DUST 514: Almost One Year On
At EVE Fanfest in Iceland last year, Dust 514 was introduced to the world with a spectacular set-piece: a squadron of mercenaries playing on PS3 calling in a real-time orbital strike from a player piloting a spaceship in EVE. It was an impressive and easy-to-understand symbol for the wider integration of this new multiplayer FPS into a persistent, ever-changing world that is already home to several hundred thousand players and their Internet spaceships.
Since beta testing began almost a year ago, though, things haven’t been so clear, and those grand co-operative moments have only just started materialising in-game. Integrating something like Dust into the EVE universe without messing up the economy or the game has been a long process, and it’s still not done. “We’ve set in place all these knobs and levers and we slowly keep turning them on to see how it all goes,” says CCP’s Brandon Laurino, who is in charge of Dust 514 at the developer’s Shanghai studio. “It’s much harder to unspool things that happen in the EVE universe than in other games.”
At PAX this year, attendees took part in the largest EVE/Dust 514 crossover battle so far: the battle for Caldari Prime, which culminated in a Titan (EVE’s biggest and most impressive kind of spaceship) crashing into the planet’s surface. It will now stay there forever, a permanent part of the map. This is the kind of cross-universe event that CCP hopes will draw Dust players into EVE’s persistent world and make them part of the lore; right now the developer is having to engineer these battles, but as Dust 514 is integrated further into the EVE universe it will start happening organically as players fight over territory.
Dust 514’s protracted beta period has aroused concern from some, but it’s taking a major step forward soon with the Uprising update, which brings it much, much closer to a finished product. The visuals alone are a huge step up from the basic environments of the current beta version; now planets actually look different from each other, with foliage and other environmental features that bring the maps up-to-date visually with something like Halo. Better lighting effects show off those deep-space sunsets, and overall things have been brought up to the high visual standard that you’d now expect from a current-generation shooter.
The Uprising update brings it much closer to a finished product.
Character progression has also been made easier to understand, with a node-based skill tree that makes it easier to see the direction that your choices are taking you. It will be easier to get into at the beginning and much deeper at the end, Brandon claims, with more specialised roles and classes. And the front-end has been tightened up – it will take around 90 seconds to get into a game, where previously it was 4 and a half minutes. It’s difficult to get a feel for how all of this changes the flow of the actual game from a quick half-hour’s play. Over that time, it was the huge graphical update that made the strongest impression.
Uprising also introduces a substantial number of new weapons, vehicles and dropsuits – like the Fighter (a jet), a single-rider bike, and the Flaylock pistol (a pistol that shoots missiles) – but it’s the customisation features that have expanded the most. This is where CCP is making money from Dust 514, currently. “We’ve followed best practice for a free-to-play game,” Brandon maintains. “In terms of gear there’s nothing you can buy that there’s no free equivalent of. It’s always important that I remind everybody of that.”
Right now Dust makes most of its money from skill-point boosters that give you increased experience for a period of time, and vanity items – but CCP has more features planned post-launch. “There are more monetisation features that we want to add – nothing pay to win, but things that we think people will find cool,” says Brandon citing the example of passive skilling on multiple characters. As with EVE, CCP is open to changing things that don’t work. One item that used to cost money has been removed, based on player feedback: the Universal Voice Transmitter is gone, so now universal voice chat across both Dust and Eve is completely free.
Planetary conquest is the most major aspect of the Uprising expansion. The EVE star-map – containing all its many hundreds of systems – has been flattened into a 2D plane to make is easier to navigate with a control pad, and you can see which planets in which individual system belong to whom. Dominating planets will benefit groups of players (corporations) and alliances in both Dust and EVE.
It’s still not easy to understand unless you’re already pretty far down the rabbit hole.
Essentially, so far Dust 514 has only been operating in the EVE world’s safest and most predictable area: High-Sec, a high-security area in which CCP largely calls the shots. Planetary conquest sees it expand to Low-Sec, where things are more player-driven. Playing on planets in High-Sec, you can rely on matchmaking and developer balancing to make sure that fights are fair; in Low-Sec, that’s less of a factor, so if an alliance goes for a planet with a huge team of Dust mercenaries backed up by a fleet of ships, the battle may be realistically one-sided. Eventually, sometime post-launch, the game will expand to Null-Sec, the wild-west frontier of New Eden. What happens then is difficult to predict even for CCP.
I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand all of this as a non-EVE player, because Dust 514 is still incredibly complicated. Even the flattened system map makes no sense if you’re not versed in EVE, a universe with terrifically memorable system names like 2EV-BA, GA57-8 and Y-LRWI. CCP is still hoping that Dust players will get drawn into the wormhole that is the wider EVE community, but right now it’s not easy to understand how and why what you’re doing is important, and whom it’s affecting, unless you’re already pretty far down the rabbit hole.
In short, despite following Dust 514 from since it was announced, there are some things I still don’t quite get, which means that CCP still has a lot of explaining to do if it’s to reach the wider audience that it’s aiming for. But Brandon claims that Dust has already gotten a significant number of people into EVE in a big way. “We’ve had millions of people through the door and we’ve captured a really engaged section of them – some of these guys were not EVE guys before,” he says. “Some people play upwards of six hours a day every day of the month. We’re seeing a non-trivial group of people playing that much.”
Even when we take off the beta tag the launches don’t stop.
Uprising goes live May 6th, and Dust 514’s freshly-announced release date is May 14th, which gives CCP only a few days to check it’s working before whipping that Beta tag off. But Laurino is keen to stress that this is far from the last update that will be made. “Even when we take off the beta tag the launches don’t stop. We’ll launch significant updates indefinitely… It’s an on-going service that will keep getting better and better.”
It’s a philosophy that goes against the industry standard of annualising shooters. As Dust 514 makes incremental improvements, it will always do so for free, and it will never be finished. This makes the whole concept of a launch somewhat nebulous – really, May’s launch is symbolic of the fact that Dust 514 has gotten to a stage where CCP is proud of it. It’s still not quite in line with the vision we were shown last year, but that day isn’t far off.
Keza MacDonald is in charge of IGN’s games coverage in the UK and despite being endlessly fascinated by EVE Online, she fears actually playing it. You can follow her on IGN and Twitter.