Tuesday, July 12, 2011

CCP's PR Woes and Agile Development

In addition to being a fun game to play on occasion, EVE is a fascinating case study to follow as a software project manager. Despite complaints from the playerbase to the contrary, as software companies go, CCP is fairly transparent, in particular about their use of Scrum, an agile development methodology.

"Agile" development is typically presented as the opposite of "waterfall" development. That is, where the buildup to a major software release is like the slow approach and uncontrolled tumble over a waterfall. In particular, there would seem to be no bigger waterfall than the release of a "sandbox" virtual world, where developers throw the switch on a whole world that players are free to manipulate (and try to break/destroy/defeat) as they see fit. This extends to the ongoing expansion of the world -- do you do big releases touching lots of parts of the game/world at once?

In opposition to the waterfall approach, agile development emphasizes constant, iterative development and small, frequent releases. There are many variations on this theme; for users of web applications, this has become accepted, particularly in the old Web 2.0 "perpetual beta" phase.

As CCP has switched to Scrum in the past couple years, they've phased out of a biannual expansion schedule, and moved to many smaller releases which still organized under the branding of two umbrella releases.

For example, the first big iteration of the Incarna release cycle dropped last month and triggered a firestorm of controversy, some of which is directly attributable to CCP's agile mindset. First off "Incarna" was the latest codeword for CCP's long-promised (since 2006) "walking in stations" feature. The thing is going from not having a body to having one implies many possibilities (e.g., going to bars, gambling, checking out strippers), most of which have been publicly entertained by CCP at one point or another in the past five years.

However, in true agile fashion, Incarna 1.0 just lets the player walk around a hotel room, by him or herself, overlooking his docked spacecraft. From an agile point of view, this is exactly the right thing to do, because it lets them test the basic technology behind the avatars and their environment in a very limited, controllable context. Once that works to their satisfaction in the wild, they can add more complex environments, interactions, etc.

The only problem with this is the vocal minority of the players screaming "You've been working on this for five years and all I can do is walk around a room by myself!?!?!?!?!?"

A larger controversy was around the introduction of the "Noble Exchange," the mechanism currently used for selling clothing for your avatar, and generally regarded as the future "cash shop" for EVE Online. The initial rollout of the shop featured a small, seemingly random selection of overpriced virtual clothes. It was not very attractive.

Players were horrified, and clearly it was a botched rollout, but it makes sense to the agile developer. Players think "They should put a bunch of cheap things in there to let everyone try it out." Developers think "We just want to know if the store works," and the game designers are thinking "We want to make sure we aren't breaking the economy," so they don't want everyone using the new store and its new currency all at once. From the developers' and designers' point of view, a store with a small selection of unpopular products is just right for a soft launch, really a public beta.

The problem with all this is that when the more uppity segment of the EVE playerbase runs into these situations where CCP's actions become opaque, they tend to assume that CCP is moving to rip them off in the short term and essentially cash out EVE by extracting as much profit as they can before the game collapses. It is quite clear to me that CCP's plan for maximizing shareholder income revolves around keeping the EVE universe healthy and happy for years if not decades to come. Their mistakes, and they've made their share lately, tend to spring from being a bunch of Icelandic computer programmers and sci-fi geeks. They aren't the kind of mistakes that business-people make. They are remote volcanic island-bound nerd mistakes.

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