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The Trial of EVE Online

After what turned out to be some of the most chaotic weeks in the history of EVE Online, Icelandic CCP Games called to a special press conference yesterday. Gamereactor attended.

Note: CCP asked specifically that audio recordings of the press conference held yesterday would not be published. The text below is a summary of various points brought up during the hour-long session the press had with the company yesterday and is not written in the order the various issues were brought up to make it easier to read and get a better grasp of. We've also booked an interview with Alex "The Mittani" Gianturco, which we'll be bringing you during the next couple of days.

The last few weeks have been tumultuous for CCP and EVE Online. The release of the Incarna expansion, and the subsequent leaks from within the company regarding the future of micro-transactions in EVE, sparked one of the worst crises in the history of a game that has already seen its fair share of controversies. The idea that CCP were planning to introduce non-vanity micro-transaction items into the sandbox of New Eden, despite earlier promises that they wouldn't, had many players rioting - not only on the forums, but also inside EVE itself; practically squatting and shutting down the tradehub of Jita in the process.

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Because of the rapidly expanding crisis, with news of what was going on even starting to hit the mainstream press, CCP decided to fly the Council of Stellar Management to Iceland for an emergency meeting. After two days of intense meetings the company and the CSM, which is a player-driven council voted in place by the playerbase itself, released a statement each detailing what the outcome had been and what their views of what now many people refer to as "Monoclegate" were. Around the same time, a press conference was called which Gamereactor attended yesterday evening. Present at the conference to answer the press' questions were Arnar Gylfason, Senior Producer for EVE Online (and mostly known as CCP Zulu amongst players), and Alex Gianturco, chairman for the current incarnation of the CSM (known in-game as The Mittani).

A lot of things were said during the almost one hour long Q&A session held after a brief summary of what had been going on from both Arnar and Alex. For players though, there are a couple of things that were not answered in the CSM and CCP statements. The most important one, for many, was the so called "big yellow question" that many want a simple "yes" or "no" to - while there are no plans to introduce "game-breaking" items into the Noble Exchange, EVE's item store, can CCP promise that there will never be any?

Arnar's reply was that the question itself puts him in an awkward position. "If we do things right, EVE Online will hopefully be able to run for the next 80 years. I don't want to promise something that will get the person doing my job in 80 years in trouble." Arnar then pointed out that the idea of game-breaking items is not a part of CCP's core philosophy and referenced the statements already made - "the investment of money in EVE should not give you an unfair advantage over the investment of time."

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Following up on Arnar, Alex told us that the CSM had been allowed to see upcoming items that will be added to the Noble Exchange in the future and that there is nothing of the sort in the pipeline. He also stated that he would be shocked if anything game-breaking was introduced while Arnar (and CCP Soundwave) is working on the game.

The question of what "game-breaking" actually means has also been a big thing in the community, some players finding the wording of CCP's statement to be ambiguous at best. "What is game-breaking?" Arnar asked. Taken at face value, the current PLEX system (where game-time can be bought using ISK, the in-game currency) could be seen as game-breaking. But, he said, there is a big difference between PLEX and any game-breaking items in the Noble Exchange since the ISK used to buy PLEX aren't spawned from thin air. According to Arnar, CCP knows very well how spawning things out of nothing endangers the sandbox and the market economy in EVE Online.

But can CCP and EVE survive in a genre that is moving more and more towards item shops and micro-transactions? "EVE can survive a lot of things," Arnar said, saying that it was all about progress and change - something the game has seen before. Alex's theory, based on the items he had seen and statements from people he had asked to look into CCP's publicly available financial records, that the items in the Noble Exchange point to that the store isn't as much a new revenue stream for the company as much as a chance to learn the ropes. "The industry," he said, "is changing. That's just the way it is."

So what could have been done differently? Outspoken as usual, Alex said that CCP's communication with their players is generally terrible. Had it been better, the CSM would never have had to go to Iceland on such short notice. The CSM-members themselves arrived in Iceland "worried, angry and paranoid" but soon they realized that it was actually a "shadow of a controversy" since there was actually no real controversy in the first place.

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According to the CSM, CCP should have explained the pricing of the items in the Noble Exchange from the start and what kind of strategy they had for it. If they had, Alex said, the whole thing would have disappeared in a "puff of logic." The CSM knew about the items in advance, but no idea about what price they would be available for and with the lack of cheaper items (the only low-tier priced item in the store right now is a pair of boots) they feel like the store was rushed out. Still, he pointed out, most of the members of the CSM don't really care about the prices as long as the items don't impact gameplay - "they could charge $20 000 for a monocle for a space-Barbie and most of us still wouldn't care."

The reason for not telling the CSM what the prices would be was simply business - while the CSM is a stakeholder in the development side of the game, they are not involved in making business decisions for the company and the prices are decided outside of ordinary development processes. The current prices are indicative of what we will see in the future, but a lot more items will be added to all tiers - cheap, medium and expensive. "We have not seen the extremes [of pricing, cheap or expensive] yet," Arnar said. More items will be added to the Noble Exchange over the coming month and CCP will release a development blog which will explain the various pricing tiers.

Whenever an item is added to an item shop, no matter the MMO (especially if it's a subscription-based game), the question of how long it took to actually make versus the cost is often brought up by players finding the item in question too expensive. So how long did the infamous €68 monocle take to make? "It's not very hard to make," Arnar told us. "A few hours of modelling, texturing and stuff like that." But the problem is the artistic work, which takes a lot longer. Especially something like a monocle ("it's literally in your face!") will have to go through all kinds of hoops before it makes it into the game. Other things, like a coat, can take even longer. Some things can be outsourced though, which Arnar simply referred to as "push button, get bacon." Alex backed that up, saying that the CSM had told CCP that they would prefer to see the future development of Noble Exchange-items to be outsourced instead of stealing time from the company's internal art team.

At the centre of the controversy sat a couple of leaks from within the studio. A major thorn in the side of players had been an e-mail sent by CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson, which many felt (and still feel) was diminishing their concerns. When asked if an apology would ever come, Arnar said that he didn't think it would be right to "excuse how we do business or how we communicate internally." Alex later mentioned the e-mail, saying that politically it would be very difficult to get an official apology from Hilmar, considering his position at CCP.

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The timing of the leaks was interesting, though. Alex felt like the timing was deliberate, since he had a copy of the leaked Fearless-issue (the internal CCP newsletter that added a lot of fuel to the fire) for a month before the leak. He knew that if it came out, it would explode. Then, as we now know, it leaked the day after Incarna launched. "It was a ratfuck," as he so wonderfully put it. Whoever it was that leaked it (Arnar said he could not speak directly to that, since he won't be involved in any investigation that might or might not happen), Alex felt, definitely has an agenda. He did point out that since CCP like to employ people that "live and breathe EVE," leaks like this tend to happen because those employees care so much about the game.

The e-mail from Hilmar taught the players something, Alex noted. It's now all about "what they do, not what they say" (a quote from the e-mail that already has spread across the EVE community and become a form of rallying cry for keeping a close eye on what CCP do with the Noble Exchange from now on). There seem to have been quite a lot of unsubscriptions from the game as well, with Arnar calling the whole situation "one of the biggest cases of people cancelling subs" in the history of EVE. "And we've seen our fair share of controversies in the past."

The CSM saw the metrics during their meeting with CCP. "This crisis can be measured by veterans fleeing the game," Alex said, which is very bad for EVE as such since those veterans actively help create the game. Of course no actual numbers were given out during the conference, but it absolutely seems like the numbers sent a pretty strong message to the company.

"This crisis blew the T20 scandal out of the water," Alex said, referring to an old controversy when a CCP employee was found out to have been cheating in the game and giving his alliance an unfair advantage over its enemies. "There was a lot more people angry this time, which is ironic. We came out of T20 with a lot of reforms," including an internal auditing committee that would make sure stuff like that never happened again, "and this was all about leaks and perceptions." T20 actually had a direct impact on the sandbox of EVE, which Monoclegate hardly had.

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So what did CCP actually learn from all of this? When it comes to communication, Arnar wasn't sure how much this crisis taught them since it all came from leaked information. The paths of communication inside the company simply were not there to deal with a situation like that. They will try to keep a close relationship with their community on the forums, making sure they are always up to date with what the players' concerns are, and to also keep a close relationship with the CSM. Alex hoped that this would make CCP more transparent and more open in the future, yet he feels like EVE Online is in good hands, calling Arnar "stable" and someone that gets things done.

CCP certainly have listened to some concerns raised since Incarna launched, including bringing back "ship spinning." It was brought up that the players would probably be rather angry if CCP actually interpreted the calls to bring that back as the literal act of "spinning" their ships (before Incarna, you could spin your docked ship on screen using your mouse, so "ship spinning" more or less mean "killing time at a station"), but both Arnar and Alex made sure to mention that the functionality that was lost with Incarna would be coming back (at least some of it). The CSM had brought it up during the meetings and had been satisfied with the answers CCP gave them.

In all, the press conference felt like a good initiative on the side of CCP. Not only did it give the press the time to ask questions, they also had a press conference right before with a couple of select fan sites. Hopefully in the future, the lines of communication from CCP and EVE Online will include more of these - if there is something that Monoclegate should have taught CCP is that their playerbase can be extremely passionate about their game of choice.