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.