It’s not who you are…

…it’s what you do.

The latest controversy/gaffe/MMO boo-boo still rages on and is rippling out as I type this. By now, many in the “gaming press” (hwah!) got ahold of it, many are even running with it. “Jumpgate” they call it. Are we the best thing since bread came sliced or what?

(you can read up all about the festivities in this article from The Escapist. It’s a good summary, if you need to catch up. Ethic also has a nice discussion going over in that place where they kill rats.)

All the resulting online drama and forum wars from this event, colorful as they are, thankfully brought to the forefront an interesting point and question. One that, in my opinion, needs to be answered and codified into an industry standard M.O. as soon as possible. The question is quite simple:

Should devs be allowed to play the online games they create?

Sounds like a no-brainer until you think about it for two seconds and ask it again, slowly, to yourself. I’ve been thinking about it myself since all this blew over. I think, yeah… of course they must be allowed to play. Devs need to have that sort of contact with their work, not staring at it behind sterile lines of code or editor screen, but right down there. At the production level, where the rubber meets the road. The experience, not only in terms of bug hunting and squashing, but also of understanding the final dynamics of the work in the same way players experience them, can and often is invaluable.

There is a flipside to this, of course, and comes in the shape of boundaries. If you mix devs with the general populace of a game, the less strict and clear those boundaries you put on the devs are, the more the whole thing is open to be potentially abused.

Even the most obtuse and recalcitrant of forum idiots can understand that there is a huge difference between a dev that clocks out at 5, gets home, takes a a shower (hopefully) then logs in to his game like a regular joe and a dev that logs in from the office and not only has access to vital, secret information about the game, but also quite happily spawns items and generally gives advantages to his own in-game clique to the detriment of others.

So it’s not who they are, it’s what they do. I think most players would be happy to know their devs are playing the game, because it shows commitment and a desire to make things better. Nobody is thrilled, though, when they start seeing devs abusing their priviledge and their powers to benefit some and not others. Clear boundaries must be in place to govern the dev-game intersection because of the inherent powers a dev has when compared to Joe Gamer. It’s not that they are devs. It’s what they can do if they’re not checked by boundaries. When a dev, or a group of devs, acting in concert or not, are abusive of their position, the potential to destroy the balance of the game as provided by rules increases dramatically. It becomes much worse than a few players using an exploit, or third-party hacks, or scamming.

It becomes an issue of trust, and that’s a horrible thing to repair. When a player gains an advantage via an exploit, for example, the damage is minimal. He is discovered, and the exploit is fixed (hopefully), so no one else can use it. Peachy. But if a dev steps over the line and suddenly is caught, then everything is questioned by the players, and rightly so. Everything that dev has done is doubted. Every feat that those who were benefitted by the dev ever claimed is doubted. Every measure of PR and damage control coming from the game owners is doubted. The rules and the rulekeepers are doubted, and thus your game enters the ICU in a dramatic fashion.

With respect to this particular debacle in EVE, CCP’s handling of the situation has been less than optimal (to use a happy phrase). First off, they stacked the cards against themselves from the get go by not having clear, definite and easily identifiable rules and boundaries to govern this interaction. All of a sudden it comes to light that at least one, but probably many of EVE’s devs were in important positions in various 0.0 alliances. And this wasn’t known a long time ago? If it was, no one bothered to check these devs and what they may or may not have been doing?

CCP also failed in establishing, clearly and without error, just what is acceptable inside and outside the game. With EVE, it seems the meta-game, all those tendrils of EVE that extend outwards into forums and vent and email and whathave you was, as CCP was concerned at least, a nebulous area allowed to mimic the loose rules and vague codes of conduct in-game. While this was an interesting case to study regarding meta-gaming, CCP failed by not stamping their foot earlier and coming out with clear rules as to what is acceptable and what isn’t.

The last failure of CCP, the most recent, were their damage control initiatives. First of all, you never, ever, ever ban the whistleblower until your investigation is complete and the results are published. To do otherwise it just shows that you want to silence people and sweep things under the rug instead of striving to provide a decent solution to the mess. Second, their initial “nothing to see here” attitude was premature and ill-advised. It had to be retracted later on, first as new incriminating material came to light, and finally due to the own admission of guilt by one of their own devs, which essentially shot to hell their previous comments.

When your own people are publicly shooting down your damage control moves, I think it’s time to sit down, have some tea, and try to think just what the hell you are doing.

Devs playing the game? Of course. Let’s have them. But no player, and I really mean this, no player must know who they are. If a dev spills out its identity and position, or if this one is compromised and exposed by someone else, that dev needs to be taken out of the game ASAP. If you really need that dev in the game, at that point he can roll another character, another name, another faction, whathaveyou. To have a known dev around, even if he is St. Pious Dogoody (and most devs are), allows the appearance of impropriety to seep in. I’d go even further and say that dev characters should have no special abilities. They should be identical to any player character. We already have employees that can alter the game world, spawn items, solve disputes and assist players; they are called GMs, not devs, and they are held to a different and more intense level of scrutiny.

Devs are not GMs, and they shouldn’t be. A GM has those powers and those attributions because they are inside the game with the purpose of directly assisting players. Their identities are known, or at the very least public and presented freely when there is a problem. If a dev is inside the game (and not playing as a player, just to enjoy the game), its function there is not to assist players, not to solve problems or dispute, not to respawn lost items or gold. Their function is to identify game problems on the ground and get a feel for the dynamics of the thing. Nothing more. To give GM powers to a dev is a losing proposition, simply because devs aren’t usually scrutinized and supervised as GMs are. It’s folly.

Hopefully this EVE scandal, however it ends, sends a message to the whole industry to come up with clear rules and clear enforcement. And since we’re asking, it’d be great to have much better PR and damage control than what we’ve seen so far in this gaffe.


1 Response to “It’s not who you are…”

  1. 1 free forum June 13, 2014 at 4:09 am

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