Avatars never featured in the original Eve Online because “we were a very small company shipping our first game with very limited time and resources,” explains Ólafsson. But time went on, coffers swelled, and “for a number of years, avatars were just me and a couple of guys doodling away and showing off graphics at conventions and so on.”
The plan for rolling them out was familiar, then: start small and grow big. The Captain’s Quarters, a suitably inhospitable chamber with augmented reality UIs and a balcony view of your active ship, was just the waiting room for a social space adventure. It, along with projects like World Of Darkness and Eve spin-off Dust 514, would consume much of the company. “You probably know the story,” says Ólafsson. “We’d been starving the rest of the game for quite a while. We introduced a cash shop which was incredibly unpopular, and lost subscribers and had to change strategy and tactics. We got stuck with that single room.”
CCP has since gone back to the drawing board. “We have a team now that’s less focused on social and much more on exploration, teamwork… Basically, going into abandoned structures deep in space: maybe Sleeper sites [if the Jove are Babylon 5’s Vorlon, Sleepers are surely its ominous Shadows], maybe Jovian sites, or just abandoned space stations where everyone’s dead and it’s just sat there. We’ve people working on that right now, but it’s going to take some time.”
Does Eve really need avatars? “That’s one of the most hotly debated issues with our player base; there’s a 210-page forum thread on that particular issue. It just goes on and on forever, whether Eve needs avatars or does not. I find that the players that have played the game since 2003 simply don’t see the need in it because they’ve become so accustomed to the way it is right now, and how it was. Whereas players who’ve joined the game more recently, especially from other MMOGs, feel that it’s necessary.
“Roleplayers and people who are deep into the setting and the theme, they really want avatars because they feel like this is a world that exists in reality. The Eve universe is there, just like in that movie Galaxy Quest. That’s kind of the take we have on it. The planets are there, and soon you’re going to be able to go down and shoot other people in the face in Dust 514. The same with the stations: they’re huge, they’re 20x30km and what-not, and they’re full of stuff – you just haven’t been able to go in there yet. And there’s a large portion of our player base that just really wants to do that.”
The road to awe
What do the spacemen, spacewomen, spaceships and space stations of Eve have in common? Still need a hint? It’s big and it’s black and it’s not nearly as empty as you might think. Space – you got it the second time! – is by far the most prominent character in this game’s universe. It might also be the most photogenic, which given the aforementioned character editor is saying something.
Eve doesn’t settle for the literal interpretation of ‘vacuum’ that turns the average space sim into a big black oblong and a HUD. Over time, its celestial landscapes have become more beautiful than almost anything terrestrial games have to offer. Vast wraparound nebulae give neighbouring systems a sense of proximity without the millions of miles between them feeling small. Impressionistic ‘spacescapes’ hark back to the likes of John Berkey and the pioneers of modern space illustration – their fearless balance between hard realism and fantasy.
“I don’t remember Berkey’s name coming up,” notes Ólafsson, “but Moebius and Syd Mead, obviously. Then it was mostly film directors, and our artists are all fans of the classical masters, the Flemish painters. And you can see that very clearly in the choice of colour in the nebulas. In the latest iteration were were talking about Vermeer and Rembrandt for the nebulas – they’re not space at all. And Turner, who does those washed-out landscapes.”
Add to that a non-painter, of course, called Hubble. Impossible as it is not to be inspired by the mind-altering finds of the world’s most famous telescope, Ólafsson and his team trod carefully. “We were dead set on not using photo references or Photoshopped pictures in our nebulae. It just looks so out of place, especially back then when CG was less realistic. The contrast was just so jarring when you’d place a 3D model next to a licensed JPEG from Hubble. So we went to a lot of trouble to raytrace them, and we used software intended for raytracing clouds in films. We spent weeks raytracing them, and came up with a clever pipeline for how to colour them later. We’ve done them twice since, and the last time they were becoming very photorealistic – but still, the nebulae that you see in game are completely computer-generated.”
How about procedurally generated? It was tried, apparently, with “a bunch of different sprites”, but never with the success and fidelity of the raytracing. “There’s always the dream of doing procedural but you have to invest a lot of tech time into it; and sometimes, when it comes down to it, it’s simpler to do things by hand.