Sunday, 18 May 2014

Tips for Tools


EVE Online has been publicly playable for 11 years, but its development began in the final years of the previous century. Few games can boast a lifespan equal to half that. But, despite EVE's continued growth, it is a victim of its own success.

In such a lengthy time period, unsurprisingly much has changed. Not only in terms of EVE's content and gameplay, but in the technology behind it, industry trends, the tastes and expectations of the customer base and the CCP staff who are tasked with keeping all the balls in the air.

Overall, CCP must be doing something right or I wouldn't be writing this and you wouldn't be reading it. We'd all be playing (or developing) something else.

However, sometimes they seem to have the uncanny ability to hit avoidable bumps in the road.

The Threadnaught Cometh

As CCP developers work to continually reinvigorate their elderly MMO, a fascinating relationship with the playerbase has developed. The lines between service provider and customer have become so blurred, that we frequently see players becoming employees, customers becoming partners, developers becoming friends, and gameplay becoming work.

Whether this is by design or just a sign that CCP learned to make hay while the sun shines is a discussion for another time, and it is by no means a perfect symbiosis, but it works. It allows for the effective communication of ideas in both directions, with CCP able to enjoy the kind of consistent customer feedback which most businesses would have to pay for. They enjoy a loyal playerbase who are ferociously active communicators at meet-ups, on forums, podcasts, blogs and assorted social media. Many of the same players take the time to test features on the Singularity public test server and provide feedback.

But, like any relationship, familiarity breeds contempt and in with a gameplay environment which allows anonymity and encourages aggression, it doesn't take much to incite sections of the community to take up arms and march on the forums.

Tipping the Balance

While it is true that you cannot please all the people all the time - especially when attempting to curate a free-form open-world MMO which encourages players to find their own way - CCP developers occasionally seem to shoot themselves in the foot by forcing through changes which impact on player's habits and enjoyment of an experience they are invested in.

The latest such triggerpoint has been the introduction of tooltips to large portions of the EVE client. It seems unlikely that something so innocuous could solicit much angry feedback, but that's what CCP is currently getting, and not without cause.

EVE has long suffered the accusation of being inaccessible to new players and is unkindly described as 'spreadsheets in space'. In recent years, a lot of excellent progress has been made toward addressing these criticisms. Most relevant to the current issue was the introduction of contextual tooltips in the Inferno expansion of April 2012. Specific to new player tutorials, they provided an excellent way of direction the rookie's attention by encircling the relevant in-space object and a 'rubberbanded' line linking to a text box containing pertinent information.


The design and implementation of this feature was spot on and it showed there were certainly other possible applications. Sadly, nothing more developed.

Move on the Rubicon 1.4, released a few days ago, and suddenly players found their clients awash with tooltips. In many cases, especially with the more cryptic UI elements, these are enlightening and useful.


But unlike the thoughtful and constructive tooltips introduced in 2012, many of the new tooltips simply replicated information already present on-screen, even replacing previously, more useful, tooltip information. Worse still, the in-space tooltips often conflicted with the existing UI, obscuring vital information and negatively impacting the user experience.



Few would disgree that the EVE UI needs improvement, but according to many forum users, this change doesn't qualify, with the majority calling for the ability to switch the tooltips off entirely. Others pointed out that to do so would leave the UI in a worse state that before, now the old tooltip information has been over-written.

As with numerous other changes, the consumers seem unhappy and in response, the developers a touch defensive and belligerent.

Duplication of Frustration

I can understand both sides of the issue:

The developers have been tasked with pushing on with improving on EVE's weaker elements and put a lot of time and effort into doing so to the best of their ability. When the fruits of their labour are met with such vociferous opposition, it must be a bitter pill to swallow. Even if they do manage to take a step back in an effort to understand the poor reception, their pride and their professional status is unlikely to allow them the flexibility to accept that they may have made mistakes.

Conversely, the players have been encouraged by the unique relationship CCP has with its customers to believe their opinion is of value, that CCP will listen and respond to their input. That they are so invested in EVE and their gameplay habits so entrenched by the longevity of their tenure as EVE players shortens the pathway to intolerance and righteous indignation (ridiculously, some even calling for sackings). When a feature removes or detracts from their choice of gameplay, they feel entitled to be angry.

From the perspective of both parties, it seems that there is a loss of respect for the other. Once again, there is a situation where players are unhappy with their game experience and developers are determined to make their efforts worthwhile.

Groundhog Development

The main thing that continues to bemuse me, is how this continues to happen. Surely after so many years, CCP's development culture would have learned how to avoid these kinds of face-offs.

We've seen similar frustrations with numerous other changes which were released onto the live Tranquility server to a widely negative reception, all of which would have been avoided with a little nous. Forcing players to use Captain's Quarters will forever remain CCP's greatest folly, but the lack of foresight which resulted in Incarnagate (and eventually saw the hangar view reinstated) could in some ways be compared to the poorly-handled changes such as the unified inventory which, at time of release, caused problems for many playstyles and vital development was required post-deployment.

I'm not a game developer, so perhaps this is how game development is meant to work. Maybe CCP views player rage as a necessary evil or even a fringe benefit. CEO Hilmar's famously flippant 'don't worry about what players say...' comment at the height of Incarnagate certainly suggests how developers might react when feeling besieged, and a former CCP employee once described the EVE playerbase as 'toxic'. I wonder if that's the general perception behind closed doors? Have CCP developers become indifferent to player angst as a result of the endless dissatisfaction and intolerable abuse?

Do EVE players demand too much and abuse too readily? Or are some CCP development decisions arrogant and short-sighted, expecting players to endure?

I'm not really offering any tips and I'm not calling anyone a tool, but is this 'unique relationship' really working as intended?

Edit: For further reading, Drackarn of Sand, Cider & Spaceships discusses good forum etiquette (via CCP Greyscale) in Stolen - Greyscale's Guide to Good Forum Posts...

4 comments:

  1. This unique relationship has the possibility of ending up working as intended now that CCP has switched to a six-week release cycle.

    On paper, it's an Agile Developer's dream come true: the teams can put out new features to the best of their understanding of the player's desires, and if they get it wrong, they have a chance to correct it 6-12 weeks later. And sometimes you have to put out a feature into production in order to gain useful feedback - test systems can tell you only so much (resp. little).

    That is the theory, at least. In practice, the theory makes two assumptions: one, that there are players able of providing constructive feedback instead of just raging, and two, that the teams are allowed to iterate (there's that word) on the feature they just put out on TQ. Especially in the case to the tooltips, which are aimed at players who simply don't even know about SiSi.

    I can happen - we have seen it before when the unified inventory was improved after a loud outcry (and by now I wouldn't want to go back to the old ways), and I hear that the Loot Spew is going to be removed as well.

    And of course, iterative development is no excuse for putting out crap - due diligence in design and development is still required.

    Overall, CCP could have a winning development strategy at their hands. If they are willing to fully embrace it.

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    1. Hmm, the jury's out at present, the point is that it shouldn't take a 'loud outcry' for iteration to occur. Recent changes to the tracking camera left many players frustrated, devs muttered that they would continue to work on it, but we've yet to see any further progress. So the potential for iteration could swing either way - the rapid release cycle could just result in rushed work as teams run around like headless chickens trying to keep up. I very much doubt that the new release schedule will mean dev teams can relax and choose the pace at which they work,

      Although the fact that the industry overhaul has been pushed back to the subsequent Crius release seems to indicate that good judgement is at work to ensure that things are sufficiently polished prior to release, that logic clearly wasn't applied to the tooltip system.

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  2. The only issue is the juvenile attitude so many have towards this relationship with CCP. A large segment of the players who do forum post etc. are nothing more than trolls. By this I mean thier attitudes and habits are juvenile and, IMHO, unacceptable... yet, they are open forums and the amount of work & hours required to delete or even block every person who abuses this priveledge would be staggering... though I do wish CCP could afford it, I know they can't.

    I am finding my own bittervetedness in EVE... but it aint the game, it's the vocal sophomoric players that makes me sick.

    And yea... CCP please make such overwhelming changes optional or, in the case of the Tooltips gone Wild... just give us a slider to control the delay... from 0 seconds to,oh say, 20? That way we can set it so if we WANT the 'tip' we can wait for it... but in normal gameplay we won't have them interfering with our situational awareness.

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    1. I agree, the default attitude of the average internet user is pretty shameful and EVE's forum posters are full of them. I can entirely understand if devs become defiant or struggle to find the will to appease those types. But the devs do court disaster when they release material that is a bit rough around the edges.

      With regard to putting a delay on the tooltips, at best that's a work-around and not a very good one. Delaying the new tooltips will remove all functionality, including the useful stuff that was initially replaced, like the station information on the overview entry etc.

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Lay it on me.