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.