Sins of a Solar Spymaster #63: Courting Disasters
June has been a cruel month to CCP. In the sprint to push out Incarna - the controversial Walking In Stations expansion - on June 21st, no less than four significant scandals have taken place over the course of a week and a half, sending the playerbase into a fever pitch of indignation. Thats a shame, because in May everything seemed so peachy. The CSM Summit in Reykjavik was a great success; CCP lifted up their skirts, and, for the most part, the CSM liked what they saw.
The disconnect between the Happy May CSM and the Enraged June Playerbase can be traced to a single cause: CCPs terrible record with player communication. Perhaps its the Icelandic sensibilities; Icelanders are famously blunt, which is endearing when youre on a drinking binge with them, but this translates poorly over the internet. Would you include the word Monetization in the title of a dev blog addressed to a famously anti-Microtransactions playerbase? Would you label a company newsletter Greed Is Good and plaster Gordon Gekko on the cover? How about describing a $99 licensing fee as a token payment? In each of these scandals, minimally competent messaging could have defused or prevented the controversies entirely. Lets dive into the muck and find out what went wrong.
Etheric Gold Scorpions: During a presentation between rounds at the Alliance Tournament, CCP Zinfandel began showing off various options for the upcoming Noble Exchange, the Microtransactions store implemented in Incarna. One of the most interesting pieces of hardware wasnt a piece of clothing, but a Scorpion battleship with an eye-catching golden paintjob. At the moment, CCP lacks the code to exchange an existing Scorpion for a Golden Scorpion, so Zinfandel announced that - with the approval of the CSM - players would be able to buy a Golden Scorpion straight with Aurum, without an equivalent economic trade-in-a battleship popping fully formed out of the ether, essentially. This revelation exploded into drama, exacerbated by the fact that the CSM hadnt actually signed off on Scorpions from nothing at our meetings.
I do recall drunkenly mentioning to Zinfandel (who is a great guy, rabblerousing aside) while we were at a bar in Reykjavik that this wouldnt make a damn bit of difference in EVEs hilariously bot-and-RMT-distorted economy, so this could have been my fault. Whoops!
A Token $99 Fee: A mere two days after the Scorpion scandal, CCP published a dev blog into an incredibly hostile environment. As was obvious to anyone, the playerbase was already in a rage about the risk of microtransactions ruining the balance of the game. Showing a level of public relations savvy rivaled only by Monsanto, this dev blog was titled Monetizing 3rd Party Apps and featured a Inexpensive - $99 per year licensing structure as a Highlight. I grope for an appropriate metaphor to describe the depth of outrage in the aftermath of such eloquence, perhaps some cliché involving farts and churches or napalm being added to a fire, but the nearly fifty pages of threadnaught speak for themselves.
The irony of the situation is that CCP had developed this program after discussing options with the app developers themselves at Fanfest, and likewise run it past the CSM for approval. The basic concept is to provide some kind of app quality control and then allow 3rd party developers to earn legitimate income based on making apps for EVE, much like the App Store for Apple. Yet a good idea here has fallen afoul of incompetent messaging; Monetization and Inexpensive... $99 two days after the Golden Scorpion controversy meant that the news that CCP had tried to communicate was utterly lost.
A week later, CCP Zulu got in front of the controversy and backed off the $99 fee.
Monoclegate: The release of Incarna on the 21st exposed the playerbase to both the Captains Quarters and the Noble Exchange. The dirty secret of Incarna 1.0 is that the patch is aimed primarily at newbies, with much of the effort going into the immersion level of EVE, the layout of the CQ making features intuitive for new players, and revamping the tutorial entirely. Unfortunately, this has not been communicated to the veteran players, who were expecting more features aimed at their demographic, like in most other expansions.
The controversy surrounding the Noble Exchange store cannot be blown off as a mere messaging failure, however. The clothing items on offer are shockingly expensive when compared to other microtransaction goods in other MMOs, with the most extreme example being a $70 monocle. CCP did not consult the CSM about their price ranges; we would have probably told them to sell the fancy monocles for about five bucks. I dont think anyone expected $70 macrotransactions.
The problem with a $70 monocle is that its the kind of wacky Horse Armor story that gets gaming columnists to pay attention - an easy, eyecatching hook to write an article around. And the articles are flowing, a flood of ugly publicity for launch day: PC Gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Massively, and Kotaku just to name a few of the majors. If a controversy isnt real until the media report on it, CCP are officially in trouble now.
But wait, theres more!
Greed Is Good, But Company Memo Leaks Are Better: A few weeks ago, certain individuals acquired a copy of the May issue of CCPs company newsletter, Fearless which featured a picture of Gordon Gekko and titled Greed is Good? The focus of the magazine was entirely devoted to the topic of microtransactions, with various CCPers opining on their utility or where the company could go with them in DUST 514, EVE or World of Darkness.
This lurking drama bomb was left unexploded until patch day, June 21st, when Eve News 24 displayed a surprising level of media savvy and leaked the offending newsletter in .pdf format right in the midst of the Monoclegate drama. Most controversially, one employee in the newsletter suggested selling ammunition, crossing the vanity-items-only line in the sand that the playerbase and the CSM have vehemently defended.
Yet when looked at with a dispassionate eye, the leaked newsletter is mostly banal discussion of the existing microtransaction trend within the games industry. The problems of this leak have been exacerbated massively by the edgy display of Gordon Gekko and splashing greed on the cover. This might make your company newsletter superior toilet reading for bored employees, but appearing to confirm the nightmare of most players in such a flamboyant style on the heels of charging $70 for a monocle is positively cringe worthy.
Want more bitter irony? Check out this April Fools dev blog from 2008. Whos fooling now?
Bright Spots: Amidst this ugliness, there are a few bits of good news. Incarna included more of Team Gridlocks work in the war against fleet lag, and theyve managed steady success against a seemingly impossible task. The first signs of iterative ship balance have been announced, with CCP Tallest tweaking the Dramiel and Logistics warp speed. The new turrets are wildly popular and look great, as does the new UI style displayed in the Captains Quarters. Perhaps most importantly, the revised newbie experience is actually entertaining, which should inject much-needed new blood into the game.
As for me, I suspect that the core of the Incarna patch will be deemed a success in time - so long as CCP stop kicking themselves in the balls when it comes to embarrassingly basic public relations. Incarna 1.0 is a tip of the iceberg patch; the vast amount of work that has gone into Incarna can only be seen in the one flavor of CQ (Minmatar) presently available, yet the effort of creating the engine - the ability to move an avatar around an environment - is underwater from a player perspective. As more CQs are added and Establishments are rolled out, the value of this patch will hopefully become more obvious - but its hard to see that right now, amidst CCPs flailing and stumbling.