[The Council of Stellar Management is a group put together by CCP, publishers and developers of the popular MMO EVE Online to help make decisions for the game. Democratically elected by the player base, the group speaks with developers on a daily basis and meets at the company's Reykjavik, Iceland headquarters twice a year to help the team guide the game's development.
Recent controversies over microtransactions have caused the team to call an emergency meeting of the CSM. In this article, Gamasutra speaks to CSM members and EVE developers to find out more about what purpose the group serves in the game.]
"Art is never finished, only abandoned," da Vinci is purported to have said. This is idea has bedeviled creators in every expressive medium in history. Painters, writers, actors, composers, directors, and editors have all exhausted themselves in the endless struggle to reconcile what they want to make with the thing they are actually making.
Video games offer an opportunity to get around this struggle with patches and new content long after a game's been released.
In solving one problem, though a whole new set of problems are introduced: should a game be updated according to the wants of its players, or its creators? How can game creators make sense of player feedback when so much of it can seem inconclusive or contradictory?
In 2007 CCP launched The Council of Stellar Management for its MMO EVE Online, a group of people elected by other players to represent their interests and wants to the developer. "To achieve continued success, EVE's society must be granted a larger role in exerting influence on the legislative powers of CCP," senior researcher Petur Johannes Oskarsson wrote, in a CCP white paper about the CSM.
The idea was inherently political: a first attempt to move beyond the autocratic design model of the past and create an organization that gave players ownership in the game's future development. In the subsequent years, CCP's attempt to democratize its player base has been volatile, exciting, and sometimes controversial.
Moreover it offers invaluable insight into the challenges awaiting many game creators who intend to move away from the old model of "abandoning" their art on launch day and instead commit to the long and complicated process of keeping it alive and growing into something neither player nor creator could have predicted on launch day.
"When you have a group who represent such a large number of your customers, being able to tap into their knowledge and understanding of the community provides absolutely priceless feedback to ensure you can provide your customers with more of what they want," said John Turbefield, of CCP Research and Statistics.
Understanding player wants is a lifeline for any MMO developer. While it might be strange to consider a democratically elected player council to represent the player wants for new Mario or Final Fantasy games, for EVE Online it was a matter of pragmatism.
"More traditional methods of listening to gaming communities such as forums often have a very poor signal-to-noise ratio, making the CSM a valuable additional method of really drilling down to the root of any issues that arise," Turbefield continued. "They call us out on anything which they think to be unrealistic, and have provided us with vital reality checks in the past."
The CSM was intended to be flexible enough to allow each Council to define its own goals. While participating in CSM can be a time-consuming process, the official requirements are relatively open-ended. Members are expected to attend a twice annual meeting at CCP's offices in Reykjavik, Iceland and maintain some form of regular contact with other players, be it responding to emails or keeping up-to-date with message boards.
"On the initiative of the newly elected CSM6, we now have a permanent Skype IM channel in which the CSM and various developers -- including Arnar Hrafn Gylfason, the senior producer of EVE -- discuss things, both EVE-related, and naturally a good bit of social banter," Turbefield said.
"This new, daily communication via IM is helping the CSM to become much more aware of how CCP operates on a day to day basis and how they can have the most impact. Incorporating a group of non-employees into the development structure and keeping the communication going is however an on-going challenge and frankly a full time job in itself."
Another challenge that comes with such a free-form structure is knowing just how representative the elected members really are. The first CSM election saw 10 percent voter turnout from a player base of over 300,000. In the intervening years the percentage of voters dipped slightly and then began to rise again, reaching 14 percent with the election of CSM6.
"For those concerned about any promotion of self-interest by the CSM, I would point towards the very strong emphasis that the CSM has put on design changes focusing on improving the experience for new players, with a lot of discussion about tutorial systems and trying to level off the 'learning cliff' that many people joke about EVE having," said Turbfield.