Available: TBA

Article by Andreas "Interman" Misund

You can just lock your door. Going out is starting to be pointless. There are so many great online games out that every kind of flavor should be covered. This time around we?re talking with Jake Cannell at Gnostics Labs, because they are in the process of developing a great new game called Eschaton Online, where several genres are covered, so people who are interested in blowing stuff up should be as equally interested as those who favor real-time strategy, or the political side of far-future space combat. You?ll have to wait a while to actually play this game, but while waiting you can find out what it?s all about in our QA. Enjoy.

Hi, please introduce yourself and your company to our readers.

Hi, I?m Jake Cannell, a Gnostic Labs founder and project lead on Eschaton. We are a startup game studio intent on creating revolutionary online worlds.

Eschaton Online seems to me like a game that deserves several genres. What kind of a game would you say it is?

Eschaton is a persistent universe set in the far future. The core gameplay genre is team action strategy, an online warfare game integrating action and strategy components with a chain of command. The thrust is to create a very intriguing space opera with huge epic battles.

Would you briefly summarize the background story, and where did you get the inspiration for it?

The setting is several millennia into the future, and the descendants of man have ascended to the stars. Mankind has evolved all the while, and technological development has led to godlike artificial intelligences and practical immortality. Most humans have moved beyond the flesh and live as digital Immortals in the metaverse. Mankind spread out over a large volume of space, occupying thousands of systems over the millennia known as the Diaspora before the faster-than-light breakthrough. The plot centers around three major space-faring empires that have formed since the FTL revolution. The Valtavech Republic is a prosperous federation formed from the old Valtavian Empire. The Alephians are a nomadic machine race that cruise the galaxy in their vast worldships. They are former enemies of the Valtavian Empire turned allies of the Republic. Then there are the Ixtek, a strange race recently encountered on the frontier of Valtavech space. They employ an advanced invasive nanotechnology to colonize planets and their expansion is provoking the Republic to war. The fictional inspiration for this universe comes from a variety of sources. In terms of novels, the works of Ian M. Banks, David Zindell and Vernor Vinge paint very involving future universes that explore the implications of the incredible acceleration of intelligence ahead of us. This new breed of science fiction forms much of the inspiration for Eschaton?s fictional setting.

What specifically can you do in Eschaton Online, and how will you cater to an as wide as possible audience?

You can join the military and fight for one of the game?s nations. Starting out as a pilot or gunner, you control individual units such as fighters, corvettes, and mechs, or control weapon stations on capital ships. At this level the game plays something like an action space sim such as freespace or independence war. You are directly piloting the ship and or aiming the weapons using your preference of mouse, keyboard, and joystick. As you advance (whether playing single player or in the persistent universe), you gain increasing control, moving up to command fighter squadrons or control larger capital ships. Controlling a capital ship is a very different experience, it is highly tactical as you have a large number of weapon systems, energy and heat management, and a variety of equipment to deal with. This experience is more like Starfleet command and other tactical naval combat games. Eventually you move up as a commander and control battle groups and even entire fleets. At this level of the game, it plays as an RTS game such as homeworld. The large twist of course is how these roles all integrate together in the chain of command. Players don?t spawn with a starting ship: they take control of existing ships and move freely between ships, taking over for the AI. Commanders issue orders to ships, any of which can be controlled by players or the AI. The effect of all this is huge space battles between large coordinated teams.

What graphics engine are you using, and what kind of difficulties do you face when offering gameplay in both the real-time strategy genre versus space simulation?

We are using the Immersion Engine, which is one of our main strengths and is all our own. I?ve designed the graphics engine to handle some of our top challenges, one of which is the problem of rendering hundreds of units at very high detail levels. In an RTS game such as homeworld, you must be able to deal with up to a few hundred units, but typically you are pretty far from them and they don?t need as much up close detail. In a typical space simulation, you are rendering less units at higher detail.

Since the thrust of Eschaton is to create epic space battles the likes of Robotech/Macross or Star Wars, its very important that we can deal with a huge volume of units. In fact, to support massive battles with a large number of players, we need to scale to upwards of a few thousands units in a battle, about an order of magnitude more than most RTS games. On the other hand, as you can also pilot individual fighters, we need excellent up close detail. The goal of the model rendering and physics subsystems is to simulate an order of magnitude more units than in most RTS games, and display them all at quality surpassing upcoming space sims, approaching pre-rendered cinematic quality.

To achieve this somewhat lofty goal, you really need a revolution in level-of-detail technology and this is where I?ve focused a great deal of my efforts. I?ve developed a unique offline processing tool that automates the extremely challenging process of creating authentic lods that preserve the appearance of a highly detailed input model while using drastically less polygons. This tool has a couple of components, one automatically skins surfaces and another uses a ray tracing process to paint maps onto lod meshes. What does this mean? The artist makes the high resolution model, assigns mapping coordinates (skinning), and then textures it with various maps: diffuse, specular, bump, self-illumination, etc. There are few limitations for this high resolution model, you can use a large number of maps of any size, and you can realistically use up to a hundred thousand polygons (going beyond that is still useful for map generation, but you quickly hit diminishing returns in terms of required modeling time). Then the artist also makes a set of 4 to 5 lod meshes, each of which cuts the polygon count down by 25-50%. The artist doesn?t have to assign mapping coordinates or materials for these LOD meshes, and doesn?t have to make textures for them. Our mapping tool automatically generates mapping coordinates and the ray tracer paints maps onto the lower lod meshes. Its extremely hard for an artist to properly create the texture maps to preserve the high detail appearance. Its extremely tedious work and really its impossible for them to handle this aspect manually better than our automated system. The ray-tracer allows the artist to not worry much about material and map limitations, and saves tons of time in making the lods. So our lods work far far better than whats possible in other engines, and they take far less artist time to make. The technology is based on some relatively new research in the graphics community, and I know of at least two other companies that have taken a similar approach: Id software and Crytek studios. In both cases they are using a similar technique to preserve the appearance of high resolution character models in a medium-low poly mesh. Our approach is unique in that it also automates texture coordinate generation, samples all maps (not just normal maps) and is thus well suited for generating a complete LOD spectrum. Its also something of a challenge dealing with complex vehicular models that have a lot of sharp edges, as opposed to smoother character models. Our tools are designed to handle that case well.

How does combat work?

Fleets are controlled by a group of players working together with a chain of command. At the topmost level you have the fleet admiral who coordinates the actions of the entire fleet, and assigns task forces and battle groups to fleet commanders. Commanders play an RTS game in homeworld fashion, controlling issuing orders to large groups of units and the players controlling them under their command. The command interface allows you to issue both simple commands that AI controlled units can interpret directly and which set objectives or targets for players, as well as create more complex coordinated plans with other players through voice communication and some visual tools.

At the lower levels, players can take over as the captain of capital ships, directly pilot smaller craft, and even man weapon stations on the larger ships. In each case, the player is substituting for the AI (or vice versa), so the battle can continue to flow smoothly as players leave and join. Furthermore, players are not strictly bound to any particular units. You can move freely between different units, and if you control a group of units, you can switch into direct control of any of them. You can move around and play out different roles during the course of a single battle.

What happens when say; a battle cruiser containing a large group of players is obliterated?

Those players move onto other roles and other units. Depending on the causalities incurred and players online, your available options may be a downgrade. If you were the captain of that cruiser, and there aren?t other available cruisers, you may have to settle for a corvette, fighter squadron, etc. In general we are shooting for about an order of magnitude more available roles in a fleet than there are available players, so the fleet can suffer massive casualties before there is a serious shortage of posts. And of course in the unfortunate case that your fleet is entirely wiped out, well you just move onto another fleet. This flexibility in moving between roles and units is one of our key design points. It eliminates the boring crap you see in most other online games, such as the downtime and waiting. In divorcing the player from particular units, it also eliminates personal risk from participating in a war. And most importantly, it allows players to truly jump into the game and get into a battle within a few minutes of launching the app, have a good time lasting anywhere from fifteen minutes to many hours, and then leave without serious consequences. And yet in this duration of time they can permanently alter the game universe and leave their mark. That?s a huge improvement over all other persistent worlds in terms of time commitment and is key to attracting the more casual players who have largely avoided persistent worlds up to this point.

If a person is lucky enough to become a ruler of a planet but for some reason doesn't go online again.

They?ll lose their leadership position, one way or another. Eschaton has a real political process, and whether you are an elected leader or an appointed official, you could easily lose your post if you just disappear for a few weeks without saying anything. Now, since all political advancement in Eschaton is achieved through other players, if you are going out on a week-long vacation and will be away from the game you just need to tell your fellow players and work something out.

In your opinion, what makes Eschaton Online better than other massive multiplayer online games?

Eschaton will stand out because it will offer a brand new experience unlike anything available now or in the near future. It will be the first game to let players join into an epic space war, with huge battles involving hundreds of players and thousands of units working together as coordinated teams. It will appeal to a wide range of gamers through the seamless integration of both action and strategy oriented gameplay. Eschaton will bridge the gap from single player to persistent world, and you?ll be able to play it anywhere in between. You will be able to login into the persistent universe and immediately jump into a battle in progress in under a minute, like popular online shooters. It will succeed where other online strategy games have failed because of its flexible chain of command.

In the long run, Eschaton?s potential lies in its dynamic universe with real nations controlled by players at all levels. The reward of seeing your actions shape history is far more fulfilling and lasting than gaining levels or increasing stats. The outcome of the war and the fate of the game?s nations rests in the player?s hands.

Is there a specific plot that will continue to unfold after the initial release?

Yes and no. We have a general plot with some specific planned events, but many of the large scale outcomes are left intentionally open. How will the Ixtek-Valtavech war unfold? Will the Alephians get involved and how? How will the independent states react? The players themselves will determine these outcomes. We will provide some high-level direction here and there, but much of the fun is in giving away some control of the plot to the players. The goal here is that players will be able to tell stories about their actions such as, ?I rose up the political ranks of the Republic and was elected consul, and I was instrumental in bringing the Alephians into the war effort and directing the Republic?s defense.? That?s a hell of a lot more interesting than, ?I reached level 34 and just bagged a dragon-slayer sword of doom + 22.?

How much has been done in the development, and how much is left?

To the extent that simple ratio elements are accurate and useful, I?d say the engine is almost half done, artwork is about one tenth of the way done, and the total effort is perhaps one fourth to one third done. It might be more useful to estimate how much remains for just the scenario mode vs the full persistent universe. The first scenario mode release won?t require the full artwork, nor all the engine and code pieces and is much closer. The persistent universe will build on top of that, but will also require large scale world building, a good deal of additional work on the procedural galaxy model and tweaking, political and economic game systems, base installation code and models, account and billing backend, and more, so its farther out.

When is the game scheduled for release?

The scenario mode will go into testing later this year, and will result in a playable demo that will go through several iterations before open public release. After the release of the scenario mode (the non-persistent single and multiplayer part) in the early part of next year, we will focus on the persistent universe for the next nine months or so while continuing to tweak unit balance and bugs in the scenario mode. We plan to begin testing the persistent universe in the latter part of 2003 and then commercial release of the fully integrated game after at least three months of beta testing.

Any last words for those who are impatient for the release?

The first closed testing will begin in a few months, so if you are quite eager to try Eschaton out early on, stop by our site and register for priority selection in testing. We also enjoy any comments, criticism and feedback and discussion of interesting gameplay ideas on our forums. So give us a visit and find out what the Eschaton is all about.

Related Links:

Eschaton Online Homepage