Surface and Orbit Authority

Three Months of the Surface and Orbit Authority

It’s been three months since the first message that could be considered part of the Surface and Orbit Authority, posted on March 7th. Since that time, we’ve grown to five voting members - myself, @SurprisingEdge, @Woofski, @David_s, and @Canderthal. That membership has:

  • Vetted and ratified an initial charter based on prior art,
  • Played well over a thousand hours of Space Engineers, between them, and
  • Reviewed 31 proposals, of which 23 were adopted unanimously, 6 were rejected unanimously, one was disputed and rejected, and one is in flight.

This seems like a good time to write a brief retrospective on this experiment, and to offer my perspective on what’s important as we move forwards.

What’s working well

We’ve built a small community, including both the voting members and a number of regular, and respected, non-voting players that is surprisingly safe, and surprisingly low-conflict. Having spent a fair bit of time on community-managed game servers, I consider this very little short of a miracle. After three months, we have had no major blow-outs over game rules, griefing, or broken promises and expectations, and I see no indication that a blow-out is brewing.

We’ve developed an informal system of using Discord to talk both about moment-by-moment game minutia and about ideas towards changes to the server and the rules, while relying on this forum for more formal discussion towards decisions, and for less-formal conversation about longer-term projects. This system seems to provide a good balance of transparency and consistency through the forums, which provide a record of what happened and how, and conversational ease through Discord, which supports brainstorming and ad-hoc coordination really well.

The proposal system, which I lifted whole from the game of Agora, appears to function well as a way of communicating intent and building consensus. We’ve ended up loosely following in Agora’s footsteps here - proposals are often a late step in a much longer conversation, but because there is a clear decision process, those conversations have a clear direction and clear expectations.

Building on top of that, having the rules & expectations written down has helped immensely when we’ve had conversations about what, exactly, we each expect from the server, from anyone adminstering the server, and from more speculative tasks like scenario authoring. The discussions leading into these decisions, and the discussions following up when things aren’t going according to plan, are extremely healthy and generally on point, and everyone involved deserves kudos for it.

Finally, the same systems have helped us weather, and solve, some painful gameplay problems. I think we all owe @SurprisingEdge a bit of thanks for catalyzing the work to solve the server’s incredibly slow login issues, and @David_s’ ongoing work on NPC behaviour and server load is extremely promising.

What’s not working as well

When I drafted the original charter, I imported a lot of Agora’s social conventions without fully critiquing them or having the resulting document looked over by someone uninvolved. We’ve done okay with it anyways, but I believe that parts of the Charter are overcomplicated for what they do. There are even parts that, in application, we ignore entirely. Some examples of overcomplicated systems:

  • Reports, which are intended as a way to formalize regular check-ins on any non-rule state we might develop, are almost entirely ignored. As Chair, I’m nominally responsible for a monthly report listing users and penalties, but I’ve posted it precisely once and nobody’s cared that I haven’t done it since. Meanwhile, a reporting job that’s actually important and of interest - the Space Master’s duty to report admin interventions - is specified as an entirely separate (and much simpler) system.

  • One of our non-voting regulars has described our proposal process as “the ten forms I need to fill out to get what I want,” which I got a laugh out of but which is also an extremely real and fair criticism. The proposal process, as actually implemented, is overly bureaucratic and requires a lot of paperwork that isn’t providing obvious value.

  • The rules of engagement are unclear for new members, which has now lead to chasing down a member to get their vote, and to someone who actively wanted to get involved being unable to do so in spite of their best efforts. Being unable to figure out how to get a vote that counts is an incredibly frustrating experience, and works against having people get involved in making those decisions.

  • The entirety of Article 1. Raise your hand if you’ve so much as looked at it twice.

Whether related to the complex systems, to our history of frustrating performance issues on the official server, or due to poor marketing, we’ve also been very slow to grow. While taking community development slowly has made it easier to maintain tone and culture, it also means that our continued operation is somewhat vulnerable to boredom, illness, and general Life Stuff.

The most obvious manifestation of that risk, and the elephant in the room, is that our continued operation pretty much depends on my largesse right now. That’s okay with me, and it’s what I signed up to do, but it’s worth being explicit about. Personally, I would very much like for this organization to survive the departure of any single member, including me, but with the site and service infrastructure all held in my hands privately, that’s not the case.

A vision of what comes next

The good news is that I think these are solvable problems. Here’s my shot at how to get from here to a club with different, more interesting problems:

  • Revise article 1 to reflect where we are as a club. Remove the language regarding standards and streamline the descriptions of who we are, so that a new member can digest them quickly.

  • Reform the proposal rules and our practices to streamline the process of rule changes, with an eye to reducing paperwork. While it is important that we be able to fairly and unambiguously adjudicate proposals, I think we can accomplish the same goals with fewer forum posts. I’ve already started on this - the latest proposal has voting in-thread rather than in a separate voting thread, which appears to be helping - but I think there’s still more to do.

  • Rethink or eliminate reports. The important reporting features we have right now are the Space Master’s admin reporting, and tracking voting membership to determine quorum and speedy resolution. We don’t need the reporting framework we have today to accomplish those goals.

  • Restructure the forums to put more emphasis on the unique and interesting threads and less on the mundane bureaucracy.

    • Create a single, stickied signup thread, with clear instructions at the top of the thread on how to join, what joining means, and how to maintain your membership.

    • Unify the Server Admin threads into a single server admin log thread.

    • Continue to iterate on improvements to voting to keep proposals moving through smoothly.

  • Find a better way to engage with with the non-voting participants. Folks like Blind Firepower and |ValHalla, who do not participate in the forums but are active on the server, are important, and their needs should be represented even if they don’t feel that it’s a good use of their time to appear and advocate for them personally. I don’t know yet what the shape of this would be, but it’s important to me that we at least ask.

    Underlying this is an important philosophical question, as well: to what degree should SOA be accountable to people who play on the server or participate in the forums and Discord but who, for whatever reason, don’t vote?

    The current language for differentiating between voting members and non-voting participants is also (somewhat accidentally) exclusionary, as we describe regular players who don’t happen to vote as “non-members” in the charter. We can do better.

  • Put together a recruiting or outreach program that anyone can execute on to help bring in new players. This could even be a new office, allowing us to pass the responsibility around.

  • Finally, if the Surface and Orbit Authority will ever survive me, we’ll need to discuss funding. This is not urgent - I’m not going anywhere - but the club does cost money to run. We all benefit from that investment, and it amortizes well: the more members we have, up to a point, the cheaper it is to support each new member, until we hit the point that our technical infrastructure starts to suffer. I’ve had a few ideas towards this, but they probably merit a thread of their own.

Thanks for hearing me out. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve built together so far, and we wouldn’t be here without each other.

A+

I agree pretty much 100% with nearly everything you’ve said.

“Article 1? Huh? [goes and reads] Oooh yeah, this one.”
I think most of it is actually valuable, other than 1.1 (which is funny, nonetheless) and 1.3. I think 1.2 and 1.4 are helpful guidance.

I can’t say I really have any specific suggestions on any points. I like the ideas you’ve presented, like the “PR” office, simplifying/eliminating some process, etc.

I definitely agree that funding is a concern. As you said, not an urgent one, but still a concern. I’m throwing $10/month at SOA because I enjoy it a lot, despite some of the technical issues I’ve had/been having. I think the community we’ve built, and are slowly continuing to build, is something pretty special, and that’s what keeps me around. That said, I absolutely don’t want to make anyone feel unwelcome because they’re unwilling or unable to chip in anything.