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PlanetSide is the world's first major Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter, which means that unlike other First Person Shooters (such as the Quake series, Unreal series, Halflife, Counterstrike, Medal of Honor), battles in Planetside make a difference. Three factions -- The Terran Republic, The New Conglomerate and The Vanu Sovereignty -- vie for control of a single world encompassing several continents. Territory must be captured and held for factions to advance, and individual combatants have the ability to influence the planetary power struggle.

Though not to be confused with a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot and Star Wars: Galaxies, PlanetSide does contain RPG elements. Players earn certifications that allow their characters to specialize, fulfilling different crucial combat roles. Characters can be vehicle specialists, giving them the ability to fly combat aircraft, as well drive troop transports, futuristic tanks and other vehicles into battle. Other players may choose to play as medics, shock troops, infiltration experts, etc. Although players are allotted a certain number of basic certifications when they begin playing PlanetSide, further certifications must be won on the battlefield similarly to how RPG’s award characters experience points for successful fights and quests.

Combat in PlanetSide will be familiar to anyone who has every played a First Person Shooter -- featuring real time “twitch-based” action -- though the game again borrows from RPGs by allowing players to have an inventory. However, unlike RPGs, players can spawn any items they’re certified to use at special stations for free, with the only limitations being how many items they can hold in their inventory. Ammunition is limited, so players who run out of ammo must either get more from another player, or run back to base to re-supply themselves.

PlanetSide is currently under development at Sony Online Entertainment (formerly Verant Interactive), the creator of EverQuest and the forthcoming MMORPG Star Wars: Galaxies and is slated for an early 2003 release.

PlanetSide: The MMO RPG/FPS Conundrum

Game: PlanetSide
Release Date: May 20, 2003
Platform: Internet-Enabled PC, CD-ROM
Publisher / Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Genre Keywords: Massive, Online, First Person, Vehicles, Futuristic
Note of interest: Some of the PlanetSide staff come from the development team of Tribes 2 fame (infamy?), after being fired by Dynamix after completion of said game. Many players assert a lot of similarities between Tribes 2 and PlanetSide.

The first ever MMOFPS (Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter) had a lot to live up to, something which is visible much more clearly in retrospect than it was in its early days. The two primary camps lobbying for inclusion of their personal preference were the Role Playing Game crowd, and the First Person Shooter crowd. As the only massively multiplayer games have heretofore been RPGs, the first group felt justified that those elements should exist, as befits a human populated, large, persistent world. As the moniker MMOFPS seemed to imply, the game was going to be primarily action and skill-based, thus the FPS crowd felt justified as well.

The RPG

So what makes an RPG? Primarily identification with the character (implied by the keywords role playing), as created by the player's ability to create someone whose image they can identify with (race, species, face, preferred job type), and expanded by the traits, skills and even clothing that the player will, in the future, procure for his/her in-game avatar. The feeling of persistence was created by joining guilds, making friends, and mainly having the state of the world be fairly unchanged (or changed in a consistent way such as summer becoming autumn, or a small town becoming larger due to regular influx of users, or even leaving an item with someone only to return later and pick it up in an enhanced form) when the player logs off and back on. Death is a pause and a small setback, not an end - your character continues with everything they've (l)earned so far intact.

Secondly, the player's skills (whether they be combat, healing, crafting, what have you) are primarily parameter, and not skill-based; that is, a player need not learn anything new in the real world in order to perform complicated tasks such as swordplay, weapon making, medical aid - these are all performed through a sequence of fairly simple actions, and their result depends on how good the player's avatar is at the given action - usually a simple numeric indicator. Such a world lends itself more to exploring than seeking, and an overall slow pace of fairly predictable sequence of events: find task, complete task, advance in skill for that task - repeat. It is that drive to better one's avatar that keeps the MMORPG genre alive; the environment provides many chances to do so through vast arrays of items, tasks, and challenges. This is all done to the backdrop of a richly chaotic social environment in which varying sets of inhibitions may be donned and discarded at a moment's notice.

The FPS

An FPS is identified by its viewpoint (the first person perspective) which makes player's reaction to the game world more visceral and immediate. The player does not need to idolize his/her avatar through skills, clothes and traits - they ARE their avatar (consider the RPG phrase "I'm driving my char to town" vs. the FPS phrase "I'm heading west"). It is far more often a fast-paced game, where speed, reflexes and cunning will win over long-term experience, and everyone is constantly on an equal scale unchanged by how much experience a player has playing the game. In other words, a person who has played the game for months can still fall to a new player, if the new player is faster or more clever - or just gets lucky.

An FPS is a game focused on seeking, not exploring; in most cases the backdrop of the game is irrelevant (What's the difference between a forest and a chemical plant? If they have the same number of places to hide or ambush from, none), and the task is always the same - beat your opponent. Whether the object of a game is to defeat your opponent or to capture an object, both will involve a lot of confrontations and there is no middle ground. The FPS social interaction is a simple one, consisting of orders given and obeyed - this interaction is illusion-free, and is in fact often held over voice chat, where less time for deliberation is available. Efficiency is of the essence, not atmosphere. The skills are few (speed, accuracy and strategic awareness), the items are limited (weapons choices vary but rarely go over 10 - a player can use any of them immediately), and death sends you back to start; all the skills you've earned are yours, but they are a difficult to measure quantity of your own experience and skill. Hence, killboards, and the need to be #1, even for an ephemeral few seconds. An FPS player plays for constant reaffirmation and struggle to be the best.

How in the world do you satisfy both???

The answer is pretty simple: you cannot. But let's see how Sony has attempted to do so.

In PlanetSide, you play a soldier for one of three overly stereotypical warring empires (the Terran Republic, the New Conglomerate, and the Vanu). You start out by naming your player, assigning an empire allegiance (which determines your in-game clothing and little else), choose a face, a gender and...that's it! You enter the game with a few skill points assigned to you, so you can choose your first few "items" and "traits" - certifications as they're called in PlanetSide. As the game goes on, you will learn how to use your traits to help you survive, but you will not gain any easily observed or quantized benefit for it. Instead you will gain trimmings on your uniform and points to spend on more certifications - this promotes versatility in the field, but still does not make your character (or you? The distinction blurs) vastly superior to anyone else on the field. In fact, a player that's just started can do anything that a player that's reached the maximum level - s/he just can't switch to something else easily. So for example you can fly attack aircraft, drive a tank or fight on foot with a variety of assault weapons from Day 1 - but a long time player can fly a fighter jet, hop out and drive a tank, hop out and fight on foot - at the same time.

The tasks are simple - defeat the other empires across multiple continents, using whatever means are at your disposal - this consists of taking and holding bases, which are fortified holdings where one can heal or resupply. You can organize assault squads, go in alone and sneak around, or take the long way around and drop behind enemy lines to disrupt supply lines. In the end, most of the action consists of battle - and like an FPS, the surroundings rarely matter. In practice, the populations move to where the fights are, and duke it out in a collection of bases that have an assortment of crates, corridors and ambush spots than an FPS would be proud of - but little character. Why do people go where the fights are? Because that's one of the main ways to get experience - which is an RPG-type trait. While there are many continents - each of which has its distinct environment - and in theory the world is persistent (as in a player could leave and return to see it unchanged), in practice the heaving masses of combat fluctuate so wildly that bases change hands constantly and the only thing that is constant is your character.

RPG-like, death is only a pause and you retain all of your skills. FPS-like, you lose all of your equipment and start again at a point away from battle. RPG-like, you can store excess equipment in safe hideouts; FPS-like, obtaining new equipment has no limits and is as easy as using an equipment terminal. RPG-like, the terminal may be destroyed and unusable. FPS-like, it can be repaired in seconds. RPG-like, repair is a skill that has to be learned before it can be used. FPS-like, a starting out player can learn it immediately.

So who's going to like this game?

That's a damn good question. Let's say first who will not like it, and go from there.

Hardcore RPG players will not like it. Here's why:
  • minimal world persistence,
  • low amount of skills to be earned,
  • low emphasis on secondary skills; the medic is hardly useful, the engineer and hacker are support, not primary skills (you can't get experience with them alone)
  • zero skill advancement; you cannot get in-game better than anyone else,
  • very low ability to customise self: 3 choices of clothing colors, 5 different outfits (basic armor, agile armor, reinforced armor, stealth suit, powered armor) that have small aesthetic changes based on rank, not user's preference,
  • exploration secondary to seeking combat. Uninteresting locations (bases are all very bland).
Hardcore FPS players will not like it. Here's why:
  • cone of fire (weapons do not shoot accurately, but bullet spread is random within an imaginary cone - the farther you shoot, the wider the cone; the longer you shoot, the larger the cone becomes) prevents one's real world skill from dominating,
  • cone of fire eliminates speed of movement as factor; the more static you are, the better your aim and chances of a kill,
  • vehicles, mechanized armor and different armor means not all players on equal footing - again, skill is diminished,
  • certification system prevents players from being able to use everything immediately,
  • despite there being instant action, there very often is a lack thereof. Timers on respawn, timers on vehicle, 24hrs timer to change certifications, 15 minute timer on base hack, infinity+ wait to find a battle on a bad day - the game has a lot of inherent downtime.

That clears that up, doesn't it?

This is not a game for hardcore anything; it has vehicles, lots of different environments, large populations and combat, but all of it is presented in such a way as to snare the casual gamer. The pace of advancement is slow for such a person (so satisfaction from advancement is drawn out, albeit not on a dreadfully slow MMORPG scale), the persistence (or lack thereof) irrelevant since even in a MMORPG they play so rarely as to notice it, the action frantic enough when it's there but not as hopelessly skill based for anyone to ever grow rusty with disuse. Finally, it's easy to switch certifications when one wants to do something different. There are a few non combat-oriented tasks for variety, but they're not all that interesting in the long run, guaranteeing you a brief respite only to return to the fight invigorated.

A final word on teamplay. In FPS games, finding a persistently reoccuring group of people to play with is difficult - that is why game clans were born. Even then however (unless a clan has their own server, an expensive enterprise), finding people to play with at the same time as you play consistently is still difficult, and requires scheduling and coordination that most people do not want to deal with (hence leagues and tournaments, where clan members have something at stake).

PlanetSide makes this process simple stupid. First of all, everyone is on the same server; second, all you need to do is join an Outfit, and the game will keep track of your co-members for you as long as the Outfit exists. You simply need to call out into the aether "/o anyone online?" (/o indicates 'send to outfit') to receive an invite into a fighting squad, even in a modest-sized Outfit - and there are no size limits on Outfits. Even if you do not know everyone in your group, you know they're working towards the same goals and can undoubtedly use your talents, be you grunt, driver, or hacker. It doesn't get any easier to join a group (and FPS games are becoming more and more teamplay-oriented, as simple deathmatch gets boring fast - except for the hardcore, again) than simply going online and messaging your Outfit with a join request. This is another way to cater to the casual player who can't schedule their life around the game, but rather requires teamplay when s/he's able to play.

Well done Sony?

In creating something that's neither FPS nor RPG, Sony has created something that is both, and can convince the casual FPS player who's tired of traditional, situational FPS into shelling out the monthly fee. The chance to get to know your team members over time and the huge continent which allows you to dissociate yourself from any fight in an instant (to do something else) may bring in the RPGer, but I personally doubt it. The "XP treadmill" that's required for most MMORPGs is simply not present, and the self-development is laughable. As such, the requisite player has to be tired of (or not good enough for) the twitch-shooting fare that most FPSs provide, has to be interested in playing in a team structure that's available all the time, and has to be able to continue paying for the pleasure. Draw your own conclusions whether this was planned or not.

As for me (a 27 year old gamer, game addict since Pong, bored of twitchfests and traditional MMORPGs alike), I tip my hat and my USD 12.99/month to Sony for a job well done.

Updated July 2004: PlanetSide lasted me a very long time, longer than almost any other game, online or offline. Only extremely long and involved RPGs (Morrowind and mods, for example) begin to compare with the time investment. In the end, it's the lack of variety that gets you - when you realize that you're doing the same thing without (and this is important) any sort of impact on the gameworld ... that's when you quit. In some MMOs, you can create lasting items, form world-spanning alliances or take some cool screenshots of rare locations or items you found. In PlanetSide, none of this is true, and tomorrow nobody will remember that you (and 200 other soldiers, of course) took a certain base.

Sony's extreme slowness in adding new content (and making the Core Combat expansion cost extra money) was the other "last straw". Still, for what it was worth, it was a lot of fun while it lasted. On to EVE Online and World War II Online!

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