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.
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.
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."