Revisiting the Council of Stellar Management

2015-11-10

The recent upheaval surrounding the Council of Stellar Management has sparked yet another wave of CSM-related drama and calls from various quarters for its dissolution. There is nothing new about any of this, with the minor exception of one dev’s comments on twitter that helped stoke the flames. Something negative happens, and the rabble takes to the streets in order to burn the entire house to the ground. To say it is short-sighted is almost giving it too much credit, which is exactly why we need to be thinking about this from a broader perspective. The issues related to the CSM run far deeper than any one individual or any one term. While I’m certain that the dissolution of the council would make for great drama, and a big win by the burn everything crowd, let’s not feed into small-minded hysteria just yet.

First off, this is not a defense of Manfred Sideous. Manny is someone who I believed would be a good addition to the council based on his knowledge of the game, and within the context of the candidates running. Given the outcome, I, along with many others (since he was the top vote getter), were obviously proven wrong in that regard. I’m willing to accept that whatever happened warranted his removal, and I’m not going to dwell on the fact that the players weren’t presented with the details. Believe me, if the broader CSM believed that he was removed for unjustified reasons, someone would have gone public by now. That doesn’t seem to be occurring, despite the fact that they apparently didn’t even know about the decision until it was announced publicly. That’s a bit out of order, but I’ll leave that little issue up to them to deal with. However, Manny’s ouster is not the major subject of my concern, nor should it be yours. We’re well past the point where the removal or resignation of any one individual is all that consequential.

For close to 2 years now, my concern with the CSM has been that its purpose has been lost to most of the people playing the game. This is most notable when I tend to make pointed remarks about the CSM’s only guiding document, the so-called CSM White Paper (more on that later). The CSM of today is quite different from the CSM of the past. While what we know to be the Council of Stellar Management was first formed in 2008, there did exist a sort of focus group of players dating back to the formation of the game. However, the actual first CSM that was seated in 2008 was a formalized CSM born of conflict between the players and CCP following the T20 developer scandal of 2006/07. Its original purpose was to protect player rights within what had already become a hybrid between a video game and a virtual society.

Yes, the concept was that we have rights, as absurd as that might sound to some.

A secondary role was to provide feedback, but on a much more limited basis than what exists today. The CSM of that time also existed as an entity, with elected officers and a structured method whereby communication would take place between the entity and the company rather than the delegates and individual devs. The scope of the CSM’s purview was also much more limited then. For a long time, its role within the development process was relegated to that of a focus group (more on that later too).

Fast forward to today. The CSM has evolved to take on not only a greater role in the development process, but according to CCP Falcon in his interview with Cap Stable in February 2015, the group acts as a kind of all-around sanity check on everything CCP does related to EVE. That includes sales, marketing, localization, and anything else you could name. They don’t have a veto over anything, but they are involved earlier in the overall process and on far more fronts than ever before. They have the ability to represent the player base in a way that earlier councils could only dream of.

And yet, something else happened along the way. What used to be an entity representing the player base has evolved into a loose confederation of individuals who may or may not interact with one another on any given issue. Since at least CSM9, its more about what each individual delegate is up to than the group as a whole. This might be a good thing in terms of providing flexibility, but it has also created a situation where communication from the group is highly fragmented, with each delegate left to their own devices when it comes to communicating with the players. Some communicate, other don’t. Some communicate over here, others over there, depending on who they believe are their “constituencies.” Please, using the Single Transferable Vote system and the way votes cascade, tell me who you voted for. Which constituency is based entirely on reddit? Worse, there is absolutely zero in the way of accountability when it comes to CSM communications. No requirement that they do so at all, and certainly no centralized communications coming from the entity itself. Is it any wonder that so many don’t know, don’t care or find it useless?

The evolution of the CSM occurred over time, with successive councils changing how they operate, even going so far as to eliminate the position of officers. Which, by the way, were supposed to have certain distinct responsibilities, one of which being communication with players as to the activities of the council. All the while, nothing changed with the guiding document, the White Paper. Now yes, I am fully aware that the White Paper is in the process of being modified, but I’m also aware that we shouldn’t expect it to create any form of accountability, despite how radical the changes suggested by CCP Leeloo back in that same Cap Stable interview.

Even given the fact that those we elect are deeper into the process and closer to CCP than ever before (the current issues and loss of trust notwithstanding), I can almost guarantee that nothing will change in terms of actual transparency or accountability when the revised White Paper is released. Why? Because I’m pretty sure there are enough individuals on there who don’t want to be held to a standard of accountability and have their words or deeds or lack thereof see the light of day.

It’s not unreasonable to say that the majority of the player base either doesn’t know about the CSM, doesn’t care, or is outright hostile to its existence. This is clear from the voting patterns. Dog catchers get elected with a higher voter turnout than the CSM. What drives this player apathy toward a representative body designed to make their game better? Falcon himself said in that Cap Stable interview that the whole point of the CSM is to help “filter the signal from the noise.” Then why are so many of the belief that the voice of the rabble, a group with a low signal to noise ratio, is somehow preferable to the voice of these fine individuals? My belief is that weak communication is the root of this problem, and not just because some of the delegates can’t be bothered. Players don’t know enough about the CSM’s specific purpose, have no basis upon which to measure the entity or the people, and they rarely if ever are made aware of the CSM’s successes. News about the CSM is scarce, good news is almost non-existent, but bad news always has a way of coming public. This can’t continue if we have any hope of showing the naysayers that the entity holds value.

Outside of those who don’t know, don’t care or just hate on the CSM, there are those of us who think that the CSM does hold value and who endeavor to select appropriate candidates, albeit based on extremely limited information. Sure, we have their proposed platforms, but most platforms are a joke within the context of what CCP is actually working on at the time. I’m glad candidate K162 is running on a platform of hisec incursions with a side order of wardecs. How’s that working out for you during the year of nullsec changes? The other issue of limited information stems from a lack of a clearly defined role that the player base can relate to. If you listen to Falcon, it’s literally everything. If you asked me last year how much input these players have into the development process, I would have said: “Some, but not enough to base a platform upon. They are there to help round off some sharp edges, but CCP is driving this ship according to a long-term vision for the game.” Ask me this year and I’ll tell you: “Too much, because the majority of them aren’t qualified in that kind of capacity.” Which leads me to the next topic: the CSM as a Focus Group.

Being someone who was under the impression that one of the roles of the CSM was to act as a sounding board for major issues, or even major development changes that might stir the ire of the player base, I always viewed it as a form of focus group. I think it was Sion Kumitomo who first said that they aren’t a focus group because they aren’t subject matter experts, or something to that effect. Therefore its not surprising that Sion, who I think is one of the leading forces behind trying to institute some fundamental change in the CSM, is the architect of formalizing focus groups based on subject matter. I think this is a great idea, primarily because we should all want CCP to get the best input possible. If that input, by way of the CSM, is being limited first by the quality of candidates running, and then further by the choices of the voters, then I’m all for creating a mechanism whereby the best and brightest are brought into the mix. There are undoubtedly a number of stumbling blocks here, not least of which the information issue related to material under non-disclosure agreements, but I’m going to assume they can find a workable balance.

The main problem I have with focus group idea is: if these are the best and brightest within their respective fields, then what do we need all 14 of you for? We probably don’t need 14 for any reason other than that many is required to artificially achieve representation beyond the well-organized groups i.e. nullsec, wormholes and maybe lowsec these days. However, in light of the focus group idea that seems to be coming to fruition, maybe that means the CSM should perhaps refocus its role away from the mechanics of the game, unless they happen to sit on a focus group, and back onto what was once the primary purpose served by the CSM: to protect player rights and help CCP maintain what is now an improved level of communication with the player base. This would also have a positive side-effect in that it would greatly reduce the amount of time and effort required of any council delegate. To successfully accomplish today’s expanded role requires a level of commitment that has reached the level of being a full-time job. This is unnecessary, and likely contributes to the issue of not getting the best and brightest to run for the position in the first place.

Right now we have the first focus group being lined up: Capital Ships. Let me make a suggestion for the next one: complete revision of the guiding document. No joke, a constitutional convention of sorts. The White Paper needs to be burned and those currently elected to the CSM were not elected because anyone thought they were the internet spaceship versions of James Madison, Alexis de Toqueville or Montesquieu. Maybe go back and select an all-star team of past and current delegates known to be reasoned, productive contributors. What we don’t need is another 9 pages, plus a bibliography, to explain to us the origins of social evolution and how it relates to the CSM. It’s cute, I hope the guy received an A++ for his efforts at school, but let’s focus on what is really needed: a document that clearly outlines the purpose, structure, scope and responsibilities of all parties to the compact. It should also promote a sense of accountability, speak to how delegates can be removed or replaced, and help make players believe it matters.

Overall, I believe the CSM still matters and still adds value, even if I can’t see it as often as I would prefer. Perhaps more importantly, the idea behind the CSM matters more than the individuals who fill its chairs in any given year. The fact that we have a player council in direct contact with the game developer is truly amazing. Despite all its faults, I believe in the idea of filtering the signal from the noise. However, it needs to be strengthened by providing it with a better foundation, more transparency, and level of accountability placed on its members. That is what the players should be demanding rather than its disbanding.

We can destroy a lot of things in EVE, but this shouldn’t be one of them.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Dirk MacGirk.

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