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Two Year Talk: Interviewing Planetside 2's Creative Director

Two Years Of Planetside 2

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Planetside 2 is two years old today and still going strong. It’s a Planniversary, if you will.

Ahem. I’ve written a bunch about my time with the game, including this. Yes, I like it a lot. One person who has been at the forefront of that long campaign of making me like something for two whole years, and who was also implicated in the complex saga of development beforehand, is Matt Higby. He’s headed up the SOE team throughout the twenty-four months of the game being live, and still seems to have plenty of energy for the future of this peerless F2P shooter. With those two years in mind, I had a chat with him.

Read on below for a myriad of thoughts on the game that does a war of red, blue, and purple like no other.

RPS: Hey Matt, for those of our readers who haven’t followed the Planetside 2 tale, can you introduce yourself and explain what you do?

Higby: Hello! I’m Matt Higby, creative director on Planetside 2. As creative director my responsibilities include shaping the identity of the overall project, which means deciding what the game is, how it works, how you play it. I work with a team of designers here who create levels, come up with ideas for weapons, and keep the game balanced, all that good stuff. And I work with the other directors on the team to make sure we have a cohesive and functional vision for the entire game.

RPS: Did you work on the original Planetside [Released back in 2003 – Ed]?

Higby: I did do a little work on that during QA, but I mostly worked on Star Wars Galaxies during that sort of time. I moved over to Austin to work on Star Wars Galaxies, and when I moved back to San Diego I was briefly on Planetside, where I joined the team working on stuff for Aftershock. I don’t think anything I worked on actually went into the game, but I was working on some small maps and a little bit of level design principles before I moved on to Everquest 2 in 2004.

RPS: So how did you come to be working on PS2?

Higby: Well I worked at SOE on EQ2, and Dark Kingdom, and also Free Realms, so I’ve been working on the Forgelight engine ever since we started on that, but really I am most excited about competitive games, especially massively-multiplayer games. Planetside was therefore always the game at SOE which I liked the most, with regards to be being my kind of game. It just suited what I was personally interested in playing. So around the time I was working on that other stuff at SOE there was a game called Planetside Next being worked on, which was a much smaller project than Planetside 2 became. I had just finished Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures, a game based on the kids’ TV show, and Planetside Next needed some leadership, and so I jumped at the opportunity to do that. At that time the project shifted from being a small scale NC vs TR type game* to something that was a full triple-A shooter that was a true successor to the original Planetside. That was in around early 2011.

RPS: And then the launch was in November of 2012. What’s it been like developing the game “live” since then? Is that less intensive than the pre-launch stuff? Any Planetside 2 fatigue at this point?

Higby: I wouldn’t call it less strenuous to be working on a live game, compared to working on a game prior to release. Your constraints are different. Before release you’re mostly just trying to hit a date and to cram as many features as you can in there, but then after launch you are saying ‘Okay, we want to work on these cool things, but this and this and that are broken, and we have to fix those first.’ So we have a whole new set of constraints, priorities and requirements. Personally I am driven by two goals, and that’s maintaining the integrity of the live game, and also adding new compelling features. Now that we’re live those two goals compete with each other for time and resources. A lot of times we’ll put out a feature and be stoked about it, but players will say ‘fine, but we wanted this fixed first’, which is usually true. And so for us that’s a balancing act. What that means for the team, though, is that every day is new challenges, so it always feels fresh. It’s not like every day you’re coming to work and building and shipping the same kind of widgets, instead we get all new challenges all the time, new problems to solve, new solutions to find.

RPS: Has the implementation of features lost out to fixing and balancing, then?

Higby: Certainly, yes, certainly it has. If you had asked me on launch day where we’d be in two years then I’ve have said we’d be much further along in terms of creating new features, and releasing new content into the game. But the reality is that when you have a live game the priority is always that you make sure customers can enjoy it right now, and that players who are playing today can continue to play and enjoy the game. So if we have a problem with hit detection on live and we have to take a week of a programmer’s time to fix that, that’s what we do. And they could have been working on a feature. As an example: the mission system – this is a completely accurate example – one of our coders who does a lot of work on missions and facility captures was also the guy who did a lot of our FPS mechanics. So when there was an issue with hit detection he had to work on that rather than focus on mission work. That’s a regular and routine compromise we have to make around here.

RPS: How different is the reality of what has happened to the plan you had two years ago?

Higby: There are certainly things that are missing that I thought we’d have ready by now. But I have the mindset that there is never a time when a game like this is “finished”. It’s just a continual addition of new features. In terms of where I thought would be in there, yes, I thought we’d have more of what the game needs by now. However, what those things are hasn’t changed very much in that time. I still think we need real, tangible benefits to base capture. The empire that captures them needs to have that and see the benefit. We need a better strategic system for things like resources, and we need those to influence the moment to moment experience in a meaningful way. We’ve always known we need to tackle these things, and we still do. Going even further than that I would say that there’s the issue of things like the inter-continental lattice and the idea of a global war where things happening on one continent affect what is happening on another continent. We need to get to that.

But we also need a baseline. And that means the gameplay in the moment-to-moment game is rock solid. We could spend time working on a light inter-continental system, and we’ve done that a little with the continent locks, but that’s sort of anaemic without direct moment-to-moment impact. That won’t satisfy the camp of people who think the most important thing is getting kills, and it won’t satisfy the people who want to capture bases and move on. If that’s not all tied together in a meaningful way then the importance of those activities gets lost a little. But we start at the baseline and work up. And we’ll get there.

RPS: So you feel there’s a need for a better “win-state” than locking a continent? How do you feel about that particular set up at the moment?

Higby: The continental lock serves a number of purposes. Firstly I think it’s a proof of concept for what happens when areas of the game are denied to players. Are people not going to want to play the game if they can’t get to their favourite map? That’s a very interesting question that we didn’t have the answers to, because no other game does that. If you are playing Battlefield you are going to be able to find a server that is running your map, and it’s rare to not be able to find a particular map at all. We wanted to know what denying a map, a playspace, to a set of players would mean for the game. It was an experiment, for sure. But it was also a half step towards the idea of home continents, and have defence of a home continent be meaningful. We’ve put all the mechanics in there for locking a continent and having it belong to one empire, so when we throw another layer on there like an inter-continental lattice or some other meta-game we’ve already got some of the work done. It’s a step towards that kind of additional layer that we want to see in the game.

RPS: Looking back on the past two years, what are you happiest with?

Higby: We spent a good amount of effort at the beginning of this year working on balance, infantry balance, air to ground balance, all that stuff, and that was good. I think in terms of how things work, such a spawn camping and so on, we’re in the best place we’ve ever been with the game. I was also pleased with the work we did on the directive system and I think it’s a really strong system for those kinds of players who are engaged by achievement type systems. It’s a really easily expandable system, so we’ve identified a lot of ways we can expand that out. We’re already working on something for that which will be part of the New Player Experience.

I was also pleased with getting Hossin out. We got a release out that included Hossin, new base capturing, continent locking, recruitment, all out in one. Getting all those systems in one update was a big accomplishment. The way we released Hossin was really successful. We released it a lot earlier than many people were, internally, comfortable with. We knew we had to do a lot more work to have Hossin play as intended, and there was a lot of debate about whether releasing the new continent too early would make people fatigued of playing on it. I think there has been an element of that, but I’ve also found myself and others to be excited about going in and trying out the updates to Hossin. The new bases are always really cool, on any continent, and I especially like places like Shadespire. They’re unique and we’re now getting our footing on what we need to do to create compelling bases.

RPS: The move to revamp bases has really done a great deal to make the game more interesting, I think. There are bases which are very different experiences, now, often strung together in a particular corridor across the continent, and that gives the game a flavour unlike anything else I can think of.

Higby: Yes, we’ve wanted to update the quality of the bases since day one, and we’ve been able to do that. We’ve revamped Amerish and obviously Hossin continues to be changed, and I think we’ve been successful in addressing the more problematic bases on Indar, too. Making bases is really tough, of course, because there’s no guidebook for how you do it. It requires levels that don’t follow standard rules of FPS design, thanks to the way the game works. We’ve had to learn a lot about this stuff, and we find that techniques that work well for a fight with fifty people don’t work well when there’s twelve people, and you have to take that into consideration, especially when you can have twenty people there, or a hundred and twenty people there. That’s a pretty unique consideration for an FPS. A lot of what we do in balancing and gameplay ends up going back to level design, too. We talk about mechanics fixes for spawn camping, for example, we could do this or that to fix it, remove XP, increase pain fields, but players always identify level design as the issue, and we agree with that. But just fixing up a level like Shadespire is a few weeks work, and we have hundreds of bases. Level design might be the ideal to solution to these, but we have to do the faster mechanical solutions to get something fixed faster than trickle fix of rebuilding bases.

RPS: What’s your favourite continent?

Higby: I’d say Esamir.

RPS: Really? Why’s that?

Higby: Yeah, it has a lot of those three point tower bases, and just for the way that I play those bases are my favourite. They’re really fun bases. I like playing them a lot.

RPS: I always prefer Amerish because I think it has a good flow of bases. They feel like a set of interesting sequences.

Higby: Amerish does have a good flow, the way they connect together from base to base is a lot of fun. That’s probably my second favourite. I can say, though, that I am not trying to avoid any particular continent right now. I won’t say “ah hell I’ve had enough of that”, and six months ago I was trying to avoid Indar because I’d just spent so much time there.

RPS: A familiar refrain.

Higby: I feel like there’s great action on all the continents right now.

RPS: There’s a couple of locations on Indar that always play host to big armour engagements, and that’s basically my favourite thing. Not necessarily because it’s more fun than anything else, but just for that moment where you come over a hill and see these huge, broad exchanges, with projectiles flying and tracer fire flickering all over. Indar is particularly good for that, especially at night, and I think it’s one of the game’s great strengths, because nothing else does quite that same sense of spectacle in scale.

Highby: I agree with you. I think there are places on Indar that exemplify Planetside’s gameplay which not all other locations do. Like that corridor between Indar Excavation and Quartz Ridge? That is one of the coolest thing in the world. We should make a trailer about one of those huge armour pushes through there, it would be the coolest thing.

RPS: I was looking for footage like that, actually. I couldn’t find anything that really conveyed what that scene is like.

Higby: I know that Klaus, actually, is working on West Highlands Checkpoint, Indar Comm Array, and that whole corridor leading up to Alatum. He’s trying to make that commensurate to Quartz Ridge. Indar Ex and Quartz Ridge sitting next to each other is interesting because it’s two huge bases sat next to each other, and that ends up producing really huge fights. We’ve tried to replicate that a bit on Hossin, and it’s not quite the same, I think because of the type of terrain.

RPS: I think that variety of what you are doing at the microscale is what I like best about PS2. One moment you are redeploying to a dropship, the next you are fighting on foot to assist a tank push over open ground. I can’t think of anything else that does that. In some ways it’s odd that the game manages to hang together as well as it does.

Higby: The reason that it works is just because of the players. It’s not that the game is ingenious, it’s that the players figure out how to use it. They can always figure out how to use what the game provides to develop tactics. That’s why those fights are epic.

RPS: It is a remarkably tough game to get into, given the “accessibility” of most mainstream games now. I know a lot of people bounces right off it because they got hammered straight out of the gate. It’s a game that requires a fair bit of literacy to really understand what’s going on. Learning to read it is a fair task.

Higby: Literacy or leadership. You need to be able to understand it yourself, which is initially intimidating, or you need to have great leadership and teamwork. Someone else contextualising and explaining stuff to you makes it work. And again, that goes back to community. The game works because of the players.

RPS: Can Planetside 2 last another two years?

Higby: Easily. Definitely. We saw “game is dead” threads on the forums six months after the game launched, but – fortunately for us – we have a massive re-engagement that happens whenever we add new features to the game. Tonnes of players come back, and I am sure you see that in your community. There’s nothing else like Planetside out there, and even when people take a hiatus, if they like massive scale FPS combat, they will be back. We’re the game that delivers that right now, for better or worse, and I think that spectacular and epic scale has appeal. Also I think we are reaching the point with the game where the effort of the team goes from primarily balancing and fixing the game, to the point where we are primarily shipping features. We still have some severe issues to deal with, but the rate at which bugs are being adding is very low now. For the first eighteen months we mostly spent time fixing issues with servers, or fixing technical issues, and there haven’t been huge new bolt-ons because of that. It’s kind of transparent, precisely because the game has just generally improved. Creating new content and seeing that go in is what I am most excited about for the next two years.

RPS: Is there is one thing you’d pick out?

Higby: There’s a few, but getting the continental level base and region-ownership things in. What we did have before the nanite update was a system where some bases had particular values, they provided particular resources, and I really want to bring that back. The idea of benefit of base-benefits and territory ownership that are not game breaking or overpowering, that’s something that I think is the next most critical system. It will give people who want more than the moment-to-moment gameplay a reason to stay engaged. And, right now, from that moment-to-moment perspective, there’s nothing like Planetside. When there’s air, vehicles, infantry combat going on all around you, feels tight, it’s one hell of spectacle. I still have moments, even to this day, where I look at all that and think “holy shit, I cannot believe we were able to pull this off.”

RPS: Thanks for your time.

*Phew, Vanu dodged a bullet there.

Planetside 2 is out now, obviously, and it’s in the best shape it’s ever been in, I would say. You should play it. There’s an RPS Planetside 2 community just over here. They’re a good bunch.

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