Sunday, June 26, 2011

Biting the hand.


EVE is not a global brand, it's a niche game that gets a lot of media attention, as a result of which its parent company is suffering from delusions of grandeur.
More accurately, EVE is a cult, meaning it matters quite a lot to a very small subset of the general population, everyone involved tends to suffers from chronic cognitive bias and the occasional hallucinatory excursion, and sane people either laugh at you, avoid you, or both — but you make great gossip material.

Words of wisdom for CCP: it's freakishly hard to transition from a barn-sized cult to a mainstream church: secret societies typically don't survive an open-door policy.
My suggestion: keep EVE players happy as pigs in the mud, EVE is the PR machine that will give to any 'mainstream' spinoff you churn that edgy shine kids love so much.


Army of ghosts:
how EVE is niche-er than CCP acknowledges.
A couple years ago, EVE online's subscriptions count crossed the 320k mark, and CCP and fans everywhere can't stop bragging since, about how EVE is now bigger than its home country. That's cute, and also a reminder that EVE is a very niche game, something CCP seems to have mixed feelings about, as they're now trying to go big with Dust 514, their next title and first attempt at the console market.

To be fair, EVE has been an undisputed success, possibly the only subscription based MMO to grow steadily since its launch, which happened eight full years ago. It also takes the lead among MMOs in terms of how much the gameplay has transformed over the years, with some now-core elements such as territorial warfare introduced years after launch and overhauled twice since (arguably for the worst, but what killed SWG, EVE survived). 
No other MMO has generated as much noise and commentary both in the gaming and mainstream media (results for "EVE Online" and "World of Warcraft" in Google News) ; even the once-media darling that is Second Life (despite Linden's protestations that SL is 'not a game') never came close to the slightly creepy fascination EVE can evoke in people who don't even play it.

You precious, unique snowflake…
EVE is very much of a homegrown species, created by a first-timer studio from Iceland, a locale that until then wasn't exactly known for its gaming industry might.

Numbers-wise, EVE is also an oddity: 

While its subscribers base puts it in the lowest bracket of the big-name MMOs, it's by a long shot the largest subs-based game in terms of how many players can be present at once and interact in one shard, with PCU routinely hovering between 25k and 45k depending on time of the day, and single 'rooms' (solar systems) hosting upwards of a thousand players shooting each other in the face.

So yeah, EVE is special, in more than one way, but it's all in the past, or at least some of it is. 
Strong of about 600 staffers across offices in the UK, US and China in addition to Reykjavik, with a profitable franchise/joint-venture for distribution of EVE online on the Chinese market, and two new titles underway, CCP means srs bzns now, and won't take any shit from the fat nerds that got'em there.

CCP now fancies itself a global powerhouse, may very well be on its way to become one indeed, and its players' sense of entitlement and ownership of the game are starting to get on the company brass nerves, nevermind the fact it's those same fans devotion to the game that carried CCP and its flagship product through 8 years of sometimes rough terrain and oft-amateurish operations.

Could it be that the whole drama is nothing but a classic case of early fans turning against their old flame as they feel betrayed, watching the band leave them behind them as it sells out ?
Sure, there's a bit of that, I suppose, but everyone involved could be in for a rude awakening, because today, CCP would be a sellout for nothing.
The wannabe global empire rests on a single title, CCP's sole source of income to date: EVE Online, the spreadsheet simulator.
It takes a special kind of twisted nerd to play such a monster, and pay for the privilege.

Familiarity breeds contempt…
In one shape or another, many among CCP senior staff have been around EVE for over half a decade, and are more excited about moving on to the new than sticking with the old and its community: bitter vets who know them all too well, and whiny noobs who don't know jack about how it was back then.

Worse even, due to CCP long-standing tradition of recruiting from within its fanbase, many staffers have been forced by the realities of business to distance themselves from the player community — which they slowly came to resent for it — all the while pretending they're still one of them, resulting in schizophrenic levels of doublespeak and perpetual stumbling from corporate dronetalk to unnatural brosef soundbites.
Again, part of that files under growing pains, a problem of corporate culture in the making faced by every boutique shop turning into a multi-offices, hundreds of employee mass-market company.

Except here too, EVE is special. 
A rock band that gets its break and starts to make it big doesn't have to keep it close and personal with the fans from its garage days but for the few they bring along as roadies and pets. Those early groupies soon fade in the faceless stadium crowds, and become a non-quantity — but not so with EVE.
Old EVErs are now the movers and shakers of the player community, and talking with the fans is much trickier when they have a say about how you should tune your axe, and call you on it when you phone in a song.
On top of that, while EVE may have started making money around 40k subs, and the accounts may have increased tenfold since, the player base most likely hasn't grown in proportion.

This doesn't add up.
CCP doesn't publish such numbers, so it's all guesstimates, but from hanging-at-the-pub statistics, I'd expect the ratio of accounts to players to average circa 4 to 1, maybe even 5 to 1. Lots of people may have just the one lone account, yet while I don't exactly cultivate a social network of old timers in EVE, I still know more people with 10+ accounts than I have fingers, and fewer with less than 2 than I have nostrils.
Simple maths tell me, conservatively, that (10*fingers+1*nostril-1)/parts=9.19, but I should factor in a bunch of peeps I know with 3-5 accounts, and that gets me to 4.94 accts per player.
Whichever way I look at it, I doubt the total number of paid-for subs in EVE splits wider than 80k or 100k people, which goes a long way towards explaining why CCP doesn't release these numbers, as it doesn't look very impressive to fall in the same bracket as, say PotBS or AO (pre-F2P).

This gets worse when you consider how many people pay their subs from PLEX bought with ISK and wouldn't dream of forking RL$ to play EVE: the final headcount of people who actually pick the tab for the whole may turn out to fit in the FanFest big partey venue (more on that in next episode).

CCP doesn't have the numbers, either, and that may be part of why they handle their customer loyalty with so little care, because they fail to realize the fate of the company may hinge on the goodwill of much fewer people than it looks.

How many tears before you can tell it's ruined ?
This is not the first time CCP and its players have gone at each other's throat in a dance of betrayal, mistrust and accusations of cheating and greed, mind you…

The whole culture of EVE is one which encourages distrust, paranoia and selfishness, and the border between in-game evildoing and corporate or civil malfeasance (not to mention the occasional felony) is often crossed, at least in people's minds.
That some at CCP have come to nurture a cold hatred for their players is par for the course, considering the abuse and accusations thrown their way daily for years on end, yet players have every reason to doubt the word of a company which has proven more than once not to be above self-complacency, nepotism, gross negligence and generally lacking ethics as a game manager.

From PvP to PvD
The original breach of trust, the Watergate of New Eden was probably the one incident where a CCP employee was publicly exposed by a third party as giving out free strategic resources to his 'former' in-game alliance (which happened to be the biggest powerbloc of the time and frequently accused of cheating and developer favoritism). 
Some fishy stuff happened before, and since, but this one was as clear cut as murky businesses can come, and CCP botched their crisis management in :awesome: proportions, giving credit to every half-baked conspiracy theory of yore, and fueling those to come.

What damaged the relationship with the playerbase, more even than the event itself, was the proverbial coverup, with CCP handling the situation late, reluctantly, killing the messenger first thing (ie: permabanning) and starting a "committee" as only response (whether they should have sacked the employee is not for me to judge, but that they didn't certainly contributed to the appearance of his misconduct being endorsed by the company).

The T20 crisis, as it would come to be known, and a damage control which roughly amounted to "Sorry we got caught" marked a turning point in CCP-players relationship. Up until then, the players' working assumption in case of a cockup had been "shit happens", but after that shifted to "what are they hiding now ?". 

It is in this light that other events that could have been attributed to reasonable incompetence have ever since been deemed outright malicious by the EVE player community — occasionally they were right, but mostly they weren't, and wrongful accusations encouraged CCP neither toward competence nor honesty.

Recent major examples include:
  • The end of ghost training.
  • Changes to T2 recipes making Techtenium the new pink and turning northern 0.0 from crap to goldmines (suspicions of favoritism and collusions with the northern political block).
  • Changes in sovereignty rules/mechanics right before or after the fall of some territorial power block (too many to count).
  • Nerfing/not nerfing supercapitals, jump bridges, sovereignty immunity (pick your consipracy).
  • The shuffling of 0.0 PVE resources (with truesec refactoring).
  • And now: pay2win and dry-bleeding of EVE…
…presumably to fund st00pid Dust 514, according to the tinfoil brigade — and can you blame them ?


Next episode will show you why Dust, AUR and VGS are good for EVE — no kidding.

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