We recently caught up with Matt Higby, Creative Director of Planetside 2. Read on for what he had to say about various aspects of the game world, the factions, and the game mechanics, including vehicle customisation, and Higby's penchant for griefing.
And no, we didn't get that payment system stuff cleared up.
RPS: So...what's changing with the world?
Higby: It's the same world, but we're doing a revisioning of the entire thing. The storyline is starting from where Planetside 1 started, we're not following it up. We're redefining what Auraxis is and spending a lot of time redefining the roles of the factions. Factions in PS2 are super-important, not just the red team versus the blue; they play the game in a completely different way. We're creating very distinct motivations and lore for the factions, so they have their own reasons for doing what they're doing and hating the other factions, and that all feeds into their gameplay types and the types of people who will enjoy playing those factions.
RPS: That's interesting because in the first one there was a broad stroke background for each faction; are you going to develop them further along the same lines you developed in the first Planetside?
Higby: They're going to be familiar to those types of roles. We're not copying, precisely, the abilities from Planetside 1, but it'll keep the same themes. The Terran republic, for example, is very militaristic, all about strength in numbers. I always use a goofy anaology and compare the factions to music; the Terran Republic is like orchestrated music, military, working in lots of different instruments to produce a really co-ordinated sound.
RPS: Like the Radetzy March?
Higby: Exactly. The New Conglomerate is like Rock 'n Roll or Hip Hop, where it's loud and hits you with a sustained powerful beat, but can be a smaller group of people and comes in waves that are unexpected. And Vanu is like electronic music, using sounds you've never really heard before, arranged in ways you've never really heard before, and you're kind of thinking, wow, that's NEW. It's not something you'd expect to see in music.
RPS: I'm now thinking of the Vanu to the tune of Kraftwerk.
Higby: I'd say Daft Punk. If you listen to the Daft Punk soundtrack or Air, those kind of bands personify what Vanu is to me.
RPS: Would you do it so they have their own soundtracks in game?
Higby: We're talking about doing a lot of stuff like that, yeah. To really fit the tone, to make each one of these factions feel like a different game.
RPS: Right down to the UI too?
Higby: Aspects of the UI do change between factions.
RPS: Flashing back, I used to always play as an anti-air max, and jump-jet my way on top of base antennae, to get the jump on aircraft. Is the Vanu's vertical mobility still going to be one of their key features?
Higby: We have more than one ability that each class can have. You can slot different types of abilities. Right now our jumpjet class is our light assault class. Their purpose is to get behind enemy lines to do really quick strikes. They're our anti-sniper role; if there's one sat on top of a tower somewhere, the light assault guys can run around really fast, jump-jet up and hit quick with assault rifles.
RPS: A bit like the WH40K set-up? Squads of people tracking behind enemy lines?
Higby: There's a bunch of people who play the boardgame of WH40K. Like all the figures. One of the things we're doing is putting squad-spawning in, so if you're a light assault guy you can jumpjet over into a place, then squad-spawn on top of them. There's a lot of cool strategic stuff you can do with mixed squads.
RPS: Can people hold off spawning until their team member is in the right exit location?
Higby: When you log into the game, you can select where you're going to spawn; at a facility, at a galaxy, or on my squad. Squad-spawning is an ability you have to have; we have a cert-tree that's completely redesigned from the original Planetside, so squad leadership is a cert-tree, and squad-spawning can be unlocked through that, and that has different levels too. So the first level, you can only spawn on the squad-leader, the second you can spawn on anybody in the squad; there's timers that get reduced as you increase that ability too. So there's a huge of amount depth built into that and people want to do leadership. You said your friend was a Command Rank 5 in Planetside 1? You can be a CR5 in PS1 by leading a lot of squads; in Planetside 2, you're going to have to dedicate your skill progression to squad leadership.
RPS: Could anyone who's played the game a lot become a squad leader now then?
Higby: Absolutely. You don't have to play the game a lot to do it.
RPS: What was nice about the first one was that it limited the top-end Leadership abilities to people who were good at leading squads.
Higby: You have to dedicate time to it, is the thing. You have to be putting time into that skill tree, which means you're not putting time into your other elements. You can only level one skill at a time and it's a time-based system, similar to Eve Online. If you're dedicated enough to be pouring all your time into squad leadership, you'll be getting a lot of benefits that are really valuable. Squad leaders give different benefits to their squads, depending on what class you play.
RPS: I've got this horrible image now of CoD kiddies shouting abuse down the global chat channel because they've got the equivalent of Command Rank 5.
Higby: That happens no matter what. We've got Vivox integrated, so people will be doing voice, and you will be able to individually turn off people and channels. We have to have that.
RPS: Every who plays Planetside comes away with amazing war stories. What's your best war story?
Higby: The coolest thing from the original Planetside... I'll be honest, I'm a griefer, I love getting in situations where I'm having the time of my life at other people's expense. I'm one of those a-holes who'd get a stealth suit on, go down inside a base, hack the command terminal, get a Max and sit in the spawn room spawn-camping people. Like, you can't do that any more. I had the time of my life doing that. As a designer, it's important to have that mindset, to think like someone who exploits and likes griefing, so you can figure out ways of mitigating it, whilst leaving some little element in there.
RPS: You have to have it in there.
Higby: As long as it doesn't break the game or significantly detract from people's gameplay experience, it's okay to have things like that. The really cool thing about Planetside is that all the content is generated by players, it's a 100% PvP game, it's not the a quest that you're getting and that the end of the quest is cool – what's cool is when 3 galaxies fly over a base and everyone hot-drops out of them at the same time and you storm the base, y'know? The core of Planetside is these massive co-ordinated assaults, entire tank columns attacking bases. We're trying to figure out how to make those moments better in Planetside 2.
RPS: Or when you all miss the hot-drop and get trapped outside the walls. It allowed the room for real fuck-ups too, where one guy screwing up, screwed everything up. The RPS PS team had a painstakingly-built tank column with a single anti-air jeep, which was the first thing to die, so we got massacred by reapers.
Higby: Exactly. Or like the dude you're waiting on a tower who flies in on his Mosquito, drops, then realises he forgot his hacking kit, so you can't get in. Those war stories are the best thing about the game.
RPS: What stage are you at with Planetside 2 then?
Higby: We're playing it internally, doing a lot of iteration on combat right now, trying out different class abilities. The class system will allow us to do things with PS2 we couldn't with PS1. One of the things we're concerned about is classes in PS2 not feeling very Planetside; but by having these distinctive gameplay roles, not only can we make it so you can recognise them at a distance, but we also make it so that each of these roles has these abilities. Like a dude with a sniper rifle AND jump jets, who can now get to a place where no-one can take him out; that's too strong. It really will allow us to create more avenues for people to try out. So, the light assault class is more than just a cycler and exosuit, he has a lot of other stuff to unlock.
RPS: Can you switch between classes at any time?
Higby: You can switch between classes any time you respawn.
RPS: Are Ants (the resource trucks) going to return?
Higby: Yes. We like the ANT system, we like that gameplay a lot, because it was fun to be able to load one into a galaxy and drop it into a base and save the day. We're trying to figure out exactly what we're trying to do with that system.
RPS: Is there much room for the pacifist side of the community; the ANT and the AMS were the core of that?
Higby: We're going to have really well-defined support roles; so if you're somebody who doesn't consider themself a twitch gamer, you can play as a medic or engineer, and heal team members or set-up base defences. Your skill as a shooter isn't your defining thing; the twitch shooting can require quite a high skill bar. AMSes aren't going back in, but Galaxies are going to be mobile spawn points. One of the goals of PS2 is to really speed up the access to gameplay, we don't want people waiting around.
RPS: What about the cavern tech, like the wonderful artillery piece? Will they be more accessible?
Higby: The Flail? We don't have the cavern stuff. We have some of those elements. The Flail was indirect warfare, and we want it more in your face. We want the infantry modern warfare experience, urban warfare inside facilities, courtyards will have a lot more cover, though they'll still be combined arms, and once you go into the facility it's very infantry-focussed. We are still going to have some element of the indirect warfare; we have the liberator, we have gunships. They definitely served their purpose in Planetside 1.
RPS: Will those bigger, high-value vehicles be more difficult to access in Planetside 2?
Higby: No, they won't. There will be use restrictions nad we have a resource system too, so putting secondary weapons and additional stuff costs resources, and resources have to be earned in gameplay...
RPS: You can customise the vehicles?
Higby: Yeah, so you might put an armour attachment and a stronger transmission, which allows you to go over hills better but you don't have as high a top speed. It's not necessarily upgrades, what we use is sidegrades, something that's equivalent, but better in one area than the other. So you may have a 20mm chaingun side-armament on your prowler, or a flak cannon for anti-air, or you want a mortar on the top, for bombardments.
RPS: That sounds so WH40K. Give me a Landraider with all lascannons.
Higby: Exactly, that's the trade-off. Do I want to have a glass cannon, which is the most powerful weapon systems or something that can just run barricades, with max armour and auto-repair nanites on it. We're working on all of those mechanics right now, what stuff works, what's too powerful, what the final list of attachments is going to be. Which are fun, which add to gameplay, that's the most important thing. You can't things in just for cool's sake.
RPS: (Dan makes a nnnn noise, implying disagreement).
Higby: Well, cool's sake is a reason. I absolutely agree that things need to have a place in the game.
RPS: How much do the factions share in terms of weaponry?
Higby: We're definitely a lot more different in terms of factions from PS1. Each faction has not only their own assault rifle, but also chaingun, sniper rifle, pistol... basically every one of the main weapons. There's multiple variants inside the factions too though, basically sidegrade, so maybe I want a cycler that has less recoil but does less damage, so I can be more accurate, or has a larger magazine. All those variables fit into the weapon balance and allow people to customise. I'm a great shooter, so I want a higher accuracy, but don't need a faster fire rate. Off the top of my head, 30% of what's available in the game is shared; the majority of weapons are specific to your factions. In terms of vehicles, it's probably the other way around; 30% are your own vehicles. But you can have Vanu-specific attachments on a common vehicle.
RPS: Apart from the maxes, I was the annoying guy who stood behind a wall firing a range of grenades from my thumper.
Higby: Maxes in Planetside 2 are really interesting too. They have multiple weapon systems; you can put an anti-air on one arm and anti-infantry on the other. Or two of each, so you can really customise them.
RPS: Any close combat stuff? I know it isn't very Planetside.
Higby: We have a bunch of melee weapons still, and certain classes can take better advantage of those than others. Infiltrators who also used them because of the Melee boost. We have mechanics around that, locational damage for knives, so hitting someone from behind with a knife does more damage.
RPS: Any other games you've really drawn inspiration from?
Higby: In terms of combat, we're really closest to Battlefield: Bad Company 2. It's a really good analogue for us, as it has large open-world spaces, with vehicular and infantry gameplay which works well together. We're taking lots of cues in terms of pacing from that, though we're not as fast. It's not as slow as the original, where the time to kill was 2 seconds plus, but it's faster. When you're playing Battlefield, if you don't have matched teams it's not fun. You can have a legitimately fun time in Planetside with 10 people against 80. I mean it might not be possible to win that fight, but you could hold for a long time, hunker down, and then twenty people from another faction come sweeping in and cluster-fuck the whole thing up, and that doesn't happen in any other game.
RPS: How do you iterate?
Higby: For example, we have a couple of designers who just work on infantry weapon balance. All day long they put numbers in a spreadsheet and figure out whether a weapon is balanced, then run around shooting at each other lots.
RPS: That's a fun job; is that the weirdest job anyone's got?
Higby: Oh, no. We have people who do the exact same thing for vehicle. And we have PhysX in the game. So our vehicles have hundreds of tuning parameters. So a light-fighter has hundred, from how fast it can pitch to what the maximum roll rate is, to what the thruster variance is... those guys have to balance those out. They play hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times, then once they get it to a place where it feels good, they have to check it balances against everything else.
RPS: How does the PhysX affect things? Getting your custom Prowler caught in a ditch must be a nightmare, but flying must be even tougher. Are we going to see a lot more plane crashes?
Higby: Oh, yeah. Flying is going to be an artform in this game. Just like everything else, it requires you to dedicate time to it. If you have the best possible reaver, you're going to have to put a lot of time into the skill tree and the flight mechanics. It's customisable too, so if I want my reaver to go as fast as possible, I don't care about vulnerability, or I just want the most nimble one. It's all personal. So yeah, vehicles are going to crash a lot more than they did in PS1. Right now they're pretty difficult, but we're balancing. We're trying to figure out whether we should make it more like Battlefield, where the first time you get into it you crash for 45 minutes before you figure out how it flies, or do we make it so you can fly first time; finding the middle ground is difficult.
RPS: Yeah, you want players to be able to fly, but not necessarily be able to avoid fire immediately.
Higby: Right, there's a lot of battlefield knowledge in flight too; how to avoid enemies, weapon ranges, which is all about so much more than firing a gun and hitting someone. You're dedicating time to increasing your certifications in the game, but you're also dedicating time to learning all the mechanics. That's the same with every game, though Planetside is the deep end of FPS games, in terms of how much you can learn. Just like you said, when you jump into a plane, we want you to be able to fly it, not crash it, but it will take you a while until you're zooming about and doing hairpin turns, and if you try to do that right away, maybe you will crash. The content we've got right now is a canyon and it's so much fun to fly around; you have to pitch and use your afterburners. It's awesome we made this in-game map as we're testing.
RPS: It's also interesting how people will customise their kit and vehicles for different maps. If I'm landing on a plain for example, I'd pick speed and manouvrability; if it's canyons, something smaller and better armoured.
Higby: Yeah, it's the deepest FPS available. The amount of stuff available in PS2 dwarfs PS1.
RPS: Special Forces guys always say that they customise their own weapons, from the triggers up, because they know how they fight and they know the tool they need.
Higby: Same with artists as well. That's what exactly what we're doing. I want my thermal scope because it's nighttime. Night vision does matter with the day-night cycle. We have spotlights on top of the turrets on the bases, so you can imagine that the turrets that are firing at you, so it's almost like the loony tunes prison break thing, where the spotlight is searching for you. And you can flip that thing on and off, if you're the dude controlling the turret, so if you spot guys out there, you can leave it off until they're close, then flip it on and blast them.
RPS: Thanks for your time.