EVE Evolved: The development of Incarna

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EVE Evolved: The development of Incarna
One of the biggest differences between EVE Online and most other MMOs is the lack of a humanoid avatar. Even when you're docked up in a station, you can't leave your ship and walk around. The detailed avatars we create on starting the game are not so much avatars as passport photos; seen only as little square mug shots in chat channels and the official forums. In their never-ending quest to make EVE the definitive Sci-Fi simulation, this is something the game's developers CCP have always endeavoured to change. The introduction of a full body avatar feature, code-named "Walking in Stations", "Ambulation" and now known as "Incarna", has been undeniably the most anticipated feature since EVE went live. It's been in development since 2006 but has proven a much larger task than CCP originally anticipated. With the expansion tentatively slated for winter this year, new information on it is still harder to find than a sober Icelandic game developer.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I take a look at Incarna's development so far and why it hasn't been released yet.

Walking in Stations:

The ability to interact with other players using an avatar other than your ship has always been part of CCP's long term plans. Sometimes called "Walking in Stations" and sometimes "Ambulation", CCP first announced that they'd begun working on the concept at the 2006 EVE fanfest. CCP's lead technical producer at the time, Torfi Frans Olaffson, released further details in a bumper devblog shortly after fanfest. He gave a first look into the sheer depth of the project, from animation issues to rendering challenges and game-play considerations.

CCP was shooting for as realistic an experience as possible and that came with many questions to answer. How could they create realistic character movement while avoiding the "uncanny vally" effect? How would our avatars turn to look at things, push past each other in a crowded station or communicate while seeming completely natural? Was the technology even available to render hundreds of players on the same screen?

In retrospect, it was a ground-breaking project of such magnitude that perhaps we shouldn't have expected its timely completion. Developer Torfi Frans Olaffson is quoted in 2007 as saying "I always feel like we're just scratching the surface," an ominous statement that turned out to be very true. Walking in Stations was originally intended for a 2008 release but after two years of work, it was still firmly in the development stages.

War on the impossible:

By 2008 the concept of Walking in Stations had changed and at the EVE fanfest that year we got a glimpse of just why it was taking so long to make. For something as ground-breaking as Walking in Stations, CCP wanted to do everything right. Rather than hiring level designers, character modelers and texture artists, they made the bold move of looking outside the games industry for talent. They hired fashion designers to create realistic clothes for the EVE setting, with unique styles for each race. Rather than level designers who could create spaces suitable for use in an FPS game, they hired architects to create realistic spaces with realistic human usability in mind. Inspiration for station lighting and decor came from the film scene rather than traditional game design, with films such as Blade Runner and Aliens as their guide.

The EVE team have always seemed eager to incorporate new technology into the project, from GPU-based ambient occlusion techniques to the Enlighten realtime radiosity lighting engine. With each new morsel of information, we learn that the gargantuan task of creating Incarna is even bigger than before. Following the release of Vivox's seamless EVE voice service, it was even supposed by developers that Walking in Stations would include something called voice fonts. The idea is to distort your voice chat to be more like your character. Combined with directional sound and distance-based volume, that could be a very useful feature. Most recently, CCP have been spotted on the presentation list for the 2010 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, where they'll be demonstrating how they use physics simulation to make Incarna's clothing more realistic.

The finished product:

At the 2009 EVE Fanfest, CCP's game plan for 2010 was revealed and it seems Incarna is on the menu. Whether or not the expansion will make it to completion by the time the winter slot rolls around is anyone's guess. As we've seen from the past three years of waiting, Incarna is turning out to be a massive undertaking and CCP seem adamant that they do it right. At GameX 2009, Massively caught an exclusive interview with "Alli" Ottarsson and Nathan Richardsson from CCP to discuss EVE's expansion plans. They talked about some of the things we'll be able to do in Incarna, from gambling to playing mini-games that have an effect on the game as a whole. In effect, Incarna seems designed to be a more casual counterpart to EVE with a very low learning curve. Perhaps the most exciting feature they hinted at, however, was the presence of a criminal underground in some systems that can give out underground missions.

So far, what little we know of the actual game design elements have come from a few devblogs, fanfest presentations and interviews. The original design called for players to run their own stores, bars and gaming establishments. Players may even be able to join in on games from another station using a holographic system. When Incarna rolls around, a corporation's headquarters or offices could be transformed into EVE's equivalent of a private guild hall. It has been proposed that we'll have corporate recruiting offices with employable NPCs handing out leaflets. There was also talk of a 3D holographic war room where fleet commanders could preside over a battle in real-time and corporations could plan their next strategic move.


Playing without a humanoid avatar makes EVE a hard game for some people to relate to. It's no wonder then that Incarna has been arguably the most anticipated EVE expansion to date. There are even players planning to live their entire lives in stations once the expansion finally comes out. When released, Incarna may provide a more casual side to EVE game-play with a much more manageable learning curve. It may even provide a new way for players to enter the game and slowly climb the learning curve as they progress to being fully-fledged capsuleers. I've got a feeling that the day Incarna is released is the day EVE becomes truly universal in scope. Like a lot of people, I just wish that day would come sooner.
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