The world’s biggest sci-fi MMO has already tried - and failed - to launch a shooter spin off - so why is it trying again?

The people behind Eve Online are making a shooter. Another one. Carefully this time. First announced at Eve Fest 2016, Project Nova is part replacement, part spiritual successor, to Dust 514, CCP's last ambitious attempt to create an FPS that tied into Eve Online’s world of massive spaceships and even bigger faction politics. 

Dust 514 was as ahead of its time as it was flawed. It offered an incredible array of customisation on par with Eve Online’s ships, as well as a permanent game-as-live-service, cross play approach to linking separate PC and PS3 games that hadn’t really been attempted before, or since - the two games communicated and interacted so that players of one title could help or hinder each other, literally bringing worlds together. 

In the end it didn’t work out though, launching on PS3 barely months before PS4 arrived,  Dust 514 closed three years later in 2016, with CCP almost immediately promising a do-over with a new shooter. That’s Project Nova, an equally ambitious - if far more cautious - attempt to bring ground-based shooting to Eve Online’s star based battles. 

Small beginnings

When it launches (there’s no set date yet), Project Nova will be small - a single map and two modes - but that’s because CCP wants to get the essentials right before doing anything else. “One of the learnings from Dust 514 is that you need to have that core first person shooter experience in place,” explains lead designer Kevin Clarke. “This is why we’re really focusing on that gunplay right now. You can add all the features you want but if you’re not having fun minute by minute then people are not going to play the game.”

And the gunplay is good. I got a Destiny-ish vibe to the PvE mode I played, where four players fight to control Charge Points and build turrets to fend off an NPC boarding party on the surface of a giant starship. Where Dust fought on planets with Eve’s pivotal ships hidden above the atmosphere, Nova puts its troops on the vessels themselves - fighting for control as space battles rage around them. There can be up to 3-5 Charge Points on the map, in one of 11 different places, so changing them around can alter the challenge and pace - the more points you have, and further apart, the harder it gets to maintain control. 

The turret building I mentioned is the start of a lite RTS element layered on top of that fight, where building weapons adds an extra tactical facet to map control. That’s especially more useful in the PvP mode where two teams of 16 compete to escort their respective payloads across the map - a pilot capsule for the attacking team, and an EMP bomb for the defenders.

“You’ve got two teams of 16 that can be split into four squads of four,” explains Clarke. “One squad can be dealing with escorting a payload, another can be attacking the enemy, the others are holding charge points, building turrets and claiming territory.”

Suit up

As well as squads, turrets and map control there’s also a class based element to Project Nova, as well as a range of weapons and attachments to mix up. There are three main classes initially, basically sniper, assault and heavy with a sniper rifle, assault rifle and grenade launcher respectively, but these break down into more granular options if you want.

“We decided to go for what we call ‘opt in complexity’, explains Clarke. “For any player familiar with first person shooters they can just pick their dropsuit, start playing. But as they play more, unlock more dropsuits, and get to the point when they unlock the customisation elements then it’s like ‘okay, I like this dropsuit, I like this gun, I want this attachment’.”

The subclasses are still TBC but the idea is that they will further breakdown the main roles with further offensive, support or other specialisations of basic classes. There will also be a few other options: “We want a dropsuit where you really work with the turrets,” explains Clarke. “You're the turret guy. You get to upgrade turrets, you get to make them more powerful, you get to build faster.”

If you want to opt in to even more complexity, then the plan long term is to introduce manufacturing, with players “able to create your own dropsuits, your own weapons, build your own equipment. Be able to use it yourself or even trade it,” according to Clarke. That ties into a vital part of the ultimate goal for Project Nova, making it meaningful to Eve, and vice versa. “What is our community’s aspirational goal?” asks game director Snorri Árnason. “I would say the next thing is to create meaning within the game.”

“Say I own a thing, it generates a thing,” explains Snorri. “We can make it important to Eve, like it’s an ingredient in a blueprint, which means they covert it and then we have a symbiotic relationship.” The important thing is that Project Nova doesn’t just become “a crutch for Eve”, hence the idea of creating a meaningful economic connection between the two. “I can build this ship if I have ‘the black stuff’. So I’m going to try and acquire it by stealing it from other people in Eve, or have a contract with the [players of Project Nova].” With resources to make and sell the ambition is that players will eventually be able to “create gangs, basically smaller groups of players that can combine into corporations”.

The plan to link the two games goes even further with talk of “asymmetrical gameplay”, where events can trigger certain consequences between Nova and Project Eve. “I use the planet of Endor [from Return of the Jedi] as an example,” explains Snorri. The idea being that a Project Nova game could take place to sabotage or protect an Eve ship’s shield, “and you get a message as the owner of a starbase saying ‘well, your shields are going down in 12 hours because you’re sabotaged.’”

Aim for the stars

But all of this is a long way off, with nailing that core gameplay the primary concern right now for CCP. “I would say the first year is just to expand this game. To make sure everything fantastic,” says Snorri. “We have a good road map, working with the community on quality of life fixes, new content, game modes etc. I would say the next thing is to create meaning within the game.” Three years in the aim is to provide the meaning, through manufacture and trade. And then, five years or so down the line, CCP aims to integrate Project Nova and Eve so action in one affect the other. 

That’s all a very loose timeline though. Throughout my time at CPP the plan was covered in broad strokes, with the focus currently on getting the feel and gameplay right before committing to anything else. Even the monetization hasn’t been decided yet. “As far as the business model? That’s to be decided. That’s not something I can speak of right now,” says Clarke when I ask. If it sounds like CCP is playing it overly safe with Project Nova direction it’s because the studio is waiting for people to play it before committing too hard to any design choices. There might not be a release date yet but once it is out, it’s up to the player to decide what’s best for it. As Clarke concludes, it’s up to the community to “help shape the future of that game, to shape the direction of it.”