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Fanfest: Avatars, Linux & Announcements!

Dana Massey Posted:
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EVE Fanfest: A wealth of announcements and news in the second of three articles

CCP Games didn't skimp on the news at their 2006 Fanfest. On top of the news about Revelations I and White Wolf, the company dedicated the third afternoon of the event to a series of enlightening presentations from key personnel. Their topics ranged from an educational seminar on the nature of evil, to voice in EVE, to the announcement that player avatars are in development.

Walking on Stations - Avatars Coming to EVE
The most titillating announcement came courtesy of Tofi Olafsson, a Technical Producer for CCP, when he not only announced, but demonstrated some early concept work for the game's avatar system.

The plan is not just to toss some simple avatars and let people run around their ships. Olafsson wants to push the boundaries of character art, just as they did in space. He told the audience that the major problem he sees in video games is that characters do not move in a lifelike manner. To date, the excuse had always been technological barriers, but Olafsson believes that the technology is now there. To solve this problem, he is hard at work on a form of procedural animation for the avatars coming to EVE.

"[The characters he was showing are] not run by playing back pre-created animations, but are dynamic," explained Olafsson.

Procedural animation is probably a dirty word among the animators of the world. Typical video games are created by hiring an army of artists to pre-render each individual movement of the character. They are then called up to perform them as appropriate. In recent years, games have added animation blending to make characters more life-like. An example of this is the ability for a character to turn his head to look at something as he runs along. Procedural animation throws all that out and mathematically has an avatar respond within their physical limitations to outside stimulus. The result is more dynamic, lifelike and promotes less art-intensive development. Will Wright's eagerly anticipated existence-simulation Spore promises to use this kind of technology to animate the creatures that players create.

To demonstrate this, Olafsson ran some simple simulations in development tools to impress the fans. Clearly, they were at a very early stage, but the demonstrations did serve to concretely chart their course for the audience. In one example, one of his basic models would follow a light with his eyes as Olafsson moved it around the screen. In another, the character would watch another character who was walking around him, but only when the character was in his field of vision. Later, he had hundreds of little men running around the screen, navigating their way to preset patterns or all standing in rows, following the light as it darted around the screen.

There has also been a lot of debate among fans and developers about the use of realistic graphics vs. stylized art. Since World of Warcraft launched, style has been a mantra in development circles. EVE is bucking that trend too and heading for ultra-realistic visuals that match their gritty universe. They showed off two prototype player character renders that looked like they could more than hold their own with any next generation game out there.

As high-minded as all this got, it has some concrete implications for fans of EVE Online. The plan is quite simply to allow players to walk in stations. It's a small first step, not altogether unfamiliar for fans of the game. They're not sure where it will take them, but they did mention over and over that the plan is not for players to "bash each other's heads in". Ideally, Olafsson sees the time in stations as a social experience.

He used the example of an airport. To get in, you need to surrender your weapons and no matter how angry you get, you cannot just kill someone. Stations in EVE are much the same. Also, like airports, stations can be full. To maintain performance and still have high quality art, each station will have a limit on the number of people who can be on board at once.

Since you cannot fight, what will you do? Olafsson emphasized socialization. They often joked (I think), much to the delight of Vivox rep Monty Sharma, that they really want karaoke bars. Beyond that, they also mentioned costumes, clothing, customization and other basic hallmarks of a social MMO. At the most basic level, Olafsson admitted the intent is to release a very basic shell - not unlike the original game - and then fill it up with content over time based on what they feel their community wants to see.

From the buzz in the crowd, I'd suspect they want to kill each other, despite constant discouragement of that idea from CCP.

Olafsson also placed the emphasis on walking. He hates that in every MMOG, characters run everywhere. Why bother walking? It takes long, true, but it's not realistic. So far, their solution is escalators and moving sidewalks, much like you'd find in your local airport. While the idea is noble, it seems a bit idealistic. To me, it seems a world full of moving sidewalks is more ridiculous than the initial problem they're trying to solve. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if this ideal survives to release.

Graphically Leaping Forward
Dan Speed showed off the graphical plans of CCP to the eager audience, although regrettably he had no Vista (DX10) examples to display. He did have the upgraded DX9 ships and a host of other musings on ways EVE may go.

Soon, EVE will have three available graphical states. For those with ancient computers or a desire to play EVE on an old laptop, the original client is not going to be abandoned. However, for anyone who bought a new video card lately, the DX9 upgrades bring some of the latest tricks to the EVE world. Speed demonstrated a host of ships side-by-side with the ship they're replacing. For a game that consistently wins awards for its graphics, it was amazing how terrible the old ships looked compared to the new ones. It is the difference between plastic toys and believable space cruisers.

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Dana Massey