The real role of the CSM

The interwebs are abuzz with chatter about candidates for the Council of Stellar Management (CSM). It is CCP’s institution to bridge the gap between the EVE Online players and CCP’s teams who have the responsibility to fatten investor wallets.

The candidates range from mostly straight up boring bloc votes with nothing interesting to say to a few balanced and knowledgeable players with actual insight into the game.  These tend to live in the blogosphere with more or less regular appearance on each other’s posts and podcasts.

Stepping back a little and looking at if from the real-life corporate perspective, one can just wonder what this is all about.  Every company in the universe has three mandates:

  1. Find out what customers want
  2. Deliver it at a price that the customers accept
  3. Keep customers from leaving by any means possible

Now, business schools fall over themselves talking about “market research” and the folly of the tech-company attitude “build it and they will come” where the product is developed without deep market analysis.  I personally have more aggressive view, if Apple had listened to the market, it would be long bankrupt.  Google would not exist at all and Microsoft would now sell DOS 13.0.   Customers – by en large – are conservative, stupid, slow, stingy and wrong.  Relying on them to steer your product development cycles is generally seen as a sign of a reactive company on its way into insignificance.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Henry Ford

Instead, companies need to strike a delicate balance of innovation and market expansion.  Good tech companies spend a fair amount on R&D and test specific products in defined environments for market appeal.  The idea is to reward the team for killing failed projects very early and move on.   Customers rarely come into this early discussion and exploratory work.

Secondly, a company like CCP (or Blizzard for that matter) needs to look at other markets than their core one.  So, calculations within Blizzard presumably told them around 1/2 way into Burning Crusade that their future main customer base is not the smelly, D&D-playing, neck-bearded, hot-pocket-eating basement dweller but 15 year old girls in suburban US and China.  This changed design attitudes for the company (pink ponies and instant, positive gratification).  Did Blizzard’s team ask the opinion of their  “Vanilla” players?   No, of course not.  They would have hated it since they had spent weeks, nay months trying to gear up to get into the Onyxia fight.  Did WoW became the dominant MMORPG it (still(1)) is ?  Yes, it has.  Blizzard did did this by actively excluding certain tiny markets (the spreadsheet jocks, they all now live in New Eden) and attracting (or trying to) much larger ones.

CCP in its quest to do everything differently still has to strike the balance of straight-up market research and market expansion as well as to keep the core (2) happy.   They carved out a niche and decided specifically not to go after WoW.  Thereby, they avoided the train-wreck that every MMOG turned into that went after that market.

Instead CCP ran on a tight budget and pulled off one of the most interesting franchises  and over the years had pretty steady growth.   I really want to come to Iceland and write a Harvard Business Review article on that.   You can pay me in ISK.  Hilmar,  please respond 😉

So, they are doing something right.  All due to the CSM?  I really don’t think so.  A company that is reliant on representatives from their customers to tell them what they think about the product is doomed.  If CCP really relied on and trusted CSM, they should fire all their marketing people.  CSM would have CCP make “flying in space” until the last bitter old vet died of old, cranky age.   They would make, by analogy, faster horses until competitors run them off the road.

I stand behind my opinion that CSM either is a marketing ploy invented by CCP to make the players feel powerful or a very dangerous left-over when CCP was young and foolish and thought they could use their early adopters as an outsourced product development team.  Actually, I think it was both.

Right now, with the scare of Incarna behind them, the danger of playing close to the existing customer’s wishes is great indeed within CCP.  They have an enormously risky product in a final development cycle (DUST) and survived a nasty un-subscription phase that should have spooked external investors.  But if the CSM’s advice really turned the ship around, CCP should fire their CFO and their marketing people.  The loss of revenue was certainly analyzed and on Hilmar’s desk every day.   Hilmar chose to  ignored it (the Jesus Feature attitude) but I bet that it was not Jester or the CSM’s oh-so-serious-look-at-us-we-are-important trip to Iceland who alerted him.  It was likely CCP’s VP Sales or an investor slapping him with a large, smelly, dead fish until he woke up.

So, this is the time to hunker down and build faster horses – err shiny spaceships as the CSM demands?  Relying on the CSM to a) represent the customers and b) to take that advise seriously in product development is a recipe for disaster.   CCP needs to look outside very aggressively and find out where their next customer base comes from.  Shiny ships or pretty boots?  (3).

Bringing it Home

In my opinion, CSM is a valuable tactic of CCP to make customers into stakeholders and thus increase retention of their wallets.  Players are given the illusion that they have a real say in the company and power over the product they purchase.  This makes them feel important, wanted and good about sending hard earned cash to Iceland.  I put good money (well, ISK) on a bet, that the expenses for CSM and their trips to Iceland come from the marketing  /advertisement budget, not from the product development budget.

And so my hat is off to CCP for pulling this stunt off so far but I am weary that they take the CSM internally too seriously in the future.

(1) One day I write about what I think is wrong with WoW and why they are sinking; but that is for a different post.

(2) Definition of “core” is, from CCP’s perspective really easy.  It is these players who have had multiple accounts over x-years.

(3) I have a more nuanced position on that, maybe some other time.

PS.  Jester, glad you stopped whining about influence and made up your mind .  It was very tiring to see a grown man with great analytical and writing skills behave like an  insecure teenage girl before Prom night.   Yuki, thanks for calling him out.  

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3 responses to “The real role of the CSM

  1. IIRC the CSM was originally brought into being during the aftermath of the T20 scandal (1) to create a platform where players and CCP employees could talk about sensitive issues without players violating the EULA and CCP devs violating the NDA.

    Only later the CSM became more like it is now, and quite likely the marketing feature you suspect it to be. Then some prominent members of the CSM5 team went head on against CCP policies. That’s where your Henry Ford quote comes in.

    Now we are in a phase where The Mittani has publicly and openly declared the constituency based model for the CSM. 2011 has shown that large scale mobilization of the customers against CCP plans seems to get results. He skillfully played this card. He mobilizes a large part of the player base for himself and other candidates, facilitates reconciliation of the playerbase with CCP and keeps the ball rolling. Probably he’s preparing for a second chairmanship. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if, in his mind, he is just playing the next level of the EVE metagame he so much enjoys.

    However that may be, a few things are clear: EVE is the only consistently growing MMO. It also has the highest player retention rate of all MMOs, and the largest amount of fan-contributed content outside of the game. (and inside too, or do you know of any game that features things like the player-designed tier 3 BCs?)

    This community of players, and CCPs willingness to actively engage with it, is what sets EVE apart from from all other games. Much more so than the difference in content and gameplay. From this point of view, the CSM is indeed a very important link between this community and CCP. Not only a marketing tool, nor a mere product development tool, but it has become part of the brand identity that EVE has: Emergent gameplay.

    That being said, CCP still has a largely untapped demographic available which they tried to get on board with all the finesse and skill I’d expect from a bunch of computergeeks living on the narrow edge of an isolated volcanic wasteland. (and predictably failed). I would dare to say, that the secret key to unlocking that potential lies right there in front of their eyes. But, like you say, that is a topic for another time.

    P.S. I guess EVE probably manages to attract a lot of the 15 year old suburban boys “çause it has – like – xploshuns ‘n stuff” but I think they leave quickly once they realize that there isn’t enough Ritaline in the house to sustain them throughout a roam or a gatecamp.

    P.P.S. I just had to throw in a counter-stereotype.

    (1) http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/editorials/op-ed/847-Jumpgate-EVEs-Devs-and-the-Friends-They-Keep

  2. M. Thalys put it pretty well. I would also note that Dust-514 is exactly the type of product expansion that: (a) goes in the direction of a larger market, (b) is in no way the product of current customers’ wishes, and (c) has the benefit that it could possibly improve the existing franchise without the downside of getting in the way of existing gameplay.

    Is EVE in the same category of products as horses, cars, ipads and operating systems, or is it also a service and a social media platform? Do the same rules of innovation apply across these categories?

  3. Thanks Raj and Mme. Thalys. I agree, CCP has had an interesting relationship with its customers – not always smooth but always entertaining to watch. The question is how they will further translate that into revenue. DUST is a good project that has been announced for how long? It has the high-risk / high reward structure that small companies can still afford. Imho, they talked for way too long about it, setting expectations like for Walking in Station. Nothing good comes out of talking about products that are not ready yet (other than impressing future investors of the company)

    My problem is that CSM represents “some” (not nearly all) paying customers and their apparent success this summer may intimidate CCP to a point where they don’t risk anything. Listening to customers can be a curse for innovation.

    And Raj, to your question, is EVE a platform and service? I can be both in the future. A couple of things need to change.

    First of all, 2 way interaction with the game needs to be allowed in a more seamless way, e.g. market transaction across platforms without logging in. Maybe even R&D, Inventions, manufacture, PI, fitting, chats, POS management, i.e. all those things where a graphical client is not required. Wait, thats all of EVE 😉

    Secondly, it has to build a system where fast action is possible to reach the mobile users. If I wait somewhere with my iPhone, I want something quick to do where I can log off instantly without losing assets. DUST may come closer to that.

    Thirdly, CCP burned microtransaction so badly this year that they can’t go near it for a while. But that is is required to go the next step. This means, they need to re-visit that soon for the DUST and the mobile crowd and live through the inevitable shit storm that EVE players will throw at them.

    Lastly, EVE needs to get Walking in Stations fixed. I have no idea how so they screwed this up so royally – I would have assumed that the 3D engines now can be bought, modified and tested rather than developing your own platform that leaves most computers smoking. The “walking in station” will open the game to many different demographics – not a bad thing for EVE. But that step alone will alienate the bitter old vets and their bullhorn, the CSM.

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