Sovereign Decisions

This past week, the announcement of the new sovereignty mechanics has been on the forefront of discussion. From implications for small gang tactics to large scale political metagaming, virtually every aspect has been commented on. I would like to take it to yet another level to look at what this new development tells us about the way CCP is approaching their game, and the players that fill it with life. The term ‘Fozziesov’ has caught on, and it points to something that sets this major change apart from many others on a similar scale. Certainly a whole team was involved in developing the concepts and mechanics for the new sovereignty system, but CCP Fozzie has fulfilled a significant role in that process. Major mechanics like the Dominion sov system or the Apocrypha wormhole expansion, which also changed the landscape of EVE, have traditionally come from the drawing board of game designers who lacked direct experience with the environment they are influencing and shaping with their decisions. CCP Greyscale in particular has attracted a lot of criticism for changing and implementing mechanics that form the underpinnings of nullsec gameplay more like a boy with an ant-farm than someone who really knows what he is doing. CCP as a company has in fact been caught at letting themselves be guided more by a mentality of “wouldn’t it be awesome if …”, rather than approaching EVE as a complex multi-layered system with various groups of stakeholders and actors in it. Seleene is likely the major exception to that rule as someone who has been a player a developer and a CSM member, but he worked at CCP several reorganisations ago. The process CCP uses to develop its game has changed, and in this environment another former player like CCP Fozzie who has dealt with the dynamics touched by the sovereignty system throughout his in-game career does become a crucial factor. After a decade of seeing their game grow, but also go through periods of crisis, it appears that the realisation has sunk in at CCP that EVE is more than just an ant farm. Today’s EVE has evolved to such a degree that the people who conceived it can not completely grasp it in its totality anymore; particularly if they have never been actively invested in certain aspects of the game. A lot can be said about the positives and negatives of including former players on the development staff, but in this particular case, I dare to say that the choice to do so clearly improved the process for the better.

Looking Into The Future

Another significant change from the past policy is the timing of the conceptual release. While CCP is no longer doing its old biannual release cycle, this change will, nevertheless, come at a point when the summer release would traditionally arrive. The fact that we are already getting a rather detailed preview of what is to come constitutes a big step away from how this would have happened in the past. With the old release cycle we would now be a few months after the winter expansion. Imagine hearing what the summer expansion will bring so far ahead of time. In the past, CCP would maybe hint at things during Fanfest but in the end they would just drop a catalogue of mechanics and changes on players and see how that works out. This time it is a process developing over the course of a year with small steps and different aspects fitting together like a puzzle where the whole picture slowly emerges. Players can settle into new mechanics and develop strategies for adaptation gradually and now they can even do so with foresight. That indicates a certain level of respect that CCP has developed for the player base. With that, I do not specifically mean that they simply respect the wishes of paying customers and cater to player entitlement. Much more than that, CCP appear to grasp the complex dynamic formed by its product and the players. Throwing a rock onto the anthill and watching them scramble to deal with it is not only an immature way of online-game development, it also increases the risk of mass player exodus or at the very least, a severe disruption of the game and CCP now treat their game with more consideration. On the other hand, this new sov system wants to create a disruption. Conflict drivers have been a central design staple of EVE for a long time, and avoiding stagnation is optimal, but at this point in time though, the “revolution” of the game world needs to be more gradual and well-developed. It is important to avoid a simple race where the inevitable winners would be the players who can grab the most territory because they come from a position of already established power. Neither should those who have worked hard to collectively build up something significant lose it in one stroke of the pen (or rather the keyboard). gcWYn1e In the most recent Crossing Zebras debate on the subject, it was mentioned how Pandemic Legion found out that weeks of grinding and logistical operations had suddenly become worthless overnight with the Dominion expansion. They are still a large player in EVE today, but I have no doubt that quite a few of their players back then felt frustration and became bitter. Other than such an experience, the transition to a new sov-system has to be comprehensible and at the same time challenging, while avoiding such unnecessary frustrations. This current trajectory of change looks like a serious effort to fulfil those conditions.

Crowd Participation

In a way, the developments as they play out now bring EVE closer to the real world where change also comes gradually and adaptation happens at different paces and in different ways across the world. Of course, that is only a superficial comparison. Specifically, timely notifications as we receive them today create an opportunity for feedback from the players, which will influence the laws and mechanics that we will be dealing with in the foreseeable future. That modern social media-driven crowd-participation method also has its drawbacks though. As I have said earlier, there is the potential pitfall of taking vocal minorities too seriously or becoming manipulated by lobbyists. When applied with the necessary common-sense, however, this participatory model can also be a very powerful tool. FanfestRoundtable

Image credit: Neville Smit

CCP already has the CSM as a focus group, and I gather that the concepts for the new sov-system have already passed that level of scrutiny. Going even one step further, CCP has now decided to submit their new concept for public consideration in a way that is unprecedented. I do not envy Fozzie and his team the work of wading through all the commentary and separate the useful feedback from the tantrums of those who simply do not want change. On the other hand, if CCP properly weighs the issues raised and the points made, they can fine tune the system to a point where even the detractors will eventually be thankful that change has indeed come, even if it was forced upon them. In the past the players would get much less of a chance to make themselves heard; CCP is doing something truly innovative in their development process by consulting so closely with their playerbase today.

Raising The Stakes

The final thing I observe with happy relief is that CCP is willing to take risks again. After Incarna, there was a definitive reluctance on CCP’s part to add or remove features which could be fundamentally game-changing. Now, the concurrent user count has still not fully recovered from the persistent decline the game has seen ever since; but both player attitude and necessity point into a direction where a major change will have to happen for the game to sustainably create interest for existing players, and to hopefully attract new ones. The developers already demonstrated that they are willing to turn the tide with the jump fatigue mechanics and even the policy change regarding input automation. Those steps heralded that the period of rebalancing and tweaking alone is coming to an end.  At this point in time, CCP could have opted for playing it safe and delay things for just a bit longer—HERO are still not burnt out by the established system and the rest of nullsec is still somewhat entertained by their development. Instead, CCP came up with a complete rework of how sovereignty is going to work, and they put it out there in front of the players—indeed for feedback, but also to say this is what we are committed to. They did not just hint in tweets, they did not go the easy way out where they present things to an energised crowd at Fanfest. They declared their attentions weeks ahead of that event, and months ahead of the implementation. Fanfest will bring them a flood of players who will approach the devs in person with questions, feedback, and criticism about the sov system, and CCP actually appears aware of that. Maybe they even planned it like that? If I am correct with that assumption, then I congratulate all the CCP employees who were involved in bringing this about for their courage, tempered by wisdom and a good dose of player participation.
Tags: ccp, Fozziesov, sovereignty, tarek

About the author

Tarek Raimo

Former nullsec spy (no not under that name of course) and current failure at lowsec solo PVP, Tarek spends his time not logging in to the game as much as he keeps thinking about its social and metagame nature and sharing some of those thoughts with the CZ readers.