CCP’s Dust 514 wants to bring EVE Online’s world of lies, corporations, and deceit to a console FPS
Around 1,000 of the most dedicated EVE Online super-fans and a few members of the press [Disclosure: CCP paid for the hotel and airfare] made the voyage to Iceland to attend the 2012 Eve Fanfest, and the majority of them were politely watching a demonstration of Dust 514, an upcoming PlayStation 3 first-person shooter set in the world of EVE Online. The crowd didn’t quite know what to expect, and the action on the screen didn’t look bad, but it was hard to tell how it differed from many other first-person shooters already on the market.
Two men walked onstage and took their places in front of computers, and suddenly the screen split to show the EVE Online client. The crowd cheered, no longer just passively paying attention to a game they may or may not care about. The games were working together; one of the developers sent a message from the PS3 shooter to the PC-based EVE Online player. The crowd cheered. It wasn’t over.
A Dust 514 player designated a target on the ground, and we saw an outline of the target show up on the planet the ships were orbiting in EVE Online. The ships took aim and fired, bombarding the planet from orbit. The opposing side was ripped apart and couldn’t fight back against the ships floating high above the battlefield. The PS3 and PC games had worked together flawlessly, allowing players in Dust to call in reinforcements from another game being played on another platform. The crowd cheered loudly, and many stood and clapped. This is what they had hoped to see.
This year’s Fanfest focused on Dust 514, and the game proved to be wildly ambitious. Dust will link PC and PS3 players and mix the first-person shooter mechanics of console games with the complexity and intrigue of EVE Online. If CCP, the developer and publisher of both games, is able to successfully launch a cross-platform game that works with the politics and violence of EVE Online, it will have done something completely new in the world of gaming. When was the last time anyone was able to claim that?
Why consoles? Why first-person shooters?
“It was on a test server,” CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson told the Penny Arcade Report when we asked about the bombardment demonstration earlier that day. “No way we could have done that in EVE. Well, we could have, but we wouldn’t.”
EVE Online isn’t like most online games. The players not only create the story, but they create the rules. You can cheat people out of their money. You can join a group of players, called Corporations, with the intent of double-crossing your friends and selling information about what they’re doing to their opponents. As long as you don’t break the End User Licensing Agreement, you can do anything you want. It’s a pure sandbox, and the nannies aren’t always watching. “They’re not playing a CCP game. We’re just the janitor crew that makes sure that we clean up the mess and change the lightbulbs and once in a while, make the building bigger,” Pétursson explained. “It’s their game.” The game has carved out a niche that’s both profitable and sustainable: Over 400,000 players are paying subscribers, and the company took in $66 million in revenues in 2011.
Dust represents a huge shift for a company that’s dependent on a hardcore PC game. The biggest change is the platform: Dust 514, for the time being, is a PlayStation 3 exclusive. “I think if you were to put it on PC we would have brought with us all the complexity of EVE into a shooter-style, and we would have ended up with something like an Excel shooter,” Pétursson said, poking fun at people who characterize EVE Online as being a game about flying spreadsheets. “It has been really helpful to make it for consoles, to make sure it is simple and intuitive and all the sort of rules and expectations that a console product has have been helpful to make sure when you play it, you think this is not difficult to get into.”
Without naming names, Pétursson made it clear that we won’t be seeing Dust on the Xbox 360 in the near future. “The ecosystems of the consoles are very different. Some have a very closed approach and some have an open approach. So when we were talking to them, and what we wanted to do was very hard to pull off with the rules of everyone,” he explained. “Sony is the most open, and that allows us to do the most interesting things. For us to take it somewhere else, something fundamental has to change with the other platforms. There is no way to pull this level of integration with the other platforms. That’s what it boiled down to.”
Still, the question is on everyone’s mind: Will Dust 514 make it to the PC? Pétursson stated that they’re focused on making the game work well on the PlayStation, and that’s what they’re talking about today. “What happens tomorrow is based on what you do today,” he said.
For CCP, “yesterday” contained a few mistakes that haunted them during Fanfest.
EVE Online gets back on track
2011 was a rough year for CCP. The company rolled out an expansion to EVE Online called Incarna, and that expansion allowed players to purchase aesthetic upgrades for the newly-released avatar system. Put simply, players could now see what their pilots looked like out of the ships, and they could buy accessories for these characters. The most expensive item was a monocle that cost the equivalent of around $60. An internally created magazine with the cover “Greed is Good” was also leaked to the player base. None of this was taken lightly by the players. They rioted.
You can read the whole ugly story in my previous coverage at Ars Technica, but the player-controlled council that acts as a ruling body for the game’s populace was flown to Iceland to discuss what to do about the situation, and the company was forced to take a hard look at the choices it had made and the items that were being sold to players. At Fanfest there were jokes about how CEO Hilmar Pétursson dealt with this dramatic period in the company’s life; in fact, one image likened him to the red-haired “Fat Bastard” character from Austin Powers, but it was hard to laugh at the comparison. Pétursson looked miserable, pale, and depressed in every image shown from 2011.
“We didn’t sell [Incarna] correctly, we didn’t make it optional. We tied it up with a virtual goods strategy, which we learned a hell of a lot from. That kind of compounded and we just sort of looked at ourselves and wondered what were doing,” EVE Online senior producer Jon Lander told the Penny Arcade Report. They had to reorganize and re-prioritize projects and learn when things had gone wrong. 20 percent of the company was laid off. “That was the last four months of the year, which was tough on everyone. We had some dark times. We lost some really talented people,” he said. This was combined with the Icelandic winter, in which the majority of the day is spent in darkness. Lander remembered the sun coming up at 10:30 in the morning and going back down at 2:30 in the afternoon. That was Christmas Day. Morale couldn’t get much lower.
In January, they brought everyone together in a theater in Reykjavik for a low-key event to show off what they had been working on. “The only thing we spent money on was a 75-shot Jäger-train,” Lander remembered. They shared the plans for the rest of the year, and the sun began to come up again in March. The subscribers didn’t leave the game to play The Old Republic, which had been a worry. Then Fanfest began, and the fans came in to visit. “These are the players who believe Internet space ships are serious business,” Lander said.
CCP staff repeatedly referred to 2011 as “learning event,” and those lessons were talked about openly during the many presentations. “This is a game about space ships, and that’s what we’re going to focus on,” the crowd was told at one point, to applause. The team promised to end what they dubbed “Jesus features,” or new things that would change the game in large ways. Instead the game would be updated to be more fun, and more focus put on what is important: Flying around the in-game world in beautiful space ships.
Fans were shown video of what the game may look like after DirectX 11 features are added. A video showing new missile and rocket launcher effects brought cheering fans to their feet. The numbers “2011” were shown on the screen at one point; the packed house first booed loudly, and then after a moment began to clap. It was a rather elegant message: fans were saying that the mistakes of the previous year were forgiven, and it was time to move on. During the last presentation, the developers sat behind the screen on the opposite end of the theater, and before the show ended they received a loud standing ovation. The players were back on CCP’s side, and they weren’t afraid to show the company their support. There were a few moments where Pétursson seemed to blink back tears of joy.
So how does Dust play?
Atli Már Sveinsson, the creative director of Dust, explained that the game will have both shallow and deep ends of play. “We have the high-security matches, or NPC contracts.” Those are “fair and balanced,” and will attempt to keep the games competitive. As players level up and gain abilities they may be tempted to explore more competitive matches in “low-security” space, which are areas with little to no rules of law. There is no match-making. It does not have to be fair. The more powerful side will survive, and they will likely have back up orbiting the planet to provide support. This is where the real meat of Dust 514 will be seen, and Sveinsson is confident players will enjoy their time there. “Our hardcore is almost infinitely more hardcore than most games,” he said.
Dust 514 will be a free to play game, and it’s clear the team is sensitive about the negative connotations that brings to projects.. “There is no pay to win,” Sveinsson said. This is repeated over and over during interviews and presentations. You will be able to buy everything from customization to temporary skill unlocks and packages of temporary buffs. “It’s more to give players a way to customize or leap-frog just a little bit. You can never get any permanence, and of course we have normal items you can purchase on the market.” The items you buy with actual currency will be different than what you can earn in the game, but they will be equivalent in power and advantage.
“You have people who are time rich and have much ISK [ISK is the game’s virtual currency], but you’ll have other people like me with kids and hectic jobs, and they want to contribute and mean something on the battlefield,” he explained. So players who are willing to commit cash will be able to unlock some things sooner than the people who earn it in-game, but there will be nothing you have to buy. The players willing to play for items and abilities will never be held back because they don’t pay real money. The markets of EVE Online and Dust 514 will also be linked, and that opens up many options for interesting subversions of the system. EVE Online players can use ISK to buy PLEX, which works as in-game play time for the subscription-based game. What’s interesting is that PLEX can be broken down to Aurum, which is the virtual currency that you buy in Dust with real currency. This may sound complicated, but it means that the possibility exists that Corporations can take their holdings in ISK, convert it to Aurum, and buy their mercenary squads in-game items and abilities.
The original plan was to charge a set amount for Dust 514, but then give the player the equivalent amount back to spend as in-game money. After speaking with Sony and having much internal debate, it was decided the game was going to be 100 percent free to play. That means anyone can download the game and try a few matches to see if it’s something they’re interested in exploring. It’s a smart move, as getting someone to pay $10 or more for a game with a promise of in-game goods may be tricky, but making the cost of admission effectively zero means that anyone can jump in and give it a shot.
Dust players will have also have access to all the social resources of EVE Online players. They can send mail in-game, use the forums, participate in chat, and keep up with what’s going on in deep space. It’s hoped that Dust players will be drawn into the spirit of EVE, and there was already espionage taking place during Fanfest.
“In the first session, one corporation contacted another player and said if he helped them win, he would get paid ISK in EVE,” Sveinsson explained. “So he tanked the game, and announced what he had done. This is happening as we speak. People are back-stabbing and forming alliances. It’s amazing.”
The hope is that the EVE community will tap into a new resource in their wars for power and money: Dust players. As the two groups begin to work together, new ways of subverting the system will be invented. “We don’t specifically have to train players, but we will. I think the community is going to do it for us,” Sveinsson said. “The fact that there is a sandbox makes the other people proud of being part of the community. You can get there if you want, it’s your choice. We’ll have millions of players playing in high security, but they’re going to hear about scams and the things going on in low security, and they’re going to want to be a part of that.”
Sveinsson also stated a hope that many in CCP likely share. “I think more players will play EVE because Dust exists,” he said.
I had the chance to play the game itself a few times; it was impossible to gain much insight about the quality of Dust 514. The demos seemed to be using early code, and the characters we played had been built for us; it was hard to get a sense for the customization options. A latency problem kept the sides from killing each other during one match, which led to players simply running around and exploring. I was slightly disappointed at how many bullets it took to kill someone, and to my unskilled hands it seemed like using a tank made me more vulnerable than it made you powerful, but I’m willing to chalk this up to my inexperience with how to use either the soldiers or the vehicles.
It takes an incredibly long time to throw a grenade. Let me get that out there. That needs to be changed.
There is much going on with Dust, and it’s hard to judge the game based on a few matches at an event. We’ll be able to get a much clearer picture of the game during the upcoming beta.
Dust 514 will take you as far as you want to go
CCP CEO Hilmar Pétursson walked me through his dream of how players will enjoy the game: first they will simply have fun shooting at other players, and then they’d begin to realize they’re getting messages and noticing things happening on the PC side of things, from players operating in EVE Online. “And these players are in an alliance! And now I’m in an alliance with them and we are friends! I am now in Iceland! I just got an EVE tattoo! What happened?” Pétursson said, laughing. Players will be drawn into the player-created contracts and matches in higher level, lower security areas of Dust, and that will draw them in the politics and battles of EVE Online. Anyone can enjoy the NPC-created low-level fights, but to really go after the big prizes, you’ll have to deal with the people flying above the planet in their ships. And that is going to open up gaming possibilities that have barely been explored in console gaming.
The team at CCP will admit that this is a learning process for them as much as it will be for fans. I attended a panel about how Dust players will fit into EVE Online Corporations, and the creative director of the game took out a pen and asked the fans how they think PS3 players be handled in EVE Online. There was a spirited discussion where both sides asked questions, took notes, and brought up good points about the game and how the two halves will fit together. I’m reminded of Pétursson saying they just changed the lightbulbs, and the players are the ones who run the game and make the rules. It was clear watching the developers interact with fans that these weren’t empty words; players will determine how Dust evolves and changes by their actions.
What if a Corporation puts out a contract only to ambush one of the sides picking it up with a more powerful team of players? As you level up and play in the lower-security areas of Dust, death will have very real consequences and penalties, so there could be many ways of tricking players into ambushes. Having ships in orbit to support you only helps players if those ships are operational, and we can expect ship-to-ship fighting to take place during ground battles where Corporate assets are in play. Having a squad of soldiers you trust and support is going to be an asset in the game, and working with the players in EVE Online is going to pay off for those on the ground. And of course the fans are going to find new and interesting ways to lie, cheat, and steal using both games.
Pétursson told me about the first few times EVE Online players complained about losing ships or money to scams and intrigue. “They didn’t break any rules,” he said. “They created their own rules. People trusted them, and then they broke their own rules. Not our rules. That has given people the confidence that if they do something amazing in EVE, then it is theirs.” In other words, you keep what you kill, and if you can convince someone to trust you, it’s up to you whether or not to abuse that trust. “If you are able to cheat someone and you don’t break the EULA, then it is your achievement,” he explained. They want players to choose how deep to go down the rabbit hole.