Only the dead,” said Plato, “have seen the end of war.” Reports from the frontline on the planet of Auraxis suggest that he had it slightly wrong. In the three-way dust-up between the Terran Republic, New Conglomerate and Vanu Sovereignty, death is simply a prelude to a respawn. And in Planetside, you die a lot.
Sony Online Entertainment’s massively multiplayer online firstperson shooter (MMOFPS) is a forever war that’s slaughtered billions since it began ten years ago. It’s a conflict that sprawls across multiple continents, guided by capricious commanders who come and go. The frontline shifts with dizzying regularity, today’s friendly bases are tomorrow’s orbital strike targets, and the only dependable constant is death. Will the last player to leave Planetside please turn off the spawn tubes?
Back in 2003, the FPS genre had lots of fights but few bona fide wars. Battlefield 1942 had 64-player maps. Tribes 2 servers sometimes stretched to 128. Planetside dwarfed them both. “The server could handle anything up to around 5,000 players,” recalls executive producer Rich Lawrence, who oversaw development at SOE’s San Diego offices. “The density we could get in a single combat area was around 500 players. We realised that the feel of combat increased the more players you had.” And in Planetside, the feel of combat was pivotal.
The game may have been massive, but the dev team wasn’t. Development began in 2000 with a group of 25 programmers, artists and designers; most MMOGs drew upon the skills of two to four times that many staff. “An MMOFPS was something that had never been done before,” recalls creative director Kevin McCann, “and I think Sony were wary of pouring too much money into it.”
Given the limits of the technology at the time of release, Planetside’s scope was incredibly, perhaps even foolishly, ambitious. Each game server ran on ten Pentium III PCs. “There was no unique server hardware,” recalls Lawrence wryly. “It was just off-the-rack kind of equipment. To achieve the feel of an army on that kind of hardware was a tremendously consumptive technical problem. We spent, oh, I don’t know, probably two years of focus technology development on that alone.” With a sizeable percentage of players connecting on dial-up modems, bandwidth was a killer, and networking issues ate up a huge chunk of the dev team’s time. “It was a tremendous headache,” says Lawrence. “We would sit and talk about ways we could slice just two bits of information from the data stream that was going to the player.”
The technical challenges threw Planetside’s core essentials into sharp relief. Early plans for PVE content and an in-game economy were quickly stripped back. One of the biggest losers, says McCann, was the AI. Originally, Auraxis was going to be inhabited by a non-player race called Shifters. “It was a bit Starship Troopers or Aliens,” McCann says. “The Shifters were these animalistic creatures ranging from the size of a horse to huge beasts of dinosaur proportions. They lived in hives and if players didn’t deal with them they’d grow more powerful. The idea was to give players a break from the combat and give them something to do during non-peak hours.”
The problem was that the AI behaviour needed to be more complex than it was in a mission-based MMOG like Sony’s flagship title EverQuest. The Shifters were intelligent enemies that jumped out of holes, attacked players and took cover. “We wanted pack behaviour and a bunch of other stuff to make sure this was AI that complemented a firstperson shooter experience and not a fantasy MMOG experience,” says McCann. Sadly, so much time was spent on networking issues that the Shifters, much to everyone’s disappointment, were mothballed.
In the end, the Shifters’ absence didn’t detract from the finished game. Even without PVE content, Planetside delivered a stirringly atmospheric feel. The permafrost wastelands of continents like Ceryshen or the verdant swamps of Hossin gave an epic scope to the conflict, aided no end by the driving stoicism of Don Ferrone’s martial score.
It helped too that the game’s three different empires were so well drawn. The Terrans, New Conglomerate and Vanu (dubbed ‘Elmos’, ‘Smurfs’ and ‘Barneys’ by players thanks to their red, blue and purple uniforms) were perfectly distinctive. Empire-specific vehicles and weapons made the skill-trees for each seem varied. It also led to endless debates over balance; even today the Vanu’s ‘disco-ball’ Lasher rifle can ignite heated argument among veterans.
Still, no one moaned about Planetside’s great achievement: its sprawling intensity. Lawrence can still remember his first proper fight, in a playtest before the beta release, running over the crest of a hill to encounter a bridge battle being fought by SOE’s employees. “There was gunfire going everywhere, explosions going off and dropships flying around as the bridge was assaulted. I looked over at my lead programmer and was like: ‘Wow, this is Planetside!’ I promptly got blown away, but it was clear the scale of what we were doing was unique.”
Any MMOG world only really comes to life when it goes live. With a peak of around 75,000 players, Planetside was a minnow compared to World Of Warcraft’s multi-millions of subscribers. Although neither the frantic pace nor the awkward chat client encouraged the social aspect familiar from traditional MMOGs like SOE’s key property EverQuest, Planetside still created a sense of camaraderie by actively encouraging squad play and giving lone wolves short shrift.
“We didn’t want Planetside to turn into pure chaos with 500 players running around,” McCann laughs. “We gave the players objectives and then let them decide what to do.” The levelling system offered committed players the chance to become Command Rank tacticians, guiding the deployment of troops.
McCann recalls being impressed by the level of strategy outfits (Planetside’s guild equivalent) employed. A dedicated outfit of players armed with a Galaxy transport could hot-drop on to an enemy generator and turn the tide of a war. A column of Magrider hover-tanks could repel a tower siege. Yet nothing was quite as impressive as watching AMS drivers dream up new places to park and cloak their mobile spawn point vehicles. “Those guys could be really creative!”
Over time, though, the endless nature of Planetside’s war created virtual combat fatigue. “That was definitely, if I can take the egg on my own face, a mistake,” admits Lawrence with surprising candour. “One of the things I wanted to get in, but didn’t, was a system where players had a greater impact in terms of the rules of the war.” Too busy fighting technical issues, the dev team sacrificed plans to allow players who won a continent the ability to restructure its supply lines, bases and defences. As Planetside aged, belated and controversial add-on packs couldn’t stem the drip of player desertions.
For all its flaws, Planetside deserves a medal of honour for its staggering ambition. It proved that not all MMOGs had to follow the Tolkein-esque, quest-based template. “I think my corporate overlords would have enjoyed making much more money on it,” Lawrence admits when quizzed about Planetside’s legacy, “but it was successful in that we created an MMOFPS, something unheard of at the time.”
It has also earned a reputation. Even today, veterans of Auraxis hold the game in high regard. “A lot of MMOGs give a tremendous amount to players but take a lot in terms of players’ investment,” muses the producer. “It’s not uncommon for players to reach this point where they have to divorce the game: ‘I played that for a while but, ugh, I’m done with it now’. Planetside players tend to say: ‘I played that for a long time and had a lot of fun’. They don’t have to go through the same divorce proceedings. As a playerbase they’re really unusual guys in the MMOG industry.”
With mass online battles still a tantalising prospect for many shooter fans, Planetside stands as a testament to what could be. It’s also proof that being ahead of the game can be a thankless task. A pioneer is, after all, often the guy with arrows – or plasma orbs – in his back.