When it comes to blowing the roof off a video game genre, one couldn't aim for a more low-hanging, flimsily constructed covering than that of the massively multiplayer online first-person shooter market.
The concept is certainly a compelling one. Thousands of players battling in a never-ending struggle for control over vast amounts of territory, constantly plotting and planning new strategies to rob the opposing faction of just an inch of virtual real estate. It's the sort of idea that made shooter fans drool uncontrollably back in 2003, when Sony Online Entertainment first introduced the original Planetside.
Yet the genre failed to pick up steam, and today accounts for only a miniscule sliver of the total online gaming market. Is there any hope left for the genre?
With a powerful new game engine, a strong foundation in the genre, and the lessons learned over eight years of high-quality first-person shooter releases, Planetside 2 creative director Matt Higby thinks the sequel to one of the original MMOFPS games "has a chance to be a juggernaut in the online market."
"We're going to blow the roof off the MMOFPS market," Higby told me during a roundtable interview yesterday regarding the newly announced sequel. Again it didn't seem like a very difficult task. Even a modest modicum of success would be enough to shoot that particular ceiling into the stratosphere. The real question is why hasn't the genre taken hold over the past eight years?
"From a technical standpoint," Higby explained, "Creating an MMORPG is way easier than creating an MMOFPS." While a traditional massively multiplayer online role-playing game development team does have a ton of content to create, developing the initial game engine is relatively simple these days. Lag isn't as much of a problem. Response time? Who cares, as long as something happens shortly after the mouse is clicked?
An MMOFPS, on the other hand, requires creating a game engine in which thousands of players can enter a battle and still have the control and precision they would have if there were only one player and some bots. "Just getting the technology to work is a huge challenge," Higby said. "Not many people can do it."
"It's going to feel very similar to Planetside, but we're bringing the game up to a more modern level."
But Sony Online Entertainment can, thanks to its next-generation Forgelight MMO engine, a game engine designed to bring the best features of single-player gaming into the online multiplayer realm. Coupled with the power of NVIDIA PhysX, it sounds like Planetside 2 has a firm technical foundation to build upon.
And of course it's also got eight years of the original game to work from.
Planetside 2's plot and gameplay are firmly rooted in the original game. The Terran Republic, New Conglomerate, and The Vanu Sovereignty still battle over Auraxis, with multiple battles being waged across the surface of the planet at any given time. With the same stage and players as before, original Planetside players should feel right at home, at least thematically.
"It's going to feel very similar to Planetside," Higby says, "But we're bringing the game up to a more modern level."
To that end the Planetside 2 team has applied lessons learned both from the original game and today's popular online first-person shooters to the development of this new title. Players will be able to deploy to the front much faster, getting them into the action quickly rather than having them stand around waiting for the shuttle to arrive. In many instances players will be able to spawn directly on top of their squad mates, a convenience many of today's popular FPS titles employ.
Taking another cue from games like the Battlefield series, player classes in the game will be much more sharply defined this time around. Players can advance as Medics, Engineers, Heavy Assault, and more, switching between roles on the fly or focusing completely on one specific skillset, making a name for themselves at the top of their class.
Indeed, customization is key in Planetside 2. Just about everywhere the player turns there'll be skill-enhancing certification trees. Vehicles have them. Weapons have them. Want to become one of the game's top pilots? It can be done. Hell, it can be done offline, thanks to an offline time-based skill development mechanic borrowed from CCP's space MMO EVE Online, meant to ensure that players with busy lives can still progress alongside their less busy friends. "It's all about letting players create a soldier that fits their play style," said Higby.
The certification tree concept even expands out to the Outfit (guild) level. An entire Outfit can specialize in one specific direction, say air support, to the point where when you see that specific group's vehicles coming over the horizon you can almost hear "Ride of the Valkyries" playing in the background.
In order to make their mark on the world of Auraxis, players are going to need resources. Resources act as a sort of currency in Planetside 2. Conquering and holding a territory grants resources. Participating in battles generates them as well. Those resources can then be used to advance skill certifications, enhance weapons and armor.
This resource-based economy is what fuels the constant struggle between the three rival factions, and this time around the fighting covers more than just strategically placed facilities. "Every square inch of the game's terrain is contestable, valuable real estate," Higby said. The new world of Auraxis consists of completely handcrafted maps waiting for the right group to move in and set up shop. "It's truly unrivaled how large the environment is in Planetside 2."
And in case the struggle for resources isn't enough motivation, the game also features a robust mission system featuring both computer generated and player-created tasks. Using this new system, veteran players will be able to issue custom-built missions to their underlings, giving them the ability to easily coordinate large groups.
And coordination will be a necessity, as Higby told me that the goal is for thousands of players to come together and fight in massive battles lasting for hours, days, and maybe more. Hundreds and hundreds of players flocking to their faction's side in order to carve out their slice of the resource pie.
That's really what Planetside was all about in the first place. That's what drew players to the debut MMOFPS debut back in 2003. That highly compelling concept hasn't changed. What has changed is the knowledge and technology Sony Online Entertainment has to bring to the massively multiplayer table. Armed with this power and experience, I've got a feeling there's a roof out there that'll will soon no longer be a going concern.
Planetside 2 is currently in development for Windows PC.