The Art Of: Eve Online

Fire and ice: the art of Eve Online

Tomorrow people

Referring to the escape pods jettisoned by every exploding ship, hardy enough for an urgent jump to the nearest dockyard, ‘capsuleer’ is also a comment on Eve’s approach to avatars. Until the recent and massively controversial Incarna update (more on which later), the player’s corporeal presence was simply a portrait snapped from the game’s character editor. Nothing more than a forum avatar, really.

This has led some to ask why the character editor is so gratuitous. A complete overhaul for the Carbon update promoted it from just ‘uncommonly good’ to ‘the best freakin’ example of such a thing anywhere in gaming’. But while high cost of entry and outward sophistication have always made Eve seem a bit ‘club class’, the editor is no luxury. With one of the most prominent meta-games of any MMO, buzzing with stories of industrial skullduggery, cosmic kingmaking and the odd grassroots apocalypse, Eve needs those faces. The faces of zealots, diplomats, soldiers and crooks. Faces that can lie.

“We didn’t envision all of it,” admits Ólafsson. “Our line of thinking was basically… I played Dungeons & Dragons, and on your character sheet in D&D you had a picture of your character. Everyone would spend hours drawing pictures of their wizard and it would be really detailed, and I would call it ‘the fuel for your fantasy’.”

Being strictly shoulders-up allowed unparalleled detail to even the first Eve character generator, though its portraits have aged considerably. They’re ‘old CG’ like something you’d see in ’90s FMV. “They were far more exaggerated, both in terms of having bigger noses and eyes, bigger features, and more costumes,” says Ólafsson. “But that was partially because the portraits were tiny; now the portraits are bigger and there’s more resolution in the screens, and you don’t need these exaggerated features. It’s like the difference between makeup for stage and makeup for film; if you meet a stage actor up close and look at his makeup it’s incredibly grotesque, but it works at a distance.”

It’s the eyes that really do it for the Carbon version – hypnotic pools of pixels in which backstories and agendas take shape. “The way that the iris and the different parts of the eye reflect light, and the specular, and to have the transition where the eye meets the rim of the skin… to have that correct and the shading around that… it is a fine art,” states Ólafsson. “Because that’s what you always look at. You get these cameras that watch what people look at when they look at a photo, and produce a heatmap that shows you what areas they look at. People in advertising use them. The woman in the bikini with the car or whatever… the eyes are the first thing you go for. And in Pixar films you have these really abstract characters, like in Monsters Inc, but the eyes still look kind of photorealistic. They’ve got these complex irises, and the glitter and specular highlights. That’s what makes them alive.”

One thing the character editor is not, though, is flexible – not in the way you might expect. You can’t make yourself, for example, or Chuck Norris. You can’t, no matter how hard you try, make ’70s galaxy queen Caroline Munro. The game’s racial DNA is too strong, the art direction too focused.

“Systems like that, that let you make your mum or President Obama, they become incredibly bland,” says Ólafsson. “You never have those signature faces. The most heavily recognisable movie stars aren’t necessarily the beautiful ones; the Tim Roth types, they have these incredibly iconic faces that you recognise immediately. And they tell a story, whereas a bland face that you see in Second Life or something tells you nothing. It lacks soul.

“So we opted for strong archetypes, and we had a lot of debates about the Amarrian men because they’re much older than everyone else. I said, ‘No, they have to be like grumpy old priests. Creepy old men.’ And this went back and forth. People said no, you could be a young Amarrian male. But I said no, if you go down that route and we put age as just having wrinkles, then you’re never going to have these really cool old characters – it’s not going to be possible to have that spectrum. Although the women are all young. Somebody was asking me about that: why are the women so young? That’s because the women graduate earlier from school.”

One of the more abstract inspirations for the character creator was, it turns out, the ’90s raytracing program Bryce. Named after hacker Bryce Lynch from legendary TV show Max Headroom, users will remember it for its incredible ease-of-use when making evocative, natural, inevitably somewhat alien landscapes. Ólafsson remembers: “You’d show it to your mum – ‘Look what I have created!’ – and she’d finally be proud of you. But the thing is that it always looked kind of the same, just mountains with maybe a sphere and some clouds. Had Bryce been a general purpose 3D package, you wouldn’t have felt so empowered – because most people using it are not professional landscape artists, just as most people using the character creator are not professional character artists. We capitalised on the fact that we had world-class character artists here at CCP who were allowing players to feel as though they were world-class character artists through the tools.”

Nine years on, perhaps inevitably, these heads have grown torsos, limbs, and clobber fit for the glamorous catwalks of avatar-enabled space stations. House Harkonnen meets Han Solo via the semi-industrial synthetics of nu-Battlestar Galactica… or something. It barely matters: Eve’s avatar support was halted just as soon as it appeared in the client. A vehicle for micropayments and real-world transactions which needed a whole new off-ship UI (the infamous ‘Captain’s Quarters’), it is certainly not the game’s finest hour.