Since it was announced at CCP’s Fanfest 2007, EVE Online’s Council of Stellar Management has changed dramatically in both scope and intent. Originally announced as a way for players to snuff out CCP employees’ unauthorized involvement in the game world after it was discovered that a CCP employee had provided an unfair advantage to his in-game alliance, the CSM has since evolved into a new kind of democratic community management where EVE’s most prominent (or at least politically-minded) players meet directly with CCP programmers, game designers and producers to deliberate on the game world’s most pressing issues.
Last weekend, after conducting nearly 20 hours of online meetings in the EVE game world, the CSM met face to face for the first time in Reykjavik, Iceland. Delegates sat across a long table from prominent CCP employees, and a director and sometimes-diplomat from from the University of Iceland moderated the group’s extensive discussions on interface issues, game balance and other design considerations. Never in the (admittedly short) history of online gaming have players been granted such unvarnished insight into the design of their game world, and the significance of the event wasn’t lost on either the players, the developers or the journalists who were privileged to be able to attend the event. As Dr. Eyjólfur “Eyjo” Guðmundsson, EVE’s resident economist put it to the delegates, “You are now part of the inner circle.”
One of CCP’s more prominent employees in attendance was EVE’s Lead Designer, Noah Ward. Noah took a few minutes to sit down with WarCry after the second day of CSM meetings to give his impressions of the event thus far.
WarCry: Have you been surprised at all about how it’s gone? What were you expecting going into it?
Noah Ward: I haven’t really been surprised about it at all, I’ve been – I guess initially what I felt was the first issues that they brought up were maybe not as “grand” as we had hoped for or expected, you know, some little niggling UI issues and that kind of stuff. And we were thinking that they were going to bring up broad, sweeping things. I think that’s just due to the fact that this is the first one we’ve done and they didn’t really know their place or what their role was, how it was going to work out or what they were allowed to even ask – how it worked. It wasn’t like the issues that they were bringing up surprised I think any of us.
WC: That was more yesterday, right? When they were talking about minor UI things?
WC: Today has been more substantial I think, based on what I’ve seen.
NW: Yes, definitely more substantial today. But yeah, the issues that they bring up aren’t things – it wasn’t coming out of left field, it’s definitely stuff that other players have voiced concerns over in the past. I think as the CSM evolves and moves forward the issues are going to – well, some of these things are long-standing issues that need to be addressed, and as we solve some of these longer-standing issues it’s going to be newer stuff and more forward-looking kind of things. Or at least I hope we’ll come up with more forward looking things.
WC: You said that they’re bringing up problems that you guys have definitely been aware of, that have been on the radar for a while, but some of them – without seemingly any game design background at all – have been proposing solutions, and I’ve seen some kind of nods of approval from you guys. Have you been surprised by the quality of their ideas? Do you see anything there that’s actually worth investigating?
NW: I think definitely their plans, their ideas have merit. I had no game design background before I started working here, I was just a guy with some good ideas about game design! Then I got hired, and of course I’ve been working here for N-Something years; I’ve read a lot on the subject and now I consider myself well-versed in game design and game psych theory. But yeah, when you start out you’re just a guy who likes games; you see a part of a game you don’t like and you say “If you did it this way, it would be better for me!” I think that’s what they’re saying, and that’s kind of how EVE is. It’s evolved from hardly anything in it, and the players say “please give us this feature,” and we just do it!
WC: So do you see any future game designers among those nine CSM members?
NW: I don’t know if we’ll necessarily be recruiting from them!
WC: Oh, not necessarily for you guys! Just in general …
NW: It’s entirely possible. This is definitely an interesting type of – I mean, we’re really forging ahead and treading uncharted territories here, so … This is definitely something to put on your CV – “I was on the Council of Stellar Management,” a democratically elected representative of a game with a quarter of a million subscribers.
WC: I know that the way the CSM was originally conceived, it was sort of an ‘oversight’ role. Obviously, that’s been replaced by your internal affairs here after the whole “t20” incident. Now it seems to be more of a community management in the sense that they’re filtering the forums, they’re accumulating these opinions and figuring out which ones have enough merit to bring to you guys. I’m just kind of curious, how much hesitance was there for you guys in terms of – it seems like when it comes to actual stuff like deadlines or concrete plans to investigate or dedicate man-hours to some of the issues that they’re bringing up, you guys are really reluctant.
WC: That completely makes sense, because they’re fans of the game and not paid employees; they shouldn’t have anything to do with the the financial sense of the game. But at the same time, they all expressed a pretty pressing need to bring something back to their “constituencies.”
NW: Yeah, as they should, really. But the thing is, it’s also an issue of just educating people. Unless you actually work in game development or some other form of software development, it’s kind of a “black art”; you need to know, “How does it work, that this game gets created?” You know it takes a lot of money, but what’s the process that things go through? Especially as a company like CCP grows from three people to 300 people – I started when there were 30 people – the whole process changes. You have to put more processes in place, with a massive organizational role … compared with a couple of programmers with some ideas to make a space game.
So when they come here and they say, “We want this!” just because we said “Yes,” and even if we said “Yes, we want it too, really badly!” it doesn’t mean it’s going to be in the game next week. There’s a whole process. So getting people educated about how something goes from an idea to a design – maybe it’s just a sentence like “I want to be able to ‘X.'” Then that ends up in some backlog, now we’re using Scrum and Agile Methodology, and that gets prioritized. But just by having them here and saying “We want these things,” they bump up the priorities, so it makes it into the game sooner than it would have. Or it ends up on the backlog, because it wasn’t in the backlog yet.
WC: Just going back and talking about them as community managers, obviously you have this pipeline now where they’re taking all this information from the playerbase and bringing it to you guys. Do you see them also as – I don’t want to say a PR tool, but a way to interact with the community? You guys are amazingly transparent compared to so many other game developers. For example, Blizzard – there’s no way in hell they’d ever give just fans a window into the game design process like you guys have the past couple of days. Are you hoping that the delegates are going to take that information back to the community, and educate them the same way you’ve educated the CSM?
NW: I think CCP really prides themselves, everybody at CCP, as being open and transparent. I think it’s just one of their strengths as a group of people who want to make cool games for people – we don’t have to be secretive. The more players know about the process and understand just what goes into just getting that one little bit of the UI fixed, and from a designer’s mind to the programmer getting it done, the QA testing it, the Customer Service knowing about how it works, and then the deployment team making it happen. And then the managers making sure all the people who were doing this stuff had it happen, making sure they’re all fed, it’s a big undertaking. Any little, tiny thing -getting people to know that it’s not just one guy who can push a couple buttons and there it is. It helps the whole industry as we can educate our customers with what’s involved in this whole thing.
And this is something that … I hire junior game designers and it’s something they need to learn. They’re like “It would be so cool if we did this!” Then I have to go, “I don’t want to break your spirit or stomp on your enthusiasm, but basically, this has to go through a big process.” That was one of the things that … everybody was concerned for my well-being when the CSM was coming, because “they have all these issues,” and “you have to talk” -because most of it’s game design stuff and I’m the guy who has to answer them. And I say, “This is my job, my designers come to me and say ‘I want this,’ and I have to tell them ‘No, it’s not going to happen for this many months.'” And I’ve been doing this for a while now, so I’m not worried about telling some more people, “Awesome idea! Can’t do it next month, but we’re going to put it in our priority list and it’s going to happen!”
If you look at stuff like Walking in Stations [formerly “Ambulation,” EVE’s in-development 3-D avatar module], this was something that we wanted to do three years ago. Faction Warfare, we’ve been promising for four years. Eventually, we get around to it, but we we can’t just have: “Awesome idea, let’s do Faction Warfare, or let’s have avatars walking around in space stations.” It takes a while to make really grand things happen, and it even takes a while to make little UI changes happen.
I just think that educating people, and being open about it – honesty is the best policy, right?
WC: Do you see that changing at all? It seems that one of the things that makes CCP unique is they started out as an incredibly small company and they had that transparency right from the start. Now, it’s grown exponentially along with EVE. Do you find that with the speed of that growth, that you have to cling to that ideal a little bit more in the sense where … I mean, the stakes are obviously higher now and you still want to keep all your subscribers and keep growing. One of the reasons why Blizzard barely deals with the press at all is because they control virtually every screenshot that’s released – they’re sort of the exact opposite of you guys, they have no transparency whatsoever.
NW: Definitely – also, if you look at Steve Jobs and Apple, there is value in the Reveal, in building up some “what’s going to happen?” I think you can have both. We’ve got some plans at Fanfest for some pretty cool reveals. We’ve been keeping this stuff close to our chest. People are going to go, “No way!” That’s really fun to do! I think you can definitely have both … if I have one – well, I wouldn’t really call it a “regret,” but I used to be way more hands-on with the players and I used to be on the forums all the time. Now, as my responsibilities have grown and my department has grown, there’s practically as many people now in my department as there were in the entire company when I joined! That’s amazing to me.
So I can’t be on the forums answering every thread, and looking at every little balance gripe – I have to delegate way more. I have to make sure that the company’s … not the “mantra,” I can’t think of the word right now, but that it trickles down to all the people below me; that they carry the torch. That they’re on the forums, and they come to me, “You know, the guys really are mad about, say, ‘Large Autocannons suck,’ we really need to change it. We were talking about them and we agree, so let’s do it!” And then I have to go, “Yes, definitely, if Large Autocannons suck then let’s boost them up.” That sort of thing.
WC: What do you want to see different in the next CSM, or what are you looking forward to about the next one?
NW: I would like to see more high-level stuff. More goals, more vision, more future. A lot of their issues were kind of on the “tactics” level, it was like “We want you to do this, change it like this.” I’d like to see more “strategy,” to see them say, “We would like to go here in a year from now, and can you make it happen?” Rather than “This little bit of the game needs to be changed.” And I think we can do it. I just think it needs to be, you know, communicated to them, and as CSM evolves, we can have this. Because it’s the players’ game, and I think this democracy is just going to make things all the better for the players.