Sins of a Solar Spymaster #49 - The Summer of Discontent

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MMO players are notoriously hysterical creatures, even by the frightening standards of gamers. Protected by the anonymity of Internet forums, even the tiniest of issues with a title is swiftly magnified into an epic, howling casus belli, one which often only ends with the de rigueur (and usually empty) threat of a cancelled subscription. Given the unreliability of direct player discourse, companies have trouble sifting legitimate complaints from endless “I got suicide ganked in empire” whines. Perhaps by default, it is the media who arbitrates and validates player issues with a game; if the press is writing about something, it exists and needs to be addressed - but if there’s no story, there’s no trouble, just a period of forum static that will pass.

LetÂ’s call this phenomenon the media tripwire. Part of the reason developers pay attention to the media is that raw subscription numbers ultimately have nothing to do with how ‘goodÂ’ or ‘badÂ’ a game is, nor do they say much about a companyÂ’s future profitability. If player perception of a game collapses, there could be an abrupt decline in interest and subs; perhaps worse, negative media coverage ‘poisons the wellÂ’ by coloring the views of potential future customers. Forum static, by contrast, is normally only seen by existing subscribers, who - by dint of sheer inertia -  are likely to remain.

By this standard, the summer of 2010 is turning out to be especially cruel to CCP.

Things began to go wrong in early June, after a thread posted by Dierdra Vaal of the CSM (and leader of EVE University, a highly respected new player organization) accelerated into a veritable threadnaught, now sitting at 86 pages. DierdraÂ’s argument about the crippling development backlog was covered in one of my previous columns, and has continued to grow in force and popularity. 

Then there was the much-ballyhooed server move, a massive hardware upgrade which was advertised as a major step in the battle against the crippling lag which has plagued the game since Dominion. This did not go as planned, resulting in the game being down for more than a day and negative media attention. These teething problems would have been worthwhile had they resulted in any improvement in game performance, but the playerbase could not detect any.

Just as the server transfer was in progress, the Council of Stellar Management was meeting with CCP in Iceland to present the various issues of the playerbase and to try to get something accomplished. After the summit, the comments published by CSM representatives began to paint a picture of the summit as being less ‘meeting’ and more ‘confrontation’.

As the frustrations of the CSM reps were made public, the situation was rendered even more explosive by the mysterious and opaque announcement that CCP was removing one of the most controversial CSM reps, Eva Jobse. Eva has always been hounded by her detractors - most hilariously the folks at Eve Tribune, who promptly fell all over themselves to justify her removal. However, Eva was the second most popular representative on the CSM, and within spitting distance of the chairmanship. Of course, the actual facts of her removal (of which we have none) doesnÂ’t matter in the world of perception; CCPÂ’s timing - just after the release of her critical blog comments about the CSM - was enough to create a bad case of blowback.

In an attempt to quell the maelstrom of conspiratorial outrage, the newly-promoted CCP Zulu published a dev blog in which he attempted to “clarify some things that have been floating around, rumors and half-facts that seem to have taken on a life of their own.” Yet real scandal was only now beginning; for some reason, Zulu decided to publish a team-by-team accounting of how many developers were working on which aspects of the ‘EVE Universe’.

The Incarna expansion, known as ‘walking in stations’, is widely considered to be the alpha build of a World of Darkness MMO with only some vague applicability to EVE itself. This gets 70 devs. EVE Gate (‘Spacebook’), the barely functional social media experiment, has 10 devs. The DUST/EVE crossover has a mere seven people working on it. But what really set things off was the revelation that a paltry 22 developers - three teams - were actually working on EVE itself - this in the midst of very public outcry from the playerbase about the lag, feature backlog, and half-finished expansions. Yikes.

These successive waves of scandal and bad publicity found their ultimate expression in the comically inadvertent posting of one of the community managers, CCP Zymurgist, who - presumably on orders, since this is essentially his job - asked for the playerbase to vote for EVEÂ’s Tyrannis expansion for Best Online Game of 2010 in the European Games Award competition.

After the server outage, the CSM shenanigans, and Zulu’s ‘only 22 devs’ blog, Zymurgist’s request was enough to send the community over the edge into paroxysms of unrelenting, explosive nerd rage - so much so that the story went big. A vehement and loud consensus had emerged that EVE needs no more shiny half-finished new toys, but rather dedicated and consistent work to repair the existing game.

The last time that CCP was confronted with a chorus of public condemnation on this level was the T20 ‘Sabre BPOs for BoB’ scandal. After faltering initially, CCP responded to that crisis quite effectively by creating the Internal Affairs department, closing down ISD, and pioneering the Council of Stellar Management. We can only hope that the company addresses this new outbreak similar effectiveness.

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