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DUST514: Exciting Concepts but Tough Design

I’ve been following DUST514 for some time and can honestly say that I’m excited for the game.  The more I hear, though, the more it seems that CCP is building an uphill battle for themselves with the very things that make the game compelling in the first place. It’s complex. It integrates with an existing MMO in spectacular fashion. It’s deep enough to devote hundreds of hours to without maxing out every character specialization. In essence, they’re taking the concept of a shooter-MMO beyond the likes of MAG  and Planetside and marrying it to the mechanics of EVE Online. That should speak to EVE players and PS3-shooters alike.

But that’s the thing. By being a hardcore shooter, it’s the polar opposite of EVE’s gameplay and that might make it hard for crossover players to swallow. I haven’t played the game yet (but will soon, thanks Hirvox!), so all I know is from second-hand sources and dev interviews. Stabs got a chance to play it, however, and says about the same. While those systems tantalizingly call to EVE players, the shooting aspect harkens to a skill-set EVE never fostered. In essence, the wolves of EVE become the sheep of DUST. A tempting wall of “eff this” goes up for existing customers not willing to climb the initial skill-curve; a twitchy wall, as well, that gets progressively steeper the older one gets.

For my part, these things don’t really concern me. I’ve been a shooter guy for a long time now. Twitch gaming is something I’m used to and can even be pretty good at. I’m also an MMO guy, so all that depth isn’t really unexpected either. Hell, I’m getting the highs of all that concept without the lows of having to learn something completely new! But because I’m an MMO player, I have a natural one-up on the audience seems to be targeting.

Then there’s the strange PS3-exclusivity thing, which I won’t say a lot about, but immediately shut a lot of people out before they’ve even started. As the developer interview on a July Podcast Beyond elaborated, they didn’t want the pay wall of Xbox Live Gold.

In that same Podcast Beyond interview, CCP makes it pretty clear that they’re looking to expand the MMO audience to a whole new demographic, which is awesome. All those promises and high aspirations have done a lot to excite the Playstation community, too. My concern, however, is that they’re stacking the chips against them. Excel Online is alive and well in DUST. Look at the first video in this link. I see that depth and think “wow, that’s awesome.” Your average Call of Duty player will probably think, “holy sh*t, that’s a lot of stuff to worry about.” DUST doesn’t seem to be a get a get in and go kind of game. Maybe I’m wrong.

Two other things stand out as roadblocks, too. Every shooter has a learning- and skill-curve you have to climb before you’re competent. In listening to that interview, it sounds like CCP is applying the “harden the F up” mentality to dipping your toes. They acknowledge that there’s a learning curve but also that players should expect to grind to get good. THAT is an MMO concept that doesn’t work in shooters. The only reason military shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield work is that you’re deadly right from the very start. I don’t doubt that DUST will let you kill players easily but if it becomes defeating, say 1 kill to every 10 deaths, it will drive players away. DUST is ambitious and exciting but not “slog through two weeks of misery” exciting. Console-based multiplayer has always struggled with how to get newbies over that initial hump of ineffectiveness. This design embraces ineffectiveness in a kind of “take your lumps” mentality that should be concerning to CCP. And if it’s true that old players will have a definite advantage over new, that barrier to entry will only grow over time. As much as the two worlds are tied, DUST is not EVE and can’t be treated as such.

The other potential roadblock is that, oddly, mouse and keyboard input will be supported. Maybe it’s a concession to their EVE fans because the precision of mouse over joystick is, frankly, an unfair advantage. Most PS3 players will use a controller and M/KB players will eat their lunch. And what happens when the high-end player with boosted skills and map know-how abandons the controller and goes for the better option? He becomes a powerhouse and DUST becomes even more defeating for the new guy. It was a strange decision, to be sure, and tantamount to saying, “hey, if you want an advantage, take it.”

Despite these concerns, I’m very much looking forward to the game. It could be good; really good. And all that complexity could turn on a dime and become the reason the game is endeared to PS3 fans everywhere. Who knows, maybe that’s what the MMO shooter genre needs; MAG’s “persistent COD” didn’t do much to keep it around. My prediction is that players who get over the learning curve will absolutely fall in love with the game. There’s really nothing else like it or even trying to be. There are design quirks but I’m also very much aware that this is CCP’s first try at something other than a PC MMO. If they’re reactive to the PS3 audience, what they build could be an evolution of the whole genre. If that’s not something to be excited about, I don’t know what is.

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