to get up to speed if the demand was there. I may be over-analyzing, but I thought I detected a certain amount of reluctance in his statements. I smelt politics.

I had the chance to speak briefly with CCP Goliath after the session ended and I took the opportunity to discuss the possibility of crafting an audio-driven narrative around live events. I explained the concept of Tech4 News and how it was created to provide an alternative means of content delivery to be more inclusive and attract a wider audience to storyline events like Arek'Jaalan. I had a number of portfolio documents prepared and left some of them with CCP Goliath. If nothing else, listening to the Tech4 broadcasts will give him an overview of Arek'Jaalan to assist him in continuing it.

"Story - Setting - Delivery" Round Table

Led by CCP Abraxus and CCP Gnauton, I missed the first portion of this session due to speaking with CCP Goliath (I really wish there was more time between round table sessions), even without further discussion, you rarely get time to absorb one session before you're in the middle of another.

After skulking back into the Story - Setting - Delivery session, the discussion ranged from the ongoing narrative development of unfinished storylines to the expansion of knowledge on underdeveloped bloodlines. There were some players present who clearly had very deep knowledge of specific areas of the lore.

CCP Abraxus and CCP Gnauton talked about the Immersion Project and what further development of the EVElopedia was in store. They want to have an expandable and explorable branching history that will allow the reader to focus in on specific events. It was interesting to note that throughout the discussion about delivery, they were very focused on delivering in the written form.

When the session ended, I took the opportunity to speak with CCP Abraxus about more accessible, less text-heavy forms of storyline delivery. This didn't go so well.

My initial approach involved brandishing a copy of The Burning Life for him to sign, however he didn't look down to see me proferring the book and offered his hand to shake instead. This lead to me fumbling like a dyspraxic buffoon to reciprocate. Awkward. I explained the work that the Tech4 crew had been doing over the last eight months, but it met with a fairly blank look which I found disheartening. He asked if I was the guy doing the Chronicle audiobooks, which he was aware of. I told him I wasn't perhaps a little too abruptly. Having already given away my one hardcopy of my Tech4 documentation to CCP Goliath, I only had a copy of my Curriculum Vitae to offer as any evidence of the achievements of Tech4. CCP Abraxus took it, but idly folded it into an easily disposable size as we spoke. I explained that Tech4 was simply a proof of concept exploring the idea of delivering EVE lore content to an audience that would be deterred by endless walls of text, but this was met with a look that suggested that such people do not exist. Everyone enjoys reading endlessly, even those who have specifically set out to play a computer game.

Admitting defeat, I trudged away despondently. Another day.

"Expanding the EVE Universe" Round Table

This session took place on the third day of Fanfest and was held mainly by CCP TorfiFrans and CCP Flying Scotsman. Torfi was making use of the screen behind the head table and showcased lots of tantalising concept art for future game content and work-in-progress assets of additional avatar content. The WIP included a host of new clothing items and tattoos (including arm/sleeve tattoos). Additionally there was the racial/bloodline blending technology that was later shown in his main presentation.

It was the future game content that I found really exciting. Stripped of all art assets to prevent delay in development, what Torfi showed us was a video of very rudimentary avatar exploration gameplay. Essentially it was just a boxy figure walking around inside a dark boxy maze with only a flashlight to illuminate the textureless walls. At one point there were multiple boxy figures, all visible running around like rats in a maze from an isometric god-mode view of the facility. Already you could see the potential for atmospheric, Alien-esque terror, muggings in darkened corridors, infiltration of hostile facilities and possible discovery of items of interest. If nothing else this technology could revolutionise the exploration mini-profession. Torfi effectively stated that, whilst a very long way off, this was his intent.

Another inspiring video he showed was a tech demo of a single avatar walking through a station. He explained that this used only the modular art assets that already exist in Captains' Quarters. Whilst no gameplay was evident, it was visually impressive as the avatar strolled through corridors and rooms of various sizes, across walkways spanning bottomless chasms and generally gave the impression of a vast (albeit unpopulated) space station.

At the end of this session, I was hoping to accost CCP Flying Scotsman, but he slipped away quickly. That man is like smoke. I did have the opportunity to speak with CCP TorfiFrans, where I wanted to give him my prepared documents relating to possible content and alternative uses for the avatar tech (as detailed in Free-to-Play EVE Online and Suddenly Combat: World of Spaceships) but I was laughably bad at conveying my ideas. I think I may have been a little star-struck and tongue-tied and just fluttered various sheets of A4 at him whilst gibbering incoherently. At least that's how it felt, I have no real recollection of what I said. I can only hope the documents I left with him will do my talking for me.

I'll try not to fret at the likelihood of those documents finding their way into a bin alongside the Curriculum Vitae I gave CCP Abraxus, I like to believe that Torfi reads Freebooted and I'm totally claiming I influenced his screenshot of a picture-in-picture UI element with my flawless photoshop skills as evidenced in EVE Online: Director Mode from last year.

Epilogue

I think there is an art to these Fanfest round tables and general game-focused discussion which eludes me. I am aware that CCP staff are briefed to be engaging and accommodating to all players, but in some respects this makes approaching them all the harder as you can't be certain how genuine their interest is. As a paramedic, I know how inwardly frustrated I get trying to maintain a professional demeanour whilst overly-enthusiastic first aiders tell me how to do my job. I was torn between not wanting to bother the CCP devs and trying to cram a host of ideas into a twenty second window before scurrying off.

If any of the concepts that I threw around are taken on board I can take some solace in that, but I can't help feeling that for me Fanfest 2012 was an opportunity missed. Must do better.

Personally agenda aside, the most important thing for EVE Online is that Fanfest, and specifically the roundtables, provided a fertile environment that allowed for the sharing of ideas from the great to the ghastly. Let's hope that the right ones filter through to the right people and we can all benefit from the continued evolution and enhancement of the world's greatest sci-fi MMO.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lay it on me.