EVE Evolved: Too early to judge Incarna

EVE Evolved title image
Amidst talk of EVE Online's upcoming nullsec revamp, the Council of Stellar Management voiced legitimate concerns that CCP may not be assigning enough development time to in-space EVE features. Last year, CCP Zulu revealed that of over 400 developers at CCP Games, 124 were assigned to EVE Online. Of those, a whopping 70 were assigned to develop EVE's new avatar-based Incarna feature, several others were assigned to core technologies going into Incarna, and only 22 were focused on developing in-space features.

Last week I looked into the issue of EVE's development time being reduced over the years, but it has been pointed out to me that I largely dismissed the development time that went into Incarna as if it weren't development on EVE. This is a common line of thought among current veteran players, who typically don't care about Incarna and want time to be spent on in-space features instead. Incarna has eaten up a significant amount of development time for very little tangible benefit, but is it too early to judge the efficacy of this massive addition to EVE?

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at what the future may hold for Incarna and how the work invested so far may not become valuable to players until certain features hit.

EVE side imageHistory lesson

When we first heard about Incarna, it was as the Ambulation concept first announced at the 2006 EVE FanFest. In a devblog in November of that year, Torfi Frans Olafsson gave details of his ambitious avatar-based plans and confirmed that CCP was hard at work on the feature. Snippets of information, interviews and screenshots occasionally surfaced, but Ambulation wasn't to make a solid re-appearance until two years later at the 2008 EVE Fanfest.

The project was renamed to Walking in Stations, and Fanfest 2008 attendees were given the opportunity to try out a test build from CCP's super secret internal test server. We saw videos of a player walking around a Minmatar bar and playing the Tek Wars minigame, and the expansion seemed almost within our grasp.

Fast-forward to late 2010 and Incarna still hadn't been released. A total of four years from the original Ambulation announcement, CCP still had nothing to give players for all the work put into the feature. All work up until that point had apparently been scrapped, and it wasn't until December 2010's Incursion expansion that we finally got our hands on the first piece of Incarna: the character creator. Six months later, the Incarna expansion officially launched with the inclusion of a single Minmatar captain's quarters that players can now walk around in.

EVE side imageTechnological progress

During its four-year turnaround from concept to completion, Incarna has been continually underestimated in both workload and scope. It's not surprising then that the work required to make it happen is still being underestimated today. The new character creator was a massive technological accomplishment, the culmination of years of work. Core engine teams slaved over the Carbon framework on which the character creator is based, and 3-D modelers produced deformable face and body models we now use. Modelers even worked with professional fashion designers to produce realistic-looking clothing that's much more than just a painted-on texture.

Today we have animated characters, a new 3-D environment to walk around in, and some useful tools for new players. Although we only have one Minmatar captain's quarters so far, nobody can say it doesn't look absolutely stunning. It has great lighting, a projected video wall and an interactive 3-D interface that acts as a stepping stone between EVE's in-space form-based features and the world of avatars. CCP Chiliad even released details of the modular system with which Incarna rooms are built, which theoretically allows for an incredible level of customisation. Although all we have so far is one non-customisable single-player room, the groundwork has definitely been laid for further development.

EVE side imageIn it for the long haul

No part of Incarna's development sounds easy or cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but as it contains no new gameplay, players are understandably annoyed. Shiny graphics and new avatars are nice, but they're not gameplay, and many gamers won't pay a subscription fee just to dress up dolls. As proud as CCP is of its new technology, we don't play The Carbon Framework Online; we play EVE Online, the game where you smash spaceships into other spaceships. As it stands, a lot of work has gone into Incarna, but nothing new that we can really play has come out of it yet. There's a temptation, then, to think of all that work as having been worthless when it's really too early to tell that.

This seems to be the cause of a lot of the animosity toward Incarna. It's certainly been the basis of my own instinctively negative response, but when I really think about it, it's difficult to justify that reaction. The slow pace of progress toward Incarna gameplay is disappointing, but we should really have expected it after four years of waiting for even a hint of Incarna on the live servers. We all know that there are plans for station-based gameplay in the future and that the Incarna dev teams are trying to get multiplayer establishments out during the coming winter expansion slot. The optimist in me wants to believe that all the years of work on Incarna will eventually be worth it.

EVE side imageGameplay potential

Multiplayer environments have the potential to completely revolutionise the way in which we interact with each other in EVE, letting us meet people face to face or even take phone calls from the video wall in our quarters. If CCP wants players to use Incarna, it will have to provide engaging gameplay inside station environments. Something as simple as customisable quarters would be a ridiculously popular feature, and players would undoubtedly pay more for furniture or larger quarters in the NeX store than they would shell out for overpriced clothing.

Multiplayer establishments and storefronts would be massive for immersion, role-playing, and for letting players develop more sandbox professions. They could even be used for corporate recruitment centers, corp offices and meeting rooms. One of the most popular ideas CCP announced in 2007 was the inclusion of a war room with a three-dimensional map of the EVE universe that corp leaders could use to plan war efforts. In the future of war, the real commanders might sit back in the war room, receiving intel reports from scouts and coordinating fleet movements. The video wall in each captain's quarters provides the means to potentially display custom videos in-game or stream footage from a scout in the field or a DUST 514 mercenary on the ground. If that isn't an exciting possibility, I don't know what is.

EVE side imageIncarna-only gameplay

For Incarna to be popular, it will have to feature some exclusive content only available inside stations. As cool as CCP's idea of running a seedy bar that sells illegal combat boosters is, that's really not going to cut it. Special black market missions available only through Incarna agents would be a fantastic boost, even if the missions themselves take place in space. Black market services like cheap factory slots, illegal labs, and off-the-record refinery deals with reduced station tax would make Incarna a place you need to go to get a job done in secret.

Black-market content also has the potential to revitalise EVE's extremely underused low-security systems. Lowsec could be transformed into the best place for black-market dealings, with better missions and illegal factories using dangerous rapid manufacturing methods. To help players bypass gatecamps and get into low security space, smuggler agents could be introduced to provide a form of Incarna-only remote jump clone service. These are all just ideas, but the basic premise of incentivising Incarna through exclusive gameplay is definitely sound. Incarna will probably need to be incentivised in that manner if the multiplayer portion is to be the runaway success it deserves to be.

Final thoughts title image
Incarna has spawned more animosity between EVE's players and its developers than any other feature in the game's history. Years of work have been put into creating the groundwork for station-based gameplay, but so far all players have seen of it is a character creator and one room with extremely limited use. We can't even customise our single room yet, let alone open the station doors and take a stroll along the corridors. The cynic in me sees the expansion that bears the name Incarna as a total failure and a complete waste of development time, but the optimist in me says it's far too early yet to make that judgment.

Much to the dismay of current players, most of the work done on Incarna hasn't yet been used in any appealing gameplay. There is undoubtedly a lot of potential in Incarna, but no schedule for its multiplayer environments and station-based gameplay has been released. I just hope that when it finally arrives, all the work that's currently not valued very highly by players begins to offer something compelling for everyone.

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.