In this short opinion piece, I take a quick look at the graphical overhauls that are coming with the Dominion expansion and ask which other aspects of EVE's graphics are long overdue for an upgrade.
The biggest graphical overhaul coming with the next expansion is a complete revamp of the planet and moon graphics. The current graphics are simple textured spheres using a very basic shader. In addition to moderate atmospheric haze, the planets have a night texture that shows in the shadowed regions and a day texture that shows in the lit areas. It's a technique that's been the staple of sci-fi games for years and it's really starting to show its age. Most games stave off the issue with high resolution textures but this still presents problems when you get too close to the planet and it means a lot of planets will look alike as they use the same textures.
CCP have used a novel approach to bypass these road blocks. The new system uses procedural generation to make each planet look unique. This also opens the possibility of having the GPU reconstruct the textures in higher detail as you zoom in or get closer to the planet. If they do it right, you could get extremely close to planets without compromising on detail. The new planets will be used as impressive backdrops to stations and epic battles. Stations, stargates and other important waypoints may be moved closer to planets and moons to make good use of the new graphics.
New starry backgrounds also recently appeared on the test server. I wouldn't be surprised if these were procedurally generated and the stars seen were actually the same stars in the EVE galaxy that we travel to. Perhaps additional features like some of the black holes present in New Eden or even the EVE Gate could be added to systems nearby the phenomena. Its not confirmed whether the new starfield graphics on the test server are final or if the update will be released with the Dominion expansion but I'm looking forward to seeing the final outcome.
What else needs an upgrade:
While the new starfield is pretty and the impressive new planets are likely to play a big part in the Dominion expansion, there are other parts of the game that are long-since due for a change. The most common request is for new high resolution nebular background images as the current ones are starting to look old and dull next to our shiny new ships and planets. With the direction CCP is taking on its other graphical upgrades, I would venture a guess that they may have other plans for the system backgrounds. Rather than simply producing high resolution versions of the existing backgrounds, the graphics could be procedurally generated based on the system's position within the EVE stellar nursery. A complex three-dimensional nebula could be drawn up for the entire EVE galaxy and each system's background could depend on what can be seen from that system.
In addition to the backgrounds, another popular point of contention is the relative emptiness of space. Where are all the nebulae, dust clouds, ion storms, comets and system-wide asteroid belts? For that matter, where are all the civillian ships and structures? Putting absolute realism aside, adding some more clutter to space would help create a more immersive experience. With upcoming games like Black Prophecy and Star Trek Online showing signs of achieving this, EVE could be at risk of being outclassed by these upcoming releases in the sci-fi MMO market.
EVE Online is continually undergoing improvement and its graphics are no exception. No doubt we can expect more updates as time passes to keep the game ahead of the curve and make use of new technologies. What other graphical updates do you think EVE needs?