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[EVE Online's Council of Stellar Management is a body elected by the players of the game to interface with the developers and help drive the direction of the MMO's development in directions that appeal to the player base. What are the opportunities and dangers of having such a body? CSM chairman Alexander "The Mittani" Gianturco explains.]
CCP's spectacular fall from grace in the aftermath of the EVE Online Incarna expansion -- which resulted in drastic cuts to its Atlanta office, threw a cloud over its upcoming World of Darkness MMO, and saw 20 percent of the 600-employee company's staff laid off -- may be redeemed by the recent Crucible expansion. After two years of drift away from the core product, stagnating subscriptions, and a series of ham-handed business decisions that sparked riots in its virtual world, the EVE player base appears to be accepting the company's mea culpa.
On the front line in the battle between CCP and its customers over the fate of EVE is the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a democratically-elected group of player representatives who have been granted stakeholder status in the company's development process. This body, at times, acts as a sounding board, an advocacy group, or in direct opposition to CCP's business plans.ma
CCP has granted the CSM extraordinary power in terms of the access it has to the developers; several times a year the CSM is flown to the company headquarters in Iceland for days of arduous meetings. When a crisis within the game erupts, such as in 2010's "Summer of Rage" or the recent Monoclegate, in which players revolted when the company introduced virtual items, CCP calls in the CSM to attempt to mediate.
Initially written off by some as a PR stunt, the CSM has developed since its introduction in 2008 into a powerful advocate. Mostly the CSM functions as a sanity check for mid-level developers within CCP to bounce game design ideas off of; since EVE is such a complex universe, it's impossible for every game designer to have personal experience with every aspect of the game.
At other times, however, the CSM has been an outside source of pressure against CCP's management when it makes decisions which overrule the desires of their customers and the game designers, marshaling an impressive nexus of contacts in the gaming media and the player base to get that point across.
Because of that, the CSM project seems like a double-edged sword for CCP from a business perspective. At one level, the CSM has improved the quality of the game and the lives of the players -- and thus CCP's bottom line. On another level, it has shown that a player advocacy group will not be co-opted by the sponsoring developer, and can focus player dissatisfaction into concrete action that can impact the company's balance sheet. A little democracy is a dangerous thing.
Yet, on the whole, the CSM project has been on the side of CCP's bottom line since the beginning. The CSM was vehemently critical of the Tyrannis and Incarna expansions before their releases, both of which were duds -- duds which came to threaten the company's survival. The Crucible expansion, on the other hand, is a laundry list of CSM-sponsored changes to the core gameplay of EVE, and the disaffected customer base has responded by re-subscribing in droves. Democracy can be dangerous if you defy it, but profitable if obeyed.
There have been player advocate organizations in other MMOs, such as the ill-fated Galactic Senate of Star Wars Galaxies. Yet only CCP has empowered its player council with direct and regular access to the developers, treating the group as actual representatives of the players.
Now that the CSM has matured -- and may have helped save EVE Online from the irrational exuberance of CCP's upper management -- we must ask: what are the advantages of setting up a player council for a MMO, and how could other MMOs set up similar bodies?