It takes a pretty good scandal to kindle the democratic spirit, especially in the vacuum of space.
A single alliance of veteran pilots called Band of Brothers (or simply BoB) laid claim to vast regions of mineral-rich space. With its newfound resources, it built fleets of powerful warships to assert influence into neighboring systems. To the hundred-thousand-strong population of New Eden, BoB's dominance seemed virtually unassailable.
But in EVE Online, Icelandic developer CCP's single-server MMOG, where nearly 250,000 players can log into the same game-world to build (or destroy) empires, bad PR can cripple an alliance faster than a Doomsday Device.
In BoB's case, a salvo of allegations that the organization had received under-the-table assistance from CCP employees was enough to rally the opposition and CCP suddenly found itself squarely in the crosshairs of its own customers. As with doping in sports or price fixing in commerce, the episode undermined both BoB's supremacy and the players' confidence in CCP. If developer involvement puts one group of combatants at an advantage then, many reasoned, what's the point of fighting at all?
In an attempt to quell the turmoil, CCP offered an olive branch to the community: a chance to peer behind the curtain of the whole operation. EVE already affords players a degree of control over their environment that makes other MMOGs seem primitive by comparison - everything from the economy to social structures to the map itself is a direct result of player involvement. The developers already let their customers help design their game. Why not make it official?
At CCP's offices, a long table stretched across the length of the room. At the head of the table sat the moderator, Dr. Agust H. Ingthorsson, Director of the Research Liaison Office at the University of Iceland and occasional E.U. diplomat on behalf of the tiny island nation. On either side of him sat two councils: one composed of CCP employees, the other made up of delegates elected by the EVE player-base to represent their interests. This was the first real-world meeting of the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), the end result of months of preparation, weeks of campaigning and hours of heated debate about internet spaceships.
Matt Woodward, a game designer at CCP, was one of those chosen to represent CCP during the three-day summit. For CCP, Woodward says, the CSM could serve a very practical purpose: gathering and condensing feedback from the player-base and presenting it straight to the designers themselves. "Our players, on the forums, they've always had this history - they will mock up incredibly elaborate ideas if they feel that they've got something. And sometimes, there's a main consensus that, well, it's gibberish." Let qualified players sort through the blather, and the best ideas will rise to the top.
Player-driven community management is not a new concept. Many MMOGs employ prominent citizens of their virtual worlds to filter through the sea of bitter, malformed opinions that are the official forums and pick out nuggets of truth. But, Woodward says, "the scale, the process and the thinking behind [the CSM]" puts it in a new category.