Monday, July 12, 2010

The Reality Distortion Tank

One of the biggest eye-openers for me at the Iceland Summit was the Commitment to Excellence session.

The Commit to Excellence thread is probably the most supported thread in EVE-O Assembly Hall history. CSM put together a sober and respectful presentation explaining the concerns and perceptions of the player base.

The response from CCP was, to put it charitably, a wee bit defensive. You could almost see the FX of their X-Large C5-L Emergency Shield Overload Boosters being overheated as the CSM tried to break the tanks of their reality distortion fields.

I think one paragraph from the minutes speaks volumes:

Speaking on behalf of CCP, Nathan disagreed strongly with the claim that CCP isn’t committed to excellence. He pointed out that CCP probably spends a bigger part of its income on development than most other large, established game companies. He stated that this is a clear sign of this commitment.

That may be so, but it misses the point. The size of CCP's development budget is irrelevant because most of it is being spent on things that the current EVE player base does not want and does not care about. What counts to the current players is how much is being spent to improve the quality of their game experience.

Note also this line:

It was mentioned by CCP that the data does not seem to support that polished quality sells better than new features. This led to a discussion on the balance of customer acquisition through new features versus customer retention through quality and polish.

Several people have told me that EVE's long-term retention rate is quite high, which is in line with my personal impression. To put it another way, long-time EVE players are crack-whores, hopelessly addicted to the game we love.

So clearly, the key to long-term success is to generate more crack-whores, an insight that should surprise absolutely nobody.

However, the above line seems to indicate that CCP views the crack-whore production process as looking like this:

New Expansion -> Marketing Blitz -> Pulse of Noobs -> Some % become addicted -> long-term customer (high lifetime customer value)

However, there is an alternate path that can be significantly more effective:

Polish the Game -> Less Noobs -> Larger % become addicted -> more long term customers (with higher lifetime customer value)

The reason the lifetime customer value is higher is because the game is better, which means that the noobs stay longer, and the bitter old vets don't give up in despair.

As some of you may know, I run a website that helps people with search engine promotion. One of my favorite sayings is, "It's not the number of hits you get, but the number of sales you make".

In the context of EVE, doubling the noob retention rate is as good as doubling the number of incoming noobs -- and a lot cheaper. So focusing resources on polishing the game, and in particular those parts of the game noobs inhabit, is a big win.

For a final example of the reality distortion field, consider the Lag Issues and Resolution Status meeting, in which we are told:

Lag will always be an issue however EVE, but EVE is now, from a technical standpoint, in a better state than it has ever been.

Now read the technical justifications for this statement, which appear immediately thereafter.

All of them are true.

And all of them are meaningless from the player perspective.

Players don't care that "memory usage on the server per user has decreased in the last 12 months". That is as relevant to them as "the brand of coffee in CCP Coffeemachine has been improved".

All that matters to them is the end result -- does the game play better now than it did a year ago? If it turns out that higher-quality coffee resulted in more of the CSM's backlog getting attended to, then, and only then, would the upgrade of CCP Coffemachine be relevant.

So that there is no confusion, this posting is not an argument for "no new expansions". It's an argument for balance, and for the recognition of the fact that addressing the concerns of the current players is a profitable business model.

I contend that CCP is in the business of farming gamers, and sustainable agriculture is a better long-term strategy than slash-and-burn.


  1. After reading the minutes I realized that the Lag issue was filled with nice presentations but seemingly left little time for discussion afterwards, and nothing tanglible came out of it. It's almost as if the CSM got no say in the matter. Vuk's video presentation, which to me as a player would seem the most important part of the agenda was completely ignored.

  2. Many events conspired to limit CSM's presentation time on lag. CCP's presentation was, to their credit, very comprehensive (and thus, alas, very long). There is no doubt in my mind that CCP is very serious about server performance issues; the issues are whether they are using the correct metrics to define success, and the concept of exploiting an untapped resource (player experts) to find game-design methods to reduce or distribute server load.

    This will be the subject of a blog post later today, if all goes well.

  3. Well pointed out and straight to the heart of the issue. I really wonder if CCP ever will be able to look through that gigantic veil they obviously put on their own eyes.
    This whole comment of Nathan was so bloody heart-warming, I almost felt sorry for that guy's desperate try to get the problem, but he failed yet again...

  4. I will agree with you on most counts. However, I have a small complaint with your analysis of his response to the lag issue. Perception of this issue is greatly tainted because you will only ever hear negative comments about lag. Nobody will say, "Hey, paritybit checking in here, system seems to work normally." You will only get comments like, "The lag sucks! fix it CCP!"

    For me, I have only have a few problems with lag, and they were all well in the past. Things are working great for me.

    While I don't argue that there is a problem, I do argue that the only way an engineer-minded-person can show some kind of result is by addressing the statistics that relate to it, such as CPU and memory per player -- because you will not have players to attest to a better situation, they'll be playing instead.

  5. Well, obviously nobody is going to complain if things are working. But that observation does not make the complaints about lag any less relevant. And the raw number of complaints about lag is also a tricky number to rely on, because players like you (and me!) will obviously change their play-styles to avoid the large fleets that suffer from lag.

    I totally agree with you about statistics being useful, but only if the statistics are relevant to the topic at hand. The point I was trying to make about the lag session was that the statistics that CCP presented were by and large irrelevant.

    I am far from the first to make this point -- that CCP loves to look to the numbers as a basis for making decisions, but all too often looks at the wrong numbers, usually the easy to compute ones.

    While statistics are helpful, the insights of the power-users (aka the "bitter old vets") are a very useful sanity-check on their relevance. CCP is not checking their parity bits (sorry, couldn't resist).

  6. I noticed one oversight in your considerations on user retention: Veteran players usually do have multiple accounts, but a large portion of those are paid for with ISK. I'm quite sure the ARPU of noobs is higher than vets. So financially noobs are more interesting to CCP. Additionally, it's mostly vets that do the huge fleet battles, causing CCP headaches about how to handle lag...
    They see their strategy legitimized by the subscriber numbers, which go up substantially with each expansion. What they miss IMO is that what brings new players is mainly the marketing campaign that goes along with the expansion, not the new features. (interested in seeing subscriber development with Tyrannis, which was highly disappointing)

    Speaking of lag: I agree with your assessment of lag always being an issue in eve, given it is a problem that increases in complexity geometrically with player count. I also agree that changes in game mechanics are part of possible improvements. However, all of this does not explain why the server lag situation got so much worse from a player perspective compared to the state in Apocrypha. The playable number of pilots was about halved in Dominion, and new issues appeared like the dreaded grid load issue and the annoying traffic controls. And btw, pilots do not always avoid situations where it shows, it has been used many times by now as a tactical advantage: The fleets try to be in the system first where the fight would take place. Would, because often the second fleet won't even engage, knowing it is almost certain to lose because of the grid issue.
    I find CCPs incompetence in finding the cause (or even to be aware of issues like the stuck modules) of this amazing. At least we recently got some client side performance improvements...

  7. From CCP's standpoint, using PLEX's to maintain accounts is not a direct problem, since eventually, someone has to be spending real money to create the PLEX. There is a second-order issue concerning who pays for them in the first place (I don't know), because if that is concentrated in certain cohorts, then changes in the retention rate of that cohort could have significant ripple effects.

    I understand your perspective on the recent lag problems. I hate to invoke the dreaded NDA (and hopefully, upcoming devblogs will release some details so I can discuss them), but it is clear to me (as a professional programmer of over 35 years experience) that the people working on the problem at CCP are not idiots.

    EVE is, however, a very complex interacting system, which means that innocent changes in one part of the game can sometimes cause strange things to happen in another. These interactions can be frustratingly difficult to debug.

    So take it from your friendly neighborhood CSM -- cut the devs in the trenches fighting lag some serious slack, and do your part to help them by participating in the mass-tests on SiSi whenever you can.

  8. Well, that's an interesting statistic to be requested from the statistics team:
    1) PLEX creation by account age
    2) PLEX consumption by account age

    Yeah, the NDA... from what was written in a few places we know CCP is working on a system to do dynamic handovers of player sessions between nodes. While this is nice and would finally allow load to be distributed on-the-fly among nodes, a) the process granularity is still the same, so at best it would enable dynamically switching a system to a reinforced node, b) doesn't really address the scaling issues nor the game mechanics that lead to them.

    Oh, and its not the first time CCP fights with runaway tasklets...

    As comforting it should be to hear an IT professional assert that CCP aren't idiots (young IT professional myself), it is very hard to keep the faith after it is revealed that issues that the playerbase has been screaming and petitioning and bugtracking about for ages are but rumors for the devs. I won't quote Vuk...

    Sorry for the rant. Yes, I've participated in quite a few of the mass tests.

  9. Adding the ability to move systems between nodes is going to allow more fights to hit the load ceiling, but you are right that it does not address the underlying problem of too many ships in too small an area duking it out. For that, only game mechanics changes have a shot at working. But then, I can hardly disagree with this given that it was a major plank of my election manifesto!

    With regard to communications issues within CCP, that is the subject for another blog -- one I am in the process of preparing.