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...