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The Firing Line: Derek Smart on Line of Defense

Welcome to a special interview edition of The Firing Line, folks. True MMOFPS titles are few and far between these days, though 2012 is shaping up to be a banner year for the genre thanks to games like PlanetSide 2, DUST 514, and possibly even Firefall. There's another massive FPS on its way, too, and even though it hasn't had quite as much press coverage as the aforementioned titles, 3000AD's Line of Defense project is worth a look.

Join me after the break for a conversation with lead designer Derek Smart as he talks about what makes the game massive as well as what sets it apart from its competitors.

Line of Defense - line of avatars

Massively: Are you still involved with Quest and Alganon, and if so is there any overlap/resource sharing between Quest and Line of Defense, or is this purely a 3000AD project?

Derek Smart: Yes, I am still very much involved with Quest Online and Alganon. Apart from being an investor in QOL, I still manage the company, the Alganon game, and the team (currently working on the game's first expansion, due out the first of this year).

There is no overlap or sharing because Alganon and Line of Defense are two separate projects handled by different companies and different teams. The companies are different, the teams are different, the technologies used in both games are different, etc. When I think about it, the only common denominator really is just me -- as well as the fact that 3000AD owns a percentage of QOL.

The term MMOFPS means different things to different people depending on how "massively multiplayer" is defined. Can you tell us how many players Line of Defense will support in a single battle? Is it the 256 characters per continent number from the FAQ?

As mentioned in the FAQ currently located on the game's temporary website, we don't have the concept of continents at all in terms of the play area. We have massive planets, and on these planets are bases spread out in different parts. Each of these unique bases covers an area of about 250 square kilometers, and they are linked via jump points. And each has a unique theme, weather conditions, topology, layout etc.

When I originally designed the game, I had all the bases on the same map, pretty much how I designed my previous games (e.g., 2009's All Aspect Warfare). You could then run (or at least die trying), drive, or fly from one base to the other. The more things progressed and because I wanted these bases to have rich environments, it was determined that performance would be a major issue.

At the time, we hadn't made the switch from the custom in-house engine that we were developing from the ground up for the game. So when rendering performance, networking and all the other fun stuff came into play, it was determined that we had to segment the game world and cap player population or we'd have a performance problem on our hands. As the bases were completed, the more this problem became even more apparent. And if you have seen the base layouts on the game's Facebook page, you will immediately see why.

Line of Defense - some sort of mech thing

So with that, the bases were split up into their own scenes and linked by jump gates. Apart from solving the performance issue, which would have been resolved once we switched to the more powerful and feature-rich Havok Vision Engine, it allowed us to control the player population in a segmented fashion. So I decided to just leave well enough alone instead of going in and stitching them all together with this more powerful engine.

That pop cap then became 256 per scene. In the first game's release, we populated a single planet, Lyrius, with the four scenes and each allowing up to 256 players at any one time. That would give us a total of 1024 clients per planet. But that's not all there is to it.

We have space regions as well, and there are four of those, each with its own planets and moons and each handling a total of 256 player clients as well. Now we're up to 2048 players.

Then we have the internal levels (not the same as walking into an open building on the planet, by the way), which are also individual scenes. These internal levels are the four space stations and a derelict carrier (from our follow-up game, Galactic Command Online, due out in 2014 or thereabouts). Each of those also has a 256-player cap. Now we're up to 3328 player clients per world session.

This architecture for us is more manageable and also allows up to deploy and drop cloud server sessions based on demand. Since it is forward-thinking, it also means that we can add new bases not only on Lyrius but on the other planets in the space world. And since they are all linked, travel between them is trivial and just a minor scene-loading transition.

I have always been of the opinion that having millions of players in a game is patently meaningless if they're not having fun or never interacting with each other, especially for a game that is purely PvP. Quite frankly, if the code that pop-locks a scene ever kicks in, then it means that we've got quite a game on our hands. Let's face it: Very few FPS games with aircraft and vehicles have 64 player servers, let alone 256 and in such a massive and connected world as the one in LoD.

So if you ever see us touting a million players, then it means that we've got a lot of cloud server sessions running the game.

Can you talk a little bit about the class customization? We know that the classes aren't "fixed" per se, but can we get a few more details on how the advancement system works? Can you make a jack-of-all-trades character, for example? Are there skill/cert caps?

First and foremost, there are absolutely no skill/cert caps at all, which is why the classes are not fixed. What you do have to bear in mind is that the base character you create can take a different path in the cert path. Since the game is real-time twitch-based PvP, the "skill" inference is all up to the player. You don't get to buy a skill that makes you better at shooting,
driving, flying or whatever. If you don't know how to fly –- or don't like it –- then don't get into an aircraft. Unless, of course, you're just hitching a ride.

For example, you could start off with an Assault Force Marine whom you want to be able to fly a jetpack one day. Well, unlike the Mobile Infantry Marine who can have access to that item's CTC earlier, the AFM class may have to wait a bit longer for that CTC to become available (i.e., unlocked) for that class. And you just can't go out and buy a jetpack and be able to use it right away.

So yes, since all certs and items are available to all classes, you can end up with an absolutely bad-ass character from a simple base class. You just have to decide –- from the onset –- what you want to start off with and pretty much how much you want to spend at the end of the day. It's akin to buying a sports car for racing. Get the body and base engine you like, then go tweak everything from there for as long as you like.

To me, the ultimate bad-ass character is a sniper rifle (with all its attachments) Elite Force Marine, driving around in a zippy Tactical Anti-Grav Bike, who owns a jetpack, a wingsuit, all the bio-implants, a Portable Cloaking Unit, and an NE-318 android companion, and has CTCs to drive/fly every vehicle class in the game. If you come up against that guy, you absolutely need to be running in the opposite direction.

Line of Defense - snowscape

You've said in a previous interview that you're not a fan of grind. How do you balance the need to retain players with the design goal of quick progression?

Well, PvP and PvE are completely different types of gameplay types. In a competitive PvP game, which LoD is, the issue of retention is down to how fun the game is, how players can progress through it, etc. There is no "quick progression" design goal because it isn't that kind of game. This is not the type of game where you get to unlock stuff after 10 minutes of play.

But by the same token, you're not grinding forever and a day to get stuff. You're killing other players, destroying things, and capturing key installations in order to gain combat experience points, which in turn gives you access to Combat Training Certificates (some you can buy right off the bat depending on your base character class).

There is no loot drop unless you're killing another player can taking what you can from his corpse. There is no "go kill 200 rats and bring me their whiskers and you can have a magazine clip" here. You get as much as you put into the game because as in all PvP games, your actions have consequences for you, the other players, and indeed the game world itself.

Any user-content options? Player-generated missions, etc.?

The only user-generated content will be in the form of base installations that players can build when they get further into the game. This means that a fireteam (or guild) can build its own outpost somewhere in the game world by buying prefab buildings and equipping it with defense units and such. That is my concept of "player housing," and the reason for it is simple. These scenes are huge. So in most cases, building a FARP makes the most sense for the dedicated players who are serious about what they are doing.

There are no built-in player generated missions. However, given the game's base capture design, a team lead could very well create missions for his team by assigning them objectives using the various tools and assets in the game. For example taking out a base's area defense shield unit usually means that a lot more damage is going to be done by enemy aerial assaults. So with over eight installations at a base that need to be compromised in order to capture the base, a team lead could assign objectives to various members of a fireteam right from the map.

In fact, creative teams can have specialized fireteams for a specific type of job. For example, a fireteam could consist solely of players who have wingsuits and specialized weapons. These are the guys who wingsuit behind enemy lines and wreak all manner of havoc ahead of a full-on mechanized (those guys prancing around in M.I.C.E behemoths) assault on a base. You know, the Seal Team Six wannabes.

Line of Defense - desert-scape

2012 is shaping up to be a big year for large-scale online shooters. What would you say to players who are having a hard time deciding between Line of Defense, Firefall, and PlanetSide 2?

There is nothing to decide really. These three are totally different types of games. I am a firm believer in choice, and since (to my knowledge) none of these games has a monthly sub, my guess is that players are going to give all of them a try. Both PlanetSide 2 and Line of Defense are more on the hardcore (not in terms of game difficulty, but in terms of high-end niche gameplay) side of things, so I expect that both will attract the crowd that has already played something like Firefall or your typical run-and-gun shooter many times over. As with all of my games, LoD is anything but typical.

All three games have their strengths and weaknesses, all of which will be unveiled over time. But at the end of the day, competition is good and choice is even better.

You mentioned space sectors earlier, and the LoD FAQ mentions various vehicles, including "the capability to travel to space and back." Will we see any space-based dogfighting at some point?

Yes, space and aerial combat is built right into the game. You can travel between both space and planet scenes seamlessly. Here's one scenario: You fly a fighter from the planet to space, dogfight with others, dock at one of the stations in space, exit your fighter, continue the fight on foot inside the installation, then use a jump anomaly inside the station to go back to the planet or to another station or carrier. Here's another: You are dogfighting in space and are about to die. You make it to a station, dock and run inside to find a terminal to heal, repair armor, etc., tgen use a jump anomaly to get back to your mates on the planet or join them in a skirmish on this station or another.

The FAQ briefly mentions asset stealing. Can you expand on that system a little bit? How does it work, and what sorts of safeguards are available to thwart it? Also, can you loot and use equipment from fallen foes (or fallen comrades)?

Each base scene consists of a fixed number of assets that include defense systems, vehicles, shuttles, aircraft, etc. They are all located at the asset requisition center, where players with the proper CTC can grab them. As they are destroyed, they are re-created (re-spawned) based on a set number of rules. Players can also construct and/or repair assets depending on what CTC they have.

A player who gets to an asset can imprint it; this is something you get to buy. With an imprint, as long as that asset exists, nobody else can use it. If you have an asset (or weapon) and you leave it unattended without an imprint, someone else can make off with it. It's like leaving your car with the keys in the ignition.

And yes, you can loot a fallen player completely. But if he has imprints on his gear (e.g., weapon, wingsuit, jetpack, etc.), those items are useless to you and you can't loot them at all. So the incentive here is that you can build a unique weapon and have a favorite vehicle (e.g., a tactical anti-grav bike) that you like and don't want to lose to another player. For a small amount of cash, you can imprint everything you own or find in the game world.

Is there any sort of endgame in Line of Defense, or is the gameplay pretty consistent from day one?

Nope, there is no such thing. The main purpose of the game is competitive PvP. You compromise a number of key installations at a base. Then you compromise the starbase building itself. With all that accomplished, the base now belongs to your team. Until your enemies take it back. And through all that, you gain and lose CEP as well as CTC, improve your character, amass a lot of stuff –- maybe your very own FARP, etc. Rinse. Repeat.

Can you give us any details on the cash shop items and how they will affect gameplay? You've said that the game can be played completely free, so what is the incentive to use the store? Faster XP? Gear? Vanity stuff?

The cash shop items are basically composed of some CTC, weapons, ammo, inventory items (jetpacks, etc.) deployables, bio-implants, building prefabs, and so on.

Sure you can play the game completely free for as long as you want because you can convert XP to CTC and progress that way. However, you still need to buy attachments (scopes, magazines, etc.) for your weapons and buy other weapons if you want.

We're not selling vanity stuff because it is not that kind of game. If you want a Santa hat, you're obviously playing the wrong game. But if you're looking for high-velocity, armor-piercing rounds and a x64 scope, then you've come to the right place.

I am going with two business models for specific reasons because I want to cater to both sides of the fence. You can buy the game client and get to choose a character, have some starter items, and go jump in the fray, or you can download the free client then play whatever random character is being rotated that day (or week) without having a choice in the matter. Of course the latter model has some restrictions, but they are beyond the scope of this discussion, I think.

Either way, in both instances, you play for free –- no subscriptions of any kind.

Sounds good, thanks for keeping us in the loop.

The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.