In the past few days Sony sold their gaming division, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) to a holdings company called Columbus Nova. This announcement was then followed layoffs including the games head programmer and their only level designer. Perhaps because his friends had left or perhaps because it’s always better to leave a ship before it sinks the design team’s commander in chief Matt Higby has resigned. It appears then that the writing perhaps long on the wall is now also on the door, ceiling and any other surface that comes to mind. Planet Side 2 is dying.
Having played the game fairly consistently for much of the past two years it seems like a good time to chronicle the games achievements and its failings. Being more of a board gamer and board war gamer in mind-set my view will have a certain slant to it.
Since 2012 Planetside 2 has thrown three disorganised rabbles numbering hundreds of players at each other in ceaseless first person Sci Fi infantry and vehicular combat. Its greatest achievement has to be the sheer scale of the spectacle. Last month the game community had its swan song with an event organised to break the Guinness World Record for most players in a single online game at a given moment (1158 is the new record from memory). There is something unparalleled about being in a desert battle where the jets over your head, the tanks rolling up the flank and the lines of skirmished infantry in the rocks are all real people making tactical and strategic decisions. The quality of the visuals, gun play and strategic design, whilst imperfect was solid enough to carry this experience. Planetside 2 also out did its competitors on strategic and tactical depth. Whilst shooting is important it was as much a game manoeuvre, bluff and military planning. Airborne drops behind enemy lines, defence in depth, logistics, reconnaissance, infiltration of enemy lines or armoured assaults were all integrated into the strategic landscape. Coupled with this was the way you set up your squad, or vehicle equipment for specific missions. It was a game that allowed for creative thinking and team play at a level rarely achieved on the internet.
That’s the broadsheet back page for the games demise, but what where its design successes and failures? Like many modern games Planetside 2 never really stopped being in active development and was arguably never a complete game. As such the player base was ever hopeful of changes but always critical of some of the design and balance decisions with varying degrees of justification.
Three Faction Balance
If you want to have a semi balanced perpetual conflict game where a player has complete freedom of choice over which side to play, you need three factions. Three sides allows for politics and coalitions, if one side becomes too powerful the others ally against it, this happened effectively over a two month period on my server when the Terran Republic had a much higher player count than the other two.
Designing asymmetrical factions and making them balanced is extremely difficult. Planetside caught a lot of flak for both not being asymmetrical enough and not being balanced enough. Whilst there were guns and vehicle setups that were often better than others in general I felt the design team did an admirable job of balancing a game that came under daily scrutiny from thousands of players.
Planetside 2 was free to play. This combined with gameplay requiring a large number of active users would suggest that making the game accessible was a high priority. The game had been on public release for nearly a year before a tutorial was added and nearly two years before an in game interface was provided allowing new players to apply to join player outfits (teams or clans that work together). Planetside 2 was typically an alienating and impenetrable experience for new players who were often viewed as easy kills by the circling sharks of more experienced players. This is probably the game’s most significant flaw in an era where so much entertainment is available not being accessible is a good way to sink into obscurity.
An ever changing game
An advantage of ongoing development is there is always something new to see, typically a new gun but sometimes a new continent, and new strategies evolve as old ones become redundant. However there is a balance. With Planetside it was never entirely clear what the development teams overall vision for the strategy elements of the game where. Originally the game map was separated into areas to conquer, this was later over laden with a point to point system. In board games these systems are used to highlight different elements of strategy (cutting supply lines vs area control) in Planetside both were attempts to force players into generating big spectacular battles. The resource system changed, as did repeatedly the logistics systems. How players were supposed to get to battles and how far they could respawn away from their last point of death appeared to fluctuate each month at one point. The development team never provided a really stable experience or a clear understanding of the wider strategies involved in playing the game.
In board game development and traditional video game development these sorts of considerations have to be worked out at the drawing board stage. Martin Wallace decided fairly early in his design for A Few Acres of Snow that a point to point system would emphasise the routes through the wilderness focus of his game. In Planetside the design of the map and the flow of the game seem to be after thoughts rather than something considered essential to the game. This approach is a blight upon modern games. Designers can get away with not making serious design decisions and it has led to more confused games.
The death of online video games tends to be slow. Whilst Planetside on PC is likely to go into development stasis the servers will still be running and a reducing but dedicated player base still shooting. Planetside 1 still has an active server and it seems likely that Planetside 2 will maintain at least one operational server for the foreseeable future. I do recommend having a look at it, after all it is free. On a slightly more upbeat note the PlayStation version of the game is due to launch in the near future.