PS2 Online and Xbox Live have been going head to head for sometime now in Europe, the USA and Japan, and the most successful online console game by far to date is Zipper Interactive's SOCOM: US Navy SEALs, one of the very first games to take the PlayStation 2 online. With the sequel already a best-seller in the USA and on track for a Q1 2004 release in Europe, we caught up with SCEA's Seth Luisi, producer on both SOCOM titles, to get the low-down on the 'console Counter-Strike'.
Tom Bramwell: SOCOM was a poster-child for PS2 Online in the early days, at least in Europe, and despite some critical reservations it was pretty well received by the public. Were you happy with the result?
Seth Luisi: We were very pleased by the results. SOCOM has enjoyed an enormous amount of success in both North America and Europe. With over 13,000 simultaneous players during peak times and 50,000 to 60,000 players logging in everyday in North America it was the most played online console game for any console system, until SOCOM II was released in North America. SOCOM has also sold over 2.6 million copies worldwide and it continues to be a strong seller. SOCOM II, which was released in early November in North America, quickly smashed the online records set by SOCOM I. SOCOM II has 33,000 to 36,000 simultaneous players during peak time and 90,000 to over 100,000 unique players log in to play SOCOM II everyday. These are huge numbers and no other game for any console system even comes close.
Tom Bramwell: Unfortunately, thanks to an unscrupulous minority, the game has become something of a target for cheats. Although we've seen the emergence of some SCEE-backed chaperoned servers, and apologetic press releases from cheat cart manufacturers like Fire promising to buck their ideas up, cheating must be a prime concern ahead of SOCOM II's European launch - what sort of countermeasures have you put in place to protect gamers?
Seth Luisi: We've managed to virtually eliminate cheating from SOCOM II. We are using a very powerful cheat detection system, which can be updated on the server side. We are also constantly monitoring and improving our cheat detection. When someone finds a new way to cheat in SOCOM II we shut it down. We cannot provide details on the anti-cheat system since we like to keep the cheaters guessing, but cheating in SOCOM II has been kept to a minimum and will not be an issue like it was in SOCOM I.
Tom Bramwell: Cheating is obviously a big problem in online PC games too (like Counter-Strike, to use an example I'm sure you're familiar with!), but you don't hear so much about it from Xbox Live owners. Do you think it's a problem inherent to PS2 Online, or were SOCOM's problems just the result of deadlines and coding issues?
Seth Luisi: Cheating is not due to a problem in PS2 Online, it is due to the fact that there are many cheat devices for the PS2 while there is not a quality cheat device for the Xbox. I've actually seen many cheaters on Xbox Live that use exploits and hacked game saves to cheat. The cheat devices on the PS2 are more advanced in that they can directly change values in RAM. However, you can prevent people from using these devices to cheat online as we have shown with SOCOM II.
Tom Bramwell: Leaving online alone for a moment, SOCOM had a decent enough single-player mode - complete with headset voice commands for AI team-mates. What sort of campaign do you have in store for single players this time around?
Seth Luisi: The single player campaign in SOCOM II has a lot more depth. The story is much more involved and we have worked very hard to up the production values. The end result is a much deeper and cinematic single player experience. Of course, we've done a lot to improve the gameplay as well.
Tom Bramwell: A few of the problems we had with the single-player mode were sometimes-dodgy or razor sharp AI, the lack of save points and voice commands going unanswered - what sort of changes have you made in these areas?
Seth Luisi: We've done a lot to improve the AI in SOCOM II. We looked at what players' perception of the AI was and what our AI was actually doing. We found that the big problem was that our AI did not have enough animation and reactions to show all of the different states it was capable of. While an AI in SOCOM I had a "surprised" state, it didn't have an animation for the surprised state, so it just stood still and looked stupid while it was surprised. The AI in SOCOM II are much more expressive and it makes a world of difference. The AI programmer at Zipper was also able to really speed up the movements and reaction of the AI so they are much more deadly in SOCOM II.
We've also optimized the Voice Commands extensively. There are more voice commands, they are recognized at a higher rate and there are many more responses to the voice commands. SOCOM I was the first game to utilise voice commands in this way, we invented it. We learned a lot from the process and continue to improve the system.
Tom Bramwell: Online again, then. SOCOM II introduces two new modes - Breach and Escort. How do these work and how do they stand out from the usual options found in multiplayer FPS or third-person shooter titles?
Seth Luisi: In the Breach gameplay mode, the SEAL team has to infiltrate and destroy a compound that is occupied by the Terrorist team. The SEAL team has to use C4 to blow up barriers and gain access to the compound and then plant a satchel charge to destroy it. The Terrorist team has to defend the compound and prevent the SEALs from destroying it. It is a very dynamic new gameplay mode that is a lot of fun to play.
The new Escort gameplay mode is very popular, probably one of the most popular game modes in SOCOM II. The SEAL team starts with 3 VIPs that they have to bring to one of two extraction points. The Terrorist team must eliminate the VIPs and prevent them from being rescued. In order to prevent this game type from being way too favorable to the Terrorist team, the Escort levels are huge and offer the SEAL team many different routes and places to hide.
Tom Bramwell: This being a shooter sequel, presumably we can expect bigger and better weapons and equipment - what can we expect to see, and which of the new toys are most popular around the Zipper office?
Seth Luisi: We have a lot of new weapons in SOCOM II, both bigger and better. We added in shotguns to improve the close range arsenal, including an automatic shotgun. RPG-7s and AT-4 LAWs (Light Armor Weapon) allow the players to use highly explosive rocket based weapons, though you are not able to run and gun these suckers. The Terrorist team gets a nasty antipersonnel mine which is pressure sensitive while the SEAL team is able to use M203 grenade launchers in some of the larger levels. We've also added turret emplacements to key areas of the levels, including both 50cal machine gun turrets and HE grenade launching turrets. We've also added new machine guns, carbines, sub-machine guns and pistols. We've expanded the SOCOM arsenal by about 20 new weapons in total.
Of course, we also have airstrikes that players can call in with devastating effects. This is a new weapon which requires more than one person on the team to coordinate in order for it to be useful. The person calling the airstrike can't see the area where it will hit so they need a spotter on their team to tell them when the enemy is in the target zone using the USB Headset. If you work together, it can be very effective.
I think our favorite new weapons are the RPG-7 and AT-4. It is just so gratifying to shoot a well placed rocket and see the enemy fly up into the air. Also, the RPG-7 and AT-4 have an arming range, so if you shoot an enemy that is close to you the impact may still kill them but the rocket will bounce off and not explode. Of course the down side is that you cannot move while you have these weapons equipped, so you are a sitting duck.
Tom Bramwell: Last year, we'd only just gotten our heads round SOCOM here in the UK when we stumbled upon SOCOM II dominating Sony's PS2 Online line-up at E3 - were you under pressure to deliver a sequel quickly?
Seth Luisi: You have to remember that while SOCOM I was just being released in Europe at that time it had been out since August of the previous year North America.
I think we put the pressure on ourselves. After we finished SOCOM I we were really excited by what we had accomplished but we also had so much more that we wanted to do. We were able to immediately start on SOCOM II right after the first one since we all knew exactly what we wanted to see in the sequel. We also wanted to make sure that the SOCOM series was the premier online console game series for some time to come. We didn't want our competition to catch up! I don't think any online console games will be matching the online features and depth of gameplay available in SOCOM II for some time to come.
Tom Bramwell: Will you be doing another SOCOM title for the PS2? If not, will you be sticking with PS2 Online for your next project? There seem to be lots of options for developers at Sony these days, what with PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 3 on their way. Is Zipper likely to develop for either of these platforms?
Seth Luisi: Unfortunately, we cannot talk about future projects at this time. I can tell you that we are very busy!
Tom Bramwell: Unlike the US, PS2 Online has enjoyed a rather stilted start here in the UK, with Xbox Live slightly ahead according to the latest subscriber figures. Have you tried Xbox Live, and what do you think of it compared to PS2 Online?
Seth Luisi: Honestly, as a game player and a game developer I do not care that much for Xbox Live. While a unified system login system with shared friends lists has its advantages, the fact that all Xbox Live games have the same online features and that they are generally poorly implemented in every game is very disappointing. SOCOM and SOCOM II has a lot more features, it is easier to find and join games and much easier to communicate with other players. We would not be able to have all of the online lobby features in SOCOM and SOCOM II that we have now if it was developed for the Xbox since Xbox live does not support them.
Also, the fact that very few Xbox Live games offer server hosted games is extremely annoying to me as a game player. I'm tired of getting booted by the host just because I'm a better player than he is. It is also frustrating when you finally manage to use their matching system to find a decent game (which takes so long since most of the games listed you cannot join...) and then two rounds later the host leaves and the game is disbanded. These are problems that just do not exist in SOCOM or SOCOM II but they are issues with every Xbox Live game. I think Microsoft still has a lot to learn...
Tom Bramwell: There have also been difficulties in bringing some titles to our shores, with Capcom the highest profile developer to express concerns over the European service, which may not now see an online-enabled version of Resident Evil Outbreak. Is it a tough job converting a title to European PS2 Online? Surely with a broadband-only service on this continent, it ought to be a little easier?
Seth Luisi: I can't really talk about why the Resident Evil Outbreak team is having problems, only they can explain that. I can say that we did not have many problems localising SOCOM or SOCOM II for Europe. We had to do some extra work to support PAL and to allow people to send and receive messages in different languages online but none of these were that major of a technical challenge. We do not support dial up modems for SOCOM or SOCOM II anywhere in the world so luckily that was not an issue. Supporting Japanese and Korean was much more difficult as we had to create an input method editor for both Kanji and Hangul so that players could send text messages in their native languages. That was a challenge, but we managed it.
Tom Bramwell: Finally, what single feature in SOCOM II would you say most sets it apart from its predecessor, and why should our readers seriously consider dusting off their wallets to bring it home?
Seth Luisi: It's too difficult to name just one feature. SOCOM II has been improved in so many ways from SOCOM I that I could list hundreds of reasons why it is better. SOCOM II offers a lot more features, more gameplay, more weapons, more levels, better graphics, more animation; we improved every aspect of it.
So. Coming soon.
SOCOM II: US Navy SEALs is due out in Q1 2004 exclusively on PlayStation 2.