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Coloring inside the lines: An interview with PlanetSide 2's Tramell Isaac


I think we're all allowed our moments of pure geek squeeing when we bump into the people responsible for some of our favorite video games of yesteryear. So I had to apologize to Tramell Isaac in advance for gushing over his work on the first two Fallout titles, games that are among my all-time favorites. He didn't seem to mind, and he spent a few minutes shooting the breeze about his favorite designs in the game -- designing Robobrain and the Vault Boy cards that accompanied the player perks.

MMO fans will probably best know Isaac from his work on the original PlanetSide, a project that is near and dear to his heart. Sony Online Entertainment brought him back on board to be the senior art director for PlanetSide 2. This makes sense -- after all, who else would best know how to evolve the series' design than the guy who started it?

Isaac was kind enough to sit down on the phone with me to talk about how PlanetSide 2's visuals are shaping up, following his own blog post on the subject. Hit the jump to find out why each faction is going with a very specific color scheme, how microtransactions will affect how awesome you look, and just what Batman has to do with any of it.

Kindergarten design: Colors and shapes

If you think about it, slapping brightly colored paint on your soldier's armor is a good way to get yourself shot -- in the real world, that is. However, Isaac asserted that strong colors were essential to helping players quickly differentiate between friend and foe on the battlefield, so it became a balance of realism and game design necessity.

"In first-person shooters, you need to be able to identify something quickly, and simple is the best way to go about it," Isaac explained.

As such, each of PlanetSide 2's three factions was designed from the ground-up to be visually distinctive, both in colors and shapes. The Terran Republic features smooth lines, circles, and a red, gray and black color scheme. The New Conglomerate's rougher tech is based more on squares and rectangles and uses blues and yellows. The odd man out, the Vanu Sovereignty, focuses on triangles with teal and purple overlays (the purple was chosen because it's a combination of the red and blue of the other two factions).

Each of these color schemes was carefully chosen to be as different from the others as possible and easy to identify. Green, Isaac said, didn't work as well, so it was the only primary color not used. In a game where friendly fire is indeed possible, you want to make sure that your allies know you're on their team and not deserving of a bullet through the brain. Even though the color sets are fixed, players will have an option to modify how their armor's patterns, tints, and colors (within the schemes available) look.

I asked Isaac whether colorblind players would be at a disadvantage and what SOE might be doing to help their play. He replied that, statistically speaking, the percentage of colorblind players who engage in MMOs is so small as not to be a huge concern, but for those who are, the shape language and player silhouettes should make up for the difficulty in identifying colors. Plus, with green out of the picture, the most common type of colorblindness (red/green) shouldn't present an issue.

Is SOE concerned that players will be influenced by a faction's style and color scheme to the point that one side might become the underdog? After all, puple and teal aren't everyone's typical favorite colors. Isaac replied by pointing out that in PlanetSide, the three factions are almost evenly spread out, and players have proved that faction loyalty runs quite strongly, so no, the studio isn't worried about a lopsided population.

Performance vs. style

PlanetSide 2's visuals will be taking players light-years ahead of PlanetSide's aging graphics, especially with the ForgeLight Engine powering the looks. After looking over the incredible screenshots that SOE's been releasing over the past few months, I had to ask: Will all of this detail require a super-charged PC to play? Are memory issues a real problem as the team has to balance performance versus style?

Isaac said that it actually isn't as much of an issue as one would think. The coding team gives the art team a polygon count that will keep the action running fast and furious, and the art team does the best it can within those parameters. The art team tends to go all-out if it can, since, as Isaac said, "You can always dial it back from the high side of things."

The speed of broadband nowadays allows for much higher texture resolutions than what the original PlanetSide team had to allow for back in the days of dial-up gaming. In fact, Isaac expects that PlanetSide 2 will hold its own, visually, stacked against popular titles like Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield 3.

So what gets the most attention and detail? It's the two objects that you'll be seeing all the time: your character's arms and weapons. Isaac said we'll be impressed by just how much detail we'll be able to make out, including stitches, threading and surface textures.

The space marine conundrum

Of course, my first thought when I heard about PlanetSide 2 was, "A space marine FPS? You never see those!" Because this field is so crowded and popular, especially on the console side of things, I had to wonder just how SOE was going to set itself apart from what everyone else is doing.

The key difference, Isaac said, is us: "The feel of the game separates us from the space marine-Halo group; you're not going to get hundreds of players fighting on a single map in Halo. Our game is about the player himself. It's about you, it's about me, it's about friends."

He went on to say that PlanetSide already had its own established look and feel, and the team is just continuing that. Sure, there are inevitable comparisons that can be drawn to franchises like Warhammer 40K and Tribes, but that's because development doesn't happen in a vacuum.

PlanetSide 2's art style skews much more toward the realism end of the spectrum than the stylized. Each of the soldiers, male and female, are 6'2" tall, and the team even scanned the head of one of the art directors to help with proportions.

As for the armor itself, players will have a lot of say in just how they look. Not only will they gain new pieces and insignias as they rank up, but PlanetSide 2's microtransaction-based business model means that players can purchase cosmetic armor sets from the get-go if they're not feeling as rugged and awesome as they desire. The team is also working on a neat attachment system in which you can slap on cool accessories and armor modifications to further personalize your gear.

Going from the original PlanetSide to PlanetSide 2 is like comparing the Tim Burton's 1989 Batman to Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins, Isaac said. It's all about making it more contemporary while keeping the same spirit: "I look at it like PlanetSide Awesome, not PlanetSide 2."

Araxis: An extreme Earth

Of course, armor and colors aren't the only job of the art team; the artists have to create an entire planet with multiple continents as well. The planet that will ship with the game, Araxis, is huge in scope and design. The team's made it to be a more extreme version of Earth, with superheated deserts, large grand canyon regions, frozen oceans, and the like.

While alien life forms will initially be limited to just plants, the team isn't ruling out a house call from E.T. at some point in the future. In the meantime, players will have to pay attention to their environments, which can -- in some cases -- kill. For example, a volcanic zone will be spewing lava all over the place, and lava trumps armor most every day.

"Getting it done right"

"Seventeen years allows you a lot of time to learn from your mistakes," Isaac said candidly. His wealth of industry experience is a great asset to the PlanetSide 2 team, especially in his knowing what not to do. He says he's learned a lot about how to lead a great team, including when to trust others, when to push them, and when to back off. He's also looking at the larger picture, since the team that is forged here will go on to work on other SOE projects in the future.

As for right now, the team is 100% focused on doing the best job possible for PlanetSide 2. "It's not just about getting it done now," Isaac said. "It's about getting it done right."

Gallery: PlanetSide 2 | 105 Photos

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