Rich Stanton is in Iceland attending EVE Fanfest, CCP's celebration of internet spaceships and those who love them. He was there when the company revealed Project Legion, and he tracked down CCP staff to get details of the new sandbox shooter set in the EVE universe.
Finally. Among CCP's odd decisions over the years, surely one of the strangest was in making Dust-514 a Playstation 3 exclusive - and compounding this by releasing it at the end of the console's lifecycle. One could speculate that this was all down to a giant cheque from Mr Sony, but at Eve Fanfest's Dust-514 keynote the inevitable was announced. EVE's Project Legion, a free-to-play PC shooter, aims to make Dust-514 look like a dry run.
But it's not Dust. CCP have been scrupulous about distinguishing between the two games, and insist both Dust and Legion will be developed in parallel. This may again be down to Sony's cheque, because although menu screens and the like are clearly different, the core shooting seems to share many similarities. This is of course not good news for Dust fans, but it may not be very good news for prospective Legion fans either.
There are two things to say about Dust as a foundation. The first is that it was not a very good game at launch. The second is that it's subsequently become much better, thanks to CCP's trademark post-launch care, but not to the extent that you'd place it anywhere near the top tier of shooters. It is not a matter of mechanics so much as of polishing mechanics; everything in Dust-514 works well enough, but very few elements of it are exceptional.
Dust-514 was developed by CCP's Shanghai studio, and a (currently) small team of around 60 there is also handling Legion. The lines really are blurry here; in short, it seems CCP want to take aspects of Dust and re-build a massively multiplayer shooter framework around them. Perhaps the most obvious difference at first glance is how players use the starmap - one of EVE's most signature sights, an expansive and seemingly endless representation of the universe. In Legion this will be used to pick combat zones depending on their security status and what loot is available, the suggestion being that better players will be able to go straight for the big prizes.
Part of this is the introduction of PvE in the form of salvage drones. A key aspect EVE's lore is that the universe's mega corporations send drones down to battlefields to scavenge what there is of value - and one of their kinks is that they don't necessarily distinguish between living and dead loot opportunities. So it will be possible to play Legion as a pure co-op shooter, hunting down these drones and trying to claim their salvage for oneself - with drones in highsec less lethal and giving up blander prizes, but lowsec drones having more punch and better loot.
This feeds into another area that CCP regards as key to Project Legion's success or otherwise; the economy. Basically scavenging can get you gear, but it seems to be primarily a way of accumulating ISK. The promise is of an economy that works in the same way as that of EVE, though with so little shown of it and EVE's much grander scope it's hard to see how this can be achieved. A dash of scepticism may be necessary here, at least until more is shown, but then on the other hand you have the vast improvement Dust has shown since release - something even its fiercest critics must acknowledge.
But the most intriguing link is of course the one to EVE Online itself. I spoke to Atli Mar Sveinsson, the creative director of CCP Asia, about Project Legion and asked him to clear this up first. "So the games are not linked in the form of a couple of barrels being shot on a planet's surface from orbit. They're primarily linked by corporations and social networks and that is actually what we care most about. Of course we care about the footprints in the sand between games, but at its core this is about socialisation - that, more than a specific feature, drives us to certain conclusions."
Sveinsson also clarifies for me that the Legion of the title is not meant to reference a Roman Legion - that is, not 100-player battles. Rather it's the sense of 'I am Legion' and making players feel they have the strength of 100 soldiers. This makes me curious about CCP Shanghai's size, and how many are working on Legion. "Right now we have between 80 and 100 people," says Sveinsson. "But the reason I'm unsure of exact numbers is because that includes support staff for EVE China, so I'd say the development team is more like 60 people."
So what about the actual gametypes, the nitty-gritty where EVE's open gameplay translates into a much more traditional (and some might say unimaginative) structure. "You ask me if it will be the same as in Dust where we kind of retrofit team deathmatch gameplay onto planets? In a sandbox wouldn't it be better to allow it to be a continuation of the sandbox elements? In terms of say, a flag, and I don't know if that's some massive structure or a literal flag - why not let the players direct it?"
"We're moving away from that more rigid structure," says Sveinsson. "Even Planetside is rigid in that sense of it has capture points and stuff and it's rinse-and-repeat. But I would say we're moving more towards the DNA of CCP - give players a set of tools and then be surprised when they use those tools in strange and interesting ways."
I ask about the timeframe - because Dust-514 didn't make its initial release date, and CCP are being coy about Legion's ETA. "Right now it's a prototype," says Sveinsson. "We put together the team - it's the same team really, a lot of people from the Dust team but we carved people out. For me I've been on the project for so long it was great to see it with new eyes, we came up with a vision and decided to let the team loose - and how quickly the team has put together something that looks so good. And all of that footage is real, it's crazy. It's not a linear effort, it's logarthymic you know, so although we can't say dates I want to be clear that it's not because we don't want to - it's because we have a history both at CCP and at CCP Shanghai to be very confident about times, and sometimes we haven't been able to realise them. Right now we're much more focused on being honest and up-front with people like you and saying we don't know."
One of the things about Fanfest is the excitement. EVE fans have wanted Dust on PC since Dust was a thing, and so Legion's announcement was met with the kind of cheers and whoops usually reserved for new ship animations. It's easy to forget in such circumstances the challenges that the game itself will face on a platform that's already overflowing with great free-to-play team shooters - and the EVE audience, large as it is, is unlikely to sustain a F2P shooter on its own back.
Sveinsson says the two audiences - EVE fans and non-EVE fans - "are not mutually exclusive." But clearly much remains to be seen about Legion - not least how it plays. Dust was a shooter that launched too early - "and we knew this" says Sveinsson. In some ways it hasn't thrown off that launch, though anyone who tries the game now on PS3 may be pleasantly surprised. If there is one thing CCP has proved itself expert at, however, and may be emulating here, it is iteration. Legion might excite the non-EVE fans among us yet, mutually exclusive or not. But if the talk of a freeform FPS where objectives are set by players, among a landscape of PvE opportunities, has anything to it - well, this could be something that gets more than just Fanfest attendees whooping.