Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sandbox Jenga: BB38

"In his recent "That's just the way it is" post on Jester's Trek, blogger Ripard Teg posits that the established EVE player-base has come to accept many of EVE's design idiosyncrasies, rarely questioning their purpose or benefit. Conversely, he also suggests that new players might not be so forgiving of these "quirks". In an interview with Gamasutra, Senior Producer CCP Unifex describes EVE Online's developers as "relatively hands-off janitors of the virtual world", underlining that he has only four content developers but "a lot" of programmers and engineers.

Has a culture developed where CCP has started to take player effort for granted - expecting the "social engine" to fulfil tasks that might otherwise be CCP's responsibility? Or should this culture be embraced as part of "emergent gameplay" with these quirks accepted as the catalyst for interaction?"

I was a little perplexed by this month's blog banter. I sat staring at the question, reading and re-reading trying to make sense of how the individual pieces fit together. Ultimately they don't. It's really just a pile of pieces that sorta go together and sorta don't. A big, disjointed mess, like a fallen Jenga tower or David Hasselhoff's career.

See, this issue with this month's topic is that it is actually comprised of several smaller issues whose roots and stems aren't co-terminant but aren't mutually exclusive either. The engine propelling the game forward is comprised of many different pieces. Pieces which go together to form sub-systems. Subsystems that work together to create energy and then harness it to create motion and ultimately forward progress. Maybe that's why the banter at hand seems so opaquely mysterious; I'm not much of a car guy.

That said, you don't need to be a mechanic to know that in such a complex apparatus as a motor vehicle, each subsystem depends on various other subsystems performing their tasks in order to accomplish their own. The complex player-developer relationship and all of the various Hasselhoff-shaped Jenga pieces included in that relationship are no different as players and developers rely on each other in order to accomplish their goals.

Even in a sandbox, perhaps especially in a sandbox, players need developers to maintain and iterate on the virtual world they occupy. Every day we capsuleers rely on these hard-working men, women and possibly farm animals (don't know, never been to Iceland) to clean the sandbox, make sure all the toys are in it, and make sure there's enough sand to play with. When the customary games the players devise for themselves become stale, we rely on the developers to give us new toys to play with or to change the way the old toys work. This in turn allows us the ability to create new games for ourselves or to make the games we've already created more fun.

In the Gamasutra article quoted in the blog banter question, Jon "CCP Unifex" Lander referred to CCP as the "janitors" of EVE. I would have used the word "custodian," because I imagine it's exactly what Lander meant. The distinction is subtle, but important. Whereas janitors merely clean and maintain the property of others, custodians are also entrusted with the protection of that property. As players, we entrust CCP with our game. Among a vast number of other duties not listed here we trust CCP to maintain EVE and to protect her against threats of imbalance and of stagnation. We entrust them to protect our markets and opportunity to earn profit by aggressively ferreting out RMT'ers and botters. As players we are capable of assisting in these tasks but ultimately they are the charges of our digital custodians.

However, a custodian's role goes only so far. As the custodian does not own the property he or she has been tasked with cultivating, the ultimate decisions regarding the present and future state of the property rests with the owners. I've said this before, but it bears repeating here. EVE Online might belong to CCP, but this game belongs to us. For those unfamiliar with my thoughts on this, I'll clarify.

EVE Online is very much the sole and exclusive property of CCP Games. It is intellectual property CCP has spent over a decade developing and at this point millions of dollars investing in. The infrastructure is theirs, the tools they have created within their digital realm are theirs. But the content, the "game" of EVE Online belongs to the players. It is content the players have spent nearly a decade developing and iterating on and have invested millions of dollars in. It is my contention that in describing CCP as the "janitors" of EVE, this is exactly the relationship Lander was attempting to portray.

Bearing that in mind, it becomes trivial to respond to the second part of this month's blog banter. Of course CCP relies on us to mitigate, adapt to, and bitch about the quirks. Not only are they the catalysts for interaction, they are the catalysts for change as well. After all, this is our world. CCP's just designing it. But what about that pesky first question? Are the true "content" providers being taken for granted? Or worse, taken advantage of? 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the player-developer relationship is the tension that arises between the two and the root causes of that tension. The tension that exists between EVE's custodians and its architects arises from a lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities in a shared universe. Based on Lander's comments in the interview, it seems that CCP understands it's place in the EVE universe very well. I find it absolutely fascinating that the players are the ones who seem to be struggling to comprehend theirs.

The friction that arises as a result of that struggle has brought into sharp focus the relationship players and developers enjoy with one another. Are they taking us for granted? Are we doing the same to them? To a degree it conjures the ghosts of BB37 but with the question rephrased, "Where does the sandbox end and the game begin?" The responses to that question will vary as widely as the people who answer it but one thing remains constant. Despite the friction, one couldn't exist without the other. And together, we've built an truly incredible and immersive experience.
It's ironic that maybe the most critical aspect of this interplay would be the easiest to gloss over, but it must not be overlooked or forgotten. It is the vital element that sets EVE apart from every other MMO out there. And it is this: the relationship between player and developer is not unilateral.

As capsuleers we have an unprecedented level of access to and influence on the people who maintain and iterate on our sandbox. I'm fairly certain there isn't another company in the world that flies a team of player representatives to their international headquarters every year. CCP developers engage us on the forums and on Twitter. They read our blogs and listen to our podcasts. They actively solicit our feedback and use it to become better custodians of the game and content we've created. And even though it might take some convincing, if we call CCP out for taking a mis-step they're willing to change course in service of a vision other than their own.

Try finding THAT level of interaction in a theme park MMO. I'd pull a Jester and say, "go ahead, I'll wait." But I hate waiting, and in this case I'd be waiting for a VERY long time. Put another way, if that's what you call being taken for granted, I'd be damn curious to see what being appreciated looks like. 


1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I especially liked the expression "To a degree it conjures the ghosts of BB37" and the concept of the developers as custodians and how the players are not realizing their role.

    Many do, especially the vocal nullsec metagamers, but a large majority don't. Otherwise there would be so much more participation with the CSM elections among other things.