Drilling Down to DiscoveryAshterothi
In recent years, EVE Online has become a game that truly embraces the idea of the minigame. Both Planetary Interaction and the Hacking minigame have become core functions on which careers are built in EVE. Now CCP add Project Discovery to them. Unfortunately, Project Discovery isn’t joining a prestigious legacy. While the Hacking game is newer, and thus more modern in design, the PI interface remains a mess. CCP rightly holds a reputation for ambition, but they sometimes struggle with execution. If their newest minigame endeavour is to work, it will be important for them to employ both vision and talent to produce something which results in a fun and engaging experience.
With all that as a backdrop, let’s drill down on Project Discovery. In doing so, I will divide this feature analysis into three parts: the Crust, or the surface level understanding of the feature; the Mantle, or execution of the feature; and the Core, the feature’s impact on the game or its long-term “meaning”.
Stage One: Crust
Project Discovery began as a dream between scientists on a balcony overlooking Geneva, Switzerland. There, scientists working with the Human Protein Atlas were reflecting on the great success of gamification in the citizen science scene, and began to consider the possibility of adding such mechanics to an already successful MMO where the reward structure and playerbase is already firmly established. From this Massively Multiplayer Online Science (MMOS) was born.
MMOS began courting several companies to pursue their goals, and eventually CCP showed interest. However, with Citadels, sov revamp, Valkyrie, and whatever “not-Dust” is, in the works, they simply lacked the development throughput to add a new feature. Thankfully, they had been cultivating a relationship with another organization that was full of programming powers which only needed to be tapped: Reykjavík University.
Several students from the University began working with CCP developers to bring Project Discovery to life. Over time, some of those students progressed and at least one of them – CCP Wonderboy – joined the company as an intern. This means that, at least for now, CCP does have dedicated staffers for Project Discovery, and its future. For more information about the formation of Project Discovery, you can check out the college project’s final report on the matter.
In-game, Project Discovery is a fairly straightforward minigame added to EVE Online in which players view tissue samples of cells that have had their nucleus stained blue, cell structure red, and proteins stained green. It is the player’s mission to detect any and all noteworthy patterns in the green staining and classify them against example images and descriptions. The player gains rewards in the form of a minor amount of ISK (I estimate around the same as level 2 missions), and a new currency – “Analysis Kredits” – which is used exclusively to gain special temporary buffs you can sell. On top of that they can earn an exclusive Sisters of EVE battlesuit and lab coat.
The rewards for Project Discovery are both significant, and exclusive.
Behind the scenes, the samples are part of the Human Protein Atlas, and the whole project is a multinational, multi-organizational attempt to bring gamified citizen science into an actively-played video game, lead by MMO Sciences (MMOS). So-called “Crowd Sourced” or “Citizen” Science has gained popularity in the last decade, as human volunteers have demonstrated a capacity to handle specific problems – especially pattern recognition – better than any computer system . The goal is to greatly increase our knowledge of the proteans working in our cells, and thus better understand our biology. The most popular suggested benefit of such research would be better understanding, and thus better ability to fight, cancers.
Stage Two: Mantle
Public reports from the MMOS team are incredibly positive. Although they do admit that their servers had about four hours of downtime on day one, this should be seen as an indication of its popularity rather than a failure of the team. Although the numbers they gave are impressive, they are hard for those without experience in biology to really appreciate. However, the audience for the report seems to have the necessary appreciation. It appears that even under professional scrutiny this experiment is a rousing success, at least so far.
The playerbase do seem to paint a different picture. Even Ripard Teg, of Jester’s Trek and CSM 8 fame came from the shadows to openly criticize the implementation of Project Discovery, specifically criticising “a bad front-loaded, text-based tutorial.” (Emphasis his). While many people – including members of the HPA – have come forward with videos trying to help guide people towards properly understanding the new project, it becomes apparent that many are not even bothering to understand the process and have resorted to simpler answers. In short, the community has decided everything is Cytoplasm.
However, it is possible that both of those reactions are perfectly valid. Project Discovery is a bit obtuse, and years of running EVE have clearly not helped CCP to learn how to properly present complex or obscure systems. Instead – as has happened in the past – they seem to be relying on the playerbase to handle the issue for them. Interestingly enough, it is possible that the “everything is Cytoplasm” crowd is actually helpful to the project as a whole.
“The best way forward for this feature would be to make people feel empowered by playing it”
Humans crave rewards and seek to learn new things, mostly because learning means more and better rewards. While Project Discovery does have some rewards, their true value of has yet to actually manifest. However, one thing we do know is, that the path to those rewards is long, complex, and pretty much devoid of roadmaps. Without a decent feedback system for wrong answers, people feel lost. The banner of “always pick Cytoplasm” acts as an appeal to the lazy and frustrated, but allowing those people to still be engaged meaningfully is important too. The best way forward for this feature would be to make people feel empowered by playing it, which is not really the case right now for all but very few.
In the meantime, it seems that ~20% of the population just simply choose Cytoplasm. This has a very interesting effect: it allows the project to account for lazy or exploitive players like a lightning rod does for electricity. Simply knowing that people opt for specific answers allows the data analysts to account for this “background noise”. A far worse pattern would be just randomly selecting things, but that would actually disrupt the consensus. By allowing everyone to choose Cytoplasm, they allow people to engage with less pressure, less feeling of confusion and loss of direction.
Thankfully, this problem could simply solve itself. If better feedback is put into the game, more players will drift away from the simple, less effective answers, and will rather pride themselves on their success. Failing to do this could cause the player base to simply abandon the feature, or worse, become frustrated and disruptive.
One amazing thing has come out of this experience. From Twitter, to Reddit, to the EVE-O forums, players are engaging with the scientists on the project, and both sides seem thrilled that the other is so interested. A wealth of knowledge about cell mitosis, cytoplasm, and the whole process of the HPA has lead to a gigantic inter-nerd geek-out that – to me personally – has been amazing to be a part of.
Stage 3 Core –
As has been said many times before, now is an important time for CCP. They have to prove that their vision and all of their changes are going somewhere positive. They need to prove that they are capable of building the things they need to for the game to meet its full potential. Unfortunately, what we got was not only hollow but it also repeated many past sins of CCP UI design. They have demonstrated many times that they can pick up a cool and ambitious game idea, but now it is key for CCP to demonstrate that they can support and expand on it until it is really good.
“So far, the results are promising, but still not quite there.”
Many players have asked for the entire game to be moved to a tablet app, or at least for a CREST endpoint which allows players could build their own. Watching how CCP move forward with Project Discovery will be very telling of the direction we will be seeing in the next year. While the feature itself is rather low-key, it does represent a whole new addition to the EVE universe, which is something we really haven’t seen in a very long time. So, the real question with Discovery seems to be less about whether players will embrace citizen science, but whether CCP can really launch new tools into EVE. Have they truly learned from the past? So far, the results are promising, but still not quite there.
Another thing to note is the rewards themselves. It is obvious they are experimenting with the kinds of rewards players will seek. The raw ISK faucet is minimal, not much above the ISK cost of the items bought with the Analysis Kredits. However, the items themselves are quite noteworthy. All three (drugs, lab coat, and armor) are not only exclusive in design, but effectively exclusive in kind. While the files show at least four kinds of body armors, CCP chose to place the very first one on Discovery. This is no mistake. If anything, CCP have learned during the last few months how to incentivise things. However, this will only provide initial momentum. While the drugs may prove to be a continuing reason to do Project Discovery, the novelty factor of the clothes will wear off, especially as alternatives present themselves.
All told, Project Discovery is an interesting experiment in the fusion of citizen science and good old-fashioned video gaming. So far, CCP and MMOS have demonstrated the ability to gamify citizen science. However, CCP seems to retain some of the past weaknesses of UI design. One thing they have done well is the rewards, which are just high-profile enough to create mainstream buzz. However, without aggressive and effective iterations, Project Discovery could risk falling into the pit of half-successful-now-abandoned features, and no one wants that. In the end Project Discovery really is a learning experience, each group has their own lessons to learn, and hopefully EVE will be a better game for it all.
If you would like to know more about the Project Discovery community, please join the #ProjectDiscovery chat on the Tweetfleet Slack, or join reddit.com/r/projectdiscovery.