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PlanetSide 2 Column: The Past, the Present, and Future

By Derek Czerkaski on November 28, 2011

As many of you may now be aware, and undoubtedly excited about, the official announcement of Planetside 2 was released not too long ago. The sequel to its notorious predecessor Planetside will be boasting a whole new arsenal of surprises for the modern gamer. Due to its age and the era in which it was released, however, many gamers who have become more active in the MMO/FPS world may not have had the chance to partake with the original title. In fact, there's a good chance that if you're reading this article that you're a 1.) Planetside veteran, who, like me, is foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the second installment in the series, or 2.) a newcomer who heard the term MMOFPS and went "...these exist?" But, I digress. Let's take a moment to reflect on what exactly Planetside was to the gaming industry.

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What is Planetside?

Planetside was not the first MMOFPS ever released, though it is largely recognized as the most famous title in the genre. It is a game which combines elements of the MMORPG with the high-intensity and competitive nature of the FPS genre. In essence, you are taking the leveling mechanics and character development of the MMORPG scene; allowing players who dedicate their time to the decimation of their foes to gain privileges such as new weapon types, un-lockable vehicles, different armor types, and different perks, and then combining them with the best aspects of your standard FPS; K/D ratios, teamwork-based objectives, strong levels of coordination and communication, and a reward for having swift reaction times and reflexes on the computer. The end result is an "Outfit", the equivalent of a guild, which actively completes real-time combat objectives for experience points. You played as one of three factions; the NCR, the Terran Republic, or the Vanu Sovereignty; each faction coupled with its own unique vehicles, weapons, and play styles to battle it out in a never ending battle for world domination.

Is your interest piqued yet? No? Add in some other factors; there's a role for everyone in Planetside, and if killing isn't your fancy, there's plenty of other roles that need filling for your team. Maybe you're into stealth, and you're like to cloak into the enemy base to capture the control point, effectively granting your team respawn points, turret defenses, and the ability to quickly change their layouts while also unlocking advanced armor and vehicle spawns. Maybe you're up for supporting your team by playing the equivalent of an engineer, in which you're repairing your teammates’ vehicles, deploying portable spawn points, mines, and repairing your team's bases? Or maybe, like me, you simply can't wait to get into a MAX, an extremely heavily armored infantry unit, and go and wreak havoc upon the enemy ranks!

The beauty of Planetside was the diversity of playstyles it allowed combined with the adrenaline-rush-inducing gameplay mechanics. Players weren't confined to strict, tunnel-vision based classes; you could mix and match your character to suit your playstyle as you desired, so long as you had the skill points available. Want to play a Sniper who is also an engineer? Go for it. Feeling like you need a grenade launcher, an assault rifle, a pistol, and a rocket launcher? Then manage your inventory and make it happen! The limitations associated with your playstyle were minimal, and as such, you were able to change classes at the drop of a hat to fit into whatever was best suited for various situations. It made for an ever-evolving, constantly dynamic gaming environment, filled with more action than any game I've played.

To give you an example of some of my fondest memories of the game, I'll describe some scenarios. As a fan of the Terran Republic (notably because I loved the Dual Cycler MAX), I'll describe the eternally beloved tower siege.  There are 300 players duking it out for territory. There's MAX's guarding the stairs inside of the tower, pumping out grenades to anyone who would dare enter the building. The NCR are firing player-controlled camera-aimed rockets at our doors, pelting any entrance and exit from the building. There are friendly and enemy Reavers, heavy missile aircraft, bombarding each other in the skies, while the Mosquito barons (anti-aircraft light aircraft) battle out above the tower for control of the airspace; may the better pilots dominate the skies.

There are tanks shelling from a distance, preventing our reinforcements from arriving, and enemy armored motorcades escort their AMS (Advanced Mobile Station; a stealth-field generating spawn point that can be deployed to reduce travel times for your team when on the offensive) closer to the tower. Our cloakers work diligently to disable and destroy their vehicles, in order to allow our infantry to escape the tower to counter-push the NCR out of our tower; if they tank our spawn tanks, the battle is lost. The battle rages on for 30 minutes, with neither side willing to abandon their ground, when suddenly the most magical occurrence in all of Planetside initiates; high, high in the sky, the fleet of Galaxies (ultra-large air transport vehicle; it can air-drop players and MAXs and vehicles alike beneath it) drops over 50 reinforcements directly behind the enemy lines. A firefight ensues; we take out 2 AMS' and proceed to start battling in the open field. Vanguards (ultra-heavy tanks for the NCR) begin battling our Lightning (light tanks), snipers battle it out across the distance of the bridge, Basilisks and Enforcers fight it out on the rolling plains. All hell has broken loose, and defeat in the fight will mean the loss of the tower. In 10 minutes, the glorious firefight comes to a close; we prevail, despite all the odds. And the best part? It's time to do it all over again, as we shift from being on the defensive to the offensive after a decisive victory.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the standard experience in Planetside, and it's an experience I've never seen matched to date. With all that excitement, you might be thinking to yourself "If Planetside was so amazing, how come I never heard of it and people aren't still playing it?" Unfortunately, every star casts out shadows, which I will also discuss.   

What went wrong with Planetside?

In my mind, Planetside was a game far ahead of its time. Released in the Summer of 2003, many people were not deeply involved in the MMORPG scene, and the notion of a pay-to-play game was still very foreign to a majority of gamers, myself included. While Everquest had been extremely successful, and games like Counterstrike had also dominated their respected genre, the idea of merging the two seemed totally foreign. Back in the day, when I thought of a MMORPG player they were dramatically different in playstyle, attitude, and behavior in my mind. FPS players tended to be very aggressive, intense, and often rude to other players, whereas MMORPG players tended to be more laid-back, passive, and community-oriented. As such, the idea of an MMOFPS had a very niche market; players who liked the idea of large-scale competition, but also wanted a leveling system to limit players from jumping into a game and immediately being the equal of a skilled player/veteran.

Another problem, as hard as it may be to imagine, was the hardware capability of the average computer at this time. While many of us bask in the dual/quad-core era, with multiple graphics card and double-digit gigabytes of RAM, there was a time when having 512 MB ram was something to talk about. Because the average individual didn't have a super-computer, the game had to be designed with its user’s hardware capabilities in mind. On top of not only having weaker hardware options, there was also a time when people utilized 56k connections to play games. While many veteran gamers wince at the mere notion of the days of 56k gaming, it was indeed a reality endured by many at the time.

Trying to incorporate a game that heavily depends upon split-second reaction times and lightning quick reflexes that was able to transmit data fast enough via a 56k connection proved to be too much a challenge for Planetside. Lag was a substantial issue for many people at the time; both on a personal computer level, and on a network connectivity level. I can still remember throwing my mouse into the wall, wondering how I was getting headshot so quickly upon exiting a door, because my opponent had a better computer and a better connection than I did at the time. To make these pains even more intolerable, imagine trying to play a game with 300 other people nearby you on your 56k connection; it led to an immensely decreased framerate and a poor gameplay experience for those with lower-end machines.

The result of these hiccups led to a skill-based game being severely hampered and dampened by a lack of system and server resources. Within the first 3 months, a moderate portion of the population had lost interest in the game. As the game persevered on, other problems began to become increasingly more irritating; these problems were the seemingly endless number of bugs and the lack of balance in the game. Few things are more agitating than being permanently stuck in a spawn tube while the enemy kills you constantly. I think I speak for everyone when I say that falling through the floor into an endless oblivion of nothingness is frustrating. As the team worked desperately to correct these issues, it seemed as though initially every patch would fix 100 problems only to create 100 more. This was further exasperated by the balance changes that would lead to certain weapons being overpowered one month to being damn near worthless the next.  The team could never seem to find that perfect harmony of balance for the game; I remember seeing exciting elements of the game disappear for a time, only to re-emerge a few months later. MAXs took such substantial nerfs that for some time the idea of mass-MAX crashing a base was made useless. Transport vehicles had their damage and health reduced so much that it was no longer fun to be a defenseless sitting duck, and many vehicles stopped being utilized at all.

Why should we be getting excited about Planetside 2?

There are plenty of reasons to get excited about the sequel! For starters, our hardware and network capabilities alone have infinitely improved the realm of possibilities for the genre. Gone are the days where people played games without a broadband connection; high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, but a standard. Our computers are 10 times as powerful as they were during the original Planetside's release, and as such, we have the technology necessary for a game of this magnitude to run efficiently and effectively. Most importantly, the team that will be developing Planetside 2 now has nearly a decade of experience with MMO games, and as such, there are higher expectations from both the player and the developer's standpoint. Having a prior product to build upon is substantially easier than drawing up a concept from scratch, and the team will be able to really focus on what needed to be changed and adjusted from the first one, while implementing some new features as well!

A second point of emphasis should be discussed in terms of how significantly online gaming has evolved over the past decade. Online gaming has become a huge industry, with notorious franchises such as World of Warcraft, Battlefield, and even League of Legends demonstrating how popular the competitive scene has become across various genres. Whether you’re shooting bad guys, comparing builds and theory-crafting, or competing for cash prizes, there is substantially more interest in the online gaming scene then there has ever been before. People are more able and willing to pay to play games, as is evident by the rampant popularity of AAA MMORPG titles such as World of Warcraft, as opposed to years ago, where the concept lacked popularity. Even the infamous Call of Duty franchise has popularized terms such as "K/D ratio" or "kill streak", and a focus on doing ridiculously cool things to show the whole world.

If you find yourself curious, I'd like you to take a few minutes out of your day to check out their main website. Give the trailer a look, read some of the articles and the interviews, and get yourself prepared for what I expect to be the most exciting video game ever released.

I'll be following the game over the next several months, and I may even chime in with a few "War story" editorials detailing particularly exciting moments throughout my prolonged campaign in the world of the original Planetside. I'm hopeful that I can create a growing sense of passion and excitement for the up and coming installment, and maybe even rekindle some old delightful memories for the veteran players of the franchise. This is Derek Czerkaski, signing out.

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