PlanetSide 2 is a game of moments. It's a titanic, perpetual sci-fi war that sees thousands of players battling it out over the four continents of the planet Auraxis, its spectacle driven entirely by player action. It's where you can witness dozens of tanks roll out into an icy valley on the frozen continent of Esamir, or watch laser fire from a hundred players light up the night on an Indarian plain.
Such sights are only ever fleeting. These unique, systemic events never occur the same way twice, though they're central to PlanetSide 2's appeal. It means the game lacks a certain permanence. Player achievements on the battlefield are inevitably erased as the tide of war rolls back and forth across the continents of Auraxis.
This isn't a problem now, while the game rumbles merrily onward. But this war will not last forever. When the guns are finally silenced, the servers shut down, I wonder how the stories and events that have taken place in that time will be remembered.
I tried to record a little piece of the game's history, a specific event of note from the game's past and, given the nature of PlanetSide 2, the logical choice was to pin down and explore the largest battle to take place in the game so far. I thought this would be a straightforward starting point for delving deeper into PlanetSide 2's history and culture. I was wrong.
According to SOE, the largest official battle to take place in PlanetSide 2 was the most recent Server Smash, an event which is organised by the community and supported by the developers. "PlanetSide 2 is a persistent world, so it's not easy for players from different servers to play against each other," says David Carey, producer on PlanetSide 2. "Since there is a dedicated, invite-only server for Server Smash, it creates an opportunity for players on different servers to meet on common ground and test their skills against each other."
The event in question took place on September 6 this year, with a total of 576 players joining in as either the Terran Republic or Vanu Sovereignty factions. Of these, 371 were active simultaneously. Toby Jones, PlanetSide 2's community manager (known on the forums as RadarX) gives details of the event. "The teams had two hours to earn the most points by capturing territory. The Ascent and a number of points were heavily fought over and in total the event resulted in 27,000 player deaths. In the end, Emerald was able to build a strong lead and took home the victory."
The numbers dwarf any other FPS, though SOE point out that larger conflicts occur naturally in the game on an almost daily basis. This is where determining the largest battle in the game begins to become problematic. SOE track a huge amount of data in PlanetSide 2 - over 100 gigabytes a day. It's detailed enough that they can track how many times a specific horn was honked on a specific vehicle on a specific area of the map.
But using such data to pin down the largest battle in the game is tricky, because there's no precise definition of what a battle is. PlanetSide 2 is a very fluid game. The same collection of players might capture a fortress from another faction, immediately move on across an open plain to another base, be pushed back and fight an extended skirmish in the middle of the plain before then having to defend the fortress they've just captured from a counterattack by the opposing faction. Does this count as a single battle?
Real-world definitions of battles provide some context. According to military historian Trevor Dupuy, a battle must achieve a specific objective or mission goal on the road to winning a war. This is the determining factor that links a pre-industrial pitched battle like the Battle of Hastings or Agincourt to more protracted and nebulous modern battle like the Battle of Stalingrad. The problem with using this definition for PlanetSide, of course, is that players aren't governed in their movements or actions in the same way a real army is. Although players can be directed by in-game objectives, Outfit leaders and so forth, these are not binding orders. Battles can occur in PlanetSide completely spontaneously.
This being the case, it's probably best to keep the definition of a battle in PlanetSide 2 simply as when two factions compete to take over a specific base. If the same defenders then retreat to another base and the same aggressors immediately advance upon them, that is a separate engagement.
Unfortunately, such a definition makes specific numbers for battles that much harder to come by. The aforementioned Server Smash event, for example, would no longer count as a single battle, and would instead be broken up into a series of smaller battles for hardpoints such as the Ascent. Were there 371 players duking it out specifically over the Ascent? We don't know. Such numbers become even more difficult to pinpoint for battles that were not pre-arranged, as players are constantly dropping in and out of the game.
History has struggled with specifics, too. We don't have precise figures for the 1461 Battle of Towton either, but it is generally accepted by historians to be the largest battle to take place on English soil. Similarly, we should be able to determine the largest battle in PlanetSide 2 without exact data. For aid in this I looked to the community, searching official and unofficial forums, and asking directly what they believed the largest battle to take place in the game was.
The estimates I received from players for individual battles ranged as low as 200 to as high as 2,000 (the maximum number of players that can coexist on a PS2 continent). Of these, two have potential to be the largest battle to have occurred in the game. The first of these is the Battle for Camp Connery, which took place on April 13th 2013, on the Miller Server. "That Battle was the entire Indar, 2000 Players in a single hex", says user Prudentia, who provided a link to the excellently produced video below.
The other contender is the Battle for the Bastion. This occurred during the Ultimate Empire Showdown - PlanetSide 2's first major organised event, on 25 January 2013.Taking place on the Connery Server, this saw the Vanu Sovereignty defending the massive fortress of the Bastion against the New Conglomerate and Terran Republic. The battle is showcased in its entirety by these two videos. The poster of the first, Sen0rbeef, estimates the number of participants at 2000. However, I've also seen another estimate of 1500 by an individual using the same username on the PlanetSide 2 forums, which demonstrates the problem of relying on player estimates.
Despite this, there is good corroborating evidence for the Bastion as the largest battle. The first is its timing. It took place within the first 3 months of PlanetSide 2's launch, when server numbers would have been at their highest. It was also the game's first major event, which would have attracted more players than on a normal day. Another indicator is the deluge of complaints and discussion on the PlanetSide 2 forums about the game's inability to handle the sheer number of players that jumped into the battle. This is remembered almost two years on by players who responded to my own question on the forums "The server really couldn't handle it" says user Lightwolf. There are reports that PlanetSide 2 creaked under the load, the lag becoming unbearable.
While all of this is highly suggestive, none of it is definitive. I asked SOE whether they could confirm Bastion as the largest battle, but they stated they were unable to provide statistics for the game from that long ago. It's even difficult to get a sense of the battle's size from looking at videos, because the number of players crammed into such a small area resulted in the rendering distance for in-game objects (players and vehicles) dropping to just a few metres.
There is one final point worth considering. The Ultimate Empire Showdown was held across all 14 PlanetSide 2 servers running at that time, and it had the same structure across all servers. The Bastion was the second of three challenges that every server partook in simultaneously. If we assume that the continents were maxed out for the event, and The Bastion was the focal point for the event (which is certainly appears to be), that's a maximum estimate of 28,000 players fighting over the Bastion at the same time on different servers.
The chances of this being the actual number are of course highly unlikely, but even if we posit that only a quarter of all the players on Amerish at that time were at their version of the Bastion, that's still 7000 players battling over the same location at the same time in the same game, a number over three times larger than any battle which could possibly take place on a single server.
This is not an ideal answer. Really we want a single battle where players coexist in the same space which has a universal outcome. But it's the closest I can come to a definitive answer without reliable statistics, simply because the nature of The Ultimate Empire Showdown as a multi-server event makes the Battle of the Bastion several orders of magnitude larger than events on individual servers.
What's surprising is that, across the community, there is no single answer. Even after chasing PlanetSide 2's biggest battle for two months, the best I can come up with is an educated guess.
If such moments are hard to trace when the game is active, it bodes ill for how PlanetSide 2 will be remembered in years to come. There's a wealth of virtual history that stretches far beyond the tiny sliver I've explored here, stories of players and Outfits who have dedicated large portions of their lives to the game. PlanetSide 2 is a game of moments, and it would be a terrible shame to let those moments slip so easily into obscurity.