This interview with Eve Online's senior technical producer, Torfi Frans Olafsson, focuses on his work on the "walk-in stations" concept for Eve Online. This initiative is the thing that will finally give the disembodied character portraits of Eve some substance. We'll be able to hang out on stations, interact, and participate in station activities with embodied avatars. As always, the theme is human interaction, only this time there's not going to be any combat.
What's the plan with the walk-in stations then?
Well, the plan is to do with Eve growing and growing and growing. When we launched in 2003 the universe was pretty much an empty shell, we didn't have missions or any of the detail we have today. And when we did add to the game we didn't want to just widen it by adding a new solar system or a new gun, we wanted to deepen the experience. That's been the policy for all the expansions: how do we add detail? How do we deepen the experience for the players? We're now at a point where we have the technology, the knowledge and the manpower to take our little characters and turn them into “living” avatars on board the stations. Still, it's a really challenging task.
I used to be involved with CCP's sponsored events early on in the game, and we wanted to be able to create a venue for role-players to act out their stuff. This allows them to do that. The Amarr Emperor championship and stuff like that, I used to run these, and I miss that role-playing element. Today you basically are a spaceship. People create and build a character, spend all this time, then you don't see much of him – a portrait. So we're giving them bodies. But it's not enough to give them bodies, we have to give them something to do. We're building the interiors of the space stations, but not as tactical zones or combat zones.
The competition and combat within Eve Online is so complex today that it would not make any sense to come up with a hand-to-hand combat system on top of that. There's also the “teaspoon principle”: the CEO of a large corporation is an untouchable character in the game world. And yet if you're standing in a station you could kill him with a teaspoon – stab him with a shiv, you know? That would really fuck up the balance we've created for the whole game. We want to do these things incrementally, we can't do some huge expansion in one step. Step small, get feedback, see what people like, take another step.
But there's some stuff we have already developed for in stations, such as changing how your character appears. You can eat and drink and get fat, and then you can go to Gallente plastic surgeon and have your appearance changed, or an Amarr cleansing room and lose weight. I like this because it's kind of a pure role-playing aspect. It means you're no longer stuck with simply a player portrait.
There's also a new interface for corp recruitment. Players are going to be able to rent NPC bots as staff within their offices, which we eventually intend to be programmable. Players will be able to set up dialogue trees, and give and receive items. We'll be able to have players setting up their own missions using these dialogue tree systems. These bots can also be representative for the players, recruiters or a bar-tender bot. These station services that I mention are going to be player-owned. My vision is to have as little as NPC-driven stuff in there as possible. The avatar-services, bars, and offices are all going to be built by players, and will require rent. Running in bar in Yulai will cost a little more than running a bar in some abandoned low-sec station.
If you think about how certain other world-like MMO systems work, people come in, they build stuff, then they move on. Other people come in look around, go build their own stuff, and leave. It's all empty, dead, but still there. So you have some kind of post-apocalypse where the structures are there and there are no people. I don't like this because it doesn't push people together, and that's why I want upkeep and rent in our businesses. The business that are not people will just fade away, as in real life.
So also in stations people are going to be able to meet and play mini games. They're going to be playing gambling games... you know you don't call up your friends in real life and say “I know this great ten metre by ten metre hall in town, with nothing in it. Let's go and stand in there and talk...” You don't do that. You always have a mission: drink beer, shoot some pool. We translate that directly to games. In Eve people hang out and mine, or run mission gangs. They're not just chatting. This is why we're including these gambling games. We're going to implement some very familiar strategic games, such as poker, and go. These games are all visible too, so they can become spectator sports. People can gamble away their fortunes and give people something to talk about.
Now, all this has another aspect, which is the visual fidelity of the ships. They are astonishingly detailed now, and players will expect the same from their avatars. And I wouldn't want it any other way. We've never been content with second best for visuals, we want to be out there at the edge, and there's amazing stuff happening with character rendering. We have to investigate all these things, to implement amazing shading technologies for hair, skin and cloth on these characters, and we're already seeing them in our prototypes. The visual fidelity of characters will be on par with that of the ships. But this alone is not enough – pretty screenshots alone are not enough – we need other things like animations. If the animation is rubbish you end up with a pretty-looking corpse, a Real Doll. That is more immersion-breaking than going for crappy graphics and comparatively crappy animations. So we're getting the best facial animation in the industry – academics who are studying socialisation via avatars in virtual environments. Universities in Reykjavik, California and Paris are all contributing to making the avatars appear natural. We want to give them a sense of awareness. This is very important. Usually animation is canned – unless an avatar is being killed or shot at, it probably isn't going to react to anything. We're going to use information from inside the game system to how your avatar reacts. Standings, reactions, and so on will cause the reactions to what happens to the avatar. You're going to have a series of moods that you can put your character in, but no silly moves or dancing. There is dry sarcastic humour in Eve, but not silliness.
How do you think people have found the Trinity upgrade? Any complaints?
Well on a new system it performs very well. It does need more memory, so older systems will suffer. But we're supporting systems from 2003, but we have to keep our eyes on horizon, we have to move on. More and more people will enjoy the benefits as they slowly upgrade, even if they do so incrementally.
Do you feel that there needs to be a greater degree of standardisation in PC hardware?
Well it's hard not to envy the console developers who know precisely what they are developing for. Not knowing what the player is going to have can breed apathy with developers, they can say “well they just have to buy more memory”, which is really bad, obviously. That said, the organic, component-based process of PC evolution means that the systems can grow quickly and take advantage of technologies. If people want to do that, and to play games like Eve they're probably just going to have to learn the difference between a megahertz and a megabyte. And gamers will do that.
And this kind of victim of technology thing is something that you guys suffer more than most: the single galaxy Eve server is now ludicrously complex, isn't it?
Yes, the cluster is very big, very powerful. We're exploring some super-computing possibilities for the future, and I believe we're looking at having it classified as a super-computing cluster alongside some of the top systems in the world. I don't know exact numbers, but we have those figures somewhere.
Do you feel comfortable with where the game is going with things like Sovereignty? There's occasionally been the feeling that CCP are “developing blind” and just patching these things up as they go along.
Well, I think all our systems need to be reviewed all of the time. We don't need to fix what isn't broken – which has happened several times, I will be the first to admit – but everything needs to come under scrutiny, and everything is likely to be improved by more work. We will continue that in the future. We maintain a tight review cycle, and if we have to go back and fix things again to make sure that they work, then we will.
How important is the overall fiction of Eve? We always focus on what the players get up to in their alliances, but how important is this science fiction material to you?
It will always be important. It's what sets us apart from other virtual worlds. The setting and the context, to me, is fifty-fifty between the backstory and the player activities. There is no way that we can ignore the great sagas that are emerging from the activities of the player alliances and corporations, this stuff actually happens, but the backstory gives it a sense of depth, context and perspective that make it more immersive. Making it all fit together is important work. Tony Gonzales, in his forthcoming novella, absolutely nails it. I mean we could write something fantastic that was totally ignorant of the processes within Eve, we could fashion great ideas in some Ivory tower, without any attachment to the players, but everyone would notice that. It would be irrelevant, background noise. We can't ignore what 20,000 people are doing in the game. It is the fiction.
Will factional warfare emphasize the backstory?
I think so. People don't always pay attention to the backstory, and I think the factional warfare will allow people to realise that there are differences between the races, and tensions in the galaxy. We want players to make the most of all aspects of Eve, and the factional warfare is just another example of that. It's another example of the depth we're bringing to Eve.
I look forward to seeing it... one day. Thanks for talking to me, Torfi, and read RockPaperShotgun every day.