EVE Online has always been a daunting, fascinating phenomenon in the gaming world. As unique experiences grow rare, the eight year old universe created by CCP Games has managed to create and nourish a community of passionate spacefaring players. This is, in large part, due to the developer’s responsiveness to the community and their commitment to letting users dictate the course of the game.

Now that Dust 514, the PlayStation 3 MMOFPS that is directly connected to EVE Online is about to go into closed beta, there is a lot more riding on it than just CCP’s financial health. Should this free-to-play, persistent console experience succeed, it may set the tone for Sony in the next generation. The PS3 is already home to some great, free experiences including Free Realms and DC Universe Online, and is cornering that segment of the market for console players.

It’s clear that gamers have embraced the model across genres. Lord of the Rings Online saw revenues triple after going free-to-play, and DC Universe Online touted a whopping 700% jump in daily proceeds after making the switch. You can now find solid, complete MMO, shooter, brawler, action RPG and strategy experiences with the only investment required being time. Like what you see and want to open your wallet? You can certainly do that, but even if you are enjoying yourself, most games allow you to progress and enjoy the products at no cost for quite a while.

I wrote recently about the need for console manufacturers to differentiate themselves or risk significant difficulty communicating to consumers why they should own multiple platforms. Free-to-play could become Sony’s niche, and if their recent patent filing for game-interrupting advertising is any indication, they’ve already started to consider monetization. I also wrote about the need for platform holders to embrace keyboard and mouse controls as a more viable option for developers and gamers alike. Doing so might attract pillars of the free-to-play MMO universe like Turbine Entertainment (Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online) to consider expanding their offerings to a console audience.

Microsoft hasn’t yet jumped into this segment, though there was talk of Zynga trying to bring their wares to Xbox Live. But even if the ‘Ville people do infiltrate the Xbox brand, there is a huge difference between their definition of free-to-play and what Sony’s growing portfolio offers.

At E3 next week, Sony may surprise us even without a new console announcement. If they are prepared to announce new partnerships, or even lay the groundwork for a robust free-to-play catalog in the near future, they could strike an early blow against competitors for next generation. If they do, it will all start with showing off Dust 514. Want to try out CCP’s ambitious shooter for yourself? You can register for a beta code here. We’ve also got the first two developer diaries below, so you can get up to speed on the EVE Online universe and how this new game is tied to it.