Editor’s Note: This is part two in a week long look at EVE Online called “War on the Impossible”. For more, check out Part One: Fanfest, Part Three: Ambulation and Part Four: Trinity.

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CCP Games used EVE Fanfest to unveil their plans for a “Council of Stellar Management”, a democratically elected group of players who work with CCP to shape the game. In a morning session, the designers introduced the concept to the fans, then in an afternoon session, they admirably brought in two industry luminaries – Jessica Mulligan (formerly of Turbine) and Dr. Richard Bartle (an expert on virtual communities) – to debate the topic.

The Council of Stellar Management will be a nine member group of players, elected after a month long virtual campaign. They will sit for six month terms and do so as their real selves, not necessarily as their characters.

While election to the council is democratic, the council itself is not a democratic organization. It is what CEO Hilmar Petursson called a “deliberative democracy”, which is to say that it takes more than a simple vote to effect change. Even a completely unanimous vote of the council again does nothing to guarantee change. Instead, they must first achieve consensus among the council and then convince CCP this is in fact the right course of action. Only then will the recommendations of the council become reality.

CCP pledged not to interfere with the player council and will instead form an internal council, whose role it is to meet with the player council and hear their arguments once the players reach a decision.

Issues come before the player council in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is through the councilors themselves. If one sees an issue they wish to bring to CCP’s attention, they sponsor that issue before the council for deliberation. The second means was inspired by Iceland’s own democracy where CCP developers noted that once in power; the citizens have no influence over their politicians save for their next election. To counter this in EVE, players can band together and force an issue before the council. In order to do this, they have to essentially start a petition that achieves over a certain percentage (the number was not given) of support from the player base.

However, it seems doubtful that player petitions of this nature will be a particularly strong form of feedback since their very necessity is contingent on having no support on the council. It stands to reason then that they would be defeated, even if forced in front of the council.

The actual goals of the council were left intentionally vague, but CCP believes that some kind of change was necessary based on the scale of what has become more than just their community, but a virtual society. The sheer volume of information on the forums is nearly impossible to sort through and the fact remains that many players are not represented there.

One hope CCP has is that the Council will represent all players, not just the vocal minority visible on message boards or in elite corporations. They emphasized that one snapshot of their player base puts only 9% in those elite groups, which leads them to believe that the average player should have more of a voice in these elections.

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However, they also admit that it is likely to be an iterative process that improves over time, not a home-run on the first glance. Regardless of how many players are actually in the various corporations though, logic dictates these players will have larger bases of support in what is likely to be a very fragmented ballot given that any player with over 30 days on his account can run. It thus stands to reason the majority, if not all, of the councilors will be from those corporations. CCP hopes that over time, though, this balances out.

A focus group is another way CCP looks at the council, as they try to define expectations. It behooves them to listen to their suggestions, but that doesn’t mean the Council of Stellar Management now designs the game.

CCP has not nailed down all the rules for the upcoming election, or when it will take place. They did reveal that all voting is anonymous and that each account – not person – gets one vote, a fact which received a few boos from the crowd.

Paradoxically though, while councilors serve as real people and tackle real issues about the “game” and not the “world”, the election itself promises some gamesmanship. They noted that there are no in-game rules – save the basic EULA – that govern the ethics of the election. Players are free to bully and buy votes along the path to victory. Corruption, after all, is part of the game.

This is where the idea falls apart for me. On one hand, it would be unethical for the Councilors to be in the employ of a major corporation and push through an agenda to CCP that would be advantageous to one group, but on the other hand, it is totally OK for a corporation to go out and try and buy all nine seats on the council. Either the democracy is fully a function of the game, or it is above it, and as they described it at Fanfest, it is both. That is a recipe for disaster and confusion.

To CCP’s credit, they seemed to fully recognize that their plan was imperfect and would evolve. They believe strongly that players need a democratic voice within the evolution of their world and as such, it makes sense they consider outside opinion when they design exactly how that voice will be heard. To that end, CCP invited Mulligan and Bartle who both delivered specific presentations on the larger idea of player involvement in the development of a virtual world and then proceeded to debate the idea with them.

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Jessica Mulligan: “Citizens Against the Gods”

At this point, theology entered the debate. Mulligan delivered a retooled presentation originally delivered to a group of game developers who wanted to know how to deal with their player base.

To her, players exist in three categories:

  • Citizens: These players like and care about the game and look out for the good of everyone in it.
  • Tribesman: These players are more interested in the good of their own guild or circle of friends than the game itself.
  • Barbarians: These players could care less about the game and seem to exist more for the drama.

Often, players get upset at the “Gods” (the developers) for a few reasons, including: developers improperly managed players’ expectations of what the game would be, they made promises they couldn’t keep, they largely ignored their players or actively developed an antagonistic relationship with them.

Mulligan believes players want a series of things, but these things are not necessarily what they need. When asked though, they’ll say they want honesty, respect, instant gratification and their own personal issues solved. What they need is similar, but differs in some important ways: honesty, respect, justice, consistency, properly managed expectations and a level playing field.

One theory she presented was that of the “karma bank”, which says that as developers do good things for their players, they gain a certain amount of karma, which is then spent whenever they screw up. It explains – for example – why Star Wars Galaxies suffered an outright revolt when they introduced the NGE after a widely unpopular “Combat Upgrade” and EVE continued to move forward and grow despite their recent employee misconduct scandal.

While none of this directly relates to the Council of Stellar Management, Mulligan painted a rather clear and fair picture of how virtual world communities function, which then set the stage for Dr. Bartle.

Dr. Richard Bartle: “Government and the Gods”

Bartle brought everyone back to theology with his lecture, which defined in theological terms the roles of players and developers in a virtual world and then explained why he believes the Council of Stellar Management is flawed.

Bartle defined both “god” and “government” in the context of this discussion:

  • God: Someone who creates a reality.
  • Government: Someone who operates within a reality to enforce their will, but must obey the “physics” of that world.
    • The physics being the base rules that govern existence. In reality, they are literally physics, of course, but in a video game they are whatever the gods say they are.

With those definitions in mind, he explained that the developers are the gods, as they created the physics of EVE Online. Bartle then said that, for him, “gods cannot be governments”, because while governments can be deposed, the nature of a god is that they cannot ever give up their power. At this point, things were getting just a touch philosophical, but while it took some time to paint a full picture of his thesis, once complete, it made some strong points about EVE.

He continued the presentation with four examples of how games have historically managed the god vs. government relationship:

  • Developers have total and complete power.
  • Developers have total and complete power, but players can self organize within the world and create things like guilds.
  • Developers descend into their virtual world, so while they have complete power, they are also in that world. He pointed out the example of Richard Garriott in Ultima Online.
  • The fourth version is only theoretical, as no one has ever successfully done it. However, it is a system where the gods are servants to the players and do whatever they want unconditionally.

Almost all games fall into the second category, where developers are the gods and the players are the government (guilds). However, while EVE Online has been that way, the word democracy implies a shift towards the fourth form of the world. The flaw with this relationship is that a democracy lacks “artistic integrity” and could take the game in random directions, which may or may not be positive.

The fact is, the Council of Stellar Management is not a shift toward a system where the developers are subordinated to the players. If the council votes for something the developers do not want to do, they will not do it. The developers have a veto, no matter what they say, and CCP acknowledged that to be true.

In Richard Bartle’s estimation, what this provides the players is “a say, not a vote”, which is not real power and likely something they already had.

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The Debate

CEO Petursson moderated the panel and used that role to respond. He explained that when the game had 30,000 subscribers, he felt like a god, because they could simply deal with situations like the god of the Old Testament. If someone did something wrong, they smote them. Yet, as time passed, CCP has become more like the Christian God of the New Testament, a much more subtle force.

To Petursson, the Council of Stellar Management is more concerned with the management of the player society than the intricacies of game system design. To which Bartle responded that the corporations already serve that role.

Petursson agreed, but felt something new was needed based on scale. He cited a psychologist who said people can only truly “know” 150 people. So, for them, the first level of organization is the corporation of 150 people. Then there is the Alliance of 150 corporations. Now, with as many people as they have online, they needed to once again move above that and this is the inspiration of the Council. Bartle was not convinced.

CCP then said the Council of Stellar Management exists within the “physics of the world”, not to influence it. This statement though is a direct contradiction to the design presented earlier in the day, where the councilors were to serve as people, not players and to consider whatever the players want, which theoretically could and should include questions of game balance and design.

At this point, Mulligan brought up a theoretical example where the Goon Swarm convinces the council to vote that all ships be replaced with pink ponies. It’s patently ridiculous, but not really inconceivable. What would CCP do, she asked. They admitted they would not make such a change, as they would need a good reason why and none could be given. However, they argued this would never happen.

“We are a bit naive about human nature,” they half joked.

With that example said aloud, CCP essentially bowed to the point Mulligan and Bartle made, which is that it is unfair to call it a democracy. Sure, the council is democratically elected, but once there, they are a deliberative group who must persuade CCP, not dictate policy to them.

Observations

While the idea of the Council of Stellar Management seemed quite unique and a noble step towards increased player participation in the creation of a game world, it is still too loosely defined and with far too many paradoxes to succeed.

If CCP wants the elections to be “of the game world”, then the decisions the council makes should also be within the physics of that world. This is what they said they wanted themselves, but the base design they presented contradicts them.

Personally, I think they missed a step. A more logical government layer over top of the corporations would have been based on the races within the games and could have provided the game with an infusion of political intrigue and fun without the weighty paradoxes of what exactly that council does once elected. Instead of a deliberative democracy that contemplates whatever it wants – they made sure not to define that at any point during the week – they could have clearly defined mechanics, say a system akin to the management in a game like Civilization IV.

The above is just one example, but it is something that gives those elected real power to govern a world and keeps them safely within the confines of what that world is. It is also true democracy and would have left CCP free to then either have players elect or they themselves select people to sit on a focus group, which is essentially what the Council of Stellar Management in its initial design appears to be.

That is not to say that this is not a noble experiment, just that there seems to be too many goals and ideas jammed into one. Nonetheless, if any game is to undergo anything resembling democratic initiatives, EVE Online is that game. What they discover should not only improve the process as they iterate upon, but also serve as a lesson to everyone who builds and lives in virtual worlds.

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