Inside, it’s life-and-death confrontations, cutthroat competition, conspiracies, betrayals and white-collar crime across the span of a hostile universe. But outside the virtual world, developers and gamers work together to shape the future of EVE Online. PC Gamer goes to Reykjavik, Iceland for a behind-the-scenes look at the Council of Stellar Management at work - and play.
“Well, at least I remember to pay my bills on time...” Noah Ward hides his widening grin by taking a sip of wine. A series of good-natured ooooh’s ripple out across the table and conversations cease as everybody pauses to see how the two men sitting on either side of me are going to respond. We’re eating a fancy meal at a classy Italian restaurant in downtown Reykjavik, and two EVE Online players just got called out for mismanaging internet spaceships. That kind of chatter is unusual enough to hear over a plate of prosciutto, but they weren’t merely being called out by some random joe on the forums - this particular ribbing was delivered by Noah Ward, EVE’s lead game designer.
For most gamers, sitting down to dinner with the developers of their favorite game lies firmly in impossible-dream territory, but for the nine EVE players sitting with me at the table, it’s very real - and over the past two years, these meetings have become an essential component of the game itself.
Every six months, elections are held in EVE Online to elect nine players to the Council of Stellar Management (CSM). And in an appropriate parallel to the kind of tactics players deploy every day in EVE Online, these seats are won through rigorous campaigning and corporate politics. The elected player representatives then work with the rest of EVE’s 330,000 players to develop a list of issues to be discussed when developer CCP flies them to its headquarters in Reykjavik, Iceland to sit down with them face-to-face twice per year.
Above: The player-elected Council of schemers
After four months of talking with constituents, poring over forum posts and debating the relative merits of one issue over another, the Council members have finally arrived in Iceland to meet with the developers at CCP. And it’s obvious they’re loving every second of it.
It didn’t quite make sense to me how Petur J. Oskarsson, the Researcher at CCP who manages the CSM, and Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, CCP’s on-staff economist, could easily trust a game they care enough about to refer to it as “our baby” in the hands of players that are entirely inexperienced with game design. When I posed the question to them, Oskarsson told me, “EVE is our baby, and these players are a part of that baby.” Gudmundsson chimed in, “Like any good parents we always do what we think is best, and these talks with the CSM help us figure that out.” While I was naturally suspicious of the players, they (and everyone else I talked to at CCP) believe in player empowerment so much that it never even crossed their mind to not trust their players.
Oskarsson’s own credentials are in the form of a 21-page paper that established the impetus behind, the justification for and the implementation of the Council of Stellar Management. The report went so far as to analyze the theory of the evolution of societies and how EVE went through each step, citing the works of philosophers and social theorists, including Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.
The first day: Worlds collide
If you haven’t been playing EVE Online, you’ve been missing out on some of the most astonishing developments and emergent gameplay moments of the past decade. EVE is a futuristic sci-fi MMO that revolves around player-made corporations battling for economic, political, and planetary control of the galaxy, and also revolves around one simple principle: if you want to do it, you can. This lawless, profit-driven Rapture-in-space has seen mercenaries spend months and months on planning in order to infiltrate a corporation and tear it down from within, launched more than a few careers in human slave trafficking and developed an economy so dynamic that CCP hired a real-life economist to manage it.
Above: Office building mullet: professional up front, party in the back
But the economist works at the macro level and doesn’t intervene in cases like that of Goonfleet, which had been one of the largest corporations within EVE Online until its leader forgot to make routine fund transfers before leaving on a real-life vacation. As a result, just weeks before the summit, Goonfleet lost most of the facilities and planets it controlled due to an inability to pay the maintenance fees. When the leader returned to a group on the verge of mutiny, he looted what little assets Goonfleet had left, fired everyone from the corporation and fled to another part of the galaxy.
So Ward’s friendly wisecrack had to have stung a bit for at least a few players at the table. In fact, after a betrayal like that, I expected Asher Dratel and John Zastrow, the two members of Goonfleet on the CSM, to be seething with bitterness and anger. But they hardly seemed phased by the loss, and were eager to rebuild their alliance under a new banner. They laughed with everyone else at West’s prodding and happily told their side of the story.
This might strike most people as a little weird, especially considering that many other MMOs shenanigans like these could result in real-world litigation. But every EVE player is comfortable with this dichotomy. On the one hand, EVE is dark and dangerous: nobody can be trusted, everyone has their price and a swift, merciless death awaits you around every corner if you’re not careful. But on the other hand, players are optimistic, cooperative, entrepreneurial and often downright brilliant in the ways that they find to bend the game world to their ideas and purposes.
EVE’s society is always on the verge of anarchy; most alliances function in the sectors of space where there are no ruling government bodies or police force to restrict players’ actions. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes things go wrong. But there’s very little centralized authoritarian control applied in most MMOs that establish what can or can’t be done. In EVE, players collaborate with developers. Just like they’re doing now, around the dinner table, as everybody exchanges their favorite stories from a digital world still just a few years old. Stories that seem to emphasize that EVE Online is breaking out of its original mold and becoming whatever players want it to be.
Stories about CCP itself - not all of them flattering - were passed around the table just as merrily. I had flown into Iceland knowing little more than that you didn’t want to do your banking there, but by the end of the CSM, one thing was very clear: If Reykjavik was a college party town, then CCP would be the biggest frat house on campus. Yes, it’s a very serious developer of fine games, but just look at the facts: the majority of employees are young males; breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner are served in the company’s cafeteria by two grandmotherly Icelandic women; free snacks, sodas and energy drinks can be found in every kitchen; and “I was drunk” is the only excuse needed for showing up late in the morning.
Above: The CSM represents this entire galaxy
And that’s not even taking into account the sheer number of “this one time when I was drunk” stories that everyone at CCP seemed to have on hand. The raucous, booze-fueled mayhem even extends to official CCP events, and this spirit - both laid-back and slightly crazed - contributes to CCP’s innovative development structures that incorporate player feedback with unprecedented efficiency. Where Blizzard is the buttoned-down suit assuring players, “Don’t worry, we’ve got everything under control” (and they do), CCP is the hung-over rock star smashing guitars, trashing hotel rooms, using excessive amounts of pyrotechnics and crowd surfing at every opportunity.