Someone asks Atli Mar Sveinsson if DUST 514, the console shooter that will share a universe with sci-fi MMO EVE Online, will have character classes. You know, like engineer, medic, or assault. "That stuff is for computer games," the game's creative director says, dismissively. "This is not a computer game. This is a world. If you want to be a medic, take some stuff with you."
If CCP is different from other developers in one way above all others - and CCP is definitely different from other developers in more than one way - it's philosophical. And that philosophy can be boiled down to one central principle, pithily put by Sveinsson just then. "This is not a computer game. This is a world."
So DUST 514 is more than it appears to be - which, on the surface, is a large-scale, strategic multiplayer FPS in the style of Battlefield. Battlefield 2142 to be precise, not just because of the futuristic setting and vehicles, but also because victory hinges on the destruction of huge, mobile, airborne command points. The comparison is exact, but also misleading, because Battlefield is just a computer game, and DUST 514 is a world - or rather, half of one.
The other half is EVE, the immense, complex, political game of space trading and warfare that CCP has been running and steadily growing for some six years now. EVE is unusual among MMOs in that it presents an undivided, "single-shard" world in which all 300,000 players can interact with each other on one giant server; they all inhabit the same universe, New Eden. DUST 514 will put console gamers in that same single universe, as mercenaries fighting for control of planet surfaces just as EVE's spaceship pilots, organised into Corporations and Alliances, vie for sovereignty in space.
The two games will be linked, and the players of each will be able to interact - predominantly via CCP's New Eden social network, which launches early next year - and join forces to influence events in the galaxy. Initially, EVE players will be able to hire DUST players to attack planets or districts of planets for them, and players of both games will be able to join the same Corps and Alliances. "The link is something we will expand over time," says Sveinsson, mentioning the possibility that EVE and DUST players will eventually be able to walk around in the same social areas.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves, because EVE's all-consuming social metagame will be introduced to DUST players - and indeed, to the game itself - gradually. CCP is making DUST 514 in order to expand the appeal and player-base of its notoriously hardcore online world, but it understands it has to do so with care - both to avoid intimidating the new arrivals, and to avoid destabilising the economy and power structures enjoyed by its loyal EVE players.
"The majority of DUST players, at first, will not be engaged in the political arena," says Sveinsson. Instead, they will engage in a factional warfare system where it's NPCs, rather than players, engaging them to fight. "This is mainly for the new player experience and the first few months of DUST players' lives, a training area in a way," he says. "We understand that EVE players don't want total noobs in their world. It's also there to ensure there's a battle to be had if you just want quick fun."
Those battles take place on dynamic battlefields about 5 kilometres across. Unlike EVE itself, there will be a cap to the number of players per battle - CCP is "still playing with numbers" (and presumably watching the development of 256-player MAG with interest), but assures us that this will not be less than 64 players. There will be a command structure, with infantry and squadron leaders on each side led by a player-commander on board the hulking Mobile Command Centre airship.
The commander will effectively be playing a real-time strategy game with living units, and will have an RTS-style view of the battlefield. He'll be dependent on the situational awareness of infantry players to clear the fog of war. He'll also be the target, with the ultimate aim of a battle - after several, varying sub-objectives - being to destroy the opposing side's MCC.
To do that, players will need to use vehicles - we see a Warthog-style armoured buggy and a jet fighter in action - but also need their commanders to deploy ground installations, which can house missile launchers and rail-guns as well as serving as spawn points. Commanders and infantry alike will earn non-persistent War Points over the course of a single battle, which they can use to order in vehicles and installations - the aim being to give each fight an "escalation of war" and a crescendo of spectacle.
Surprisingly perhaps, CCP is shying away from a skill system or levels, as favoured by the other shooters that have flirted with massively multiplayer persistence and advancement. Instead, Sveinsson promises an "achievement matrix" where collected achievements unlock tiers that give access to better items from the market places. The focus - in the single direct game design parallel with EVE - is on a deep, modular system of fitting and customising weapons and vehicles which Sveinsson reckons will be "unprecedented" in FPS gaming.
Here, things get a little muddy, because money comes into it - both real and virtual. Naturally for EVE's ruthlessly capitalist universe, you'll be amassing wealth - in the same ISK currency as the PC players - and there will be a player-driven economy feeding into this customisation system. But you'll also be buying items for real money, through micro-transactions - because DUST will not charge a subscription fee, but CCP needs a steady source of income from the game because "we need to run servers and so on", says Sveinsson.
CCP is the first developer creating a console MMO to pin its business-model colours to the mast in this way; it will be interesting to see if others have the courage to follow suit. But Sveinsson can't yet be clear on where the line between micro-transaction items and in-game economy items will be drawn. Nor can he specify exactly where DUST's player economy and EVE's will overlap, although he is firm that to begin with, it will be restricted to a one-way flow of cash from PC to console.
"We do believe that it's better to release a regulated game when it comes to the economy and stuff, and then deregulate as we learn about it with the players," he says. "We'll start by doing something meaningful and awesome, and then make it more awesome." The caution is well-advised, but still CCP will need much more clarity on these issues to pacify EVE players, and to prevent either the micro-transactions devaluing the in-game marketplace or vice versa. It's quite a tangle. Good thing CCP has its own in-house economist.
Sveinsson is similarly cautious when talking about how the DUST and EVE's military power-struggles will mesh, but nonetheless, things are a little more defined here. EVE's pilots will own the majority of planetary districts, via a system that will be introduced to the PC game in the next major update after this winter's Dominion. But a couple of districts on each planet are reserved for DUST's mercenaries - and these have special value as staging posts for War Barges, the giant orbital craft that house the MCCs and act as optional social areas for DUST players, with apartments, hangars, promenades and trophy rooms.
The balance between EVE and DUST districts makes alliances between the two games economical (as does a reduced rate for EVE pilots hiring DUST mercs from their own corporation). Ultimately, hiring DUST 514 mercenaries won't be mandatory for power-hungry EVE players, but it will be attractive, thinks Sveinsson. "DUST is a catalyst for EVE players, one of many that you can subscribe to if you're trying to capture system," he says. "DUST mercs will just be more points. If the incentive is great enough they will use them; if you don't want to use them and your enemy does, you'll have to."
Battles undertaken between Corporations as part of the grand power-struggle in New Eden will be completely unregulated and free-form, with no interference from matchmaking on player power or numbers at all. Player warfare in EVE's world remains a resolute matter of survival of the fittest. However, it will be harder to "buy win" in DUST than in EVE, promises Sveinsson, and in NPC faction warfare and "more normal contract agreements with EVE Corps," matchmaking will be used to ensure a balanced and fun game.
We're treated to the world's first live demo of DUST, performed by a tight knot of Shanghai developers manipulating Xbox 360 pads in the corner of a room here at the EVE Fanfest. Naturally, the huge play-field looks a little thinly populated, but the scale is impressive, and the there's a definite family resemblance to EVE in the chilly restraint of the game's style, very hard-edged and grey. We watch a team establish an installation, hurtle across the open terrain in a buggy, hack a mainframe in an enemy outpost, and call in a fighter jet to use against the opponents' MCC.
At first it seems a bit too understated in its portrayal of barren scrubland and concrete complexes, but the appropriate note of awe comes in with the first sight of the 300-metre-long MCCs hanging in the sky, and rises to a climax with the final air engagement, with missiles streaking in from installations to take one down. It's hard to judge the feel without trying the game, naturally, but despite muted sound, DUST 514 certainly seems to have some physical heft and punch as a shooter.
But aside from its fascinating, unprecedented link with EVE - the nature of which is currently quite hard to pin down - does it have enough to set it apart from its dozens of well-established big-budget rivals, Halo and Call of Duty not least among them? At first glance, no, but perhaps that's missing the point. DUST is a unique proposition, and will immediately attract the small but dedicated band of gamers who've always dreamed of something like this - PlanetSide with consequences, gaming without borders - or who've always regarded EVE's intrigue and deep immersion with envy, but little desire to actually play it.
For them, the only questions are when they'll be able to jump in, and how. CCP has no publishing partner yet, no release date (it's "still quite early", says Sveinsson) and nothing to say about formats. Naturally, PS3 and 360 are the candidates, but "we have not announced which platform we're going to release on", and on the prospect of a PC version Sveinsson will only say "we are fully committed to making this the best console experience". If six years of EVE has shown one thing, it's that you underestimate CCP's commitment at your peril.