Avatars in a spaceships game

This post is part of the EVE Blog Banter, a monthly EVE Online blogging extravaganza created by CrazyKinux. Any questions about the EVE Blog Banter should be directed to him. The first topic comes from PsycheDiver: Ambulation: What are your hopes for your avatar and new functionality of stations?

A spaceships game
Being a recent addition to the population of the Eve cluster, I have not yet had the time to become jaded and still consider this science-fiction MMO (massively multiplayer online game) as something of a novelty, even though it was first released in 2003. The game was quite different then from what it has become now. CCP, the developer and publisher of the game, added new features and game objects and improved upon the existing ones, year after year, little bit by little bit. When you buy this game on the CCP online store, and subscribe to it, you can do it safe with the knowledge that the developer has an overall record of long-term commitment to improving it.
Since one of the main strengths of Eve is its unique Tranquility shard (players of the game worldwide, except the Chinese ones, can all potentially interact with each other), it would be impractical to put barriers to the acquisition by the players of the new expansions. Thus, new content is delivered for no additional charge beyond the subscription price, by contrast with most other subscription-based MMOs. It means that you could leave the game for two years, come back, resubscribe, download the latest patches and play without buying an expansion upgrade. There would be new ships and new skills to learn, but the old content your character had mastered would not be discarded.
Thanks to the sandbox and pvp (player-versus-player) nature of the game, which might indefinitely extend its life cycle, CCP finds itself in the very uncommon position of having to manage a brand embodied by a single computer game on the long term.
Another company had to face similar challenges a few years ago. They used to publish pen-and-paper roleplaying games set in a horrific version of our own contemporary world. Year after year, they would publish books describing the secret societies of undead bloodsuckers, or mummies, or changelings, or angst-ridden spectres, or weresharks, up until the point when players of their games would jokingly display amazement and disbelief when their characters were to meet mere vanilla mortals in their adventures. It was a monumental World of Darkness, but with supposedly little room left for anything new. The name of the company was White Wolf Publishing, and they have since merged with CCP to become CCP North America.
White Wolf found a radical solution to save the World of Darkness from a sad descent into a decrepit one-superhero-per-city-block condition. They engineered the destruction of their beloved but bloated setting through a series of books depicting a demise worthy of its glorious history. After these Ragnarok-like battles, they delivered a new, shiny dark new, World of Darkness, paying homage to its predecessor but building itself over different premises, something to withstand years and years of gaming, something for the long term. Their new books put the focus on the strongest feature of pen-and-paper roleplaying games: the imagination of their practitioners. No more overbearing metaplot, no more heroes to reign from the shadows or, at least, no more names for them. The new World of Darkness is, a little bit like Eve Online, a sandbox where players are invited to tell their own stories.
To sum up, CCP's far future MMO and horror games exemplify the challenges met in building brands of persistent games. But brands have their boundaries, and pushing beyond those is a dangerous thing. If I had a company known for pickles and I wanted to also expand into the tomato ketchup business, I would need my name to keep meaning "good pickles" for those aficionados who could not care less about tomato ketchup.
Eve's last two expansions were a graphical update (end of 2007, Trinity) and a set of mechanisms to facilitate the introduction of new or pve-(player-versus-environment)-minded players to the pvp part of the game (first half of 2008, Empyrean Age). The next free expansion, Quantum Rise, is due for the end of 2008 and will improve the crafting and trading parts of the game. A bit later in 2009 or rather “soon”™ in CCP parlance, Ambulation will introduce human 3D avatars into the game. Player characters will be able to walk in stations.

Avatars in stations!
Having faced the same issue of building and managing a brand through a persistent gaming universe on the long term, CCP and White Wolf are now sharing their ideas to help both Eve Online and the upcoming World of Darkness MMO to face the test of time. So, their designers work for these communities of players, who are into internet spaceships or into contemporary horror, and they want to keep them as entertained and happy customers, but they are faced with the need to respect a few imperatives. First of all, the Eve Online game is, at its core, a space combat game. If new players cannot take part in or compete into space combat, they will see no reason to sign in. New content should not be disconnected from space combat altogether, but should not slow down access to the fray for beginners. Avatars and station features should indirectly influence the fights that happen in interplanetary space. As for the specifics...
One neat station-related feature whose future implementation I (among many) can foresee is the apparition of special crew members. They would be npc (non-playing-characters) which would function similarly to rigs (ships modifications): advantages balanced with disadvantages. Advantages could be as varied as security status gains increases (CONCORD police observer), improved weapon turret tracking (expert gunner), standings gains increases (Amarr nobility) or even increased cpu (artificial intelligence). The main drawback could be a salary or a share of any revenue. Frigates would have zero crew slot and battleships would have many. Each crew member would have an unique, random name and would have been recruited in a station, most of the time. One venue to recruit them from would be the loyalty point stores. But other ways would exist: missions, loot of wrecks. Appropriate skills would address the maximum number of special crew members and mitigate the drawback associated with each of them. After extended stays in space, special crew members would not provide bonuses anymore until they spend some time in station. There, they could interact with the player as advisors. Players could write some interactable dialogues to allow conversations between their retainers and passerbys. A new metagaming profession, writer of dialogues, could thus appear. Last but not least, some crew members could actually reside permanently in stations and provide bonuses to trading, industry or social skills... or just serve as plain bartenders. Players specialised in human resources could make a living finding and developing npc and trading them to other capsuleers.
There are additional concerns to address, like the fact that Eve's proposed gameplay does not always stray from the static and grinding model that is the easy and lazy answer by MMO designers to any question. Capsuleers mine or rat (eliminate npc pirates) in asteroid belts, or they read the same npc mission objective for the umpteenth time while making jokes about the inability of certain damsels to keep out of distress's way. Stations should be populated by dynamic npc who would serve as supporting cast (highlighting the importance of the capsuleer caste of player characters) and diversify gameplay. To begin with, I would like corporation agents (who provide missions to perform) to stop behaving like drones.
For example, to find an agent, you could need to go to a bar or some other meeting ground, and talk to a npc fixer, somebody who can introduce newcomers to agents looking for some freelance firepower. A new player character profession could also emerge here: mission broker (using a market-like interface) between npc agents and freelance capsuleers who do not wish to actually spend the time to interact with npc in their quest for an agent. (The optional aspect of the process is important to avoid excluding people who have no time or no inclination for station walking. Repairing, insuring, accessing medical facilities and many other station activities should not force characters into avatars.)
The process by which an agent first agrees to meet you could involve proving that you are somewhat reliable through a series of interactions – dialogues and/or minigames. For example, Blood Raiders may request you to assassinate one of their prisoners inside the station and to take part to their vile rituals. The Quafe agent could be a gaming addict that you have to beat in poker until he agrees to do business with you. Personalities of agents, and corresponding tasks to perform before they entrust you with assignments, would be determined randomly, though Gallente agents would be more prone to being pleasure addicts and Caldari agents to being straight-laced corporate sharks.
Actually meeting the agent could be the first task to manage. Agents would not be able to speak simultaneously to multiple players anymore, and they would have a bookable appointment schedule. Each current agent could even become a group of competing agents.
Missions would have to change also. For example, mission-related items could spawn in solar systems, only to be located by capsuleers through the inboard scanner, for low-level missions, or through probes for the important stuff. The player could then retrieve the information and sell it to the faction of his choice, as fast as possible before the value of the information decays to zero. Multiple players locating the same mission-related item could sell the information to multiple factions. One faction would transform it into a rescue mission, for example, while another would transform it into a search-and-destroy mission. The agents of the faction would be able to assign the relevant mission to capsuleers, until completion conditions are met. Pilots commissioned by different factions could meet at the mission location and compete or collaborate for the objective of the mission. Pilots could subcontract missions and hire help from other capsuleers in a structured fashion. A whole spy game could revolve around missions that escalate into very rewarding endeavours.
Eve has already a very strong text chat-based social component and 3D avatars might really enhance this aspect of the game, if done properly. It could well detract from it, too. Integrating seamlessly texts, Eve Voice and 3D characters is certainly an user interface designer's nightmare. I just hope that avatars will be able to convey certain moods and to mimick lifelike behaviours. The ability to decorate one's personal or corporate quarters is really something I look forward to, as a game such as, for example, Dark Age of Camelot, has proved that the results can be nice-looking and fill the players with pride for their cosy abode. Drinking, discussing around a tactical map, playing poker, are already announced features of the Ambulation upgrade.
CCP hired real life architects and stylists to design the stations and that is a good omen but, beyond the beautiful pillars and drapes of the meeting rooms of the stations, I hope to feel the pulsation of the dark heart of Eve Online. I would like stations to be a little bit like solar systems: places where you do not see everything at first glance, you do not know everybody, and a form of danger - non-physical, social - lurks. Places where you could lose all your money (playing poker in a gaming room for example), where your crew could get corrupted if you do not satisfy their specific urges, where spies could get quick peeks at your hangar.
I have also a specific issue with the design of the stations and the way it sometimes makes for boring pvp gameplay. The concept of "camping" outside a station, waiting for an enemy ship to undock in order to tackle it and to destroy it is not necessarily boring. However, its current implementation is too often a competition where the loser is the one who gets bored first, without any actual display of skill involved. The station features should allow the camped pilots to actually enjoy the time they spend in the game. Windows in stations could allow undocking ships to load the grid before actually leaving the station. Characters with high station-related standings might enjoy alternative undocking lanes, allowing them more escape routes from their headquarters. Conversely, there should be a delay to undocking for any character involved in station activities, as they should not be able to disappear in thin air.
So, there are my first Ambulation wishes for Santa CCP: the possibility to recruit station inhabitants in my crew, an overhaul of the agent and mission systems to make them somewhat challengingly dynamic and ever changing, plus windows and alternative undocking lanes. The way my avatar looks and the number of clothing options do somehow matter less than the gameplay experience as it relates to my fights in space. Oh, and I want to keep on my toes when I actually use the avatar to walk, because it is a ruthless universe. In your friendly neighbourhood station, "soon"?

Check other Eve Blog Banter articles on the same topic:


  1. Some real food for thought here. Good post.

    Mandrill of http://keithneilson.co.uk

    PS. I almost didn't comment here as I've never been able to get OpenID to work and my blogger name is no longer in use. I'd sort that if you want more comments from people.

  2. Thanks for the comment and advice. I read your post which is very interesting (yes, half of us scramble a half-baked portrait in three minutes before playing). For posts here where comments are unlocked, anybody can post.

  3. This is, by far, the best response to the question I have read. And some of your ideas are fantastic. You've clearly put a lot of thought into this. I especially like the idea of mission agents having appointment-times :)