EVE Evolved: Making a better avatar

Since the game's release in 2003, EVE Online's character creation has served a very limited role in the game. Customisation was limited to a head and pair of shoulders, and the final output was nothing but a small passport photo to go next to our names in chat and our posts on the official forums. Despite this, our avatars have always had a big impact on the way we formed communities and interacted with each other. On the rare occasion that the portrait image server went down, the forums turned from a discussion amongst acquaintances into a sea of faceless and emotionally anonymous posters. There's a lot of personality in those little icons, and they produce an instant recognisability that a name on its own just doesn't accomplish.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that seeing the icons next to someone's name in the in-game chat channels helps to form closer associations between players. After seven years of EVE, however, those portraits were beginning to look a little outdated. With the Incursion expansion, we finally got our hands on a new, powerful, full-body character creator. Characters can be created in minute detail by manually deforming areas of the face and body, not just by dragging slider bars. The resulting avatar is still currently used to create a portrait, but when the Incarna expansion hits, each avatar will be walking around inside stations in all its full-bodied glory.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I give a run-down of the new character creation process and share a few personal tips I've picked up on making a better-looking character.

Pulling faces

When you first enter the character creator screen, you're confronted with a blank canvas of an avatar -- relatively featureless and bereft of hair or modest clothing. While it's tempting to start sorting through the pretty hair styles and the currently limited selection of clothing choices, these are finishing touches that are best left until later. Pay close attention to the shape of your character's face, remembering that in this first design stage you're seeing a very neutral expression. If you make an angry face or a squint at this stage, your character will always have it. All changes made to one side of the face are automatically propagated to the other, keeping the face neutral and symmetrical.

The key things you'll want to modify here are the nose, jaw line, cheekbones, the position of the eyes, and the position and size of the mouth. Rotate the character around frequently to see how it looks at different angles and under different lighting conditions. Looking at it in a side-on profile is also a handy way to check whether the nose, chin and eyes look the way you want. When you're happy with the way the face looks, move across to the complexion menu on the right-hand side and try out some of the options. Adding some aging or scarring will give your character's skin some much-needed texture, making it look a bit more realistic and interesting. Leaving all of these options at zero can produce an odd porcelain-doll effect that robs a character's face of a lot of personality.

Further customisation

Female characters have a variety of makeup options that can be used as either subtle accents or extravagant colourings. The opacity or weighting of each makeup component can be varied, but I wouldn't advise setting any of them to above 60%. It's far too easy to heap on so much brightly coloured makeup that your character looks like a cheap prostitute. Male characters have options for eye detail, lash thickness and other attributes, but none of them seems to make a major difference to how the character looks.

Hair style and colour will have the biggest impact on how your final portrait looks, but among the many options available, only a few looked any good to me. Many of the hair options look more like cheap wigs than hair, so be sure to try them all out and find one that feels natural. Most of the long hair options also react badly with the engine's physics, but this won't really affect the final portrait, and we should expect those problems to be ironed out by the time Incarna hits. The only remaining customisation is in the body shape and clothing, both of which only play a very slight role in your final character portrait. Clothing options are severely limited, and I expect that we won't see any new additions to this until Incarna is released.

Photo-shoot

When all the customisation is complete, you'll move on to the posing screen to prepare your final character portrait.. Although I find myself nostalgic for the old backgrounds that were removed, they've been replaced with a huge range of great new high-resolution backdrops. The first 23 backgrounds are gritty and highly industrial images of the bulkheads inside an EVE ship, and these are definitely my favourites. The remaining backgrounds are a mixture of lights and fuzzy patterns, some subtle and others very bright. The subtler of these work very well while the brighter patterns can be distracting and dominate the portrait.

The character's head can be turned and tilted, and its eyes can be rotated to make it look in a particular direction. Decide whether you want the character to be looking straight at the camera, staring into the distance or looking at something off-screen. Before working on your character's expression, cycle through the lighting options and find one that looks particularly awesome. The eyebrows, eyelids and mouth can all be morphed separately on each side of the face, which is handy for producing a smirk or a raised eyebrow. A great tip I picked up from the forum is that people naturally widen their eyes in shade, so raising the eyebrow a little on shadowed eyes and lowering it on eyes in bright light can make your portrait look a bit more natural.

Summary

So far I've been really impressed with the new character creator. There aren't many clothing options or natural-looking hair styles available so far, but these will likely be focused on in Incarna. When creating your new avatar, remember that the scaled-down forum avatars and chat icons will look a little different than the full-sized image. How you see it in the portrait preview box is how it will appear in-game, so be sure you're happy with the small portrait image before continuing.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.