Dust 514: The PS3's most important game

Dust 514: The PS3's most important game

By Rob Crossley

October 25th 2011 at 2:30PM

CCP could breathe new life into the tame and tired console business

A successful game is easy to spot: The publisher is richer, the retailer is busier, the people who play it are happier, and the studio that created it hasn’t closed down.

Success for Dust 514 would trigger something else entirely. If you don’t know why you’ll need to, because the PS3 exclusive could pave the way for a dramatic transformation to the console business.

Dust 514 could revolutionise the PlayStation Network. It could bring a microtransaction craze to consoles. It could electrify the PS3’s static digital distribution model. It could make Xbox Live appear insular and out of touch by comparison. And it could mark the first meaningful connection between the PC and consoles – those two enormous infrastructures that hitherto have only connected in brief, exciting sparks.

Look at it like this: For Sony, the most Uncharted 3 can achieve is enlarge the bank balance. Dust 514 could change the currency.

All will be explained later. But first:

Games consoles are no longer at the forefront of entertainment technology


Systems like the Atari 2600 miraculously brought interactive entertainment into the living-room. Later, more advanced devices flooded the high street with 3D games no longer exclusive to high-end PCs. Consoles read DVDs before the masses even knew what they were. The Dreamcast allowed friends to meet online years before Facebook was conceived.

The consumer conscience is pre-conditioned to pursue the new, the progressive, the exciting. This is a key reason why the console business has, for nearly four decades, continually drawn in masses of new customers. The market reached a peak in 2008, but today the industry is struggling to beat that milestone. New breeds of players are being picked up and relocated, and it’s not difficult to notice where they are going.

Because, in the sphere of interactive entertainment, it is the internet itself that is now leading the way; unrestrained in what it offers, and seemingly unlimited in its potential. The web is now the ‘platform’, the progenitor of hundreds of captivating and crazily innovative services that emerge each day on PC, on browsers, on mobiles.

This isn’t just about Foursquare and Twitter being colossal time-sinks, though of course they are. This is, in fact, about a revolution in how creators and audiences are interacting with one another.

In the past five years, a boy named Justin Beiber shot to fame due to his dearly loved home-made YouTube videos. At roughly the same time, Snakes on a Plane went from being an internet joke to an online phenomenon when New Line edited the film to meet demands issued on forum posts. And while Harry Potter is dead on paper, he will soon be born again through an interactive website.

What was supposed to happen was, in this age of unprecedented connection and interactivity, games consoles would again set the example. They haven’t.

But smartphones and the PC – two platforms that only a few years ago were deemed worthless to games studios – are now flooded with business as a result of adapting to the internet age.

Web browser games groups, like Zynga and Playfish, have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars because of a revolution in how they can interact with their audiences. Like with the viewer ratings on Beiber’s YouTube channel, popularity in online games can be quantified and acted on.

A Zynga game can feed data to its developers and explain, for instance, exactly what areas of a gameworld are the most popular among customers. In turn, the company can add more purchasable and relevant items in that area.

Valve, the most prominent core PC games company in the west, routinely admits it would be nowhere without a meaningful interaction with its audience. Using its Steam platform, the studio measures player habits and uses the data to determine key business decisions. The company makes several billions of dollars in revenue each year.

Tencent – an Asian social games group that operates in the same manner as Valve – today has a market capitalisation larger than Activision, EA, GameStop, THQ, Atari, GAME and Ubisoft combined. It is the biggest games publisher in the world.

The internet has triggered a tectonic shift in the industry, with new online-focused businesses erupting across the landscape. ‘Social’ is the buzzword, but what has specifically driven such opportunity is the tight and rapid discussion between developers and their customers.

The console manufacturers have blocked off any such potential. They have severed direct lines between creators and consumers. The reasons are political and complex but formed on two elemental fears.

First, they want to remain at the centre of the relationship between consumers and game developers. They want to be middle-men with control and influence over both sides of the equation, because it gives them collateral when brokering deals. Microsoft can parade one game to its entire user base, but it can also keep strangely quiet about others – it all depends on its relationship with the publisher or developer.

Second, the platform holders worry that constant updates to games will slow down the consumption of others. This comes from the World of Warcraft theory, in that most of Blizzard’s subscribers pay an expensive subscription and receive regular updates, and thus won’t have much need, and certainly not enough money, to play anything else. What the console manufacturers believe in is a market that buys lots of different games, particularly their own first-party titles.

The difference in philosophy between PC and console is typified by Valve’s Team Fortress 2, an FPS released in 2007. On PC, the game has been updated more than 200 times – all at no charge. One update added a microtransactions economy, another made the game entirely free for everyone. On Xbox 360, it has received a handful of updates, which Valve has been forced to charge customers for.

At the time of writing, Team Fortress 2 is the second most played game across the entire Steam network. On the 360 it is becoming old and forgotten; its customers have discarded it in favour of something else.

It is hoped that something else will be another console game, but therein lies the flaw. The strategy to keep recycling a core audience only works if interesting and innovative content remains in the centre of the loop. But today, the internet is where the medium is progressing. This is why people are finding interests elsewhere; on Minecraft.com, on Steam, on Android, on Facebook, onwards and onwards and away from the living-room devices.

Valve president Gabe Newell put it best when he spoke to Develop in August: “The games industry needs to figure out how to make the internet better instead of figuring out how to keep customers off the internet”.

Anxieties of online disruption have compelled platform holders to shelter their systems from the progressive, connected world that surrounds them. The result is a destructive one; an enclosed and insular industry in an era of unprecedented openness, and an innovation wasteland. Consoles are now fighting for an increasingly specialised and, as new data suggests, gradually decreasing market.

To verbatim quote Reggie Fils-Aime in a way he wouldn’t approve: “The graveyard of any industry is filled with the headstones of companies who decided to keep doing things the same old way”.

That claim was made in 2005. Since then, aside from their wiggle-sticks and 3D cameras, the three platform holders have achieved little beyond the expected. What they’ve missed is colossal: The appeal of a $60 game continues to wane, but the new market is spending a fortune on social, mobile and online games. About half of all iPhone app revenue is driven by virtual items, one recent study claimed. Another paper found a link between the rise of social games and the decline of traditional triple-A sales.

Console DLC and digital games are often branded as the saviours, but they are mere misnomers. They are the dinosaur business dressed in digital. They are a rickety games store pushed to the front of a console operating system. A new way to buy games they may be, but they’re not a new way to play them. What is needed is a different approach entirely; something that suits consumer habit rather than fights against it.

To this end, Valve made a breakthrough last year. The studio struck a deal with Sony to allow Steam to be installed on PS3. The agreement, at least in theory, gave the Portal 2 creators a direct line to Sony’s customers.

“Sony will start to benefit from what it’s doing,” Newell recently told Develop.

“They’ve done the scary thing and I think it’s up to us to make sure Sony and its customers are rewarded.”

But there could be an even more promising solution on the horizon. The MMO Eve Online – an outstandingly popular PC game built on the ethos of constant connection – is about to invade Sony’s online network.

Its creators, CCP Games, will attempt this with a new, custom-made FPS exclusive to PlayStation 3.

These two games, hosted on their separate platforms, will persistently link both online audiences together. Information, game data and in-game commands will cross between systems. Actions in one world will determine outcomes in another.

For the first time, a games console will supply developers with direct and meaningful access to customers, allowing for numerous and rapid changes based on user feedback and metrics. The Zynga model is coming to PS3, along with its limitless potential and lucrative microtransactions, and it could make Sony a fortune.

Dust 514 could change everything.

Crossing the border


“The console space right now is where the PC was before the internet really kicked off,” says Thor Gunnarsson, CCP’s VP of business development.

“It is about to leap forwards and it won’t look back,” he tells Develop.

Eve Online launched in 2003 when the PC format’s online services were, in retrospect, somewhat primitive. From the MMOs humble beginnings, at a time when dial-up connections were still common, Eve expanded and evolved through various updates and edits. CCP’s direct connection to its customers allowed the game to adapt to their tastes, and today the subscriber base has steadily grown to around a third of a million customers. The average weekly playtime is said to be 17 hours, or about 2.5 hours per day.

Eve is elementally a universe-sized battle arena. There are more than 7,000 star systems within the MMO – each with their own planets, moons, constructions and asteroid belts – for the player to explore with custom-built ships. Travelling across just ten of these star systems, without distraction, would take around half an hour to accomplish.

Death in Eve can be unbearable. Hours of time and millions of ISK (in-game currency) can be spent on building a perfect ship. If destroyed in battle, it becomes a floating metal carcass. The pilot escapes out of the game, while those who destroyed it can ransack the remains for valuable parts and items. The player has to fight for survival or start from scratch.

But herbivores have a place in Eve too. An industrious player dedicated to mining ore on asteroid belts and manufacturing ammunition could make as much as 500 million ISK per month, which can be used to buy equipment, ship parts, weapons, and other such items. To give an idea of the currency exchange rate, a month’s subscription of Eve will cost around $15, but can also be bought for 370 million ISK.

The inherent tension is that there are too many players and not enough space for everyone to live in harmony. The best places to mine for minerals are usually located in the roughest areas in the universe, while attacking a fleet of enemies could, if successful, offer a richer bounty far quicker.

And so, players organically form alliances to control areas of space, to plunder planets, raid enemy strongholds and establish their own networks. The result is self-organised groups who amass online and wage war with other people around the world and across the universe.

The theory is fascinating; take away the script and the players will write history themselves.

Ask the Eve community about the game’s rich history of battles, and many will recite war-time stories that have passed along the way. Others will tell you their own tale.

There is one story that sticks out.

It is called a Titan. A supermassive all-purpose mobile battle station. The strongest possible ship in Eve. It costs about sixty billion ISK to produce (that equates to $1,000), and takes roughly a month to build. Of the 300,000 Eve players, only around 150 such ships are known to exist.

Yet despite their rarity, these battleship giants are subject to much controversy. It is because each Titan is fitted with a doomsday device – a nuclear bomb that will destroy virtually any player engulfed within its vast blast radius. As a way of regulating the ship’s overwhelming power, CCP ensured that each doomsday weapon shuts down for a whole hour after activated. However that, in turn, left the Titan essentially defenceless for sixty minutes, so again the ship was revised and fitted with a warp generator that allows it to flee an area near-instantly.

But there was one Titan, owned by an alliance called ‘Sev3rence’ that managed to exploit the rules and take full advantage of its arsenal, and as a result left players incensed. The vessel would spring into star systems, kill everything on-site, and warp away to safety. As the predator left, a fleet of ships would collect the scraps and split the earnings. It was a game-breaker; a strategy that paid off time and time again with very little other players could do in defence. But something had to be done.

On the 21st of July, 2009, a rival alliance called Cry Havoc had tracked down the Titan and its base of operations. Their plan appeared suicidal. A handful of heavy battleships entered Sev3rence-controlled air-space and advanced on the enemy; a clear declaration of war. In flew the Titan, which launched its doomsday device immediately and cleared the area.

It was at this very moment that a largely defenceless Cry Havoc vessel snuck into the battle arena. It was called a HIC, a ‘Heavy Interdictor’; barely capable of scratching the Titan’s paint-job but equipped with a unique device. This David-sized ship headed straight for Goliath and attached itself onto the Titan’s hull. The HIC then activated its only weapon; a scrambler, a non-lethal device that negates the warp abilities of nearby vessels.

And so, the Titan, having already fired its doomsday, had effectively been put into an hour-long paralysis, unable to fire back and unable to warp. And at that perfect moment, in flew Cry Havoc’s full battalion, reportedly around sixty heavy ships, which had been waiting on the outskirts of the area the whole time. An unrelenting barrage of laser fire lit the sky.
 
And in the space of four minutes, the rare and near-unbeatable $1,000 ship became a scrapyard in the sky.

It was one extraordinary night in a living, growing anthology of many. It testifies to Eve’s philosophy that players alone can drive action, narrative and consequence for themselves; that removing the most artificial rules is perhaps interactive entertainment at its purest. If you allow people and their complexities to define play, a game can be about so much more than winning and losing. Eve may be a galactic deathmatch, but it is one driven by trust and betrayal, work and fun, wrath and peace.

Now CCP wants the collective might of PS3 owners to make their own mark on the universe.

“There have been cases in Eve where players, not through any design of ours, have engaged in incredible metagaming and skulduggery,” says Gunnarsson.

“We’ve seen players infiltrate enemy corporations as spies and take them out from the inside. Backstabbing is an important component in the world of Eve, and we are building Dust 514 to work in the same way.

“Our goal is simple; the actions of a PS3 player can have huge ramifications for large corporations within the world of Eve.”

Home consoles have been unbearably slow in taking advantage of the internet, Gunnarsson said, but they nevertheless show the same promise that the PC did at the turn of the millennium.

“Consoles are at a tipping-point when it comes to online penetration and deeper online services,” he says.

“At CCP we’ve always believed that what happened in the PC space, when it was reborn around online gaming, would eventually happen with consoles. It is at that very point that we wanted to come in and lead the way.”

Dust 514

Dust 514 battles take place not in Eve’s star systems, but on a select number of planets. PS3 players sign in to Eve’s own social network and can negotiate contracts with PC players.

For an agreed ISK bounty fee, a Dust mercenary could, for example, take control of a planet’s anti-aircraft weapon and fire at co-ordinated targets into Eve’s outer space – all in real-time.

They could, on the other hand, be paid to take command of an entire planet so a contractor is free to plunder the area. Players will need to decide, and haggle, on objectives and rewards for themselves.

With Sony allowing CCP to bridge connections between console and PC, the developer’s primary goal is to create a seamless connection where actions occur on both games simultaneously. Voice chat between the systems will be a necessity as factions rapidly form new strategies in swings of a battle.

“Both Dust and Eve share the same back-end. It’s not two separate world servers, these are both the same,” says Gunnarsson.

“A Dust 514 client is just a different instance of the same clients running on Eve across PCs right now. That’s an incredibly powerful notion. You have the same game space, the same gameworld co-ordinates.

“When you’re fighting in Dust, that’s a real planet in Eve – that’s a real planet that people on PC are trying to fight for the control of. And PC users can support them or thwart them on the ground.”

CCP has a volatile relationship with its PC customers, and is clearly cautious of how Dust 514 could be seen as an Eve party crasher. It is one of the reasons why PC-bound players can, in fact, be instrumental in aiding battles taking place on PS3.

“The level of connection between both games will be dynamic,” says Gunnarsson.

“We won’t pretend we’ll know what will happen as we begin connecting the two games and allowing information to flow between both. That will iterate over time. But the objective is to make Dust 514 be significant to the world of Eve and vice-versa. So Dust players can call in air support or munitions from Eve players.

“Imagine fighting a ground campaign for days, perhaps even weeks, against an opposing force – clearly you’ll need supply lines. That would require someone in Eve to do that for you. There’s the old saying that an army marches on its stomach, right? Well we want to incorporate those supply lines in the gameplay.

“This is all higher-level meta-gaming aspects of the gameplay, but we understand that for Dust to work as a console game it really needs the casual, pick-up-and-play elements to it too.”

This is where the Dust 514 utopia becomes clouded. CCP has never made a casual pick-up-and-play game, or a console game, or an FPS. It is as green as an Xbox. The company’s Shanghai studio has been working on Dust for three years so far, opting for Unreal Engine 3 instead of its own PC-centric tech.

Gunnarsson says CCP has hired “seasoned talent” from EA DICE to oversee the project; people who have worked on both Battlefield 2 and Mirror’s Edge.

But this is not about directly competing with Modern Warfare or Gears of War. Those two franchises need to be critically adored on day one to achieve the perfect launch. Dust 514 is a different animal. It will use the PS3’s opened connection to, like with Farmville or Angry Birds, adjust and adapt until its audience is hooked.

Gunnarsson explains: “Dust is being developed in the same methodology as Eve, in that the launch is just the beginning. We are going to build this game iteratively in front of our community, with the same tight feedback loop as before.

“A real MMO service is one that’s constantly changing, constantly evolving, and that’s what we’re bringing to the table. We have our ups and downs with our community, sometimes we’re not always in sync, but generally we have a very good relationship and feedback loop.”

He explains that Sony, which is also new to internet-focused games on PS3, will learn along with CCP.

“I think that our experience running Eve Online, through thick and thin over the past eight years, will be hugely useful to PlayStation,” he adds.

For Sony, there is far more on offer than the experience. Dust players will need to complete contracts to earn their ISK and buy weapons, amour, items and support vessels. If they fail too many times and run out of in-game currency, they’ll need their credit card.

The Sony deal


It cannot go unnoticed that, after CCP held talks with both Sony and Microsoft, it was ultimately decided that Dust 514 would not launch on Xbox 360.

CCP has a strong relationship with Microsoft – in fact Eve’s back-end server tech is based on Windows – so Gunnarsson is politely talking around the issue. What he won’t say is that Microsoft had an opportunity, back in 2009, to launch the world’s first console MMO FPS with another studio entirely.

The game was called Huxley, built by Webzen and intended to feature cross-platform play between PC and Xbox, as well as incorporate a microtransactions model. It was trying to be everything Dust 514 is aiming for. But during its development, Microsoft put a ban on the cross-platform feature. Then it prohibited the microtransactions. Huxley never made it onto Xbox.

“We’re always keen to collaborate with both Microsoft and Sony,” Gunnarsson begins, “but when it came to Dust 514, Sony was in many ways more open to learn with us.”

“In regards to Xbox and PS3, what we found as we got in conversation with the platform holders is that it became more and more evident to us that we had a difficult decision to make.”

Launching Dust on both Xbox and PS3 would have resulted in, as Gunnarsson puts it, “two low-common-denominator games”. He doesn’t elaborate, but is likely referring to how both consoles wouldn’t have communicated with each other, and possibly wouldn’t be linked to PC.

A development source at Jagex, the UK studio behind the Runescape phenomenon, recently told Develop that it is still “impossible” to introduce cross-platform play between both PS3 and Xbox. Recently, both Valve and Blizzard called for platform ubiquity with online games – an issue that Sony and Microsoft have remained quiet on.
 
Gunnarsson makes it clear he’d rather talk about CCP’s discussions with Sony than look back on negotiations with Microsoft.

“When we showed the early code to Sony, they immediately gravitated towards this notion of bringing an MMO ecosystem onto the PS3. The partnership that we built with them allows us to take better advantage of the PlayStation Network, which is arguably a more open platform,” he says.

While Xbox Live remains sheltered away from the open web, Microsoft has nonetheless succeeded in focusing on the platform’s strengths. Live and the Xbox operating system are so well ingrained that the whole service is slick and seamless.

“That’s a fair sentiment,” says Gunnarsson. “But we hope Dust 514 becomes a longstanding PS3 service, and we found Sony’s attitude to this to be far more encouraging.

“Our perception is that they want to support MMOs on their platform, they are far more keen on this notion of games as a service. And they are equally spirited about this notion of an online service model mixed with a boxed product.”

Fortune favours the brave


It has not been decided whether Dust 514 will be packaged and sold at retail. The game is expected to cost around $20 and, as a bonus, will be bundled with that same amount in virtual currency. Elementally, it is a free-to-play game that requires a deposit.

“We might do a retail SKU, but certainly not a full-price one,” Gunnarsson says.

“To some extent we’re still gauging the need for a retail box, but I’m sure if we do we’ll add in a substantial amount of in-game currency.”

He adds that, like with Eve Online, there is no mandatory requirement to pay real money for ISK. Provided they have the dedication and skill, players can work for their weapons and items.

This soft sell to the customer hasn’t hindered CCP’s revenue intake. In fact, the hands-off approach has funded the company’s own expansion to four studios across the globe and the employment of about 500 staff – all while remaining an independent company.

And the war chest has fully financed the Dust 514 project – a crucial factor.

For all its promise, some will look at CCP’s online action game and see another All Points Bulletin. That project, built by Realtime Worlds, was founded on the same principal as Dust’s; that a launch is just the beginning.

Poor reviews for APB, it was hoped, would be overshadowed as the game updated and evolved to meet its customers’ tastes. But MMOs need patience, and the VC groups backing Realtime Worlds showed little. The Dundee studio became a marathon runner that had to suddenly compete in a 100-meter race. Investors wanted swift returns. Realtime Worlds needed a few years, and a little more support, to provide it. The company buckled under its own debts and was liquidated.

This won’t happen with Dust, Gunnarsson proclaims. CCP will remain patient if the game doesn’t hit the ground running.

“For us, our metric of success will not be however many million of units sold in the first month. Our metric will be the lifetime value of our customers over an elapsed period of time, perhaps a year or two years,” he explains.

“We don’t need to make the big pop at retail to make a big impact – and I think that’s something reasonably new.”

But CCP is nonetheless taking a risk. The project has cost them an Unreal Engine 3 licence and three years of dev time.

“It would be a risk not doing this,” Gunnarsson responds. “It would be a risk to think that everything will work if we just sit still”.

His response couldn’t be more appropriate. The entire console business is grinding to an unbearable halt.

A successful game is easy to spot; but too few are profitable.

Expenses are pummelling revenues to the extent that millions of sales are needed to recoup costs. Companies stay silent about their pressures, but from the thunderous collapse of talented studios the truth comes clear: the business model is unsustainable. Dust 514 could show there is another way.

“If you look at a developer’s bottom-line for a classic retail box model; when you subtract the publisher’s margin, the retailer’s margin, the platform margin, and so on, you’re left with maybe a quarter of the suggested retail price,” Gunnarsson says.

“But in the MMO space, the path of success is based on vast multiples of micro-transactions, or subscriptions or DLC. It’s a long-term strategy. We think it’s one that could be hugely beneficial to ourselves as well as Sony.”

Triple-A has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The intoxicating belief is that success demands budget-obliterating production values. Success demands studios to be more concerned about what they’ve left out of a game than what they’ve put in. The result is an organised circle of studios mimicking each other, and all spending a fortune to blend in rather than stand out.

Dust 514, as the videos will attest, is somewhat bland and vacant. There are no rich worlds of remarkable detail, but acres of basic and bandwidth-friendly war zones. What the critics will be tempted to say is that this is unacceptable in the modern age of triple-A games. If they do they are just as much part of the problem.

Because detailed textures, phenomenal mocap and a trip to Abbey Road shouldn’t be what gives a project its ‘triple-A’ status. Entertainment remains the true and sometimes forgotten measure of a game’s worth.

Dust 514 is part of a remarkable and unique online network, with no script and new stories told every day. It is a promising experiment in how console games can grow if developers are given direct access to their customers. It is an entirely new way to play on PS3 and – with Sony taking a cut of virtual currency purchases – could usher in a unique revenue model.

A successful game is easy to spot, but just as easy to misconceive.

Dust 514 could fail in ways that a triple-A game is not supposed to. It could be an ugly, unfinished mess. It could fail to make an impact in the charts. It could fail to turn a profit for a year.

If it does fail, and still becomes a huge success, the curse on consoles will be broken.