It's a big deal when we put a game on our cover: it's a massive undertaking of asset-wrangling, hours of interviewing, page storyboarding, cutting, transcribing, and other tasks that make us perfect models for clichéd stock photos of "people at work." For our PlanetSide 2 issue , I came home with buckets of good words—more stuff than we could fit in a magazine.
These are those words. I got SOE's Matt Higby to walk me through—hour by hour—how a play for a single base in PlanetSide 2's multi-continent map might go down. His description animates the many moving parts of PS2's combat ecosystem, and gives a glimmer into the tough design decisions SOE has to make to produce a PvP-only massive FPS. (War) story time!
PC Gamer: I'd love to have you talk me through a base assault from one side's perspective. Obviously it's always going to vary, there's always different elements there, but as the creative lead—what might one operation look like, how would a group of players hypothetically sort of begin at those organizational decisions and then execute the attack itself?
Matt Higby, Creative Director: Sure, yeah. I would say that the genesis of a base assault is basically going to be a base defense. We've held you guys off when you attacked us, and again, this isn't every base assault, this is just a base assault. We held you guys off, you weren't able to capture the thing that you were trying to capture, and now we're going to counterattack. From that point, some percentage of our force is staying behind to make sure that all the stuff is repaired at our facility that we were just at. The shields are up, the turrets are back online so that the base isn't completely defenseless.
You have forward elements like the strike aircraft moving forward, taking out reinforcements as they're moving back. You might even have skirmishes in between that are happening while these guys are still under the impression that they're going to be able to capture the base that you've just successfully defended. At a certain point, you're going to build up the amount of momentum to be able to push them back towards the enemy base. The first people that are going to be fighting there are going to be aircraft, they're just there because they're the fastest. They're flying over, strafing, taking out tanks, taking out turrets, taking out battlements on the outside, and then along with them, you're going to start seeing Galaxies flying in that are dropping troops. You're going to start seeing the tank columns moving forward, you're going to start seeing all the different support vehicles like Sunderers and, again, the Galaxies landing and deploying, stuff like that. On the periphery of the base.
At this point, the people who just got beaten back to this base are s$&#ing themselves, they're calling in reinforcements from other places on the continent, saying, 'Know what? We're getting surrounded by these dudes, bring in some reinforcements.' You start to see, potentially, a reverse of that situation, where these guys are getting the bulk and they're pushing that base assault back. Or you see these guys progressing forward. They're going to progress forward by sending infantry into the courtyards, to be able to do things like disable turrets, disable vehicle spawners. They're going to start moving in to capture the shield generators, and then eventually capturing the base.
That's going to be a two-step process, where vehicles are coming in first, securing the ground down below. At the same time, you have infantry people coming in and taking out guys on the walls, moving in, capturing all those terminals. Eventually you have that big infantry-only fight that's happening inside. Now, saying it's infantry online, you're still going to have the peripheral elements, the strafing aircraft, the tanks up on the hills that are firing down into the base. But the real clash is going to be the defenders trying to hold on to that base by securing those shield generators long enough for reinforcements to come and start clearing this out. You're going to see groups of people breaking off to do things like recapture the vehicle terminals so they can respawn vehicles in the front.
One of the things that we spent a lot of time working on is, how do we keep the fight in each one of the courtyard areas alive when it gets pushed back? We don't want it to just be, "Oh, they breached our thing, we're now on phase three of the battle and phase three of the battle means only X and Y happen." We want to make it more fluid. Yeah, there's people fighting back here in this infantry courtyard, but you could send a couple guys forward to recapture the vehicle terminals and now you're still having super active combat happening out in the vehicle courtyard. Maybe you're pushing out and taking out the respawning vehicles out here, and now that's going to slow down the infantry gameplay.
The eventual capture of the base is going to happen when that infantry battle turns towards the attacking team, they're able to secure the shield generators and they're able to get in and hack the base. But then they have a hold period, where they have to keep that hack on the base long enough, based on the peripheral territory they control, for the base to actually flip and the territory to become theirs. During that time, the defenders can no longer respawn at that base, but the attackers can't respawn there either. So you're still going to see people coming in, potentially trying to reverse the hack, trying to clear out the respawn and resupply stuff out front and recapture that way.
And then you end up with the exact same situation I've described at the beginning. We secure, and then we're going to push out and capture those other bases. Basically you have this tug of war that goes back and forth between these pieces. Now, distracting that tug of war is all the other regions that are all around here. So rather than just going from A to B, which is a kind of boring tug of war, going back and forth like this, when these guys push back, maybe they're going to say, “Hey, we'll keep 50 percent of our forces here, we're just going to defend. We're not going to try to push, we're going to let these guys shove their d%*#$ in the meatgrinder for the rest of the night, and then we're going to take 25 percent of our troops to break off and capture this region, 25 percent and break off to capture this other region.
You have all sorts of different options on a strategic level that people can do, besides just this battle between the two bases. But in general, that's how one facility to another would be captured. At least as far as my speculation on how it could. That, in and of itself, is neat, because you have all these different roles that are all able to participate. Every single one is relevant.
Josh Hackney, Executive Producer: Then you have the evolution of the battle, too. Which means, if I don't like playing this part, I can get a piece of the pie that I really like too... Or for those that are really going to be changing from one position to another, one class to another, whatever it is, they're going to have value.
Matt Higby: Yep. And if we're in this base that's the one getting captured, and they're just getting hammered by Vanguards—the main battle tanks from the NC empire—one of the things that they could totally, legitimately do to stop the flow of Vanguards is jump into a Galaxy or jump into a Sunderer, escape out of this base, come this way, and disable the vehicle spawns at the base over there. Now they're not going to be able to get any more Vanguards for a while, so when you destroy these ones, somebody from here is going to have to go back and repair that stuff, or they're just not going to get more vehicles for a while.
There's lots of little strategic decisions and options that you can do in there that radically change the balance of the big battle that's happening. That's where all the tactics and leadership is going to come in. Somebody is going to say, "You know what, we can sit here all day long slamming our heads against this wall, or we can send an Infiltrator and have him disable the shields." Or we can bring in five Galaxies and drop 50 MAXes into the courtyards and say, "Screw it, we're gonna MAX rush it."
Yeah, yeah. As an Arma player, just the idea of logistics becoming a supported skill in more FPSes is really attractive to me. Being sort of prompted naturally by the game to react and organize forces, get them where they need to be—and having that be an actual skill, not some arbitrary thing that's restricted by the game, it's something you can exercise...
Matt Higby: Exactly. What you said means a lot to me. It's not an arbitrary restriction made by the game. For a while, in a lot of our design, we made a mistake, in that we had a whole bunch of game systems that players were having to compete against to be able to win. We had all kinds of shields, auto-turrets, things that, when I was attacking a base, yes, they would slow me down and make it so I couldn't capture the base right away. But that wasn't me competing with other players, which is where the fun of the game is. It was me competing with mechanics.
Within the last few months we recognized that this was a mistake and said, "There shouldn't be arbitrary rules that are getting in the way of me winning, there should be lots of ways to solve a base." A base should be simple from a game mechanics perspective, it should be a very, very simple construct. And it becomes very complex, because people use it in ways that make it have multiple ways to solve. Multiple ways to solve defending it, multiple ways to solve attacking it. And let players do that stuff. Players are the thing that is keeping you from winning, not game mechanics. There's a shield in your way, you have to go blow up the shield before you can walk in the room. That's a mechanic that has a place, but it shouldn't be ubiquitous. It shouldn't be a solution everywhere. It should be a unique thing in a certain situation. Previously, we had gate shields around our entire courtyard, you had to sneak in and capture the shield generators before you could even get into the courtyard. We've done away with a lot of that stuff, to make it so active defense is what's happening and that's what's keeping players from being able to capture the base.
Josh Hackney: It goes back to the reality for us, which is that players are content. Which is fundamentally true in 90 percent of the multiplayer games out there, but on this scale the strategies become that much more important.
Matt Higby: Yeah. A lot of it's going to shake out when we're in beta and we start getting a lot of players in there. We might find out, you know what, players doing 100 percent of the heavy lifting when it comes to defending bases just doesn't work. It's too easy for players to just skirt around combat and do things that we need to have game systems defending. We need to have hard counters in game mechanics that prevent that kind of stuff from happening. I hope it doesn't happen that way, because I really think that the idea of players actively defending is way more compelling than auto-turrets that are actively defending a base. Yeah, you do run the risk of it getting railroaded by somebody coming in from the opposite side, but based on the way our territory design is set up, that should be a hindrance rather than a crippling blow to your team.
Josh Hackney: Hopefully, though, what makes it a little bit more exciting, if it is that dynamic experience because it's truly players against players, rather than all of these arbitrary design constructs, is an ebb and flow across a battlefield, across a continent, can have major variation. You might have one night or one week or one month where NC really pushes and does grab two-thirds of the overall continent, they just figure out a strategy that takes that long for the TR or VS to figure out a good counter for.
Matt Higby: Totally, yeah. I think you'll absolutely see the outfit of people that are just doing annoying tactics. That stuff happens in wars, it happens in real battles, people do things that are just irritating. During the Cold War we spat out white noise at the Russians to make them think we had some weird cypher that we didn't really have. It's just annoying. Running around, setting a bunch of hacks without ever even thinking that you're going to complete them, just setting them and taking off. That's a way to get other people to respawn and go do things. That's irritating, but it's valid. By allowing that stuff I think we end up having a richer gameplay experience. People are going to learn what the solution to that is, there is a solution to it. Again, I follow StarCraft, I follow eSports all the time, you're always going to get a thread where people say, "This is overpowered, there's no way to beat it, it's impossible to win." And then a week, a month, six months later... Even on the pro scene this happens, there's a player who has a tactic, he has some build that he innovated, he timed down perfectly, he just crushes the s$*# out of players for weeks.
And then somebody figures out, okay, here's the thing I have to do, I send in a probe, I scout it, at exactly 36 seconds, if I see that he did this, I know that I immediately do this, and then I win. There's always a solution. And you get to those solutions, the ability for players to actually be geniuses at your game, to be experts at your game, by taking things away from game mechanics are preventing stuff and allowing it to be players that are preventing stuff.
Anyway. That's something that we stumbled across, I think, as a "Why isn't this fun yet?" kind of thing. "You know what, I think there's too many barriers to it being fun." I told the world designers when we were talking about this stuff, I said, "I feel like we're trying to outsmart ourselves, and that we've succeeded." That's just...what's the reasoning behind that? Okay, cool, we've made some really intelligent, cool game designs for these mechanics, these are really compelling, awesome designs. And they're unnecessary and they're preventing us from having fun. So let's just get rid of them. And that's what we did.