Hands-on with DUST 514 on the cusp of open beta

DUST 514
Less than a week before DUST 514's January 22nd open beta launch, CCP invited Massively and other publications to attend an orbital bombardment event in San Francisco. We've been regularly reporting on the progress of the orbital bombardment system, but this time we witnessed the process in action. We also got a preview of the larger implications and long-term expectations of metagame elements that will exist between DUST and its sibling sandbox, EVE Online.

Dust 514
How orbital bombardment works

Planet-side engagements in factional warfare are already a fundamental driver for this collaboration between PC-based EVE pilots and PS3-platform DUST 514 ground-pounder forces. Orbital bombardment is merely one of the first tangible combat interactions between the two environments. The OB process itself appears relatively simple: DUST invasion forces consisting of personnel, fighting vehicles, and logistics support will be dropped on a planet using drop-ships in an attempt to wrest control from the defending faction force. The ground force commander contacts the EVE fleet, provides a target, and requests an orbital bombardment.

EVE's player-enabled orbital bombardments will be a major contributing factor in securing key objectives; however, for the ground commanders, the appropriate type of bombardment ordinance will need to be requested. For example, EMP ordinance may cause significant damage to enemy emplacement shielding but could have little effect on enemy troops. To accomplish this, DUST communications to the supporting EVE players are available via in-game using limited-duration universal voice transmitter packs, which must be purchased on the DUST 514 market. Extrapolating this to numerous other compelling in-game purchases or as part of subscriber benefits, we can begin to understand how an otherwise free-to-install DUST can become profitable for CCP.

Dust 514
The OB demo

The actual demonstration of the orbital bombardment presented by DUST's executive producer Brandon Laurino featured a single EVE player flying a destroyer using small guns loaded with tactical ordinance. The ground forces requested the orbital bombardment, and the EVE player then acquired a valid target and fired with devastating effect on the selected structures. It made for nice visual effects, though pretty simple stuff on the surface, but in a typical faction warfare setting, I can imagine that in addition to the ground fighting and the use of surface to orbit weapons, there would likely be a major fleet battle going on at the same time. Designated EVE OB ships would need to stay alive and on station long enough to switch out ammo in order to bombard the planet, then switch back to space ordinance or jump out to a safe spot. Presumably, from these simple beginnings, we'll see some phenomenal arms battles of space-opera proportions!

Dust 514
The skirmish

Following the demonstration, we were all invited to participate in a DUST skirmish using one of the numerous PS3 systems set up for us. Some of the participants were closed beta players, meaning they had quite an edge over the rest of us, and thus I was quickly flat-lined for the first 10 minutes or so. I eventually discovered the Arbiter (Sniper) build worked fine if I found a ladder up to an obscure perch with some covering structure. I then found that I was able to "discover" and use my Mac mouse and mini-Bluetooth-keyboard with the PS3. Since I had been attempting to snipe using the controller, I was constantly frustrated as the target had usually moved by the time I settled the cross-hairs. With the mouse, sniping became much more effective, and I was racking up plenty of kills.

Dust 514
After the demo, I was able to coax more information out of Laurino and the other CCP representatives, specifically in regard to the challenge of planning EVE/DUST choreography around combined arms planetary faction invasion/defense activity. For example, how will defending DUST 514 players know they need to jump into action to protect their planetary resources? This will undoubtedly unleash a complex set of requirements, including inter-platform battle scheduling, start timers, and possible penalties such as no-show forfeiture rules. CCP will need to carefully craft these boundaries and controls so it retains as much of a sandbox environment as possible.

Given the massively destructive nature of planetary combat, you can surely imagine that the structures, vehicles, and equipment will be largely destroyed with some notable salvage. All participants in each battle will need to rebuild and re-equip, which takes a lot of ISK and materials. A notable goal for CCP is to ensure that planetary invasions must lead to some significant ISK-burning, just as success measurement within the DUST arena will be measured by structural damage in addition to the captured territory.

So why try to capture moons and planets? They might represent a strategic location, they may be sites where substantial profitable minerals are extracted, or players might wish to deny those same resources to the enemy. In any case, there will always need to be significant investment in fueling facilities, equipment to exploit any resources, and support for defensive forces required to retain control.

At this stage, initial plans for DUST activity revolve around factional warfare and sovereignty control support. However, as DUST matures, CCP might add numerous raiding and skirmish possibilities including stations, control towers, and capital ships.

A final challenge is what CCP considers one of its "crown jewels": the grand ISK economy. While the EVE and DUST economies will have some level of reciprocation at the outset, Laurino described the escalation from there as a very slow "turn of the spigot" to see where things go. To underscore this level of extreme caution, he revealed that early on in the beta test, a minor exploit was discovered and quickly shared among testers, resulting in billions of ISK moving between the test economies. Laurino described the event as happening in "nanoseconds."

As a long-time EVE player, I asked whether CCP thought EVE pilots would transition to becoming DUST players, but it seems that the general expectation from CCP is that there will probably not be much overlap, that this is an entirely new community drawn from other PS3 FPS-type games. With its free platform and in-game currency purchases, the studio hopes to capture and retain a substantial playerbase from outside EVE with what the team believes are compelling content, changing environments, EVE-like skill-building, and lots of cool gear.

The studio also stressed its aim to respect and support the joint community as it evolves. I asked the team about EVE's Council of Stellar Management, a player-elected body that exerts a significant influence over the EVE universe. How does DUST fit into the CSM? CCP plans to ensure there is a critical mass of DUST 514 representative players participating in the CSM, but the actual mechanics (like designating existing seats or adding more) have yet to be determined.

DUST enters open beta today, on January 22nd.

This article was originally published on Massively.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.