Another MMO Dying?
Eve-Online customers flooding away from the game

  The popular massively-multiplayer online game (MMO) Eve-Online is widely accepted as one of the best internet gaming experiences available. In Eve, players pilot myriad spaceships through vast tracts of deep space, clashing with one another in blazes of glory or working together toward common goals. The game features eye-catching graphics, startlingly realistic sound effects, a detailed interface with many functions, and a beautiful otherworldly soundtrack (which can be muted or changed by the player).

However, Eve-Online may have had its day. The game has become so complex that the coding is “collapsing in on itself,” with major code-related server crashes becoming increasingly common. Server lag, described as a nonresponsive game interface caused by overload on the server's resources, is accepted as a constant fact. Perhaps worst of all, accusations of developer corruption have tainted the game repeatedly, as the game's creators have stood accused of unfairly assisting one favored group of players over another—and, in some cases, have been forced to admit and even apologize for the incidents.

Eve-Online would not, perhaps, feel the heat from these issues so much if it were not a “permanent loss” game. What this means, in plain English, is that when players lose ships or assets, they lose them permanently. There is no “respawn” as in other MMO's or in first-person shooter games. A ship loss might cost merely hours of tedious in-game work (mining asteroids, running missions, or building assets for other players, for example) or it might cost days or in many cases even weeks of such work. In the cases of the largest Eve-Online behemoths, it may take hundreds of players several months to achieve construction of the ship! It is also possible through simple forgetfulness to lose “training time” and “skill points.” This means that the customer's real-life money spent paying for the monthly account in order to train the character's skills will have to be spent again if the skills are lost (which often happens when the customer forgets to update the character's “clone”).

Of course, Eve-Online has a ship insurance system, but like our real life insurance, it leaves the customer wanting: you can't insure the better ships for more than a small fraction of their price, and so most players simply don't.

Generally, though, permanent loss is accepted and even liked. It makes Eve's virtual world much more immersive, and the idea that a ship will truly be “lost” adds a thrill of heart-pounding excitement to the game. It is one of the things that makes Eve truly unique.

Sadly, however, because of growing customer service issues, this realism may very well prove Eve-Online's undoing.

In the past few months, outcry after outcry has been raised over server-related issues. Customers have been losing ships, expensive “implants” (used to boost their character's various attributes) and more due to errors caused not by the players, but by the server. Add to this an overworked staff of players employed as customer service representatives, some hired directly out of high school with no customer service experience, and you have the explanation of why last month saw the greatest number of non-renewed subscriber accounts in Eve-Online's four-year history.

In order to understand the growing frustration—and even outrage—of subscribers, let's take a look at what might happen when a player undocks a hard-earned spaceship.

In most cases, the questionable ship loss occurs because of server lag: the server node cannot handle the strain of the great space-battle being fought upon it, and thus the player finds himself faced with a non-responsive game. He cannot warp his ship away to safety, or jump through a stargate to escape; he cannot activate ship-mounted modules that might keep him alive, and he cannot fight back. Because server priority is given to newcomers in a solar system, often the group that was “there first” dies without being able to properly fight back. This well-known fact has even led to abusive tactics such as “log-in traps,” where a group of players (coordinated by an out-of-game voice communications system such as TeamSpeak or Ventrilo) logs into the game and surrounds an enemy group, who because of server lag cannot react until long after their ships have been destroyed.

But simple lag is not by any means the extent of server-caused ship loss. Most players have heard many horror stories of bizarre game function. Anecdotal examples include:

    • The player whose game froze up entirely, with only his close friends in system. They could see his ship on scanner, safely tucked away in deep space; however when the player finally was able to log back in ten minutes later, he found his ship mysteriously missing. His “killmail” (an in-game mail sent to a player showing how and by whom a ship has been destroyed) showed several “unknowns.” It isn't uncommon for a ship that has been logged out but is killed anyway to be killed by “unknowns,” but in an empty system, with the ship so far from harm that not even the friendly ships could warp to it, it is nothing but impossible.

    • Players whose life-pods (and thus implants) are destroyed by stationary sentry guns (which are not supposed to attack pods). This is a well-known bug; players find themselves short the several millions of in-game currency that it costs to replace a “clone” and implants, through no fault of their own. This error is usually characterized by the fact that, if the player was a pirate with a bounty, the bounty remains—whereas in a normal lifepod loss, the bounty is lost, given to whomever dealt the most damage to the pod before its demise.

    • Players have often logged into the game and found their ships simply gone, with no explanation. Often a practical joke by friends is suspected, but in cases where the player's log-in information is kept a secret by them, the ship disappearance remains a mystery.

    • Server-side errors have caused a wide number of game-wide incidents experienced by all logged-in players: chat messages refusing to display; ships warping backward, away from their destination; stargates refusing to activate; ships lagging out, then appearing exactly 999,999 kilometers from the stargate; and bizarre error messages flashing over a screen—followed, often, by the server crashing and then refusing to restart... sometimes, for hours.

    • Known in-game bugs, decried by the game's designers as unverifiable despite many easily-available logs on the subject, also cost users many ships. Aside from killing life-pods, for example, the sentry guns mounted near space stations will often destroy or at least attack ships that have no “aggression.” This means that very often, a player who has dutifully waited out his fifteen minute aggression countdown—or sometimes even one who has been docked for hours—will undock his ship and find himself getting wrongfully destroyed by the sentry guns.

    • “Session Change Already In Progress” is a hated message by all Eve players. When a person tries to jump a ship through a stargate—and therefore to safety, if they are being attacked—sometimes the server lags and provides, rather than sanctuary, this message. Occasionally this message displays for long minutes while the helpless player watches his ship—and sometimes life pod—get destroyed by other players. Again, like all the other errors listed here, these are disputed by the game's customer service team (who have access to all game logs) and the ships are not reimbursed despite the errors being common knowledge amongst the players who pay for the game.

Perhaps, even in a permanent-loss world such as Eve-Online, none of this would be much of an issue if customer service simply gave the ships and pods back to the wronged players. After all, there is a reimbursement system in place that allows players to send a “petition”--a message to the Game Masters, or GMs, indicating that something has gone wrong, and that the player would like their ship back.

Of course, this has become an abused system; many players have lied in order to get back ships that they lost through their own errors or faulty judgement. Because of this, the Game Masters (the customer service backbone of Eve) have decided “guilty until proven innocent,” and therefore look to the game logs to prove server error. Sadly, the server logs do not log very much at all, and the Game Masters' customer service response (even when the logs do show error) has become, to many customers, maddeningly unprofessional. This is perhaps the heart of why so many people are flooding away from this game.

First, know that it is forbidden to discuss the results of a petition with another player. In other words, players may not compare notes on customer service; perhaps this is because they would then realize that petition responses are, in many cases, copied and pasted from one petition to another—sometimes without the customer's complaint even being read. For example, “GM Ocelot” answers many reimbursement petitions with the pasted reply “I understand and sympathize with your situation. I play the game too...,” etc. Many players have been soothed by this, believing that their words have been carefully read and sympathized with—not realizing (due to the petition-discussion ban) how many others have gotten the same exact reply.

Even this would be forgivable, perhaps, if the petitions were actually read. After all, any customer service organization will tell you how hard it would be to come up with a fresh reply to a hundred identical questions. Even if it does not excuse the customer-insulting mock-sympathy displayed by GM Ocelot, it would at least excuse the general idea of pasted GM replies.

However, the petitions are very often not read at all. In the words of one sympathetic CCP employee, regarding his fellow customer service workers: “Once they see the words 'gang,' 'lag,' '0.0' or 'blob' they deny the petition outright.” This is because those words are Eve-Online lingo related to server lag.

One of the Game Masters (who will be called GM “Z”) even went so far as to say “Ship reimbursement petitions are the easiest to deal with,” further indicating rather clearly that he, if not other customer service representatives, deny these petitions without giving them a second glance.

So Eve-Online players have to contend with losing hard-earned ships and assets, whose real-life equivalent worth sometimes numbers in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, to server error, and then must be content with complete dismissal by the customer service team.

But why? Why are ship reimbursements simply denied? Surely CCP (Eve's creator company) hired at least a few caring, if overworked, staff.

Perhaps they have. But the fact of the matter is that the Game Masters are both overwhelmed by petitions, and have nowhere to turn to solve the mass of daily lag and loss petitions. In a normal working day, a Game Master is expected to deal with approximately eighty customer petitions, at a rate of ten per hour. This means that they have only six minutes to read the customer complaint, check the server logs, and write a reply. A GM might end up responding to many more petitions if there is a need, however, replying to up to three hundred petitions in one workday!

To check a reimbursement petition, as has been noted, a customer service representative must read the petition, check the logs, and write a reply. The problem—and perhaps the crux of the entire matter at hand—is that the GM must be able (according to their public policy) to verify ship loss abnormalities in the server logs—but the servers DO NOT RECORD such abnormalities!

In fact, the server logs don't seem to record much of anything at all, and yet are used as the main basis for ship reimbursement! They do not record lag; the records cannot see when a customer is frantically trying to access the game interface during server lag, as client-side requests are not arriving. The logs do not measure server node load, or if they do, the customer service representatives have a great tool beside them that they refuse, for whatever reason, to use. Even when the server does record such abnormalities (such as twenty-seven requests to jump into a system recorded in one second, an obvious sign of lagged client-side requests arriving all at once) the logs are still ignored—and the ship and assets not reimbursed.

Even when ships are reimbursed, any modules which were not destroyed are not; nor are the extremely expensive “rigs” applied to a ship. This is to prevent people from salvaging modules from a ship as well as getting them back from the ship reimbursement, and therefore getting doubles of good items. It is, however, exceptionally frustrating when a player spends days or weeks working toward something that gets taken by server error, and even moreso when the player finds himself ignored entirely by the customer service staff.

Generally after a few experiences like this, the players find that their favor with the game has fallen. Often the only thing keeping them there at all are the strong social bonds they've created—the online friends they have become close with, often in reality as well. For many others, however, this is not enough to justify the daily frustration of server error and poor customer service, and this is why so many players are leaving the game.

Another frustrating fact is that players cannot discuss any of this. It is forbidden by CCP, in the electronic contracts that every new player agrees to when creating an account. If a player tries to make a post on Eve-Online's forums about the lag, server errors, or ship loss, often they find a few very aggressive replies telling them it's the fault of the player's own computer. Occasionally these naysayers are known to the GM community... as customer service representative's in-game characters! Apparently, the frustration runs both ways—through the player base, and into the customer service department.

Eve-Online has a good chance to come back and become, once again, one of the top MMO's on the market. However, it is looking more every day like this chance will not be taken. There are many possible solutions—the Eve customer service team could change the reimbursement policy, allowing the “innocent until proven guilty” system but with harsh penalties for those found abusing it; or the game's developers could change server-side logs to keep track of all the various errors and lag the nodes experience; or it could fix these errors and the lag that comes with them. This last is virtually impossible in such a complex system, however, and it seems the most likely, and most favored by the players, is the first—changing the reimbursement policy. Customers are, after all, less likely to complain about being dismissed when the dismissal is accompanied by a reimbursed ship.

So, will Eve-Online regroup, fix the problems that are chasing subscribers away, and make a glorious comeback as one of the best MMOs out there? Or will it falter and fail, the way other online games have before it, and for the same reasons?

Perhaps CCP should head the words of John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment, regarding Sony's acquired MMORPG Vanguard: Saga of Heroes:

We've learned a thing or two with our experiences with the NGE* and don't plan on repeating mistakes from the past and not listening to the players.”

*NGE Stands for “New Game Experience,” and was an entirely new gameplay system introduced into the MMORPG “Star Wars Galaxies”--without asking its players. The game's favor fell quickly, even going so far as to incite threats of class-action lawsuits from its subscribers.


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