"Today, roughly 70% of all consumer research dollars are earmarked for qualitative research, and it is nearly impossible to find a Fortune 500 company that does not use focus groups to develop its corporate image and/or marketing strategy."
As we approach the official start of the silly season in EVE Online known as the Council of Stellar Management elections, I'd like to take some time to write about what the CSM is. Some will say that the CSM is useless. Others say the body is just a public relations ploy to get some good press for EVE. I say that the modern CSM is a body that players should care about even though the CSM does not have the power to make CCP do anything.
From where I sit, the CSM is part of CCP's market research effort into its game. Not only does the company need to attract new players, but retain the current player base as well. The company employs Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, a real world economist, to monitor EVE's player-run economy, which gives CCP more information about how New Eden works than is available to decision-makers and scholars in the real world. That tells CCP what players do, but not exactly why they do them. For the whys, CCP engages in quantitative research in the form of surveys asking players about specific areas in the game as well as the exit survey asking why people leave the game. CCP also engages in qualitative research, with a standing focus group called the Council of Stellar Management playing a key role.
Focus group is perhaps not the most technically correct description, because CSM delegates do a lot more than the typical focus group. Besides staying together as a body for one year, the members make themselves available at odd hours to give input to the developers as well as gaining the opinions of other players. A member who is serious about his/her duties can see all free time consumed by CSM work. A group of 7 delegates meets twice a year at CCP headquarters in Reykjavik with others joining in via video conferencing. Also, members of the CSM attend meetings with developers via the internet throughout the year, sometimes on a weekly basis. During these meetings, and indeed even off-line, CCP presents ideas and materials to the CSM for feedback which is then used to make changes or new features for EVE Online. Sometimes the feedback is enough to even kill bad ideas.
A focus group is only as good as its members, and that's where the elections come into play. CCP looks to get the players most involved in the game to make the choice of who is best qualified to represent their views. The election process is designed to hopefully select members who will work hard throughout the year trying to make the game better. Or should I say, weed out the slackers who are only looking for a free trip to Iceland or a tag by their name in the forums. CSM 8 was very successful in this regard with only 1 or 2 members (that I've heard of) not contributing to the effort. One interesting point to make is that with the single transferable vote process introduced last year, the makeup of the CSM is designed to represent the makeup of the voters, not necessarily of the player base as a whole. That is not a bug, that is a feature.
In my opinion, the CSM is a focus group designed to figure out what the long-term, emotionally-invested player wants (or doesn't want) in order to keep player (or at least account) retention rates high. Those who don't vote are obviously not that emotionally attached to the game. Those involved in the community or even following EVE news sources will know about the elections. I think that is why a number of players want the option to vote, but abstain. They are attached to the game and wish to demonstrate that fact. But "none of the above" isn't really viable in a STV election, so the option was dropped last year.
That's a quick description of the Council of Stellar Management and the role I think it fulfills in the EVE universe. I'm sure some will disagree, but I think my description conforms with most of the known facts. This description also accounts for one other fact. If CCP trusts its focus group, then the devs will listen and learn. If not, well, Incarna happens. So it's up to the players to give CCP a group it can rely on.