Welcome to Jester's Trek.
I'm your host, Jester. I've been an EVE Online player for about six years. One of my four mains is Ripard Teg, pictured at left. Sadly, I've succumbed to "bittervet" disease, but I'm wandering the New Eden landscape (and from time to time, the MMO landscape) in search of a cure.
You can follow along, if you want...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

There's a really compelling interview with Hilmar Pétursson out, published by Eurogamer.  If you haven't read it, you simply must.

Go read it in full.  I'll wait.

OK, first thing.  This interview is really just an extension of Hilmar's very public falling on his sword 16 days ago.  Has it really been so short a time?  Yes.  It really has.  I don't know about you, but that devblog feels like it was released an age ago.  In particular, Hilmar says three times, in three different ways, that he feels accountable for the decisions that he had to make for the survival of the company.  The big, big question is going to be how clearly that feeling of accountability is going to translate itself to the managers below Hilmar.

Trebor asked the question this way on his own blog and it really is a key question:
Are you really sincere about this change of direction by CCP, or do you consider the refocusing on EVE just a temporary bump in the road?
This is just gut instinct on my part, but I personally feel like the message is going to get through loud and clear.  This is a major refocus, not a speed-bump.  My gut instinct does have one small basis in fact: one of the people let go was CCP Hammerhead, aka Noah Ward.  Ward, you'll recall, was not only the main champion of Incarna, he was also what appeared to be the main champion of metric-focused game design and of pigeon-holing players into groups and designing Skinner boxes for their play styles.

A lot of people seem to be sad to see him go.

I have to be honest with you: I'm not one of them.

I think letting him go was the right move.  He was a major driver that took EVE down what we can now see was the wrong road.  But whether you think I'm right or wrong about this, one thing is clear enough: it signals a major shift in CCP policy, not a minor speed-bump.  So while Trebor's question was right on and kudos to him for asking it, I think we've got a pretty good idea of what the answer to it is.

If you doubt it, go re-read Hilmar's answer to the questions about the NeX store and about Establishments.  That answer seems to underline the fact that we shouldn't expect to see Establishments for a good, long while.  If the focus is being removed from the NeX, it stands to reason that the focus is also being removed from the main reason for the NeX: the clothes that we'd be able to show off to each other in the Establishments.  I think there's a damn good chance at this point that we're going to see the Establishments code moved to the DUST platform and the concept introduced there first, where micro-transactions were built into the game design right from day one.

Hell, at no point during the interview does Hilmar even use the word "establishments".

When asked about developers specifically tasked to EVE, Hilmar had this to say:
So I would say we have never had as many people adding direct product value to Eve. We're way more focused on that than we've ever been. The really big change here is that we're now more focused on the classical Eve experience that people have come to know and love. That's the go-forward plan.

I've heard a lot of unsubstantiated rumors from various sources indicating that the EVE team was hit harder than the World of Darkness team by the lay-offs.  Honestly, even if that's true (and I have serious doubts), I think it's just as likely that the best of both teams were kept and those developers that were on WoD that survived are going to find themselves retasked in pretty short order.  So, even if that rumor has some truth to it, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it's a non-issue.

What is an issue, though, is the overall feel of the interview from start to finish: this is a man that has -- at least temporarily -- lost his mojo.  The interview really underlines something that I had been feeling, but couldn't really put into words.  Now I can.  When it came out, I called the devblog by CCP Zulu a "love letter", and that's what it is.  But that phrase "love letter" has a second, darker context when used in this way.  It represents a ploy that's just a little bit... desperate.

The list of things going into the winter expansion is a practically a wish-list of player desires going back years, and that's no bad thing.  But CCP has always put out its best expansions when it has swung for the fences, aiming at their own vision.  For many years, Kevin Smith was one of my favorite writers and directors.  Then he put out a movie called Jersey Girl.  He later revealed that it was supposed to be the movie that launched him out of the niche director market and into the mainstream consciousness as a major comedy writer.  He was looking for an order of magnitude jump in his fan-base.  He tried again with a second movie a couple of years later.  It didn't happen then either, and it shattered his confidence.  He's never recovered, and his career has been in a death spiral ever since.

Don't get me wrong: the winter expansion has a lot of really exciting, fun stuff in it.  It's stuff that the players have asked for, and that's no bad thing.  I'm as excited about a lot of these features as anyone.

But not a single player asked for Apocrypha.  There needs to be a balance between what we as players want, and CCP blowing our socks off with what they want.

So let's collectively hope that Hilmar and the rest of CCP gets their mojo back in short order.


P.S. There was a fire-cracker of a question asked in this interview about CSM6, but I think that question and its response deserves its own blog post.  But don't look for it any time soon.  I want to think on that one a bit.

19 comments:

  1. They couldn't plan anything else than this list of feature in such a short time anyway and it's probably too late for the following expansion too. Summer expansion will be able PI and Dust plus some more fix.

    If He get its mojo back we will probably see it with the winter expansion next year.

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  2. Hilmar apologized as extensively as a man can. CEO that is wiling to admit his mistakes, publicly, is a rare sight and worth respecting.

    Now if only they released Dust for PC. This is the last skeleton in their closet.

    I'd be even more blunt - if they release Dust for existing Eve community, and tie it into sov mechanics in a nontrivial way, it wil inevitably succeed, since it will get a stable base of players that will not go away for the next shiny shooter. Also, running with grenade launcher>banging 10 mil EHP as a siege mechanic.

    If they don't, they will not be able to tie Dust into eve (eve will rebel, and they no longer can say f*ck you eve), and since it is Dusts only selling point, it will inevitably fail.

    I don't know what they signed away with sony, but dust not on PC==failure.

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  3. You are confusing Noah and Torfi's roles. You and I should chat.

    As for the rest, I have similar thoughts yet have lacked the time to articulate them properly and I am also waiting for the dust to settle a bit before delving into it all.

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  4. Time is short, I have to agree, winter next year, not this one.

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  5. I'll be disappointed to see establishments scrapped: at the very least they would be able to form player-customisable social spaces.

    It's possibly time to remind players to be careful what they wish for. Players as a whole tend to be very bad at game design: witness the episode of "Big Bang Theory" where Sheldon over-designs three-player chess, or the real life episode where Blizzard redesigned WoW to cater to the end-game players resulting in a game which satisfies nobody.

    As for the folks complaining about "null sec taking over CSM" — why didn't you vote?

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  6. @Jester, you had published log-in numbers and inferred from there subscriptions. Will you be able to do this going forward? It would be interesting if the "proposed" game changes and additions bring old players back and new players in.

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  7. 100% agreed that Ward is no big loss when it comes to game design talent. But he is not the only one who championed Incarna. You seem to be overlooking CCP Torfifrans, the Creative Director who has been behind PI, Incarna, and the NEx all along. He's been curiously invisible throughout the immediately recent troubles. In my view, he bears a goodly amount of responsibility for the wrong direction that EVE has taken the last couple of years.

    Apocrypha was a hit because it was designed by imaginative thinkers (hello Seleene and Greyscale) who understood how to actually add sand to the sandbox. If the same kind of talent--plus wise use of resources and accountability-- had been better employed for Incarna starting years ago when CCP first began to devote resources to the effort, it also might have ended up doing the same thing.

    Of course, hindsight is always 20/20.

    Hilmar has a hard road ahead of him. Wouldn't want to be in his shoes for anything. But if he is sincere and does what he says he's going to, it will be good for EVE and hopefully good for CCP as a result. No one who loves EVE wants to see CCP do anything but succeed. I hope that their ability to do so is back on track now.

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  8. I agree with your analysis, Jester, but CCP is bringing something new to the board; Player owned customs office. It might not be much, it's a small change, but it's not something that we asked for or expected and it will change the game in a significant way.

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  9. I want to say two things about this, first about Ward, second about Hilmar's mojo.

    I can imagine Ward's first interview to get the job at CCP, years ago. One of the interviewers says something on the line "You see, one of our major challenges for the upcomming years is to take the game from its current niches and expand, and we would like you to help us achieve this".

    He takes the quest to the heart. He put his intellect into work and desing the best strategy he can to achieve the goal: increase the subscriptions by large amounts (but let's be frank, the strategy actually applied did overlook some important aspects of Eve).

    In this sense, by being the major beacon of this trend he has taken the blame for a notion that may have been spread among more people there.

    About the second subject, I will start by asking questions that have been bugging me for quite a while. Once a player starts to fall in the bittervet stereotype:
    - what is really the problem?
    - what are his expectations about the game and its future?
    - and, more importantly, how to make him enjoy the game once again?

    I ask this because it seems to me that some of the devs have become bittervets of sorts over the years.

    Bittervets (or bitterdevs) is, in fact, a very bad way to express this. It is better to say that disconnectedevs are to employees as bittervets are to players. The cause is the same, but the result is different.

    It's easy to see why. The players complain and make forum rages for years, but don't see any changes, thus the vets become bitter. The employees are THERE, they can change stuff, or have that perception to some extent. They make plans and envision where they want to take this universe to.

    The disconnection comes from staying in this mindset for too long. And when the result of an expansion is so different from what was expected from it, from the company's point of view, it comes with the realization that visions are really just visions.

    The kind of focus of the next expansion is good to happen every so often. It is important to work on the aspects that raise concerns among the players, but it is just as important to have some guindance in the game development. Just aimlessly iteraint the content by player request for too long can also end very bad.

    So, how can Hilmar get his mojo back? Well the guys there need to keep having visions, but realistic ones, as much as this is easier said than done.

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  10. @Seleene: pick a time and a place and I'm there. Would love to hear your thoughts. All I had to go on was what Ward said publicly in that infamous interview. Torfi hasn't been interviewed at all, ever, that I know of.

    That said, Ward's role in metric- and player-style-focused development is undeniable. I can forgive Incarna. I can't forgive that.

    @Anon0718: I'm hoping the same source that gave me continued accurate PCU data last month will be able to do so again fairly soon here. eve-offline continues to have their publicly-available PCU data shut down, most likely at CCP's request.

    @Mynxee: It's only in hindsight that Incarna is revealed as an overly ambitious failure. I have to admit, at this time last year or so, I thought CCP was going to be able to pull a rabbit out of their collective hat with it.

    Here's the really interesting question: who do you think we should look to for the next big idea? Zulu?

    @Tahna: you're absolutely right, of course. I said as much myself a few days ago. But it's only the first couple of chapters of the book. There's a long way to go in that direction if CCP wants to go there, and those are evolutionary changes to the game, not revolutionary ones.

    @Anon0914: you raise some really interesting questions. I'm going to think on them some.

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  11. @Jester: I disagree about hindsight and Incarna's failure. CSM5 was predicting it since last summer due to the lack of evidence that it was still anything more than a big idea at that point. If the lack of a roadmap, gameplay designs, demos, CURRENT concept art, or anything else substantive as of the October and even December summits didn't put the writing on the wall in big bold letters, I don't know what would have.

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  12. @Seleene: I would love to know what you and Jester chat about. This entire episode of corporate mojo-spiral followed by love letters has reinvigorated me as a player. I'm so much more interested in the goings-ons and the success of CCP. I even subbed a fourth account for a while because I wanted to put a little extra cash in CCPs pocket (and train up some mini-alts).

    @Jester: I can't tell you how much I appreciate and agree with your takes on things. I don't know if it's because we're both in management or not, but I'm now a daily reader. Keep it up.

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  13. I have to say I was impressed both by Hilmar's devblog and by this interview. Both read as incredibly sincere. Given what's happened with CCP in the past, though, I have to say this: Words are cheap. CCP now needs to follow through and deliver action.

    What stood out for me in the entire interview, however, was that last little bit about the CSM. I've been in and out of government service long enough to recognize codespeak when I see it and the answer to the CSM question in the interview set off more than a few bells and flags. Hilmar's answer sounded an awful lot like someone who's preparing to gank the CSM.

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  14. Ward was with CCP for a long time. I could be wrong, but my impression is that he may have just given the Incarna task, due to the ability to get major projects done. If you're going to call someone out on this, please dont overlook people who deserve it like Zulupark who has been ruining Eve since 2007.

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  15. To those saying, "Why Ward? Why not X?": go read the interview that Ward gave that I linked.

    To my knowledge the other "candidates" haven't said anything in public quite this aggravating.

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  16. To answer how Dev's can be energised into the game again.....

    They should be allowed, no encouraged to play the game once more at more then a pigoen level.

    We all know what happend a few years ago with Dev hacks.....

    Dev gameplay has of course suffered since they aren't allowed in alliances and not allowed to really play the game competitively.

    It is no wonder there is a disconnect to the game.

    What I propose is:

    All Dev accounts must be publicly declared (within CCP and CSM anyway)

    CCP's version of Internal affairs and CSM are free to audit any of these accounts at whim, and infact should take a random sample a couple of times a quarter to check for foul play.

    CCP dev's are encouraged to play the game, get into alliances, mix it up and get a feel for the toys they create.

    Code on screen is very different to how it feels to sit in hours of lag, or to be alpha'd by Arty Abaddon's.

    If our Dev's are excited to play the game it stands to reason that we should be.... They can only really know what's gonna get everyone excited though if they can use the tools like we can.

    This in my opinion is the reason more and more for the growing chasm between CCP and the player base as much as anything else

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  17. That's the whole point dude... was the interview based on his own personal ambitions or was he just carrying the water for the CEO.

    All you need to do is read Zuluparks very first dev blog (about carrier changes) to see something more aggravating.

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  18. Have you seen this story from yesterday at Massively? http://massively.joystiq.com/2011/10/23/eve-evolved-the-human-casualties/
    I quote from the article, "Even now, higher-ups still talk down on players," the insider told me, "and say we have just hit a bump because some bad players refuse to see the awesomeness of our vision. We're told that it is not our fault." If that insider is correct Hilmar's apology is just a crock of BS. What do you think?

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  19. @Belloche
    We spend half of our lifetime badmouthing CCP devs, with a special focus to their management. Are you surprised that they return the favor in their internal communications? And, yes, they mean it as much as we do.

    On a side note, "Hell, at no point during the interview does Hilmar even use the word "establishments".". Yes, but he uses the word awesome, twice.

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