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‘PlanetSide 2’s’ creative director talks about the PS4 and what’s next

GDC-2012-PlanetSide-2-3Sony Online Entertainment is bringing its massive, multiplayer RPG shooter PlanetSide 2 to the PlayStation 4, which is no small feat. The free-to-play game launched last November on PC, and gameplay revolves around thousands of players struggling for to dominate the planet Auraxis across multiple continents. We spoke with creative director Matt Higby about bringing the game to the PlayStation 4, and how it has changed since launching last year.

How long have you guys been working on the PS4 version of the game? How early did you know it would be on the PS4?

Matt Higby
Matt Higby

We knew that we were going to be prepping it for next gen system for a long time. When we were building [the game’s engine] ForgeLight, we kind of had this idea in the back of our heads … that this was something that we were actually going to want to bring over. Back then, the PlayStation 4 was called Orbis. It was like some super secret project, but we knew a lot of the details about it. And we knew that it was something that was going to be able to run our game. So it was something that we were going to want to be able to take advantage of. 

In terms of actively working on it, since around the time that we launched, we split off a couple of the engine coders and people who had been working on enhancements to go and start working on optimizing the engine to be able to be more multi-core friendly and things like that. There is actually a separate team of coders right now that we’ve been building up that are working on doing all of that transition stuff, and it’s a lot of work. 

There’s a lot of engineering, kind of like plumbing work taking apart and reconstructing of the engine that needs to get done for it. That’s the major thing that’s been changed about the game. The engine, and some things with the UI, to make it work better on the gamepad. Other than that, they’re getting PlanetSide 2

Will it be cross platform between PC and PS4?

“The game, six months later, is very, very different than the game was at launch.”

They’ll be separate, but not for any technical reason, mainly for logistical reasons. Some of the ways that the PlayStation Network works are a little bit different – in terms of like currency that you use to purchase stuff, is PlayStation currency versus the Station Cash currency. And the update cadence is a little bit different. You have to go through a separate approval and QA process on the PS4, and we don’t want to necessarily handcuff the PC updates to the PS4 approval process. So we want to be able to keep the servers updated separately. So we want to be able to keep the servers updated separately.

From a technical standpoint, they’re both going to be running on the same thing. We have talked about the idea of doing character interportablity between both. So potentially players who have a PC character, but decide they really want to play on the console because some of their console friends are there, might be able to drop their character on the console and play it there too.

Have you seen it yet running on the PS4?

Yeah. Yeah, we actually have. DC Universe Online is actually running on a PS4 right behind you, so we’ve had a PS4 devkits for a while. What we’re doing right now … so ForgeLight is a completely new engine. The game is not to the point where it’s completely playable on it, but we have assets running. We can render scenes on it and things like that. And we’ve also started working on adjusting the UI, and we can be working with that on the PC with a controller plugged in and see how does it feel, does it work, do you interact with it well. A lot of the times the menus are kind of cumbersome, they are designed for mouse and keyboard. Those are sort of the biggest developments right now, and where we need to spend some time is on that interface and controls.


Will the game still be free-to-play?

Yes, absolutely, completely free-to-play. Really very little with the core game mechanics are changing. We are still going to have 2,000 players, it’s still going to be 64 square kilometer maps, there is still going to be thousands of hours of character customization. Massive team play. All those sore of elements are all going to be there. The business model is going to remain exactly the same, and the only thing that you’ll have to buy with money is going to be cosmetic items. Everything else that effects game play can be unlocked through gameplay.

We’re really happy with PlanetSide 2 as a title, it works really, really well. Our biggest problem right now is just that you need to have a monster computer to be able to run it pretty well. So, it’s really awesome that people will be able to buy a $399 box that’s going to be able to run at maximum settings in basically perfectly controlled environments. You don’t have to worry about all these different types of hardware it can support. So that’s really exciting.

That reminds me, I played it a lot at launch but haven’t played in awhile, and now I have a new gaming PC. I need to see how it looks now.

You know what, we are six months post-launch right now, and we’re about to release our eleventh update. We took a couple of weeks off in December for the holidays after crunching. But we’ve maintained the cadence of updating the game basically every single two weeks with new content, bug fixes, new systems enhancements. The game, six months later, is very, very different than the game was at launch. We’ve improved so many different areas of the game, from user interface, to new ways for you to customize your character, and the game plays a lot better.

One of the big things we’ve been focusing on recently, and we’re continuing to focus on, is new player experience. So people jumping into the game can more quickly figure out why this is such a cool and unique game, because that was sort of cumbersome and difficult. If you had friends, it was awesome, and you knew you could jump in and play with them. But if you were in there by yourself, sometimes it was really challenging. You had to work really hard to figure out where the fun was. Once you figured it out, and understood how it worked, it was super fun. So, building in more things to help on-ramp people into the game has been such a huge focus for us.

GDC 2012 Planetside 2 night cycle

Was there any player behavior in the game that surprised the team after the game launched?

Yeah, there’s some weird stuff like that where … for instance, we found bugs on our server. Like server-side bugs that only happen on some servers, and it’s entirely because of a weird tactic that one outfit uses on that server to be able to do something. Like sometimes people will, as an outfit, there would be a couple hundred people, who would all suicide together and teleport to a new base, almost instantaneously. It was coordinated, and it would cause some issue on the server.

We would say,“What the hell is going on? Why is this server so screwed up”? The coders would look at it. They’d be like “It seems like players are doing this.” And it is such an interesting thing, because that’s their own little ecosystem, and that’s the way they play. One outfit starts doing it, and then suddenly the whole server is doing that exact same thing, so you have this totally different gameplay there.

Then one of the problems that we have obviously is that population balance from time to time can get out of whack, and that makes some servers where everyone there thinks that the Vanu Sovereignty is the most powerful faction, but then you go on another server and everybody says the Vanu Sovereignty sucks, they can’t accomplish anything. That’s one of the things that happens when you have a persistent game, where you are creating your character, and you are playing the with the same people, against the same people. Each server kind of has its own culture, and its own unique shared history of “This is what happened. This guild formed and they did this, and this outfit came along and crushed them, and they stole all the people from that outfit, and all the bad people quit, and all the good people came over, and the leaders had all this drama.”

So there’s this really interesting shared history when you have a persistent game like that, but having that happen in a completely one hundred percent PvP, competitive FPS game like this, elevates things a little bit. You heard those stories about Eve Online all the time. The drama that happens, and the history of that world. With PlanetSide, there are all these different servers, so there really is a completely different world of us playing on one server versus another. This base is super popular to fight over, because for whatever reason it just became something that was popular on that server, but on other servers it is not important. No one cares. It’s fascinating, it really is.

planetside-2-1So what’s next for you guys, besides the PS4 version, which obviously sounds like a work in progress.

Like I said, we are updating the game, and when I talk about big game updates, are are putting in lots of stuff. On game update nine we put in brand new vehicles, brand new MAX weapons, so we’re adding a lot. Every month or so we’re planning on doing a major class refresh. We just did our MAX refresh. The next one is going to be the Infiltrator refresh. They’ll get new abilities, new weapons, new cosmetic items. It really gives them a brand new avenue to play the game and opens up some new goals to those classes.

“One of the biggest things that has surprised me, in a development sense from working on this game, is that this is so different than any other game in the world.”

So the game is constantly evolving, constantly changing. In terms of some huge update that’s going to come and radically change it, the biggest things are probably when we add brand new content or a brand new facility type and sort of spread that around to different areas. But even little tiny gameplay systems changes, and even sometimes balance and tuning changes really change the way the game is played.

One of the biggest things that has surprised me, in a development sense from working on this game, is that this is so different than any other game in the world. Because if you’re working on an MMORPG, you and a few other designers can get together and run through your content and be like “this content is fun.” You will know that it scales and everything works, and you are good to go. But with a game like this we literally have to get a couple thousand players playing it to see what is it like after 24 hours straight of people using this type of tank and this type of rocket launcher, and what happens when two hundred dudes in airplanes fly over and use this thing.

It’s impossible to test, it literally is. So we have a test server, and it is awesome for figuring out if things function correctly, if the gun actually fires bullets straight. But figuring out if it’s balanced, or what happens when it’s being widely used, is a little bit more of an unknown.

PS2cWhere are you getting most of the community feedback?

There’s a bunch of places. We’re very community focused. I have a Twitter account, and I’m constantly asking people for feedback about the game, which is really cool, I love it. I do informal polling on there all the time. If I’m thinking about the Infiltrator update we’re doing next, I’ll constantly say “Hey Infiltrators, what stuff do you wish you have? Where do you feel weak”? Usually I just create a new character and play nothing but Infiltrator for several weeks beforehand, and figure out where I’m running into problems with it too. And a lot of our other weapons testers and stuff do similar stuff. It’s great. I think Twitter is a really, really cool tool, especially for game developers. 

planetside-2-mainAnother reason we’re so community focused is because of what I was just talking about. It’s impossible for us to figure how things work until it’s actually in a game. So even before we launch the game we were talking to our players on websites like PlanetSide Universe, and PlanetSide has a pretty active Subreddit too. So we go there and say “Hey, these are the things we’re thinking about too.” We would get all of this feedback from people who are really experienced at playing this type of game. We were able to mold around it and make sure we were delivering good things.

One of things we released post launch was a tool called Roadmap, it’s really unique. I don’t think that there is any other game development that has a tool like this. But essentially what we have is a website where we’ve put all the features we’re working on for the next six months. Players are able to vote on them so we can tell which ones people care about. The most awesome thing about it is that there is an entire discussion thread underneath it where we also have voting, similar to Reddit. So the top comments are ones that get voted up.

planetside-2-beta-flWe can say that we’re doing a new things like orbital strike. We’re going release orbital strike as a new ability for commanders to drop bombs on people from space. We can have an entire discussion thread with that community. We can figure out exactly what they are expecting is going to get delivered, what they are afraid of, and months before we’re even starting to work on that feature we can be making sure that we’re building it exactly the way our players want, and avoiding the things our players are worried about, which is awesome. So many times it’s like a crap shoot, knowing if the thing you’re going to release is going to be what your players want to have. So being able to have that direct back and forth conversation with them has been beautiful.

Will PlanetSide 2 be available on the PS4 at launch? Or do you think it’s going to come later?

We definitely want be there at launch, and that’s what we’re aiming for. Because PlanetSide 2 is such a unique game, it’s not like we’re worried about competition on the horizon right now. There just aren’t any other games even coming out that are like it. Our focus is really on making sure that we’re delivering a really solid, polished product rather than trying to get it up as quick as possible. So maybe at launch we can have a closed beta on the PS4, an open beta on the PS4, and be building out of there. We’re not entirely sure. We’re going to see how it goes.

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