[The Council of Stellar Management is a group put together by CCP, publishers and developers of the popular MMO EVE Online to help make decisions for the game. Democratically elected by the player base, the group speaks with developers on a daily basis and meets at the company's Reykjavik, Iceland headquarters twice a year to help the team guide the game's development.
Recent controversies over microtransactions have caused the team to call an emergency meeting of the CSM. In this article, Gamasutra speaks to CSM members and EVE developers to find out more about what purpose the group serves in the game.]
"Art is never finished, only abandoned," da Vinci is purported to have said. This is idea has bedeviled creators in every expressive medium in history. Painters, writers, actors, composers, directors, and editors have all exhausted themselves in the endless struggle to reconcile what they want to make with the thing they are actually making.
Video games offer an opportunity to get around this struggle with patches and new content long after a game's been released.
In solving one problem, though a whole new set of problems are introduced: should a game be updated according to the wants of its players, or its creators? How can game creators make sense of player feedback when so much of it can seem inconclusive or contradictory?
In 2007 CCP launched The Council of Stellar Management for its MMO EVE Online, a group of people elected by other players to represent their interests and wants to the developer. "To achieve continued success, EVE's society must be granted a larger role in exerting influence on the legislative powers of CCP," senior researcher Petur Johannes Oskarsson wrote, in a CCP white paper about the CSM.
The idea was inherently political: a first attempt to move beyond the autocratic design model of the past and create an organization that gave players ownership in the game's future development. In the subsequent years, CCP's attempt to democratize its player base has been volatile, exciting, and sometimes controversial.
Moreover it offers invaluable insight into the challenges awaiting many game creators who intend to move away from the old model of "abandoning" their art on launch day and instead commit to the long and complicated process of keeping it alive and growing into something neither player nor creator could have predicted on launch day.
This Game is Your Game, This Game is My Game
"When you have a group who represent such a large number of your customers, being able to tap into their knowledge and understanding of the community provides absolutely priceless feedback to ensure you can provide your customers with more of what they want," said John Turbefield, of CCP Research and Statistics.
Understanding player wants is a lifeline for any MMO developer. While it might be strange to consider a democratically elected player council to represent the player wants for new Mario or Final Fantasy games, for EVE Online it was a matter of pragmatism.
"More traditional methods of listening to gaming communities such as forums often have a very poor signal-to-noise ratio, making the CSM a valuable additional method of really drilling down to the root of any issues that arise," Turbefield continued. "They call us out on anything which they think to be unrealistic, and have provided us with vital reality checks in the past."
The CSM was intended to be flexible enough to allow each Council to define its own goals. While participating in CSM can be a time-consuming process, the official requirements are relatively open-ended. Members are expected to attend a twice annual meeting at CCP's offices in Reykjavik, Iceland and maintain some form of regular contact with other players, be it responding to emails or keeping up-to-date with message boards.
"On the initiative of the newly elected CSM6, we now have a permanent Skype IM channel in which the CSM and various developers -- including Arnar Hrafn Gylfason, the senior producer of EVE -- discuss things, both EVE-related, and naturally a good bit of social banter," Turbefield said.
"This new, daily communication via IM is helping the CSM to become much more aware of how CCP operates on a day to day basis and how they can have the most impact. Incorporating a group of non-employees into the development structure and keeping the communication going is however an on-going challenge and frankly a full time job in itself."
Another challenge that comes with such a free-form structure is knowing just how representative the elected members really are. The first CSM election saw 10 percent voter turnout from a player base of over 300,000. In the intervening years the percentage of voters dipped slightly and then began to rise again, reaching 14 percent with the election of CSM6.
"For those concerned about any promotion of self-interest by the CSM, I would point towards the very strong emphasis that the CSM has put on design changes focusing on improving the experience for new players, with a lot of discussion about tutorial systems and trying to level off the 'learning cliff' that many people joke about EVE having," said Turbfield.
"Who Am I? Why Am I Here?"
Stephan Pirson is one of the members of the current CSM. The 34 year-old programmer and computer scientist began playing EVE Online in 2006. "My wife had left me, I had ample free time and I didn't know what to do with it other than developing," Pirson told me. "I tried World of Warcraft but didn't like it, then found a random review about an MMO in space and I gave it a shot. It looked gorgeous; I stayed a bit, it was amazingly complex and I needed to master my understanding of how the game works."
After he learned the game's intricacies, the CEO of the in-game corporation Pirson belonged to suggested that he run for a position on the CSM. Pirson originally dismissed the idea. He was still too new to the game -- his first election was in 2007 -- and his corporation had recently lost many of its players due to "internal drama."
"The CEO of my corporation was an old-timer, had played since Beta and was what is now defined as a 'bittervet,'" Pirson said. "He loved the game, but at the same time enjoyed bashing CCP for the mistakes they repeatedly make."
He was finally persuasive enough to convince Pirson to run and, to his surprise, he won the election. "I was alternate of the second CSM. I attended the meetings, gave my opinion, voted on things. I ran again for third and got elected again as a full member this time," Pirson said. "I've now been in the CSM for nearly three years now."
Robert Woodhead, a computer programmer in North Carolina (and developer of the original Wizardry for the Apple II) was also dubious about his chances to win an election. "I ran because I was concerned about a few things in the game and I thought it might be interesting to run and use it as a platform to discuss them," said Woodhead.
"Much to my surprise, I found myself stuck with a non-paying job for a year. [laughter] I found that I was spending two or three hours a day on it consistently. It basically took over my gameplay."
Now that the CSM has several years of history behind it players have acclimated to the idea of communicating with members on a regular basis, which adds to the workload. "I get requests to fix this or that particular aspect of the game literally every day when I log in," Pirson said. "Some fall within the 'small and easy' category, others are larger in scope and require more resources than we currently can address."
In addition to fielding player requests the CSM also gets regular queries from CCP. "There is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff where we ask questions of CCP and they ask questions of us, using us as a sounding board," Woodhead said. "We also have a responsibility to -- in [CCP CEO] Hilmar's words -- 'call bullshit' on CCP when we think they've made a wrong choice."
"What that really means is giving an outside perspective so that if CCP has this perception of something, then we'll come in and say, 'Well, maybe you'd better look at it like this.' I think that kind of feedback is very useful to them in figuring out the best way to do things."
The State of the Universe
There have been a few recurring issues that each CSM has tried to address over the years and these issues have brought both small and significant changes to EVE Online. "I can point to things such as the skill queue and the removal of the learning skills as examples of things that were greatly affected by input from the CSM," Turbefield said.
"They are a key reason for the increased priority given to lag-fixing efforts and for our move towards a more 'staggered' release cycle where we release expansions to EVE in parts rather than all at once."
One of the historic debates in CSM centered on the conflict between developing new features and content in the hopes of attracting new players, versus fixing older features or content that existing players don't feel is working properly. "Doing something new and cool can be a lot of fun, and having to go back and wade through other people's code can be a bit of a chore," Woodhead said. "I'm a programmer myself, so I understand that totally.
"We know that there has to be a balance, but we think there's a lot of benefit to be had by going back and looking at things like low sec or factional warfare, and using the experience that has been gained over the last couple of years and saying, 'Okay, let's do a version 2.0 on this.' The difficult part is figuring which of these issues is the one we think CCP should do first and then actually convincing CCP to do it."
While everyone could probably pick out a part of the game they'd like changed to better suit their wants, there is a very real bottleneck in the form of available workers, time, and money to spend on a given issue. Prioritizing what can be done, and making sure it will be worth the cost of investment, is a big part of ongoing negotiations between CSM and CCP. These are challenging questions for a studio to face on its own -- every department wants more time, money, and resources -- so adding players' voices to the fray complicates an already crowded debate.
Even so, during the tenure of CSM4, CCP gave the group stakeholder status, which allowed it a voice in the meetings where resource allocation and scheduling decisions are actually made. "We could now participate -- through a proxy -- in release planning and 'fight' for resources to be allocated to 'our' projects," Pirson said.
"Mostly it has turned out into an attempt at collaboration between individual teams of developers who want resources for their project to sometimes come to us and pitch their ideas, see if synergy is possible, and vice versa."
Addressing lag has been one of the areas where this structure has led to the most success. "The continuing performance improvements in the game -- otherwise known as The War on Lag -- is one clear area where CSM has to help CCP optimize their resources to get the most bang for the buck," Woodhead said.
"CSM6 has just spotlighted a very interesting technical fix that the anti-lag team -- Team Gridlock -- is looking at. We think it's really kind of a cool idea, so we're kind of cheerleading to see if we can't get that pushed along a little faster than it might otherwise have gone."
Similarly, the CSM helped inspire the "1000 Papercuts" project, in which a team has been focusing on improving existing gameplay by making a large number of small tweaks.
It also talked CCP into changing its plans for implementing microtransactions -- though recent controversy suggests there's still work to be done here on both sides -- and has been advocating for some simple but effective changes in the new player experience.
"We feel that's an area where every dollar you spend improving the new player experience goes straight to the bottom line," Woodhead said.
"Every fraction of a percent of new players that you keep because they have a good time in the [new player experience] is a customer you keep for a long time. One of the ideas that came out the other day was to put some improvements to the appearance of the ship that you get when you first start the game.
If that's your first impression -- that's the first ship you see, you know. Put a little chrome on it. That's an example of an idea that probably wouldn't cost a lot of money, but at first glance looks like a really good idea."
The Worst Form of Government except All Those Others
Like any structure founded in democratic representation, the CSM faces the challenge of renewing itself. It is not enough to have been recognized as a stakeholder in CCP; future generations will have to demonstrate they still deserve that stake. For the CSM, this will involve striving to show it represents the whole player base and not a minority of the most vocal players. While voter turnout has steadily increased in the last several years, it's hard to think of a 14 perent turnout as optimal.
"We have to be aware that the more organized player groups (in particular the null sec-based groups) are going to be able to have a perhaps disproportionate impact on the voting as they are simply better able to co-ordinate their votes," Turbefield said.
Corruption is also a potential issue for CSM members, as with any other democratic body. So far the institution has had a very good track record on this front, with only one member forced to step down for breaking the mandatory non-disclosure agreement. There was also the case of a member of CSM3 who traded on insider information in the market.
"He just brain farted," Woodhead said. "I believe he said he'd had a few too many beers or something, but he came clean and apologized for it. It wasn't industrial espionage or anything."
There is likewise the possibility of pandering -- making hyperbolic claims for the benefit of winning an election, while knowing those promises will be impossible to implement. "Unlike real-life politics we don't have to guarantee results to get reelected, only a best effort," Pirson said.
"People have been focused on promises in the past -- 'vote for me and I'll fix this for you' -- but things have gradually changed, and you see very few people promising fixes now. Instead they're putting forward their knowledge of areas of the game, and their specific positions, when several conflicting positions exist between the different players as to what is good or not for the game."
Yet there is still a possibility that CSM members slowly drift away from the general player base -- a kind of let-them-eat-cake class of highly engaged players suddenly wielding influence with CCP. To be clear, this is not the case now, but it will be a possibility that future CSM members will have to face. "Some players are really tuned into the forums, they know what's going on, they're part of a big alliance so they're doing a lot of alliance communication," Woodhead said.
"Those people tend to be aware of the CSM, are interested in what we're doing, and are vocal about it. There are other groups of players who are a little more casual, who are not as clued in. A lot of the increase of the turnout in subsequent CSMs is going to come to that group."
The CSM will grow into whatever it is capable of accomplishing, CCP's CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson said when the group began. On the balance, this promise seems to have held true so far. In the years since 2007 progress has been slow, but this too is a feature of democracy. It is meant to insulate a population from the unpredictable swings that sometimes happen with autocracies as much as it is supposed to be an agent for change.
CSM is most remarkable in how it has created an institutional role for players in the ongoing development of a game. While the steps appear modest at this stage, it's a remarkable achievement to treat players not simply as customers but as creative partners. The current structure is relatively conservative in terms of workload and responsibility, but the future seems promising.
"Right now we submit to a CCP employee our prioritized list of requests for inclusion into the next release plan, and while he does a good job given the circumstances, it doesn't replace the ability to react to other stakeholder's arguments, see synergies and alter our stance to coincide better with theirs in real time," Prison said.
"I know these things will come in time. The trend has been overwhelmingly positive over the years."
In the case of EVE Online, the creative cause has not been abandoned. To the contrary, the struggle has been joined.