In the last year, EVE Online’s plan to bring player avatars into the game has undergone more than just a name change. Now known as Ambulation, the project is slated for a 2008 release and is part of CCP’s strategy to grow their niche and reach out to a wider range of prospective players.
“I always feel like we’re just scratching the surface,” said the brains behind the project, Senior Technical Producer Torfi Frans Olafsson. Last year he unveiled the first hints of what is now a full blown expansion, but this year he presented a full, coherent game design of what people should expect once they get out of their pods and onto stations.
When CCP looked at their game, they realized an overwhelming percentage of their subscribers were male and many people of both genders just could not relate to a game where people primarily identified with a spaceship, rather than a living being. As they continue to try to grow their game, they felt the need to fix the problem, but also did not want to change what made EVE Online so popular.
By design, Ambulation will not change the way people play EVE. They’ve gone to great lengths to ensure they don’t waste their time with graphical representation of functionality already in the game, but instead create new gameplay for those who do wish to get off their ship and see the sights.
The design for Ambulation, though, is completely unlike what other virtual worlds do. CCP has always been unique and while most games have followed a trend towards stylized visuals, EVE Online will go the exact opposite route. In Ambulation, players will not just find photo-realistic visuals, but even find the world’s rules are designed with that aesthetic in mind. They intend to limit the color palettes on clothing, for example, so that people cannot “visually grief” others. And if you take the phrase “walking on stations” any way but literally, you’re in for a surprise. One of the things they want to solve on stations is the virtual world tradition of running everywhere. Players will indeed walk on stations.
Since CCP does not intend to replicate existing gameplay on stations – that’s right, players won’t need to physically walk in the station to sell/trade their goods – what do they intend players to do? Not combat. While Olafsson did say he’d like the ability to slap some people around, they have no intention of hand to hand combat.
The reason for the absence of combat is the “teaspoon effect”, which is a situation where some newbie could theoretically walk up to a powerful fleet commander in the cafeteria and pluck his eye out with a teaspoon. It’s silly, but basically, they don’t want high level players to fear getting off their ship for the threat of assassination. So, not only are they not replicating existing functionality, but they’re also not allowing combat on stations.
What they do intend to create is a rich crafting, social and commerce game. Some examples of potential station-bound professions include: plastic surgery, tailoring and – in true CCP style – bars.
Plastic surgeon offices allow players particularly skilled in the manipulation of the game’s character creation to alter the look of other players – for a fee of course. If a player decides they don’t like their nose, go to a surgeon and have it fixed.
The same goes for tailors, who can earn new clothing plans and build clothes of their own color combinations for sale in their shops. Players get to walk in, look a the mannequin, try it on and then expand their wardrobe.
Bartenders can create food and drink establishments, complete with mini-games like poker tables (Olafsson isn’t sure if they’ll do poker or some mini-games of their own invention, but used it as an example) so players can hang out, socialize and have some fun. They even have mechanics for when players get drunk.
And all that drinking doesn’t come without a price. Avatars in EVE Online will put on weight, just like the rest of us. For those who cannot stay off the space ale, expect some love handles. One video they showed saw a naked avatar rapidly expand and contract, complete with a fat walk, as they moved the slider back and forth. Something tells me plastic surgeons will have a lot of calls for liposuction.
Right now, each player in EVE creates a headshot when they begin the game, but these avatars are rather ancient, stylized and not at all consistent with the visual style of Ambulation. For these reasons, players will need to create new avatars when Ambulation launches. They chose not to invest time in porting the old avatars automatically into the new system, as technically, the two creation engines are so radically different, it would have been an unnecessary time investment, when likely players can accomplish the same feat themselves with minimal effort.
Like everything else in EVE Online, when it comes time to dress the characters, players need to rely on a player driven economy. The first launch of Ambulation will be very minimalist in terms of options. Players will have to go out and learn how to make fancier outfits, hairstyles and accessories for players and then buy them from each other.
The outfits they showed at Fanfest were extremely grounded in reality, so much so they had an actual costume designer create the clothing designs. As part of their ongoing effort to achieve realism and broaden their appeal, they hired a woman to do the work – they joked that if they hadn’t there might have been a bit too much latex in the world – and she came back with clearly science-fiction designs, but ones that had plausible stitching and could actually be worn by someone not at a sci-fi convention (at least in Europe, joked artist Ben Mathis).
Each of the designs conforms to real life and could actually easily be sewn. However, they don’t yet have plans to launch a real EVE clothing line. And that is likely a good thing. Their avatars are very realistic and not, shall we say absurdly exaggerated. Still, the average person doesn’t look like them and there were a few tops, especially on the women, which most people couldn’t pull off. In fact, each sketch we saw looked distinctly like a model on a runway. It’s all realistic, but idealized reality might be more accurate.
CCP extended the drive for reality to their architecture. The first designs of station interiors were done by a veteran level designer from a variety of FPS projects. Unfortunately, they came out perfectly set up for running, crouching and shooting. So, they went back and created this iterative process where concept artists create an ideal room, then work with an actual architect to bring that room to life. The designers then take the room and build a rough version so people can test travel times, camera obstruction, etc. Between the three of them, they hammer away so the rooms combine artistic vision, architectural plausibility and good gameplay. Finally, once they settle on a layout, the concept artist goes back in and re-sketches the room, so everything fits. Only then, do they texture it.
Typical MMO pipelines dictate that an artist create a concept, a 3D modeler make it realistic, a texture artist decorate it and a level designer fit it all into the world. The collaboration at each stage from so many sources should set EVE up well for solid levels that fit what they hope to accomplish.
“I really hate virtual worlds where you cannot do anything,” Olafsson added. “[Another game] was basically a glorified IRC channel.” That changes in Ambulation as well. They’ve designed the environments so objects within the world can be manipulated. If a player owns a room, they’ll be able to move the tables and chairs, sit down, stand up, etc. They don’t want their stations to be museums, and players will own a lot of the space indoors.
Aside from the shops, mentioned previously, they also intend to create corporation halls. These areas can include private and common areas and allow people to put out NPCs who can not only recruit for a corporation, but pass on messages to specific players or even give out rudimentary missions the players themselves create. Behind closed doors, each corporation will want an office, complete with a 3D tactical map. There, leaders can stay behind and coordinate a fleet battle. Scouts in the field will have the ability to send in updates and information in real time, while the commander makes decisions in a collaborative, visual environment. They can set way points and plan the entire battle in real time, right from the corporation office.
Like other features, the office we saw was rather small to begin, but over time should expand. Corporations will get the ability to – for a price – buy larger offices. However, for the initial launch, they’re going with the starter rooms.
In a brief trailer, they showed two characters planning a battle. Then one walked into another room and met a friend, before those two left for their ship. It was a simple video, with a beautiful score. But what really made it interesting was when they replayed it with an initial example of the sound design they intend.
They’ve opted to go for foley, which is more commonly used in film. Typically, editors and artists mix in appropriate sounds for everything from a door slamming to footsteps when they edit a movie. CCP has done the same thing and it created a very realistic experience, which reminded me how much this kind of sound detail is lacking in normal games. As the woman got up from the couch, she made the sounds one would expect, for example. It’s difficult to describe, but no doubt, CCP will release that video and show you themselves.
EVE Voice will also find its way into Ambulation, but initially the newly free service will only exist in the same forms it does in space. However, when I met with Vivox earlier this year they showed some advanced in voice fonts (which alter people’s voices to sound more like their character), voice to text recognition, text to voice recognition and 3D directional sound. This means that one day, if CCP is amenable, players could not only hear people in relation to where they are in the room, but those who do not use voice could join the audio conversation through text and those who hate the sound altogether could follow a text transcript. Best of all, they’d all sound like the Minmatar pod pilots they are!
One of the few concessions to gameplay over reality in Ambulation is collision detection, but even here they’ve found a neat compromise. To ensure that players cannot block each other in, they can pass through each other, but as they do so, both characters will animate a reaction and as best they can avoid clipping through. Since there is no combat and thus no tactical reason for collision, this seems like a logical compromise.
Avoidance is just one of many ways they use animation blending in Ambulation. Unlike most games, that have a slew of silly emotes, EVE Online intends to support both a mood animation state and actions. So for example, if the character is upset, they will hold themselves that way. Everyone knows the difference between a laugh and an evil laugh, and EVE Online hopes to reflect that in this way. If a player chooses to laugh while “happy”, it looks a lot different than when they’re angry.
The first pass at Ambulation will be exclusively on stations, with one minor exception: Captain’s Quarters. This is essentially a mobile home that players can load onto their ships as they travel around. It’s a ready room and it’s where they keep their stuff. Since pod-pilots are essentially nearly naked and submerged in goo as they fly, it’s important they groom before they get off the ship. And make no mistake, stations have a firm “no pants, no service” policy. As such, players will have these mobile quarters where they can prepare themselves before they get off their ship. Beyond that, players should not expect to get off on random asteroids, planets or conduct space walks on the side of a Brutix. As Olafsson pointed out, they need to keep a tight focus on what they want to accomplish if they hope to actually complete the expansion in 2008.
The largest rooms in Ambulation support 65 players, and others less, based on size. Those larger rooms will be equipped with plenty of elevators that take players directly to their ships with a minimal amount of walking.
Ambulation is a working title for the as yet unnamed expansion, due out late next year.