An inside look at EVE Online's CSM: From June to December

Keith Neilson is a Massively guest-writer who's here to recount his experiences at the recent Council of Stellar Management summit in Reykjavik. He writes regularly about EVE Online and has been playing the game since early 2004.

It is undeniable that EVE Online is unique among MMORPGs in many ways. One of these is its Council of Stellar Management, an elected committee of nine players who play an active role in the development of the game, bringing player concerns and proposals for the future direction of the game directly to CCP at biannual summits in Iceland. Until this year, the perception of the CSM among players was that the Council is a marketing tool that does not fulfill its stated role of representing the playerbase. But in June, all of that changed.

This term of the CSM brought in some major changes to the way the Council is organised, specifically with the removal of term limits (previously delegates could only serve two terms on the CSM) and the extension of terms from six months to a year. In addition to this, the CSM has been given "stakeholder" status within CCP. This means that the Council members have an equal say in the planning of future development along with the internal teams at CCP. This has allowed the fifth CSM to have a significant influence on the future development of EVE.

Prior to the first summit of CSM 5, a proposal titled Commit to Excellence: No Features Left Behind was put forward on the EVE Online forums by CSM delegate Dierdra Vaal. This proposal asked that CCP live up to its own internal slogan for that year ("Excellence" -- incidentally, this year's is "Deliver") and apply some polish and development time to the many features and bugs that the players felt have been ignored for too long. This thread still holds the record on the EVE forums for the most-supported proposal put forward by the CSM.

Discussions at the June summit, which covered a wide variety of subjects, inevitably gravitated toward the core issue of this thread, and the frustration was evident on both sides. A communications disconnect that needed to be addressed was brought to light. CCP management was measuring "excellence" by a variety of factors such as code efficiency and hardware performance but was failing to take into account the player's perception of "excellence." Having well-written code and getting an extra microsecond's worth of processing out of the servers is all very well, but if it doesn't translate into a meaningful improvement in the gameplay experience of the players, then it doesn't really reflect the kind of excellence that an MMO should be aiming for. CCP seemed to be completely disconnected from the experience of its game, which ultimately is the product it set out to sell.

The discontent of the players came to a head after the release of the minutes, which revealed that CCP was not planning to go back to revisit and update older features until Dust 514 and Incarna were released. The time frame for these was estimated at 18 months. This prompted an outpouring of dissent and frustration on EVE's forums (not the happiest of places at the best of times) and various player blogs, which CCP could simply not ignore.

In the six months since the June summit, CCP has changed its attitude significantly. A torrent of Dev Blogs appeared after the summit, and initially their authors tried to justify the timetabling decisions that had been made, but these gradually changed to contain more information regarding progress instead.

CCP has instigated a new development team that is dedicated to addressing one of EVE's greatest problems: lag. Team Gridlock's mandate is to find ways to reduce lag during large fleet fights. After the Dominion expansion in December 2009, lag rendered the game unplayable during medium to large fleet engagements. Team Gridlock has made considerable progress in this field through use of Mass testing on Singularity (EVE's public test server) and a new Thin Client tool (which has all the functionality of EVE without the pretty pictures, allowing multiple instances to be run on one machine). On October 30th, these efforts helped pave the way for the largest fleet fight ever recorded on the Tranquility server. More than 3,200 pilots were online in one system, fighting it out for control of a strategically important 0.0 system. While it was far from lag free, the battle proved that Team Gridlock was making real progress, as such numbers would have caused the server to crash prior to the many small fixes implemented since the June summit.

At the beginning of October, there was a small hiccup when, in an interview with Creative Director Torfi Frans Olafsson on the Eurogamer website, it was revealed that CCP would be introducing additional uses for the Pilot License Extension (PLEX), starting with allowing players to purchase attribute remaps in exchange for PLEX. A PLEX is basically an in-game item that represents 30 days of subscription time. A game-time card, bought through CCP or an authorised dealer, can be converted into two PLEX, which can then be traded on the in-game market like any other item. The PLEX allows players to pay for their game time with in-game currency or spend real-life money to get a quick injection of the same. Some players felt that allowing the use of PLEX for attribute remaps would confer an unfair advantage on those who could afford to spend the real-world cash. This proposal was quickly withdrawn as the CSM brought player opinions to CCP, and the company produced a Dev Blog that gave some more information regarding how the idea would be implemented going forward.

It was announced in mid-November that EVE's latest free expansion, Incursion, would be staggered across three patches. This was well-received by the players, and CCP was generally applauded for taking a little more time to add more polish and "excellence" to the main features of the expansion. In addition, this decision was reached with extensive consultation with the CSM and was based in part on the Council's suggestions. The first stage of the release was made up of small fixes and tweaks, many of which were based on CSM proposals, and was welcomed by the players as being a step in the right direction. The final third of this staggered release is due on the 18th of January.

The second summit of CSM 5 has just finished, and I had the privilege of sitting in on a few of the meetings. It was evident from the meetings I attended that communications between the CSM and CCP have improved dramatically, and the flow of ideas in both directions made a refreshing change from the situation in June. For its part, CCP seems much more open to advice from the CSM and willing to take on board the Council's suggestions.

It was also apparent that the CSM is being used as a sounding board for new ideas more than it has been previously, with many developers participating on the CSM's private forums in discussion and debate outside the limited contact afforded by the summits. There are obviously still a few sticking points, but nothing can ever run completely smoothly.

The CSM is also being heavily consulted on the planned virtual goods to be made available in the future and on gameplay ideas for Incarna, the long-awaited "walking in stations" expansion, which many EVE players are understandably sceptical about.

Further progress in regard to the CSM's involvement in the overall development processes at CCP is underway, with more information being made available about the status of a variety of proposals in relation to CCP's own plans for EVE. This was most evident in the field of EVE's user interface, for which the CSM has submitted over 70 proposals. Of these proposals, more than half were marked as either in progress or done, with the rest comprising ideas that need further refinement or more investigation into their feasibility. Only six were rejected out of hand as being either incredibly tricky or outright impossible to implement.

One of the meetings was a three-hour discussion of the 0.0 game and how it can be improved. The CSM brought many ideas to the table that were well recieved by CCP, which is well aware of the issues involved and the homogenization that has become apparent in the aftermath of the sovereignty revamp of Dominion.

The true measure of the success of the CSM over the last six months will be the response of the players to the minutes of the December summit (the first part of which has already been published; two more will follow later this week), but it has become apparent since then that CCP is gaining a new appreciation for the talent and passion that the CSM brings to the table. One of the delegates, EVE University's Dierdra Vaal, pointed out that it is important to realize that this CSM, while being the one that has had by far the most impact, is only the culmination of all the work of previous Councils. This is true to an extent, but it is the drive, focus, and hard work of the current CSM that has successfully built on the efforts of earlier Council members and has proved the Council's worth in the eyes of CCP and the players of EVE Online.

This article was originally published on Massively.