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Why you need to pay attention to PlanetSide 2, and the future of free-to-play gaming

If you told someone a few years ago that there would be a free-to-play game that could potentially revolutionize the entire gaming industry, they would likely point and laugh at you. Then maybe hop on MySpace and totally tell their 90 friends what a tool you were. Today, those same people would need to kneel before you and beg for your forgiveness after seeing what PlanetSide 2 has to offer.

Sony Online Entertainment has been at the forefront of online gaming for years—coming up on decades now. The developers of EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and DC Universe Online know how to create massively multiplayer games, so the move to a first-person shooter genre that features 2000 players at once is something right up their alley, and something they had already tried before–with mixed results.

When the original PlanetSide was released in 2003, it was a success more in theory than in practice. Players were blown away by the concept of playing a FPS against hundreds of other real life players that also featured vehicles, multiple combat roles, and a leveling system with character progression trees.

When it worked, it was an amazing thing. Battles could last an entire day or more as groups fought over territory, and each inch of area was hard won. It was compelling and engaging, but it wasn’t without its flaws.

2003 was a good year for games, but the technology needed to fully embrace the original PlanetSide wasn’t as widespread as it is now. The game was still a success, but broadband cable was still catching on, the hardware requirements limited the number of people that the game could play at full resolution, and the monthly subscription fee on top of the retail cost of the game rankled enough people to keep the total number of players to a relative minimum. That has all changed.

“There were things we just weren’t capable of doing in the first game,” Josh Hackney, Executive Producer of PlanetSide 2 told us. “Now we’ve got years of experience. Our infrastructure, our ability to deal with the servers, communications, the factions—we’ve had years and years. What we’ve been doing is taking all those kinds of developments that SOE can basically do in its sleep, and integrating that into an FPS genre.”

It has been nearly a decade since the original PlanetSide was released. With a sequel due sometime soon (no release date, or even release window has been issued), the follow up will feature more than just a few years’ worth of technological upgrades. PlanetSide 2 will be a fundamentally different game in one simple way: it will be free.

“For us, more than anything else, players are everything. We wanted to give everyone the chance to get in” Hackney said. “If you go back two or three years, the expectations and the thoughts on what the quality of a free-to-play game was, is completely different than what it is now.”

The industry has changed, and the model has changed with it. SOE will offer PlanetSide 2 as a free-to-play title that anyone can join. The system requirements have yet to be released, but the game is designed to attract as many players as possible, so they shouldn’t be too prohibitive.

“We are looking at it pretty hard. We are concerned that our partners in Asia and Europe are going to be able to get in as many people as possible,” Hackney said, insinuating that the requirements wouldn’t be anything outrageous, at least.

Switching the model to free-to-play is a risky move for a company like SOE–or any publisher for that matter–but it is one that has proven to be successful for the company. It recently changed the model of DC Universe Online, post-release, and has seen a fair amount of success with it. Several other SOE titles are also free-to-play, but this will be the first FPS.

“Take a look at what we’ve seen in the last few years—Free Realms, Clone Wars, we’ve got EQ (EverQuest Next) coming up soon, and the quality and our expectations have shifted dramatically,” Hackney stated. “I think between that and everything that is happening with social games, people want access, they want to get in. We know it works, we know how to make it work financially on our end through the market place, through micro transactions.”

SOE is still fine tuning the financial model, so it isn’t yet clear if there will be a monthly subscription fee for all player, possibly a tiered subscription plan that offers boons for the higher models as with DC Universe Online, or if there will be a monthly charge at all (although it seems likely). But SOE has confirmed that while there will be a cash shop, it will focus more on customizable aspects like character skins, and not costly weapons that you need to purchase with real money.

The thing that sets this game apart from others is the genre. Arguably, first-person shooters are the top genre in gaming at the moment, or at least they are if you judge the sales numbers set by games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, two of the best selling franchises of the last year. If SOE can pull it off and give gamers a free-to-play FPS, with an engaging experience system, it could be the start of something.

Last month at GDC, there was a definite emphasis on free-to-play experiences. Numerous games with a free-to-play business model in place will be trotted out over the next year, and it seems unlikely that the trend will slow as developers find how to make that model work for both themselves and the gamer. Many titles sacrifice something along the way—graphics usually—but there are some exceptions. Crytek will be using its new CryEngine 3 to power its free-to-play FPS title, Warface, but that game will operate on a much smaller scale than PlanetSide 2. Check out our hands-on with Warface for more details.

During GDC we also had the chance to check out PlanetSide 2 in action. It was still a bit raw and had a ways to go yet, but it looked amazing and played like a standard FPS. If it can offer gameplay that will satisfy traditional FPS fans and keep the costs down, it should have a broad appeal.

But while the game should obviously appeal to PC gamers happy to explore a free-to-play world, the idea of introducing it to the console world borders on revolutionary.

“We’re talking about it right now,” Hackney said, referring to a possible console port of the game. “Our primary focus has been getting this version out. I wouldn’t rule it out for some time in the future.”

Of course, even if it does head to the consoles there is no guarantee it would remain free, but ideally the game could be released on the XBL and PSN at either no cost, or a deeply discounted one. Even though technical limitations would cut the number of players online for the consoles, the possibility of a quality free-to-play shooter that anyone could download and jump into is at the very least intriguing.

Regardless of whether or not PlanetSide 2 hits the consoles, the PC version should be enough to satiate even the most bloodthirsty FPS fan on a budget. But if it can offer a game that is deep and satisfying enough to reach a wide enough audience that it ends up competing with full retail releases, it could mark a turning point for the gaming industry.

Update: The article has been updated to clarify the number of players that PlanetSide 2 will allow.