Sunday, February 8, 2015

Planetside 2: Half-Cliche, Half-Iconoclast

Something very strange is happening with Planetside 2. It's improving.
Now wait, hear me out. Normally by this stage in an online game's lifespan, it should be hitting its "timesink" expansion pack. Developers toss one of these hings out onto the market and for little bit at the start seem to be trying to make it playable. Gradually, players begin to lose interest, and instead of upping the ante by trying to fix whatever's wrong with their product and recapture their audience, developers tend to play the numbers game. They cut their losses. They try to wring as much money as they can out of the few customers they have left while investing as little as possible in what has become to them a high-risk, low-confidence proposition.

The Shadow Shard, Moria, the Silithis faction-farm, Venetian Scenarios, etc. all fit into a greater trend. When you expand an online game, you do so with recycled content, perfunctorily re-skinned monsters and most importantly, timesinks, timesinks timesinks. A year or two into things, your customers by now have realized what you as a developer knew all along: your product is crap. This is not the time to try to save your reputation, to over-re-think things. It's time to double down. Double down on crap. Don't complicate the game experience by removing the bugs and imbalances players have gotten so comfortable exploiting. Don't confuse and scare them with mechanics which do a better job of challenging them. Just recycle some content to keep them subscribing just a few... more... months. A few hundred hours of zombie-farming should do it. Preferably, bundle it as an expansion pack to wring another $10-30 out of your die-hard fanboys (by definition not discerning customers) and hope they'll drag their friends into buying it, exploit those social contracts.

If this kills the game, then so be it. Hell, the biggest pay-off is a big initial release anyway. The subscription reward per work-hour investment tapers off after that anyhow, so screw it. Gut the development team down to a skeleton crew and move on to other projects. The first expansion is not actually meant to expand the product, but just to wring the dwindling reserves of blood from customers you've hyped into gullibly becoming emotionally invested enough in your tripe so as to buy blindly. It's not meant to keep them interested - just busy. If the product survives after that, fine, if not, fine too.

Now, Planetside 2 being entirely PvP, it sort of lacks the cheap expedient of re-skinning some mobs, placing hundreds of them on floating islands and keeping players busy with a "kill 1000 of these" achievement. This is not to say they couldn't still have followed the pattern. They could have constantly released new, more powerful "must-have" versions of existing weapons to keep players subscribing a few months longer, left the existing three continents intact and cut-and-pasted existing elements into a fourth one for the Hossin expansion. Ta-daaa! Money!

And they didn't. It's weird. They didn't just treat post-release content as a low-confidence investment. The one thing almost no company does is seriously address its existing gameplay issues, yet the patches following the Hossin expansion seem to have been characterized more by changes to existing mechanics and content than simply slapping on a bit of extra spending incentives for die-hard suckers. Oh, sure, there's quite a bit of that going around, lots of flashy new gimmicks in the cash shop, but new utility has surprisingly been limited to one new vehicle and a couple of new guns. To a surprising extent they've concerned themselves with improvements to existing terrain layouts, weapon mechanics, spawning and battle-line flow patterns... stuff that's not immediately justifiable by a pay-off estimate per man-hour in a power-point slide to impress investors. It's even making some steps in breaching the third dimension with vertically-oriented bases and smartly-placed cliffs and walls. Sony seems to be in it for the long haul. Which of course they did say they were from the start, but hell... you'd have to be a complete idiot to trust anything a game developer promises.

Here's a funny story. I had an old handy-cam. I'd lost some connectors for it so a few years ago I fished around an electronics store and found the technology for most of what I was missing was the equivalent of zip-disks for computers. Abandoned technological paths. The salesman just shrugged and said "yeah, it's Sony, they do weird stuff like that."
Planetside 2 is being developed slowly, rationally, even intelligently. It's no artistic masterpiece. Instead of a true scifi setting, it's disgustingly army-centered in all its aesthetics or lack thereof, banking on drawing in all the brainless Zero Dark Thirty fans who want to drive around in tanks and spew phonetic alphabet just like big-boy soldier-types. It is doing nothing to advance game concepts. Its combat mechanics and gameplay options are pathetically unimaginative even by FPS standards. Yet in treating their product not as a get-rich-quick scam to be gambled on and abandoned when the marks catch on but as a continual investment whose quality must be continually improved, it's kinda putting the industry's fly-by-nite attitude to shame. It's weird stuff. This is not the way you're supposed to be acting, you jackasses! Quit proving me wrong!

You know what's even weirder, though? It's actually working. Oh, sure, the player population dwindled somewhat after the first few months and PS2 condensed a few servers, but by and large it's succeeded in actually improving its playerbase. By increasingly putting the emphasis on large faction-wide events and cooperative advantages, it's been slowly selecting for a better type of gamer. Well, relatively. There are still plenty of attention-whoring little snots about who spam music and broadcast their every emotion over voice chat but more and more it has become possible to get into squads which actually want to play the game for its own sake, which simply cooperate toward greater goals without fuss or flamboyance.

Last year I was derided while giving commands over voice chat. "Is our platoon leader Alan Rickman?" one of my underlings commented. Now, I'd love to think he was referencing any of Rickman's wonderful performances in Perfume, Sweeney Todd, Dogma or Galaxy Quest, but given that I was drawling direct orders like "Bravo squad to Chimney Rock" without further embellishments in a bored, bitter monotone, I'm pretty sure they just resented being led into combat by Professor Snape.
Coming back to the game now, I find a lot more people are Snaping it up. Perhaps not quite dripping with my disdain for human life, but conversation tends to be much more to the point, less about insecure bragging or validation-seeking and simply about enjoying the game itself. Players are more aware of the big picture, less obsessed with farming their individual characters for achievements. Those who prefer that sort of idiocy can find it represented much better in WoW-clones. Simply by making the game playable as a faction war, PS2 is gradually building up a core following not of blindly fanboy-ish trend-hoppers but more and more of sedate, interested old-school gamers. Yes, things haven't completely tipped in that direction yet, but still, the gradual change is fascinating to note.
This is in an FPS game, mind you. So much for roleplayer conceit. I'll gladly take PS2's current playerbase over TSW's, not to mention WoW-clones.

Planetside 2 will never be as interesting as more imaginative games, but it is growing into the more grandiose replacement for the humdrum routine of online FPS represented by Counterstrike or Call of Duty. It is angling to become the new reference point for FPS games and maybe even MMOs, and given how seriously it's been developed so far, it might just happen. Calmly... coolly... entirely without incident.


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