“We experimented with a number of things. We played around with fluids, for example: we had a fish tank and were dropping ink into it and taking pictures, trying to use that. And the surfaces of the original planets, they were food. We went off to the kitchen and played around with ketchup, soya sauce, and all kinds of things. We put them on plates and took photos, and we warped them back to planets and used heightmaps. And that gave us a fairly organic look to the planets.” (Important note: edible planets have since been replaced.)
Using a ‘cloud tank’ is nothing new, of course; Hollywood legend Douglas Trumbull used it to create some of the most gorgeous visual effects ever for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It does reinforce, though, how essentially unscientific Eve often is. A Carl Sagan cosmos it is not.
“There’s two signature things in our space,” observes Ólafsson. “The nebulas, of course, and then it’s the lens flare. We spent a lot of time studying and analysing lens flares, and authoring special lens flares. We made unique lens flares for different solar systems and clusters of suns, because the lens flare is just so synonymous with classic sci-fi films.”
Indeed, movies have stylised lens flare for much longer than people have cared to complain about it; movies like Logan’s Run and Die Hard prove that it’s not all about JJ Abrams and Mass Effect. That said, Abrams makes a good ambassador for it, confessing to website io9: “I know there are certain shots [in Star Trek] where even I watch and think, ‘Oh that’s ridiculous, that was too many’. But I love the idea that the future was so bright it couldn’t be contained in the frame. There is something incredibly unpredictable and gorgeous about them.”
Lens flare is a debate that’s haunted Eve since CCP first decided to use it, and which intensifies whenever the game adds more light sources. “Functionally thinking people, they’d be shocked at the amount of lens flare we were using in the Captain’s Quarters,” says Ólafsson. “And the overdraw: the GPU was hurting from all of it. But we felt it was hugely important because, like you say of JJ Abrams, it has such a subconscious, visceral effect that it’s like when people see a rainbow, or they look at stained glass in churches, or these shafts that come out of the clouds, these crepuscular rays. It speaks to something very subconscious in you. It speaks about exploration, mystery, divinity and so on.”
These are not lost on Eve’s tiny but vocal population of dedicated diarists and tourists. A growing part of any MMOG, they’re particularly rare in Eve because a) there’s a common misperception that its universe is rather empty, and b) people taking photos make really easy targets. Ólafsson admits that it’s an area that needs attention despite the bizarre antics of one of its artists.
“We built a number of things you’d encounter in space: mysterious ruins, artifacts, and the big granite slab from 2001: A Space Odyssey. We had a guy with a micro-warp drive just fly around space and drop them at various locations. It’s quite funny: the other day we were scaling the planets and had to actually find all of them. We had to write special scripts to search for all these things he’d just scattered around the universe – he’d spent days doing it! We also made an effort to make the most historical systems the most important systems, to make them unique if they were supposed to contain a black hole or something like that. But some of that has been removed while we introduced the new nebulas and we haven’t put it back. We could certainly be doing it much better.”
Out of this world
Call it a fault, but Eve owes much of its attraction to its impenetrability. When images come back from its universe to ours, taken from the helms of star-destroying dreadnoughts or ill-fated one-man probes, it feels like the game came out yesterday. Its secrets are buried deep, and its stories take months and sometimes years to gestate. After all, shooting someone in the back just takes a second in an online FPS; working your way to the top of a huge corporation just to destroy it from the inside… that takes longer. And yes, it did actually happen.
Machinima tools and other such luxuries, furthermore, don’t exist and would be “difficult to implement”. Hence the sporadic and rather wanting coverage of Burn Jita, a player-led attempt to smash the Eve economy with the force of thousands of ships, all aimed at users of its financial hub. A more spectacular act of civil disobedience you might never see again in an MMOG, but Ólafsson accepts that, in Eve, such events can often read better than they look.
“We’re very focused on combat right now,” he insists. “We’re doing a major update to our missile effects, and we did a major update to our turrets last year to make combat more visceral. This winter we’re going to focus on death and explosions of players and so on. It’s just a long process. We watch some of the more epic fights from Battlestar Galactica and we use those a lot as reference. We sometimes use Star Wars: Episodes I, II and III but we don’t tell anyone; there were great people working on those films, those abominations.”
It helps that the Eve meta-game is as strongly art directed as the game itself, the brand as consistent as any from Blizzard or Bungie. It owes this to a “tiny school in the north of Iceland,” believes Ólafsson, which produced all the original UI elements, typography, trailers and infographics that define the game to this day. “The same designers from the same school,” he says, “all very passionate about that very spartan, cold style of presentation. I don’t think there was a conscious decision to theme it that way, it’s just… Icelandic.”
So, when people ask what it takes to keep an MMOG prosperous for over nine years, to keep players keen and outsiders curious, maybe that’s ‘just Iceland’ too: small, insular, industrious. Consumer loyalty to an MMOG, it suggests, begins at home, whether that’s loyalty to a studio or to the magnificent tundra on its doorstep. “I’ve sat in a lot of chairs here at CCP,” says Ólafsson, “among them lead artist, senior producer and creative director. I’ve seen all the obstacles of maintaining a legacy system a lot, carrying the sins of the past while trying to build something novel.
“Maintaining a game like this is very much like running a city. These old European cities with their tiny roads and total lack of urban planning. It means that when you want to make dramatic changes it’s incredibly hard. It’s a tremendous amount of work. Even if it would be more efficient to just have a big highway running through the centre of London, for instance, it would tear up so much stuff and piss off so many people that you’re just not going to do it. You have to accept that you’re going to have really narrow cobblestone roads and poor infrastructure. There’s no way even a 100 person team could simply rewrite Eve Online or fix it over a period of six months, or a year. You pick your battles.
“You go through Barcelona and these European cities, and they’re working on this church or tearing up that piazza or street. That’s how we go about it. It can be quite frustrating. People say, ‘Why don’t you just change this? Or this?’ And we say yeah, in time. It might take four years because there are stronger pain points we have to address sooner.”
A great MMOG, then, is a mix of history and ambition. It needs a future, and a past that goes beyond fictional lore. Being a virtual world means more than just being a videogame. “A development team creating a new MMOG from scratch… there are so many facets of it, so many elements that have to be designed and built and written, that there’s no way you’re going to get all of them right,” says Ólafsson. “People might say, ‘Okay, so we have this perfectly planned MMOG.’ But let’s take the city of Brazil as an example: perfectly planned, just perfect, with engineers and architects and experts sitting down and thinking everything through. Then they built it and it wasn’t perfect. The streets are too big and it doesn’t feel warm or cosy. It’s impractical, and it turns out there are more people living there than it was designed for; so actually it became more inefficient than if it had grown organically.”