PlanetSide 2 as eSports: how MLG and SOE are turning a massive game into a competitive experience
Disclosure: Sony Online Entertainment paid for airfare and two nights at a hotel to cover this event Sony Online Entertainment has announced a partnership with Major League Gaming that will bring PlanetSide 2 to the world of eSports. While it’s notable that MLG is expanding its roster to include a relatively new first-person shooter, what’s really interesting about this situation is how the game will be adjusted and changed to accommodate competitive play. PlanetSide 2 is a large-scale free-to-play title where thousands of people fight across a large environment to control territory. How does that turn into a competitive game that gamers will want to watch? I spoke with people from PlanetSide 2’s development team, the CEO of Major League Gaming, and Youtube personality and PlanetSide 2 fan TotalBiscuit to find out. The answer is… well, no one really knows how it will work. But they can’t wait to figure it out.
“We think of the game as huge and large scale, but the important thing is that it’s team-based. It changes dramatically how you play if you’re rolling solo versus playing with 11 other guys that really have their shit together,” PlanetSide 2 executive producer Josh Hackney told me over energy drinks at the company’s event. Hackney doesn’t know how big teams will be in competitive play, although he has been looking at the size of teams and skirmishes that they’ve already seen on the servers. “It’s definitely going to be smaller than a normal 2,000 continent for sure,” he explained. “We’re not sure if it should be 24 versus 24, or how many will work.” Sony Online Entertainment developers aren't the only ones trying to solve these design challenges. “This is a long relationship. We’re going to spend months figuring this out,” Sundance DiGiovanni, the CEO of MLG, told me. The organization will begin to show off PlanetSide 2 content and hold exhibitions, but he admitted that the specifics of how the game play will be adjusted to fit competitive play are still unknown. He does know that his team is up to the challenge of taking a game this large and complex and making it fun to watch. “It’s something we’ve spent a long time training people in our organization to recognize. In a shooter you look for choke points, you look for engagement points. When you watch it, it should feel like you’re watching a sport,” DiGiovanni said. Youtube personality and well-known game commentator John “TotalBiscuit” Bain has already spent time casting PlanetSide 2, and he said it required a different strategy from many games. “You’re almost a war reporter,” he stated. “You focus on the ebb and flow of the battle, and not on individual soldiers. You’re focusing on platoon level strategy and combat. That’s the stuff you cast and show because it’s fun to watch.”The trick is to place cameras in bases, and in the places where they know large-scale battles will take place. The teams at SOE and MLG study each map and try to figure out how the battle will play out. The placement of virtual cameras and the strategies used to show this to the audience are planned out in advance. That planning is aided by the massive amounts of data PlanetSide 2 gathers from the behavior of players. “I have terabytes of data about what is going on in the game, we call it the wall of data,” Hackney said. “Everything from where all the kills are, to who is getting killed from particular weapons, to how quickly people are getting to certain levels.” By studying this data they can figure out the relative size of each battle, which aids in determining team size. They can also bring up heat maps to be able to determine where major battles take place in each map. The PlanetSide 2 team will also be paying attention to what the fans want from competitive play. The amount of assets available here is staggering: Sony Online Entertainment has the help of MLG, the piles of existing data from the game itself, and a dedicated fanbase to draw from. Each of these three sources of information will help guide them when designing competitive play. “The time of the silo game design, where a team solely manages all the decision making without inputs is going to have to go away,” Hackney said. “This year is going to be about how we spread our wings, open up, and communicate with other people and get their insights. Not everyone is going to be happy about it, not everyone is going to get what they want out of it, but that’s the way we want to take it and energize and engage the communicate.” Once these issues are solved, and they have a working competitive mode… how does that fit into the game? Hackney admits that it will likely be kept separate from standard play, but the goal is to make it available to everyone who wants to try it. The future could consist of two versions of PlanetSide 2: The ongoing, huge struggle for control of each server, and a system of smaller, team-based competitive maps and game modes. I asked if these upcoming game modes will be offered as a for-pay expansion. In a free-to-play game it must be tempting to release new content as a microtransaction. “Right now I think everybody’s focus is on coming up with what that design is,” Hackney said. He thought for a moment, picking his words carefully. “There’s nothing arbitrarily I think I’d want to charge for, to be able to participate at any level of that,” he continued. That’s very good news.
The tools, and growing the game
DiGiovanni spoke about the kinds of custom tools that are required for Major League Gaming to properly show a game being played, and he said that they had a wish list for each game. Sometimes the developer is willing to give them everything they’re asking for, and sometimes there is resistance. “’I have to ship the game, are you kidding me?’” he said, describing the reaction of some developers. “They ask if it will help sell more copies. Now with the engagement of the audience that we’re seeing and the numbers we’re seeing we say yes, it’s good for you. It’s going to help you.” He stressed that the PlanetSide 2 team has been great to work with. SOE isn't just reaching out to MLG for help. “They’ve spoken to me on a number of occasions as to my ideas on how to make it work, but it’s something that has to evolve over a number of months,” TotalBiscuit said. “The presence of MLG is a good thing for the game, because obviously it gives it exposure, but it also gives them a chance to refine things. They may stumble onto the right format on accident, just because so many people are hammering away at the game, and they are able to set something up that works.” Taking a working game with a format that doesn’t immediately lend itself well to competitive play and designing new game play ideas, modes, maps, and other adjustments expressly for eSports is a fascinating process. It’s also, oddly enough, not unique. “I think that the MOBA scene, and DoTA clones are already doing that… it’s weird because we’re now in a space with free-to-play where games are in a constant state of evolution,” Total Biscuit said. “So it’s not unique, but how they’re doing it with a game that’s clearly not aimed at eSports from the get-go, that they’re going to be evolving the eSports portion of it over time in a trial by fire, that’s definitely unique. It’s gutsy, and it might not work, but the fact they’re trying it is cool in and of itself,” he continued.
Seeing it in action
There was an exhibition match featuring well-known personalities and community members during the event, and it's clear PlanetSide 2 needs time to grow as an eSport. The event was plagued with connection problems, and the commentators seemed to have trouble describing the game in an engaging way. The cameras flew over the map and had a hard time framing the action in a way that made sense and created a narrative of the battle. These things take time, and these are the early days of PlanetSide 2 competitive play. This is a work in progress, but the game already has dedicated fans, a nimble developer, and a powerful friend in Major League Gaming. This is an experiment in taking a game that is impressive visually and features solid mechanics and re-working its map size and objectives in order to function as a fair, enjoyable, competitive game that people will want to watch. How that's going to happen, and what it will entail, are both open questions.