Dust 514 and the Epic Game Inside a Game

How CCP plugged a console shooter into the world's most complicated online game.

A screenshot from the Dust 514 PC game.
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Eve Online, the long running and no-holds barred massively multiplayer online space sim, is a juggernaut. In the decade since it launched, it’s racked up more than 500,000 subscribers; the studio behind it, Icelandic CCP Games, is estimated to contribute a staggering two percent of the country’s entire GDP.

The PC game is famed for its no-holds barred approach: players are almost encouraged to con and swindle each other out of the game’s virtual currency, ISK. Just last week one starship carrying £6,000 of in-game items was shot down in an ambush.

Eve Online is, however, not for everyone. It’s a strategy-heavy game about galactic resources that you’ll need your reading glasses for, one that’s sometimes referred to as “spreadsheets in space”. That’s something that CCP chief marketing officer David Reid readily admits.

“It's an amazing thing, it's inspired these crazy stories that people have done in the game, these assassinations, bank heists, and corporations of tens and thousands going to war with each other for years, but we also know that EVE is not for everybody, right?” he tells Red Bull UK.

“It's a hard game, it's a very complicated one that takes a while to learn. It's a PC game and lots of people like consoles, it's also a subscription game, and not everybody likes to pay a mandatory subscription.”

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Out of this problem was born a solution: a brand new CCP console first person shooter, Dust 514, that plugs into the very same universe, the very same servers: your actions in a battle on the surface of a planet can affect Eve Online players circling in the stratosphere, and vice versa, it’s just easier to get into, faster to play, oh, and also free. The game, which launched on Sony PS3 in May, has been five years in the works.

“The idea for Dust, at some level, came from that. Wouldn't it be great, if there were a way, to get a game out there that met a different group of gamers where they live, in terms of the kind of things they like to do when they play games, and allowed them to be a part of these crazy stories that happen in Eve Online, without requiring them to actually play Eve Online, the PC game - to play another game in the Eve universe. That idea was born about five years ago, and here we are with Dust as a reality now.”

Reid says that just about all of the company’s 550 staff had an input in the game, from the core team in Reykjavik to offices dotted across the US and Europe, and 100-plus Dust team based out of Shanghai.

A screenshot from the Dust 514 PC game.
CCP Games console Dust 514© Red Bull UK

High quality free to play shooters are still a rarity on PC or console, but Dust 514’s USP is the integration with Eve Online and its many player-businessmen and player-bandits.

“So the key is that both games share the same backend, that's the technical fact that makes it all possible, right?” says Andie Nordgren, a senior producer for Eve Online.

“By having all the backing systems be the same, players live in the same world and their actions have consequences in the same world. So, Dust characters can be in corporations with EVE characters, they send mail to each other, they can just talk to each other and organise with each other. But the really interesting stuff comes from the fact that they can also collaborate and really change the state of the universe, and change the world.”

“Maybe another way to think about it as well is much like in our modern day military, or even in sci-fi ideas like Starship Troopers,” says Reid. “There's that close collaboration that has to happen between the infantry soldiers and the pilots in the sky, and there is a very real kind of combined arms deal that is starting to emerge between Eve and Dust...When a giant planetary conquest or a high impact mobile armament lands from an Eve starship in the middle of your battlefield in Dust from an ally, it gives you that feeling of playing in a sports team, you know, you're counting on a teammate to hit the important shot or score a goal, or block or goal - this is a really visceral feeling that's starting to come out of the connection.”

All of this is possible thanks to CCP’s Tranquility server, which Reid says is in London but won’t be any more precise about its location (“I probably should not go and announce where exactly it is...There are conniving Eve players who might find reasons to do silly things there.”) Aside from Chinese players and a few test servers, all players worldwide are connected to the one cluster, so they’re all competing in the same instance of the Eve universe, which is no mean technical feat - one that requires military grade hardware and more than 50 monster machines to keep ticking over.

A screenshot from the Dust 514 PC game.
The new CCP console first person shooter, Dust 514© Red Bull UK

“When EVE launched, there were some 30,000 subscribers, and now we're at a half million worldwide, and Tranquility is where the mass majority of them play,” says Reid. “So this has scaled and grown over the years and continues to do so.”

That number’s only going to grow, especially now that there’s an online shooter connected to the network, one that every one of the 70 million PS3 owners out there can download and play for free.

“You know, as Dust continues to grow, there'll be millions of people playing a free-to-play shooter, and we're going to need to accommodate them...it still has to grow to accommodate what happens with Dust, what's going to happen with mobile, other appliances, applications, things we're doing - there's a lot of demand on that computer.”

Eve players weren’t always so keen on another game being bolted onto their beloved universe however. Some high profile players (One, who goes by the name of Death, says Dust 514 is simply “broken”) have publicly criticised CCP for what they see as “dumbing down” of the universe, even organising in-game protests on launch day.

“It didn't really matter what we said, just the idea that we would actually be able to pull it off was just like, you know,” says Nordgren. “I think the concern at the point from the Eve community was more, ‘What is this thing even, it's probably just taking energy away from developing our game’".

Reid says those concerns have melted away since the game’s full release however, citing an incredible example of collaboration between players of both titles.

“The way I like to think about Dust, it is its own game, but at some level it's also the largest expansion Eve has ever had...As an Eve player, you can ignore everything that goes on in Dust, but you may do so at your own peril.”

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At the end of May, in an event the studio now dubs the Arzad Assault, Eve Online players reached out to a corporation in Dust 514 to help them take on the powerful Iron Oxide corporation: with the Dust players on the ground, the group were able to flip control of the system far quicker than anyone expected.

“Even though there were players that were concerned, sceptical about Dust before they even saw it, we knew these kind of things that would happen. It's the purity of the sandbox. If you give people more ways to interact, more ways to compete and collaborate, they will find some fascinating things to do with it that you as a developer never expected.”

Indeed, Reid says this is just the beginning for CCP’s universe, hinting at new games and platforms all plugging into the Tranquility server.

“I think there are plenty of possibilities here, and we think about this all the time. I would not expect that Dust is the last sort of thing we'd do on this front. You know, you look at EVE very deeply as a player and you can see things in there that almost could be other games all by themselves, and in a later era of development, maybe today, they would be.”

Though he won’t be pressed on details, Reid envisions how one element of Eve Online would be perfect for tablets.

“One of these examples that we talk about a lot is a mechanic in EVE called 'planetary interaction', and planetary interaction is at some base level kind of like playing a mini-game of Civilisation within EVE Online. You're looking at planets, you're cultivating them, you're harvesting resources and things like that, and it's a mechanic that you know, it doesn't have to be done on a PC, you could probably do that on a tablet, or on a console or a mobile device.”

The studio’s vision of a shared universe is one that other developers appear to be toying with right now: it’s just CCP saw where the puck was going much earlier than everyone else. Destiny for instance, the new game from Halo creators Bungie, lets players compete in one persistent universe, and even check in from your smartphone.

Destiny doesn’t even have so much as a release date however, and Reid questions whether CCP’s rivals will really be able to take the same hands off approach and let the magic happen organically - but he’s hopeful.

“You know, the designers of EVE are not tiny gods in the EVE universe, we're just the janitors here right? We keep the lights on and we make sure the players can keep doing what they want to do, but we're not directing them. And you see a lot of developers and folks out there that seem to realise it's probably harder to do than it is to say, but there's something magic here that they're all starting to look at now.”

Who knows? When the players make the rules, nobody at all.