Sunday, July 15, 2012

Radio Silence

This is the time of the year I know many of you are anxious to hear more from the CSM, and for good reason.  It's been many weeks since the May summit, and with CCP mid-way through their summer vacation, there is much to talk about in preparation for the developers beginning to work on the next release cycle.  The great news is that the May summit notes are now complete, they merely need a final proofreading (which is a group process since all of us want to have our pass and the more sets of eyes spotting factual errors the better), as well as a final approval from each of the participating devs.   

I'm a bit empty on words at the moment, its been quite the ordeal, but I wanted to share a couple answers I've given elsewhere to some recent questions about the CSM's work.  Now that we're done with the minutes the next step is to get back to communicating at regular intervals between now and the next summit, and I appreciate everyone's patients while we've been so invested in this project. 

In response to an anonymous comment on the blog Jester's Trek:  

"SOV, moon goo, FW, seems like there's plenty of things for them to talk about. The imminent devision of FW into tier 5 control spheres that never interact - that's the sort of thing the CSM should be engaging heavily, and showing some progress on, right?"

It most certainly is. The challenge is finding that balance between working, and taking time away from doing your work to prove that you're doing your work by talking to the community about what you're talking about with the community. (If that sentence sounded redundant, than you understand my point) The first will always take priority over the second for me personally, as I'm not near as preoccupied with public opinion or re-election as I am actually making the most of this opportunity. While CCP is currently on their summer break, my work instead lies with the community itself - making sure I know exactly what to fight for when the discussion resumes with CCP regarding the next content release. When I'm not working on the minutes I'm still forum posting with CCP, forum posting with players, skyping with CCP, fielding email correspondence, and most time-consuming of all: actually talking with players about what's going on in the warzone, not to mention playing the game to see for myself)

For a CSM representative like myself with a major feature on the operating table, this time of the year is even more demanding, given the sense of urgency it is critical that I know exactly what the players want, which takes time to sort out. Forum posts, email responses, impromptu in-game conversations, radio appearances and podcasts, all eat up time that I'm also expected to be making progress on the minutes. Seeing as how good portions of what we do we can't talk about in detail yet (such as anything covered by the minutes and the work-in-progress threads on the internal CSM/CCP forums) its even more challenging to keep up with everyone's insatiable thirst for the latest news.

I am certainly one of the CSM members that hasn't blogged in a bit, but its for the simple reason that I can't in good conscience sit around and chit chat in a neutered fashion when there is still work to be done on the minutes themselves, which are almost complete. We're actually further along than Jester assumes, since the completed sessions are already sailing through the CSM approval progress, many have been signed off by all the CCP participants so there shouldn't be any super-long delay once the final sessions are wrapped up.

I'll blog very soon - both about the work we've been up to on the minutes as well as about Faction Warfare in particular, though anyone following my posts in the dev-sponsored pair of threads related to Faction Warfare in Features and Ideas already knows what I've been talking to CCP about and where the conversation is going.

I know its frustrating, and I appreciate everyone's patience, but I just have a tough time sitting down to write neutered material when I could be delivering what you guys all really want to read instead. We're really aiming for the most comprehensive coverage of the CSM summit to date, and there's no quick way to write three times as much material as typical CSM minutes, as well as deliver them in the same timeframe. Once we're completed, you can all decide whether it was worth the delay, and if you'd rather have less information in the future, you'll certainly find little resistance from the CSM members.

In response to a comment from Cearain on the EVE Online forums:

"All this extra work due to a super secret nda is pretty crazy.

If ccp just did away with the nda they could just record the sessions release it on mp3 and be done with it. Actually I think they still could just delete the parts they feel are too secret for the players, and be done with it."

The extra work really has nothing to do with the NDA. The NDA has this mystique about it - many players thinks that we wave it like a red cape to deflect charging bulls, others think its what CCP uses it to protect its super secret skunkworks plans about the next button to add to the UI that players would rage if they knew existed - but really its much simpler. The NDA covers the stuff that would damage the company - stuff like release dates or pricing that they wouldn't want competitors to hear. I've seen how the sessions have gone through the review process, and the NDA has been used primarily to delete several words here and there, or a sentence at the most. It's not once been used to black out an entire conversation, or to censor a particular topic. If it was discussed at all during the summit, it was recorded.

The reason the minutes are longer, is because of the transparency the players are asking for. You wanted to know who said what about a particular topic, and breaking down conversations in this manner, even to get the main ideas across in each dialogue, takes a lot more words. We avoid the minutia of people talking about the schedule for the rest of the day, or what's for lunch, or who they're waiting on to come back from a bathroom break. So no blah blah.

But you are going to hear some detailed conversations about how exactly to adjust a particular feature, and who wanted to see it done this way or that way. That's what we heard everyone wanted to hear, for accountability's sake as well as to sharply focus player feedback onto the specific direction CCP wants to go with a feature.

I personally think this is a huge step in the right direction, we'll see how this works out for the community. There's nothing to say we can't further iterate on the minutes process for the winter summit. I'm sure there will be no shortage of suggestions on how to make them even better, you'll just have to read them first and see what you think.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Human after all

(This is a response to Blog Banter #37: A Line in the Sand)
“EVE Online sits on the frontier of social gaming, providing an entertainment environment like no other. The vibrant society of interacting and conflicting communities, both within the EVE client and without, is the driving force behind EVE’s success. However, the anonymity of internet culture combined with a competitive gaming environment encourages in-game behavior to spread beyond the confines of the sandbox. Where is the line?”

One of the reasons I've found EVE online so incredibly compelling is that it provides the framework for observing human behavior in a “controlled” environment that we often only read about it in, well, science fiction. That may sound a bit redundant - but alternative realities inhabited by human consciousness are a common literary vehicle for exploring morality. Many stories feature characters existing inside “the game” and allowed to, encouraged to, or forced to do horrendous things to other player entities. This affords artists the freedom to use their imagination when answering tough questions about the extent to which we will hurt one another. Psychological researchers often end up on the other end of the spectrum, strictly bound by a code of ethics based on the social norms during their time. The scientific method necessary for experimentation to be productive also restricts the ability to monitor multiple variables at play in a given system.

The EVE universe ends up living in this fantastic place in the middle of it all – its a video game and not a research tool, and so its creators are free to unleash a thousand variables at once into a dynamic system and watch chaos unfurl without being bound by the need to produce meaningful information in the process. Developers are free to throw ingredients into the beaker and pray for explosions. Players can take advantage of the game's social and mechanical freedoms to engage in any number of “fantasies”. The actions themselves however, end up very much part of reality. Ever since the advent of the PLEX system, EVE's economy has been tied to the real world economy in an unprecedented, quantifiable fashion. As players we can transform our real world money into material in the EVE universe, but EVE lacks the vast majority of safeguards as to what happens to that investment once its made. By straddling these two worlds, the imaginary and the tangible, EVE never allows us to completely forget that we are merely “pushing pixels”.

Socially, the barriers between EVE's real and virtual communities all but vanish completely. Relationships extend far beyond the context of the game server, EVE players meet each for drinks, work together, fall in love with each other, and help each other through difficult times. There is no pretending we are anything but human behind the keyboard*, because we've all gone to great lengths to get to know each other in that context as well. It is for this reason that we can't ignore the consequences of our actions, either. I don't believe using an avatar to interact with each other in a virtual universe ever absolves any of us from our responsibility to treat other players like human beings.

What I soundly reject, however, is the idea that this competitive gaming environment encourages in-game behavior to “spread beyond the confines of the sandbox.” 

Veteran and new players alike understand fully the emphasis placed on personal decision-making built in to the game's design. If one of the values of a sandbox is that it encourages players to think about and execute difficult choices, we must resist falling into the all-too-tempting “blame the video game” trap whenever a player ends up committing a crime or otherwise harming one of the other human beings that plays EVE.

Part of the fun of the game will always be the ability to be a complete bastard to other characters. The pilots themselves – the ones that mine the ore, make the stuffs, and sell it to those that blow it up. EVE is the game for those that want to hurt other characters. And want to hurt them in as many ways as possible. We cherish this last ability so much that we monetize it, quantify it, and celebrate it. That's never going to go away, nor should it.

But let's face it: CCP is not encouraging us to siege real world internet infrastructure through DDOS attacks. They are not encouraging us to publicly reveal, humiliate, or slander each other's real world identities. They are not encouraging us to threaten each other's families. They are not encouraging us to invade each other's personal privacy. They are not encouraging us to call each other faggots, they're not encouraging us to sexually harass female gamers. They are not encouraging us to ridicule each other's legitimate physical or mental health issues. They are not encouraging us to hate each other as human beings, no matter how you slice it. (On the contrary - the pub crawls and round table discussions that make up each year's Fan Fest are held specifically to foster a sense of intimacy between players, their in-game enemies, and the developers.)

EVE encourages us to blow up spaceships. It encourages us to steal spacebucks. It encourages us to conquer spacelands. It encourages to spy on each other's spaceplans, and it encourages us to manipulate the spacemarkets. It encourages us to gather spacerocks. It encourages us to taunt the spacepilots that are bad at the game, it encourages us to win spacewars. It encourages us to exploit the failures of other spacecitizens. It encourages us to work together. And most of all, EVE encourages us to think about the decisions we make.

*Exceptions would include robo-blogger Ripard Teg or CSM Vice Chair Trebor Daehdoow, who are both clearly cyborgs, if not outright androids.