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GDC Austin: The Power Of  EVE Online 's Council Of Stellar Management

GDC Austin: The Power Of EVE Online's Council Of Stellar Management Exclusive

September 18, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

September 18, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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At GDC Austin, CCP's Petur Johannes Oskarsson discussed EVE Online, the company's complex MMO with a passionate player base all coexisting on a single server, and the government that has arisen in the game to address player concerns.

Oskarsson revealed that the company plans to be at 340,000 subscribers at the end of the year -- and he passionately argued for the necessity of having them all on a single server. In a no-shard setting, he says, "You get emergent behavior -- you get people who want to run a bank, you get people who want to form a police force, you get people who want to be the ones the police force chases."


The company produced a marketing trailer, which Oskarsson played to illustrate the importance of the concept. Says Oskarsson, "The single shard -- that's where the magic happens. If you shard your community you significantly cut down on the possible connections and emergent behavior."

But when you get that many people together, they're more than just players. "The people who are playing in EVE form a society, and they have social institutions."

As the game evolved, different institutions evolved. When it had 30,000 players, it had corporations (i.e. guilds) and an NPC-driven market system, as designed by the team. At around 50,000 players, corporations began to form alliances. Says Oskarsson, "Within the game there was no formal structure to support this. So we actually started supporting formal alliances."

Even later, at 100,00 players, says Oskarsson, "The markets became player-driven. Everything you buy and sell with a small fraction of items is manufactured by players." CCP hired a PhD economist to run the central bank of EVE.

Building A Structure

The game currently has over 300,000 players. Oskarsson, who has studied political science, was tasked with developing the Council of Stellar Management. "It's my analysis that commanding 300,000 people to do something that doesn't work; it's nearly impossible. Governance, as in a method or system of management -- how can we put up a structure that allows the players to have an impact on the world they live in?" 


With so many players, says Oskarsson, "It was so complex and so much [player] communication that it was impossible for any employees of CCP to keep tabs on everything. We found out we needed a representative from the community. We do not select those representatives. They are selected in an election."


The system is based on Iceland's own democracy, as that's where CCP is located. "What we did was write a design document... a constitution for a democracy. It was written as an academic paper and we submitted it to peer review both within Iceland, and abroad. And we put it under the microscope within CCP. Most importantly we presented this to the users themselves." This happened at the EVE fan fest in 2007; he took feedback from fan fest and rewrote the document and put it on the forums for all to see.

"The main critique of the entire thing was that we used the word 'democracy'. It was rightly pointed out that if you use the word 'democracy', you imply power; the elected council didn't have power," says Oskarsson. However, "The players were fine with it" once it was made explicitly clear that this was the case.

The Discussion Process

Players run under their real names, not their in-game identities, and the top nine vote-getters are selected to be on the CSM. The term of service is six months, and there's a two-term limit. "Six months might not sound like much, but imagine the workload these people are volunteering for," Oskarsson says. The council is flown to Iceland to meet with CCP and "just talk about the issues they have brought up."

Says Oskarsson, "Everything is discussed before a decision is made. [Players] bring up a topic but they have to put it on the forum. It has to be up there for seven days before the council will take it up." To ensure that the council listens to players, there is a mechanism to force it to engage a topic it's ignoring.

Oskarsson says that the three factors that make this possible and functional are the fact that the game is on a single shard, the council is not selected by CCP but by the players, and that they are flown to meet with CCP and bring up player concerns directly.

As many players do not understand game development, this in-person contact is vital, says Oskarsson. "Once they visit Iceland, they realize what we do and how we do it." There's another benefit: "The in-person meetings are a must. Though they don't have power over CCP... if you meet someone and talk to them, you should not underestimate the impact of that."

Voter Turnout

Only 28,848 votes were cast in the most recent election in a game with 300,000+ players. By comparison, 30,000 to 40,000 unique posters participate in the game's official forums. "Should we be disappointed with the turnout? What should we expect?" asks Oskarsson. He doesn't seem to have found a definitive answer to that, as voter turnout across the globe varies greatly.

"We also have political parties forming," says Oskarsson. "Our design document doesn't necessarily take political parties into consideration, but it doesn't formally exclude them." For example, 30-40% of EVE players don't want to participate in PVP, "They are not a cohesive unit, but here [in the Voice of Reason party] they have a representative." 


At this point, the CSM has brought up more than 200 topics to CCP; 75 are in the development pipeline. Says Oskarsson, "60% of the things they brought up are already in the game. They are making more impact to CCP than the developers want to admit to."

The CSM last visited CCP in January, prior to the March release of the game's Apocrypha expansion. From that visit, "We had prerelease player input. And the CSM is covered by NDA. They were glad to be trusted in this manner." The NDA's "create a sense of responsibility" in the council, which builds trust, says Oskarsson.

Because the CSM understood the expansion prior to its release, "We had immediate after-release player feedback. We had the guys looking at it before, and after, as players. We ended up with a brilliant expansion."


The Balance of Power

An exploit to create free items was discovered by some players -- and caught the attention of CCP, of course. Says Oskarsson, "Once we found out, we brought the CSM into the loop. In January we showed them a 30-page exploit report."

Once the CSM had read the report, they realized the exploit was accidental and dalt with appropriately -- and communicated it to players, says Oskarsson. "They said to the community, 'This is the God's honest truth.' As such, the CSM was extremely valuable to us. In the beginning they were just a communication tool funneling information from the players to us. But now we are funneling information back, and it's gone great." 


Oskarsson is currently plotting the future of the CSM, but these ideas are still forming. "I'm going to think out loud, so to speak. CSM in the future will be fully integrated into EVE -- the game client as well. It is a bridge between CCP and the players, and information goes back and forth. They are happy with the progress."

He asked the CSM what limits they want on their power, and got a surprising response. "Would you like to have influence into the game? Would you like to as a CSM rep like to be able to go into the game and say 'Stop! You can't do this!' and all of them said no."

When asked if the CSM should be granted greater, developer or customer service-like powers, Oskarsson resplied, "I don't think so." They're not equipped to handle more tech details, which they don't comprehend as non-developers.

An interesting audience question was about whether it was just big, powerful Alliance leaders who got elected. Oskarsson says that's not the case. "The three CSMs that have been elected -- I think there have never been more than four alliance leaders or representatives of large corporations. There is actually one guy sitting on the council whose organization's sole purpose is to teach new players how to play EVE" -- and it subsists on donations from alumni.

Recently, a CSM member had to resign for insider trading -- using info he learned on a CSM trip to Iceland in the game to his financial advantage.

Says Oskarsson, "He was more than happy to take the blame. Again, this was part of the thing that we had with the NDA. He took advantage of information he got during the meeting between the CSMs and CCP. We had been expecting this but hoping it wouldn't happen, so we had a process that would handle this. The process worked. Fortunately what he did was minor. He did break the trust -- that was the big thing."


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