From Dust: CCP’s New Free-To-Play FPS Project Nova

Dust 514, the free-to-play EVE Online shooter for the Playstation 3, was a bit of a tragedy for me. It was both relentlessly ambitious and sadly crippled, hamstrung by its attempt to create a microcosm sandbox with a complex relationship to its big brother, EVE Online. But after talking with Snorri Árnason, the senior director for CCP’s new FPS, Project Nova, I’m worried that the failed marriage between Dust 514 and EVE Online is preventing them from doing the one thing worth doing with the recently unveiled shooter: taking risks.

At least, that’s how I felt after playing Project Nova and seeing that CCP’s latest experiment feels like little more than another generic sci-fi shooter built using Unreal Engine 4. For what it’s worth, Project Nova is at a stage that is far too early to judge conclusively. The demo itself lacks all of the supporting structure and progression that most free-to-play shooters, and Dust 514, need to survive. Those systems are missing because they simply don’t exist. As Árnason explains to me, the focus is on building a “good shooter first” before considering everything else.

Talking about Dust 514, Árnason says that he felt the potential was squandered on poor fundamentals. “People came in and they expected a shooter, but what they got didn’t deliver on performance,” he says. “Even skilled players couldn’t enjoy their mastery of the game because they were fighting the controls or fighting lag. You were rarely playing the game to the fullest.” That lesson was taken to heart, and CCP is adamant not to make the same mistakes again. “Framerate and performance is number one,” says Árnason. “It’s the foundation of this whole new project.”

Playing Project Nova, that conviction was obviously apparent. Though still rough around the edges, the performance was already smooth and, as a basic foundation, the shooting was enjoyable enough. What has me concerned is that this focus on starting simple and getting the basics right is creating a game that won’t distinguish itself from the crowd should CCP release it without the ideas that fuelled Dust 514.

For many, the appeal of that game wasn’t the moment-to-moment shooting but rather the notion that events in Dust 514 could play a part in the larger political structure of EVE Online. With orbital bombardment, ships in EVE could directly impact the battles playing out on the planets of Dust 514. But the problem was that, in hoping to accomplish so much, Dust 514 really accomplished very little. “I always felt like we put the cart before the horse with [orbital bombardment],” says Árnason. “It wasn’t played by a lot of people.”

Orbital bombardment was only one problem of many for Dust 514, including half-baked economic and social aspects that didn’t really inspire devotion from a larger community of players. And, of course, all of it was wrapped up in a first-person shooter that wasn’t very fun to play. “That’s one of the lessons we learned: the bigger the scope, the harder it is to deliver quality on all fronts.”

Right now, Project Nova has absolutely no plans to communicate directly with EVE Online. Though Árnason hopes that won’t always be the case, getting to that point is going to be a long road. Árnason explains the process: “If you have a great game first, then you can connect them thematically, then socially, economically, and finally you can start talking about crazy ideas like taking over a Titan [the largest spaceship class in EVE Online] from the inside.”

Vehicles, a crucial aspect of Dust 514, will also be missing from Project Nova, which will instead focus entirely on infantry combat. Though Árnason admits that there might be room to include vehicles in the future, he says their presence in Dust 514 often did more harm than good with all of the balancing issues they created.

Árnason’s very conservative approach to Project Nova seems sensible, but it has me worried that it will be missing the ambition it needs to survive in an ecosystem flooded with free-to-play games. During the demo, we squared off in rounds of 6 versus 6 (Árnason confirmed that there are plans for teams of 16), in which we battled to hack a console and earn points. Like many other online shooters, Project Nova uses a classed-based system that one could assume will be influenced by an economy similar to how EVE Online and Dust 514 works. But, right now, it plays like a thoroughly basic shooter.

Do you want to snipe? There’s a perfectly fine sniper rifle for you, and the same goes for just about every other style of weapon. I had hoped that one of the gatling gun-wielding heavy soldiers would’ve offered a more distinct experience, but that class largely felt the same as the others. The only aspect that stood out to me was the ability to hack spawn points to create new options for how quickly reinforcements could get back into the fight, providing an extra layer of strategy beyond rushing in to assault and hack objectives.

Árnason is bursting with ideas of how Project Nova can evolve once the team has the fundamentals of good shooting down. It was a conversation full of half-formed—but fascinating—hypotheticals involving space elevators bridging Project Nova and EVE Online, using resources between games to build new weapons and ships, and more. As tantalizing as it seems, all of it is little more than hopeful speculation of where Project Nova could go. First, Árnason needs to create a good shooter. “If we can get to that point, I’ll be incredibly happy,” he says.

If I sound overly critical of a game that barely exists, that’s because it could very well cease to. Part of CCP’s process for developing games includes arigorous reviews that puts Árnason in the position of constantly having to prove Project Nova is something worth investing more resources in. It’s that same review process that saw Project Legion, which was another successor to Dust 514, shelved years earlier after debuting at a previous Fanfest in much the same way Project Nova is now. Árnason adds that World of Darkness was killed off by a similar fate.

According to him, the next “gate review” for Project Nova is fast approaching, and whether or not it can find a “place at the table” with other free-to-play games will be heavily scrutinized. Following a successful review, several more will be waiting down the road as Project Nova steadily approaches a more complete state. Fanfest itself is playing a crucial role in these reviews, as Project Nova’s unveiling this year isn’t an announcement in the traditional sense, but a way for CCP to gauge if Project Nova is even worth pursuing. “We want to collect feedback,” Árnason explains. “Not just on the gameplay, but the viability of the product.”

Part of what made Project Nova worth considering to begin with was the fact that it is recycling a large portion of the art and assets used in Dust 514. Árnason says that millions of dollars were spent on creating high definition character models and environments for Dust 514 that were then downscaled to fit the tight requirements of the Playstation 3. On the PC, those same assets look remarkably better and went a long way in making Project Nova worth considering from a financial perspective.

All of that, however, will be for nothing if Árnason can’t prove his project’s worth during CCP’s internal reviews, which is exactly why there’s very little to be excited about. As it exists, Project Nova is adequate, but it’s also another chapter in CCP’s growing history of tossing experiments at the wall and seeing what sticks. If you’re like me and you immediately perked up at the first mention of what Project Nova could be, you can safely settle back into your chair. It has a long and hard road to travel before we’ll be able to judge for ourselves if the journey was worthwhile.

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23 Comments

  1. Leprikhan says:

    It’s kind of ironic how “not-taking-risks” in development seems itself to run a high risk of creating a mediocre title that nobody really cares for. I couldn’t say whether that’s worthwhile financially, but it doesn’t seem like it would be.

    • realitybytes says:

      It’s double-ironic because this process of gate reviews is supposed to help take more risks. If you can kill your darlings when they fail to make it without that being seen as negative then you can push the envelope and find that really good title. Supercell do something similar except the team themselves kill the games rather than some external review process.

      I guess CCP is gun shy after the multi-million dollar losses from cancelling World of Darkness and the lack of return from Dust. I’m quite surprised they are sticking to the shooter space when it seems so competitive and with such a derivative game so far.

    • wz says:

      Meanwhile, Planetside 2 is going full Starcraft and adding resource harvesting for constructing player made bases with subsystem objectives and fortifications, to a game that supports 1000+ players on one map playing infantry FPS+ground vechicles+air vehicles.

      Vid: link to youtube.com

      Reddit wiki: link to reddit.com

      Ambition doesn’t always get the budget or publicity, even when it’s deserved, which is why sites like RPS are invaluable.

  2. ZombieFX says:

    From Dust?

    Well, i already finished this one years ago.
    link to store.steampowered.com

    • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

      Such a good little game.

      • brucethemoose says:

        It suffered from some consolitis, but I enjoyed it too.

        I might even go back and replay it one of these days…

  3. Christo4 says:

    Maybe this is just a minor gripe of mine, but… why are all weapons still shooting bullets in a sci-fi game?

    At least mass effect tried something else… But still…

    There are so many things they can use as inspiration, warhammer for example, lascannons, bolters (which kinda shoot mini-rockets).

    Please, PLEASE, be more creative…

    • Sound says:

      Dust and Eve have different styles of sci-fi weapons, it would stand to reason that Nova likely will too. Possibly not yet implemented, or possibly locked behind level-ups.

    • Unruly says:

      In EVE there’s multiple types of weapons, and they were also present in Dust 514, so it stands to reason that they’ll do the same thing with Nova since its the same universe. In EVE and Dust they had regular guns, “hybrids” that are magnetically fired projectile guns, and lasers. In EVE, at least, the different types are further divided into two subtypes each. The hybrids are divided into the ones that fire solid shot(railguns) and the ones that fire superheated plasma(blasters). The guns are sorted into autocannons and artillery, and the lasers are sorted into pulse and beam.

      So it’s kind of disingenuous to say that all they’ve got in regular guns. Not to mention that the science kind of points towards “conventional” weapons and railguns continuing to be the weapon types of choice for a long, long time.

  4. Moonracer says:

    I got to watch the whole Dust fiasco first hand from the start. It feels like they are just making the same promises/mistakes they made back then. At least when Dust started up they were confident that both games would influence each other in very real ways (as well as promising 8 years of development support, hehe).

    Also funny to hear that there will be no vehicles and still only 32 player matches. It sounds like a real step backwards while moving from PS3 to PC.

  5. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Was hoping for a successor to Planetside 2. Guess I’ll keep waiting.

    • brucethemoose says:

      Planeside 2 has a lot of flaws, I’m suprised no-one has created a competitor yet.

      Maybe making a true MMOFPS is harder than we give SOE/Daybreak credit for.

  6. DailyFrankPeter says:

    To be honest it *might* be enough if it’s a decent, Sci-Fi, pew-pew multiplayer shooter. Something more grounded than arena shooters, such as the last Doom, but less worn out in terms of seeting than Call of Duty.

  7. Hardlylikely says:

    I still believe the platform exclusivity played a large role in the poor reception of Dust 514. PC is where people play Eve and therefore the natural place for an Eve universe FPS to find its audience. Not to mention the large audience of online man shooting fans over on the Xbox they left out. Platform exclusivity to one console for an FPS based on a PC MMO is mind boggling. On that basis alone this game is ahead.

  8. LewdPenguin says:

    After Dust 514 launched on the wrong system (as others have said, putting your niche PC MMO tie-in FPS on console only is bonkers), at the wrong time (PS3 was in its last days when Dust launched, a move to PS4 launch title might at least have gained a slightly wider audience until more releases were available), and was at best pretty bland whilst taking one of the least friendly parts of EVE as it’s only notable feature (detailed fitting systems with a “go figure it out yourself” attitude towards the player), at least there’s one thing CCP could be fairly sure of: They’re unlikely to get it quite so wrong again, because missing the mark so widely takes real effort.
    At least here with a PC-aimed game that isn’t trying desperately to be shoehorned into the core EVE experience (an experiment that failed badly and was rightly effectively shelved) or relying on being a tie-in as it’s selling point they may just make something half decent from it that can stand on its own. Although I do also wonder just how many new projects CCP can keep throwing chunks of cash at in the hope something else sticks eventually…

  9. brucethemoose says:

    Don’t we have enough sci-fi 16-player shooters in the world already?

    If it barely ties in with EVE, and it has no mechanics that make it stand out… What’s the appeal?

  10. TakeItEasyMon says:

    What a disaster. CCP continues to not learn it’s lessons, year after year after year.

    Another class-based f2p shooter in an already overstuffed genre?

    People play(ed) EVE because it was different, and was doing things other games weren’t.

    There is absolutely a niche for them to fill with a first person iteration of this IP, and this isn’t it.

  11. Cealdare says:

    TL;DR – 1) They completely failed at marketing their Free-to-Play game. 2) What they pitched is NOT what they made.

    I started playing Dust early in closed Beta and have spent a ridiculous amount of brain power analyzing what it did wrong, because I loved the game. I could give a long detailed list of things that hurt the game but two are what started it down the path to failure early on:

    1) They didn’t effectively market the game.

    Before I even got into the beta I was excited about the concept, so I tried to spread the word about it and immediately noticed an issue in that NO ONE had heard about it outside of people who knew about EVE. Throughout the Closed Beta, then the Open Beta, leading to the “launch” I would regularly ask about the game anytime I went into a game related store (almost all of them Best Buys and Gamestops, I live in the U.S.) and I got people I know who are gamers to do the same. In that more than year long period NOT ONCE did I or my friends run into someone who had heard of it. This informal poll covered about 5 states and maybe 40+ cities over the course of a year. The people working in a primary sales location for games had not heard of it. It was especially ridiculous when there were copies of the special edition PS3 that came with DUST 514 items sitting on a shelf next to people I asked and they didn’t know about the game. That level of marketing fail on it’s own usually guarantees a free-to-play game will not grow (and therefore without a very tiny scope will die).

    2) They described a game that appealed to one group of people, then made a game for a different group of people.

    Look at some of their early trailers for the game at the official DUST 514 Youtube channel to see what I mean. link to youtube.com Now compare that to the most recent trailer, or any gameplay footage. Having been one of the early players I can confidently say the vast majority of players that first tried the game wanted a game of large scope, with a lot of depth, drawn either towards the idea of interacting with EVE in a different way or (a lot of players came from MAG) by the idea of fighting a WAR, not a boxing match with guns. Early on this seemed to be what they were working on, but quickly instead of trying to expand the scope of the gameplay or add more EVE connectivity they started refining the game they already had. And that game was an Arena First Person Shooter. By that I mean the genre of games where fighting is in discreet matches, gameplay is designed so each side has an equal chance of winning, and the combat takes place within fixed boundaries. There are a LOT of people who like this kind of game, which is why Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, Counterstrike and oh so many other games make so much money. The problem was that very few of the people who started playing the game early on WANTED that. The kind of people who sink hundreds of hours into EVE don’t have a desire to sink hundred of hours into Call of Duty. This meant MOST of the early players left. Out of the people I was regularly playing with when I started in the beta only a single one of them was still playing by the time that the game “launched.” When there is that kind of disconnect between what the people you are attracting want and what you give them you aren’t going to have much of a playerbase. A list of early features that they never even got around to putting into beta would be long, such as PVE, Installations, Squad and Commander leader bonuses, non-arena gamemodes plus a lot of other little things. And a lot of those features that NEVER were part of the game were what attracted people to it initially.

    There were a lot of other things that hurt the game (such as how the messed up economy caused the most stand out difference the game had, the fact all your gear cost money, to become meaningless) and I would honestly want few things more than to get a chance to talk to people at CCP, because even now I think DUST could be turned into not just a good game but a GREAT game. Even ignoring bringing the whole game back smaller portions of it could be cut out and turned into fun games that would make money for them. An easy example would be the dropships, there are NO other games that had the kind of dropship flying DUST had. Make a small Playstation Store game that would basically be a few scripted missions using them, a racing mode (with gunners), a basic deathmatch mode on elevated platforms (stripdown the dropsuits to a couple basic pre-built types), a capture the objective mode in a similar setup. You could probably prototype that with the existing assets in an afternoon, spend a month polishing it, and sell AT LEAST thousands of copies at around $10. It won’t be your next big game, but it would make money and generate interest for what comes next, plus make loyal players happy. There are other things that can be done, DUST had many unique and wonderful ideas that don’t need to be rebuilt from scratch to be made into something good.

    I’m going to stop myself now because I could literally go on for hours, I’m not joking when I say I both loved DUST and spent hundreds of hours thinking about and discussing both what it was and what it could be. I hope that before they move ahead with Project Nova they try to get some feedback from the DUST players that left, NOT the CPM who formed the core of people who more or less liked the game they made. And this time, please, by all that you hold dear, hire a marketing department that knows what it is doing. I love reading Rock Paper Shotgun, but a mention from them and a few other sites alone is NOT enough to make a Free-to-Play game a success, especially a console game.

  12. dorobo says:

    ccp open THE DOOOR(inside eve’s stations) first then try doing something else! It’s somekind of curse placed on you by not following promises :D

  13. Smoky_the_Bear says:

    Still think it was a really dumb idea to make an FPS tie in to a hardcore, PC only MMO, then release it only on PS3. Just nonsensical in every way. Even if they did do the tie in well, how many people on PS3 even knew what eve was or if they did, how many have a crap.
    That said I’ll play this new one, I find EVEs gameplay as full as dish water but like the universe etc and something else set in that world, I’m interested in.

  14. Spacewalk says:

    Metallic characters on metallic backgrounds, metallic characters that look like background elements whilst we’re at it, would have to be the worst idea in this series of bad ideas.

  15. twaage says:

    I cautiously optimistic.

    CCP had a an amazing product with Dust 514.

    Yes to be honest it had many major shortcomings. But it also had something that retained a fiercely loyal player base for almost 4 years. What was that?

    A giant sandbox universe, where you could form Corporations and fight highly competitive battles over planets and plant your flag.

    This made such a great social aspect as winning these long wars against other corps has probably been a best gaming experience.

    Or being a mercenary for a corp in some war of their own, where you would be paid with in game currency.

    Those are the things that set Dust apart. No other shooter can offer that