The architects of EVE society talk player elections

The Game Developer's Conference is a fantastic time to get under the surface of new announcements and game concepts. At GDC, the newest and greatest element in CCP's EVE Online – the one everyone wanted to talk about – was the ambulation system coming soon to a space station near you. Unfortunately the only place the developers of the unique single-server space title were willing to talk about that was 'on-stage' during a session. We covered that session and so we knew there was no way we were getting it any better than that ... but with some time free in the busy CCP schedule we still had the chance to ask some questions.

So instead CCP CEO Hilmar Petursson, EVE Online's very own in-house economist Dr. Eyjólfur "Eyjo" Guðmundsson, and Community Researcher/Developer Petur Oskarsson gathered around a small table in their jet-black show booth to answer some questions about a slightly more esoteric subject: the Council of Stellar Management. Earlier today we brought you the general details, but this afternoon we have the word straight from the researcher's mouth. Why set up a governing body? What are the benefits? How does this tie into CCP's economic research mandate? And ultimately ... what does it mean for you as a player?

Read on to find out.

Thank for taking the time to speak with us. Could you tell us who you are, and what you do?

Petur Oskarsson (PO): My name is Petur Oskarsson, and I am a researcher – meaning I research the player society. Because of our single-server approach we have this unique mass of people that in our view have formed their own society. Using real-life theories and writings about societal philosophies, we're trying to see how EVE is behaving, according to those theories. We're trying to see if we can use those theories to apply them correctly to EVE.

So in many ways you're acting on the EVE society in ways similar to what Dr. Guðmundsson is doing with the EVE economy?

PO: Yes. We work closely together, actually. Currently my job is trying to explain what is happening. If the doctor sees a change in the market, I try to provide him with a history – to explain what might have caused that increase or decrease in the market. For example, with Tech 2 invention system, that caused quite a lot of market changes. If you only look at the market you didn't see anything about the invention system being implemented. So I provide him with information about elements like that, major wars, and successes here, and failures there. That's what I currently do.

Are there any plans to publish reports, similar to what Dr. Guðmundsson does?

PO: Not at this time. I am working on implementing democratic elections in EVE, where players can elect representatives and those representatives will be flown over to Iceland by CCP. They'll actually meet with us and discuss things with us. That's thought of as essentially a communications conduit from the playerbase to us.

Do you want to give a little background on where the Council came from, what let CCP to implement that structure?

PO: Yes. The single-server approach is unique, because theoretically if one player does something it effects every other player in the universe playing the game. So just to recap back in 2003 we had this same system that started experimentally. We had it going there, although we hand-picked the representatives that interacted with the developers, that discussed things. If we read the forums or we hand-pick the representatives we are actually controlling the input from the players, we're actually censoring it to a degree. By implementing elections we are going this hands-off approach, we are not controlling the input. The reason for this is – the Icelandic population is 350,000 people. Imagine Iceland not having anything to say about how the country is run, it's pretty absurd. We feel the same way about EVE, EVE is a society and with 220,000 to 250,000 players having access to that society it's a logical step in our opinion to hold elections and have some sort of formal communications conduit that we can have back to CCP.

So they're going to act as a panel of advisors. What kind of systems will be in place to support them?

PO: The systems will be placed on the website, and it will just be a general election system where one account will just have one vote. Meaning that the same person can hold several votes if he has several accounts, but that's totally acceptable to us. It's technically very difficult to ensure that there's only one person to a vote. We are going with one account/one vote, so everybody can participate. Time schedules and more detailed information will be on the site soon, so players can contemplate in all seriousness whether they want to run for the council or not.

Trial accounts won't be allowed to participate in the vote?

PO: No. Accounts have to be 30 days or older to participate. You have to pay for your second month of service, and then you're considered a voter.

How long have you been doing this research?

PO: Since June, 2007. Last summer I was doing research into the fundamental political/philosophy models, to see which ones would be most applicable to EVE. Then at FanFest we introduced the idea of the Council to players, and discussed it heavily. The architecture of the thing has been changed by input from the players, we've learned lots of things from them. For example, nobody really knows what the word democracy means. Depending on whether you're talking to an English person or an American they have to completely different understandings of democracy. So that was one thing we learned. Another thing – it was interesting from my point of view as a researcher to hear real-life concerns about elections. They are resonating within EVE society, the same sort of concerns we hear in real world societies. That's one interesting outcome of the endeavor, and we haven't even started the elections.

Dr. Guðmundsson, to tie this into the economics work you're doing: how does Petur's work assist you?

Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson (EG): Well, he basically causes lots of problems for me. [he laughs] This is all just part of EVE emerging as a real society. So the project that we are both working on is examining a society of people. We have this very interesting experiment, to see if we can elect a group of people to work with the society democratically. It doesn't really help me in the sense of economic research, but it's a part of the larger social science research that we're doing in EVE Online.

Would either of you be willing to speak to any future projects you have planned along these lines?

PO: We are definitely laying the groundwork for future projects. This isn't EVE specific per se. The methods we're using aren't unique to EVE by any means, so this information could be useful for different games, different companies. Maybe we'll even publish a book, that would be our platform eventually for other developers to take part in this kind of work.

EG: We have already established a relationship with the university system. We'll be comparing the different online societies, and that project's success really depends on the interest we get from the academic community. We have our researchers here that we use to look at social networking within our boundaries, and we work with some people at the universities as well. There's one young one there still in school who has already decided to focus on these elements of online societies, to make this his life's work. It's just the beginning for this field.

Mr. Petersson, what do you think about the election of players to these positions?

Hilmar Petursson (HP): I think the guy that came up with the idea is a genius!

EG (jokingly): You'll never guess who came up with the idea.

To be clearer, Eyjo was joking that it makes his job 'harder'. Does having this sort of input from the player community make it easier or harder to run EVE Online?

HP: It should make it easier, that's our hope. Already we see a lot of the information that Eyjo is feeding back to the players and to the designers allows us to make much more informed decisions on what the next logical steps will be for the game. More importantly when you have the world grown to the size it is today, and you have the level of complexity we see in the economy, it becomes important to guard the economy against economical governance mistakes. They can easily get done in game design, because very small decisions will have very large ripple effects throughout the economy. This is just like in real world society where you have government seems to be an innocent change to the financial system of the country, which then has various effects for everyone participating in that system.

The assurance that we have, that somebody is guarding the economy, it makes everyone a little more confident that everything will be alright. It's the same with the council of player management. We will have an added layer of insurance from that group as well, allowing us to be sure we won't inadvertently harm the player society.

Do you think that every game will eventually do something like this?

HP: No. It won't happen because in other games something like this isn't really needed. The nature of those other games, you don't really get true emergent behavior. With multiple servers, everything is a micro-effect, you don't get the macro-effects we get with so many people putting so much effort into the world. It won't really happen with a world that's sliced up into little pieces. If you have to deal with a mistake it's contained to one or two shards, and you can detect and correct it before it spills over to the whole game. Whereas, we only have one shard. We have much more of a need for study and consideration, so we're installing democracy we've installed economic governance and all these exciting things because nobody else really has to do it.

EG: I would add to that as well. I think it's important to note that no one else dares to have a single server.

PO: Essentially based on what game design you have, you can do this. I could never see World of Warcraft having a player council like this. I think it would be impossible.

With the economic perspective that seems to make a lot of sense; shards are going to have very different economic structures. You feel that's the same way for the social side too, that sharded games just wouldn't benefit from a council?

EG: Exactly, because the communities are so small, self-contained.

PO: The effects on one shard don't ripple out to other shards. For example, in EVE if there's a war raging in one area there's nothing to stop any player from participating. You just don't see that in a sharded game. So there's no comparison there; if you don't like the situation on one server you can just move to another server. That's not an option in EVE's world.

It appears our time is up. Many thanks to all three of you gentlemen for your time.
This article was originally published on Massively.