EVE Evolved: Music to watch the stars by

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EVE Online received some big graphical overhauls with the recent Crucible expansion, and every ship will have its graphics iterated on in future patches as part of with the ongoing V3 project. A great deal of time and money is poured into keeping EVE's graphics at the bleeding edge of the industry, and yet the game's music has barely changed since launch in 2003. Warped ambient compositions like Red Glowing Dust gave a feeling of depth and scale to early EVE's empty universe, and the electronic beats of tracks like Below the Asteroids and Merchants, Looters and Ghosts have become iconic sounds of EVE. The music still manages to impress new players, but with so much of EVE being overhauled, I think it's time to give the music another look.

Very few game studios pay as much attention to music as to graphics, the user interface, or gameplay, but the right music has the power to completely transform a player's experience. Just like in a movie, music can evoke an emotional response and so alter a person's perception of events. Fighting monsters in a fantasy MMO or shooting down pirates in EVE might not be a terribly epic activity, but throw in some epic music and suddenly it feels a lot more real. I wrote about the psychological effect of music in MMOs several years ago, and the topic is as relevant today as it was then.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at three different types of music that could improve EVE and suggest how CCP could take advantage of each type to give EVE the soundtrack it deserves.

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Ask any Nintendo fan what his favourite things are about the Zelda franchise and music will be pretty high on the list. The same thing can be said of countless MMOs; I myself downloaded EverQuest II again this week for the hundredth time just to sit in the middle of random zones and listen to the music mixing with the local ambient sounds. Part of the nostalgia embedded in a game's ambient music has to do with the way we link memories of events to specific sounds, smells or images. The background music that we hardly noticed when we took our first steps into a game will develop a strong nostalgic pull in the future that can be enough to draw players back to a game every six months or so.

The trick to capitalising on this is to have certain tunes associated with certain areas, events or activities. While all of the EVE music has a nostalgic factor for me, most of it doesn't bring back very clear memories of particular places or events. EverQuest II does a good job of this by having a different orchestral theme for each zone. Entering Antonica brings back memories of the first time I played the game, and the crafting instance theme reminds me of the time I made a hundred maple beds and started a discount bed shop from my inn room (I really did this). I have to wonder whether EVE could produce the same effect by having regional music, tense tracks for chokepoint systems or different themes for enemy alliance territory than for friendly systems.

EVE Online side imageCombat music

Having separate music for combat situations is a technique that's been used to great effect in generations of games. EVE actually has this in a limited fashion, as when you go into a mission or deadspace complex, fast-paced techno music will often play for a few minutes. I feel this kind of misses the point of combat music, though, which is to provide the player with audio feedback of the pace of gameplay. The pace of gameplay isn't necessarily as fast in one mission than in another, the music ends even if you're still in the mission, and there's no such music for PvP. A lot of players already have their own PvP tracklists they play during fights to increase EVE's natural PvP adrenaline rush.

For me, Enae Volare Mezzo from the Era project brings back fond memories of wormhole piracy and small-scale fleet fights I led during an 18-month wormhole expedition. At four and a half minutes long, the track usually outlasted the actual combat scenario, but it definitely added some much-needed pacing to what could otherwise have been a largely sedate and silent affair. The ideal system for EVE to implement would quantify the pace of action and deliver a similarly paced track. Like EverQuest II's combat music, it would need a way to evolve to more intense or epic parts as combat continued or major events changed the state of play. Having tense music play when you're waiting at a gate with your fleet or jumping through a jump bridge into a combat scenario could drastically improve the efficacy of EVE's PvP and make it even more addictive than it already is.

EVE Online side imageSynchronicity

When I first looked at EVE's soundscape in 2009, I suggested orchestral and choir music should take over from EVE's aging electronic synths and techno. Since then, however, a new genre of music in the form of dubstep has shown itself to be perfectly suited to space combat. The Crucible trailer lined up dubstep wubs with the individual shots of ships' weapons, and the result was astounding. There's something inherently pleasing about sound that synchs up with visual cues; it's the magic the fuels games like Guitar Hero and underlies some incredibly impressive YouTube videos, and any company that learns to harness that power effectively will be rolling in cash.

Although synching visuals with music can produce a great trailer, it's not really feasible to do something like that in-game and in real time... or is it? If you composed an electronic or dubsteb track split into several layers that mix well, it might be possible to play one layer as a background track and then drop the other layers in intermittently as visual events occur on-screen. If even just one on-screen event every few seconds synchs up with the track, the effect would be awesome. It also shouldn't be too difficult to attempt a proof of concept experiment on the technique by manually applying it to a video of EVE combat. I don't think truly dynamic combat music like this is something CCP is interested in doing, but it is theoretically possible and would make a very interesting experiment.

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For the first few years of its life, EVE Online had arguably one of the best soundtracks in the MMO genre. The industry's use of music to set the pace and mood of a scene has advanced in leaps and bounds since then, however, and EVE's soundtrack has barely changed. Most players currently switch the music off, and I think that's a massive shame because it could be used as a real source of immersion. Without taking advantage of techniques like associating particular themes to particular activities or augmenting the pace of combat with an appropriately upbeat track, EVE may be in danger of falling behind the rest of the industry.

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.