It should have been a triumphant week for CCP.
The Incarna expansion to Eve Online - AKA Ambulation, AKA Walking in Stations - was first announced over five years ago. Launched last Tuesday, it brought human avatars to a game previously focused solely on spaceships.
But instead of becoming a jubilant landmark, the past week has been dominated by an escalating crisis fuelled by leaked internal documents, a proposed attempt to further monetise a game described internally as a "golden goose", and a developer attitude that has caused consternation and anger within its community.
We've been here before, of course; Eve Online is no stranger to drama, and it's a salacious thrill that contributes to the game's appeal. In 2007, a developer abused their position at CCP to provide their Corporation with an in-game advantage. More recently, players were left outraged when the elected player body, the Council of Stellar Management (or CSM), revealed that CCP intended to focus on other projects for the coming 18 months rather than addressing core concerns with Eve.
So where did it all start?
While the developer courted a quieter controversy earlier in the month with an announcement that a $99 licensing fee would be required for services using the public API, it wasn't until a document was leaked online on Wednesday, outlining and debating the developer's plans to further monetise its flagship title, that the player revolt began in earnest.
Players already shocked by the $70 cost of an avatar accessory were left reeling by the proposals to extend micro-transactions beyond vanity items - to ships and ammunition, for example - as well as the apparent intent to squeeze Eve players to fund CCP's other projects. (Projects such as the Eve-linked PS3 shooter Dust 514 which, incidentally, will be supported by micro-transactions.)
"As a subscription-based golden goose, Eve needs to incorporate the virtual goods sales model to allow for further revenue - revenue to fund our other titles, revenue for its developer: you," read one passage. An explicit acknowledgement that public discussion was impossible due to a fear of being burned at the stake added further fuel to the fire. But CCP did not respond to the outcry.
One CCP employee was spared the wrath of the players as the silence continued. John Turbefield - described as a "master of spreadsheets" from the firm's Research and Statistics department - had argued the opposing view of the debate in the now infamous newsletter. He cautioned against decreased satisfaction through the "double billing" of customers. While players fumed, Turbefield was lionised.
An appeal for calm and dialogue reached players late on Thursday. But on Friday evening, with the issue remaining a one-way conversation, players took to the 'streets' of Eve to protest.
Jita is a cesspit of all that's right and wrong about Eve Online. Scams, along with suicide attacks on freighters stuffed with precious goods, define a zone which acts as the prominent trade hub of the game. On Friday, thousands of players mobilised, targeting and unleashing fire-power on an indestructible monument in the system - a silent protest under disco lights. Footage of the event has been uploaded to YouTube, although be advised that the language of the soundtrack gets a little fruity towards the end.
It would be crass to suggest - as some did - that this was comparable to recent real-world protests, where repercussions can be fatal. But it was direct action, a scene of rioting that was legitimately enacted through the mechanics of the game - and it was thrilling to observe.
As Jita's capacity was reached, groups co-ordinated to flood the other trade hubs with traffic in an attempt to bring EVE's economy to a grinding halt. Server nodes were locked down, and while arriving players were refused entry, the end result was the same. For a moment on Friday night, the players gridlocked the economy.
Eve is a player-built world: economies, infrastructures and power blocs that have been built piece by piece over a number of years. A complex web of player interactions, from the slightest trade manipulation to the collapse of an Alliance, underpins the core principles of the game.
It's a precious creation, and emotions run higher than in any other game. The stories greedily consumed by players and non-players alike are all player creations. It's not possible, many have argued, to introduce a cash micro-transaction system into a game that was built from the ground up to put its destiny in the hands of the players rather than the developers.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a sentiment within the community that the developer would be foolish to ignore - that CCP is merely the caretaker of a hard-knock school that the players built for themselves. The subscriptions may belong to CCP, but the world belongs to its community.
It's not enough to say that players feel put out by the notion of micro-transctions. Laughable though the idea of a virtual monocle at a cost of $70 might be, it was the fear of gameplay-enhancing purchases that left players stunned - a fear that has been left unchecked. Such purchases threaten to undermine the dog-eat-dog mentality that has led to Eve's current universe.
An excellent summary of players' many concerns can be found on the official forums. But it was this most vocally raised question that absolutely had to be answered in CCP's critical first communication on the topic: Would micro-transactions ever be introduced that would provide an in-game advantage?
When the belated response came on Friday night, players were left as shocked as they had been angry. Rather than having their concerns addressed, they received an admonishment for taking to the issue so seriously along with an analogy to a $1000 pair of Japanese designer jeans. It's not necessary to comment on the player reaction.
The communication issue underpinning the very real crisis that now threatens Eve's future has stymied the developer in the past. It's an issue that brings us to the CSM, a group of player-elected community representatives bound by the players to report concerns to the company, while at the same time bound to a corporate NDA that limits communication back to subscribers.
Given the absence of communication over virtual goods sales and the company U-turn on their introduction - an assurance was given last year that no micro-transactions were planned - some sections of the playerbase have now called for a collective resignation of the council in protest.
The future integrity of the council will likely hinge on the extraordinary meeting detailed by CCP in a developer update released late yesterday evening. In the post, the passion of the relationship between developers and players is asserted. At the same time, it acknowledges the impact that the breach of internal trust has caused to the company.
We can expect no answers until after 1st July, when that meeting has concluded. CCP has, however, at least hinted that in-game advantages for cash are off the cards.
The flames were fanned yet further by the leak of a company-wide email, allegedly sent by CCP boss Hilmar Pétursson on Friday. (It's important to note that - unlike the Greed is Good? document - the legitimacy of the e-mail has yet to be verified. Mischievousness is the calling card of the EVE community and scepticism would be wise.)
The email commented on the number of monocles sold (52), and that the player feedback was very predictable, before finishing on a commitment to stay the course and to look more at what players do and less at what they say. The result was a - currently - 84-page list of cancelled subscriptions.
A question of trust
Vocal player discontent about the monetisation of games is nothing new; Valve recently felt fans' ire over Portal 2's marketplace, for example. But Eve's case is different, and unusual.
A driving factor in the success of Eve Online has been the trust that binds a developer's uncompromising vision to an audience desperate for a unique and compelling experience. An explicit acknowledgement that the developer sees that audience as "a golden goose" has damaged that relationship.
The option to assume a Gordon Gecko mentality and capitalise further on EVE Online only exists because of the players. The sandbox that led to the stories that enthrall even non-players doesn't belong to CCP - it belongs to the community. Or so the community perceives it, at any rate.
Eve is a visionary experiment with no set destination. Between players and developers, we simply work it out as we go along. As a result, the refusal to immediately rule out transactions that would confer competitive advantages - this late in the game's life - left many feeling betrayed.
Tellingly, some players have now even offered to accept an increase in the subscription fee if the move would keep micro-transactions out of EVE. They are willing to pay more in order to preserve the integrity of a grand experiment - an integrity that many fear is in danger of vanishing. They've yet to have that fear properly addressed.
Something has been damaged between CCP and its players - perhaps irreversibly, hopefully not. More worrying for the developer is that the continued leaking of internal communications leaves it in a precarious situation as it struggles to pacify its subscribers.
When an assumption has to be made that any company-wide discussions will enter the public domain, internal discussions become guarded and privy only to the top tier of an organisation - an insularity that players have long cited as the cause of a growing disconnect between player demands and developer ambition in recent years.
One thing is clear: EVE is currently deadlocked in the greatest battle of its history, and if either side loses, no-one wins.