Monday, December 20, 2010

December Summit Quick Report

Here are my quick observations of the summit meetings; we are currently hard at work editing up the minutes and hope to have them out by then end of the year.

To toughen us up, CCP put us in a hotel twice as far away from their offices; this wasn't a big issue until the day when we had to walk there and back in sub-freezing weather with the added bonus of a 50 mph+ wind; several of the lighter CSMs were in danger of being blown into the ocean.

Carbonation and Core - a useful session that shed some more light on what this team of devs do; well received devblogs will no doubt continue to emanate from this group.

Incarna - After having done a lot of framework development work, CCP is now finally able to turn to the task of implementing this aspect of their Ultimate Sci-Fi Simulator. But what this means is that any player who expects something epic this summer will likely be disappointed.

With respect to this initial release, my personal opinion is that they should ensure that the initial entry area is polished until it glows, as opposed to a more extensive release. After all, this will be the first time that all the new framework stuff is truly battle-tested, so some caution might be warranted.

CSM was united in insisting that no current gameplay be shifted into Incarna (to force interaction with Incarna, for example), and that players should have the option of entering Incarna when docking in a manner that is functionally equivalent to the current docking hangar display (such as, for example, looking out a window at your ship, or being on a balcony looking up at it). Furthermore, it was considered essential that there be no performance hit when doing a fast dock/ship change/undock as compared to the present day.

CCP seemed to be very receptive to these suggestions.

CCP's tentative plans for some additional gameplay that spans both Incarna and in-space EVE could be quite interesting IMHO, but it is too soon to make a solid judgement on them.

We further urged CCP to communicate to the players as much information about Incarna and their roadmap as soon as possible. However, one concern I have is that as this roadmap develops, ideas will be adopted just because they are "awesome". I am of the view that :awesome: is not a reason for doing something; it is the emergent result of hard work and careful thought.

As urged by the CSM in October, microtransactions will only be used for vanity items. Some of the vanity goods that were discussed will most likely be well-received.

The discussions on the EVE economy and RMT were quite detailed and also spawned additional discussions over food and drink. I look forward to seeing what develops from these.

Forums - the Next Generation look very nice, and have some features that I personally like a lot. I plan to lobby for additional features that will be of use to everyone but can also be adapted to assist CSM functions (ie: having cake and eating it too)

We had an unannounced, and productive session with Hilmar. However, one thing he said -- that CCP likes to throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks -- gave me some pause. That kind of approach is fine for a small company where the costs of failure are low. However, with over 600 employees, throwing stuff against the wall is not enough; you have to check and make sure that what is sticking to it isn't crap.

With respect to the new NEOCON feature, it seems very nice, and bears close inspection.

I was particularly impressed, once again, with the UI team, who came to our session incredibly well prepared. No doubt Bara and Katrin will in the near future not be the only members of the team to belong to the Order of the Spork, and they can expect some serious :csmlove: in the minutes.

The 3-hour nullsec meeting with Arnar and Matt (Greyscale) was a really intense and productive one.

I'm not going to spill much about that meeting, except to say that the minutes of it will be extremely interesting, and that I now have a metric for a productive CSM meeting -- it's one where we try and convince the devs to do things that will render them unemployable, and they try and convince us to agree to things that will render us unelectable. I heard things in that meeting that I didn't expect to hear. Epic stuff, trust me.

The meeting with QA was also quite enlightening; Mynxee managed to skype in from a Starbucks, and was represented at the table by a small red pod-shaped sugar-substitute dispenser that acted as a non-maskable interrupt.

In the CSM issues meeting we played a really interesting development resources allocation game that will feed back into resource planning. I have some quibbles about the game-design of this game-design game, but it might have some broader applications if they ITERATE on it.

We finished the summit with the Fanfest meeting; we advised them that the players are coming for face-time with the rock-stars (devs) and not the roadies (us). Some interesting new possibilities for fanfest activities were discussed.

In small ceremonies, CCP PrismX and CCP Fallout were inducted into the Order of the Spork, PrismX for doing the hard work on removing learning skills, and Fallout for general long-term awesomeness. I hope they use their Sporkholder status for good and not evil.

I must however end on a disquieting note: at dinner on Wednesday, CCP Explorer and I found ourselves actually agreeing on some issues. This was extremely disturbing to both of us at the time, but I can report that by the next day, the improbability field collapsed to 1:1 and normality resumed.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Department of Difficult and Embarrassing Questions

In just a few days, the CSM will be off to Iceland once again to do battle for Truth, Justice, and (in my case) the Gallentean Way. So it occurred to us that it might be useful to ask the players what questions they'd like us to ask CCP.

To that end, we have posted on EVE-O and Scrapheap Challenge the current meeting schedule, and you are invited to give us insights, lists of hard questions to ask, and so on.  Enjoy!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Great Learning Skills Massacre

As practically everyone has heard by now, CCP has decided to remove learning skills. While my personal opinion is that this is good for the health of the game (in particular, by making the game much more noob-friendly), there are certain aspects to the way CCP is doing things that have some players upset.

Most of the complaints are coming from players who have trained advanced learning skills to V. Under the new system, those players will train at a slightly lower peak rate, and despite the fact that they will be getting millions of skill points to reallocate now into skills that affect their gameplay, they feel this is a nerf.

Additionally, and perhaps more crucially, they feel that everyone who didn't bite the bullet, take the long-term view, and train the advanced skills is getting a huge buff, while they are getting nerfed, or at best, treated neutrally. While I can understand this feeling, I think it is a bit overblown -- after all, they have had the benefit of faster training up until this point. So the nerf, such as it is, is that they will no longer have a long-term training edge.

One thing to keep in mind is that while CCP has implemented most of the CSM's Remove Learning Skills proposal, they left out two small but important elements -- allowing attribute remaps to be slightly more extreme (which brings the max training rate to within a few SP/hr of the previous max rate), and providing an extra remap (which lets thoughtful players maximize the benefits of the change as soon as possible). The stated reason for this is that CCP did not think they could get a bigger package of changes through QA in time to meet the release deadline -- and to be honest, I have no reason to believe they are being disingenuous about that (quite the opposite, in fact).

However, those two changes would have soothed some hurt feelings, and it is important to note that they could be implemented at a later time, independent from the currently planned changes. I for one hope that CCP will recognize this and commit to doing this if possible.

With respect to how to maximize the benefit you can get from the death of learning skills, it should be obvious that if you can train learning skills at a high SP/hour rate, you should do so from now until they are removed. You will then get those skillpoints back, and can apply them to skills that would train at a lower rate. As one poster on SHC remarked, "Half the game is training Clarity V".

I would also recommend that you consider saving some of the skillpoints for a rainy day -- they will come in very handy when you want to train for a flavor-of-the-month ship, or when CCP introduces new skills into the game.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Prioritization Season

I must apologize for the lack of posts recently, but at least I have the excuse that I have been busy on CSM-related activities. By now everyone should have read the devblog on the October meetings, and now that that is done, CSM is looking forward to two important events -- the December Summit, and the Winter Planning Meetings.

At the Summit, we will be discussing a variety of topics, with many of the usual suspects getting their own meetings. But arguably just as important are the planning meetings.

CCP uses the planning meetings to decide what gets onto the schedule for the next 6-month development cycle, and CSM competes for time and attention with all the other stakeholders. While CSM members are not present at the planning meetings, we are represented at them by CCP Xhagen, and in order for him to do that job well, we need to provide him with some marching orders in terms of what we believe needs the most attention.

This is where you come in.  Just like we did in August for the previous cycle, CSM is soliciting feedback from players as to what items in our list of passed issues are most important to you. With over 200 items to choose from, we've got a better selection than you'll find at the famous  buffet of the Golden Trough. So head on over to the November 2010 Prioritization thread and let us know what issues are most important to you.

Voting ends at DownTime on Thursday the 25th.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


The second day of the CSM summit kicked off with a 2.5 hour meeting on CCP's lag-fighting efforts. CCP Veritas keynoted an extensive presentation on not only what CCP is doing, but the procedures they have put into place to improve the efficiency of their efforts.

I will not go into great detail here, because I don't want to steal their thunder -- there was enough for several devblogs, which CSM encouraged CCP to produce, of course. However, I will hit some of the highlights so you have some idea of what to expect.

In the short term, CCP is working hard on issues like Session Changes, Module Cycling, performance improvements on heavily loaded nodes (such as Jita), and general performance improvements that provide more headroom (which means a server node can handle more people). These changes have both direct and indirect effects on fleet fight performance, often in ways you might not expect.

In the longer term, CCP wants to ensure that heavily loaded nodes exhibit graceful and predictable performance degradation (as opposed to suddenly falling off a cliff and dying horribly), increase performance limits, and transition to running systems on multiple cores.

None of this is really new, but what made a particular impression on me is the obvious seriousness of the effort being made to address lag; it was serious before, but now it is deadly-serious. The lag-fighters are no longer just an ad-hoc task force, but a full dedicated team.

With respect to the oft-expressed opinion of the player-base that Dominion caused a huge increase in lag, CCP Veritas presented a very interesting analysis of what actually happened that I think everyone will find fascinating when it appears (hint, hint) in devblog form. Was there more lag? Yes. Did it happen for the reasons most people think? Nope. Ah, EVE, "Unexpected Consequences Online" -- gotta love this game.

Ragnarök in Reykjavik

After a truly epic journey involving an absolutely excruciating flight on IcelandAir, whose seats should be outlawed under the Geneva Convention as instruments of torture, your humble correspondent, jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and under-medicated, girded his loins, and, in the brave company of the rest of the CSM (doughty forum-warriors all), descended upon CCP HQ for the first day of our special bonus summit, armed only with his trusty Gallente Navy Tritanium Assault Spork, the Official Weapon of the CSM™.

Three times did we clash with the fearsome Jötunn of Iceland in furious meeting. When the sun set, blood red on the horizon, many were the powerpoints that lay broken and bleeding on the floor of the conference cave. One day, the bards will sing of the many brave deeds of your elected representatives, but that day will only come after expiration of the fearsome NDA's, which even the bravest heroes dare not challenge, lest they be cast into the outer darkness.

Each CSM, in turn, stood at the vanguard, hurling sharp comments at our opponents, and yeah, let it be known that no trolls were to be found on either side of the battle. The fight was fair, the combatants cheerful, and the most skillful blows were rewarded with the applause of all involved.

But what, you ask, was learned this day? What plans do the Jötunn have for the future of EVE? To find out these things, the CSM captured and interrogated King Hilmar himself. We will provide more details later, but in summary:

* Production of shiny new things will be reduced, so that more polish can be manufactured and applied to that which already exists.

* The Jötunn will apply dark knowledge they have wrested from the Camarilla to make possible even more titanic battles in New Eden, and have developed ways to administer additional cures for the mysterious malady known as "Lag" more quickly.

* Player (and CSM) complaints have moved the stony hearts of the Jötunn, and they will endeavor to be more responsive to our desires in the future.

The burning question of the day was, of course, that of microtransactions, which, despite several hours of trying, I cannot cast into faux Norse mythological allusion; therefore the last part of this report will have to be delivered straight. The CSM expressed in no uncertain terms the player reaction to the introduction of PLEX for Remaps, and listened to CCP's rationale for introducing them.

CCP stated that PLEX for Remaps was not the first step of either changing EVE to be a microtransaction-based game, or making additional microtransactions effectively required for competitive gameplay. They viewed it as a very small experiment to expand the utility of PLEX and honestly did not think that it would be considered a significant gameplay change, or be widely used except as a repair mechanism.

The CSM explained why the players believe this was a mistake, and made several suggestions about possible solutions. CCP seemed to take these suggestions seriously, but no commitments were made. However, we will be having a second meeting tomorrow with Count Eyjo, Chancellor of the Exchequer, that will touch upon this issue, and we may be able to report further progress at that time. In addition, King Hilmar asked the CSM to prepare a detailed report upon this subject, which he promised to consider most carefully.

At this point, we released the King from the bonds we had placed upon him, in part because he was being quite reasonable (for a Jötunn, anyway), but mostly because we were getting hungry and he promised to buy us lunch.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bára Gunnarsdóttir and the Menus of Doom

Something interesting has just gone live on SiSi, the EVE Online Test Server.

Over the past few weeks, CCP karkur has been implementing a cunning little hack to restructure the EVE contextual menus, making the groupings more coherent, and reordering the groups in a (hopefully) better way. This is a skunk-works project that the CSM ("Your tax ISK at work") has been helping out on, by generating some rough menu categorizations, and providing feedback as to possible ways to handle some of the issues that arise.

However, at this point, CCP karkur needs your help. If you have the time, please log on to SiSi (instructions here), check out the new menu layouts, and give her feedback in this Test Server thread. The current layouts are just a first draft, and your feedback can really help improve them.

There are more details in the forum thread, so please read it before jumping on SiSi!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ask not what you can do for CSM, Ask what CSM can do for you.

Well, it has taken a while to pull together, but today marks the publication of the first CSM5 devblog. In it you'll find quite a few tidbits of information, such as what items in the CSM backlog are in the process of being implemented in the Winter expansion, and the news that CCP has invited CSM back to Iceland in October for a special summit aimed at working out the best way for CSM to use its fabled "stakeholder" powers.

To be honest, at this point I don't know exactly what to expect next month -- will our fat asses be kissed, or spanked? But this meeting is a very interesting development, and the request for it originated with CCP, not CSM. We weren't kidding in the devblog when we said that CCP has done more communicating with CSM5 than with all the previous CSMs combined.

This is a very encouraging thing, to be honest. It doesn't mean that CCP will be delivering puppies and kittens to the players as fast as we'd all like, but it appears to represent a significant change in CCP's relationship to the players, a reversion towards the way things were in the early days (or so I'm told -- being a Mac weenie, I only started playing in late 2007).

The trick, of course, will be to get in place procedures that reinforce this new open attitude, and make it obvious to CCP that this new direction is a win for them.

PS: subscribe to the CSM-NEWS mailing list in-game for occasional updates from CSM about such things as mass-testing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Dog Days of August

The summer can be a bit of a slow time in EVE, but for the CSM, the first week of August has seen a flurry of activity.

In about a week, CCP will hold its Release Planning Meeting, in which it will be decided what the devs will work on for the Winter expansion. As stakeholders, CSM is supposed to have some input into this process, and will be represented at the meeting by CCP Diagoras.

So the CSM had to decide what items in our backlog we wanted to push, and I volunteered to take the lead on this.

The method I chose was to crowdsource a priority list of all the backlog items, getting interested EVE players to vote on what was most important to them. You can read about the methodology and see the results here.

To do this I had to whip up some vote counting software, but this was not a difficult task -- we old programmers don't write code anymore, we just remember it and type it in again.

Once we had the raw list from the players, the CSM got together and divided the items into Small, Medium and Large items, trimmed the list of things we know CCP has already rejected (alas, the wiki lists I used for the original list were a little out of date), then winnowed the list to the best items, bumping up the position of items that multiple CSMs felt were particularly important.

Over the next week, we hope to get feedback from CCP about our list of items, and if possible iterate them into more easily implemented proposals. And then, we hope, CCP may see the light and devote significant resources to implementing the items that the players have once again demonstrated are important to them.

My thanks to the almost 300 people who helped the CSM create our list.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cross-circuiting to "B"

Anyone who follows EVE is by now aware of CCP Zulu's Iterative development and what's happening in 2011 devblog, and the controversial threadnaught it spawned (1742 posts at the time of writing).

In the devblog, Zulu revealed how many people were working on EVE, and what they were working on. Unfortunately for him, EVE players are spreadsheet-whores, and after a few taps on their pocket-calculators, they realized that after all the people who were being dedicated to Incarna, the DUST linkup, EVE-Gate, Planetary Interaction, and Infrastructure (including the LagBusters) there was almost nobody left who could work on making changes to EVE that the players have asked for -- such as the 168 items in the current CSM backlog.

Now, the CSM is supposed to be a Stakeholder, and Stakeholders are supposed to be able to compete to get resources for backlog items they think are important. However, if there are few resources to be competed for, that doesn't really amount to much, does it?

Needless to say, the eruption of what I will diplomatically refer to as "concern about the future of EVE" was somewhat energetic, even by the volcanic standards Icelanders are inured to. CCP responses in the thread consisted of very limited, technical answers to questions, which predictably did nothing to stem the tide of player discontent.

Faced with a tsunami of extremely coherent rage, CCP Hellmar posted a note that basically said "we are listening and working very hard," to which the player response was "no you aren't, and no you aren't".

Oh my oh my, what is a mild-mannered CSM like your humble correspondent to do? If the dev-blog is taken at face value, then not many of the CSM's backlog items are going to get implemented in the near term, and possibly not for 18 months, or even longer.

Well, since the hordes of players telling them they were wrong clearly wasn't having any effect, I decided to take a different tack. I posted a two-part open letter to CCP Hellmar making a business case for why devoting resources to the concerns of existing players was smart business -- it was in effect an insurance policy against the possibility of delays and other business disruptions.

A couple of days later, I tried another tack. CCP Explorer had been making some very technical answers to questions about CCP's development process (which, of course, was totally avoiding the point of the whole thread). So I asked him, in what I freely admit was a somewhat teasing manner, for advice on how CSM could compete for the apparently limited developer resources available.

All in good fun, of course, and I hope I made a positive contribution to the discussion. But until I hear otherwise, I have to proceed on the assumption that the CSM won't be able to get significant attention to its issues.

So, how can CSM be effective given the circumstances we find ourselves in? Well, obviously we'll keep on lobbying CCP for more resources to be devoted to player concerns. But it has also occurred to me that if CSM can't get big things done, maybe we can slip some small things into the cracks here and there.

One of the most overlooked, but most promising things in the Summit minutes is the fact that CCP now has 3 people devoted to maintaining and improving the client UI, and improvements to the UI will be noticed by everyone. So I've started up a User Interface - Big Wins, Fan Favorites and Low Hanging Fruit proposal, with an associated forum thread to collect and crowdsource UI improvement suggestions.

My hope is that we'll be able to give the CCP UI team a prioritized list of UI improvements, big and small, that they can pick from and implement when they have some extra time.

Come and help us try to make some lemonade.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The CCP Metric System

It's clear that CCP (like many of their customers!) loves numbers, and bases a lot of their decision-making on various "metrics" of performance. You can see this in several places in the minutes; here are my favorites:

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.

Memory usage on the server per user has decreased in the last 12 months.

CPU Per User on the server has remained constant for the last 6 months except for a short period in late January where it went up just a bit.

Server log lines have been decreasing significantly since February, meaning fewer errors are being generated by the server

Only 0.3–0.5% of sessions end in a dirty shutdown (client crash).

But the most interesting example of all came not in the minutes, but just yesterday, in a comment by Nathan that was quickly reposted on Scrapheap Challenge:

That's funny, considering Apocrypha, the example for quality, created the most abysmal technical debt we've had.

What Nathan is saying here is that Apocrypha, an expansion the players loved, created a lot of issues behind the scenes at CCP that required them to do a lot of code cleanup afterwards.

This statement illustrates why Nathan was so upset by the CSM's complaints about lack of excellence. He apparently defines excellence as "excellence of the code providing the EVE experience". Players, on the other hand, define excellence as "excellence of the EVE experience".

Nathan is a very smart guy, and no doubt he has very good metrics on EVE code excellence. But experience excellence metrics are inherently fuzzy and hard to quantify, so when CSM presented some to him (including the huge Assembly Hall threadnaught), his response was to dismiss them as invalid or irrelevant.

And indeed, quantifying experience excellence is difficult, not the least because excellence is in the eye of the beholder, and there are over 100,000 different pairs of eyes playing EVE. I am reminded of US Supreme Court Justice Stewart's famous observation about porn: "I can't define porn but I know it when I see it."

Nevertheless, attention to experience excellence is very important, for the simple reason that CCP is not selling software. They are not selling a game. They are selling an experience, the experience of living in New Eden. EVE is not a commodity like potato chips (or World of Warcraft, for that matter); it is an emotional, immersive experience -- in fact, it is the only emotional, immersive MMO available today. EVE's crucial innovation can be summed up by the oft-repeated comment that "EVE is not a game; it's a job." You play World of Warcraft to escape; you live in EVE. The brilliance of EVE's original design can be summed up very simply: EVE is a job so good that people are willing to pay to work there.

This is why difficult to quantify metrics like experience excellence are so vitally important, because they encapsulate the very essence of the difference between EVE and other games; it's unique selling proposition.

Alas, history is replete with examples where decision-makers have learned the hard lesson that focusing on the "easy" metrics, ignoring the broader context, and dismissing contradictory information, was the road to ruin.

The whole point of the CSM is to give CCP a broader context, an extra dimension to their metrics. So when CCP staff go into a meeting with the CSM and their reaction is "how can these people be so clueless?", they ought to consider the possibility that they might also need to buy a vowel.

Or at least an umlaut or two.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Shuttle Diplomacy

During the preparations for the Iceland summit, I took on the task of building a CSM presentation on lag.

I decided to approach the subject as a game-player. I expected that CCP would expect that CSM would come in with a bunch of half-baked lag-fix ideas (you know, like the ones I put in my election manifesto...), which they would then proceed to shoot down using their information advantage.

So I decided to try another approach. After consulting with the other CSMs, I built our presentation around several key points:

* Lag is one example of a class of problems for which game-design solutions are appropriate.

* Player expert focus groups can help CCP develop solutions that are both implementable (by them) and acceptable (to us).

* The CSM is in a unique position to mediate the interaction between player experts and CCP.

To my great regret, events conspired to brutally time-crunch the presentation; I was hoping to get 15-20 minutes, but CCP's presentation and the associated discussion ran long. In the end, I had only 5 minutes, which meant a rushed presentation and little discussion; CCP's response was basically "meh..."

But the next day, in the Low Sec session, CCP basically asked CSM to do what I wanted them to do for Lag:

CCP suggested that CSM work more with players to draft a well-supported vision for Low Sec, then submit a "foundation story" to CCP as a proposal that reflects that vision.

While what CCP asked for does not go to the level of detail I would want, it's a step along the right path -- as long as CCP is really serious about using, or at least strongly considering, the results.

IMHO, without a real commitment from CCP in this regard, it will be hard to convince the player experts to put in the time and hard work of coming up with a proposal.

Furthermore, for this process to actually work, CCP must provide a method for rapid iteration of player proposals, otherwise the players are just groping in the dark. This is where CSM, with our unique perspective -- we are players, but we are also under NDA -- can perform a vital role.

An example of this came in the 29 Issues session. Take a look at the Show damaged drones in drone bay item. Players want this functionality for several reasons, but one of the most important is that when fighting with drones, you want to be able to recall damaged drones and send out fresh ones -- but once drones are back in the drone bay, their state is unknown to the players.

In the space of 5 minutes, CCP and CSM iterated the proposal into something that could be implemented 100% on the client, with no added server or communications overhead, yet would allow players to launch undamaged drones in almost all circumstances (and, by the way, do the opposite -- launch the damaged drones for repair). It wasn't a perfect or elegant solution, but it provided extra function at very low cost.

Hmm... maybe (nudge nudge) someone should raise it as a proposal in the Assembly Hall (wink wink).

Now consider iteration between CCP and a player expert focus group. There is a trust problem; the players might say "you could do X", and CCP might come back and say "We can't do X", but not be willing to explain why. At which point, the players have no choice to take CCP at their word, and their ability to iterate is compromised; they're in the dark -- and darkness breeds mistrust.

But if CSM, with their magical NDA power, is in the middle as a trusted intermediary, shuttling ideas back and forth, then everything changes. Now CCP can tell CSM that "We can't do X because of NDA issues A, B and C", and CSM can tell the players "X has some problems, but your ideas Y and Z don't suffer from those problems; please explore them further."

Is CCP willing to make a real commitment to this kind of process? At the present time, probably not, for the simple reason that even if the focus groups are purely advisory, interacting with them will be perceived as a loss of control on their part.

But in a social sandbox game like EVE, as in life itself, control is ever an illusion -- even for the devs. Let's hope CCP has the vision to take a leap of faith.

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.

Bandwidth is a bitch

Now that the CSM summit minutes have been released, there is much to discuss. I predict an orgy of bloggery over the coming days, a vice in which I will happily indulge.

Consider the first two meetings, "CSM as Stakeholder" and "EVE Production". These illustrate the problems the CSM faces in having any real influence over CCP decisions regarding EVE.

If you look at how CCP development works, you quickly realize that it has a cognitive blind-spot. The problem is that after subtracting the resource demands for the big vision projects like DUST and Incarna, the marketing demands for big expansion features every 6 months, and the constant maintenance battle to keep the game itself running, there are few if any resources available for going back and fixing the mistakes of the past -- which is a big part of what CSM is supposed to be about.

Furthermore, in the great game of EVE Development, the noobs (that would be CSM) have an incredible disadvantage. We're not in Iceland on a day-to-day basis, and our voice is channeled through a representative.

So it's like playing EVE over a 110-baud modem via a proxy server on the Cassini space probe. We suffer from low bandwidth and huge ping-times. And you thought you have lag problems!

At present, the only way to compensate for that huge disadvantage is something that CCP is not willing to give -- dedicated developer resources for CSM. Given CSM's mission, this would be equivalent to explicitly giving renovations similar status to vision, marketing and maintenance.

Personally, however, I would suggest doing something more subtle, and with broader benefits for CCP. If I could wave my magic wand and make one change at the company, it would be this:

Implement the Google 80-20 rule.

Massive buff for dev morale - check.

Lots of resources for micro-improvements in EVE = happy players - check.

Big PR win - check.

Huge Human Resources win (eg: "Yeah, you have to move to Iceland, but on the other hand...") - check.

I wonder, does the company with the most innovative game in the history of MMOs have the vision to do this?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill myself

One of the things that makes EVE such an interesting game is that the social stew is always at a constant boil. The latest spicy ingredient to be added to the mix is the expulsion of Ankhesentapemkah from the CSM for an alleged NDA violation.

For someone in the games business, as Ankh is, such an allegation has significant career consequences. So it's no surprise that everyone involved is saying as little as possible; nobody wants to get hot-dropped by lawyers. Unfortunately, the lack of details has not stopped the conspiracy-crafters on the forums from spinning theories both sublime and ridiculous, and the "this just proves the CSM is worthless"-subcategory is annoyingly popular.

One frustrating aspect of being a CSM (and not just in this particular instance) is that the NDA often prevents you from posting a direct reply to a player question, and then your lack of specificity is interpreted in the worst possible way by one of the fine specimens of Homo Trollus that have found such verdant hunting grounds on the forums.

I'm not complaining about this too much, it's an occupational hazard of the job, but it's something to keep in mind.

Occasionally, however, you can have some fun with it. In one forum thread, the question arose:

BTW, is the NDA agreement you signed at CSM, under NDA too?

Which allowed me to indulge in a little whimsy:

As CSMs, we can neither confirm nor deny that the NDA is under NDA, nor can we confirm or deny that above confirmation or denial either confirms or denies any policy of the CSM or CCP.

Further, we neither confirm nor deny any rumors about what happened in Iceland, nor do we confirm or deny that we actually had any meetings in Iceland. In fact, we're unwilling to confirm that Iceland even EXISTS. And as for this internet thing you're using, it might just be a figment of your own demented imagination.

We do confirm that we do listen to what players want, however bizarre these desires might be. We regret doing this, however, since some of you are even stranger than we are!

In more serious news, the coming week should see the release of the much-awaited CSM Summit minutes, and I'll have a thing or two to say about them, you can be sure.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Night of the Long Spoons

The first CSM5 summit was 3 days of intense effort, 8-10 hours a day of meetings, followed by discussions until late in the evening. As a noob, while I definitely had points I wanted to make, a key goal was to get some sense of the landscape in which I was operating. The returning CSMs all have developed relationships with people at CCP, whereas I was coming in more or less blind.

Several other CSMs have already posted accounts of the meeting that I broadly agree with, so rather than re-invent the wheel, I will point you to Ankhesentapemkah (Eva) and Mynxee (Carole)'s reports. When the official minutes come out, I'll make some specific comments, but for now, I'll indulge in some color commentary.

One of the more amusing developments that occurred after the summit was the hysterical overreaction by forum trolls about a trivial incident that occurred during one of the final sessions. How trivial? Well, I was sitting right next to one of the people involved and I barely noticed it at the time.

For me, the significance of this incident was that it was a classic example of what happens when partial information and preconceived notions collide on the Internet. Before the summit, I was bombarded with people telling me what to expect from my fellow CSMs, and I was very interested to see how these opinions reflected the ground-truth.

And the answer, of course, is not much. Which leads me to coin Woodhead's Second Law:

"The more controversial your forum personality, the less likely it is to reflect your real personality."

The fact is, when you're dealing face to face, you're not talking to Mynxee, you're talking to Carole. Similarly, Sokratesz is not Tim, Ankhesentapemkah is not Eva, Dierdra Vaal is not Valentijn, Korvin is not Andrey, TeaDaze is not Jason, Meissa Anunthiel is not Stephan, I am not Trebor, and Vuk Lau is not Vuk Lau.

Okay, Vuk Lau is Vuk Lau, but that's because he's from the Balkans and is the exception that proves the rule.

Forum trolls, of course, are the extreme example of this law -- if they acted in real life the way they do online, they'd be getting the crap kicked out of them on an hourly basis.

What I found on the ground in Iceland was that while I disagreed (sometimes strongly) with some of the opinions held by other CSMs, I had no problems whatsoever in working with them on matters of common interest, and they all behaved like reasonable people -- or at least, like reasonable Internet Spaceship Nerds. No doubt I annoyed them more than they annoyed me.

Just something to keep in mind when you read a forum post and go "WTF?! He's insane!" We are, after all, playing a roleplaying game.

PPS: Woodhead's First Law is "The further you are from your server, the more likely it is to crash."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In which, despite my best efforts, I have responsibility inflicted upon me...

The story of how I became an Interstellar Politician begins almost 30 years ago, back in the Dark Ages, when Men were Real Men, Women were Real Women, and Computers were Real Slow.

At that time, I was busily engaged in designing and coding computer games, with some success. It was a heady time to be a computer game design nerd -- we were all convinced that we'd be the Rock Stars of the 80's, with all the perks associated with such exalted status, in particular the groupies. And we were right! There were groupies! Hundreds of them -- and all of them guys who looked just like us.

By 1992 I was pretty much out of the game business. I'd gone to Japan to build what probably would have been the first MMORPG (that's "Modestly Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game") and chase a girl. The project failed when the funding dried up (damn you, Japanese Economic Bubble!), but the girl... ah, the girl, she was everything I was looking for: brilliant, witty, equipped with a twisted sense of humor, and most important of all, she had absolutely atrocious taste in men.

So began my second career: bringing japanese anime and live-action films to America, raising two children, and desperately trying to ensure that my wife didn't realize how fail I was (so far, so good). And the funny thing was, during most of that time, I didn't play computer games at all.

Sure, the graphics were better. But by and large, the games were boring, derivative, evolutionary. They just weren't interesting.

Skip ahead a few years, my kids are teenagers, and they start playing WoW. I decide to play with them to make sure it's OK. It's slick and polished, but it's clear that its a theme-park ride. Within a few months, the only thing keeping me playing is there is a meta-game of building addons that appeals to my programmer side.

Meh. Nothing's changed.

Then over the winter holidays a couple of years ago, I hear about this space game called EVE-Online. I have a weakness for space games because at one time I was totally addicted to the first significant multiplayer space combat game, Empire -- so much so that it got me kicked out of Cornell for a year -- with one semester left to go (which turned out to be a blessing, since that's when Wizardry got written).

So I downloaded the client... and 2.5 years later I'm still playing.

Why? Because despite its many flaws, EVE is the most significant advance in computer gaming in the last decade. The combination of a single world model (no realms) and a dedication to a "sandbox" philosophy (as opposed to a theme-park design) means it is the most immersive and social game environment available today. You don't play EVE, you go to EVE to play.

That made it worth my time.

Fast-forward to a few months ago. One of the things that makes EVE unique is a player-elected Council of Stellar Management, or CSM. The players elect 9 of their peers to represent their concerns to CCP, the producers of EVE.

A lot of Eve players, in particular the bitter old vets, consider the CSM to be nothing but a PR exercise for CCP and a free trip to Iceland for the delegates, and quite frankly, they've had a point (about the lack of power; as for the value of the trips, to be honest, if first prize is a free trip to Iceland to sit in a Conference room for 30 hours arguing with Viking Computer Geeks, then second prize is two free trips to Iceland to sit in a Conference room for 30 hours arguing with Viking Computer Geeks).

But starting with the current council, CSM5, the CSM has stakeholder status within the company, which is a "chicken" role within CCPs "scrum methodology". This means it has the potential to do more than just beg the company to address player concerns.

As election season was approaching, I was becoming more and more concerned about the long-term future of the game. Here I had finally found a game that I considered worthy of my time, and I was wondering if it was still going to be around in 5 years. Fleet fights in EVE already can have more than 1000 players duking it out in a single engagement, resulting in the dreaded "lag". What would happen if EVE grows to have twice as many players? The UI was becoming more and more dated. How will it adapt to an environment where more and more people want to play games on iPad-style devices?

I decided to run for CSM without any expectation of actually getting elected, but because I wanted to use the election process to raise these and other issues without them simply getting lost in the noise of regular forum chatter, and maybe, if I was lucky, influence a few of the people who might actually have a chance of getting elected. Even though I campaigned pretty seriously, I was pretty light-hearted about it. My major campaign promise to the members of my own in-game Alliance was that, if elected, I would provide them with a massive supply of Exotic Dancers, and in the case of one particular person with "special needs", Livestock.

So you can imagine my shock when, the day after the election, I get an email that reads:

Subject: [Confidential] You have been elected to the fifth CSM


Congratulations on being elected to the Council of Stellar Management...

The first thing I do is check the headers...

Received: from ( [])
by with ESMTP id x1si12662595wei.102.2010.;
Thu, 20 May 2010 06:36:37 -0700 (PDT)
Received-SPF: pass ( domain of designates as permitted sender) client-ip=;
Authentication-Results:; spf=pass ( domain of designates as permitted sender)
Received: from ([]) by with Microsoft SMTPSVC(6.0.3790.4675);
Thu, 20 May 2010 13:36:36 +0000
Received: from ([]) by
([]) with mapi; Thu, 20 May 2010 13:36:35 +0000

Wow, they actually look legit. However, I am still unconvinced. Until I actually see a public announcement (due the next week), I remain entirely dubious. This could just be a very elegant punk.

The week goes by. My corporation and alliance mates are constantly pumping me for details. Did you get in? Have they told you anything? I decide that my best play is to grumble and groan about how I haven't heard anything, so clearly I didn't get in, but maybe I got one of the alternate standby slots. As the week goes on, I get more and more depressed online. "Nah, guys, nothing. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted."

I am much consoled by my soon-to-be ex-friends.

While this is all going on, I start to construct elaborate conspiracy theories to explain just how in hell I got myself elected. These include:
  1. Computer Error in Your Favor. Collect 1,463 votes. Go to Iceland. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
  2. Someone at CCP has decided to punk me. They will "discover" their error just before the official announcement.
  3. The Goons (an alliance in the game famous for their "hijinks") have voted me in for the LOLs.
  4. People actually thought my ideas were decent (I reject this one immediately as ludicrous).
The big day comes. The official announcement is made -- and I really am elected, or so it seems. I immediately revise my opinion; I am now sure that someone at CCP has decided to seriously punk me. They will now "discover" their error just before I get on the plane to Iceland. I receive several death-threats from my Alliance-mates for stringing them along, and one email demanding "where the hell are my 50,000,000 iskies worth of Livestock?" Strippers and sheep are dispatched on long interstellar journeys to provide a little comfort to lonely starship pilots.

Over the next few weeks, I spend 2-4 hours a day preparing for the first CSM meeting in Iceland. I have practically no time to actually play the game.

The big day arrives. I got to the airport. The tickets are real. I fly to Iceland.

I revise my opinon; I am now sure that this is an Epic Punk, and that the big reveal will be at the start of the first meeting. Everyone is in on it, including the other CSMs that I meet. I write "I knew it was a punk, you bastards" on a 3x5 card and put it in my pocket, just in case.

I enter the conference room. I sit down. The meeting starts. And the true enormity of what has happened hits me.

I have just committed to spending 20 hours a week for the next year doing a job for which the compensation is 3 trips to Iceland and the pleasure of having hundreds of thousands of people think I'm totally clueless.

And then I realize what really happened in the election.

Those Goon bastards have griefed me.