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Friday
Mar272009

GDC 2009, Day 3

Eve Online's CSM

Getting up early is painful for me. Doing it on the third day in a row after saying up late on the second day is almost impossible, but I would *not* miss Eve Online's talk about the CSM. No way.

If, hypothetically, I had worked on an MMO game design, then that design would have a constitutional government surrounding the administration of the game, including a House of Representatives. The CSM (Council of Stelar Management) is Eve Online's House of Representatives.

Eyjolfur Gudmundsson and one of his researchers Petur Oskarsson came all the way from Iceland to explain the thinking behind the CSM. Gudmundsson has a Ph.D in economics and helped architect the system. Incidentally, first revealed the plan for the CSM at an Eve Online convention where they "got hammered" on the idea. They submitted the plan to many industry colleagues and also to academia and were "hammered" by pretty much everyone. I think it's strange that so many people from so many backgrounds could not understand how this would work, while I was (hypothetically) designing the exact same system because, well, it's really obviously a good idea. It has not only "worked out" in Eve, but it really defines the game.

The CSM is a group of 9 players, democratically elected by the playerbase. Each active account has one vote. The term length is 6 months and the maximum number of terms someone can hold office is 2 terms. The purpose of the CSM is to discuss with CCP (the company that made Eve Online) what the playerbase wants. The CSM must gather the very long list of issues that the community might want addressed and prioritize them, distilling them down to the highest priority issues. The CSM administers itself however it wants with no interference from CCP. Part of the idea here (and this part has worked very well) is that the CSM never submits any frivolous ideas because every idea must have been approved by at least 5 members to even be allowed to progress to the point where CCP sees it. That also means the issue was HEAVILY discussed and debated by the CSM as part of the preparation. Preparation for what? For the meeting that occurs each term.

Every 6 months, CCP flies the 9 members to Iceland where they meet face to face with the developers. The members sign NDAs and CCP shows them exactly what they are working on, what issues they are facing, and explains the production process. The format is simply hours and hours of talking for multiple days about every issue the CSM has decided to bring (also, the CSM submits fairly extensive briefs on each subject in writing, two weeks ahead of time).

The purpose of all this, which I hope is obvious, is to make sure the game is what the players want. It's very easy to lose sight of what things actually annoy players or cause them problems or what they think will be cool, and this ensures a close connection. CCP originally launched the CSM with online-only meetings (not face to face) and the members were selected by CCP itself. But this version was just not as useful as the democratically elected council (it could contain very vocal critics of CCP, which is useful actually) and no online meetings could match the power of the extended face-to-face encounter of the current CSM.

Incidentally, one requirement of running for office is that you publicly reveal your real name. I like that a lot. I certainly wouldn't want to be represented by anyone who was not willing to put their name out there. After the session I talked to the developers for quite some time and learned that the primary reason for the real names thing is simply because they cannot guarantee your name won't be found out, so it's logistically easier to just require it. But they said a side effect is that there are no joke candidates, and that the people who do run really mean it.

The CSM has been in existence for several years now and it has raised a total of 128 issues by now. An issue can either be approved by CCP, rejected, or postponed for next time with a request for more analysis. Only 9 issues have been rejected. 20 have already been implemented. 50 have been added to the backlog (they are on the to-do list for CCP) and 49 are in the implementation pipeline right now.

I guess the most important thing here is something that wasn't exactly said in the session. I'll just try to convey to you that these guys are absolutely serious about this. It is not a marketing gimmick. It is a deeply held belief that defines their company. They said they are not authors who demand players play the game their way. Instead they are janitors (their word!), or custodians of the system. They said this is the only way to build something capable of having a community that can endure forever--or until the end of humanity, as they put it.

You might be skeptical that the CSM has no actual power, but it's very clear that CCP approaches this in a completely sincere way. They believe it's economically strategic to build for long term value, and also that it's simply the right thing to do fundamentally when creating a community. As I said before, this is obvious to me, because who would actually choose to live in a (virtual) world that did not give players representation? The answer today is you would choose such a thing because you like the gameplay that some more draconian world offers. Yes, that is a valid answer today (and it's very possible that you won't like Eve's slow pace). But in the future, there will eventually be competing MMOs that offer the gameplay you want and some will treat players like surfs and some will treat them like citizens. It's just a matter of time before the serf-model becomes a dinosaur.

Satoru Iwata

Just an addition to something from GDC 2009, Day 1. I forgot to mention that Nintendo's president showed a bar graph of the total game industry sales in the US for the last several years. Up, up, up yay. He showed a very similar bar graph for total game industry sales in Europe, great. Then he colored the top parts of the bars red so we can see how much of the contribution to total game industry sales came from Nintendo. In both cases, the industry minus Nintendo was almost totally flat. In other words, almost all the increase in total game industry sales in both Europe and the US came from Nintendo.

Chaim Gingold

Chaim's talk a few years ago about magic crayons was so good that I made sure to seem him again this time. That old talk was about the idea of creating tools that amplified the creativity of people (so even average inputs to the tool produced beautiful outputs). This time, he talked about many aspects of the human mind and how they relate to play. And what is "play" anyway?

I heard several complain afterwards that his talk didn't really give anyone anything they could DO something with. That is a big no-no at GDC apparently, though I didn't mind that at all. Explaining how the brain represents 3D spaces, seeks rewards, uses imagination to fill in holes, and so on are all interesting and valid topics to me. So much so that I was already extremely familiar with all his subject matter. Though there was little new for me, I'm glad he gave this talk and I think he's one of the few developers academic enough to give the talk. Rather than cover all the details of it though, I think I'll write my own articles on these same topics eventually.

Danc

I actually met Danc from lostgarden.com. I know when I've been beaten and last year I felt thoroughly beaten by him when it comes to game design writing. I told him this and also said that it was an impetus for me to do better to catch up. Meeting him actually felt a bit like facing a worthy competitor in the finals of a tournament. For him, it felt nothing like that. Anyway, we talked at length about game design and GDC sessions. Maybe we will join forces someday and design the ultimate something-or-other.

Jonathan Morin

Morin, from Ubisoft, talked about the level design approach of Far Cry 2 (remember that Clint Hocking's talk earlier was about the overall design of Far Cry 2, sort of). Morrin opened be talking about how it's important to respect the player. An analogy was Gibson, the designer of the famous guitar that's extremely popular with professional musicians. Gibson was able to make such a guitar by taking guitar players seriously and designing a guitar that lets them play however they like.

Morin contrasted this by his own experience playing the game called FEAR. In this game, he was very sneaky in one part and managed to get past some guards or something and to the next room. There, he carefully peaked his head in the door, saw the enemy guards inside the room that were all standing in a strange default position of some sort, then carefully lined up a headshot on one of them, fired, and the enemy guard didn't react. Apparently it can't be killed until its AI is triggered and the player wasn't "supposed" to sneak in like that. Morin said he didn't stick around to find out more about this bug because he thought it a better idea to simply shut off the game and never play it again. It did not take his playstyle seriously.

He identified three main playstyles: the planner, rambo, and the fugitive. The planner wants to enter combat in a very well-thought-out way and have a large advantage because of his planning. Rambo just wants to go guns blazing and use high skill in combat. The fugitive wants to avoid fighting and use hit and run tactics to his advantage. Morrin wanted all of these playstyles to be possible and considered this throughout the level design.

One challenge he faced was getting the level designers working under him to fully understand this concept. Many of them came from other games that followed the opposite of approach of "you will play how the designer wants you to play." But in Far Cry 2, the whole idea is that "it's your guitar," meaning you can play it however you like. As Clint Hocking pointed out in his talk, the game also has lots of improvisation, so you might even find yourself bouncing between more than one of those playstyles, depending on how a situation unfolds.

The levels have many possible routes and leave you a lot of leeway to do things in the order you want. They also vary the density of the terrain, which is basically a measure of how much cover you have. For example, one village has impassable terrain behind, a wide open field in front with almost no cover, a medium amount of cover in part of the village, and lots of cover in a different part. The juxtaposition of land areas with these different amounts of cover is one of the main ways that missions allow you to use such different playstyles to succeed.

Morin also quoted Aristotle:

Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power, that is not easy.

He said that one of his goals on Far Cry 2 was to actually help the player learn to control his emotions a little better. The game gives you plenty of reasons to get mad. Maybe your gun jams or a situation unfolds in a very unfavorable way to you. But because so much improvisation is possible and because so many playstyles are supported, you could have avoided the problems. You could have made your way to a weapon shop where you buy new guns (that won't jam for a long time) instead of picking up guns from the ground (that will always jam a fair amount). You could have approached the mission differently, brought different weapons, used a brush fire instead of a direct assault, or any number of other things. Rather than get mad at what happened, Morin hopes you will instead take it as a challenge to figure out how to improve.

Morin also said that his wife observed him playing the game and yelling a lot "how fucking fucked this is!" and that his wife often responded "you know you like it." Even he gets angry but it's the kind of anger that you "like," if you know what I mean.

After the presentation, I talked with Morin, Hocking, Patrick Redding (narrative designer of Far Cry 2), and a couple other Ubisoft people for many, many hours. I find that they all have a layer of real thinking about design that is pretty rare, especially all one company. That it's present in just about every Ubisoft designer I meet says a great deal about the culture over there (at Ubisoft Montreal). Keep it up Ubisoft.

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