The first MMOFPS is getting a major upgrade.
The fact that Sony Online Entertainment was going to announce a sequel to one of its most ambitious franchises at Fan Faire 2011 was not a secret held tightly to the chest by CEO John Smedley. Still, fans of the massive and persistent world gameplay of the first Planetside, released all the way back in 2004, were clamoring for something, anything, about the sequel beyond the scant few screenshots and rumblings. Those fans were not disappointed when Smedley introduced the creative director of Planetside 2 at Fan Faire 2011 in Las Vegas last night. Matt Higby gave some great insight on what to expect from the sequel – including a new resource system, the ability to level up when you are not logged in, and a dynamic skill tree – but we still don’t know when the game will come out or even what platforms it will include other than the PC.
“Planetside 2 is going to revolutionize first person shooters,” Matt Higby said after his big speech in front of the crowd at Fan Faire. “It’s going to be a remarkable experience for people who have never played this kind of game before. MMOFPS is an underused genre, and we feel like now we are now able to deliver on an MMOFPS in a way no one else – including ourselves.”
Higby was a designer on the original Planetside, so he saw the ambitions that SOE had with the game that were unfortunately limited by the technology of the era. Moore’s law has made computers much better equipped to deliver the speedy networked play that is necessary for an FPS to thrive.
“The original Planetside was limited, and I think that’s because it was ahead of its time,” said senior art director Tramell Isaac, who also held that title for the first game. “If we had released it maybe two or three years later, it probably would have been one of the biggest MMOs out there. But now we have the technology and broadband has proliferated throughout the world.”
The technology that Isaac is referring to is the new MMO engine SOE has been cooking up with Nvidia called Forgelight. Using the PhysX API from Nvidia will allow Forgelight to shine, especially with the vehicle maneuverability which is more fully featured than the “camera-driving” of the first game. Planetside 2 will be the first game released using Forgelight, but Smedley also announced that SOE is working on another EverQuest sequel using the new engine.
But what will Planetside 2 feature that will set it apart not only from its predecessor but from other shooters? First off, there will be classes – a couple that were mentioned but not detailed were medic, engineer and assault – that can be switched on the fly, but will dictate your role on the field. Characters will be able to progress the skills of each class to unlock more options, but Higby is careful that noobs will not feel marginalized.
“We don’t want new players to be significantly outclassed by veteran players,” Higby said. “We’re only talking about having a 15 to 20 percent differential between the player who has unlocked nothing and the highest player who is maxed out, including things like squad benefits and outfit benefits.”
Outfits are the equivalent of guilds in Planetside and Higby wants these groups to be able to differentiate themselves through Outfit-wide skill upgrades, as well as cosmetics. “I always use the example of the 101st Airborne [Division] in the American Army,” he said. “These guys, when you see them, you know that’s a badass paratrooper. We want Outfits in Planetside 2 to feel the same way.”[page]
In the first game, the three factions would vie for control of territory but doing so didn’t offer any benefit. Higby is introducing resources into Planetside 2, which suddenly make capturing and holding territory important for upgrading weapons, outfitting vehicles and many other systems throughout the game. “Resources are a new impetus for combat, a motivation for players to be fighting,” Higby said. “On a continent, you will have multiple regions and each of those will have an intrinsic resource value to them. As you capture territory, you’ll be gaining resources for your empire, your outfit and yourself.” Players don’t have to mine nodes or anything, the resources are automatically credited when the territory is held.
Gone are some of the features that ended up slowing down the gameplay of the original Planetside, such as sanctuaries. “The original idea of [sancturaries] was to have these massing places, and to some extent they are still used that way,” said CEO John Smedley. “We did not intend for them to slow down gameplay. We want you to be coordinating a battle, or be in the battle, at all times in Planetside 2” Other facets of the first game that were removed are shuttle timers, and the inability to spawn anywhere in the world. “We’re trying to change the dynamic to one that a broader base of players is used to playing.”
The skill system will be the primary way that you make your character better. No specific skills were detailed, but instead we know that you can choose skills that make you a better leader, or a better pilot of a certain vehicle (there are 15 in the game), or a better medic or one of classes in Planetside 2. In addition, these skills can be advanced even when you are not logged into the game. The catch is that you have to log in every day to set your skills.
“A queue system that requires you to check in [every day] does a few key things for us as game developers,” Higby said. “We want people to be logging into our games every day. We want them to continue to stay engaged. I want them to log in to check their skills, and then they see, hey, there’s this really cool battle happening. And oh hey, check it out, some of my really cool outfit members that I like to play with are online too. You know what, fuck it, I’m gonna stick around for a while. I don’t need to eat, whatever.”
One thing that will keep players engaged when they are not playing is the fact that Smedley and Higby are making every piece of data in the game mineable for use with third party apps users might create. That, coupled with an interactive introduction screen showing what’s happened since you’ve been offline, will ensure that players know where the action is and why.
The “why” is the big thing that’s been missing from online multiplayer shooters. Higby likened Planetside 2 to the deep strategic choices involved in playing the boardgame RISK versus the complexity of Checkers. “In Planetside, you have to think more long term. It’s a much deeper and more strategic experience,” said Higby.
Planetside 2 is not another console shooter with unrelated multiplayer matches on a bunch of different maps. Each kill, each hex captured means something to you, your outfit and your empire. “One of the most amazing things about Planetside is that it’s persistent,” Higby said. “That territory that you captured is yours until someone takes it from you. That’s not something that happens in any other FPS game. Usually you have a round reset, somebody wins, somebody loses, and it’s all completely done. It didn’t mean anything.
“In Planetside, it really does mean something,” Higby said.
And that’s sounds exciting to this jaded player of countless meaningless shooters.
Smedley was adamant in not giving a release date other than “Sooner than you think,” and he wasn’t able to confirm any platforms other than PC at this time. But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that if Planetside 2 launched on the PC, PS3 and maybe even a competing console (Wii U I’m looking in your direction) then it’s possible SOE might finally enjoy the commercial success that that concepts of the first Planetside deserved.