DUST 514 is easily the most ambitious title in the pipeline for the PlayStation 3. It takes the grandeur of MAG’s sandbox first-person battles, and merges them in real-time with the corporate politics of popular PC MMO EVE Online. After an impressive showing at the Eurogamer Expo in London last week, we felt it was an appropriate time for us to sit down with CCP Games’ Jon Lander and have a long chat about the challenges and inspirations behind the game. We emerged with the realisation that the Icelandic studio is utterly insane – but we mean that in the nicest possible way.
Push Square: Hi, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to chat with us about DUST 514. To start with, let's talk a little bit about how the project came about. What made you decide to make the game?
Jon Lander: Well, I think it originally kicked off quite a few years before I joined the company – I’ve been at CCP for about three years now.
PS: Quite a long time ago, then?
JL: It was quite long ago, yeah. It came about from a number of things. Primarily, we wanted to ship a second game. EVE Online will be ten years old next May, so we've done pretty well with the one game we have released – but we wanted to really start broadening what we were doing. So, what we did was really a case of asking, "How do we hit a broader reach for this amazing science fiction world that we've created with EVE, but which currently can only be accessed through a fairly niche PC space-ship game?"
Ultimately, we decided not to make another space-ship game, but to do a first-person shooter instead. We decided to create a triple-A game, put it on the PlayStation 3, and make it free-to-play. We thought that would probably hit a pretty large demographic, and the connection to the universe that we've already got – well, that's just the icing on the cake.
Sony really saw the vision in what we were trying to do with DUST 514, and thought it was extremely exciting
PS: DUST 514 is a PS3 exclusive – what drew you to the platform in the first place?
JL: It was really that working relationship with Sony. To be able to do this kind of game: a real-time, persistent world that connects to a completely different experience – it really took guts on Sony's part. They really saw the vision in what we were trying to do, and thought it was extremely exciting. And of course, it provides the opportunity to do something nobody has done before. The openness with which Sony embraced that challenge, and the way they've worked with us as well, has been fantastic. To be honest, working with them just felt like the right thing to do. It was easy.
PS: We've already established that this is an extremely ambitious project, but what have been some of the biggest challenges? Probably the whole thing, we'd imagine.
JL: Yeah. [Laughs]. I don't think any bit has been easy. The real challenges, though, have been learning as a company to deal with another project. Working with an external group like Sony, even though they've been great, has been a different experience for us because we're used to being our own publisher. When you then have to start dealing with working outside of that it introduces new problems.
Scaling up the organisation has also been a challenge. EVE shipped with about 30 people, and now we're a company with more than 500 employees – so, just going through that introduces a list of problems and challenges.
Elsewhere, there are things that you need to do when making a first-person shooter that are just best practised. So, if you're going to do an FPS it needs to do certain things. You can play other games and get a good idea for what you need to do – but then you get to all the other bits that nobody has done before. And that's where you need to raise the question, “How on Earth do we get this to work?” For example, for a first-person shooter your ping rates need to be good, so you've got to geolocate the battle servers around the world. With EVE and DUST 514 however, the actual brains behind the operation, the super computer, sits in London – so, how do we get the whole experience synchronised between PS3 and PC players? It's all got to happen in real-time, and these things haven't been solved before. So, in all honesty, a lot of the challenges have revolved around, “How do we do that?” Thankfully, we've got an amazing group of engineers and cluster guys all around the world that are solving these things.
But, beyond that – we've also had to work on scaling down our imagination. I look at the list of stuff that we would like to do with this, and it just goes on and on. The really hard bit has been saying to ourselves, “Start small.” Whenever we ship an expansion pack on EVE – which is going to ship its 18th add-on later on this year – everyone is watching to see what happens, and if something weird happens, we fix it. But with DUST 514, we really haven't got a clue what's going to happen when we link these two complete games. So, we really have to start small, and just introduce a few touch stones between the two games. We'll look at them carefully and see what happens, because it's so complex that any number of unintended circumstances could come back and bite us in the behind.
PS: You've touched upon it briefly, but can you talk a little more about which shooters have been an inspiration for DUST 514. Playing the game, we’ve noticed a lot of MAG in the design. Was that an influence?
You don't want to ship something that's ultimately the same but just looks a little bit different
JL: Yeah, I'm pretty sure we've looked at every single one. Of course, the obvious games are Battlefield, Call of Duty, and even co-op stuff like Borderlands. As you pointed out, MAG was a big thing that we looked at, and we actually had a couple of guys who had left Zipper Interactive come to work with us for a bit – so you can see some of the similarities between the games. Elsewhere, a lot of the guys play the original PlanetSide.
Honestly, I think if you asked any game designer they'd tell you that they've played most of the games in the genre [they’re working on]. I mean, I played Elite when I was a kid, and that has heavily influenced my take on EVE. So, yeah, I'd say pretty much everything – but again, it comes down to that unique bit, and with that we're very much on our own. It's a nice place to be, because you don't want to ship something that's ultimately the same but just looks a little bit different.
PS: Exactly how does DUST 514 interact with EVE?
JL: Yeah, as I said, we're starting off very small to begin with – but we've got a lot of plans on how we're going to expand on the idea. To start off with, we're going to have joint corporations [i.e clans or guilds]. There are many corporations already within EVE that DUST 514 players will be able to join if they're accepted. Also, DUST 514 players can create their own corporations and invite new EVE or DUST 514 players to them – it works either way. That gives you access to all of the chat channels that are shared across the game, and the wallets – the corporate cash that's moved about throughout the game. You'll be able to have CEOs that are EVE guys recruiting DUST 514 players and so on.
PS: Is that something you're expecting to happen a lot? Are big EVE corporations going to start recruiting the best DUST 514 players to fight for their corporation?
JL: It's already happening. EVE University has already created a corporation called DUST University, and there are all of these big alliances in EVE who are creating little DUST 514 holding corps waiting for when they can start recruiting.
But why would EVE players want DUST 514 players fighting for their cause? Well, in EVE there's this game mode called 'Faction Warfare', and it's really kind of a stepping stone into the complete open sandbox of the main game. We've got four different factions who exist within our universe, and they're at war with each other. So, in EVE you can join up for one of the factions either as an individual, a corporation, or an alliance – and then you are basically fighting for that empire against its opposite number. You're essentially flying around in space, shooting enemy ships, and capturing complexes – and then you get rewarded for it if you succeed. For example, if you kill enough things in a specific solar system, then you'll earn victory points, and the sovereignty of that system will flip over to your faction. Then, we lock all of the opposing factions out of the stations there, and you get benefits and bonuses.
PS: But the opposing teams are going to want to come for you, right?
Big alliances in EVE are creating little DUST 514 corps waiting for when they can start recruiting
JL: Right – they're going to want their space back, especially if they've got things in the station that they can't access any more. So, that's what happens in EVE right now, but what we're going to introduce with DUST 514 is the ability for PS3 players to fight in districts on the planets of those systems – and if they're fighting for one of the factions and they win, it'll ultimately be a little bit easier for that group to take over the location.
So, if I'm heading up this alliance, I'll then start looking for DUST 514 players and offering them contracts so that they can start helping me. Then, when they're on the ground fighting their battles trying to capture these districts on the ground for my faction, they'll be able to appeal to EVE players to support their cause by calling in orbital strikes. But of course, their opposite numbers will then get in touch with their faction of EVE players, and it will prompt these space fights that take place in the sky above.
PS: That's absolute madness!
JL: [Laughs]. So, yeah, that's going to be a starting point for us when the game finally surfaces. And then from there, let's see how it goes – the world is our oyster. We'll just see what happens.