EVE Fanfest 2018: CCP Falcon on EVE’s community team layoffs and having Hilmar as a CEO

    
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It’s safe to say that it’s been a rough year for CCP Games, with the company pulling out of VR game development and laying off around 100 staff worldwide. The entire EVE Online community team was reported to have been slashed down to just two employees, and many of the studio’s most experienced PR staff were let go when the Atlanta office was shuttered. EVE players (including me) came down hard on CCP and on CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson in particular, and some inside the company were notably shaken.

EVE Online Community Manager Paul “CCP Falcon” Elsy was one of the few members of the community team left after the layoffs, suddenly finding himself organising the 15th anniversary Fanfest without a team. It’s now been almost five months since the layoffs, so I caught up with Paul at EVE Fanfest 2018 recently to find out how the company has coped with the loss of so many skilled community staff. He also clarified CCP’s role in tackling harassment outside the game client in the wake of a recent virtual scuffle on the Open Comms show, and gave a fascinating account of how Hilmar himself dealt with the recent layoffs and how he’s been getting more involved with EVE lately.

Read on for our massive in-depth interview with EVE‘s Community Manager Paul “CCP Falcon” Elsy.

MassivelyOP: I have to ask, and it’s a big question obviously, but how have you handled losing the community team?

Paul Elsy: I mean, it’s been tough. You know we lost a lot of good people. When I worked in engineering before I came to CCP, that’s a pretty rough industry where there’s often redundancies and I’ve had to let people go, I’ve been made redundant before — the worst one was I was made redundant on 23rd December, two days before Christmas. Managing the [community] team and having to let the people go that I did was brutal, it was the most difficult day I’ve had professionally.

We’re still all in very close contact, I’ve had a few times where people have called me for references for the guys we had to let go and it’s not like I would have anything bad to say about the guys that were let go, they were wonderful people and sorely missed. Obviously it made organising Fanfest a lot more intense, we went from a team of 11 to a team of three and then we recovered and have had two new hires into different roles.

But yeah, it was brutal. I left the office on the day that it happened, I just went home and I couldn’t do anything. It’s the first time I’ve left the office at the end of core hours at 4PM, usually I’m in the office until 5, 6, or 7PM. I just went home and vegetated on the sofa, it was the most difficult day I’ve had at work, at a company like CCP where everyone’s constantly pulling in the same direction. It cut me to the bone, definitely, losing the guys.

How has CCP filled in the gaps those people left in terms of skill-set and just manpower in the community team?

I can only really speak for the communications side of things, but we hired a couple of new guys. You’ve probably already met Joe, the PR lead based in London, and then we’ve got Klaus as well who has combined a couple of roles such as social media and influencer management. So we’ve kind of got people who are really skilled but also a bit more diverse and more experienced.

The difficult part is the actual number of hands you’ve got on the job and the number of eyes you’ve got watching things. In terms of event management and prepping for Fanfest and stuff, we’ve just ended up using contractors a lot more. We use vendors for the livestreaming side of things and the technical side, and then extra work for the website or graphics, that kind of thing.

So do you think that EVE can cope in the long term with a smaller community team because of things like outsourcing?

Yeah, I think I can confidently say we got this, we’re adapting. A few months ago if you’d asked me that question, I’d have been doom and gloom and I’d have said “No, I think we’re screwed! I think we’re going to struggle to keep our heads above water,” but since the start of the year we’ve found a new dynamic and it’s working pretty smoothly.

I got into November last year and I was terrified of how Fanfest was going to go, I thought “Oh my god, we’ve got the 15th anniversary coming up and everything’s going to fall apart,” I was so worried. It’s been an emotional few months, and I think when Hilmar was talking about the VR stuff and the restructuring in the opening ceremony, you could even hear it in his voice. It’s something that really affected him quite a lot as well.

That’s another question, so how did Hilmar handle the layoffs behind the scenes?

He was super upset. The one thing that really instilled a lot more confidence in me was that Hilmar actually came to the Iceland office, he did a bit of a tour visiting the Atlanta office, the UK office, and then Iceland. He said something like “If anyone wants to sit down and have a one-on-one chat with me and talk about what’s happened, if I can answer any questions or reassure anyone or talk to anyone, then feel free to email me and we’ll book some time.”

So I emailed him and said “I’d like to sit down for a chat,” it was supposed to be 15 minutes but it turned into four and a half hours. What other company can you just email the CEO of the company and he’ll sit down with you for four and a half hours and talk to you about your concerns? That’s the thing with CCP that instilled so much more confidence for me. And the way they treated all the guys that were let go was very dignified, assisting with relocation and logistics, firing out LinkedIn recommendations, putting people in contact with people who could help with job searches and updating CVs.

We heard from Hilmar this year that he’s really started playing EVE again more. For the past few years we’ve seen a bit of disconnect between Hilmar and the playerbase, would that be fair to say?

“Hilmar spent a few years doing the CEO thing, he took a step back from being directly involved with EVE because the company needed an actual CEO”
Yeah, I don’t think that’s necessarily untrue. Hilmar spent a few years doing the CEO thing, he took a step back from being directly involved with EVE because the company needed an actual CEO and not effectively a CEO that was also a lead game designer. Hilmar has always been super passionate about EVE and that’s never gone away, but he got to the point when we started looking into VR when he just needed to be a CEO so he took a step back and entrusted EVE to other people. And that’s what you should do as a leader, you should delegate.

But though all that time even though he wasn’t publicly visible, I had god knows how many conversations with him about how healthy the community was and what’s going on, if I thought the game was in good shape etc. I’ve got a pretty nice dynamic with Hilmar, we can talk pretty openly to each other and he’s always been very frank with me. He was always still super curious about EVE when he was off doing the CEO thing, how I feel about current activity in the game and what’s going on with current politics in the game.

Just the quick five minute conversations you can have at the coffee machine, trying to keep up with the game even though he’s doing a million other things. I don’t think that passion has ever really gone away, it was just a time when the company was doing other things and had a few other priorities, and he just sort of shelved it for a while and focused on other things.

It was great to hear in the keynote that he’s playing more recently, and it’s already paying off because he’s getting PI overhauled etc.

Yeah. I mean, as soon as I heard that he was considering doing the Keynote I was like “Hilmar, you’re doing the keynote, you have to.” I wouldn’t have even had to convince him, he was like “Yeah, I want to go up and I want to talk about EVE because I’ve been playing it again and it’s $££%ing amazing,” you can’t shut him up in the office about it. He is very enthusiastic, and it’s having a big effect on morale in the office too just knowing that the ginger giant is back in town.

He’s actually actively going to development teams when he comes to Iceland and he’s talking about the game, about pain points that he’s had, talking tot hem about what they’re doing and how they’re going to change things. He’s getting super into the nitty gritty details with people, and it feels pretty good. He’s making people feel pretty good, which is definitely a nice thing.

I want to ask about harassment that happens in the community but outside the game client and official forums. Recently there was a scuffle on the Open Comms show and you stepped in to try to solve that. So have you been pursuing things like out-of-game harassment and off-colour behaviour more recently?

I think the Open Comms stuff was a bit of a special case, because what led it to happen was a tweet from me, so I felt a little bit responsible for what happened. Even though what did happen should never have happened. I think our policies remain the same, they’ll change and they’ll morph if they need to but I think we’re in a good place with how we deal with things right now.

I never want us to be a position where we overstep our jurisdiction because I don’t think that’s healthy. I think our jurisdiction likes firmly within EVE Online, and I think that of people do break the few rules that we have then we should come down hard on them, especially in cases of harassment or real life threats.

We saw what happened with the stuff around The Judge, we were criticised by that from members of GigX’s alliance, but obviously that’s a very biased opinion to take. It was in-game stuff that was silly enough to be streamed on Twitch as well, the chat channels that the harassment was happening in were literally streamed live on Twitch. That was a clear [in-game] breach of our end user license agreement and our terms of service.

If that harassment had happened inside the community but exclusively outside the game client, what would CCP’s decision have been?

If it’d happened on Discord, or Teamspeak, or if it’d happened on r/EVE, for instance, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything. We aren’t the internet police and I don’t think that it’s healthy for a company to do that. What I probably would have done actually is just help off my own back because as the community manager for CCP, for the guy who leads the charge, I want to foster an environment of inclusion and tolerance, and openness and people feeling comfortable.

“You can’t go around policing the internet. In the end, we’re a game studio and a publisher, and you can’t just dive in head-first and try to police conversation.”
If I’d seen that happening on r/EVE or whatever, I probably would have reached out to Gigx and said “Dude, cool it. It’s really not cool to be saying shit like this. If you do this kind of shit in the game, you are not going to be playing the game any more.” But I think you’ve got to be super careful, you can’t go around policing the internet. In the end, we’re a game studio and a publisher, and you can’t just dive in head-first and try to police conversation. The Open Comms stuff is a bad example, I dove in because it was prudent that I do so given that I kind of started the whole mess, unintentionally of course.

Often when we talk about the EVE community, the response we get in the comments is that even if 99% of players are great people, a few bad eggs spoils the batch. What would you say to that?

I mean, there’s bad eggs everywhere. There’s bad eggs in every online community. There’s bad eggs in the comments of a BBC news article, you know what I mean? Everywhere you go on the internet, there’s this syndrome among some people that the anonymity is wonderful and they can say whatever the hell they like with no consequences, and games are not immune from that.

I think I’m in a reasonable position to comment on EVE‘s community given that I’ve been part of it for 16 years, and I think it’s the finest community in online gaming. I’ve met so many good people. I’ve been involved in a lot of gaming communities over the years and not a single one has drawn me back the way EVE‘s has. If it had, I might be working at Blizzard now, or Turbine, or I might have gone to a different company because I liked their community more. The reason I came to CCP is because of the people, both at the company and in the community.

I think what I’d say to people with this viewpoint is that the open nature of EVE and the sandbox nature of EVE where the gloves are off and there are very few rules, it brings out the best in a lot of people. The few bad eggs that are there, obviously it brings out the worst in them because the rules are more open and the gloves are off and it lets you really cut loose. It’s unfortunate but when we see it then we police it, and every so often we pluck a bad one from the bunch.

What happened with the Scope videos? They really helped build interest in EVE and make things like political wars more accessible and easier to report on, but they just sort of ended.

So we just got super busy, basically. We had a few projects that needed to go on, and backstory took a bit of a back seat when we were going through the open access transition. During Ascension and Lifeblood we focused a little more heavily on business model and shifting to free to play rather than really going heavy on backstory, so we just kind of dropped it for a bit while focusing on other stuff.

CCP Loki does a lot of stuff on the scope videos, I assist with scripting and then he does all the visuals and puts everything together in terms of what’s going to happen where, etc. We sort of gave them a back seat for a while because when we started our acquisition campaigns to bring in new players we needed video assets for everything, so Loki’s time was taken up by those things.

Of course players have practically taken up that mantle now with the Arataka Research Consortium videos on YouTube

Yeah, ARC are doing an incredible job, and we assist them where we can. We send assets and stuff their way, they’re a fantastic group of people and they’re very into the core of EVE‘s backstory so it’s really good to see them. As an old hardcore roleplayer from EVE, I really love their videos.

Thanks for your time, Paul!

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in Reykjavik, Iceland, for EVE Fanfest 2018, bringing you expert coverage from EVE Online and anything else CCP has up its sleeve!
Disclosure: In accordance with Massively OP’s ethics policy, we must disclose that CCP paid for our writer’s travel to and accommodation at this event. CCP has neither requested nor been granted any control or influence over our coverage of the event. We did learn that Planetary Interaction is getting an overhaul literally because Hilmar tried it and realised it was clunky as hell, though. Now all we have to do is convince him to move to lowsec and try Faction Warfare!
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Sally Bowls

I did not bother Bree with tipping http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/316815/CCP_chief_EVE_devs_move_to_leave_VR_due_to_risk_not_loss_of_faith.php

because Y’all would have already read it and we still have FanFest goodies to get through.

But since it pertains to Hilmar, I would be interested in your comments. I was conflicted on the article. Everything he said made complete sense. HOWEVER, IMO those issues were also patently obvious prior to a mid-tier company spending relatively a lot on a new-to-them, nascent technology/market that will take a long time to ripen.

Was the VR push just Hilmar’s shot at trying to get a sale? ( https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/287330/Eve_Online_dev_CCP_Games_is_on_the_selling_block_says_new_report.php ) Or Icelandic overaggressiveness?

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I paraphrase the attributed-to-Churchill quote ” you can always count on Hilmar/CCP to do the right thing, …after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

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Sally Bowls

we went from a team of 11 to a team of three and then we recovered and have had two new hires into different roles.

I have problems with this. Layoffs are bad but there are times when they are necessary. However, I have a problem with ramping back up on the cyclical “real estate developers who repeatedly keep building until the crash.” I guess perhaps different roles makes it not quite as bad but still.

Let’s look at the history. CCP had significant layoffs and closures in 2011. And 2014. And 2017. I am not sure I would want to be a CCP employee/shareholder in 2020.

So I am not criticising those layoffs, rather the ramping back up to do it again. I doubt CCP’s goal is to be a cyclical company with boom and bust cycles. My guess is they are just too aggressive. although incompetent also explains it. This has happened enough that unlucky does not.

So when you lay off 89% of a team and then within a few months increase the staff by 67%, perhaps strategic planning is not your forte.

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Armsman

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Sally Bowls

Thank you so much for the Fanfest articles (and a body of work that is informative and in the rational middle ground between rabid fanboi and the haters.)