CCP fire EVE community team (and WoD devs) to focus on … EVE

In classic ‘just before Xmas’ firings, CCP announced today that they had laid off 20% of their development team and put World of Darkness Online onto the back burner in order to focus on EVE. Makes sense if they have cashflow issues since EVE is the game which is currently bringing in money.

But players are intrigued to find that the 20% laid off includes members of the EVE community team who are popular with the playerbase. That’s an odd way to focus on EVE and its community …

Sympathy and best wishes to anyone who was laid off. But CCP is acting like a chicken with the head cut off at the moment. I’ve never known laying off 20% of the workforce to be a good sign for any company, and I’m sad (although not surprised) to hear about WoD which potentially could have brought in a whole new swathe of players and allowed CCP to show off their sandbox strengths to a new audience.

If they are able to focus on EVE and give the EVE players what they want then good luck to them. But firing community team from an active game with a lively community (to say the least) says that they don’t really understand the genre they are working with to me.

Maybe they should just rename EVE to Con Artists Online?

90% of the time I hear news stories about EVE Online doing the rounds, it’s because of some intricate con or scam which one player/ corps has inflicted on others. The other 10% is when CCP do something players don’t like. In regular MMOs it’s more like the other way around (ie. 90% of the stories are about devs doing something players dislike, 10% is about players doing something interesting/ awful.) I do note that in non-EVE games I’m more likely to hear about players doing something awesome in a good way. EVE seems to only generate interest when players act like dicks. That’s the power of player generated content in a nutshell.

This week’s con-du-jour is a fully fledged Ponzi scheme. A couple of players set up an investment company in the game and accepted deposits, promising investors a stupidly high return (which they presumably said they’d get by investing the money in EVEs auction house or something.) You can follow the link to read the rest, but it did involve a truly vast amount of EVE money so either there are a lot of suckers around or a lot of EVE players have excess cash to burn.

The only things stopping people running these types of scam in other MMOs is devs policing the trades (not sure how often that happens, but Blizzard for example do monitor large gold transfers so that’s probably not unusual, they’re also not keen on player-run lotteries), and players not thinking it’s worth the effort. (The most unusual thing about EVE is how much effort the hardcore players are prepared to put into it.)

I think the issue with EVE is not that players have too much power but that players have too little power to act in these situations. That game would be ripe for trialling player policing – maybe some players would be interested in forming the equivalent of an in game fraud squad with powers to trace dodgy trades and shut these operations down. I’d be curious to know whether many players would take on this role in the interests of cleaning up the game, given that it likely pays a lot less than being a successful con artist or trader. Or would no one care because they like their wild west unpoliced game space just the way it is?

I’d like to think that at least a few people either playing EVE or reading about the scam might go away more informed and able to not get conned by rogue investment schemes in real life. Sadly I think more of them might be attracted by the idea of scamming money out of naive (read: M&S) investors.

The times we live in. Clearly running a successful con makes you a winner in games, not a loser.

[EVE] Monocalypse Now

So the new EVE cash shop and captain’s quarters debacle turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving. For a game that’s quite niche (albeit popular in its niche) they are certainly generating a lot of press at the moment.

I have been mildly surprised at quite how much blogspace and press EVE has been getting over this. I thought it was an interesting angle on experimenting with the value of virtual goods, but I think to get this much outrage out of the fanbase over a cosmetic cash shop, there are likely many other latent frustrations boiling up at the same time.

Anyhow, hard on the heels of the leaked internal newsletter article on microtransactions comes what claims to be a leaked email from the CEO on an internal mailing list. I’ll reproduce this in full since it’s a) quite interesting and b) might get removed from the bboard. (edited to add: Yup,  got deleted while I was posting this. My blogging instincts are being quite good atm.)

As with all such claims, this could be a fake. But even if it is, I think it’s pretty well written and makes the sorts of points that perhaps a CEO should be making.

We live in interesting times; in fact CCP is the kind of company that if things get repetitive we instinctively crank it up a notch. That, we certainly have done this week. First of we have Incarna, an amazing technological and artistic achievement. A vision from years ago realized to a point that no one could have imaged but a few months ago. It rolls out without a hitch, is in some cases faster than what we had before, this is the pinnacle of professional achievement. For all the noise in the channel we should all stand proud, years from now this is what people will remember.

But we have done more, not only have we redefined the production quality one can apply to virtual worlds with the beautiful Incarna but we have also defined what it really means to make virtual reality more meaningful than real life when it comes to launching our new virtual goods currency, Aurum.

And how do you know if you have succeeded in making virtual reality more meaningful than real life? By seeing how much you can make people pay for it. This idea that cash value is the optimal way to measure meaningfulness is pure CEO. It is, to be fair, the basis of many values in modern society.

I won’t debate meaningfulness here, but their argument is that expensive things are more meaningful. I don’t feel that this adequately explains tea, cats, virtual reality, best friends/ partners (unless your social network is very high upkeep) or books, but crack on. Meanwhile, the phrasing just makes me think of the Red Dwarf Holodeck, which was called Better than Life.

Naturally, we have caught the attention of the world. Only a few weeks ago we revealed more information about DUST 514 and now we have done it again by committing to our core purpose as a company by redefining assumptions. After 40 hours we have already sold 52 monocles, generating more revenue than any of the other items in the store.

These purport to be the hard sales figures, for anyone who was curious.  I know Stabs commented the other day that he’d bought one via in game cash to speculate with, so not sure how many of the other 51 monocles were bought for the same purpose.

Still it proves a point, if it’s there then people will buy it. I wonder if they’d sell more if a character could wear two monocles at the same time. He’s right about having gotten a lot of attention, too.

This we have done after months of research by a group of highly competent professionals, soliciting input and perspective from thought leaders and experts in and around our industry. We have communicated our intention here internally in very wide circles through the Virtual Economy Summit
presentation at the GSM, our Fearless newsletter, sprint reviews, email lists and multiple other channels. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Currently we are seeing _very predictable feedback_ on what we are doing. Having the perspective of having done this for a decade, I can tell you that this is one of the moments where we look at what our players do and less of what they say. Innovation takes time to set in and the predictable reaction is always to resist change.

This is perhaps the more interesting section, because he’s right that the feedback was predictable. He’s also right to note that players won’t always do what they say they will do.

However, think back a year or so to Blizzard’s RealID campaign. They stood their ground for awhile (and I’m sure these types of emails would have been circulating Blizzard HQ as well), but eventually they blinked. I wonder if CCP is for turning also – if I had to guess, I’d guess not.

Intriguingly, the corporate culture seems fairly close to the hard nosed in-game EVE culture. I think there’s got to be room for a PhD in comparing cultures in virtual worlds with the cultures in the companies that produce them. Come to think of it, CCP is also looking as leaky as a sieve these days with all these ‘secret’ memos and broadsheets making the rounds. I wonder how many of the EVE devs also play the game and are perhaps a bit too much enmeshed in the virtual world for corporate comfort. (ie. If CCP employees find that virtual worlds are more meaningful than for example their RL jobs.)

We went out with a decisive strategy on pricing and we will stay the course and not flip flop around or knee jerk react to the predictable. That is not saying nothing will change, on the contrary, in fact we know that success in this space is through learning and adapting to _what is actually happening_ and new knowledge gained in addition to what we knew before and expected.

All that said, I couldn’t be prouder of what we have accomplished as a company, changing the world is hard and we are doing it as so many times before! Stay the course, we have done this many times before.

Standard wisdom on player (over)reaction to game changes is to sit tight and wait for the storm to blow over. For all players talk about quitting, there is no immediate EVE-substitute for them to flee to. Some games are more interchangeable than others.

But leaking an email explicitly stating that they have no interest in listening to what players say is probably not ideal PR. Neither is releasing a new patch with severe performance issues that might put off any new players who are attracted by the furore.

ps. I think this is one of my more inspired blog titles :)

[EVE] Vanity costs, and here’s where you start paying!

The latest EVE patch introduced the ‘Noble Exchange Cash Shop’ where players can spend real money on cosmetic gear for their prettified new toons (which are very pretty, I think I wrote about the new character generator a while back). Here’s their dev blog about the vanity store.

Jester at Jester’s Trek sums up what a lot of other people are thinking about CCPs pricing strategy.

I love plain grey just as much as I know all of you do, and CCP is being good enough to cater to my need for bland grey clothing by charging me 3600 AUR for a plain grey shirt.  This is about $20 U.S., which coincidentally, is how mucha real plain grey shirt costs in the EVE Online store.

But when he let out some snark about a monacle that costs the equivalent of $68 I thought “no way, he’s joking,” but apparently not. (There’s a 21 page thread on the EVE forums already.)

Now cash transactions in EVE are fundamentally different from cash shops in games like WoW or LOTRO because it is possible to convert game money into other forms (the dev blog above tries to show this graphically), so the price level may be something that experienced players will laugh off as the EVE equivalent of a WoW motorbike (ie. luxury goods designed to take some moolah out of the market). But judging from the tone of that bboard thread, I’m guessing it’s high even for that crowd.

Would you consider spending as much on a virtual piece of gear for a character as for a real life piece of clothing for yourself?

Commercialisation, and the appeal of an amateur fanbase

A lot of gamers will tell you that the opposite of pro is noob. It’s one opposite, I guess, but back in the meatworld the most common opposite of professional is amateur.

Amateur means a lot of things. It can mean bad (amateurish isn’t usually good), it can mean hobbyist, it can mean idealistic. For example, the Olympics is intended for amateur sportspeople, on paper at least. This idea that amateurs were purer hobbyists who did their sport/ game/ profession for the love of it, untainted by filthy lucre is starting to look rather old fashioned now.

So why talk about amateurs? In the wake of the EVE addon changes (which I wrote about yesterday, along with lots of other bloggers), I think there’s a backlash from a lot of people who just don’t like the idea of having their favourite game’s ecosystem commercialised. The amateur way is the purer fanbase, playing and making guides, websites, addons for the sheer love of the game.

The roots of the MMO hobby that I personally love come directly from amateur gamers. MUDs were originally based on  open sourced code, created and staffed by people who just loved them as a hobby. Things have moved on since then, become more commercialised, better in some ways and worse in others. The community itself hasn’t much changed, although it has grown a great deal. Yet the games themselves were once LOVED by their creators and their players, not consumed.

It may be that the majority of gamers would slaver over a more commercial ecosystem. They love wowhead, curse, EVEMon, and all the slew of professional quality player tools that have become available and would happily buy and use more if they existed. I do wonder though what gets lost in the transition.

Yet I think of the fan run scifi conventions I’ve been to compared to commercial conventions. I have seen good quality versions of both, but the fan conventions had more soul and connected with attendees on a much wider range of levels. People ran sessions based on what they personally thought would be fun and interesting, rather than on how many bums they could get on seats. It felt so much easier to connect personally with both other fans and people running the convention (who are of course also other fans), the power differential between producers and consumers just wasn’t there …

It’s on my mind at the moment since Arb and I are off to Comic Con in a few weeks time, which is easily going to be the largest commercial convention I have ever seen. I think it will be brilliant. There will be sessions that no fan convention could ever in a million years hope to match. But it doesn’t affect how much I want to get to Eastercon next year, which I think will feel more like ‘home’ (actually George R R Martin is scheduled to be at both, and lots of authors seem to enjoy the fan convention scene.)

End of the free ride for (EVE) money making gaming blogs, guides, and addons

CCP, developers of EVE Online, set the cat among the pigeons yesterday when they announced that they intend to charge a licence fee to 3rd parties who use their assets for profit making activities. (If you run a not for profit blog, service, etc then you just need a free licence.)

They didn’t spin it quite that way, saying instead:

Starting this summer you will be able to charge people for usage of your applications, websites and services for EVE Online.

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, why should people be able to make bank by producing online guides without paying anything to the owner of the IP? That’s not how things usually work. Or in other words, people already are finding ways to monetise (I do hate that word) their EVE blogs, guides, and apps and now they’ll all have to register and pay the piper.

Examples of monetization could be donations, one-time purchase, in-app purchase, subscriptions or ad-supported sites or apps

Note that they have explicitly mentioned ad-supported sites. If you run Google Adsense or have a tip jar on your EVE blog, CCP will also want their $99, thank you.

I have no horse in this race since this blog a) isn’t game specific and b) isn’t monetised (there I go again). But you have to wonder if other MMOs with strong communities will follow where CCP have led – after all, it’s money on the table and if a few bloggers who fancy themselves entrepreneurs throw their toys out of the pram and close up shop, no biggie. (The smarter ones will either find better ways to monetise or switch to a multi-gaming blog.) Would Blizzard do this? Hard to say, it’s a lot of work to police the licensing although doing so would give a dev plenty of clout and control over the fanbase.

On the other hand, if app writers want to charge people for services provided, are happy to throw a sop to Cerberus/ CCP  by paying the license fee and people want to pay, what’s the real problem with that?

If there is a problem, it comes from the increasing reliance of devs on addon makers to clean up their UIs. Effectively encouraging players to pay for addons is letting them pay for an in-game advantage, which is one of the things players have in the past complained about with cash shops for F2P games.

Maybe cracked.com got it right with their 4th most ominous trend in video gaming (“the new model is infinite payment”.)

Caveat Emptor. The bottom line will be whether or not CCP is prepared to go to court over any addon writer/ blogger et al who ignores this. If there is a real likelihood of a legal fight which will definitely cost more than $99 then paying the license makes sense. If not, then it can be ignored.

Creating and measuring good communities in games

Community is arguably the one defining factor that sets MMOs aside from any other type of game. You adventure in a virtual world and in that virtual world you can build a virtual community.  Oh, other games certainly have associated communities but they traditionally have been less of a part of the core experience.  This is now changing. We’re seeing a convergence with online games in which MMOs are getting less virtual world/ virtual community centric and other multiplayer games are picking up MMO conventions like in-game guilds and character progression.

This just means that in game and cross game communities are getting more important, not less.

It’s also well known that being part of a strong community (or social network, which is the other phrase that gets used a lot) is a big factor in people continuing to play a game. It also happens to be a big factor in the real world for social cohesion in a geographical area. There are theories that a strong social network encourages people to care for each other and to seek help when they need it, reduces crime, reduces mental health issues, and helps people to live longer and be happier. Good friends, good family, good local services, and good neighbours are in fact good for your health.

We may not know how well the idea of a strong community really does translate into games (especially since you have to balance it against gaming addiction), but generally speaking being part of a strong community is a good thing for individuals. And if it encourages people to play games for longer, it’s probably a good thing for devs too.

Measuring Social Capital

The notion of social capital is a way to describe the value of a social network. How good is the community? It’s a measure of how connected people are, and how willing to do things for each other and take an active role in running their local communities. It’s also a measure of how easy it is to build new links and for new people to be integrated into an existing community. A guild with good social capital will have lots of people keen to organise/ run successful raids and events, be welcoming to new players, and have a strong identity to which members are proud to belong. (This is nothing to do with whether it is a hardcore progression raid guild or a friends and family social guild.)

Not all strong communities are good for the wider community though. A gang might be great for the people in it, and still horrible for everyone around it who isn’t. We’ve had a whole dialogue of multiculturalism here lately where strong immigrant communities are variously seen as threats, unenlightened throwbacks, or potential nests of terrorists by politicians looking to tap a popular seam.

So we could look at two different types of community in MMOs.

  1. Your immediate community, either a guild or people you know iRL or regularly group with.
  2. The rest of the server/ game

We can also look at three different types of interaction:

  1. Gaming interaction. You’re playing a minigame with them, maybe PvE raiding or team PvP.
  2. Non-direct interaction like trading on the auction house. It could also be contributing individually to a communal longterm goal.
  3. Social interaction. This may involve *gasp* talking.

Chances are that if you are playing an MMO you will be enjoying at least one of these modes of interaction, even if you are not directly taking part. Some people enjoy listening to chat on global channels for example, even if it is inane and they are lurkers, just because it’s nice to know there are players around. Others like random dungeons/ PvP groups but have no interest in longer term relationships with any of the players.

Cosa nostra – the strong guild

WoW tends towards fostering strong, exclusive guilds. If you imagine each guild as a tight knit family in which the overall consensus is that “we’re not interested in anyone outside our family,” you’d be quite close to the general raid guild ethos.

Endgame also pushes people in this direction. The WoW endgame favours fixed groups and regular runs to the same instances. Once you are in a guild that can do this, there’s no real reason to build strong links with anyone outside the guild.

Random instance queues and battleground queues are great for encouraging gaming interaction, but very poor for social interaction. I think this is why people tend to feel that ‘the community’ in WoW is poor even while valuing their guilds and enjoying the availability of group content.

WoW also is very poor at offering communal server rewards that encourage the different guilds to work together. This has happened in the past. The opening of AQ40 for example required lots of resources to be gathered and at the time progression guilds who wanted the new raid instance took a pole position in encouraging the rest of the server to help. I remember raid guilds organising gathering competitions and the like that in which anyone could take part. (I think part of the reason they stopped doing this is that progression raiders on less progressed servers felt it was unfair that they would be behind when the new instance opened. It also encouraged hardcore raiders to server transfer to busier servers and swamp them.)

WoW also doesn’t encourage guild alliances, where different guilds might work together on shared goals without having to lose their individual identities and merge together.

So you end up in a game where guilds can be and are very strong, but the social cohesion between the rest of the faction/ server is extremely low. So as a new player, who isn’t in one of those strong guilds, you will struggle to see anything other than a poor community and the strong guilds have little incentive to welcome new players who might need extra coaching in any case.

Our town – the strong server

One of the features of older MMOs is that people did feel a strong attachment to their server. In DaoC for example, we had a lot of faction specific PvP goals and when our relics were in danger, everyone dropped what they were doing and headed out to the frontier together, casual and hardcore players from numerous different guilds alike. You tended to know people from different guilds because you would see them around the place, you would probably have been in PvP/ frontier groups with them, and you may have grouped with them in PvE.

This of course was before the advent of server transfers, so there was a hint of ‘work with the players you have.’ We also had strong guild alliances and it was likely that you and your guild would build up relationships with other guilds, and any friendships that you personally made would be a part of that.

The trend now is probably away from strong servers and towards the idea of either a single server, or easy transfers. In many ways this is a shame because a server with a few thousand players is easier to get to know your way around socially than a game with tens or hundreds of thousands. It’s like the in game equivalent of a small town, rather than a huge city.

Still, in smaller MMOs you can still get some of the same sense of social capital. Particularly games which may be struggling for players, as each new player is a valuable resource. I think this is what makes smaller games like Pirates and A Tale in the Desert feel friendlier.  But both of those games also feature strong non-direct interactions via trade. A new player who is keen can be a real asset to your faction even if they are (for example) not very good at PvP or PvE or play fairly casually. But – crucially – neither of these games put players in a position where they are forced to rely on newbies for rewards such as emblems or PvP points. It’s easy to be friendly when it won’t cost  you anything or hamper your own game.

In a MUSH I used to play, you could bring up a list of the last 20 new players to enter the game and existing players (especially if they were bored) often used this to mentor new players or try to make a special effort to include them in RP. This is the kind of mechanic that makes new players feel welcomed – just having someone going out of their way to include you.

I mention RP advisedly because even in non-roleplaying types of games, RP servers do always seem to have better communities than non-RP ones, such as it is. I think this is because they tend to attract players who value social interaction more highly, whether or not they actually roleplay in game.

I have mentioned above the notion of server goals and rewards, and using gameplay such as open groups, public quests, and faction based PvP to bring server communities together. If I could pick on one aspect of social capital where I think MMOs are currently failing, this would be the one. It potentially ties together the disparate guilds with common goals, gives guildless players a framework on which to meet and interact with guilded ones and works on a large enough scale to remind people that they are actually playing a MMO and not a squad based PvE game. Plus it is possible to foster server cooperation with non-direct interaction (such as the communal resource gathering) as well as huge PvP// PvE battles that require multiple guilds to work together.

Our society – the strong game

It is extremely rare to find a MMO where you could honestly say that the entire game had a strong community. Most of the games where I’ve experienced this have been smaller ones (or in beta), with a small single server that would have felt more like towns than vast cities.

However, if you look outside the single game to resources such as the WoW or EVE blogosphere you can get an inkling of how this could be fostered. Players on multiple different WoW servers happily cooperate on blogs or bboards to build a community that is in its way stronger and more stubborn than anything in game.

The WAR blogging community was and is still extremely strong for the size of the game. Whereas LOTRO in comparison really doesn’t have that strong of an online presence, even though it is probably more successful and most people would consider the in game community to be far better.

One thing that is key to understanding the importance of blogging communities is that they are entirely based around both social interaction and non-direct interaction, there is no direct gameplay involved. You don’t have to comment on blogs to feel part of the community. If you do comment, you don’t have to feel tied into a commitment.

Building better communities?

I personally do enjoy games with strong guilds, strong servers AND strong game communities, even if I may not choose to be part of all types of social network myself.

I think much of the debate about how game design can strengthen communities tends to focus on gaming interactions, and goal based communal achievements. There’s very little on increasing social interaction, which is a shame because it may well be key to building strong game communities, and strengthening ties between players who may have a lot in common and yet not really share common in game goals (possibly due to lack of time, etc.) I’m hoping to see more emphasis on social interaction and politicking on WoD Online when that comes out, it would suit a vampire based game to really pick at what makes virtual communities tick.

Interplayer links such as facebook, twitter or realID (battle.net) help tie players together without linking them to specific games. Are they a good thing for gaming communities or do they just make people more likely to parochially stick with players they already know and hence raise the bar for interaction with newbies? We still don’t know the answer to this.

Blizzard said yesterday that they value players being able to play with people they already know. This undoubtedly does create a sense of community which crosses real world/ online lines.  But how welcoming will this type of game be for a new player? Maybe they’ve decided that gaming now is so mainstream that everyone will know people to play with. Time will tell if they are right.