Sunday, June 26, 2011

CCP: bad luck and derp

I am employed in the IT sector, and have been building and maintaining a mission critical, internet facing transaction application for about five years now. Back in the day I helped configure the first servers and today I'm still involved in maintaining and expanding the system.

Over the past five years, we've seen intense debates between us the IT guys, project management and the business. We (IT) would demand that existing bugs be fixed first, we would wave with Service Level Agreements and point out we really ought to improve stability and performance, right now. The business guys, on the other hand, would claim that new feature 'x' was crucial in getting the important (read: lucrative)  customers on board; their sales guys were complaining about losing those to competitors who already had feature 'x'.

It's a good thing that our customer base is unaware of the nature of these discussions. Whatever is decided, something's got to give! If we fix existing bugs first, users have to wait for that all important new feature 'x'. But if we build 'x' first, users will have to cope with that sluggish, unstable, buggy part of the application a little while longer..

After CCP's internal newsletter 'Fearless' was leaked to the media earlier this week, one of the first things that went through my mind was: I am just so happy that none of the brainstorming we do at our company, has hit the street like this! It would make some headlines for sure, and could have grave consequences to our company. No customer likes to read how their concerns and interests (never mind the money they are paying us!) are - sometimes cynically - being balanced against someone elses', especially not if they end up on the losing side of the equation.

My point is, that behind company walls each company discusses stuff they would never ever share with their customer base - at least not in the way it was originally phrased or written, for an internal audience only. As such I'm feeling sorry for CCP that an internal piece of communication, intended to get a discussion going, got leaked at this unfortunate time.

A while ago, several of our customers grew increasingly irritated with us, when performance and stability issues manifested themselves more and more (and yes, feature 'x' got built first). Guess who got to go and visit them? Why, yours truly of course! During those sometimes tense meetings I have discovered that it's almost always possible to clear the air by being open. Acknowledge any justified complaints without presenting weak or far fetched excuses, be honest and fortright about what's going on. Of course you have to strike a careful balance, you can't disparage the company or your own colleagues - but be as honest as reasonably possible. Almost always, the relation between the company and the customer will improve as a result.

In this area, CCP has shown remarkably little competence over the past week. After 'Fearless' leaked, they could have disarmed the whole ticking time bomb within an hour by simply restating their previous promise - done only a week ago - that microtransactions would not be allowed to disrupt existing gameplay, and that this opinion piece was just to get an internal discussion going. Even an announcement of when we could expect an answer would have helped, but all we got was silence. They waited for what, more than two days? And then they published a dev blog which totally failed to address the most pressing issues. An astounding case of self inflicted PR wounds, if you ask me; I cannot for the life of me come up with a sane reason to explain CCP's behaviour in the past week. No mature company would act like this, faced with a looming public relations disaster of this magnitude.

Sometimes we tend to forget that companies like CCP and Second Life's Linden Labs are still quite young, as an organisation. I wonder how mature they really are? They grow rapidly, venture cash pours in, offices abroad are opened, staff comes and goes, and at the same time they get go cope with a large, critical and vocal user base within a few years' time. It's hardly a surprise that, under these circumstances, a derp of epic proportions occasionally happens. But, in times of turmoil and massive customer dissatisfaction they will quickly learn the lessons they need to learn - the hard way - or they will not survive. Like my father says: 'growing up sometimes hurts'.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Two minutes hate: not unique to Eve Online

Before I started playing Eve Online, I was a Second Life resident. I got quite involved, too, reading blogs, forums and such. I was blogging, too, and in January 2008 I wrote this item: The Bitching Base. A few quotes:

One of the things that's really wearing me down, is the incessant bitching that can be found in certain parts of the SL userbase. Whatever Linden Labs does or doesn't, there's always complaints - usually quite vitriolic, and there's no boundaries to the ignorance or malice that will be ascribed to Linden Labs.
Either someone is complaining about ancient graphics, or someone is complaining about Windlights' greed for grapics computing power, is only about 'pretty' - or how a skin doesn't look perfect in it.

Either someone is complaining about how LL suffocates freedom in SL by instituting more and more rules, or someone else is complaining about how the lack of law enforcement or oversight enables fraudsters to steal thousands of Lindens from gullible residents.

Linden Labs always communicates too late, too early, not explicit enough, too explicit, at the wrong location, to the wrong people, didn't invite the right people, invited everyone but meeee, doesn't care about Second Life they only care about ... On and on it goes, often in the comments to blogpost at Second Life as well.
Read 'Eve Online' for 'Second Life' and 'CCP' for 'Linden Labs' and we have the exact same story in the Eve Online community, a few years later. There are really quite a few parallels between the introduction of 'Windlight' to SL and now Captains' Quarters in Eve. In both cases, the release of an improvement deemed critical by the game studio, infuriated an already dissatisfied part of the userbase. And later, in 2009 when Linden Labs changed the rules on prims and tier, again the user base exploded with rage against a developer accussed of 'not caring' and 'being after the money'- much as a part of Eve Online's userbase now says about CCP.

It's a strange phenomenon which I have now witnessed a few times: a critical, vocal user base who, provoked by a game studio's actions, goes into full rage mode. What follows is a stampede of anger, a feeding frenzy of hate and verbal violence against the developers of their game.

Like I wrote in 2008, it's perfectly possible that the complaints themselves are justified, that's not the point here. It's the seething anger which I don't get.

But I am working on that, I have a 'Dr. Phil' theory! Often the most vocal users are the ones who are the most passionate about the game. They are deeply involved, they care, it is a big part of their life. But in the end, they are just users like everybody else - and the developer can, if they so chose, do whatever they like to the users' beloved game. Users who deeply care, who are committed, are - in the end - powerless to stop a development they deem (very) objectionable. There's a lot of potential for frustration and anger there, as impotent users rail at a game studio who really can't be stopped.

Second Life survived the turmoil of 2008 and 2009 and turned 8 years old recently. According to their own claims, Linden Labs had the best quarter in their company history in 2011. It's going to be interesting to see whether CCP can survive the current onslaught of community anger.

(edited for spelling and clarity - Sered)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Eve Online: Fighting the Darkside.

On June 20th, prime EU TZ, a lot of roaming gangs were going through our part of space . It was clear we couldn't do anything against them without assembling enough pilots and get them organized properly. Pretty soon we arranged what was needed, and we were ready for a fight!

We started camping one of the gates leading into our space, and soon afer, a sizeable Darkside. alliance fleet jumped in. Those of you who have followed recent Eve Online Alliance Tournaments, know that Darkside. is a very capable PVP alliance and to be honest, I wasn't all that disappointed when they returned to a neigbouring system after bouncing off our station :)

But then something weird happened: another hostile fleet - don't remember who, to be honest - met the Darkside. roaming gang in that neighbouring system, and did a bombing run on them. After taking some losses from the bombers, the Darkside. fleet returned to us and of course they wanted to exit via the gate we were camping..

At first a lonely Darkside. ship warped to the gate and started burning away from us. He got locked, webbed and scrambled soon enough and died in a hail of missiles and drone damage. One kill! Yay! As soon as he died, however, the rest of the Darkside. fleet landed on the other side of us, and our fleet commander started calling primary and secondary targets, concentrating on their logistics ships first. For those of you who don't play Eve: logistics ships are capable of repairing the damage you do to their companions. As such you really want them dead first!

Now our corp, NOFAD, has been fighting Darkside. fleets in Querious before and I remember this: it proved very difficult to break their logistics tank. Same thing happened here: assuming we all followed the FC's orders we should have been throwing impressive amounts of damage to their logistics, but the impact was almost negligble. They, on the other hand, succeeded in killing our logistics!

This was when ee started dying: the fact that we couldn't break their logistics while they successfully destroyed ours tipped the battle in their favor. After some hectic fighting, the other hostile bomber fleet arrived as well and we were forced to leave the field. At this point I was scrammed and couldn't get out fast enough,  so my Drake was toast as well.

All in all I think we scored one kill, but lost about a dozen ships, perhaps a bit more - but it's hard to reconstruct, given that our alliance killboard has been offline for a while now. Painful of course, but we fought organised and prepared, like we should have. There's not much more to do than analyse the losses, learn from them and do better next time.

Incarna: full body avatars in Eve Online

On June 21st, CCP released their next expansion called 'Incarna', which - after talking about it for years - allows New Eden's pod pilots to get out of their ships and stretch their legs. Full body avatars in New Eden, finally! Of course I took my women out for a walk:

 Eve Online: Incarna 1.0

Eve Online: Incarna 1.0

Eve Online: Incarna 1.0

To be honest, I also have snapshots of my male characters, but the women just look better! More pictures available here on Koinup.

Functionally, Incarna is quite limited at the moment; there's not much to do in your captain's quarters, besides watching the news and accessing some ship functionality. But as a first step towards a full blown virtual universe - with avatars living and fighting in space ships and stations, but also on planets - it is a very important release nonetheless.

In the hangar, ships are still spinning! Obviously it isn't the same as the old 'ship spinning' that capsuleers used to do, but for me this is sufficient: you can stand on the bridge of the captain's quarter and see your ship from all sides. 

Improvements to Incarna could be made, of course, and I expect they will. Camera movement, although praised by Kirith Kodachi, is counter intuitive to me: I want the camera to turn with the avatar. As a human, you also tend to look in the direction you walk, and's weird that this does not happen in Incarna. The lighting is still missing a bit: it's too dark in my quarters, to my taste. But, I have to admit the dark atmosphere does fit - visually and mood wise - in Eve Online. Finally, CCP succeeded in delivering a vastly better tuned Captains' Quarters when compared with the previous test version on Duality: this one is actually playable on my laptop. But I suspect more improvement in this area is still needed: the performance is not what it should be, yet.

I am happy with this first step, and I look forward to the coming Incarna releases which will hopefully fix some issues but also expand the number of accesible spaces. I still want to visit that seedy space bar!

Oh - before I forget.. I am aware that there's a lot of controversy between CCP and a part of their customer base, surrounding this release. Some pilots just hate Incarna on principle; others are angry because of the way microtransactions are currently implemented (too expensive); others are raging mad about stuff said in a PDF that may or may not have come from CCP.  For now, even though some of the microtransaction stuff worries me - no game changing mt please! - I'm not going to wade into that lynch mob until I have heard from CCP themselves.