EVE Online's Secret Sauce: Unique Customer Relations

The past decade has seen many "bumps in the road" which CCP and its customers have needed to overcome.

The early culture of customer engagement saw CCP's relationship with players as very hands-on, as you might expect from a young and boisterous independent studio. They were accessible and communicative, with frequent and informative blogs from assorted developers. Famously, CCP employees even took to the spacelanes to personally deal with a troublesome group of players who had been terrorising rookies with overpowered exploits (which were later fixed).

However, as EVE Online, ergo CCP Games, expanded, this intimacy also led to controversy which ultimately gave rise to a more guarded, but more professional approach to developer-player interaction. It also planted the seeds CCP's customer relations lynchpin – the player-elected Council of Stellar Management.

Giving Voice to the Playerbase

In a masterstroke of public relations, the CSM was, in part, formed to quell player unrest in the wake of the “T20” controversy. In 2007, a CCP developer known as t20 was discovered to have been providing unfair assistance (in the form of rare in-game items) to the now-defunct Band of Brothers alliance. As well as bolstering Internal Affairs resources, it was deemed important to promote increased transparency and communication between players and developers. In a devblog written at the time, CCP Hellmar (CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson) wrote;

"EVE has grown stronger every year since its inception; these bumps in the road are an inevitable part of the journey we must endure as a growing company; and we would not be here today if we opted to isolate ourselves from the player experience of EVE Online."

Later that year, CCP Xhagen announced the launch of a democratically-elected player council.

Growing Pains

During its formative years, the CSM concept was regarded with suspicion and indifference by many parties on both sides of the developer-player fence. Many saw it as little more than a PR stunt and some players struggled to separate the concept from the complex “space politics” gameplay of EVE Online's metagame.

Indeed, despite hard work from its members and the attendance of summits to liaise with CCP developers face to face, the CSM was often viewed with disdain by some parties within the halls of the Reykjavik HQ. As CCP and EVE had grown, attitudes had changed.

In 2010, it was the fifth CSM who hit this communications brick wall. Constrained by non-disclosure agreements, limited information was available to the general player base as CSM 5 warned CCP of expectation management issues regarding the impending release of the avatar-based “walking in stations” content. This advice went unheeded and the subsequently release of the notorious Incarna expansion in the Summer of 2011 brought about CCP's most testing time.

Trial by Rage

Player anger rose to unprecedented levels when confronted with an expansion which negatively impacted on their gameplay experience with compulsory avatar content--which crippled some machines whilst clumsily trying to create a microtransaction culture. This resentment was further compounded by some leaked internal communications. Player-developer relations plummeted to an all-time low.

In the wake of unprecedented player protests and mass unsubscriptions, the sixth CSM were flown to Iceland for an emergency summit (later rebranded an “extraordinary” summit). After much reflection and soul-searching, senior CCP personnel identified an internal culture of hubris and a heartfelt admission of culpability from the CEO went some way to repairing their battered customer relations. Sadly, the collateral damage was significant and 20% of CCP's staff were laid off.

Lessons in Resilience

The resultant restructuring, streamlining and centralising, whilst a painful process for many, led CCP Games to return to its fighting weight. This was an impressive feat of corporate agility at a critical time which could have been the undoing of CCP Games. There are notable similarities with the challenges Rift and Defiance developer Trion Worlds faces with layoffs, closures and consolidations.

In an interview with [a]listdaily, new Trion Worlds CEO, Noah Maffit, said,

“If you look at the videogame industry and how dramatically it's changing, there's a lot of things that are being spun on their heads... It's small enough and nimble enough to quickly move around and follow the customers.”

Trion Worlds can learn from CCP Games' experience and take solace in the fact that EVE Online's development has ultimately benefited from these growing pains and the confidence of its playerbase gradually returned. It is worth noting that the Council of Stellar Management's role was polarised by these challenges and its value became evident.

Collaborative Futures

The CSM concept has now matured into an effective two-way communication conduit which helps to shape EVE Online's development direction--and it continues to gain respect, as evidenced by its official stakeholder status and the influence recent CSMs have had on EVE Online's fortunes.

The CSM is certainly not the only such player-led body in gaming – the ill-fated Star Wars Galaxies MMO belatedly introduced a similar initiative in the Galactic Senate. But that was not enough to save SWG, so player advocacy groups are by no means a curative for all MMO maladies. However, implemented correctly, they can only have a positive impact on the community support for an MMO.

Lord of the Rings Online developing studio, Turbine, has recently announced its intention to “double down on the conversation between Turbine and [the] players,"  by starting a “Player's Council,”  who will be “a group of players who participate in more regular & structured feedback sessions with the dev group.

EVE Online's CSM will always have its critics, it is certainly the most developed and effective player advocacy group of its kind. It will be interesting to see if its successes can be replicated in other gaming communities.

 

CCP's Secret Sauce Article List

  • 5 Ingredients of EVE Online's Secret Sauce
  • Free Expansions
  • Players as Content
  • Unique Customer Relations
  • Pay to Play or Play to Pay (PLEX)
  • The Evolving Sandbox
  • An MMO Menu for the Future?

Featured Columnist

Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.

Published Sep. 8th 2017

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