New Avatars in Eco 10

Posted on August 19th, 2023 11:56 AM EST
Hey Eco Citizens, Art Director Milenko here,
in this blog we will be talking about new avatars, the avatar creation system we are trying to implement, looking back at multiple increments of the avatar development during the game production so far and reminiscing a bit about the game and thoughts we had while making it.

Overview of past and coming up blogs:
- Boats and Trade
- Coastal construction
- New avatars (This blog)
- Face tracking avatars
- Photography/painting
- New graphical improvements
- Expanded tech tree
- Twitch plugin
- Towns, Countries, and Federations
- Culture

Let's get right into it.

New Avatars in Eco 10

If we start from the beginning, ECO was started as a pitch for an educational game. The pitch was done by a small group of people back in 2014 when we started putting together a demo for an educational game that would use a popular voxel style and teach about the impact of industrial and society progress on the environment people exist in.

Considering the scope of the project we had in mind, and the resources available, we opted to go with the overall simple style, with just a bit of a unique flavor in order to make sure we can put it all together on time and make it work. Focus was on the gameplay and the experience, and the graphics were (barely) catering to it.

So, with a small team, we made choices to keep everything simple and somewhat generic, in order to be able to produce assets necessary to populate the game with everything needed on time.

Old avatars in earlier versions

Image of an Eco avatar without beard at the very beginning.

Image of an Eco avatar with beard at the very beginning.

In its initial stage, the game was played from the first-person perspective, and we just went with a simple representation of other players/avatars as we did not consider it the focus of the experience.

However, as we kept on fleshing the world and the game mechanics out, we started realizing that the look of the avatars can bring much more to the overall experience. Also, once we got avatars in the game, some people (me included) wanted to play the game in third person, seeing your avatar on the screen and identifying with it.

So, we decided to invest time and effort in making avatars a little bit bigger part of the overall experience. That led us to the version of the avatar present in our early access builds up to the 9.x release.

An example picture of how an avatar could currently look like in Update 9.

As the rest of the game kept evolving, and the visuals and the art style getting upgraded and more intricate, we decided to have another look at the existing avatar designs.

Watching streamers creating little roleplay scenarios made us realize that we should and can do much more with the system.

Shortcomings of the current system became obvious- variety was very limited, art was too simple and clunky, and the system was very modder-unfriendly.

So, we started looking at options available and improvements we can make with our, still limited, resources.

We proceeded to make a wish list of features we would like to have and see how many of those we can bring to life.

More ideas were added as we continued with the process.

A concept sketch showing body shapes during very early development.

A concept drawing detailing facial and head features during very early development.

A concept sketch detailing facial expressions during very early development.

Concept art showing an avatar with backpack and multiple tools during very early development.

Then we looked at technologies available that would help get us as close to our wish list as possible, while still considering time and team limitations.

New Avatars in Update 10
So, we revised the existing avatar look, brought our assets to blender 3D software, built a new blender rig that would be more accessible by the modding community and used the UMA system to create more options for customizations. Process took months of research and work by a team of 3-5 people and finally we ended up with the prototype that was giving us the most of what we wished for.

A prototype of the new avatars in blender - not the final version.

At the same time, we looked at the other technologies available such as face and hand tracking, and experimented with that too, in order to add more personality and connect players with their in-game representation more. It is an ongoing process, so as the technology improves, we will play with it more on our end.

We also wanted to give a bit more of a spotlight to the avatars and decided to introduce them at the front end of ECO experience, giving people the opportunity to create their own persona before they dive into the world. In order to do that, we had to revise a whole onboarding experience, starting the game with the avatar creation process.

The new avatar creation UI allowing you to customize your characters to a whole new level.

Adding the new camera feature to the game itself allowed us to consider adding the “selfie” feature to the avatar creation, so that players can take a photo of their avatar and use it as an identification in the game as well as taking it out of the game and using it as an avatar icon wherever they want.

Multiple players around a town foundation, another new feature in Update 10.

Regarding the physical appearance of the avatars, we wanted to add more variety to the face and body shapes, facial features, skin decorations and to finally make hairstyles work with hats.

The new avatars support multiple facial decorations.

Hairstyles on the new avatars now work with hats!

We also wanted to infuse more life in the facial expressions and represent the mood of the avatars better, so we went and created a variety of blend shapes allowing players to show off how they feel in the game.

The new avatars support multiple facial expressions to show display a player's feelings.

Regarding the clothing we made sure to increase the resolution and add much more variety to the existing clothes, add new styles and make sure everything looks nice and clean. We made it possible to use multiple tints on any of the clothing assets, so players can get much deeper into the customization and making their representations unique.

Clothes for the new avatars now support multiple tints.

Also, we made sure that adding new styles and more of everything is possible within the system.

We also revisited backpacks and tools to match the new look and added body features such as makeup, face/body paint and tattoos.

Backpacks were adjusted to the new avatar system, supporting the display of different tools.

It is an expanding system, and we tried to make sure it is modular enough so we can keep on adding new features as they come up on our radar and become technologically available.

Visual style wise, it is an iteration of the existing avatar (9.x version), where we maintained similar proportions and volume, but are adding more resolution in the face and body, and exaggerating some of the facial features, so they work better with the expressions system we are implementing.
We opted out of making characters more realistic and kept the style simplified and stylised in order to keep us away from the uncanny valley effect which plagues a lot of the games trying to implement similar techniques on realistic looking characters.

We wholeheartedly hope that the majority of the existing and a lot of new players will enjoy these new revisions as improvements on our existing system, and we will keep on tweaking and improving all the aspects of this new upgrade until we reach the full release stage.

As always, we hope you enjoy ECO and our effort to keep on adding polish and improvements to everything from the art side gets noticed and enjoyed by all the people playing the game.

Love you all :)

- Milenko Tunjic, Co-Founder & Art Director Strange Loop Games
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