EVE Online: “The War on the Impossible”, Part 4: Trinity

Editor’s Note: This is part four in a five-part look at EVE Online called “The War on the Impossible”. For more, check out Part One: Introduction, Part Two: Democracy and Part Three: Ambulation. Part five follows later this week.

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This winter, CCP Games plans to launch Trinity, the third and final part of their epic expansion plans formerly known as Kali and Revelations III. This is the sexiest of the expansions. In it, they overhaul the graphics in a game that had pretty nice graphics to begin with.

“The goal is to really rebuild the models from scratch,” explained Art Producer Benjamin Bohn in a pre-recorded video played during Producer Nathan Richardsson’s final day address. “We’re getting close to the original idea of EVE.”

The initial release of Trinity is headlined by more than 500 completely rebuilt ship models and 100 revised objects. Soon after, they plan to do an additional 200 non-ship space objects to complete that phase. While the initial plan does not include visual enhancements to the background scenery and planets, CCP did say that they will eventually get there.

“We have a focus in this expansion and its beautiful ships,” said Chief Technical Officer Halldor Fannar. “I believe this is only the beginning.”

The expansion is about more than just pretty pictures though. During a detailed presentation, Fannar explained that all those graphics would be made possible by a brand new client, which not only provides significant improvements for everyone in a traditional DirectX9 environment, but also paves the way for the future and DirectX10. The goal is not just to throw more polygons at people, but to take advantage of larger company resources to build a client that runs better as well.

“We’re building a new architecture that is supposed to last us another five years,” he explained, but made clear, that they area also very aware that many players continue to run this game on lower end machines for which the game was tailored during its launch five years previously. With that in mind, they plan to launch the new client and visuals as an optional upgrade. Players choose whether or not they download the new graphics – which could be up to a gig in size – and then can switch between them at will. That means, even if a player chooses to upgrade, they can go back with a few clicks if they don’t think their system is quite ready for it.

That said, clearly the new client and visuals are the future of EVE Online. CCP will assuredly continue to support and update the old client, but like any game, it inevitably must one day go away. Take Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot for example. It is now six years old, but they have retired the clients released in its first few expansions, up until late 2003, approximately the time EVE Online launched. Most MMOGs go through this evolution, but like the rest, no doubt CCP will wait until their new client has been adopted by all but a statistically insignificant percentage of their players.

Fannar explained that since the game was initially engineered, computing has changed. For years, chip makers like Intel consistently scaled up the processing power of their machines, but in recent years they have begun to expand to more chips, rather than faster ones. This and the increased power of video cards changes the way computers process information and thus also forces game developers to reconsider how they engineer their games. EVE Online was built for that old environment and must shift to the new, multi-processor standard.

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During previous employment at EA and Nintendo, Fannar explained that the processing power required for graphics was a big reason games didn’t necessarily have the smartest AI. They’d spend half of the machine’s attention on rendering, but thanks to new improvements and stronger video cards, Fannar estimates that the new version of EVE will only spend 10 to 15% of its processing power on graphics, which frees up the machine to do other things.

CCP has also revised their approach to how they build graphics for the game, a shift that explains some of the more artistic visuals. Rather than having technical guys tell the graphics guys what to do, they actually have artists write their own shaders that do what they need, then later send in technical people to optimize it and make sure it works in the game. This balances technical and artistic quality and creates a better game for everyone.

Originally, when CCP announced Kali, DirectX10 was a major part of their strategy. Events, however, have overtaken CCP. Vista has not been adopted as quickly as many had hoped and with that in mind, the DirectX10 improvements have been shifted down the priority list. They are coming and the new client is the foundation of that, but everything that players will actually see in Trinity is how it works on traditional DX10 machines.

The side-by-side images and videos of the improvements are night and day. EVE Online has always been a visually impressive game, but once they show off the new models, the old ones look positively washed out and blocky.

“I think you’ll agree,” quipped Richardsson as he showed some new images, “that’s pretty [expletive deleted] awesome.”

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Fannar also unveiled one improvement that should make hardcore EVE players happy: in the new client, players will arrive and then the ships will pop into the scene. It’s not as pretty, but this means that when a player jumps into a large fleet battle, they’ll have information and responsive UI instantly, even if they cannot see all the ships on the screen. He pointed out that it has always been visuals that locked people up for those precious moments. It isn’t ideal to see a ship “pop” into a scene, but Fannar believes players prefer that to seeing everything come in at once only to find out that they are already dead.

While the technical guys and artists have their hands more than full with a new client and completely rebuilt visuals, the designers of EVE Online were not all on paid leave. Trinity also introduces a host of new gameplay refinements and improvements.

Richardsson gave a comedic overview of the new content, which includes heat attenuation, enhanced drones, more exploration, brand new faction loot, corporation registry, improved in-game help and enhanced EVE Voice.

EVE Voice has been a contentious introduction into EVE Online. It made perfect sense on paper, as many players used Ventrilo and TeamSpeak in conjunction with the game, but for a variety of reasons, the integrated voice solution provided by CCP and partner Vivox has met with resistance from the hardcore community.

During large fleet battles, the client can often lock up or lag and since EVE Voice is controlled from within the game itself, that means its UI is also non-responsive. Repeatedly throughout the week, fans asked for a stand-alone client, which Vivox does offer, but not as part of EVE Voice. Other complaints included the basic functionality and, of course, the additional fee.

CCP and Vivox took some great strides towards further adoption of EVE Voice during Fanfest and in Trinity. They announced that EVE Voice will soon be completely free to all EVE subscribers. There goes that roadblock. They also explained the first big wave of upgrades to EVE Voice that may not solve all complaints, but are definitely steps in the right direction.

The big push in Trinity with EVE Voice is to make fleet command more user friendly. To support this, they’ve added “layers of chat” so that people can listen to more than one channel at the same time, then contribute with a simple click to the one they have something to say in. They have also set up levels and permissions in channels, so that if a fleet commander requires radio silence in the general channel, they can moderate it so that only senior officials can speak, while others can continue to chat in their more specialized rooms. They’ve also enabled the ability for moderators to mute those who just cannot shut up and other IRC-like functionality. What’s more, it’s now easier to figure out who exactly is talking, as the UI displays a history of who has spoken.

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If the hardcore fleet commanders in the room are to be believed, these changes likely don’t go quite far enough, but it’s tough to call them anything other than progress. CCP and Vivox also outlined all sorts of plans for the future, which we will cover in the 5th part of this series later this week.

The gameplay cornerstone of Trinity is Heat Attenuation. Heat is not new to EVE Online, but with Trinity, should be a much improved aspect of the game. Kristinn Þór Sigurbergsson, who is a bit better known as Tuxford, explained what he calls “rat in the corner gameplay”.

They set out to create an easy to learn system that when used correctly offered big rewards, but also big risks to those who didn’t quite get it right. They also didn’t want to add much server load. Heat is not a resource people need to juggle all the time, but as the “rat in a corner” line suggests, something people can play with to get that tiny inch up on an enemy in a sticky situation.

Ships in EVE have multiple slots that players load with modules. It’s a way to further specialize and differentiate one ship from the next and lets players customize their experience to whatever role they want to play. Heat is all about the ability to overload certain modules and balance the power flow so as not to blow them up in an effort to get a head.

In its initial implementation, players were unable to fix blown up modules without a return to the station and often blew them up too quickly. It created travel time, rather than compelling gameplay. In Trinity, they’ve addressed player concerns and added more depth to the system.

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With the introduction of “nanite repair paste”, players will soon be able to fix those busted modules in the field. If a module is completely broken, they still need to return to the station and they cannot do it while they’re in use or overloaded. The change, combined with increased survival time for those modules, though, should cut down travel times and let people stay out on adventure a bit longer.

They’ve also added some strategy to how players equip those modules. Previously, when a module overloaded and exploded, it was anyone’s guess as to what other modules on the rack it took out. Now, proximity to the exploding module determines the level of damage. The move is logical and means that a smart pod pilot will equip their least important modules next to those they frequently need to overload. There is also now an advantage to empty and/or inactive slots as they act as a heat sink for the rest.

In the future, Tuxford hopes to tie this system closely to Tech 3 and introduce new modules that help players manage heat in unique ways. He also hopes to one day see systems where players can target and damage individual modules as part of their attack strategy.

Aside from voice and heat, Drones are another highly of Trinity. There are dozens of brand new drones for players to use and an optimized, simplified UI to control them with. The options and UI are all very similar to pet UI in traditional MMOGs. “We’re getting a little more intelligence in drones,” Richardsson deadpanned.

Other additions include new boosters, many more missions, new military complexes and other new areas to see and an absurd amount of faction loot he scrolled in fast forward on the big screen. They also built in a UI element that allows corporations to advertise for new members, including specific on what kind of players they need. Obviously, in reverse, this streamlines things for players who want a good corporation as well. Anyone who plays EVE always says that a good corporation is a key to fun and thus anything to make the path to one easier should be a welcome addition for new players.

New players will also appreciate enhanced in-game help files. EVE is far from simple and frankly overwhelming to many. CCP never wants do dumb it down, but they also hate to scare people off. Help files are a good way to make sure that they don’t. “Most windows now have context sensitive help,” said Richardsson.

Of course, what is an expansion to a space-ship MMOG without new ships? The expansion introduces 20 brand new ships for players to buy and fly. All 20 will of course have models in both the premium and classic client, so no one is forced to upgrade to explore the new content.

Trinity promises to be a pretty major patch for players, regardless of whether or not they upgrade they graphics. To lessen the pain, the tech team at CCP did some work to more fluidly deliver the content to their players and avoid expansion-day download headaches. This time, on patch day, players will login and patch the basic game updates they need to get on the same version. Then, they can go play while the game downloads all the extra stuff in the background. When it’s done, they’re told the next time they dock and can log out and in to try out the new visuals.

They’ve also added download throttling, which is a fancy way to say that their patcher – which can continue to operate in the background even when EVE is turned off – monitors other downloads and makes sure to throttle back its download rate so as not to interfere with web browsing, torrents or whatever else a person wants to do on their PC. In then automatically scales back up when the other activity is complete. Of course, that is all optional.

Many players have requested that large updates be available through torrents, but that is not something CCP was prepared to promise for Trinity. They did say that they will explore the option, though, for future updates.

The Trinity patch will also allow Vista early-adopters to take advantage of some of that operating system’s features, such as user account control, the game explorer and, of course, parental controls.

Trinity will not alter the system requirements for people who use the classic client. Those that use the premium client need a video card that supports Shader 3.0, which roughly translates to a GeForce 6000 series or higher video card.

EVE Online: Trinity brings to the fans the third portion of what was originally one giant expansion called Kali. It was originally one giant expansion pack and has since grown into four updates, the first of which launched late last year. The fourth and final portion of their vision is slated for 2008 when they introduce factional warfare.

Our epic look at EVE Online concludes later this week with part five of our “War on the Impossible” series, which details plans beyond Trinity and other tidbits from the Fanfest 2007.

For some videos from Fanfest 2007 that show off the new ship models, click on to the final page.

As promised, here are six videos CCP gave out that show off the graphics upgrades in all their glory.

Amarr Stargate: Trinity Premium Client Graphics

Gallente Stargate: Trinity Premium Client Graphics

Trinity Premium Client Graphics: Three Fly-Bys

EVE Online: Trinity Trailer

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