Building a better, more inclusive PlanetSide 2

PlanetSide 2 launched this past Tuesday — but it's not just a couple of days old.

"While the game was being developed," said Matt Higby, creative director on PlanetSide 2 at Sony Online Entertainment, "it was incubating. It was sort of in our womb, and safe."

Higby was speaking in a phone interview with Polygon conducted just hours after PlanetSide 2 went live. That happened three days after the end of a beta testing period that lasted approximately four months, a period that was "almost completely transformational" for the game.

We spoke with Higby to get a sense of how the PlanetSide 2 beta changed the game, of how Sony Online is engaging the game's community and of the studio's plans for the long-term future of the MMO first-person shooter.

"Nowadays, betas for most games are kind of like a load test that happens for two weeks right before the game comes out," said Higby. But as a massive online game, PlanetSide 2 had to be tested in an environment with thousands of players so its developers could figure out whether the game worked on that large scale in the first place, and then figure out what worked and what didn't.

According to Higby, the PlanetSide 2 beta testers were instrumental in that process, pointing out elements they didn't like — from minute details such as the look of the killcam to systemic issues like the rate of unlocking upgrades — so the developers could make the appropriate changes.

In addition to making fixes and improvements to mechanics and features, Sony Online added a great deal of content to PlanetSide 2 over the course of the beta period. Higby estimated that only one fifth of the current weapons were available at the start. The beta kicked off with one continent in the game world; now there are three. The locations of bases on those continents have shifted, and the studio added more of them, too.

Those who had been playing since the beta began "couldn't believe that it was the same game" by the end.

From here on out, Sony Online has big plans for PlanetSide 2. Some of them involve eSports: The company recently announced a partnership with Twitch to stream matches directly from within the game. "It's a really exciting time, I think, for competitive gaming — becoming more of a legitimate thing and not so much of a niche," said Higby.

He believes PlanetSide 2 has two of the three elements necessary to become a viable game in the eSports field: a competitive experience with a "high skill ceiling," and gameplay that's interesting to watch. The third piece is having game elements that directly support eSports, like tournament modes. Higby wouldn't provide details, but affirmed that Sony Online has plans to implement those kinds of features.

Asked about the PlanetSide 2 community's interest in eSports, Higby said it exists, but noted that many players are concerned that elements like specific tournament modes will take away from the wide-open, massive PlanetSide experience they're used to. When the developers decide to add competitive gaming features, said Higby, they'll be careful to ensure that everybody remains invested in the overall PlanetSide 2 player progression system.

Developers of eSports titles also must maintain the integrity of the competitive experience, and PlanetSide 2 has already fallen victim to hackers using tools such as aimbots to cheat their way to victory. "We take that very seriously," said Higby, saying that Sony Online has tools both within and outside the game to combat cheaters. For example, moderators can look at players to see if they're too far above the expected number of headshots in a certain period of time. Plus, since PlanetSide 2 is an always-on service, Sony Online has live, around-the-clock customer support.

"While stopping the actual technology of some of these bots is really hard, stopping people from cheating in the game is a totally achievable goal," he explained, saying the studio is using personnel and reporting solutions as well as technological ones.

"While stopping the actual technology hackers use is really hard, stopping people from cheating in the game is a totally achievable goal"

PlanetSide 2 launched earlier this week — Higby continued the baby metaphor, saying, "It's been birthed, essentially, to the world, and now it's the world's game" — and he figures that if anything, the amount of community feedback the developers use will go up compared to the beta. Higby estimated that the team will spend the next few weeks fixing bugs and other glaring issues before settling into a "gradual cadence" of content updates.

"The list of features that we have designed and planned out for this game is years and years and years long," said Higby. For example, the studio wants to add more continents to the world.

Sony Online will primarily be focusing on expanding long-term goals to keep its hardcore players engaged. After all, in traditional MMOs, the most dedicated players are the first ones to run out of endgame content to play. "Adding more metagame tools is targeted at those high-end Outfits" — clan-like organizations of die-hard players — because "those guys are sort of the skeleton that makes the user body of PlanetSide 2 work," said Higby.

He also told Polygon that the studio is trying to accommodate new players, especially since PlanetSide 2 is free to play, a genre that typically has a more casual audience. It offers a skill-based experience — better FPS players will win out over weaker ones — but it also provides support roles, such as transport driver, engineer or medic, so those less skilled players feel like they can contribute. And systems like auto-squads, which let players easily join a group and teleport to the squad leader, let newbies jump directly into the action with teammates around for backup.

dedicated players "are sort of the skeleton that makes the user body of PlanetSide 2 work"

According to Higby, the studio hopes those features can eventually turn casual players into the kind of die-hard fans who play together in Outfits. "PlanetSide 2 is a game that thrives and shines like no other when you're able to play it with hundreds of other players," he said.

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