Two years ago Sony Online Entertainment launched massively multiplayer online first-person shooter PlanetSide 2 on PC - and it's still going strong. It's a game where hundreds of players work together to complete objectives on huge battlefields. Soldiers jump around firing assault rifles as others pilot futuristic helicopters overhead. For PlanetSide 2's battles, big is definitely better. Eurogamer recently tried to work out just how big.
PlanetSide 2 is also a free-to-play game. Now, of course, free-to-play doesn't necessarily mean free. F2P almost always means in-game items for sale. This, we all know by now, is how these companies make their money. But for Sony Online Entertainment the trick is to balance having to satisfy the businessmen while satisfying the players. The studio has to keep the lights on. But if PlanetSide 2 were pay-to-win, then, simply, we wouldn't play at all.
And so, creative director Matt Higby tells Eurogamer in a sweeping interview looking back over PlanetSide 2's first two years of existence, SOE is "leaving money on the table". Some things it will sell, some things it will not. Keeping the money rolling as it improves and adds content to the game, manages the loyal and vocal PlanetSide community and develops the long-awaited PlayStation 4 version (how's that getting on, by the way?) has been tough. But, we discover, just a few tweets can make it all seem worthwhile.
I've heard video game development described as a series of peaks and troughs. What do the troughs look like for you?
Matt Higby: When players are upset with us it can be tough. But at the same time we recognise we're trying to do things that nobody else is trying to do. We know these kind of things are going to happen. While we're not stoked if a problem happens, it's something we accept because we're trying to break new ground.
The worst days in terms of coming into work are when it's the day after a patch and there's some issue causing players' characters to be screwed up. It almost feels like it's inevitable those issues happen. The day, two days after a patch, even if it's only one per cent of our players having some problem, it feels like an urgent nightmare to try to solve that problem. The other 99 per cent of people are doing just fine but you don't hear from them, right? You only hear from the guys who are having issues. So as far as everybody is concerned here it's like the whole building is burning down.
Fortunately we're able to address those things pretty quickly and get things back on track, which is what we've always done and what we need to do if we want to keep doing things nobody has done before. It's something we've accepted.
Conversely, then, what are the peaks for you?
Matt Higby: The last couple of updates we've done this year, we haven't added any crazy, huge new features, but we've focused on quality of life issues, solving little niggling bugs that have been around for a long time that our players have been complaining about. Or maybe not even complaining about. Little issues that just make the gameplay experience smoother and easier.
When you get a tweet from somebody the next day that says, 'thank you, you fixed the issue that's been bothering me since launch day'... I still almost every day look at tweets from people saying I'm working on their favourite game of all time. As a game developer, you're not going to get a higher peak than that. You want to make something that's going to matter to somebody at the end of the day.
Is the PS2 community perhaps a more mature one compared to some attached to mainstream first-person shooter games?
Matt Higby: That's absolutely the case. It's amazing to me, just absolutely flabbergasting to me that we have not only an FPS game but a free-to-play MMOFPS game, and you would think the convergence of those audiences would cause the absolute worst player community you could imagine. But it's the opposite.
The players we have get riled up and they hold our feet to the fire about issues, but at the end of the day, every single one of them will say the reason they're here is because they care about the game so much. They want it to succeed. They want to see us make it great, because there's nothing else like it. They are invested in our success just as much as we are.
Our community is really weird. It's an interesting mix. But, honestly, we couldn't develop the game without them.
How many people are playing PS2 at the moment?
Matt Higby: In terms of our users we've been pretty steady for the last several months. We haven't been picking up or losing people. But that tends to happen when the summer months wind down. So we're on our typical trajectory. But generally speaking, the game is doing pretty well. We have tens of thousands of people logging into the game every day and playing it. We still have thousands of players playing on each one of our world servers. So the massive scale experience of PlanetSide is alive and well. It's not like you have to log in and try to search for a fight.
How will you grow that? Do you need to?
Matt Higby: We grow our userbase organically. It's a lot through word of mouth. A lot of our community engagement helps to perpetuate that. We grow by improving. We don't have any huge plans for doing a massive advertising campaign. We just continue to improve the game and hopefully our players are talking about it to their friends.
When a new feature comes in we always see re-engagement from people who have quit. So if we have people who have played the game for a while and then left for a few months because they were waiting for a specific feature or maybe a different game came out, we have a huge re-engagement period when we release large new features.
As an example we released a brand new continent a few months ago called Hossin. When we released the Hossin continent we saw a huge number of players coming back into the game, and playing a lot for several weeks, checking out the new continent. And that happens as we release new content. New content additions are critical to almost all these types of games, just to keep people interested and excited.
Are you under pressure from the business people at SOE to make money?
Matt Higby: Yeah, we certainly are. But most of the scary people who bang their fists on tables around here understand the business and understand not only the challenges we're dealing with but also the plans for what we're doing to improve the game. We're lucky that we have bosses here who really understand our products, our community and what we can and can't do to build them up. We don't just have like the disconnected bean-counter who's screaming and yelling for more revenue.
So you would characterise the game as being financially healthy at this stage?
Matt Higby: Yeah. In general we're doing what we need to do. We're continuing to develop. It's not like we have been in a mad rush to try to throw more stuff in just to sell. We've continued to develop along with our plan.
The biggest issue right now is we're working on a PS4 variant of the game at the same time as we're working on the PC variant of the game. In some cases that's slowed the feature development on the PC side down. But it's not a matter of losing funding or anything like that that's causing that to happen. It's just our priority right now is getting that PS4 version out.
As soon as the PS4 version is ready to launch, we'll have a more integrated team that are working on features for, basically, both of those SKUs at the same time. So our feature development should start ramping back up to where it was at the beginning of the year.
PlanetSide 2 is free-to-play supported by micro-transactions. Many of our readers are sceptical when it comes to these types of games. How have you managed the business model over the last two years?
Matt Higby: I'm proud of our free-to-play system. We have built an extremely fair and equitable system. Because we were building a game that from the get-go was 100 per cent PVP, we needed to make sure our business model didn't have the taint of pay-to-win issues. That would doom a PVP game, especially in the western market. Having any sort of ability to buy advantages is not going to get people excited to play your PVP game. So we've done a lot to try to make our business model as fair from a gameplay point of view as possible.
Things that can be purchased for Station Cash are either purely cosmetic items, like camos and decals, helmets, things that just make you look cooler, or they're side-grade play-style choices. So I could get a different assault rifle, but it's not a more powerful assault rifle. It just has a slightly different gameplay associated with it. Maybe it fires faster, but the bullets do less damage.
That weapon, and all weapons, and anything else that affects gameplay, can also be unlocked through gameplay. There's not a single thing in the game that changes gameplay in any way, in terms of making a more powerful shot, or a different SMG versus an LMG, versus a carbine versus a sniper rifle. All those different play-style choices and anything else that affects gameplay can be unlocked through gameplay. That is critical. We're not ever selling you anything that gets you an advantage you can't earn as a free player.
Anything that gives you power, so an ability that levels up and has a discreet advantage - it's not a side-grade. You have a Jump Jet [allows the use of low rocket-assisted jumps with a short cooldow] and now you have more fuel - you can only unlock that through gameplay. There's no way to spend money to make that unlock.
Those three things ensure we have a fair business model that doesn't give people who come in and drop $100 the ability to kick the crap out of people who are playing for free.
Another thing we have is a pretty flat power curve on our characters. So if you're a battle rank 100 character, then you would expect from looking at another MMO that that guy would be able to beat the crap out of everybody. But we're an FPS game. So we want a battle rank one character who has a starting weapon to be just as much of a threat and just as lethal to that battle rank 100 as another battle rank 100 would be. And they are.
There are some certification points that a battle rank 100 player has unlocked in-game that has given them more power, but the actual combat difference is only going to be about 15-20 per cent versus a battle rank one player. If the battle rank one player gets a couple of headshots on that battle rank 100 player, then they're going to get a kill.
So, it's a pretty fair and flat system that hopefully allows new players to be competitive from day one.
Have you found it tough to balance the need for the game to make money against the need for balanced gameplay?
Matt Higby: It's tough when you know you want to be making more money, to leave money on the table. In a lot of cases with the way we have designed our business model we are leaving money on the table. We're doing it for a reason. We're doing it because the trade-off in making sure we have a fair and equitable game will lead to more people playing and enjoying it, than if we were selling items we thought might be more powerful - even if that is a good, incremental and temporary revenue boost.
So as a developer, that's the challenge. A lot of times you see this big, juicy sack of money that's just ripe for the taking. But it might be a step too far to try to monetise that particular aspect of the game. Sometimes explaining that to people can be a challenge.
But like I said, we have a lot of people here who get it. They understand that although there are a lot of exploitable features we could monetise, the harm that would potentially do would outweigh the benefit. So we don't get a lot of pressure in that regard.
Have you ever had a discussion about selling something in-game but pulled back because it went too far?
Matt Higby: A classic example - and there hasn't been a lot of talk about this recently so I want to be sure nobody thinks we're discussing this now - but something we discussed when we were first forming the business model was whether or not we should just straight up sell certification points, and just let people buy a pack of 1000 certification points for a certain amount of money.
Those certification points are the things you earn through advancement in the game, the ones you use to unlock the specific upgrades, such as, I want a Jump Jet and I'm going to have 10 per cent more fuel than the default one. That's a straight-up upgrade. Right now you have to actually go out and earn kills and capture bases and earn XP to get the points to be able to do that.
It would be very easy for us to just sell those points if we wanted to. In lots of other free-to-play models, they would either sell those points or allow you to purchase the things you buy with those points using your actual real money currency, too. But we don't do that. And that's a prime example of a place where we've been restrained in terms of what we try to monetise.
Let's move on to the PS4 version. When is it out?
Matt Higby: I wish I knew. I know a target, but I don't know the exact day. The reason is, as much as it sounds like we're blowing smoke, we're working hard to release a game that feels like a full-on console experience and not just a port. So it's taken us quite a long time to re-jigger our user interface and our controls. There's a lot that needs to get done.
If we were an FPS it would be easy for us to just take what we have right now, convert our half-a-dozen or so UI screens and be on the console. But we're an MMOFPS and we don't have half-a-dozen UI screens. We have dozens of UI screens and they all need to work well on the console. They all have a lot of depth and complexity, as you would imagine an MMO user interface does. All that now needs to work on a console controller. It needs to be navigatable. It needs to be intuitive. That's been a really large design process, and we've done a lot of iteration to try and make it right.
But our goal is at the end of the day to have our launch on the PS4 feel like a great PS4 native console game, not just a PC port. So it's taking a while.
The official PlanetSide 2 website says the game is coming to PS4 in 2014. Is that still the case?
Matt Higby: Right now our intention is for a beta at that time. We will have some more info about those plans at the PlayStation Experience event on 6th and 7th December.
How will the business model work on PS4?
Matt Higby: The business model on the console is going to be similar to the one on PC. All the rules about the way you unlock items and which items are available to be unlocked via Station Cash - it won't be called Station Cash on PlayStation, we're using Marketplace Cash from DCUO - the items you're able to purchase using that Marketplace Cash will be the same across PC and PS4.
The membership will be slightly different because the PC membership gives you access to all of the other SOE games. The PS4 membership is exclusive to the PS4. But other than that the benefits for the PS4 membership are going to be the same as the PC membership. And the items that are sold are going to be the same as the PC items.
It's going to be very similar to running the game through Steam right now, where you purchase Station Cash through your Steam wallet funds. On the PS4 you'll purchase Marketplace Cash using your PlayStation funds. And once you're in the game you'll use that cash to buy your items.
In terms of the graphics, how do the two versions compare?
Matt Higby: Very favourable. One of the things that's interesting about the way PlanetSide works from an engineering point of view is our bottlenecks aren't really on the graphics. On the PS4 that means we're able to have extremely high fidelity graphics. We're able to use the ultra textures. We're able to use the full particles, the shadow, the lighting, all that stuff, as if it were running on ultra on a PC.
Our real bottlenecks are on the CPU side. From a graphical fidelity perspective, people will be impressed with what they see on the PS4. That's always one of those things people are sceptical about. I see every time we post an article like this I always get called out: 'haha, it's bullshit he's saying it's going to look as good.' It really does.
Again, the graphical fidelity is every bit as high. The slowdowns we have are on the CPU side more than the GPU side. It's because we're tracking and updating so many different players moving on your screen and moving around at once. All that animation and all the audio that's associated with all those characters running around, all of their projectiles being simulated in their client, all those things end up hitting the CPU, not the GPU.
So, generally when our frame-rates are low, it's a CPU problem, not a GPU problem. And that's where we're optimising right now, to get our CPU running faster so the game is running at a more consistent frame-rate on the PS4.
What resolution will it be on PS4?
Matt Higby: Right now we're running for 1080p. We're still trying to shoot for 60fps. We're trying to get a solid frame-rate. So if we go to 30 it'll be because we want to maintain a completely solid 30fps. But that's the optimisation we're working on right now. And we're still grinding on it.
Generally speaking the client is running at well over 60fps. In a really big fight it gets bogged down. That's the bottleneck we're chasing down.
Is cross-platform play possible?
Matt Higby: From a technical standpoint it can absolutely happen. In fact we're playing on the PS4 client against our live servers right now. We have people running around on our live PC servers using PS4s to test and debug, to look at real PlanetSide fights on the PS4 client instead of just simulated ones. So from a technical point of view it's absolutely possible.
From a business and logistics point of view it's probably never going to happen. It has to do with platform exclusivity. People don't necessarily want to be able to take a character you've spent money on on the PC and bring that character onto the PS4 without having spent money on the PS4.
It also has to do with the way we do updates. On the PlayStation there's a process of QA that every update goes through. We won't be able to guarantee that our updates are in sync on the PC and the PS4 because of that. If we wanted to have the game be cross-platform we would need to make sure the servers were constantly in complete sync. But because of the additional layer of QA authentication that patches go through on the PlayStation platform, there's little possibility of us being able to maintain a sync between the PC and the PS4. So a client could connect to one and maybe get something that doesn't even exist on the other one yet. That would cause all kinds of issues.
That makes me sad!
Matt Higby: Yeah, you won't be able to fly around on your console controller killing all the PC players, or vice versa!
What's the maximum number of players you'll get on PS4?
Matt Higby: Right now we have per map limits of about 1200 players. Per server there are four continents. So you can have about 3600 to 4800 players on a single server depending on what the continent locking situation looks like on that server, since we do lock continents to focus players onto different continents.
What will be the situation on PS4?
Matt Higby: Our goal is to get as close as possible to doing that. But the number of players is something we're probably going to have to look hard at as we work on our final optimisation passes. That's something that might get lowered.
The good news is, the way we lower players wouldn't necessarily mean there are fewer total players fighting on the map at once. But it might mean your client's awareness of all the players around you might cut down. So if you're in a huge fight and there are 300 players around, we already have a bunch of heuristics that slice that number of players down and show you the ones that are relevant to you on a moment to moment basis. On the PS4 those constraints might need to be a little tighter.
Hopefully, if we do our jobs right, that won't even be perceptible to you. We already have this culling we do for players in the PC game. Unless you're in the biggest of the big fights, you don't really notice players popping in and out as the culling algorithm regulates how many characters are being sent to your client at once.
So hopefully on the PS4, although we'll probably have a more constrained number of players on-screen at once, the gameplay won't have much of an impact, so you won't even notice.