Interviews

CCP'S Press Conference About Micro-Transactions And Incarna (EVE Online)

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Yesterday, CCP hosted a press conference with Senior Producer Arnar Gylfason and CSM Chairman Alex Gianturco to answer questions about micro-transactions, leaked company documents, and what's coming up next in Incarna.

A backlash of player criticism has swept over CCP in the wake of leaked documents relating to the Incarna expansion for EVE Online. In response, CCP asked the player-elected Council of Stellar Management (CSM) to fly to Iceland for an emergency summit to address player concerns. Most answered the call despite little notice, and the emergency summit paid dividends that seem to have mollified and even pleased more than a few of EVE's famously irate player-base.

In the wake of that meeting, CCP released apologetic blog posts, a video with both CCP Zulu and the head of the CSM council, and finally they hosted a Skype press conference to address press questions. Questions were answered by CCP Zulu (Arnar Gylfason), the senior producer in charge of EVE Online, and The Mittani (Alex Gianturco), the chairman of the council of stellar management, a democratic body elected by EVE players to represent their concerns to CCP.

(Some of the questions have been trimmed or removed in the interests of brevity. The questions were asked by a mixed group of video game press, including myself.)

 

Why didn't CCP confirm that their virtual goods were planned as vanity items right away? How has CCP learned from this process?

EVE Online

"Plex is something that if you take it out of context... most people unfamiliar with the subject would say that it is definitely game-breaking."

CCP Zulu: "It's kind of hard to say how we learned from this. The biggest amount of communication issues we had were surrounding the leaked information. They weren't really surrounding anything that we had said or did publicly. How will we prepare for that in the future? I don't know that that's possible.

I think having gone through this once allows us to understand ourselves better, and understand our reactions to something like that better. So the next time while we may not be prepared for the specific issue at hand, we will sort of understand better the internal communication paths that need to be activated for something that is so unusual and unorthodox for us as a company."

The CCP statement mentioned that there are no plans to introduce game-breaking items or enhancements in the NeX store. Is functionality or convenience that is not necessarily game-breaking going to be sold? And is CCP aware that bypassing the player-run economy to provide anything that can be produced via normal, in-game means is game-breaking?

CCP Zulu: "That's actually a very interesting question. So, in sort of the second half of that question, I want to take the example of PLEX. PLEX is something that if you take it out of context and say "here's a way for you to buy ISK with money", which in many cases is what PLEX is used for. People buy it for money, sell it on the market, and get ISK out of it. If you were to put it up like that, I would imagine that most people unfamiliar with the subject would say that it is definitely game-breaking and it is definitely "buying win."

However it is important to note that there is this arbitrage through the player economy where this is done on a player market. There is no magical ISK spawned when it is bought. You are not buying anything directly, no ISK directly off CCP. And when you go through that thought process and you see the level of public acceptance that PLEX has today, I think there is a lot of those things to be mindful of. That yes, you're absolutely right, we can't really go against the player-driven market, the player-driven socioeconomic state of EVE. And that's important to keep in mind.

In terms of will we ever go that way? I mean, what is game-breaking really? I don't think I can answer that in an hour-long interview. Not to the extent that it really deserves. But I think it's important to see the CSM for what it is. There we were able to have that conversation over the period of two days. What is acceptable, what isn't acceptable, what are the gray areas, what will we never do, what will we possibly sometime do. And for them to sort of from an independent position say "hey, we actually agree with CCP, we see where they are going, we approve this plan." That's sort of my take on it."

The Mittani: "I haven't really seen anything that would worry me, from CCP, yet. I think that's pretty much all I can say. If it gets to the point where we would discuss something that I would consider to be game-breaking, I think it's safe to say that... I have a long-standing history of going against CCP quite publicly. Even before I took over as chairman of the CSM. We will continue to guard the player's interests.

I don't get the feeling that CCP right now has any intention of breaking the game. If you go to Reykjavik and you meet these people, you sort of understand that CCP's policy has been to recruit their employees in Reykjavik from the people who eat, sleep, live, and breathe EVE Online. The reason why there are these leaks coming from inside CCP is precisely because of that. Because from a certain perspective the employees of CCP would rather do what they think is necessary to defend EVE Online as a game and the game having the quality that they like, than they care about even their own jobs.

EVE Online

"...we needed to be more transparent in sort of telling people about the pricing strategy behind the virtual goods store."

That's one of the big reasons that, from what I've seen, there aren't any plans for micro-transactions. And I suspect that if any such plans were ever to come about, all hell would break lose. But I just don't see that in the near term of the next year or, really, as long as Arnar or Stoffer [CCP Soundwave] are around I really wouldn't expect to see that sort of item or enhancement was mooted."

CCP Zulu: "To sort of follow up on the point here, the issue being generating things out of thin air, you're absolutely right. As I was saying, it's important that whatever we do and whatever parts of the game that it touches, that this player arbitrage remain. That there is not this magical appearance of items on behalf of CCP. That this is more player-driven."

Did the reaction of the player base to the pricing of micro-transactions surprise CCP? Are there any planned changes to current prices? How will things be priced in the future?

CCP Zulu: "So one of the action points that came out of our meeting with the CSM was that we needed to be more transparent in sort of telling people about the pricing strategy behind the virtual goods store. That there is a low tier, medium tier, and high tier of items that basically will have a varied price range. Those are pricing tiers by the way, not any kind of functional tiers.

There are low, mid, and high price tiers. We have to explain to people how those price tiers work, and we need to populate each tier more so that people start understanding the variety and the selection that is going to be available in each and every one. We actually have a developer blog planned for that. That should come out at the same time as a couple of new items for the store. And I'm hoping that will be out this week. You'll get a lot more in-depth information on that in the next couple of days."

What are CCP's plans for the near future to deal with the continued hard feelings by some of the community?

CCP Zulu: "CCP's plan is the same as it's always been, really. It's keeping a close relationship with the CSM, keeping an eye on the forums, keeping an eye on usage metrics on features in-game, and really just seeing what the real contention points are. And seeing what the real concerns are, then addressing them. There's not really a strategy and I have to assume that you're sort of referring to some specific hard feelings. As far as I know we've resolved the biggest contention points that the community has right now. Anything else we'll just have to deal with on a case by case basis."

The Mittani: "I think that as far as the community's points of contention go, the only thing that is really missing from the statements is that a lot of people in the community are looking for some sort of an apology or at least an acknowledgement from [CCP CEO] Hilmar regarding his leaked mail. Now, politically that's very difficult to get because he's the CEO and he probably sees no need to do that. By and large, just judging from the reaction of the player-base, we've pretty much covered every issue that went into this with the statements that were released. I feel pretty satisfied with that."

Though obviously hard numbers will not be available, is it safe to say that this was the largest example of players un-subscribing from en masse during EVE Online's history?

CCP Zulu: "One of, yes. We've certainly had our share of controversies through the eight years of having the game live. Obviously we've had our share of controversies and some of them have spiked cancellation trends. But I mean even so, and this being one of the biggest ones, at least, the EVE player base has never been bigger than it is today. And we've seen a very positive trend coming out of the Incarna expansion, both in terms of subscribed users and in terms of trial users. I think that gives a pretty accurate image of what the real sentiment is."

The Mittani: "I think that from the CSM perspective, we saw very detailed metrics of all of the un-sub statistics. Like most MMO companies, CCP has ways of trying to parse the data and see who is unsubscribing and why.

What you really saw in this crisis is that new players are always going to come to EVE, and Incarna is basically an expansion based around the new player experience. I don't think it has been sold as such, but in practice Incarna revamps the crash-course tutorial and the Captain's Quarters are designed to make the game as attractive to newbies as possible. Which is great as someone who leads one of the largest newbie-centric organizations in EVE.

The crisis could be summed up demographically, and we knew this going in, is that people new to the game don't really read the forums, they don't really care about micro-transactions or anything like that. What we had to go to Reykjavik to try to do was prevent veteran players who are pillars of the community fleeing the game. Those are the people who provide a lot of the content to everyone else. I think that we have managed that just by judging from the forums in the aftermath of the crisis."

Can you say on the record that there will never be any non-vanity items that give a gameplay advantage sold through micro-transactions? Can EVE survive financially without them?

CCP Zulu: "I'm gonna refer back to the line I gave in my statement, and that is the investment of money in EVE should not give you an unfair advantage over the investment of time. Saying never puts me in an awkward position. EVE has been running for eight years now. Hoping we do our jobs right, it's going to be running for eighty more. I don't really want to put the person doing my job eighty years from now into a position where I've promised something. But I don't see it as a part of the core philosophy of EVE, being able to buy unfair advantage with money. That's not something that I see working for EVE.

And the second part of the question: can EVE survive financially without them? EVE can survive pretty much anything. Especially for what you would call game-breaking virtual goods sales. It's not something we're planning, and EVE is surviving very well without them. EVE survived very well for a length of time without having alliances, and EVE survived for a length of time without incursions, without having planetary interaction. EVE can survive a lot of things. But it's really a question of progress and evolving the concept that is EVE. EVE survived without having the CSM for a substantial amount of years, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have done it. It's a step in the right direction."

EVE Online

"My impression... is that CCP is primarily doing the micro-transactions in EVE not as a revenue creation metric at all."

The Mittani: "I think the finance question is an interesting one. One of the many issues that the CSM began doing prep-work with before we got to the summit is that we wanted to try to independently determine the state of CCP's finances. One of the things about the player base of EVE that is different from any other player base is that the game attracts professionals because it has time-based skills and you don't have to grind to go places. I sort of put out the call through some of my contacts to have people with actual experience in reading financial reports like auditors, CPAs, and stock analysts go over CCP's reports for the last few years.

The CSM does not have access to these sorts of things from our meetings, though maybe if we had asked for them we would have gotten them. We just did independent research of our own.

My impression, not based on anything non-disclosure agreement-related, is that CCP is primarily doing the micro-transactions in EVE not as a revenue creation metric at all. Many other MMOs are starting to do micro-transactions for vanity items and I think CCP is doing it not to make money, but just to learn and get the capacity to do it. Such that they aren't left in the dust as the industry changes. As you all know, the industry is shifting toward micro-transactions or hybrid models, and that's just the way it is. I don't think that they are going to start trying to take the player's money and have that be a primary source of revenue."

Why weren't the prices of the NeX store shown to the CSM in advance? The CSM has proven to be an excellent filter mechanism for testing ideas against the player base and avoiding controversies like this. In this case they were not included in the communication path. Will the CSM be included in that communication path in the future as a formal mechanism?

CCP Zulu: "The CSM is included up to a very specific point. The CSM is an excellent sounding board, but we can't really put them in a position where they start dictating business policy or business strategy. And that's sort of the trade-off we did, right or wrong, was to involve them in the development of the NeX store and the items themselves. But when it came to the pricing itself it was just a process that we took outside of normal development processes. And that's that. I'm not going to say it was right or wrong, that the way it went."

The Mittani: "From the CSM statement it should be obvious that the roll-out of the Noble exchange was a debacle. At least from the player's perspective. I believe firmly -and this is one of the action points coming out of the summit- that CCP should have explicitly stated their tier strategy and explained that in a developer blog. They should have shown the visual targets for the items in the Noble exchange to the player-base. Had they done this it would have been sorted out. Most of the controversy regarding the Noble exchange would have vanished in a puff of logic.

What happened here from my impression is that the people who normally speak to the CSM, with most of the core aspects of EVE Online, we had some contact about the items that were going to go in, but were not consulted about the pricing strategy. It appears to me that the Noble exchange was sort of rushed out the door without a proper stocking of items or communication of the strategy.

I don't really feel terribly upset about the screw-ups of the Noble exchange. I am irked that we weren't consulted about the strategy, mainly from a perspective that the lack of communication resulted in an inflaming of the player base. At a fundamental level, most of the people on the CSM are not particularly concerned with the sale of vanity items. I say this a lot, but CCP could charge $20,000 in real life dollars for a monocle for space barbies, and I and most of the CSM (with a couple of exceptions) wouldn't give a crap. We care about keeping gold out of the sandbox, as it were. That's my perspective on the NeX exchange. And why weren't consulted about it is just that the people who normally consult with us were not involved in the choice of business strategy."

What is the expected timetable for rolling out the developer blogs for pricing and items? How long before the release of new items? Will players be seeing the full range of items and pricing? Is the current pricing in the NeX indicative of continuing pricing?

CCP Zulu: "Like I said, there is a developer blog coming out in the next couple of days, along with some new items in the store. That blog is going to go into detail on the pricing strategy itself and sort of explaining the price tier system. We hope to have continuous launching of new and more assets over the next few weeks and months. This is something we are dedicated to, populating the price tiers up to an acceptable level. With regard to indicative pricing, we have items in each price tier, but we haven't really seen the extreme ends of the scale, in either direction. So while this is indicative, it's definitely not set in stone."

EVE Online

"The monocle itself is not really difficult to make."

The Mittani: "We were quite vehement in saying that there needed to be more low-tier pricing when we were at the summit. There are low-tier items in the store, though there's only one of them. This is one of the big screw-ups: because the store wasn't populated with enough in the low tier and high tier... had the tiers been populated properly, it would have been fine."

How much effort does it take on CCP's part does it take to make an Incarna fashion item like the monocle?

CCP Zulu: "The monocle itself is not really difficult to make. You know, the actual manufacturing of the asset itself. What's difficult is to get the artistic style. Especially for things like monocles that are -pardon the pun- very much in your face the entire time. It's very hard to get them just right from an artistic standpoint. So while the asset production itself does not take terribly long, maybe a few days of modeling, texturing, and all of that, then the concept time figuring out where it fits in in a fashion sense, all that can take a very long time.

At the same time, you can have much more complex assets that take a week or weeks to properly go through the pipeline of concept, texturing, modeling, outsourcing, all of that. Something like a long coat, or something like that. And even with that time, a lot of this stuff is something that can very easily be patched through to outsourcing, so this is just something that we sort of create the concept pieces for and give the guidelines on. We just push button, receive bacon at the end of it."

The Mittani: "That was one of the things that the CSM was quite concerned with and we addressed it directly. We don't want CCP's actual art department wasting all their time creating clothes for space dollies. As Arnar just said, it's the sort of thing that is ideal for outsourcing."

Have you identified the source of the leaked company documents? If so, what action has been taken?

CCP Zulu: "I can't really speak directly to it. I'm not involved in whatever investigation may or may not be ongoing and dealt with by different parts of the organization."

It is interesting that a CCP employee risked his or her job to leak Hilmar's email. Is it possible that the employee deliberately did so in order to influence CCP's future plans?

CCP Zulu: "I think Alex, being a lawyer, can correct me on this, but this is a very leading question. A very hearsay kind of thing. I don't know what mindset the person that leaked this information was in."

The Mittani: "I think it's obvious from an 'I don't work for CCP so I can say whatever I want' perspective that the timing of the leaks was quite deliberate. I had access to a copy of Fearless about a month before it was leaked. I read it and I said it would explode when it gets out, if there is a leak within CCP. But it's actually not that big of a deal if you go through and you read it line by line. But what was intriguing to me was the timing of the leak: the fact that they leaked to EVE News 24 the day after Incarna had hit. The timing was very much what I would call in a somewhat indelicate way a ratf---. So somebody was very much waiting, poised to leak this at the most dangerous time in terms of the Incarna rollout. It seems clear to me that they do have an agenda. But that's just my take."

Just to put some things from EVE-O and Failheap to rest, what do you mean about ship spinning and bringing it back, exactly?

CCP Zulu: "That's a really great question, actually. The act of ship spinning is simply viewing your ship docked in a hangar and being able to spin it. It is as literal as it sounds. This is a great case of a bit of misunderstanding between the community and CCP. We always believed this was a sort of sound bite for players that were unhappy with Incarna or didn't want to see their avatar or whatever. It turns out that when we sort of dig into it, people literally meant that they have an emotional connection with their ship and they want to be able to click their mouse into space and spin their ship."

The Mittani: "In addition to ship spinning when we were at the CSM summit, we did address the lost functionalities such as being able to double click on your ship and have your cargo hold open, clicking and dragging from the ship window to change your ship. We brought all that up and I believe we were quite satisfied with what we were told, but I wasn't paying total attention during that session."

CCP Zulu: "In some cases the ship spinning was sort of a euphemism for the lost functionality of being able to quickly swap ships, open cargo holds, or whatever. That's functionality we are definitely bringing back and allowing people to sort of get the functionality they were used to into the new hangar scene."

Given that DUST514 is going to be micro-transaction driven, how has this controversy impacted its development?

CCP Zulu: "DUST is a different project being run out of a different office but from at least what I have seen and from what I have talked to people about is that it doesn't impact the DUST development schedule at all. Nor the DUST development mindset."

Will there be more expensive items than the monocle added to the store?

CCP Zulu: "I fully expect so. At some point, definitely. Like Alex was saying, $10,000 gold colored scorpions. Who knows?"

EVE Online

"Not to be dismissive, but I think EVE has seen more defining moments than this."

The Mittani: "My perspective and the CSM's perspective is essentially that if they come out with something like a hypothetical unique ship model with limited runs or whatever, that they want to charge a billion dollars for, as long as it doesn't impact the competitive gameplay of EVE Online. If some crazy rich person wants to buy that, I don't care. By and large, the CSM doesn't care. That money helps to develop EVE. There are a lot of people who will spend.

If you look at the World of Warcraft mount secondary market, a good example is those ridiculous spectral tigers. People will pay $850 dollars trying to buy one of those things. Which is, to me, nuts. But it doesn't impact my gameplay if they want to buy themselves a sparklepony and if they want to spend their money on stupid things. Humans spend their money on stupid s--- all the time, whether they are playing an MMO or whether they are buying sports cars or houses that are too big for them."

CCP Zulu: "Exactly. Just look at golfers."

When is the next portion of Incarna going to roll out, and what can we expect?

CCP Zulu: "We're going to see more racial variants of Captain's Quarters added in the next few months. The next phase of Incarna will be the multiplayer establishments. I really don't think I can give any really solid timeline on that just yet but we're looking at this year, definitely, for the next big evolution on that front."

CCP has made it clear that their current strategy involves forcing players to dock into the Captain's Quarters, performance permitting. Can you explain the reason behind that strategy? More specifically, will Incarna-only gameplay and incentives not be enough to get people to use it?

CCP Zulu: "So: forcing players to dock into the Captain's Quarters. Yes, that is a form of what we actually wanted to get through, which was making Incarna a seamless part of the EVE Online experience. It's not so much about forcing people to dock into the Captain's Quarters or forcing people to use features. It's more about making it a fully-integrated, seamless part of the world. I think throughout discussions with the CSM last week, we sort of came to a very agreeable understanding of how to give people back the option of having the ship spinning, of having this intermediate stage that still fits within this seamless, fluid transition between flying in space and the Incarna bits. So that's something that we're going to expand on a bit through design and iteration over the next month, and hopefully implement some time soon."

So we will dock our ship and then get out from the ship and into the Captain's Quarters?

CCP Zulu: "I don't really want to comment on specific design at this point since we haven't really done it. The important part is that the entire world feel seamless and integrated, that's not a toggle switch in your settings or something that you actively select when you dock. We'll of course make design ideas available whenever they become available."

Where does this revolt rank in EVE's history?

CCP Zulu: "Not to be dismissive, but I think EVE has seen more defining moments than this. The first titan loss, the first alliance tournament, the first proper large-scale alliance warfare. Those are defining moments in EVE's history. This is a bit of noise."

The Mittani: "I think that this blows the T20 scandal out of the water in terms of messes that the players have been angry about with CCP. It's funny though, because with the T20 scandal we came out of that with a lot of reforms that really helped the game along. The formation of the internal affairs department, the creation of the CSM, the much heavier regulation of volunteers, and the removal of the Aura department which was volunteer-run thing where people could spawn items. It's funny, since this one from a certain perspective was just leaks and perception, this controversy was a much greater controversy with players being much angrier. In terms of the actual supposed misdeeds this was far less, in terms of significance to the sandbox. It's kind of a funny situation that it was all smoke and mirrors that just needed to be cleared away with better communication.

On both EVE-O and other forums, the feeling is that the CSM is nothing but a public relations opportunity for CCP. This summit did not alleviate some peoples' view of that, that wining and dining made the CSM happy and then they were sent back. Is there anything that the CSM can do to help fight that view?

The Mittani: "I think that in order to answer this question it is going to require a bit of nuance, which is always difficult when dealing with situations like this. I have been a harsh critic of the CSM in the past because the CSM is now in its sixth iteration. In the early days of the CSM, you had very little power within the CSM and it only had six-month terms. What essentially happened is that to begin with, most of the great alliances in the game paid attention to the CSM and thought it was going to be a powerful interlocutor with CCP. Then in its early days it wasn't really defined as an entity. As in, what it should be doing, how it should be doing that, et ceteras.. The first few terms of the CSM, CSMs one through four, were essentially setting the stage of for CSM five and six, in that they were able to acquire stakeholder status within the company and then they were able to acquire a lengthening of the terms from six months to a year. The problem with the six month term is that it gives election fatigue to the player base and you can't really accomplish anything consistent over only a six month term. You really need the full year.

EVE Online

"...on EVE-O and other forums there are a minority of people that are whiny little babies."

Here's the dangerous, dangerous nuance: CSM one through four set the stage, but the idea of the power of the CSM was declining in the view of the player base. They didn't really see anything happening. CSM five was the first year-long term, and because the view of the player base was that the CSM was irrelevant, turnout was kind of down and you didn't really get what I would consider to be a representative sample of the people who care about EVE. There was very little null-sec representation whatsoever. And then we saw the impact of that. CSM six was a tremendous American-style election fight. By the time the election rolled around, the player base's perception of the CSM had changed. We realized that there was real power there and that it had to be kept in appropriate hands.

So while my criticisms in the early days of the CSM and the criticisms of what I consider to be the ignorance of CSM five were made, it is unfair to characterize my statements about the CSM in the past as applying to the CSM in the format that it currently has. One of the biggest reasons that the CSM now has a lot more power and influence is because the person talking to the CSM is Arnar, as opposed to previously, where they were speaking with Torfi. Torfi is a great guy but he is an artist at a certain level, and he is a very eccentric artist-type. He has his head in the clouds. Arnar is very focused on getting things done. For example, I can send Arnar an email and say that I want to know something, some metrics or a report about what is going on, and he's a very get things done kind of guy. There is more flow and communication, not only because of who is on the CSM, not only because of its terms being lengthened, not only because of the stakeholder status, but because our interlocutor with CCP gives us a lot more power.

That's the first answer to your question. The second is that on EVE-O and other forums there are a minority of people that are whiny little babies. This is politics. The CSM is a political entity. This means that after any situation you are always going to have a minority of loud people saying that anything you have accomplished is b------- and that it's all just window dressing and hurf durf. I spend a lot of time on Failheap Challenge, which is a forum for primarily the most bitter of that long tail of bitter players. I don't really give a s--- what they say. In fact, if you look at many of my posts in dealing with them, I actively go out of my way to antagonize them because I am a cruel person and I enjoy making people like that angry. From a political perspective it's also good to marginalize them. They are always going to be there.

It is not relevant at any level, in any democratic process what the lunatic fringe thinks. Just look at how in America the Tea Party or the John Birch Society, or what have you, any of these isolated movements on the fringes. They are very loud but they don't actually impact s---. So that's pretty much my view of that."

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