The sci-fi game EVE Online is unique among the massively multiplayer online games on the market in that it has a form of player governance, which allows for a new channel of communication between the subscribers and developers -- a council of representatives of the playerbase. Players are not selected by CCP Games, the creators of EVE Online, they're actually elected by the game's subscribers themselves. Those elected form the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), delegates who represent the interests of the players and deal directly with CCP Games. It's a bold idea and certainly one that many MMO developers would shy away from, particularly in that the CSM has input into the game's development pipeline.
CCP Games felt what they're doing would be of interest to other people in the industry, and gave a presentation at GDC 2009. The session was titled "The Council of Stellar Management: EVE Online Bridges Worlds for a Society". Two speakers from CCP Games presented: Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, EVE's lead economist, (also known as Dr. EyjoG) and Pétur Jóhannes Óskarsson, a researcher at CCP whose work has been integral to making the CSM a reality.
The Council of Stellar Management began as a white paper that described a deliberate democracy -- one which would represent the EVE playerbase -- and what CCP hoped to accomplish with it. The idea was brought up at several different points to those outside of CCP Games. They discussed it at Fanfest, with academics, and on the game's forums. Many felt there were some good ideas there but there was also a great deal of uncertainty. Questions leading to more questions. But through this, CCP refined the idea and invited the EVE Online playerbase to take part in it.
"Trust is really the key. But trust, like in real life, takes time. It's a process you have to build up."
The player-elected council of 9 representatives use their real life names, basically exposing who they are and where they come from, in order to ensure accountability for their actions and decisions as part of the CSM. The council members take topics put forth by the players (or from among themselves) and discuss them. The key issues are identified and prioritized, and the company then has the entire CSM flown in to Reykjavik for a summit. The meetings between these player delegates and CCP entail morning-to-night sessions of discussion and debate about how the game can or should be changed to better match the interests of the subscribers.
During these meetings CCP either accepts or rejects the proposals made by the CSM, but in either case CCP must provide reasons as to why they accept/reject, while also identifying those cases where the idea is workable but needs further discussion or refinement as a proposal.
Pétur discussed what CCP has observed in terms of player voting preferences. Voting in the first CSM election was largely done by voting by playstyle rather than alliance affiliation. The second election saw increased powerbloc voting where large groups of players voted for their chosen representative. Voter turnout, however, mimics some real world trends. The percentage of the playerbase who exercised their right to vote went from 11% to 8.6%. Pétur suggested possible reasons for this drop: voter apathy and a disinterest in politics in general. He also pointed out that changes in the subscriber makeup may be a contributing factor. Older players are more likely to vote as they're better informed about the various facets of EVE, while newer players are less familiar with the issues and the concept of the CSM in general.
In the relatively short time that the CSM has existed, they've already had some impact on how the game is developed. One direct result of the CSM interaction with CCP led to the developers adding a feature they initially didn't feel would be viable -- weapon grouping. Also the Orca came about through a CSM proposal, intended to be a mining player's dream ship, a logistical platform that can pull double duty as a mini-freighter. Other changes made to the game include more substantial consequences for 'unlawful PvP'. Pétur said, "We introduced an Elo style rating system as they use in chess, to make unlawful repercussions more meaningful." This change was largely intended to curb suicide ganking. Until that time it was simple to succeed in and had minimal penalties, considering the profit players could make by ganking high value targets in what is supposedly high security space.
What's significant about these changes isn't what was changed, but that the players themselves came up with the ideas and saw them implemented. Dr. EyjoG reiterated CCP's stance on how they relate to the game world. "We are not the gods of EVE. We consider ourselves to be janitors or caretakers" of the game world, he said. As such the CSM represents a new channel of communication between the players and developers. Trust on both sides is needed for this to work. He said, "Trust is really the key. But trust, like in real life, takes time. It's a process you have to build up."
"You have to be willing to open yourself up and trust that they will respect your NDA. This is a huge leap for all companies. For us, it has worked very well."
He mentioned that when the Apocrypha expansion was being developed, members of the CSM had a chance to walk around the CCP office and see firsthand what was being done, and gave their input as players into these features. Without the certainty that details of the upcoming features couldn't be leaked, CCP would've been far less likely to allow such a thing. This direct feedback from the players was valuable, and a real eye opener for CCP Games. He added, "This results in a much better EVE for everyone, both for us as developers and for those that are participating in this world."
So what does the future hold for the Council of Stellar Management? "We see this truly as an integrated part of EVE in the future," Dr. EyjoG said. "I don't foresee EVE without a CSM. The communication has already been started and once it would be taken away, everyone would feel that something was be lacking. And that, in itself, is the biggest success of the Council of Stellar Management."