January 28, 2011

I’ve been experimenting with making stuff in GIMP again, here’s mock up of a map of a continent/planet in Planetside with the layout of the main bases (With towers being added at a later stage once I knew more about how the terrain comes out in the level). You’ll note I’ve made a pretty big assumption in the addition of Naval bases and sea based warpgates (That aircraft can use as well). In some places the cliffs would have paths that can only be climbed by soldiers which would also be decided as the continent is constructed. I’m actually contemplating building this in Torque 3D since it has all the things I’d need for forming the land and placing appropriate buildings into the world as well.

Click to see full size




January 23, 2011

Oh, Planetside, how I love thee.

So, Planetside, eh? Planetside is primarily a First Person Shooter. What makes it special is the scale at which it operates, where instead of constricting conflict down into hundreds or thousands of small skirmishes involving up to 64 people (if you’re lucky) all the players instead play on a large server (There were 5 of these at launch, 7 years on only one remains) with up to 500 people fighting on a continent at the same time.

Big deal, just more players in the same place, right? Wrong. This changes the way a war shooter plays substantially because now you’re fighting a war where a small group of players can gather together to achieve a single goal and contribute to a larger conflict as a result.

For instance, in my time in Planetside, I’ve been part of a squad dropping out of a Galaxy dropship (Large troop transport) into the middle of a HOTLY contested base and knocked out the power plant inside, allowing the rest of our forces an opportunity to push through the weakened defences in the courtyard and on the walls to capture a base.

I’ve personally led a tank platoon, 13 tanks strong, each with 2 crew members and all of them living, breathing humans, and commanded them into an existing battle with hundreds of players already fighting. No other game has quite managed to pull of this sense of being part of a large conflict to this degree, so it’s a shame it went unnoticed by a lot of fervent FPS gamers.

By adopting an MMO model, the game also takes on a level of persistence, whereby you can join an outfit (Equivalent to a guild) and regularly team up. And unlike clans, the chance of your organised outfit running into an enemy organised outfit purely by chance was above zero (properly organised clan fighting, by its nature, needing to be organised with a time & date set).

As a result, you can effectively form friendships in the game in a way a standard war shooter can’t match. Backing eachother up with medical, engineering or fire support, sharing banter over chat, teaming up to use multi crew member vehicles and all this without having to arrange to meet up on the same server in advance. It’s deceptively powerful stuff, but it results in a sense of cameraderie I’ve never felt in any other game.

However, this isn’t meant to be a review, what I feel I want to talk about most is how this, as a multiplayer game, relies on the players to provide a lot of the day to day, moment to moment content in the form of opponents to fight against. Here’s where it starts to get icky, also note that as a 7 year old subscription based game it doesn’t quite have the numbers of players it used to and suffers for it.

Player behaviour

Public vehicle usage

It is rarely clear to players whether a vehicle is being made available for anyone to use or if it is locked to a specific squad until you get close enough to see the vehicle access symbols that are drawn on the ground, though you can see the number of players residing in the vehicle by the names atop the vehicle name. It would be helpful if the driver of a public vehicle could designate a vehicle as needing crew, and at the press of a button (In GUI or on keyboard, or both) a symbol would appear above the vehicle and a number to denote the number of empty seats.

Two manned Vanguards go in search of enemies.

Command Rank 5 (CR5)

This one is particularly interesting. As well as gaining experience for battle ranks (Gives you certification points, meaning you can have access to more equipment in the battlefield) a player can earn command experience by being a squad leader when an enemy base is captured. Initially this was a system that worked brilliantly, as the squads who engage in teamwork are most likely to be involved in base assaults that don’t get bogged down and take hours before the base is captured. As a result, during the early life of the game, the players who reached CR5 first were the ones most capable of using the ability to message all allied players on a continent or all continents effectively (In a way that encouraged them to do specific tasks willingly). Unfortunately, CR5 also comes with the ability Orbital Strike, think of it as a satellite based weapon firing at the ground, mostly used to destroy entrenched AMS positions. Additionally, it isn’t necessary to be a good squad leader to get CR5, just a lot of patience and being at the right bases as they are captured. After a time, too many cooks were in the kitchen including some players who had no leadership ability what so ever. There would be bickering between commanders across the global/continent wide chat, conflicted counter orders and CR5 players insulting the player base or engaging in plain stupid and childish behaviour. The end result is a distrust of the players who earned this rank and a proliferation in attitudes such as “You don’t pay me to play the game so I’m not listening to you”. The game is actually at its best when squads and outfits(/guilds) work together towards objectives rather than when trying to order an entire ‘zerg’ (The large bulk of players who go from base to base like a rampaging mongol horde are commonly referred to as the zerg by more experienced/veteran players) and this really should’ve been where any commander gameplay mechanics were focused at (I could give this one area a treatment by itself).

An Orbital Strike lands on top of a cloaked AMS.

Destroying equipment with no intention of repairing it

All the large bases have a power reserve (Nanites) where damaged facilities (turrets. equipment terminals, generators, etc) will drain the resources in a base. Turrets will auto fire on large vehicles that enter their detection range and frequently become a target for people who don’t like getting the paintwork on a medium battle tank scratched. When the Zerg finishes with a captured base, their first response is to move on. The base is left behind with heavily damaged facilities, if they aren’t repaired they can drain the base dry and repairing all those turrets (A base typically having 6 or more turrets) and internal facilities isn’t fun. It would be nice if in addition to manual base repair, deploying an ANT (Advanced Nanite Transport) to recharge the base would upon bringing the base to near full capacity also push repairs through the bases systems. Thereby freeing the rest of the players to get on with the game rather than being forced to repair the damage of the zerg before moving on (You get experience for recharging a base, you don’t get experience for repairing it, though you can get support experience if someone scores a kill via repaired turrets now).

Repairs underway at a damaged base turret

Poor use of vehicles

It’s not uncommon for a player to be seen running through the open with little to no support and no transport, even across long distances (Where it takes 5 minutes to run from one base to the next). The end result is that many deaths happen that are entirely preventable. Many players are unaware of ‘deconstructing’, the act of entering a spawn tube, pressing ‘g’ and then being able to choose to spawn at a different facility. This way, it is possible to respawn at the nearest tower, base and AMS that has working spawning functionality as well as an additional manually set bind point at a base or AMS that the player binds to whilst there – The existence of this could be better communicated to the player. Additionally, whilst most types of tower come with spawns and two turrets (plus possibly aircraft repair/resupply pads), the ‘observation tower’ has nothing but the ability to spawn there, not even defensive turrets. Such a tower could have a mini-vehicle spawner, that allows a player to pull the ATVs (a one point certification, useful for getting from place to place) as well as possibly some of the other light vehicles, including the assault buggies and lightning (light tank with paper thin armour) which would provide observation towers with their own useful benefit whilst also providing players with increased access to vehicle spawning and increasing the usefulness of the games lighter vehicles. Also, early in the games life, when it had 200k subscribers, the bases that had only one vehicle spawner would develop large queues of more than 30 people and creating painfully long waits for transport to be acquired, these facilities could also be given the mini vehicle spawners (tucked into corners) to help improve access to vehicles.

This trooper would be easy pickings for any nearby aircraft

Abusing dominant strategies as infantry (AKA ‘Tower Whoring’)

Often times, balancing a game involves correcting a single object/mechanic that is too powerful or weak, such as a particular weapon. That isn’t always the case though, sometimes the dominant strategy involves the abuse of a collection of elements that are combined to create the dominant strategy. So, here’s the setup – a soldier wears the most damage resistant armour possible (Caveat, I’m not talking about the MAX suit here, which has balancing weaknesses such as not being able to repair yourself quickly), equips the most damaging close quarters weapon (Heavy Assault, so either Jackhammer, MCG or Lasher) and the implants person shield (Or second wind) and surge (Not allowed to equip weapon but boosts run speed). Finally, the player takes position at the dividing wall of the staircase inside a tower and switches to third person view mode as seen below.

A heavily armed soldier awaits some victims

Once in this position, the player waits. If an enemy starts running up the staircase, he’ll pop out using latency/lag and surprise to give him a short head start firing the most effective gun, usually making short work of the target unless a serious mistake is made (particularly with aim), with personal shield to give extra protection if necessary. If the enemy attempts to use a grenade launcher, the player will quickly run as close to the enemy so that the grenade launcher is as likely to damage himself as he is the player. If the enemy attempts to approach in a MAX suit, he’ll use anti-vehicle and a firing retreat to pick him off. If the enemy attempts to approach with more than one trooper at the same time with a similar equipment loadout to the player he engages surge to retreat in the hope that the enemy players will get distracted (And possibly user Boomer remote explosives to try and pick off one or two troops in the process). This effect is multiplied if multiple players are attempting to hold the tower in this way and becomes a chore to uproot for the enemy. Ultimately, the aim isn’t to win battles by taking risks, the aim is to get as many kills as possible without dying. This might be good in a holding action where you’re trying to delay enemies attempting to resecure a base, but it’s often done for the kills rather then to properly contribute to progress in a battle and could be regarded as a form of MMOFPS grinding (For experience or achievements of some form). One of the producers once tried suggesting the possibility of removing the use of third person view mode or making access to it cost an implant slot to enable (Which seemed like a sensible move to me), unfortunately, an MMO audience doesn’t tend to appreciate having one of its toys taken away or messed with and the producer had to back down in the face of a backlash that included death threats. (Yes, really)

Several troops holding a tower

Abusing dominant strategies as pilots

Here’s another case of trying to get as many kills as possible without dying. A player will equip with light armour, a heavy assault weapon an anti-armour weapon in backpack and then pick either the Mosquito scout plane or Reaver assault plane. The player will now travel around looking for enemies to pick off that are either weak by design or weak due to having recieved heavy damage and will swoop on any such targets, hovering over them if necessary to get the kill. So what are the counters to this? Anti-vehicle infantry weapons are mostly useless for this, though the striker has missile guidance the Vanu & New Conglomerate equivalents are difficult to score a hit with and even if the enemy soldier gets close to defeating the player, he can respond by bailing out of the aircraft with full health possibly dropping said aircraft onto the enemy before retreating to get a new plane. In theory, the best response is to use anti-air weaponry to defeat the player and this often takes the form of an anti air MAX, but the Reaver & Mosquito are both equipped with afterburners that can give a sudden boost to speed, and the players response is to either afterburn to safety or afterburn over the MAX user, bail out and use anti-armour weapons to pick off the MAX user with ease. The lock on anti-air weapons give a warning beep to pilots so they know to immediately retreat when the beep starts. There’s a slightly involved approach I would take to deal with this, but in summary, it involves removing the ability of most aircraft to hover in the air unmoving (A stalling speed, the pitch of the aircraft (Nose pointing up/down) creates additional momentum, a player that wants to land the aircraft points the nose skywards as he does so, the player is required to do a flight training tutorial before being allowed to acquire aircraft certifications). I could probably give an entire article to what I’d like to do with aircraft in a game of this sort (Now that I have the benefit of hindsight from Planetside) but in short, the issue is that the Reaver & Mosquito are capable of going from full speed to hovering to afterburning up to a speed that’ll take them away from every threat (Including most anti-air) except for other aircraft.

A hovering Reaver spams rockets at soldiers below

Abusing dominant strategies as BFR pilots

The Battle Frame Robots are probably the most controversial addition to the game. They are effectively mechs, large walking behemoths with powerful shielding and weaponry. Typically, a vehicle is balanced by its damage resistance (Armour, shielding and manoeuvrability), damage output and finally, by the number of crew members required for it to be fully effective. The BFRs were a form of heavy tank, with shielding that would regenerate over time and could fire beneath their feet at enemies that got close if need be and whilst the Medium Battle Tank required 2 or 3 crew members for full effectiveness the BFR required 1 or 2 crew members for full effectiveness, worse you could choose whether to equip anti-air, anti-vehicle or anti-infantry weapons on it. Theoretically, the best counter to this kind of vehicle would be a bomber, which could deliver a large amount of damage onto a single target in a short amount of time, but a good BFR pilot need only watch the minimap for approaching bombers and use the strafe controls or dodge whilst in run mode to evade all the bombs, even if the bombardier approaches at a low altitude. The result was a mech in a game that was supposed to be about combined arms mass warfare (At least as far as the players were concerned) and the game haemorrhaged players for a time whilst an attempt was made to rebalance the vehicle. Ironically, at the time the vehicle was announced, the community had been discussing the introduction of a special form of multi-crewed aircraft that would have belonged in Planetside far more than the concept of a mech, whilst still being a heavier equivalent of that class of aircraft.

Battle Frame Robotics stomping into a base courtyard

Manipulation of mouse and keyboard controls

There are many specialist forms of mouse and mouse trickery available for gaming now, many of which incorporate lots of extra buttons, functionality and scripting. In the case of Planetside, this scripting can take two forms, the first of these is the ability to change the mouse movement speed at the press of a button so for example, a player could put on a MAX suit which is designed such that mouse movement has a slower turning speed for where the player is looking, the player can now press a button to boost the mouse look speed and over-ride the design intended for the MAX suit. The same applies to the Pheonix missile launcher which is supposed to be ponderously slow to adjust the aim, but can suddenly be made to do much quicker turns than normally intended. The other scripting method takes the form of chaining a sequence of actions together, for instance, left right strafing could be turned into a script that loops three times, possibly with tap crouching added for good measure and the player can now just press a button to automate strafing for him whilst he aims the gun with the rest of his concentration, placing players who aren’t using these techniques at a disadvantage.

One in the Razer line of gaming mice


Planetside, unfortunately, had some serious problems with people creating tools to give them an unfair advantage over other players. During my time in the game, I’ve seen players firing guns with an accuracy impossible for any normal player to achieve (Known as a cone of fire hack, the interface has an indicator for accuracy, standing, running around and so on will reduce the accuracy of a weapon as the ‘cone of fire’ becomes wider). I’ve seen players teleport away in a way that is not permissible in the games mechanics when in trouble. I’ve seen a base full of soldiers get killed in a matter of seconds (Far as I can tell, it’s like the player has teleported ghosts of all these players which can take damage, then lined up a very effective weapon for killing those players). I’ve seen Vanu armoured MAX suits hovering at the games flight ceiling because they’ve gotten themselves infinite jetpack power. And this is just a selection of the cheats that have been employed, there’s also some question as to whether some players are cheating but doing so in a way that isn’t obvious, such as increasing the firing speed of a gun by a small amount (say 10%) to give them an edge over opponents. It’s also worth noting that certain soldier implants give poor feedback, two noteworthy implants are personal shield and second wind. Personal shield basically gives you additional damage protection by turning stamina into bonus health points, second wind meanwhile kicks in when the player is about to die, giving them a boost of health in exchange for draining the stamina reserve. Whilst personal shield causes the activating player to glow for a second this can still be missed, and there is never any clear indication to an opponent that they had died because Second Wind had saved the life of the player. These can be mistaken for hacking (“How could he possibly have survived”) and because the existence of cheats is widely known, there is a distrust of other players that can erupt in the form hateful ‘/tell messages’ that can make the game experience unpleasant for some people (Sometimes trash talk is done for comedic effect, other times, less so).

Bonus image: A gathering of a large number of troops

Base Capture Timers

Waiting for a base capture to go through can be a chore for players. There are two ways in which a base are captured (Each facility is made a particular type in this sense) one is effectively a form of capture the flag, carrying an LLU from the base you’re capturing to one you already own, the other involes waiting 15 minutes on a hack timer. It’s the second one where problems can occur, players will get bored and either wander off or go away from the keyboard to get a drink and during this time a single enemy can potentially wander in and kill all the defenders (Including the one or two still paying attention) and resecure the base, often with several players running around outside not quite sure what to do.

Soldiers and armoured MAX units defend a Control Console

My instinct is a solution that’s a little over-the-top perhaps, to have a system of mini-games built into the game that allow friendly (And opponent?) players to compete with eachother whilst waiting for things to happen in game (This could be everything from waiting on a base hack to go through, waiting to spring an ambush, waiting for your troop transport vehicle to arrive, etc), in addition to this, the mini-games can allow friendly competition between members of an outfit and be used as part of a website marketing scheme where the mini-games are available to play on the games website for free alongside advertising for the main game.

Mock up to show an arm mounted computer for showing info like the continental map or a minigame of some sort

The main constraints are that the games would need to take up only a portion of the user interface space (So you can see something coming) and be able to support pause states at a moments notice so that a player can respond to an event in the main game (including for mini-games where two or more players are directly competing with eachother somehow, like how a multiplayer tetris game might have players impacting on competitors tetris chamber). As an amusing aside, I’ve seen conga lines form inside a base during the wait for a base capture to go through, such is the boredom that can be experienced by players. Basically, if you game has any downtime, giving players something meaningful to do during the downtime is advisable.

Do the conga!

Killstealing/experience sharing

When an opponent is killed experience is rewarded to the person who scored the killing shot, this also applies to vehicles. This can lead to the unfortunate scenario where two tanks are battling eachother, and a reaver or other unit swoops in, deals the killing blow and walks/drives/flies away with all the experience. The idea that one player can steal the effort of other players like this can be a source of frustration for other players. It doesn’t matter so much with soldiers which can potentially be killed in one hit but for vehicles the damage dealt should be tracked so that the player that did the most damage gets the bulk of the experience. This of course introduces some complexity in terms of tracking what happens when the vehicle gets repaired but is worth the effort because it saves players from an upsetting game experience that might give them cause to cancel a subscription to play other games.

A hovering Reaver unloads on troops in the courtyard

Other things: Core Combat

Core combat was an attempt to introduce more urbanised combat to Planetside with a new kind of environment within which to fight. With a lot of structures rising up out of the ground or up in the air, with base facilities that do not have exterior walls. The result was only partially successful because rather than having a series of small caves, a cave system of sorts, the caverns instead are single large open spaces (With entry cave corridors large enough to support vehicles) where aircraft and vehicles are able pick off troops with great ease, even ‘camping’ the doors leading into the facilities with one-shot-kill tank shells that cripple a soldiers ability to move out and make progress.

An example of the main chamber of a cave zone

As it turned out, the best battles happened (in my opinion) in the tunnels leading in and out of the large cave systems. Air and ground vehicles have limited room in which to manoeuvre and there’s lots of stalactites/stalagmites that troops can use as cover or in which vehicles can get themselves tangled up in, creating a much more infantry focused battle (Aided by the side tunnels that still allowed flanking around enemy positions). In many respects, it’s a pity this wasn’t spotted early in the development of core combat (Though I’m assuming this wasn’t noticed, perhaps someone did but tight scheduling prevented a change of approach), possibly through prototyping.

One of the entry corridors into the caves, good fights here

Other things: Outfit/event organising

As a senior member of the Immortal Serial Killers (Werner, back before that final server merge into one server, our regular playership is now 2 people, rather than the 20 – 40+ ‘back in the day’) I found that simply informing outfit-mates of a special event that’s being arranged (Such as a tank group/squad/platoon) was problematic. You couldn’t rely on people to visit the outfit forums to tell them about it and different folks log in at different times of the day. As such I had to make sure I was logging in at different days and times for the week leading up to the event I had planned so I could catch as many people as possible. It would have been nice if there was some form of internal messaging system that allows sending of notices to outfit members, one that requires you to input the time into it so it can automatically adjust for players in different timezones as well so an event can be organised with much less effort.

A screenshot of the interface, with outfit pane & kill/death bar

Other things: Kill/Death ratio tracking

When the game was first released, it wasn’t possible to bring up stats in game telling you how many kills you’d made or how many times you had died. This had two advantages which were gradually revealed over time following the addition of this feature. The first advantage is that it obscured knowledge about how badly you were doing as a new player to the game, when you’re learning the ropes it’s not uncommon to have one kill for every ten deaths and surprisingly it would only be a problem (Where the player gets discouraged and gives up on playing the game) when you knew it was happening.

The second problem was it affected the behaviour of even veteran players, with an emphasis on attempting to ‘farm’ situations for kills, being more interested in the kill/death ratio than in progressing the overall situation for their empire*. When soldiers should be pushing/charging into battle, they’ll freeze up and hold back getting in the way of retreating friendly soldiers and clustering into a clump of troops that would make a tempting target for orbital strikes, grenade launchers, tank shells, and various other outdoor attacks.

I’m not going to claim the information should be done away with altogether, but it might be nicer if you could either only see this information at the end of a play session, or if you could only see the number of kills as a way of encouraging you to push harder against the enemy, it’s the inclusion of the death number in addition to kills that is causing some issue in my opinion.

* It probably doesn’t help, of course, that the high level game could never really go anywhere. The best you could do was capture all of the enemy continents, but it was never possible to truly defeat the enemy because you couldn’t capture the enemy sanctuaries and deliver a complete defeat to the enemy. So you were locked into this perpetual high level stalemate that could never be resolved, it shouldn’t be a surprise that focusing on kills over base captures would gain such importance to the player.