Fire And Ice

The Cold Heart Of EVE Online

arping across a single star map shared by tens of thousands of fellow ‘capsuleers’ isn’t all that draws people to Eve Online. Ironically, it’s the supreme hostility of that experience, felt in every aspect of CCP’s art design, that’s made the MMOG so intriguing to outsiders and valued to its players. The candy-coated socialism of most MMOGs is nowhere to be found in this space, where everything – freedom, fame, loyalty and survival – has its price. Nothing is certain but death and taxes – the cloning and insurance companies see to that. “Eve is very dark,” confirms creative director Torfi Frans Ólafsson. “It’s harsh. It is supposed to be unforgiving. The original designers played a lot of Ultima Online, which was a fantastic sandbox game, and it allowed you to be very devious and very immoral in the way that you played. What they loved about it is that player killers, the griefers – people who just went around and killed other people – became so unpopular that other people banded together. Good started fighting evil, and without true evil you can’t have true good. So you had these bands of righteous people chasing player killers, and those player killers were the original Eve designers; they created a game about that mechanic.” In finding a look for it, he explains, they didn’t have to look very far. Underlying the Dune-esque tumult of its fiction, Eve is a game about CCP’s native Iceland, the Vikings, and “the unforgiving harshness. The darkness. The way that nature just simply kills you if you choose to ignore it,” says Ólafsson flatly. Further inspiration came from movies and magazines. A surprisingly obvious list, really, for such a uniquely toned universe. “I think most modern sci-fi is heavily influenced by the wave of sci-fi films of the 80s. The films of Ridley Scott and James Cameron were… I mean, they established a genre, almost, of what sci-fi should look like. And also comics like Heavy Metal. Those were our inspirations.”
Comprised of over 700 Photoshop layers, ‘The Iron Tide’ by Meridius pushes the boundaries of fan art just as EVE tests the limit of videogame fandom, so much of its appeal lying in the anecdotes flung from its servers. Fans of John Blanche’s Warhammer work will see much that’s familiar in the output.
lot’s happened since, of course. Eve turned ten years old in May, and wouldn’t have got there without constant organic change. Seeded in its faction archetypes are the beliefs and backgrounds that have blossomed over time, characterising its ships and avatars. “The way we did it was to have each race built by an individual artist,” says Ólafsson. “One concept artist was concepting all of them, but the people building them added a lot of flavour which made it very personal. One artist would go really deep into Amarr, others would go deep into Gallente, Minmatar and Caldari. The Caldari being militaristic, functional, cold; Gallente being more aerodynamic, smooth… art nouveau, almost; and the Amarr were heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism and the Ottoman Empire. We sometimes snuck in some oriental influences, too, but always from theocracies like Constantinople, what the Amarr represent. So, when designing the ships we were often studying Gothic architecture and all kinds of religious objects, like goblets or sceptres and stuff like that. “And then, for Minmatar, there was an obvious choice. They don’t have a lot of resources and they are the freed slaves, and what we were thinking there is basically Mad Max: retrofitting engines and fitting stuff that wasn’t designed to be used in a particular way on top of things, layer upon layer upon layer. So you see a lot of rust there and solar panels, a lot of makeshift things. And finally the Jove – I think originally we expected to have a Jove expansion coming out in 2005 but we just haven’t got around to it yet. The Jove’s designs are organic. Later we discovered they have very much in common with the Vorlon from Babylon 5; the ships are kind of grown and are living organisms, but hardened and very complex. And we’re inspired by deep sea creatures, those little critters you find eight kilometres down with glowing antennae and so on.” These designs would “reverberate” through all the hangars and artefacts that decorate the Eve Online universe. The second you exit a jumpgate into a faction-held sector of space, the design of the jumpgate itself tells you which faction it is. Responding to player feedback and watching how they personify these tribes, Ólafsson believes the archetypes can never be extreme enough. “I’m trying to play them up even more,” he promises. “It’s a game, after all. “The Amarr are just hardline, theocratic fanatics with a very twisted view of the world. And of course a lot of this is mirroring things that go on in the world, things we see with other nations or groups. In the same way the Caldari has a sort of brutal, spartan view of the world – militaristic; it’s probably not a very happy place to live in. Even the Gallente are incredibly vain and their hedonistic lifestyle is taken to extremes. And the fragmentation of the Minmatar, their inability to organise or put up a proper fight… At some point we were influenced by Fatah and Hamas, and Palestine – the way they couldn’t work together; they were so fragmented internally that they couldn’t really form a coalition. So yeah, we try to push that. Mostly in our fiction, of course.” The signatures of Eve’s spaceships are now so distinct that they’re even being considered for Lego adaptations. The finishing touch, says Ólafsson, was to banish something integral to both the natural world and ’80s sci-fi: symmetry. “Symmetry was evil, asymmetry was the new black. “We wanted to go beyond the typical fighter jet spaceship. We found that a large number of spaceship designs historically were kind of just variations of F-16s or F-15s – symmetrical fighter jets, basically. And we thought that in space, because there’s no air, a ship doesn’t have to be aerodynamic. You can see that in a lot of our designs. Now, we’ve moved a bit towards symmetry in our later designs, in areas where it was just a bit silly how asymmetrical the ships were.”

Seen here in much simpler, earlier form, the wrecks of EVE’s Titan ships have since been given models worthy of their size and condition. Prompting this was the Titanomachy, an in-game monument to a 21-hour space battle which cost $300,000 in real money.

These two images were assembled using CCP’s internal ‘Jessica’ toolset. The scales seen do not conform to those of the actual game and are purely for the sake of drama, though all assets and effects are authentic.

eferring 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.”
ne 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.

The magic of EVE’s avatar editor happens after the editing itself, the posing and lighting of your model given just as much attention, crossing into territory usually reserved for marketing purposes.

vatars 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 beauty and granularity of the nebulae added in 2011 brought with them the challenge of lighting the game’s older assets to match – a complex task when you consider how much of ‘old EVE’ occurred within a kind of glowing mist.
hat 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. “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.
The frostiness of EVE’s society and freezing vacuum of its universe meant that of course its characters would be cool. You wouldn’t want to look them in the eye and they probably wouldn’t return your gaze anyway – not unless they could profit by it.
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.”
EVE has undergone several shader revisions in its effort to modernise code that’s over a decade old in an effective and coordinated manner. Ships, structures, projectiles and even planets have changed considerably.
all 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.” [ssba]
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