Playing for keeps in Planet Cyrene's real-money arenas

Josh Augustine at

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You know what would add shame to that 0-10 death streak you just went through in Counter-Strike? Realizing that you lost real money while doing it. Oh, and the sniper that just blew your face off? He's raking in riches like Scrooge McDuck.

Deathmatch has higher stakes than ever in the newly-launched MMO shooter Planet Cyrene, which adds PvP arenas to Entropia Universe's domain, where everything has a direct real-money value.

Real currency with real value
The people that are up in arms against the Diablo III real-money auction house should probably just skip this entire article. The only currency in Planet Cyrene is, for all intents and purposes, a real world currency with a fixed value to US dollars of 10:1. That currency, PED, can be purchased and cashed out at any time. That means every bullet, every repair bill, every rare drop you find is tapping directly into your wallet.

In one sense, you're really just throwing money at the bad guy until it dies.

That makes efficient use of ammo, weapons, and armor a key skill for players looking to make a buck off of their time in the game. But I was on a test account this morning to meet up with the developers, so I let my flamethrower fly free as I toasted bad guys into lootable piles of char. My first kill dropped 1.3k ammo—a lucky drop, since the average return on ammo investment (I used 400 to take him down) is 90% according to Ed Robles 3, the game' creative director.

The open world of Planet Cyrene is basically slot machine. Insert your money to buy ammo. Use that ammo to kill bad guys. Those bad guys have a chance to drop different amounts of loot, ranging from garbage to jackpot. I didn't spend too much time in this portion of the game, although Robles' description of how different areas of the world will change based on where the players spend their time sounds promising. A zone that's being aided by players frequently will be upgraded with new NPCs, quests, rewards, instances, and crafting recipes--while zones that players don't help may be overrun by the enemy and the undefended outposts destroyed.

Did you notice that terrifying dead people artwork? You can't stop staring at it now.

Deathmatch for dollars
But there's a better option than open-world killing for skilled gamers looking to make a buck in the game. Nothing is left to chance in the deathmatch free-for-all arenas located in the game's Hub section. Pay your entry fee to spawn onto the map, and collect money on every kill you get. There are 6 brackets to play in—ranging from the poor-man's pennies club to the high rollers table—but the ratio of rewards remains the same: each kill nets you 80% of the entry fee. If you can maintain a 2:1 kill ratio, you'll be turning a profit.

I started off in the lowest bracket while I learned the game's mechanics. Each spawn cost 25 PEC (2.5 cents), and each kill earned me 2 cents' worth of tokens. The most expensive map charges $1 for each spawn, and grants 80 cents per kill. Kills are rewarded to whoever dealt the most damage, not whoever got the final hit—a fair system that prevents kill-stealing. Netting my first few kills felt amazing—I watched my token count rise knowing that I'd just earned a nickel. It wasn't big money, but having something real on the line made the battles more intense and more interesting.

This guy is clearly not interested in making money today.

And that's good, because Cyrene needs something to keep the combat interesting. The gunplay—core to any FPS—is weak. Weapon targeting and player movement both felt floaty and just a tiny bit delayed. My shotgun created a burst of smoke in a general area where the bullets hit, but the lack of projectile paths, weapon recoil, reloading animations or environmental response all made the combat feel clunky and hard to read.

Navigating the awkward combat was made even more difficult by the game's insane control scheme. E is jump, C is rotate right, and the space bar toggles the cursor for UI control (which removes your ability to aim). Many a death was caused by tapping space bar mid-fight to jump and instead stopping my character in his tracks, letting the enemy line up an easy shot. This is something you'll be able to overcome in time, but is definitely disorienting on day one.

The spoils of war.

Balance is key
The current maps are all free-for-all deathmatch, and felt fairly well-designed from my short time in them. There are plenty of vantage points and nooks to hide in, and teleporters scattered around the map allow for interesting harassment and escape tactics. The team plans to add team deathmatch and vehicle maps set in an urban city soon.

Balance in an MMOFPS is a tricky beast, and Creative Kingdom makes a good stab at it. All players are given standardized stats and given access to a base set of gear when they enter the arena. The playing field is level at that point, although PvP gurus will be able to trade in their reward badges for kills to unlock slightly more powerful weapons and armor as time goes on. Robles didn't give specific numbers, but assured me that the bonuses would be very minor. For example, he told me that a higher tier weapon may increase the duration of its slowing effect, "but only by milliseconds."

If only he'd been stunned for a few milliseconds more!

Still, when real money is on the line, game balance is more important than ever. Thankfully, I found no "pay to win" routes. The only purchasable consumable lets you recharge life between fights. The healing kits are purchased outside individual matches for 10 cents each, but remove your ability to shoot while using it (which takes a good 5+ seconds), making them useless during combat--a very good thing.

While I'm sensitive about "pay to win" gimmicks, this doesn't one bother me too bad because it serves more to let players avoid paying a new spawn fee rather than giving them a boost in combat to kill enemies. Still, there are a few potential scenarios where it could screw you over, such as deciding to make a reckless charge into an enemy's bunker because you think they have low health, only to find they've had time to heal up to full while you ran over there.

But even with the soft shooter mechanics, this is still the only game I know of where you directly earn real cash with every headshot. If you think you've got the skill to pocket winnings in the arena (like my 15 cents, or the $137 that the server leader Michael Mike Masters has earned so far), Planet Cyrene is free-to-play and has just gone into soft launch. You can sign up and download the game right now on the Planet Cyrene website.