The past few weeks have seen a familiar contribution to the RPS inbox: various complaints from Eve players about the way CCP is handing their game. We've had mails from a number of different pilots, including famed veterans of Eve's many wars, and also from members of the Council Of Stellar Management, the player-body that CCP set up to act as an ombudsman to their handling of the game world. What are they so upset about? And what can CCP do to address it?
Read on for an explanation, and also some comments from CCP's Senior Producer for EVE Online, Arnar Hrafn Gylfason.
While Eve's players, like any other community, has always had its grumbles and gripes with the developers, the latest unhappiness seems to largely stem from a meeting of the Council Of Stellar Management (CSM) earlier this year (giant PDF of the minutes of that meeting can be found here). This body was set up after controversies regarding developer influence within the game world, with a view to give players a democratically-elected stake in influencing and advising the development process. It was supposed to be a watchdog for developer versus player interests. In this most recent meeting the CSM members once again raised issues they saw as fundamental to the playerbase, particularly the ever-present issue of lag on the server cluster. The response from CCP seemed to be that the issues raised - specifically with regard to lag and lag-related issues - would be dealt with only after the development teams had finished working on Incarna, the expansion that will allow characters to walk about in stations, and Dust 514, the cross-platform action game which is to be integrated with the Eve universe. So not before 2011, and possibly later than that. Things were to get worse when, in this devblog, it was revealed that a minority of the company's development resources appeared to be dedicated to the core game (something addressed in our interview below).
Players responded with some incredulity to all this. Why had CCP set up the CSM if not for feedback from the community? If the feedback was to be ignored in favour of CCP's pre-determined development directives, why did it exist at all? And why were the majority of developers working on things not directly related to the Eve experience? The latter issue is understandable, of course, because CCP have to look to the future, and can't rest on their laurels. Any development company not working on future projects is setting itself up for failure. But the annoyance of the players was also understandable, because their investment in time and money is, in many cases, very serious indeed. If these long-term players have a problem, then the game has a problem. Future features are all very well, but the CSM, and the players it represents, want their day-to-day experience to be improved. While they are paying subscribers, you can see why they might be so concerned with those kinds of issues.
Taking a step back from this, it's possible to argue that the negative reactions of the community toward the results of the recent CSM meeting were, perhaps, predictable, even inevitable. CCP had felt they were acting in the interests of the community in setting up the CSM, but they are a privately owned company with its own goals and agendas, creating a player-ombudsman was only going to formalise player entitlement. There was always going to be a point at which one side could not deal with the needs of the other. If the CSM was to feel it was being ignored - and could say so, as it did, in the very public platform of the game forums - then rage was the only possible result.
So could CCP have handled this differently? Here are the responses to some questions I put to “CCP Zulu”, Arnar Hrafn Gylfason, Senior Producer for EVE Online, who argues that CCP's position has been misjudged, and explains that the "unprecedented" nature of the CSM was always going to be a complex issue for his company.
RPS: How do you respond to the suggestion that CCP is failing is obligation to the CSM by not acting on its suggestions? Are you really "ignoring" it?
Gylfason: We're absolutely not ignoring the CSM. We're actually bringing how we handle their requests and comments closer to the development process and formalizing it more. We're addressing a number of the CSM raised issues and issues from the crowdsourced voting thread in our current development cycle and players should see the results of that on our public test server in a few weeks.
RPS: Have there been mistakes in handling the CSM generally?
Gylfason: Not as such, the CSM doesn’t require any “handling”. The CSM was established in its current form in June 2008, building and improving on a collaboration venue we started with players as early as 2003 and since then we've been working with the delegates to fine tune how the process should work. Around the same time we changed development processes for EVE (and actually all of CCP) moving towards enterprise scrum. Figuring out how that process and the CSM worked best together required a lot of work and thought. So far we've found quite a few ways it doesn't. That is always the risk you face by doing something unprecedented, you'll have to find the right answers all on your own. That can take a lot of time but most of all it takes cooperation. Through that cooperation we now believe we've found a way that works and we hope we'll be able to show that in the coming months through actions rather than words.
RPS: Why can't you commit any resources to the "core issues" raised for eighteen months?
Gylfason: This misunderstanding of 18 months comes up a lot and I'd like to correct it. We have for the past few years been very focused on adding new features to EVE Online. We added Factional Warfare, Wormhole exploration, Loyalty Points stores, Planetary Interaction and tech 3 ships to name a few. During this era of expanding the gameplay we shifted our focus somewhat away from iterating and refactoring on older game systems and features. What we've been doing for the past few months is move that focus back. Over the next months we will be increasing our focus on iteration up to the point where, 18 months or so from now, we are only doing work on existing gameplay.--both in terms of polish and general refactoring for scalability purposes. The EVE Development team counts around 140 people (closer to 200 when you count in developers contributing to deliver Incarna and our core technology group) now and the choice between iteration and new feature development isn't a binary one, it's more of a gradient scale and we've already started moving the needle on that towards iteration.
RPS: It seems that players are upset that only a fraction of the development team is working directly on Eve, with Dust and Incarna taking up the rest. But is it fair for them to be upset? Is CCP's greatest obligation to run Eve, or to be a creative games company?
Gylfason: EVE is a game, a universe actually, of a scale and scope and our vision or it so vast that it will take decades to fully realize and at the end of that our players will have inspired us to do even more There will always be more we want to add or change to bring it closer to being a complete sci-fi simulation experience.
As I stated in my original blog though most of the resources working on Incarna are actually on loan from other projects or belong to our core technology group. The resource impact to the EVE team is minimal in the creation of the core technology needed for Incarna. We have one development team working on the connection between EVE and Dust which also ties into and contributes to all of EVE, planetary interaction in particular. So I would actually turn that sentence around and say that there's only a fraction of the EVE development team that's not working directly on EVE and taking into account that Dust connects to the EVE universe then none at all actually.