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.]

Labels: , , ,