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PlanetSide 2 interview: resurrecting the dead

PlanetSide 2 is currently in beta, and the timing couldn't be better for SOE's sequel. VG247's Dave Cook speaks with the studio to find out why round two will be a winner for the team.

The sheer numbers involved give the fighting an intensity that you just can’t replicate with any other game mechanic, and that’s something that has us really excited.

Game designer Jason Good believes that the original PlanetSide was ahead of his time, and he's absolutely right. Launched in May of 2003, Sony Online Entertainment's MMOFPS pre-dated World of Warcraft's release by over a year, and although it gained a cult following, it never exploded like Blizzard's game did.

The world wasn't ready. The notion of sprawling worlds, massively multiplayer experiences - and perhaps most importantly - established microtransaction funding models didn't do much to ease PlanetSide's success. But SOE is back for more.

It makes perfect sense too, as the MMO landscape is positively exploding right now. Tapping into the industry's keen interest in the social and MMO aspects of gaming, PlanetSide 2 - which is essentially a re-telling of the original game - will finally give the series the platform it deserves to succeed.

VG247: The original PlanetSide came at a time when the MMO model was still finding it feet. Is it fair to say that the game was ahead of its time?

Jason Good: I think that’s a fair assessment. Working with the technology available ten years ago definitely limited some of the things the original PlanetSide could do, but it still captured a scope and scale that was phenomenal and groundbreaking.

I think having some of the more modern options beyond of the traditional subscription model would have been a huge boon for the original in terms of its overall impact.

It wasn't all wasted time however. What key lessons did you learn from your time spent with the original, and how did they help SOE's fresh approach going into PlanetSide 2?

The original PlanetSide was awesome, but there were definitely areas we thought needed iteration. The thing at the forefront - for me at least - were the core shooter mechanics.

Technology at the time just couldn’t allow for an experience that would have been able to stand up against modern shooters. One of our goals was to
make sure PlanetSide 2 didn’t make any sacrifices in that department.

The original also had a rock-paper-scissors feel to the combat that we wanted to smooth out a bit – for example, MAXs could only be effectively countered by anti-vehicle weapons in the original PlanetSide. In PlanetSide 2 we’ve smoothed that out by making the Max class vulnerable to regular bullets and headshots.

Marv Wolfman is penning PlanetSide 2's backstory, which is said to much grander this time although it is essentially a re-imagining of the original. Can you give us an insight into the new plot changes and the experience of working with Marv?

It’s been great. We think he’s created a really rich and exciting backstory for us. His work helps solidify the motivations of the various empires and provides some depth to the reasons behind the conflict, while still maintaining a lot of the core elements that will feel familiar to players of the original.

How will players gradually uncover this story with so much mayhem going on? Is it all told through linked to missions, or is there scope for world changing events like Blizzard did with World of Warcraft: Cataclysm?

The scope of the lore we’ve been releasing on our website is pretty huge, spanning hundreds of years leading up to the events of PlanetSide 2.

It definitely has left us some room for potential foreshadowing of events that may come to pass, but for launch at least, the lore is there as a backdrop to set a tone and give some context for this massive conflict, not to guide or directly impact player activities.

And in the middle of this backdrop there are three factions in PlanetSide 2. Can you give us an insight into how they differ in terms of play style and thematically?

The Terran Republic is the historic authority on Auraxis – a holdover from Earth’s
government that strives to preserve law and order to uphold the unity and safety of Auraxis. Their empire emphasizes speed and rate of fire.

The New Conglomerate is a group of rebels formed of mercenaries and freedom
fighters who seek to tear down what they see as an oppressive Terran Republic
government and fight for the ability to control their own destiny. Their weapons and vehicles are all about hitting hard and holding up under punishment.

The Vanu Sovereignty is extremely advanced, employing powerful alien technology on the battlefield. Their singular purpose is to uncover the secrets hidden away in ancient artifacts scattered over the surface of Auraxis and they will annihilate anyone who interferes. Their weapons and vehicles emphasize accuracy and maneuverability.

With each of the three factions focusing on their own specific traits and gun styles, how challenging has it been to hit a solid gunplay balance in such a game with so many variables?

Very challenging - this is why Beta is so important for us. Beta testers give us the right kind of environment to test against when it comes to balancing things like weapons. Now that we have Beta running, it should make our efforts going forward much more effective.

On top of guns you are also giving players unlockable skills that are only said to only tip balance between 12-20% so that they don't get too overpowered. Can you give us an insight into some of these skills and how they shake up battles?

We’re still in the process of locking down abilities and tuning values on our
certification system - which is essentially unlocking skills, as you say - but there are a myriad of different unlocks for each class, weapon, and vehicle planned.

These can range from unlocking access to explosives or tools for a specific
class, upgrading the regen on abilities like cloaking or jump jets, accessing new
attachments for a weapon, or decreasing the spawn timer on a vehicle.

Let's talk about tech for a bit: What are the biggest changes you've had to make to the ForgeLight Engine to make PlanetSide 2 a reality?

From the perspective of a writey-designer type, coders are like wizards that cast
spells with frightening math problems instead of material and somatic components. They turn things in my imagination into things that happen in game through secrets techniques I will never fully understand.

It was these wise and powerful coders that created the ForgeLight Engine through arcane magicks and blood sacrifice - or so I assume.

All kidding aside, I can only speculate regarding the challenges that came up during ForgeLight’s initial development. From my end of things - the way less technical end - I can say we’ve been constantly refining the engine to help ensure that we provide the best possible experience once we really start bombarding it with players in a live environment.

It is a live environment as you say, and it's also a massive one. What is the key to making such a big area feel populated? How must you approach game design to give players plenty to see and do?

Really, the challenge was in trusting in the scope of the game – the players are
the only population. When you’re designing an area that’s meant for two thousand combatants, it’s going to feel emptier than you’d like during your internal testing.

Keeping in mind how many players were really going to need space to maneuver
was something we had to keep at the forefront, and now that we have Beta running, I’m really glad we didn’t clutter up the place.

We've heard that you may expand the game beyond that initial world by adding other planets. How much of this decision – or any big decision for that matter – hinges on the community?

There are a number of different directions we go could post launch - which could certainly include new worlds beyond Auraxis - but right now we’re all focused on
Beta and getting PlanetSide 2 ready to launch.

I think through the history of PlanetSide 2’s development we’ve managed to cultivate a great relationship with our community - we’re always interested in their feedback. I can’t imagine us not taking the opinions of the community into account as we go forward.

Watch on YouTube

War. It's pretty.

How has the beta been so far, because so much of that core feedback comes from the testing phase doesn't it?

Hectic, but fun. It’s really a pretty big undertaking for our team. We’ve been in this mode of heads down, working hard, banging stuff out, for so long - and then all of a sudden you need to shift into being essentially a live game. Bug fixes that once could have been put off become urgent, the community expands, and now there’s a ton of new data to examine.

One of the things that I think surprised us all was just how epic the combat felt right from the get go with Beta. We still have a lot of work in front of us, but even in this really raw state we saw the potential of what we had going.

The sheer numbers involved give the fighting an intensity that you just can’t replicate with any other game mechanic, and that’s something that has us really excited.

To what extent will the success of the beta dictate the next beta phase and your final release window?

Beta is huge for us. We have a game that’s intended to be played with thousands of people –this is the first time for us as developers that we really get to see if our designs hold up under those numbers.

Testing things with hundreds of people internally lets us extrapolate what we 'think' will happen, but with beta we get to experience everything as sort of a ‘live fire’ exercise.

We know where we need to be at launch, and the data we see on beta and the feedback we get from players is going to do nothing but help us get there.

As a free-to-play game, rushing it out the door would be especially bad. There’s no box sales for us to fall back on – if it isn’t fun, we aren’t going to see any money, simple as that. Luckily for us, I think a lot of people are going to have a blast in PlanetSide 2. There’s nothing quite like it when it comes to online gaming.

It seems some - but not all - MMOs are struggling to retain players. What do you feel is the secret to convincing people to stick around?

The core gameplay needs to be fun enough that it holds players’ attentions long
enough to get caught up in the community. Rolling my 14th alt all by myself does not sound like a ton of fun, but rolling my 14th alt with a bunch of my guildies where all of us are bards or rogues or something crazy sounds way more interesting.

Due to WoW’s enormous success, a lot of companies have tried to emulate it, but I think the shiny veneer of these new MMOs wears off more quickly because it feels like we’ve already played them once before.

And weren’t those great times the first time around? You haven’t actually talked
to your guild in awhile...maybe you should re-sub and just go check out what
everyone’s been up to...Did you hear there’s a new expansion out? You can play as a goblin now? OH SNAP!

And then it has you again, and the vicious cycle repeats.

You are a free-to-play game, and that does make it easier for players to come back whenever new content is added. Is the age of the subscription MMO truly dead?

In the traditional sense, I’d say it’s definitely dying. As developers continue to
figure out how to handle free-to-play in more effective ways, I think the traditional subscription MMO will continue to fade.

If executed properly, the free-to-play business model gives more freedom and
choice to the customer and us as the publisher. It’s better for everyone.

Players can try a game without any upfront cost. More players will have the
opportunity to experience your game because of this. Players can choose how much money - if any - they are willing to spend.

In the sub model, if I’m only willing to spend five bucks a month in your game,
I probably can’t play it at all and the developer will get none of my money. Free-to-play will let me try the games I am interested in.

In traditional sub models, the 5 dollar player and the 300 dollar player aren’t supported and that leaves much to be desired from both sides of the equation.

In most situations, players that can’t or don’t want to pay anything will still
contribute to the game’s community through overall ‘buzz’, and add in-game content in the form of pvp enemies, group or guild members. Players are content in the free-to-play world.

PlanetSide 2 is in beta now. To join the fight, head over to the game's official site.

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