I promised myself that I would not spend half of this column making silly jokes about e-sports. The simple truth is that I find e-sports about as exciting as collecting stamps. That might sound harsh, but remember how fanatical (and oblivious to my opinions) some people are for stamps. And that's just fine.
What bothers me about e-sports is how the genre takes something that comes from a wonderfully chaotic place -- play time -- and wraps it in a set of rules and expectations. I used to say that humans could make a sport out of anything, and it turns out I was right. I joked that holding your arm into the air could be a game if they made rules concerning the activity. While it's not quite a spectator sport, I recently discovered that there are people in this world who literally hold an arm in the air -- sometimes for years -- to prove their dedication. All we need now is a bit of commentary and we'd have a sport.
If you watch some of the videos out there, you will see that what is being discussed is instanced Battle Islands that will pit 48 players against another 48. Those numbers are actually quite large, especially for an e-sports match. If you have experienced what seemed like a "massive" battle in PlanetSide 2, then you probably only saw maybe 100 or so players in the immediate area at the same time. Of course, there are larger battles on the server, and the point of PlanetSide 2 is that each map is packed with up to 2,000 players. But would a player really notice a difference between a large, "normal" server battle and an instanced battle that featured almost 100 players? In fact, the way the instanced islands are being described, players might really enjoy the more strategic gameplay and things like dense forests for tanks to battle in. It does sound interesting.
But let's consider what all of this means: the most strategically minded players and those who care about virtual glory more than anything will spend much of their time in these instanced areas, away from the rest of the playerbase. As reader knzar recently put it, "Now all the good outfits will be playing competitively while all the scrubs run their teammates over in tanks in the real world."
While I agree with his description of what might happen to this incredible game, I'd like to point out that many of the "scrubs" (see: Beau Hindman) play the way we do simply because we're too busy having fun to try to be perfect. Another one of the beautiful aspects of PlanetSide 2 is the way it allows players like yours truly to experiment with almost any style of play. I have been obsessed with the Lightning tank over the last several months, for example, but have recently found my heart in infantry combat. I've asked for some advice but generally spend some time in the virtual training area, testing out weapons. Once I discover something I like, I unlock the weapon and go for it. If I die, I die. I come to and pick where I want to respawn, taking away the ability to spawn-camp or grief. PlanetSide 2 always keeps players on their toes. An instanced battle arena will be memorized and examined to the point of perfection. How boring.
In the embedded interview with Creative Director Matt Higby, he gives us a scary clue by saying, "We want to keep them really closely tied together so that we don't have people just suddenly disappear from the MMO game because they're off playing the tournament mode all the time."
I don't think he means it literally, but "all the time" could mean that there is the possibility to disappear from the game into the world of instanced "competitive" gameplay. When these ace players spend all of their time in an instance, players like yours truly will never learn by playing with them, and the population will suffer. It's not just a drop in the numbers of players in the "real" world; it might be a drop in the numbers of truly "talented" players who as of now spend their time with "scrubs" like me. The instanced islands pave over the sandbox that is PlanetSide 2 and build an obstacle course on top.
I'm only speculating on the impact of these instanced battle-maps, of course. I sense that SOE knows that the playerbase will react, well, how it has already reacted, so the studio has kept hidden a lot of technical information. SOE might be holding off on releasing all of the info until these islands fit it to the standards of Major League Gaming, but why frighten the playerbase that made the game as popular as it is?
[After this article went live, Higby reached out to us to clarify these comments in the video interview. "We are not building a system that pulls competitive-minded players out of the MMO experience," he explained. "In fact, we're doing everything we can to ensure that their success in competition is tied to their accomplishments in the MMO. If anything, their engagement with the MMO game [will be] higher than ever. In order to qualify for seasonal competitions, outfits will need to achieve and maintain rank on global outfit leaderboards, which is entirely determined by [the] outfit's performance in the MMO game doing all of the things that outfits already do, defending bases, attacking bases, etc. Once qualified, they'll have a few bracketed matches (which would be instanced) leading up to seasonal finals, but these will be a few outfits for a couple of hours weekly, not an 'on demand' instanced mode that these players will disappear into."]
In the end, I'll reserve final judgment until I get to play on one of these maps and see how they will be implemented into the standard game. Admittedly, 48v48 sounds pretty large, but let's remember that the true glory of PlanetSide 2 is that if my friend wanted to jump in for the first time, she could do so relatively easily. These battle islands might create a live world that is more empty than exciting, and then what choice is left but to join a queue in the hopes of seeing some action?
I wish the best for PlanetSide 2 and Major League Gaming. Even though I think MLG is about as enticing as curling, I cannot find fault with anyone who loves the events. I just hope that if it does come to PlanetSide 2, the common reports of poor sportsmanship, death threats, and juvenile over-reactions do not infect a game that I love. We've seen what instancing can do to open-world PvP. The same thing happens to massive, beautiful MMOs that offer the best content within instanced dungeons. Players spend time tucked away from everyone else, creating a game that is neither massive nor a world.
Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!