GDC 2012: The Firing Line's PlanetSide 2 and DUST 514 redux

The Firing Line - GDC 2012 header
This week I was fortunate enough to chat up the developers on the two biggest MMOFPS titles of the year. Exactly what year that is remains to be seen, and after hearing Sony Online Entertainment use the word "alpha" quite a lot, I suspect that PlanetSide 2 may slip into 2013. And that's not a bad thing at all, by the way.

CCP's DUST 514, on the other hand, is surely coming in 2012. The devs will be doling out some long-awaited hands-on time with EVE's precocious little brother at Fanfest in a couple of weeks, and while DUST and PS2 share similar core gameplay, their target audiences (and the general feeling I get from each game) are completely different.

PlanetSide 2 - purple faction vehicles
If PlanetSide 2 and DUST 514 are cut from the same first-person shooter cloth, they differ substantially when it comes to style and presentation. The former is loud, colorful, and brash, if I can use that word in reference to an MMOFPS. The latter is darker, it's sleeker, and it comes with a certain amount of sordid expectation due to the scandal-driven reputation of its predecessor.

Yes, we'll be shooting at enemy soldiers, ground vehicles, and air vehicles in both DUST and PS2, but I'm convinced there's room in every MMOFPS fan's library for both titles. I'm also quite hopeful that both titles will live up to the games that spawned them.
Reveal redux
SOE's PlanetSide 2 presentation was pretty glizty as these things go. Creative director Matt Higby, senior art director Tramell Isaac, and executive John Smedley schmoozed with the game journo crowd prior to the main demo event, and the reveal itself took place on three giant video screens as Higby and a team of SOE devs spent an hour blowing stuff (and each other) up at various points around the massive world of Auraxis.

This was the first major gameplay reveal on a title that hardcore fans have been anticipating for years, and in most quarters, it was warmly received. I recapped the experience earlier this week so I won't repeat that here, but I do think it's worth mentioning that there's a certain amount of hype that goes into press events like these. I bring this up because savvy readers take what convention attendees (like yours truly) report with a grain of salt, as they know that the SOEs of the world go to great lengths to wow writers and present their games in the best possible light.

The PlanetSide 2 demo struck me as particularly authentic, though, because even though SOE declined to offer hands-on time with the alpha build, the studio did show off a considerable amount of freeform gameplay in real-time. These weren't screenshots or edited video; this was a group of shooter fans (who also happen to be the devs) playing their ultimate game, and both the enthusiasm and the level of polish on display (even in alpha) is hard to fake.

DUST 514 - two dudes running with guns
Our CCP interview struck a similarly authentic chord, though in a completely different manner. Gone was the big press room, the open bar, and the crowds of schmoozers that surrounded the SOE event. In their place was a nice hotel suite and some uninterrupted face time with CEO Hilmar Petursson, CTO Halldor Fannar, and CMO David Reid.

In addition to the DUST/EVE economic integration that's been discussed before, we also uncovered a few interesting nuggets relating to DUST's mobile and PlayStation Home presence. News on the game's Vita companion app broke last week, and Petursson excitedly referred to the possibilities inherent in broad platform coverage of the New Eden universe.
More sand
The mobile app will initially allow for smaller housekeeping items tangential to DUST's shooter core, but Petursson also referred to the armored gauntlet visible on your DUST 514 character and launched into a "wouldn't it be cool if" speech that involved translating the gauntlet HUD directly to a Vita screen, which could then be strapped to your wrist and used to call down an orbital strike from your living room.

That's all theoretical, of course, but that kind of wild-eyed enthusiasm is what makes CCP an interesting firm (and it's one of the things that makes EVE an enduring MMORPG).

It's fashionable to hate on CCP's decision to develop DUST for the PlayStation 3, and our article comments are routinely filled with folks crying "fail" before the game even ships. What's missing from most of these discussions, though, is CCP's true motivations and the larger goals they serve.

The company is clearly bent on exposing fresh (and more casual) eyes to its New Eden brand, and this is the impetus behind the recent free-to-download announcement. There are no cover charges for gaming on the PlayStation network, and with a freely downloadable client, DUST 514 will be readily available to anyone and everyone who has a PS3. It's both a new way to experience the EVE universe and a way to keep that universe relevant nine years down the line, as Fannar explains:
The world has changed significantly in those years. We have new hardware platforms, and EVE doesn't necessarily fit onto many of those platforms. That's one of the reasons to make DUST. It's a way for us to reach a new audience, to keep it relevant. The same thing goes for the smartphones, the tablets, and who knows what we will have in five years, but with this strategy, we have an EVE experience for you there that kind of follows you around so we can keep stealing all the waking hours of your day.
Clearly, then, CCP is passionate not just about EVE but about the New Eden universe (and the universe of possibility that surrounds it). Occasionally this leads to tangents like Incarna, which is still a factor in future EVE development, by the way. And now it's leading to DUST, which initially will be a tightly focused shooter experience that will ultimately add another layer of gameplay to the ginormous sandbox.

Finally, CCP shed a bit of light on why it chose to work exclusively with Sony for its foray into console development. Reid explained that the folks behind the PlayStation 3 were more open to CCP's penchant for pushing the design envelope than the folks at Microsoft.

Fannar also mentioned the fact that Microsoft has invested heavily in its Xbox Live voice-chat system and consequently will not allow third-party developers to bridge that into another voice-chat system. This in turn prevents crucial DUST/EVE integration in terms of capsuleers' ability to communicate with dusters in real-time, which is ultimately a deal-breaker when it comes to CCP's vision of the future.

Ultimately though, this is a great time to be an online shooter fan, and in particular, both PlanetSide 2 and DUST 514 are looking to quench fan desires for truly massive MMOFPS titles that offer both scale and a reason to fight beyond traditional lobbies and ladders.

The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.

This article was originally published on Massively.