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Giving Your Players a Voice: Lessons from EVE Online

Alexander "The Mittani" Gianturco, chairman of the Council of Stellar Management -- EVE Online's player government -- writes here about the opportunities and dangers of enabling your player base to have direct representation and contact with the development team.

[EVE Online's Council of Stellar Management is a body elected by the players of the game to interface with the developers and help drive the direction of the MMO's development in directions that appeal to the player base. What are the opportunities and dangers of having such a body? CSM chairman Alexander "The Mittani" Gianturco explains.]

CCP's spectacular fall from grace in the aftermath of the EVE Online Incarna expansion -- which resulted in drastic cuts to its Atlanta office, threw a cloud over its upcoming World of Darkness MMO, and saw 20 percent of the 600-employee company's staff laid off -- may be redeemed by the recent Crucible expansion. After two years of drift away from the core product, stagnating subscriptions, and a series of ham-handed business decisions that sparked riots in its virtual world, the EVE player base appears to be accepting the company's mea culpa.

On the front line in the battle between CCP and its customers over the fate of EVE is the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a democratically-elected group of player representatives who have been granted stakeholder status in the company's development process. This body, at times, acts as a sounding board, an advocacy group, or in direct opposition to CCP's business plans.ma

CCP has granted the CSM extraordinary power in terms of the access it has to the developers; several times a year the CSM is flown to the company headquarters in Iceland for days of arduous meetings. When a crisis within the game erupts, such as in 2010's "Summer of Rage" or the recent Monoclegate, in which players revolted when the company introduced virtual items, CCP calls in the CSM to attempt to mediate.

Initially written off by some as a PR stunt, the CSM has developed since its introduction in 2008 into a powerful advocate. Mostly the CSM functions as a sanity check for mid-level developers within CCP to bounce game design ideas off of; since EVE is such a complex universe, it's impossible for every game designer to have personal experience with every aspect of the game.

At other times, however, the CSM has been an outside source of pressure against CCP's management when it makes decisions which overrule the desires of their customers and the game designers, marshaling an impressive nexus of contacts in the gaming media and the player base to get that point across.

Because of that, the CSM project seems like a double-edged sword for CCP from a business perspective. At one level, the CSM has improved the quality of the game and the lives of the players -- and thus CCP's bottom line. On another level, it has shown that a player advocacy group will not be co-opted by the sponsoring developer, and can focus player dissatisfaction into concrete action that can impact the company's balance sheet. A little democracy is a dangerous thing.

Yet, on the whole, the CSM project has been on the side of CCP's bottom line since the beginning. The CSM was vehemently critical of the Tyrannis and Incarna expansions before their releases, both of which were duds -- duds which came to threaten the company's survival. The Crucible expansion, on the other hand, is a laundry list of CSM-sponsored changes to the core gameplay of EVE, and the disaffected customer base has responded by re-subscribing in droves. Democracy can be dangerous if you defy it, but profitable if obeyed.

There have been player advocate organizations in other MMOs, such as the ill-fated Galactic Senate of Star Wars Galaxies. Yet only CCP has empowered its player council with direct and regular access to the developers, treating the group as actual representatives of the players.

Now that the CSM has matured -- and may have helped save EVE Online from the irrational exuberance of CCP's upper management -- we must ask: what are the advantages of setting up a player council for a MMO, and how could other MMOs set up similar bodies?


The Feedback Dilemma: Why Have a Player Council at All?

Modern MMOs are complex, sprawling entities, and their customers create virtual societies within them. Their sheer size, and the demands of a game designer's job, mean that it is impossible for a developer to achieve an in-depth understanding of the play styles of a game's customers.

This is particularly the case for MMOs that feature worlds large enough to support diverse societies, such as World of Warcraft, Rift, EVE, Second Life, etc; massively online games with a narrow gameplay focus such as World of Tanks don't present the kind of complexity that would necessitate extensive additional player feedback beyond a developer's personal experiences.

Some have relied on forums to provide feedback, but MMO forums could be politely referred to as a disaster area; the nature of anonymous communication means that feedback on gameplay changes on forums is tinged with raw hysteria and seasoned with ultimatums.

Even at its best, attempting to get feedback from the forums is like drinking from a firehose. More significantly, forums can only be used as a feedback method for gameplay changes that are far along the development pipeline, either already implemented in the game itself or on a public test server. They cannot serve as an early-warning system against bad ideas in their infancy.

By contrast, a player council offers more credible feedback, as it meets with the developers outside of a forum context. Communication in person is far more effective than text, as it allows people to read one another's body language; this removes the hysteria of forum ultimatums.

Advocacy groups also can offer advice about forum controversies, distinguishing those that will blow over from actual lasting problems that the developer needs to address.

Perhaps most importantly, player councils can be covered by a NDA, meaning that they can provide player feedback on early-concept ideas. If a developer gets an idea to the stage of it being shown in a non-NDA context, the development resources have already been sunk; there is no turning back. Player advocacy groups are the canary in the mineshaft to warn designers that their future project needs to be changed or abandoned entirely.

A player council provides a boost to customer goodwill, assuming the feedback of the group is actually taken into consideration; it shows that the company is taking the view of the players into account. Advocacy groups also provide the company with a formal interlocutor. Rather than only being able to offer platitudes -- "We listen to our customers!" -- the company can demonstrate that it is in communication with a sanctioned group of elected player representatives.

This can take significant heat off the company when controversies erupt; when the company can say that it consulted with the player council about a controversial change and that the council approved, the council shoulders some of the responsibility along with the company. Players who disagree with the decision will blame their representatives rather than the company itself.

We saw this demonstrated in EVE with the fifth CSM, which hand-waved a change that many players vehemently disagreed with: the removal of jump bridges. The CSM5 representatives were then tossed out of office at the next election. CCP, which originally suggested these unpopular changes, was not blamed.

Similarly, when the player base rioted after the Incarna release and CCP called the CSM to Reykjavik to discuss the crisis, the company message that CCP would not be implementing "pay to win" microtransactions was more credible than it would have been had it issued only a one-sided press release: the CSM was able to corroborate CCP's statement.

From a business perspective, having a player representative group is inexpensive, costing far less than even a moderate advertising campaign. The player representatives often function as unpaid volunteers, spending several hours each day working both with their constituents and the developers to improve the game. The bottom line benefits are significant, not just in PR and customer retention, but as a prophylactic against bad business decisions.


The Mechanics of Player Democracy: Lessons from the CSM

The CCP experiment has evolved considerably from its initial introduction in 2008, and should another developer wish to imitate this system there are a number of lessons learned about the practical process of setting up and managing an effective player advocacy group.

First, pick a number of representatives and backup/alternate candidates. The EVE CSM has nine delegates and five alternates. The delegates attend the in-person summit meetings with the developers and the alternates fill in for those who can't make it. However, the alternates should be included as much as possible in the process as they tend to represent minor but important constituencies in the player base.

While imitating CCP's choice of 14 representatives isn't necessary, it is wise to choose a sufficiently large number of representatives to avoid the risk of oddball candidates. Every election, real or virtual, vomits forth a couple of nutters; this is to be expected, and with a large enough body of representatives they can be identified and sidelined without disrupting the whole process.

Many candidates can be expected to try to get on the ballot. Some CSM elections see more that 50 players running for a spot.

One of the most-discussed ideas for tweaking the CSM for the next election cycle is to implement a minimum signatures requirement, such that an aspiring candidate must show at least a modicum of support before being added to the ballot -- just like in a real world election. A ballot with over 50 candidates is confusing and wastes a tremendous number of votes, which harms the legitimacy of the council.

Accept an initially low turnout, but fight against it by advertising the elections and the council on login screens and the forums. Many players will be skeptical of a player council until it produces tangible results; the suspicion that the council is just a bunch of PR shills must be refuted by action. Legitimacy must be established by giving credit and acknowledging the involvement and contributions of the council when gameplay changes are implemented. If this is done well, turnout will spike and the election of player representatives will become a high-stakes battlefield.

Terms should last for a year. Six months is too short; CCP began the CSM with six month terms, and it rapidly created election fatigue, in addition to too much churn on the council. Representatives were only just getting a sense of how the company and its developers worked within the first three to four months of their terms.

It's also important to have an institutional memory on the council and allow the best representatives to remain on the body, so term limits are unwise. The early CSM had term limits in addition to six month terms, and ran through most of the talented candidates in two years. The term limits were abandoned, and the quality of the CSM recovered.

The first iteration of the CSM was set up like a player congress. A forum called the "Assembly Hall" was created for any player to create proposals, like a legislative bill. The CSM could then take up and vote on these issues, giving rise to an implication that these issues would be acted on by CCP.

This turned out to be a mistake. Game design isn't a democratic process, and the Assembly Hall gave rise to an expectation in the player base that "passed" issues would be acted on; when they weren't, the CSM itself was seen as a sham. Later iterations of the CSM have essentially abandoned the Assembly Hall, focusing instead on advocacy -- a lobbying group for the players, rather than a congress.

Once established, it's important to put the council under NDA and to also put it in contact with the developers who actually produce the game. When CCP first established the CSM, members were mostly put in contact with only high-level management, which had little impact on the nuts and bolts that concern customers.

The CSM has a private forum for the delegates and alternates to discuss issues with the developers, and employees should be encouraged to seek feedback from the council. In addition to a forum and in-person summits, the modern CSM has a real-time chat channel with key developers using Skype, allowing for immediate feedback and better communication.

A player council should be used for feedback and not ignored. As the canary in the mineshaft, the CSM warned CCP repeatedly over a period of years about the dangers of abandoning its core product; when player representatives were ignored, this only increased the outrage of the customers. If you go through the effort of establishing a player council, its advice should be taken seriously, lest there be blowback from the players. A player council can be the first line of defense against the kind of corporate groupthink that drives game companies to ruin.

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