Giving Your Players a Voice: Lessons from EVE Online

On the front line in the battle between CCP and its customers over the fate of EVE is the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a democratically-elected group of player representatives who have been granted stakeholder status in the company's development process. This body, at times, acts as a sounding board, an advocacy group, or in direct opposition to CCP's business

CCP has granted the CSM extraordinary power in terms of the access it has to the developers; several times a year the CSM is flown to the company headquarters in Iceland for days of arduous meetings. When a crisis within the game erupts, such as in 2010's "Summer of Rage" or the recent Monoclegate, in which players revolted when the company introduced virtual items, CCP calls in the CSM to attempt to mediate.

Initially written off by some as a PR stunt, the CSM has developed since its introduction in 2008 into a powerful advocate. Mostly the CSM functions as a sanity check for mid-level developers within CCP to bounce game design ideas off of; since EVE is such a complex universe, it's impossible for every game designer to have personal experience with every aspect of the game.

At other times, however, the CSM has been an outside source of pressure against CCP's management when it makes decisions which overrule the desires of their customers and the game designers, marshaling an impressive nexus of contacts in the gaming media and the player base to get that point across.

Because of that, the CSM project seems like a double-edged sword for CCP from a business perspective. At one level, the CSM has improved the quality of the game and the lives of the players -- and thus CCP's bottom line. On another level, it has shown that a player advocacy group will not be co-opted by the sponsoring developer, and can focus player dissatisfaction into concrete action that can impact the company's balance sheet. A little democracy is a dangerous thing.

Yet, on the whole, the CSM project has been on the side of CCP's bottom line since the beginning. The CSM was vehemently critical of the Tyrannis and Incarna expansions before their releases, both of which were duds -- duds which came to threaten the company's survival. The Crucible expansion, on the other hand, is a laundry list of CSM-sponsored changes to the core gameplay of EVE, and the disaffected customer base has responded by re-subscribing in droves. Democracy can be dangerous if you defy it, but profitable if obeyed.

Fascinating stuff - weighs the pros and cons of EVE's CSM. Especially interesting is how it highlights what a double-edged sword this level of customer involvement is in terms of the bottom-line, with examples of both good and scenarios.

I don't play EVE, but I definitely think they deserve kudos for pursuing a model no one else is even remotely close to trying - and succeeding with it against all expectations.