Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vehicle Combat in Dust514: A Future Vision

While the CPM has had some good meetings with the new Executive Producer, we are still awaiting a statement from CCP and I am withholding comment about the recent internal proceedings until we see that statement delivered.

In the meantime, I thought it would be fun to share some of what's been on my mind recently regarding the game itself.  I initially posted a brief version of the following to CCP on Skype along with the full-length description on our internal forums.  However, the concept is important enough to me that I wanted to share it with all of you as well.  Especially for those of you that play Dust514, its important for you to know what kinds of ideas your representatives are championing.  [Note that this is not specific feedback for the current rebalance slated for Uprising 1.7, but rather the next few steps needed to blow the vehicle combat in Dust 514 wide open and into some really compelling design space.]

Without further ado:

I believe what's ultimately missing in Dust514 is a true MMO-style combat system. Dust has enormous potential as an "MMOFPS" not just in the way it ties with EVE, but all the way down to the core combat. When you think about it, most of the tools are in place for a "sandbox" combat system with lots of room for creativity by allowing players to combine elements of the traditional MMO "holy trinity" - Tanking/DPS/Healing.*

There are three fundamental changes in particular that I see necessary to facilitate/activate such a system:

1.) Move vehicle repair modules to a turret. Moving them isn't really needed, existing modules could be maintained and a turret repair simply added.

2.) Allow vehicle tanking modules to be operated by a passenger. This could be as simple as an option to assign on-board module control to a passenger of choice, so solo drivers could retain full control of their ability to mitigate damage

3.) Remove fixed turret slots, and use a larger pool of high/low slots along with a hardpoint system to keep players from mounting multiple large weapons on an HAV, or large weapons on a dropship. Hardpoints would be a simple number of allowed small or large turrets per vehicle - but the important part here is allowing players to forgo a turret in favor of additional tank or utility.

The third fix alone addresses another major issue with vehicles as they stand today - the lack of strong roles. Instead of trying to nail down the ideal role for every vehicle, why not give them to players as canvasses to be painted on? There needs to be a damn good reason for this much customization (it comes at the cost of the learning curve, after all), and so the design team misses a huge opportunity here if they don't allow players themselves to define how they want to use the vehicles (or even dropsuits) given to them.

The end goal should really be a near-infinite amount of combinations of repair/support/tanking/DPS gameplay...across both infantry AND vehicles. Want a super-tough HAV that doesn't dish out damage at all, but is a tough turtle that crawls along and keeps a few squad members alive using small repair turrets? Easy.
Want a fast dropship with no tank but more small turrets for your crazy suicidal squadmates to man and rain fire? Done. Want to create a new meta around mutliple 3-man teams of spider-linked HAV's (one driver/DPS, one tanker, one healer on the small turret)? You can even create the "Holy Trinity" in a single vehicle. Or, alternative, fit one for solo work and do it all yourself. No one is ever forced to play any particular way, and creativity and teamwork become the ticket to greatness.

I know this probably sounds scary and overwhelming to Dust's design team - but I really think its important to consider the instant depth this game would gain when WE come up with the innovative tactics that we can't right now with vehicles drifting further in the direction of being merely "dropsuits with wheels". In my opinion, Dust 514 should derive its challenge from innovating ways to counter opposing player creativity - and not just devolve into another wall of twitch skill overcome through endless practice.

This, to me, is what I really hope CCP Rouge considers as he moves this project forward. MMO depth can be added in many more ways beyond simply expanding the EVE-link! It can be achieved moment-to-moment in combat by giving players tools to create new tactics with.  By now everyone mostly has an optimal way to use each item, suit, or vehicle - and this reality should really be seen as a design flaw to improve upon if the goal is to bring the full power of EVE's customization into the FPS world.

The sooner the developers reach towards the "sandbox" in day-to-day game play - the more rapidly we players end up providing each other with more "content".   Other shooters on the market wouldn't be able to touch this level of flexibility - in most contemporary games players are stuck waiting for a new map, item, or feature to provide them with a brand new experience when they log in. If CCP makes Dust514 a true sandbox shooter - it takes pressure off their own content creators because we will end up making the game constantly fresh for ourselves. This design ethos has worked really well in EVE Online, and it only requires periodic skilled rebalance effort to continually rekindle the fire.

Rebalancing is much, much cheaper than producing entirely new toys - and by moving to this system the developers would gain a huge multiplier on the impact of their time spent tweaking gear performance. Enabling this level of combat depth should actually make for less work for the Shanghai studio in the long run, not more.
That's not at all to say there won't be a need for new items and vehicles - only that there is tremendous value in creating game objects that can be played with like wooden blocks, rather than a puzzle with a single solution.

*And yes, I'm quite aware that most of the time "Holy Trinity" is used as a perjorative and a design rut that many MMO's are trying to migrate away from, but I use it here only to highlight three distinct jobs that players can provide each other if given the proper tools - and the value that they would bring to an FPS game.  This extends to other roles such as crowd control as well - Dust514 has a huge place for electronic warfare in its future if given the opportunity.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

CPM Activity Report #8 - October 16, 2013

We have reached a crossroads.

Four days away from finishing our 6th month since CCP Dolan announced the Council of Planetary Management, an immense amount of work remains in the process of establishing a practical, efficient working relationship with CCP Shanghai. By now most of you have learned that we now have a new Executive Producer: Jean-Charles Gaudechon, also known as CCP Rouge. My original hope was to have gotten far enough along by now that we'd be ready to collectively teach Dust514's next E.P. the merits of a strong working relationship through direct demonstration. Today, it appears that he is our best remaining chance at building that relationship.

I've struggled the past few weeks to figure out exactly what to write about since my last report, for fairly obvious reasons. Many of you have already been asking lots of questions about initiatives discussed in previous reports, such as the establishment of a CPM charter or a regular meeting schedule. Many of you have also noticed we haven't had a lot of answers. I finally sat down last Friday and hammered out a rough outline of what I'd write if I were to produce another typical Activity Report. Under normal circumstances, I ask questions about the items I'm unsure about, though I don't ever have CCP directly review or "rubber stamp" my blog posts. I've been doing this long enough to know what's safe to share in most cases, and I think its also important to retain my own voice as much as possible.

This time, however, I wanted both CCP and the CPM to be on exactly the same page about what has transpired since I last blogged, and to give both parties a fair chance to give me something different to write about. The response from CCP was immediate – and since Friday the CPM have been in and out of a series of intense discussions with CCP Logibro, CCP Dolan, CCP Saberwing, and almost every member of the ever-growing Shanghai management group. The culmination of this was a meeting held yesterday with the new Executive Producer, CCP Rouge, an event we weren't expecting for another three weeks at least. The timeslot for the meeting was originally planned for a discussion of an upcoming event, but the meeting was cancelled and replaced with some face time with the new boss. Rouge had caught wind of our internal discussion about the state of the CPM and its development, and wanted to get involved immediately.

As frustrating as this may be for some of you, I will not be discussing the meeting in this post. Everyone knows what the CPM has been asking for, and everyone knows what has been promised in previous meetings. While we very much welcome CCP's apparent enthusiasm, we've also seen it many variations of it throughout the last 6 months. Were there commitments made in this meeting as well? Absolutely! But I will not be outlining them here.

The time has passed for the CPM to take verbal assurances at face value, and from this point on we can only evaluate CCP's interest in engaging the community through observing substantive action. As your representative body, pledges of cooperation made to the CPM are also made to each of you, and because of this they should almost always be made to you directly. Since CCP Dolan's initial post announcing our formation, the CPM's activities as well as CCP's interest in our development have been documented almost exclusively through this blog, and that will no longer be the case. The last pledge from CCP that I will communicate on their behalf is this: There will be a public statement by the end of the week, where CCP will update the community on the state of the CPM as well discuss how we will be proceeding moving forward.

It is only fair at this point to expect CCP to provide the community with their own transparent and critical examination of how we got to where we are today, as well as to share how they plan to improve the situation in the coming weeks. We have a window of opportunity now that CCP Saberwing is onboard to attend to the CPM in Shanghai, at a time when the possibility exists for top-down integration and management of the communication pipelines we've been waiting for. Hope certainly remains, but optimism will only return once we see the immediate mobilization that we deserve at this point and time.

There is certainly a lot more ground to cover, but the community must look to CCP to follow through on the public statement and begin this process themselves. Once everyone is caught up on the events leading to this point as well as what was covered in the meeting yesterday, I will have a lot more to discuss. If things get moving quickly enough, my intention is to resume weekly posts provided I actually have tangible news to deliver. In the meantime its CCP's turn to catch up with the community, and I look forward to seeing what hey have to say.

Friday, September 13, 2013

CPM Activity Report #7 - Sept. 13, 2013

Charting a Course

My last update concluded with the CPM preparing for our pending meeting with CCP to discuss the contents of our public statement and to pursue concrete resolution to the structural and communication issues it raised. For this effort to be a success, the first order of business was ensuring we were going to be heard by the right people. Thankfully, CCP delivered and we were not only able to sit down with CCP Praetorian (as requested), but also with Jón Hörðdal – CCP's COO and also Managing Director for CCP Asia. Community team members CCP Cmdr Wang and CCP Dolan were also in attendance. The CPM walked away from the meeting feeling fairly positive about what we'd heard, though plenty of follow-up work still remains.

The big takeaway from the meeting that the community should be aware of is that it is becoming quite clear that the type of back-and-forth dialog we crave, the model set by EVE's developers, is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible to replicate due to the difference in release cycle between the two games. EVE is on a twice-yearly expansion model, with indefinite, infrequent point releases in between. Dust, on the other hand, is currently on a monthly release schedule as part of a specific development arc aimed at addressing the outstanding core issues that comprised the bulk of the criticism leveled during the game's launch. The other main objective of this current arc is to increase player retention through a close examination of the new player experience.

EVE Online's development pace affords its developers plenty of time to spitball ideas with the public months in advance through dozens of stickied inquiry threads, a standard of communication that most of us, the CPM included, have attempted to hold CCP Shanghai accountable to as well. The bad news is that we're beginning to realize that this just isn't feasible – each patch involves a roughly a week of planning, a week of hammering out design details, a week of coding, and a week of QA. I am ball-parking tremendously here, as individual projects often have work that needs several months of ramp from art, coding infrastructure, or any number of other support platforms in place, and I think what we're really seeing here is probably closer to a 6-week cycle, with some overlap in that while testing is being done on one release, the next is beginning to be planned out. Exact timing aside, I share this to illustrate how rapid the studio is having to move to achieve the monthly ship dates which, to CCP's credit, they've pretty much nailed since 1.2.

When discussing this situation during our meeting, I was most impressed with the reassurance we received from Jón Hörðdal – who, without any prompting from us – clearly articulated his own understanding that the rapid release schedule makes the CPM an even more critical part of the feedback process, since meaningful communication windows are so short. We than began to go over the more defined role that the CPM will be playing in the development process moving forward. This role, both our purpose and practices – will be outlined in an official Charter to be posted publicly by CCP in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. 

Essentially though, the CPM are going to have to act as feedback ninjas – being prepared to give rapid feedback when presented with possible feature lists for each point release, as well as elsewhere during development when the designers need input on specific features. The message heard loud and clear was "less communication of higher quality". In other words, while long conversations in Skype or on the forums may feel most satisfying to those of us in the community, they aren't going to be nearly as useful to CCP as a 30 minute scheduled meeting using a written agenda posted in advance.

I never got the feeling that the management present didn't value player feedback at a high level, however – on par with that of the CSM. Again, I was impressed by Jón Hörðdal's interest in inserting the CPM into the release cycle at the very beginning, during pre-planning, when the features are selected. This of course gives the CPM a chance to sanity check and warn if we see excessive attention being given to a feature players won't care about, or likewise if we see the lack of attention given to an issue that's much more critical. In other words, the CPM's first Charter will contain provision for a system that is a rough analog of the CSM's stakeholder role. Its safe to say that both the CPM and CCP were very much on the same page about what we're here to do, and what we should have access to, the only barrier left is working out the practical details and to publish the Charter.

What this means for you, the community – is fairly significant. More than ever, you're going to need to put some trust in us to say the right thing to CCP during those fewer, and more critical, moments of interaction. In other words, if you've got concerns, suggestions, ideas, requests – you're far better off taking the time to talk to one of us on Skype, or IRC, or to send us a mail, than you would be sitting around posting angrily on the forums that the devs aren't telling you everything about what they're working on.

The CPM is going to have to act as both conduit and sponge, soaking up the information we need to squeeze out during critical windows in the monthly cycle. And for many of you – this may be terrifying! Because we're terrible at the game, we've never driven vehicles, worn a scout suit, or played other shooters. We're carebears, noobs, EVE fanboys, and we have no business talking about balance. Whatever silly thing you believe, my point is that if you're worried about what we're going to tell CCP, come talk to us and get to know us and tell us what's on your mind. It's important to understand here that CCP isn't stonewalling efforts to engage the community – they're saying very specifically that the CPM is the most efficient tool they can leverage right now given the speed of the current development process.

 The first "Summit"

Shortly on the heels of our meeting with members of the Dust514 management team, the CPM participated in the CSM8 summer summit in Reykjavik, albeit mostly as remote observers. This was understandable, it was a CSM summit after all and most of the sessions were about EVE-related issues and upcoming feature work. There were certainly several moments throughout the summit, as well as two dedicated sessions with Team True Grit, where the CPM was able to ferry input via Skype to the CSM members in the room to discuss on our behalf, which worked well enough.

The week leading up to and including the summit was another time for the CPM and CSM to once again engage in heavy dialog over the future of the link between the two games, and present as unified a message to CCP as possible about player concerns and desires. Both entities have a healthy working relationship, and there were no real major points of contention regarding which direction things need to head, or the degree to which the games should be integrated.

However – one could certainly argue that its easy for us to get along and discuss "Link" issues with mutual interest, because there still isn't much to talk about. The fact of the matter is that while Team True Grit will continue to make many not-insignificant changes to Faction Warfare and Planetary Conquest mechanics in the months ahead, CCP clearly communicated at the summit that the focus right now is making quality, standalone games that compete on their own merits. The resources for Dust514 will continue to be focused on improving the core game for the duration of the road map, and the feature teams working on EVE Online have a full workload this winter of their own.

This leaves Team True Grit with a backlog of amazing ideas for ways to integrate the two games, that mostly require EVE feature teams to be allocated onto those projects in support – allocation that is looking highly unlikely for winter. This is where the CSM and CPM were in lockstep – mutually frustrated that there is a clear deficit between vision and production manpower where the "Link" is concerned. Articulating the proper balance of working on Dust 514's core game play vs working on the "Link" has proven to be the biggest challenge here, and where the perspectives of each council begin to diverge somewhat. For the CSM, which by and large does not play Dust 514 regularly, I think CCP's message of "focus on the core" is much easier to grasp and accept at face value. For those of us on the CPM, who have a greater understanding of the pace at which the game is being polished, its a little more complicated. None of us on the CPM want CCP to abandon their current efforts to improve aiming, balance, performance, or accessibility – but we also recognize that none of these development focal points leverage the primary element separating Dust 514 from a host of other shooters.

The dedicated Team True Grit sessions themselves were mostly an opportunity for the team to share with the CSM their upcoming face lifts to both Faction Warfare and Planetary Conquest, material that the CPM had mostly seen before in our own internal forums. Each of these efforts should do a nice job of making participation in these activities more accessible, enjoyable, and rewarding – though it remains to be seen how much depth they'll potentially add to the "game between the games".

Back on the grind

The weeks since the summit have been a bit slow otherwise, with communication between the CPM and CCP mostly consisting of Skype activity surrounding the deployment of 1.4. The initial matchmaking bugs were of course a sucker punch to community morale, and also acted as a petri dish for the infectious doomsday rhetoric that bubbles to the surface every patch day. However, the response was particularly rapid this time around, with fixes for matchmaking, shotgun performance, and map functionality squashed within days of being reported. Wolfman and Nullarbor were once again heroes for the extra hours they put in working with both the CPM and the community to pull this off.

You also might have noticed some rotations in activity levels amongst CPM members, as RL obligations pull us our separate directions. Nova Knife and myself have been back to work and putting some long hours in the last couple of weeks, as you can see by my infrequent postings lately. Laurent Cazaderon, on the other hand, is back from vacation abroad and once again engaging both CCP and the community in full force.
 I've got a few more notes regarding progress on 1.5 and feedback we're preparing for 1.6 and 1.7 that have come out of this week's Skype chatter with CCP, but it's also fresh enough to remain a moving target so I'll hang onto those for the time being and use them as a down payment on my next report. In the meantime – there's one other recent beast that I'm going to tackle in a separate blog post this weekend – the highly controversial aim assist. There's really enough to discuss about this feature alone and its context that I've decided to give it the proper treatment it deserves. Keep an eye on this space.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

CPM Activity Report #6 - August 16, 2013

As many of you have noticed, earlier this week the CPM published a letter titled "State of Affairs: Communication & Trust" in our Council's Chamber on the Dust514 forums. If you haven't taken a moment to read through, I highly recommend you pause and do so, as it is the focus on this latest Activity Report.

Those of you that have been actively playing Dust 514 since the beta period or following its development closely won't find most of the content in our public statement to be particularly new or surprising. Many of you are familiar with the ups and downs the game has gone through from build to build, as well as the scattershot communication methods CCP has employed in an attempt to engage the public. The reason for a "State of Affairs" at this point in time is simple – The CPM was originally founded with a specific mission in mind, and the public deserves a reporting on how that mission is proceeding.

Of course, when CCP Dolan first announced the formation of the CPM in his dev blog, none of us on the council had any idea the challenges that we would be faced with when Uprising 1.0 launched on 5/14, bringing the game out of beta and into the media spotlight. For CCP, the subsequent restructuring of the development teams that focused their resources back on to polishing core game play took its toll as well. Understandably, priority was given over the more seemingly-mundane chores of establishing the CPM with a charter, a term limit, a voting procedure, and most importantly – a structured and mutually beneficial relationship with the development teams.

Without further rehashing Monday's CPM statement too much, the reality here is that over several months now we have drifted away from our primary mission. That is, the formation of a structured, efficient working relationship with the dev teams, and the charter that will guide future elected CPM members as they assist CCP in rolling out new fixes and features they can be confident the community will love. While CCP's current hyper-focus on core game play is crucial – the lack of attention given to the creation of such internal structure has allowed many ongoing communication issues to persist, resulting in much of the very same player frustration we've seen since the beginning of the beta period.

Before publishing our "State of Affairs", we had repeatedly raised these communication issues internally, asked for any good news we could share about solutions being put in place, and repeatedly come up empty handed. This ultimately defined the tone and content of our public statement – at the end of the day no news is still news.

Since the posting on Monday, two significant developments have taken place that are worth noting. The first is that CCP Commander Wang quickly and generously reached out to the CPM with a host of badly-needed information about CCP Shanghai's internal design process, which if nothing else will assist in our ongoing pursuit of a structured, efficient means of contributing regularly. The second is that we finally managed to secure our first meeting to be held this coming Monday with the management committee which will be solely focused on discussing the going communication issues as well as the status of the CPM as an institution.

What is becoming clear in the meantime is that there are enough dissimilarities between the Dust 514 release schedule and that of EVE Online that some improvisation on our part will be needed in order to arrive at a process that the Shanghai studio finds useful and is willing to commit to. And no matter that both studios carry the CCP logo and the same commitment to "practice transparency" (one of the company's four core values, believe it or not) – it is also becoming increasingly clear that many individuals in Shanghai are completely unfamiliar with working with a group like the CSM/CPM.

The detectable levels of apprehension about allowing a player group inside the development process pose a considerable challenge especially for myself in particular. Over the last year I've grown accustomed to working with designers, producers, and executives who have welcomed CSM feedback not only about the features in the pipeline, but also the larger road map for EVE Online, including the actual development process itself. The CSM as an institution has survived innumerable struggles and conflicts with CCP during many ugly periods during its evolution, finally arriving in a place with few boundaries and few limitations on what it can observe, comment on, and accomplish. CSM7 was the first CSM to function as an actual stakeholder inside the company, participating not only in the regular sprint review meetings, but also the release planning for the Odyssey expansion. In other words, after years of hard work, the CSM is no longer simply being told what is coming in an expansion and given room to comment, they now have the opportunity to influence what will be created for an expansion. The results of this fearlessness speak for themselves.

Our meeting Monday will begin to reveal whether CCP Shanghai will learn from the CSM success story and pursue the tremendous value that transparency with the CPM will bring – or whether they will stubbornly prefer to start from scratch and go through all of the growing pains the CSM fought through year after year to get to the level of productivity and efficiency they demonstrate today. There is a lot of work to be done to polish Dust 514 and little time left before the community's razor-thin attention span is strained by enormous competition from other games this holiday season. Every incentive exists for CCP to quickly open up to the CPM about what they're planning, what they're working on, and to listen to feedback that can prevent a lot of community dissatisfaction with the dev's hard work this second time around.

While I will certainly continue to keep you all posted as to our progress this coming week – my sincerest hope is that the next time you hear news it will be from someone helping to manage the CCP Shanghai studio that values our contribution, and is willing to publicly commit to swiftly putting some of these good practices in place. CPM self-reporting only goes so far – and you, the paying customer, have every right to ask those in charge what kind of a voice you'll have in Dust 514's future moving forward.

Friday, August 2, 2013

CPM Activity Report #5 - August 1, 2013

I'd like to begin by thanking everyone in the community for their patience waiting for this latest report, its well-overdue. We're in the middle of summertime, and the last few weeks have been extremely busy for me both personally (just celebrated my second wedding anniversary weekend!) and with CPM responsibilities, as CCP continues to ramp up their engagement both of the council and the community at large. This report in particular has escalated into somewhat of a monstrosity, as each day its been delayed I've been forced to add yet another segment to the stack.

Evolving Events

Let's get started right away, with the first meeting following Activity Report #4. CCP Praetorian had just recently returned from vacation, and was unable to meet with us that week despite our request, so CCP Commander Wang, CCP Eterne, and CCP Frame sat down with the CPM instead to discuss the community event time line all the way through October. This meeting was fresh on the heels of the CPM raising the issue created by placing both Flaylock Pistols and contact grenades on sale in the marketplace during the week where negative feedback about the broken state of both weapons was reaching its peak. There was a clear disconnect between the sale schedule (set by the marketing department) and community sentiment about gear balance, and putting broken (and soon-to-be-fixed) gear at a discount rate struck the CPM as insensitive and damaging to morale.

Although the meeting didn't cover the complete marketing sale schedule (information we're still working on obtaining), it was still a welcomed gesture from the community team, who laid out everything they had tentatively planned to date. This included both the event schedule as well as details about how each event would be run. Without spoiling too much of the team's hard work, the events forthcoming range from bonus XP weekends, to iterations on both the Templar Manhunt and Human Endurance events, and of course the now-infamous Urgent Fury tournament (which I'll cover in more detail here shortly).There's also a pair of events planned for October than will be completely new variants, rather than iterations on ones we've participated in so far.

The good news is that the meeting was quite constructive, and the community team provided plenty of opportunity for the CPM to share our ideas for ways to improve events. We discussed the excessive grind created by daily reward schedules, emphasizing the need for achievements to be set on a weekly basis so that no one is punished for having a day job. Also discussed was the need for gear offerings to cover as many classes and play styles possible, and the thresholds needed for quantity and quality of prizes to be worth the inevitable grind.

While you won't likely hear the name "Templar Manhunt" or "Human Endurance" for an event again, you will be hopefully seeing more accessible (and interesting) iterations in the coming months, complete with new supporting lore. The CPM seized the moment to reiterate the importance of respecting role play during these events, offering players choice as much as possible over which entity they are fighting for and the type of reward they want to pursue. We have yet to see how much this feedback will shape future events, but the community team is certainly better armed with information about what players enjoy (and despise) than ever before.

Community Contact

Last Friday, CPM representative Nova Knife hosted the latest episode of Cast514 – a Dust514 podcast known for its interviews with CCP staff, often breaking first news on upcoming content and game fixes. This episode was no exception, with CCP Wolfman and CCP Hybrid stopping by to discuss their work on aiming, hit detection, and the challenge of balancing a game with multiple input methods. [For those keeping tabs on the Shanghai studio roster - CCP Wolfman currently has his hands full working on Dust514's infantry weapons and vehicle balance (in the wake of CCP Blam's departure), while CCP Hybrid is best known for her excellent work on the PlayStation Move controls.] Sadly missing from Cast514 this time around was Nova's former partner Grideris, who many of you quickly figured out will now be serving the community in a different capacity instead. That being said, CCP Logibro was a slam dunk hire, exactly the type of individual we want to see more of on the community team. The man knows both games intimately, plays both games frequently, and has an outspoken love for the people that play the game as well. His perspective as an avid (and recent) player will serve him well during his time at CCP.

Nova also took the initiative last week to throw an impromptu AMA with the CPM on EVE voice, an event that turned out quite successful, and which we plan to repeat soon. Iron Wolf Saber and I attended the AMA as well – with IWS meticulously translating our speech to text as Nova and I answered the public's first-come, first-serve questions. Take a moment if you haven't already to read IWS's fantastic summary to see all of the questions asked as well as our replies.

Messaging Management

The meeting with CCP Praetorian and CCP Flying Scotsman requested by the CPM took place the following week, on June 24. For those that may not be aware, CCP Praetorian is currently the Creative Director for Dust 514 and CCP Flying Scotsman is Lead Designer. Praetorian also appears to be the man calling the shots in Shanghai while CCP searches for a new Executive Producer. While we had asked for the meeting as an opportunity to discuss lingering communication issues, it was approached by CCP as a standard “what's coming next for Dust514” show and tell session. This first portion of the meeting was certain enjoyable, mostly because 1.4 is sizing up to be a noticeably larger release than either 1.2 or 1.3. We could hear a palpable excitement from Praetorian in particular about the progress he'd seen during his time away and about the amount of improvements they expect to be stuffed into 1.4.

Some of these features have started to hit the forums, IRC channels, and podcasts – but for those that aren't up to speed the focus is clearly on infantry in 1.4. Aiming overhauls are confirmed for both dual shock and M/KB users, as is the overhauled TACNET system to emphasize and reward the use of Active scanners. There's also a new laser sight on the way, and Praetorian also mentioned the need for a balancing pass on all of the infantry weapons because of the new aiming system, though he didn't confirm that this was actually underway. We'll apparently be receiving a new type of map in 1.4, as well as the revamped infantry-LAV collision system (AKA the murdering of “murder taxis”). Last but not least, Praetorian dished on an entirely new feature that will be quite visible within the client – but I have yet to see public reference to this so I'll let CCP share their own surprise when they're ready.

Good news about Uprising 1.4 aside, the CPM had asked for the meeting to discuss communication, and we took the time following the 1.4 news to ask again what sort of structured efforts are being taken internally in order to deliver more consistent and transparent communication from the development teams. This was our reason for requesting Flying Scotsman attend the meeting as well, as ultimately we see the need for strong top-down solutions moving forward. While we continue to see weekly progress as developers ask for more input and share more of their work – this seems to be still viewed internally as a luxury, rather than a responsibility. The tension when we raised the subject was almost immediate - and we were disappointed by the amount of initial resistance faced when trying to discuss the need for community engagement to be a structured part of CCP's development practice. After all, in many cases we're not even asking for additional work out of the developers – we're asking for more transparency. The labor involved in throwing copypasta of work that designers have to show their team leaders anyways is trivial, with sometimes colossal benefit if the community can spot trouble in advance.

The CPM's reason for continuing to beat this seemingly-dead horse is simple: we understand that you, the community, are not going to start feeling comfortable about the game's future until you're comfortable with the leadership overseeing the game's development. CCP has certainly survived its fair share of storms in the past, but these have always been accompanied by a clear indication from those managing EVE Online at the time that problems existed, solutions were in place, and that the house was in order. Dust514 has yet to reach this level of certainty in the wake of Uprising's initial struggle – and players have every right to doubt that their efforts will be put to better use this time around, with only the assurance of the CPM saying “CCP is trying” to comfort them.

The core community that continues to keep this whole crazy experiment afloat with their time and money just wants to know that there's someone in charge who is committed to progress as they are, someone in charge who has a plan, and someone in charge that they trust. And you have every right to ask for that. Let me be clear though - our ongoing request here is not for some big apology or mea culpa. We've finally reached a point where almost everyone we engage with inside CCP is an active part of the solution, not the problem. But its also critical for these improvements to be codified into a repeatable process, turning good habits into routine.

CCP Praetorian explicitly agreed with the CPM during the meeting about the need to engage the community more frequently, and committed to stepping up the company's efforts. Our follow up question was again - “Wonderful, but how? What good habits would you like to make routine? Who will assure the community that they're going to oversee these changes?” We hope to report again soon once we hear more from CCP, as this issues lies at both the heart of why the CPM exists in the first place, and the foundation we need to build a charter moving forward. These are not matters to leave up to chance or individual goodwill – no matter how much we may like the guys that are making Dust these days.

Initializing the Institution

Many of you have been asking about the status of the CPM as an entity, and rightfully so. I took the opportunity while we had most of upper management together to once again ask CCP Dolan about who our primary point of contact would be in CCP, and how soon the public would be receiving more information about how the company plans to continue using the CPM in the coming months, and the process that will eventually replace us with an elected player body. In our initial months there was some question about who we would primarily interface with in Shanghai – but CCP Dolan has stated clearly that for the foreseeable future, he will continue to serve as the CPM's 'handler' (my term, not CCP's).

Whether his location in the Iceland office will be a hindrance to his ability to facilitate information flow between the CPM and Shanghai development teams has yet to be seen. Dolan obviously now juggles both the responsibilities of managing the CSM and the CPM, and appears to be the only individual inside CCP with this job description. What this means for all of you in the community, is that CCP Dolan will also be your point of contact from this point on in terms of information regarding voting, a CPM white paper, term length, etc. You're more than welcome to start letting him know how much you'd appreciate news regarding this process.

I suggested during the meeting that CCP Dolan take the time to write a dev blog, announcing several CPM-related news elements. Soon after our formation, the CPM voted for officers, so I think its about time that he share the results of that vote – as well as discuss his tentative plan for our term length and estimated election period. We're well enough into our term here that officer titles aren't particularly significant, other than they at least reflect some the responsibilities we've taken on the past few months. We can sit around and talk about ourselves all day long, but in the end its most vital for the community to hear from CCP how they envision the CPM contributing in the months ahead, and whether they've found our contributions valuable. Dolan first mentioned “CPM/CSM report cards” at Fanfest 2013, and I think we're certainly far enough into our term to warrant a checkup.

Tournament Tribulation

There has been much rumble in the community recently about the upcoming Urgent Fury-sponsored “Dust Prime” tournament, and I'd like to take a moment to outline the CPM's involvement in the tournament planning. We were first notified of the event via an emailed preview of the dev blog sent July 18, the day before our meeting with CCP's community team to go over the upcoming event schedule. As evidenced by the completion level of the dev blog, it was obvious that most of the event details were already in place. The tournament was finally announced on July 26th to the public, but information has remained fairly inconsistent between CCP's own reporting and the details on the Urgent Fury website, which is notoriously difficult to navigate.

We requested more information about the terms of the tournament on multiple occasions, specifically trying to get to the bottom of whether it was CCP or Urgent Fury that had control over the variables. The response we received was the same announcement the rest of you saw publicly, that the teams were being reduced to 8 members and that domination would be the game mode used to compete. This caught us (and many of you) by surprise, and the CPM communicating strongly that changing the terms of the tournament in the middle of the sign-up process was a bad idea. 8-vs-8 is a format would not only allow more corps to participate, but it also works better for competitive FPS play historically, and both CCP and the CPM heard this feedback loud and clear. In the future though, we believe the discussion and decision-making needs to take place ahead of the launch of tournament sign-ups, rather than add to an already confusing situation.

At our request, the tournament format was restored to 16 vs 16 as originally announced, and the rosters size was increased to 32. This decision was based on additional feedback we'd heard strongly and agreed with: the 20 man roster limit was too restrictive for a 16 man team, four spares didn't free each corporation up from the possibility of forcing players to schedule time off work or school in order to participate in the tournament. We certainly appreciated the less than 24 hour turnaround on reversing the decision to change the tournament structure mid sign-up, but lesson to learn here is once again the importance of consulting the community (or the CPM as its representatives) earlier during tournament planning, before an event is established and scheduled with a vendor.

Proven Progress

I'd like to conclude by sharing a conversation I had last night with CCP Commander Wang, who prodded me at a late hour with some questions about an upcoming event, and the rewards planned. Without spoiling the details of the event, I would like to at least raise up the inquiry and subsequent chat as a perfect example of the sort of casual, productive conversation we love to encourage whenever we discuss communication with CCP. Over the course of maybe 30 minutes back and forth, we were able to hammer out a prize line-up and event terms that I think more of you will appreciate. I hope Commander Wang found my input helpful, and that we see more of this kind of impromptu conversation across the board – with the design teams as well. The CPM is working hard to articulate to CCP that improving communication doesn't have to be labor-intensive, it doesn’t have to mean hanging out in Skype or IRC all day long, it doesn’t have to mean scheduling a meeting with a large group. Often its the simple gestures – a quick but timely sanity check about a project in play – that make a huge difference in preventing the sort of issues we've seen with the latest tournament.

As always, never hesitate to contact us through the usual channels with your feedback, suggestions, and questions. Many of us also enjoy joining squads with other community members – send us an invite and we'll see you on the battlefield! Thanks again for sticking through this as I catch up on my reporting, I'll see you next week.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

CPM Activity Report #4 - July 12, 2013

We're now a little over a week past the launch of Uprising 1.2, a release that I now believe to be a pretty clear indicator of what we can expect in the coming months for Dust514. Iterative, smaller updates (in terms content - certainly not download size) that contain a mixture of gameplay and performance adjustments, along with a smattering of new gear here and there. As of the publishing of this report, the CPM has also seen what will be coming in the next two releases – and they're very much in the same vein, with 1.3 being a bit smaller than 1.2, and 1.4 potentially loaded with even more game-changing features than 1.2.

The good news is that there's little debate that the 1.2 patch hit most of the targets it was swinging for – a noticeable framerate increase, a sealed up memory leak, and a complete revision of weapon ranges to include falloff damage. In fact, the performance of the game was so noticeably improved that its created a host of "phantom" buffs / nerfs from everything to movement speed to splash damage that has everyone thinking CCP messed with mechanics they didn't even touch code-wise. Like peeling an onion another layer, speeding up Dust514's responsiveness made some weapons shine, others become obnoxious, and launched heated debates about strafe speed and hit detection. The lesson here is that during this iteration on the game's core – expect the unexpected. I seriously doubt this will be the last time we see unintended side effects of fixing many of the game's most glaring flaws.

Improvements to the core aside, the new content released in 1.2 left a lot to be desired. In my own playtime, I've been extensively testing out the new Commando heavy suit, with about every combination of dual light weapon and high/low slot module (Yes, module – I can only fit one of each with my current skill). Of all the gear additions, the Commando suit has the most promise. The ability to switch between the Assault Scrambler Rifle and the Mass Driver to pinpoint shields and armor respectively works better than fitting a complex damage modifier with either weapon individually, and mitigates the lack of fitting on the suit itself. But despite its versatility in weapon carry – its still a heavy suit, and even with the increased speed the sluggish movement fails to compensate for the lack of tank and it just can't stand toe-to-toe with an assault. If the Commando could simply run, turn, and aim as efficiently as every other light weapon class, and keep pace with your logistics partner – it would be a viable alternative frontline suit as well as an excellent flanker. Thankfully, CCP Remnant has remained active in Skype the last couple of weeks and been receptive to feedback, and I hope he continues to iterate on this suit in future releases.

Armor tanking, on the other hand, continues to suffer badly in the greater combat meta – and player predictions that the Ferroscale and Reactive plates wouldn't improve the situation were overwhelmingly confirmed. More than anywhere else, fixing the balance between shield and armor tanking is an area where CCP needs to engage the community and listen closely to feedback, and actually respond when warned that forthcoming content isn't going to work as intended. Shield energizers were added without community warning or input, and without there being any expressed need for such a module to begin with. Players (including the CPM) first discovered the stats on Ferroscale plates and Reactive armor plates from a trailer at E3, not from the developers directly, and CCP's assurance that numbers in trailers were only works-in-progress only made things more awkward when it turned out that yes, the final stats were indeed the ones in the trailer. None of the criticism in the thread posted after the trailer was taken into consideration before 1.2's release.

The fact of the matter is that situations like this are completely preventable – and reliant on every Dust designer, especially those touching game balance, having absolutely transparent public conversations about their intent well in advance of code freeze. I don't expect a dev blog for every change, but stickied forum posts with stat changes, design intent, and most importantly: follow-up discussion simply need to be a standardized part of the Shanghai studio's operations, regardless of whether it involves more man-hours or takes designers out of their comfort zones. And really, this problem isn't going to change unless it is reinforced by management from the top down – a message the CPM has continued to hammer at every opportunity. There's too much work to be done in the coming months, and CCP can't afford to waste more time editing content that would have landed in a healthy place to begin with if there had there been even a minimum level of community input.

Speaking of code freeze, the deadline for Uprising 1.3 has come and gone – and on Wednesday of this week CPM was finally shown the completed patch notes for the release, which will drop in the next couple of weeks before the end of the month. We were disappointed to have been asked about only one component of the release's content in advance of the code freeze, and than shown the patch almost two weeks later, but thankfully what we have seen, we like a lot. Uprising 1.3 will contain what I consider to be a well-executed balancing pass on not only a couple of weapons that have been driving players completely bonkers, but also to a full class of dropsuits that have been a lightning rod for debate since the revamp of the skill tree. The dropsuit adjustments were the component discussed on our internal forums in advance of code freeze, and its been very promising to see CCP Remnant listening closely to our feedback and wielding the scalpel here as opposed to a sledgehammer – despite the amount of tears on the forums about this particular class of suits.

The other good news here is that there is also an upcoming dev blog containing a much more in-depth look at the direction with which CCP wants to balance all the dropsuits – work on the rest of the existing line-up is by no means complete and you'll know more about this soon. There is also an additional dev blog under construction that contains a discussion of the overhaul on aiming that is currently underway, which appears to be going quite well judging by the excitement we've seen in CCP Wolfman, who's been play testing the changes while chatting with the CPM in Skype.

Besides the balancing pass on the dropsuits and weapons – 1.3 won't be containing much else other than some bug squashing (including a now-infamous exploit that has cropped up recently) and performance tweaks. It's a small but meaningful patch, and technically the first that was created using CCP's new internal development model by the reshuffled teams. It's also a test of the new changes in Sony's QA process as well. Uprising 1.2 on the other hand consisted more of the content they had completed to date at the time they announced their new focus and roadmap.

One really pleasant surprise this week for many players was team True Grit's pre-1.3 update to the Planetary Conquest system – a package of balancing adjustments vetted through extensive conversation with the CPM internally over the last month. Despite the debate over PC mechanics continues becoming as heated and controversial as any we've seen surrounding adjustments to Faction Warfare or 0.0 Sovereignty in EVE, True Grit has put an enormous amount of effort into engaging and listening to the community – and I continue to point to them as a model for how we'd like to interact with all the teams working on Dust514. Last but not least, while the CPM has collectively engaged and discussed PC with True Grit across our different timezones (and from our varying vantage points regarding how the mechanics have affected our corporations), I'm happy to give credit here to Kane Spero for taking the lead on this project and making sure that CCP Foxfour and CCP Nullarbor had as many community suggestions in their hands as possible, several of which are directly part of this final package.

Looking ahead, the focus of the CPM will continue to be process and procedure, attempting to drive our stake into this new development model at a time when we can be the most useful to CCP. A new internal process to adjust to and ninja 1.3 patch aside – we've been adamant that we need to see the contents of 1.4 and all future patches enough in advance for our input to be heard and responded to. There's little sense in repeating preventable community disappointment like we saw with the new armor modules.

I brought this up earlier this week during a conversation I was having with CCP Dolan, explaining that we were still in the dark about what teams existed over in Shanghai, and what each team was working on. I asked if there was any kind of internal sprint newsletter for Dust514 as there is for EVE Online, and within the hour Dolan had a copy of the latest newsletter published that day, in the CPM inboxes.

The sprint newsletter contained what we'd been craving - a breakdown of every team working on Dust514, and exactly what project each team was working on and how far along they'd progressed. Like the CMR I've discussed in my previous reports, this newsletter was another massive signal flare shedding a lot of light on the inner workings of the Shanghai studio. It's unfortunate that it didn't occur to anyone in Shanghai to share this information with us themselves, but at least the CPM now has a very strong idea of the content lined up for 1.4. CCP will share the details of 1.4 when they're ready, but I can tell you that I'm even more excited for the additions coming in August than I am either for 1.2 or 1.3.

Lastly, I've asked or another meeting with CCP Praetorian, who is currently on vacation but should arrive back in Shanghai on Monday. We have a lot of items to discuss, though the CPM's primary interest will be once again following up on issues surrounding information sharing – both in how CCP engages us internally as well as how we can address the inconsistency that is still present across the various Dust514 teams in terms of transparency and communication. There are still too many areas (like vehicle balancing) where previously communicative developers seem to disappear into the ether for periods of time, leaving players confused, upset, and resorting to unfocused complaint in the absence of a productive discussion to engage with. While the situation is undoubtedly improving, its still far too early for the CPM let the pressure off those in management that can reverse this trend once and for all.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

CPM Activity Report #3 - June 29, 2013

When we last left off, I mentioned that we had a meeting coming up with an important staff member in Shanghai – CCP Praetorian. This took place in the middle of the night again between Wednesday and Thursday of last week – 3am for those on the East Coast of the US, 7am in Reykjavik (represented by CCP Dolan) and 2pm in the afternoon in Shanghai. Praetorian called the meeting with the CPM to discuss the changes taking place inside the Shanghai office, and to outline what is now a concrete, public,and focused development road map for the next several months to be rolled out across a series of "rapid fire updates" made possible by recent breakthroughs working with Sony's QA process.

Let's start at the beginning. The most important thing to share is that as of this meeting, its readily apparent now to the CPM that CCP is doubling down on Dust 514's success, investing more resources into bringing staff on board, focusing their direction, and iterating on the processes that have brought the game this far. Dust is clearly one of the company's major long term investments – and despite the rough launch this year, CCP seems adamant on figuring out what they can do to open the pipeline wider – both in terms of total content output, the timing of the updates, and most importantly – communication. 

Now I completely understand that the community has heard this before, but there's no denying here that physical growth is actually taking place. CCP is spending cold hard money, increasing the number of people working on the game, reshuffling teams, and passing out new assignments according to the road map. Disappointing press reviews and a growing malaise amongst the core community be damned, CCP is throwing coal on the fire and putting their noses to the grindstone regardless. I'm actually much more excited now to see what happens in the coming months given this much tangible evidence of investment in Dust 514's success.

The growth taking place doesn't just extend to the many job postings that are up as part of push to grow the studio – there are personnel coming over from Reykjavik as well. Most notable of these staff moves is the the man that will now be overseeing Dust 514's game design – Craig Scott, also known as CCP Flying Scotsman. Scotsman is one of the former Lead Designers on EVE Online – and seems quite keen on bringing in some of the processes and protocols that have worked well on the other side of the globe into the Shanghai office. I've spoken with Flying Scotsman personally about the need for the designers to share their work in progress with the community as frequently as possible, and in a timely fashion before a release is made, and he seems quite supportive of this as well.

We're all familiar with the level of community engagement that CCP FoxFour and CCP Nullarbor have shown, so I see this blending of staff and talent across the two international studios as a healthy sign of growth. And don't worry – both Nullarbor and FoxFour will be staying in Reykjavik as part of Team True Grit and will continue cranking out FW and PC improvements despite all the other shuffling around them.

While we're on the subject of game design I'd like to take a moment and also commend CCP Remnant for his outstanding level of communication the past couple of weeks. Not only for sharing the Commando dev blog in advance of the patch release, with all of the stats and details we've been asking for, but for his candid conversations on the internal forums with the CPM about his upcoming work. Remnant posted a lengthy breakdown of all the changes he'd considering for a certain set of dropsuits (hopefully part of 1.3), including not only precise numerical changes as well adjustments to racial bonuses, but also plenty of commentary on what he was aiming for with the package. We had a chance to provide our own detailed notes and express what we've heard from the community regarding the given role, and its been a really productive conversation. For those of you that keep asking all the time if the CPM discusses balance with CCP – the answer is emphatically yes. This exactly the sort of "shop talk" I've referenced in my earlier reports, and the more designers open up to the community, whether its in the safer environment of the CPM internal forums or whether they plunge headlong into IRC party, its a healthy practice we all want to encourage.

So the studio is growing, CCP's trying to step up their game, devs are opening up about their work – it all sounds great. That said, I think the real question most of you are asking by now is what exactly will they be doing with this new found gusto? Well, they've come up with a road map. Just over a dozen bullet points that need to be hammered out in the coming months. Each focal point had a slide of its own during our meeting, and Praetorian had plenty to say about what they want to develop in each area. This is a pretty big moment, to be honest – not just because its the first time they've sat the CPM down and pulled back the curtain on the whole show, but because the immediate focal points so closely align with the needs we've been expressing for the last year as a community. New player experience. Performance. Aiming. Balance. Movement. Game modes. Bug squashing. An actual marketplace. Factional Warfare. Planetary Conquest. You can read the full list right here – its the same list of slides that were discussed with the CPM, so this is definitely the new road map for the immediate future. (The bullet order is also the order of priority, descending.) Regrettably this kind of incredibly important information somehow ended up buried in the middle of a forum thread, when frankly it should have been a dev blog all of its own. But I'm glad to see progress nonetheless – every bit of transparency counts.

The execution of this road map will supposedly be aided by these new "rapid-fire updates" made possible by recent iterations on the QA process with Sony. Starting with Uprising 1.2 and 1.3, players should begin to see smaller combinations of content and patch releases on closer to a
monthly basis, as supposed to the quarterly expansion model they've been working with since the beginning of beta. Praetorian was cool, calm, collected, and exceedingly confident that Sony was ready to let them start cranking this stuff out, which is encouraging.

The days since the meeting have been spent on the aforementioned forum and skype chat with Nullarbor, FoxFour, and Remnant in particular – and during this time we've also seen the release of four significant dev blogs:

CCP LogicLoop, CCP Tigris, and CCP Stiffneck discussing their design of game modes

CCP Praetorian announcing Uprising 1.2

CCP Sentinel outlining the new recruiter reward system

CCP Remnant's unveiling of the Commando Suit

Several of these were shown to the CPM in advance on our internal forums with a request for feedback, which is a great practice and exactly the sort of communication and input level we really appreciate. Overall this has been one of the most productive weeks we've spent since right before the deployment of Uprising on 5/14 – and I have every reason to believe our job is about to get a lot more demanding in the months ahead. CCP is getting to work, they're asking for our help more and more, and we won't be able to do it without the support from you in the community. Thanks for keeping in touch everyone, see you next week.