The video-game industry isn’t particularly inclusive. The multiverse of gaming platforms is actually a series of partitioned galaxies: I have a Wii, you have a PlayStation 3, she has an Xbox 360, he has a PC. Even if a game is released for multiple systems, proprietary server arrangements prevent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 players on Xbox Live from matching up against users of the same game on the PlayStation Network. We’re all gaming online, but we’re not all doing it together.
CCP–the Reykjavik, Iceland-based makers of popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Eve Online, which is played on computers–wants to move past the days of gamer segregation. This summer, CCP will release Dust 514, an expansion of Eve created for PlayStation 3 users. When that happens, it will mark the first time users of two different platforms can play cooperatively.
The reason the development has taken so long is in large part due to controls. MMORPGs are played using a PC keyboard and mouse, with commands assigned to most of the available keys. Such functionality isn’t possible with a console controller’s limited number of buttons. To bridge that divide, CCP created Dust, a console-specific game that is able to communicate with Eve.
The result is two different styles of games that exist within the same world. Eve plays out deliberately in space, with intergalactic ships as its characters and an elaborate system of planets ripe for players to colonize. Dust, meanwhile, is a quick-twitch first-person shooter. Players battle in teams on the surface of those planets.
But despite different mechanics, what happens in one game affects the other: A shoot-out between clans in Dust can determine which Eve alliance gets ownership of a valuable outpost. A shared economy even allows Eve players to hire Dust users to do their bidding in exchange for in-game currency, which can be spent on supplies.
That financial arrangement also represents Dust’s revenue engine. Since the game will be distributed for free through the PlayStation Network, the way it’s going to bring in money is through a microtransaction system that enables players to use a real credit card to buy in-game resources.
Such a business model, along with Dust’s nonexistent offline capabilities, makes the game something of a risk for CCP–especially since the company mothballed another project and laid off 20% of its staff to focus on it and Eve.
But Hilmar Petursson, CCP’s CEO, reports that the only sleep he’s losing over Dust comes from playing too much. Eve is highly profitable, and if everything works out, CCP will have a direct link to the 62 million PS3s in circulation–offering a nice potential bump to its current user base of 350,000 computer players. Sony, meanwhile, can add an exclusive, high-profile title to its PS3 roster and come away looking like an agreeable partner–particularly to developers in the MMO space.
“Dust has tremendous potential,” says Colin Sebastian, a senior analyst with Baird Equity Research. He says Sony has been smart to push for it, because console owners are among the most avid gamers–thus the most lucrative–and Sony doesn’t have as many developers on speed dial as does Microsoft. Chris Clark, a Sony PR director, believes his company can use the quality and long gameplay of MMOs to reach a whole new audience. “This is a call to MMO fans everywhere that PS3 is the platform for them,” he says. Tangentially, at least.
In which the developer reassures any skeptics
When Dust 514 settles on the PlayStation Network this summer, it will offer hundreds of in-game items available for real-money purchase, including armor, vehicles, and booster packs. Worried some trust-fund Duster is going to buy his or her way to the top of the pile? Don’t be.
“There will be items that are earned for free, ones that cost a couple cents, and some that are $20 or more,” reveals CCP executive producer Brandon Laurino. “But we have taken care to ensure that Dust is not a ‘pay to win’ game. No microtransaction purchase will give you an unfair advantage over someone who is spending time and effort to earn their items.” Game on.
A version of this article appears in the May 2012 issue of Fast Company.