Crispy Gamer

Love and Eskil

Eskil Steenberg thinks in systems. Our conversations wander down long chains of cause and effect: If this is so, then that is so. And so on, and so on (and so on (and so on)). In short, he sees the world as a programmer, which is his trade. And here I am, a jack of all trades, attention span of a kitten with a ball of yarn, hopelessly trying to follow this torrent of logic. Eskil is unhappy with the character animation in his game, an ambitious project called Love.

Love and Eskil
Love creator Eskil Steenberg isn't happy with his character models, hence the general lack of people in these screenshots (and focus on pretty lighting and filter effects).

"The bones of the pelvis dictate the range of motion for the hips, which control the knees, which bend only so far, like real knees, which line up with the feet, which work in concert with all the other parts to make the character walk." This is a half-accurate quote. There's no way I could ever really remember the details of Eskil's lengthy explanation, or the occasional reversal of certain sentence structures that betray him as a non-native English speaker. He's talking about the spine and the way a character twists to look around. He has a system in Love that allows his characters to look in any direction without breaking the rules of the human body. Only it doesn't quite work right.

Eskil is big on rules. Rules are his paintbrush. They are what allow him tackle the enormity of his project, which is this: Eskil is creating a massively multiplayer online game completely on his own. He makes Love all alone (ha, ha) in a Stockholm apartment crammed with games and computer equipment. He's been at this for over two years, and you can see his dedication in a distinct lack of skin pigment. He's practically translucent, with dark circles around his eyes. Holding court in a packed bar after giving a talk at this year's Game Developers Conference, he basks in human contact, talking at supersonic speeds, tipsy on orange juice and jetlag. He seems to be a teetotaler.

Love and Eskil
Love plays out as a kind of first-person-shooter, with fancier weapons obtained over time by raiding enemy strongholds.

Going it alone means that Eskil has to be choosy with his time. He can't fuss around with all the little details that normally constitute productive game making. He can't be bothered to design levels. He can't sit down and model a tree, or finesse the movement of his characters by hand. Instead of doing these things directly, Eskil creates programs that do the work for him, a technique known as procedural (or generative) design. Think of it like this: Instead of playing God, the guy who creates every little piece of the world by hand, Eskil plays Big Bang, creating the forces of nature that shape the world.

It's all about rules. When Love generates a game world, the game knows that a certain ratio of water to dry land is needed. It knows that, to create a hill, each square of land that makes up that hill must maintain a certain relationship with the square of land next to it -- not too tall, not too short. When a player in Love builds a house, the game knows that the walls should have windows. Love is a compendium of rules.

"When I started making this game, I thought that procedural content was something that I was going to have to do because I was alone," Eskil says. "I thought it would never be as good as if I had the time to make every little piece by hand. But as I started working on it, I realized that there's a certain amount of randomness and complexity that can come from not having it handmade. It can be a lot more intricate."

Love and Eskil
Enemy fortresses are often protected by deadly gun emplacements. Fortunately, these are powered by visible energy grids that can be taken out in a variety of ways (the blue lasers).

And Love is certainly intricate. I've seen the game at GDC for the last two years, kept up with Eskil online, and followed his press, but I can't say I really have a full grasp on the basics of playing the game. What I do know is this: For an MMO, Love is played on a small scale. Players log onto a world with a circumference of about 1.5 kilometers -- so small you can actually keep up with the sun as it makes its trip around the globe. You play cooperatively in groups of around 50 people, building up a city on your world and addressing threats that emerge spontaneously. Fortress-like strongholds full of hostiles pop up from time to time. Players gather up their neighbors and raid these procedurally generated dungeons, destroying them permanently, and bringing back fancy new technology for the whole town to share. There is no leveling system. All progress is shared. The idea is that instead of feeling motivated to play because you need to keep up with your group's level, you play because you don't want to miss big decisive battles and rare events.

"Imagine that there is a soap opera that is always on, and when you're not watching TV, you're missing something," says Eskil. "That's what I want you to feel." One interesting side effect of this always-changing online world is the idea that you might be the person who kills the big bad boss in the castle. You might be the person who found some great new weapon that the whole town can now use. "If you bring new stuff into the city, the object will have the name of the person who did it," says Eskil. "So if meet somebody, they might be like, 'You're the cool guy who brought in the slug rifle! I love that gun! Thank you so much!' So you can get kind of famous in this world."

Meanwhile, Eskil's working on getting famous in the real world, giving Love demos to anyone who asks. Everywhere I go at GDC, he's there with his laptop and business cards. Journalists are always quickly taken by Love's fuzzy good looks, that Shadow of the Colossus filter Eskil uses to hide the simplicity of what's underneath. I worry that the game itself might be similarly simple, just below the surface. But I can't help hoping that this guy, clicking away at his keyboard in his little apartment day and night -- like a monk in some futuristic order of game designers -- might make something magical happen.