SOE’s John Smedley and Matt Higby on why “a subscription would kill a game like Planetside 2″

John Smedley is president of Sony Online Entertainment, and he’s feeling good. Really good. “It’s probably the best time ever at SOE,” he tells us. “I think we’ve got a game that’s going to be much bigger than the original Everquest. We can kinda feel that, and that’s a good, good feeling.”

That game is Planetside 2, SOE’s free-to-play revamp of 2003′s Planetside. That game was one of the world’s first massively multiplayer online shooters, pitting three factions against each other in a vast, ever-shifting war for terrain. Nine years later, and Planetside 2′s is broadly similar: still the same three factions, still the same war for contained bases, still one of the world’s first MMOFPSes.

Similar, but for one major difference. Planetside depended on a monthly subscription. Planetside 2 is free-to-play.

Already at beta stage, Planetside 2′s war is gigantic in scope. A quick fly-by of Indar – a huge, dusty area, one of three continents to be available in the final product – in one of the game’s air vehicles yields ludicrous spectacles. Aerial dogfights between squadrons of fighter craft; pitched tank battles as two armoured columns collide; entire platoons of players discharged on the top of an enemy-held base, coming up against fifty-odd infantrymen and women in defence.

“We can only have that scale with free-to-play,” creative director Matt Higby tells us. “A subscription would kill a game like Planetside 2.” The result is an inclusive war where new players can contribute quickly. There are few barriers to battle: fresh soldiers can fly or drive any of the game’s ten-plus vehicles within their first hour in the game, acquiring them through vehicle terminals dotted around Indar’s huge – ten or more Battlefield 3 maps stitched together huge – landmass. Accessing these vehicles comes at a cost, but it’s never real money. Instead, vehicles cost resources – those resources are generated by the amount of bases your faction owns, and distributed into every player’s pockets per five minute ‘tick’.

These ticks also provide players with Auraxium, Planetside 2′s real money analogue. Both Auraxium, earned through play, and Station Cash, bought from SOE directly, can be used to buy the game’s unlockables. These include new weapon variants for the game’s six character classes and array of vehicles, as well as experience point boosters that increase the rate of your character’s levelling, and cosmetic skins that let players decorate their favoured vehicles in anything from functional desert camo to delightfully tasteless love hearts.

The system is designed around the idea of ‘sidegrades’. A new weapon isn’t empirically better than another in SOE’s design, just different, trading damage for accuracy or firing distance for clip size. John Smedley sees this as the way to avoid making the game pay-to-win, a killer for a competitive free-to-play title. “We’re working very hard to make sure that we don’t have a pay-to-win game; everything you can buy is either a sidegrade or you’re trading time for convenience, like if you buy a boost,” he says. “We’re trying to make it very user-friendly. If you don’t want to pay us any money, don’t.”