And if science fiction is a difficult sell, first-person shooters are doubly difficult in the MMO space. After all, it's not as though the world is suffering a shortage of FPS titles that can be played without a monthly subscription. To convince players to part with a monthly payment, the studio has to make a powerful, compelling case as to why its MMOFPS is worthy of that premium price.
Enter PlanetSide, circa 2003. While sci-fi MMOs, multi-faction PvP and online shooters had been done separately at that point, PlanetSide stepped up to the plate to combine all three into a persistent war on an alien planet. Due to popular demand, this month we'll be setting our sights to the far reaches of the galaxy and beyond as we explore one of the more unique MMOs in existence.
Today let's take a look at what made PlanetSide a unique twinkle in SOE's eyes by counting down the highlights of this futuristic war.
PlanetSide helped pioneer first-person shooter MMOs
With online gaming technology in its relative infancy and high latency a limitation for the development of many MMOs, it was amazing that PlanetSide not only pulled off a fast-paced, real-time combat game on the scale it did, but made it work well back in 2003. While World War II Online had FPS action like this in 2001, bugs and slow gameplay kept it from being as good -- or as popular -- as PlanetSide.
That's not to say that PlanetSide was smooth as silk from the get-go. In recalling the history of this title, John Hewitt wrote, "They did deliver a unique product -- a massive, seamless world with massive player numbers and a persistent battlefield -- but the shooting mechanics were also a bit clunky, and the subscriber fee proved to be a turn-off for many players. It didn't help that the graphics were rather mediocre, and that it was saddled with some early technical issues that made massive battles often an exercise in laggy frustration."
In any case, recent titles like All Points Bulletin, MAG and Global Agenda all owe a debt of gratitude to PlanetSide's pioneering of this hybrid gameplay. So whenever you hear an MMO boasting these days about attaining the glory of "real-time combat," feel free to sniff in derision and say, "Yeah, PlanetSide had that. In 2003. Welcome to the party, pal." That's how you make friends!
Conventional wisdom says that three sides is an ideal number of warring factions for PvP-centric MMOs (see also Dark Age of Camelot), and a three-sided war was a cornerstone of PlanetSide from the very beginning. Players were offered a choice to fight for the authoritarian Terran Republic, the rebellious New Conglomerate, or the alien-happy Vanu Sovereignty, and faction pride quickly blossomed in the playerbase.
Of course, these factions weren't about to play nice together -- how boring would that be? -- which meant conflict, and lots of it. The planet Auraxis was a battleground from day one of the launch, and players haven't stopped fighting over its territory or prizes ever since.
If you ask PlanetSide fans, one of the greatest appeals of the game is this massive, ever-changing warfront. The game was not hacked up into tiny parcels of PvP instances but left open for a truly epic conflict of armies (it helped that there were no distractions from PvE mobs). At any given moment and position, hundreds of players could descend upon a valuable objective to fight for its control, throwing the landscape into glorious chaos. It wasn't a small, contained experience but a wild and woolly morass of laser blasts and rocket explosions.
PlanetSide gave a greater emphasis to skill over stats
While stats, gear and ranks all play their part in PlanetSide's combat system, SOE designed the game to give everyone a fighting chance. Forcing players to fight in a first-person perspective (rather than the traditional third-person view that most MMOs use) kept the fights more immersive and skill-based than they would be otherwise.
Gaining more experience usually meant gaining access to a wider range of weapons and tools than a newbie -- although a newbie had just as much of a chance at taking someone's head off as a long-term veteran.
Instead of forcing players to conform to rigidly defined classes, PlanetSide let each user choose for himself how he wanted his character to evolve. Points could be invested into various specialties from weapons (hm, chaingun or sniper rifle?) to armor (bulkier armor for protection or suits with bonus weapons for offense?) to useful support skills (cloaking or healing?).
As each player invested more time and effort in the game, he or she was eventually able to find a niche role that was perfectly matched to the user. Because of this, there's more of a "unique snowflake" feeling to characters, even if thousands of others may be able to do the same thing if they so choose.
PlanetSide handed over the keys to daddy's hot rod
By gaining enough certification points, players were allowed to stop hoofing it and jump into one of the dozens of advanced vehicles that the game boasted. After all, this was the future of warfare, so why shouldn't vehicles play a part? From giant mechs to airplanes to everything in between, vehicles play a crucial part of the battles. Given a choice between slowly running to a combat zone or jumping on board a transport, most everyone agreed that it was better to ride in style.
Vehicles had another effect on the game -- they encouraged teamwork and grouping. In the big battles that PlanetSide routinely hosted, an isolated tank driver was just as dead as a foot soldier because there was always a counter out there to whatever you were using. Together, however, a character or vehicle's weakness could be covered by the strengths of one's teammates, allowing for coordinated attacks that hit from above and below.
Although PlanetSide never -- to our knowledge -- hit six-digit subscriber numbers, it's done well enough for SOE to both keep it running over the past eight years as well as create a sequel. Tentatively titled PlanetSide Next, PlanetSide's successor was announced in 2009, and with any luck, we should be laying eyes on it later this spring.
We may not have a lot of information on it, but John Smedley did promise that the sequel's battles would be far greater than anything we've seen before. For those waging war over Auraxis year after year, this news came as an injection of excitement. Obviously, SOE thinks that it can take the PlanetSide formula and improve both the gameplay and population with this next iteration of the franchise.
What's your PlanetSide tale?
As always, I'd love to hear from all the veterans out there. So tell me, what's your favorite PlanetSide memory? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org -- 100 words maximum, please! -- and I'll include it in a future column!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.