It takes a pretty good scandal to kindle the democratic spirit, especially in the vacuum of space.

A single alliance of veteran pilots called Band of Brothers (or simply BoB) laid claim to vast regions of mineral-rich space. With its newfound resources, it built fleets of powerful warships to assert influence into neighboring systems. To the hundred-thousand-strong population of New Eden, BoB’s dominance seemed virtually unassailable.

But in EVE Online, Icelandic developer CCP’s single-server MMOG, where nearly 250,000 players can log into the same game-world to build (or destroy) empires, bad PR can cripple an alliance faster than a Doomsday Device.

In BoB’s case, a salvo of allegations that the organization had received under-the-table assistance from CCP employees was enough to rally the opposition and CCP suddenly found itself squarely in the crosshairs of its own customers. As with doping in sports or price fixing in commerce, the episode undermined both BoB’s supremacy and the players’ confidence in CCP. If developer involvement puts one group of combatants at an advantage then, many reasoned, what’s the point of fighting at all?

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In an attempt to quell the turmoil, CCP offered an olive branch to the community: a chance to peer behind the curtain of the whole operation. EVE already affords players a degree of control over their environment that makes other MMOGs seem primitive by comparison – everything from the economy to social structures to the map itself is a direct result of player involvement. The developers already let their customers help design their game. Why not make it official?

***

At CCP’s offices, a long table stretched across the length of the room. At the head of the table sat the moderator, Dr. Agust H. Ingthorsson, Director of the Research Liaison Office at the University of Iceland and occasional E.U. diplomat on behalf of the tiny island nation. On either side of him sat two councils: one composed of CCP employees, the other made up of delegates elected by the EVE player-base to represent their interests. This was the first real-world meeting of the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), the end result of months of preparation, weeks of campaigning and hours of heated debate about internet spaceships.

Matt Woodward, a game designer at CCP, was one of those chosen to represent CCP during the three-day summit. For CCP, Woodward says, the CSM could serve a very practical purpose: gathering and condensing feedback from the player-base and presenting it straight to the designers themselves. “Our players, on the forums, they’ve always had this history – they will mock up incredibly elaborate ideas if they feel that they’ve got something. And sometimes, there’s a main consensus that, well, it’s gibberish.” Let qualified players sort through the blather, and the best ideas will rise to the top.

Player-driven community management is not a new concept. Many MMOGs employ prominent citizens of their virtual worlds to filter through the sea of bitter, malformed opinions that are the official forums and pick out nuggets of truth. But, Woodward says, “the scale, the process and the thinking behind [the CSM]” puts it in a new category.

For Valentijn Geirnaert, a 23-year-old computer science student from the Hague and CSM delegate, the Council is an opportunity to cut through the PR and give players an unvarnished look at the ongoing development process. “From the developers to the community, its like ‘this is what we’re doing, this is what we’re planning,’ and it’s always a smooth story with all the edges rubbed off. Sometimes it doesn’t always seem completely honest.”

Where professional community managers are stuck toeing the company line, the CSM has no such obligation to CCP. “We don’t have to sugarcoat anything,” Geirnaert says. “We can go to the forums and say, ‘You know what, we’ve touched all these agenda points and CCP will not give us any sort of deadlines.'”

Alex Kravitz, a 22-year-old pharmacy technician from Minneapolis, wanted a direct pipeline to the developers to express his ideas about game balance issues. “Saying things face to face to someone is a lot more powerful than making them glance through all the threads on a forum, find yours, look at it and try to comprehend it that way.”

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His participation in the CSM is partly ego, partly a misguided sense of responsibility, (Kravitz claims that if his proposed changes make it into the game, he won’t run for a second term) and partly for “lulz” – he’s a member of GoonSwarm, a controversial alliance of novice players from the “Something Awful” forums who’ve carved a place in New Eden for themselves through underhanded tactics and sheer attrition. Or maybe he simply sees an opportunity to make his mark. Whatever the case, he’s not beholden to the community at large. “Most EVE players are stupid,” Kravitz states matter-of-factly, “and they don’t know how to balance the game.”

***

There’s a buzz in the air on the bus ride back to Reykjavik from Thingvellir, current national park and former site of the Althingi, Iceland’s national parliament, for over eight centuries. Dr. Eyjo has just delivered a rousing speech at the site of the Loegberg (“law rock”), the original podium of the Althingi. The brutal politics of EVE, he said, aren’t all that different from the tribal culture of the early Icelandic settlers. However, he notes that “might is right” only gets you so far. Centuries from now, Dr. Eyjo said, the CSM delegates might be remembered as the original “chieftains of the internet.”

It’s an alluring argument, in part because it demonstrates how an enduring institution can develop from a humble thought experiment. In the CSM’s case, the “experiment” is quite literal; the Council charter is part of CCP researcher Petur Oskarsson‘s master’s dissertation at the University of Iceland. To Dr. Eyjo, another academic in CCP’s ranks, “[Petur’s] in a really enviable position for any philosopher. There are not many of them that have the opportunity to work with the ideas that they have with a community of 250,000 people.”

The delegates discovered their “guinea pig” status themselves when they realized how little guidance the charter actually provided. In the month between their election and their scheduled trip to Reykjavik, they had to settle a number of procedural issues before deciding upon their proposals to CCP. More than one heated dispute arose over intentionally vague language in the CSM charter – Petur provided a loose framework and let the delegates decide the rest. To Andrew Cruse, a 39-year-old technical writer from West Sussex, England, and the CSM Chairman, “They’re partially deciding a council, partially having a sociological experiment in the virtual equivalent of the Big Brother house with spaceships.”

It’s not just the interactions within the council – made up of players with completely different interests and play-styles within the world of EVE – that are unpredictable. The effect that the CSM can have on the development process is still unclear. While the elections were held under the pretext that the player-base would have a greater say in ongoing game balance and design issues, the Council charter explicitly states that the CSM holds no official power within CCP. But, Dr. Eyjo says, “we would not do this if we did not want to listen.”

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How much they want to listen, however, is still up for speculation. Just as the CSM delegates have different goals for their office, they sensed conflicting opinions on the part of the CCP council as well. Alison Wheeler, a 52-year-old executive at a London-based strategic consulting firm, sees some reluctance on the designers’ part to give any clear indication of whether the CSM’s proposals were feasible, let alone if or when they’d make it into the game.

“I’m not totally sure yet how much agreement there is between CCP management and CCP development teams. They’ve opened this can of worms up that said, ‘These people get elected by other pilots and players, they have the right to say, “We want this to happen; please make it so!”‘”

For the designers’ part, there are definite risks involved in allowing players without prior knowledge of the development process to dictate any part of the schedule. Lead Designer Noah Ward feels it’s CCP’s responsibility to educate the CSM about the development process, both for their benefit and to pass on to the player-base. “Unless you actually work in game development or some other form of software development, it’s kind of a black art,” Ward says.

This is perhaps partly why the CCP council openly expressed disappointment after the first day of meetings when the CSM proposed an array of small changes to EVE‘s user interface. The CSM felt these changes would have the greatest chance of improving the experience of the most number of players, regardless of their allegiances or interests. The CCP council thought they were wasting their time.

“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,'” Ward says. “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?’ And I think we can do it. I just think it needs to be 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.”

Some players are more patient than others. While the CSM may not have any formal powers with CCP, Shayne Smart, a 36-year-old internet strategy consultant from Amsterdam, feels that the CSM delegates’ position within the community might be more powerful than CCP intended. After all, if bad PR was partially responsible for letting players have a voice within CCP, it can also make that voice harder to ignore.

“They say we’re only going to be able to make recommendations, but we’re talking about a game which thrives on social pressure and peer pressure,” Smart says. “I think we have the opportunity, if we really wanted to push an issue today, to force CCP through a social engine or through the press, through the blogs, through the game – actually force them to do something.”

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There’s no indication what this action might be, or even if there’s enough of a consensus among the CSM delegates to actually attempt this sort of coup. For Smart however, all options should remain on the table. “CCP’s trying to say, ‘We’re listening,’ and if we’re doing our job and they are listening, we should tell that fairly to the community. On the other hand, if they’re not listening, we bring out our Machiavellian chess.”

***

A month and a half after the inaugural CSM Summit, it’s becoming clearer what role the CSM will have in shaping the future of EVE. Last week, the EVE developer blog announced harsher penalties to a tactic known as “suicide ganking,” whereby players would sacrifice their ship in high-security space to take out another player. GoonSwarm is famous for this maneuver – they have a fleet within their alliance called JihadSwarm that employs suicide ganking to “preserve asteroids from the infidels.” Many veteran players are unhappy with the changes, but for Eva Jobse, a 24-year-old student of game design from the Netherlands, whose solo play style makes her a target for suicide ganking, they’re no doubt an encouraging step.

It’s possible the revisions to suicide ganking were already in development before the CSM Summit – it can take months for even the smallest changes to make it into the game. Perhaps the CSM discussions provided the developers some incentive to put the issue at the front of the queue. The Council may not have the power to dictate what happens next, but as nine of the most prominent members of the EVE community, their opinions have clout.

Maybe the CSM are “chieftains of the internet.” They’re all politicians in their own right, either rising to prominence within their own factions or ingratiating themselves among a broader demographic. But their only authority is the power of suggestion, both to the game’s designers and to the player-base. Ultimately, it’s CCP’s decision whether to enact their changes (or give them the credit if they do). Alliances can bicker all they want over space rocks, but the developers’ word is still the Law.

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