The Council of Stellar Management in the sci-fi game EVE Online is a fairly unique concept in the massively multiplayer online game industry. As an MMO matures and the number of subscribers increases by thousands of new players every year, representing very different playstyles and outlooks on how the game is evolving, there are few companies out there that would ask the players themselves to advise on how best to move forward. But this is exactly what CCP Games is doing with EVE.
Following their GDC 2009 presentation on virtual democracies, Massively had a chance to speak with Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, CCP's lead economist, (also know as Dr. EyjoG) and Pétur Jóhannes Óskarsson, a researcher at CCP who is in the unique position of pursuing a Master's degree in Philosophy while facilitating a system where political philosophies can play out virtually.
Massively: When did the idea for the Council of Stellar Management begin?
Pétur: Initially it was back in 2003 when the CSM was first thought up. That was when CCP handpicked of what they thought was a representation of the playerbase and put them online with the developers to speak with how to make the game better. That only lasted about a year and it died out because it wasn't done in the correct format. Then, events in 2007 led up to the conclusion that something like this was needed. So as of 2007 we began to work on this full time.
Massively: Since this didn't work in 2003, why did CCP move ahead with this in a different format?
Pétur: It was simply because of the [increasing] amount of players in EVE, and the playerbase taking the shape of a society as such. We couldn't ignore the signals that we were getting and having an outlet between the playerbase and us, controlled by the players, was becoming necessary at the time.
Massively: Do you find that EVE mirrors real world society in some ways?
Pétur: In some ways yes, but in other ways it's completely different. As with all societies it's hard to say that one society is exactly like another. Things are always changing.
Dr. EyjoG: The basic functions and structures that you need to have a society function, they are all there, however the regulations and how you're able to interact are completely different.
Massively: When the first CSM began, as it stands today, there were some critics who said that its main function would be PR for CCP Games. Have you found this to be the case? Is it not the case?
Pétur: It's definitely not the case. To those critics, I would say 'Why would we allow the CSM to bring up topics that make us look bad?' It would be a rather odd PR strategy. We've been working on transparency and clarity and having those ideals in mind when working with the CSM. I think this convinced the critics that this is not a PR stunt.
Massively: Do you think that something like the CSM would work in other games? Is this a model that other virtual worlds should look to?
Pétur: Definitely. In some cases they might not be able to use this simply because of how their community or their game is structured. New MMOs should, in my opinion, at least leave the option open for having this kind of structure as a communication tool for the players.
"New MMOs should, in my opinion, at least leave the option open for having this kind of structure as a communication tool for the players."
Massively: Do you find this is more useful or provides better feedback than the forums?
Pétur: When you or anyone is reading a forum you only read what you're interested in. Everyone has a subconscious bias towards subjects that hampers the true message getting through. So having uncensored input from the players is important. We never interfere in the CSM's process, we get sent documents with topic and discussions from the players. It's a better and clearer message we get from the playerbase.
Dr. EyjoG: I'd like to add that it's not necessarily a better way, but an additional way. You cannot close your forums and have a Council of Stellar Management, you have to have the outlet for people to talk.
Massively: How much has it changed how the game is developed?
Pétur: The main change is the prioritization we give topics from what the CSM brings up. They prioritize things and we prioritize our own backlog in accordance with their recommendations. So yes, it has changed things.
Massively: When the CSM began meeting and formalizing the rules they and future councils were going to abide by, CCP's approach was hands-off. They struggled to figure out how they were going to do this. In hindsight, do you feel this was the right approach?
Pétur: Definitely. If the CSM asked us to step in and tell them how to do their job, the answer would have to be that 'You have to work under the rules and traditions that you create, not ours. It's better that you do it than we do it.'