Its predecessor already left me with a feeling I also got from EVE Online – something really cool and interesting and yet… something isn’t right. So I downloaded and installed Planetside 2 a few days ago, and I’m here to tell you why I consider it a failure, and interestingly, that has little to do with the game itself, and more to do with the design decisions, monetarisation and the people running it. Much like the flak that EA is currently taking for the trainwreck that is Sim City has little to do with the actual gameplay.
So, why does Planetside 2 fail? Let’s first talk about what it fails at, i.e. what the promises and expectations are. The core of this MMOFPS is that it offers large-scale warfare, and indeed that it does. Rarely since Tribes has a game succeeded in creating SciFi battles that actually felt more like war than skirmishes. So it does live up to its core promise.
Why, then, does it fail? Like Sim City, it is another case of follow-the-money. Planetside 2 is free-to-play, or rather: It is giving you a free client and then charging you for in-game upgrades, skins and other stuff. And that leads to the first failure that was intentionally designed into the game: Unlockables.
Do you remember how these used to work, back when it was about gameplay and not about money? You would generally start an FPS out with a pistol or some other simple weapon, and then find the more powerful weapons as you played. Better weapons were synchronized to two important gameplay elements: The time it took you to become familiar with a weapon, so ideally the game would give you a new weapon at around the time you had learned all about the last one, but before your current weapon set became boring. And secondly, the enemy difficulty, so that you would get new weapons roughly when you needed them to defeat the ever-more-difficult enemies.
But in F2P games where you can pay for unlocking weapons, the design decisions are reversed. To create a proper incentive, the progress (through XP or some other alternative mechanism that also unlocks weapons) has to be too slow. It needs to be artificially and intentionally designed badly for normal gameplay.
In Planetside 2, this is incredibly obvious. I could do the math, in fact I did in a draft of this article, but it’s simply boring. The summary is: The sheer amount of weapons, add-ons and other stuff available and the slow pace in which you gain the “certs” used to unlock them guarantee that with play-time alone, nobody with a job, hobbies or friends will ever get even a solid sub-selection unlocked.
The second big failure of Planetside 2 is the utterly unprofessional way it is being run, at least on the EU servers. In 4 days of playing the game, I have had 2 days where logging in to the game was impossible for hours, with no official announcement of either cause (neither during nor after the downtimes) nor expected duration. Servers can be down, I’ve been running enough of my own to know that no matter how many precautions you take, how much redundancy you have, there’s always something that can trip you up.
What should not happen is lack of communication with your customers. Period.
Other than shopping or other web-services, gaming is an immediate experience. When I sit down to play, I want my game and I want it now. When I can’t buy something at some online shop, I can come back a few hours later, no harm done. Giving me the game a few hours later isn’t going to cut it, I’ll be occupied elsewhere at that time.
This is the prime reason that executives at EA don’t understand why people hate alway-on requirements. And why having your login servers down without telling people why and for how long is one of the worst communications mistakes you can make when you run an online game.
The third reason is the one that the creators can probably do the least about because it’s just a core design issue. The warfare aspect of the game needs success and failure. You need to lose bases and potentially a whole continent (it has 3), but you also need to win them back. It is an endless back-and-forth over the same territory. Forever. Basically, it’s a simulation of the first world war and its trench warfare. You might be playing for a few hours, die a hundred times and kill a hundred enemies, and at the end of it all, the map looks largely the same.
While the game does give you the short (“yeah, I killed that guy”) and medium (“we conquered the base”) rewards, there are no long-term rewards, no sense of closure. You are never “done”. You do not and in fact can not ever actually win or lose. I am not even talking about permanent, game-wide victory or defeat. You can not ever win or lose anything permanently. Once you realize that, there is a feeling of pointlessness.
As I said, this is not a trivial issue that could be changed with a patch. It’s an issue of the game concept itself. In a single-player game, you can complete the game. In a match-based game like Tribes or DOTA, you can win or lose a match. Even in an MMO, you can complete the storyline. Even though you can continue playing (as, in fact, you can in some single-player games), there is a sense of closure, of being done.
There are elements of this pointlessness, however, that could easily be addressed. For example, unlike most of the games of its kind, Planetside 2 does not give you good death feedback. It tells you who killed you, but not from where. Many times, you die and don’t have a good idea why. You get a name, but that is meaningless. It doesn’t show you the angle you missed, it doesn’t contain a damage breakdown, so you don’t know if investing more in armour could have saved you or your mistake was not inspecting your environment more closely. It does not give you information to make meaning of your death, to learn where you failed and if you can do something about it. In short, dying in the game is frustrating, and much more so than it would have to be.
And these three put together are what makes Planetside 2 so frustrating for me, even though it is a rare example of its kind and its core gameplay is solid. But on the meta-level, it is a pointless grind that randomly fails to be available at all.
And sadly, it wouldn’t have to be like that. That is probably the worst part of it, realizing that it could be so much better.