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:
- Find out what customers want
- Deliver it at a price that the customers accept
- 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.