Sins of a Solar Spymaster #67 - The Incarna Postmortem

The Mittani offers a postmortem of EVE Online’s controversial Incarna update and defends some of his own statements about the expansion.

The EVE playerbase is beginning to show signs of outrage fatigue, like a long-suffering American leftist. The latest major controversy since the Incarna release began with a blog and a graph. The good news is that this graph did not spark riots like the previous Incarna mess; the bad news is that the graph indicated that there’s fewer players around to riot in the first place. Since I had no small part in provoking the chaos and the ensuing media frenzy, I’m going to gloss over What Happened rather than rehashing it in detail.

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The summary version is that Jester’s PCU chart unleashed (another) howl of anger about the delays and failures of the Incarna expansion; the CSM began harassing CCP in the gaming press over the neglect of ‘Flying in Space’ (what everyone besides CCP calls ‘Eve Online’), and now the CSM and CCP are in heavily NDA-bound weekly meetings to discuss and try to resolve the situation. Fun stuff.

Meanwhile, my ‘Defense of Incarna’ column, which I wrote before the release of the expansion - appears well-intentioned but hopelessly pollyannaish, not unlike trying to explain to a Fat Acceptance cultist that they should stop scarfing down Big Macs.

The questions, then: why, beyond the hyperbole, did Incarna faceplant so badly - and should I commence to eating crow for my quixotic defense of it?

Having watched the disasters unfolding since Incarna’s release in June, it seems that just about everything that could go wrong for CCP has gone wrong - Murphy’s Law on an internet-galactic scale. One can’t help but feel sympathy for the employees who have worked through all of this mess. Yet most of the failures and errors can be traced to poor decisions made by human beings rather than acts of god or mere bad luck.

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The One-Avatar Wall

The single biggest reason why Incarna has been a mess is disappointingly banal and mundane. Flat out, CCP bit off more than they could chew, code-wise. If Incarna had been finished and released remotely on schedule without making graphics cards shudder and cry, we would not be having this conversation and the playerbase would be looking forward to the Winter release and speculating about that. As I write this, it has been three months since Incarna launched; we were supposed to have four racial Captain’s Quarters and Establishments with some kind of contraband gameplay by this point. Instead, we’re still stuck with the launch date Minmatar CQ and a seemingly endless progression of band-aid patches.

Much of the criticism of Incarna vanishes if there had been a successful deployment. The NeX Store and its virtual goods would have a public arena to conspicuously consume in, removing the common refrain of questions like - “Why should I buy expensive boots, if only I can see them?” The cries of “Give us things to do, not things to wear” also goes away, as CCP would be theoretically hard at work on spaceship content rather than still wheel-spinning on Space Barbies.

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This doesn’t excuse CCP’s management, of course; some kind of feasibility testing should have taken place before committing the company to an apparently near-impossible task. We can only guess at the nature of the technical hurdles impeding the release of Incarna, but the consensus seems to be that CCP hasn’t figured out how to get more than one avatar in a room without making graphics cards do their best Chernobyl impression. Incarna may have gone much better if CCP had just licensed a proven 3D engine and built within it, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Ugliest Foot Forward

In a world where all of the Captain's Quarters released on schedule, CCP’s choice to lead out with the Minmatar CQ wouldn’t have been significant. Yet we do not live in that world; we live in a world where the playerbase has been forced to stare at a rusted, dingy hovel for three months - one explicitly designed to feel claustrophobic and run-down, at that. While Minmatar players may ‘trust in the rust’, most of the playerbase has chosen races with a more traditional science fiction aesthetic.

I suspect that we wouldn’t have had nearly the level of rage over Incarna if the Caldari CQ was the first to be released, as it exudes a kind of hypertechnological cool that the Minmatar CQ utterly lacks. Even the austere Amarr CQ avoids the feeling that the player is trapped in a decaying ghetto. Theoretically, Incarna’s primary benefit is an improvement to the New Player Experience, offering more immersion and sensible tutorials, but what of the aspiring Caldari or Gallente pilots who signed up for a grand space adventure, only to be dumped in a dingy pod hotel? Not the most inviting of welcomes to New Eden.

Ignoble Exchange

After the Monocle Riots, the details of what went wrong with the Noble Exchange are well known. The prices are too high, there’s no place to show off one’s ‘virtual goods’ - again, a critique that would go away had the deployment been successful - and there weren’t enough lower-end goods in the first place. The most damning thing about the NeX debacle is the fact that the pricing strategy was selected at the last moment before release, rather than part of a coherent, considered plan.

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Tin Ears and Groupthink

When a senior official in CCP expresses genuine surprise that players care about ship-spinning, something is desperately wrong. The decision to remove the old hangar view appeared to be part of a plan to force the playerbase to adapt to Incarna; the option to disable Incarna at all was added only through gritted teeth in the face of graphical load. Perhaps if the people making these calls were more in touch with the desires of the players, the bitterness these decisions caused could have been avoided.

CCP’s infamous tin ear for communications caused a host of issues over the course of the Incarna release, from blogs about $1000 designer jeans to attempts to sanitize the minutes of the CSM’s Emergency Summit - now apparently being relabeled as a ‘special’ summit, riots nonwithstanding.

This communications disconnect is a reflection of too much corporate kool-aid. After chanting about Excellence, Delivering and Innovation, some within CCP have lost touch with their core focus - making a game about spaceships for people who love spaceships. The deviation of management’s groupthink from reality reached a point where line employees would leak copies of Hilmar’s internal emails to the press as a cry for help - something rarely seen in the gaming industry.

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Defending ‘Defending Incarna’

Yet despite the riots, the leaks, the crippling technical hurdles, and our characters being trapped in a rusted hovel for three months, I stand behind everything I said in Defending Incarna.

My arguments in favor of Incarna didn’t assume CCP’s utter faceplanting in communication and implementation. While some bitter veterans insist that we should expect CCP to only perform at their worst, since 2003 we have seen some truly outstanding expansions and ideas from the company - though it’s been years since the last truly great expansion, Apocrypha.

Though among shallow minds kneejerk pessimism is often mistaken for wisdom, it is foolish to consider an upcoming expansion with the assumption that everything CCP plans will fall afoul of the worst-case scenarios. When I considered Incarna, I made some fairly reasonable assumptions - Four CQs, Establishments, and a functional vanity microtransactions shop. Not even the most cynical bittervet predicted the $70 Monocle. The scope of the disasters of Incarna were the gaming equivalent of a black swan.

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My arguments in favor of the expansion remain sound. The core purpose of Incarna is to provide an immersive and superior New Player Experience, and if it ever gets implemented properly it should succeed. The development of the Carbon engine remains a business reality, though in hindsight licensing a tested 3D engine seems like a much wiser course. EVE still desperately needs immersion if it is to attract female players or ascend beyond the niche willing to suffer through its vertical learning curve. And finally, the Noble Exchange might feature much-loathed microtransactions, but not only is the industry headed in that direction regardless of our riots, the NeX is a far safer concept for EVE than gold ammo.  

Had Incarna been produced in an era of more competence and less groupthink, we would be seeing more newbies, perhaps entranced by the hypertech stylings of their Caldari quarters. We would also be sailing past Incarna and moving into a spaceship-focused release cycle. The fact is that Incarna was a good idea, even if the execution was utterly botched.

Pulling Out of the Dive

If there’s one thing that all of the Incarna chaos has taught us, it is that CCP listens to only two masters: their subscription numbers and the media. Under pressure from both, the company appears to be actively attempting to repair their image and recover from the recent debacles. This is a good sign and it should be encouraged.

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With the re-release of the new forum software, there has been an obvious push by CCP employees to communicate more with the playerbase. The front page of ‘Eve General Discussion’ has CCP replies to almost every thread, in stark contrast to past behavior. Meanwhile, Torfi has released a dev blog announcing the return of ship spinning and the old hangar functionalities, repairing one of the greatest offenses of the Icarna rollout.

In the past, CCP has been vehement that Incarna would not be optional; the fact that Torfi has announced a checkbox to allow pilots to never leave their ships is an extremely significant (and welcomed) about-face. There are other signs of sanity returning to CCP; though I can’t disclose much of anything about the CSM’s recent meetings with CCP, I’m once again bullish on the future of the game. If CCP can disentangle itself from the Incarna mire and produce some actual spaceship-focused expansions, New Eden might begin to recover from its Incarna-induced stagnation.

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