Dust to dust: How Project Legion is eclipsing Dust 514

"The future of being a mercenary in this universe is on PC."

One person I met at Eve FanFest really stuck in my mind. He was unhappy and angry, and this went against everything else I'd seen there - everyone else I'd seen there. I asked him why and then I understood: unlike nearly everyone else, he was there for Dust 514, not Eve Online. He'd sat through a Dust 514 keynote earlier that day expecting - understandably - to hear about the future of the free-to-play online PS3 game. "I'm here today to talk about Dust 514," executive producer Jean-Charles Gaudechon announced when he walked on stage. Except he didn't - beyond briefly recapping on the year Dust 514 had been out. Instead he delivered a vision for something new and improved: a free-to-play online PC game, Project Legion.

To him, this disgruntled fan, CCP had given up on Dust 514. That vision of Eve Online spaceships bombarding the surfaces of planets where Dust 514 battles were raging would never be fully realised. The announcement was, effectively, a nail in the coffin - ditched in favour of something new. And that observation soon became an undercurrent of FanFest.

apartment

Your apartment in Project Legion, your quarters - your hub.

I'd spoken to Jean-Charles Gaudechon earlier that day and he'd been cagey about Dust. He hadn't been able to tell me how many of the 60 people at CCP Shanghai were working on Legion and how many on Dust. He said the studio pooled staff, moving them between projects, so the lines were "blurry". He wouldn't give a concrete answer; and I wasn't the only one hearing the same line - the other journalists I spoke to heard similar things.

Was Dust fading away into, well, dust? Evidently journalists weren't the only ones to pick up on the whispers. In the final keynote of the show, CCP Presents, which was held the next day, company leader Hilmar Veigar Pétursson directly addressed the concerns with Jean-Charles Gaudechon on stage. "I've had a lot of people come to me asking questions about 'what's the future for Dust'," Pétursson said. And Gaudechon answered:

"I had a special message for the community out there: 'Is development on Dust 514 stopping?' The answer is no: we're still working on a lot of stuff, [such as] planetary conquest, balancing. There's a lot of work happening. Obviously the dev firepower may not be the same, but we are still actively working on making that experiencing as good as possible."

It was a band-aid - a plaster - of an answer that didn't really suggest any long-term ambition for Dust 514. Eurogamer picked up the scent with Hilmar Veigar Pétursson at UK industry show GameHorizon not long after.

map

Choosing where to go with the Star Map.

"There is still development going on in Dust, but the main effort will go into Project Legion," he said. "The PlayStation 3 isn't the platform to realise the vision of what it means to be a mercenary in the [Eve] universe, so we made the decision that the next-gen vision of that would be started on the PC. If we then take it somewhere else after the fact - it would be speculation at this point. Right now we're focussed on bringing all the experiences of the universe to anyone that has a PC.

"We will continue some development of Dust, and certainly we've got feedback that people want to see more development on Dust. We've got feedback from the community, and we're working through it, but ultimately the future of the experience of being a mercenary in this universe is on PC."

There it is, in black and white: "... the future of the experience of being a mercenary in this universe is on PC".

Nowhere has CCP confirmed that Dust 514 will peter out on PS3, but that's what it sounds like. And the enduring question of 'how will Dust 514 transition onto PS4?' becomes 'will Legion ever be a console game?'. And the answer to that will have to wait until Project Legion proves its point on PC.

The consolation for Dust 514 players? You'll be able to migrate your account to Legion and keep your stuff, retaining skills and merits as well. And no, the games won't work together in any other way.

"As the team and I worked on that vision ... we realised we would never be able to do it by iteration [of Dust]"

Jean Charles-Gaudechon

topdown

A bird's eye view of what awaits you on the surface.

So what is Project Legion - and why is Project Legion? Jean-Charles Gaudechon conveyed it best in a post on the Dust 514 website:

"When I came to CCP several months ago, it was to fulfil a vision that was our goal since Dust 514 was first announced: merge a deep sandbox experience with a first-person shooter in New Eden - to create a massive living world [as] meaningful as real life.

"As the team and I worked on that vision, we came to understand the effort centred around four pillars: we had to build the right ecosystem incorporating a fun and balanced competitive shooter; player-versus-environment allowing for emergent behaviours; a player-driven economy that is distinctly CCP; and deep immersion that brings it all together.

"We realised we would never be able to do it by iteration [of Dust] any more than one could overhaul the engines of a plane in flight, and to do this right it would need to become something new - a distinct and separate experience from what we've previously offered on Dust 514. We also feel that, to do this right, we need to do it on the PC platform first."

box

Great environments, grey boxes.

Whether it will be called Project Legion forever isn't known, but it certainly won't be Dust 2.0. "It's not an IP issue," clarified Hilmar Veigar Pétursson. "We just thought ultimately we're remaking the mercenary experience, and we need to give it another name because it's more than just Dust on another platform. It's a remake of the game in a way - so calling it something different helps us distinguish between the two things."

It's, as Gaudechon put it, "a next-gen evolution of that on-the-ground, Eve experience".

A live demonstration of Legion was shown on stage during the Dust 514 keynote, which I've already written a bit about. I've also taken screenshots from the high-resolution YouTube video for this article, although they don't quite do Project Legion in-the-flesh justice. The live demo starts at 13.18 in the video, and should jump there automatically using this hyperlinked URL.

The most obvious difference with Legion is it looks better than Dust already. It uses all the PC graphical bells and whistles and revels in it - although it did have a running start. Being on PC means freedom, too - freedom to chop and change the game without involving Sony. And it means CCP can aim for Legion to have a slightly different tone - a tone closer to Eve Online's.

"Eve Online is all about betrayal," Gaudechon told me. The best bits of Eve Online happen when you ditch high-security, AI-policed space for the open waters of null-sec (no security) space. Legion will adopt the same approach. "As you venture deeper into space, there's basically no one to save your ass, to a certain extent," Gaudechon said. "In more secure space it's more like a social space; CONCORD [the policing body - Consolidated Cooperation and Relations Command] is there, there's no friendly fire - and if you do you'll get squished by the CONCORD foot.

"As you venture deeper into space, there's basically no one to save your ass"

Jean-Charles Gaudechon

scene

The skies and views are lovely. Watching while cloaked.

"As you go lower and CONCORD is not there any more, and friendly fire is turned on, you can imagine how that can go! And that probably will even become the most interesting PVP in the game."

You choose where in space you want to go from your apartment, your quarters, "your hub for the galaxy". You access the star map - a staple of Eve's - and choose battles or tournaments or, the new thing, Scavenging Grounds. These are the first iteration of the sandbox areas Gaudechon hopes will stand Legion apart, mixing PVE and PVP and offering people a place "to come and fight for loot".

"And as you get deeper into space to fight for loot, the line between friend and foe will become very blurry," he said, "so watch your back down there." That loot you'll find on downed AI drone enemies and, incidentally, other players. "That's the idea," Gaudechon nodded. "You can get the stuff out of people by killing them."

Player progression will be "heavily updated, heavily changed" from how it is in Dust, although it'll share roughly the same DNA. "It's one of the things that will have a lot of love on Project Legion," I'm told.

The plan is also very much - in case it wasn't obvious - for Legion to have a mechanical link to Eve Online. "That's absolutely the will," Gaudechon said - "Eve link will be there." At first, it sounded like the link will be relatively passive, a kind of laying of the groundwork, but further down the road "it would be very cool to go all the way", said Gaudechon - to have players conquer planets by putting down flags and defending them.

volcanoes

Volcanoes erupt, filling the air with embers and ash and heat.

It's still very early days. CCP Shanghai is play-testing Legion all the time, and Gaudechon realises "a lot of work" needs to go into things like weapons feeling satisfying to shoot and kill with. "We need to go through phases of production," he said. "Yes we have a really strong base to build on so that could go really fast, but we don't want anyone to get really excited - it's very blurry at the moment; it's very early."

Community feedback needs to be taken on board, too - it was the main reason for showing the game so early at FanFest, Gaudechon informed me. "The community has probably as much power on the project as the dev team itself," he added, probably over-egging it slightly, because what if they turned around and said 'no thanks we don't want it'? "Well then I'll have to change it enough so they do!" he replied.

Fortunately the Eve FanFest 2014 audience lapped it up. Whether that's because they were predominantly an Eve Online audience, a PC audience, largely dismissive of 'that console shooter Dust', I don't know. But I do know there's more than one angry Dust fan not soothed by the timid assurances of ongoing support for that game that CCP has given.

But those fans may have to console themselves now in the knowledge that with Project Legion, CCP may finally be able to embark on a path to fulfilling that heady vision Dust had. Because somewhere down the line, CCP teased, that may even involve boarding spaceships in Eve Online.

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