Interview: The Ambition of SOE

The Mittani and I had a chance at E3 to sit down with T Ray from Planetside 2 (completing our hat trick of prominent PS2 faces, having interviewed both John Smedley and Matt Higby before the big event) and talk about anything and everything. For those not in the know, T Ray is the Senior Art Director for Planetside 2, and has been with the Planetside team since the original installment of the game. We three gamers ascended the stairs to the meeting area Sony Online had erected above their E3 studio, where a show was in progress as we talked. The air was warm, to put it lightly, and the noise prodigious. However, we powered through and got some great insight as to the future of Planetside 2.

It didn’t take long to understand that Tramell, along with the rest of SOE, is incredibly ambitious. T Ray has been on the Planetside team since the Planetside 1, as well as through the development of what was called Planetside Next. PS Next was intended not to be a complete revamp of Planetside, but rather a polishing effort. However, after struggling to reconcile certain aspects of technology and creative direction with the existing Planetside installation, the decision was made to scrap the ‘Next’ bit and pursue a proper sequel, complete with new engine, art, and format. Thus began the production of Planetside 2.

When asked how long Planetside 2 has really been in development, considering all the work that went into Planetside and Planetside Next, Tramell is quick to set the record straight: “It took us 18 months.” Following the decision to focus entirely on a new Planetside offering, it took less than two years to get Planetside 2 out the door.

“We knew it wasn’t finished,” Tramell admits of the November 2012 launch. “We wanted to get it out to as many players as possible, though. We placed a lot of importance on getting player feedback early and often.” That focus on player feedback may not seem revolutionary, and there are more than a few people who will see the admission of an early launch as tantamount to an admission of greed - however, SOE continues to pave new ground when it comes to player interaction on a high level in the development process. The roadmap system, deployed earlier this year, is a prime example of the way SOE is constantly trying to pull player feedback out of QA reports and into the developer’s offices in a more direct manner.

18 months may be the fastest that SOE has ever developed a game, but it certainly isn’t the most impressive aspect of the studio’s development of a niche, yet beloved, IP. Planetside 2 was the first time that SOE deployed a game server in Australia. At E3 2012, it garnered 44 nominations and 24 awards, according to Tramell. And just before E3 2013, PC Gamer named Planetside 2 the third best shooter of all time.

“Third best shooter of all time,” Tramell says, slightly breathless. “We were shocked. Third best shooter? We weren’t even going for that. It’s not third best MMO or anything like that. We’re up there with Half Life and Quake and Counterstrike and all these other epic shooters.” That doesn’t mean that Tramell and SOE are ready to rest on their laurels, though.

On June 25th, Planetside 2 officially launched in China. Russia is soon to follow, with Brazil and Southeast Asia on the horizon towards the end of 2013. Furthermore, Planetside 2 has recently partnered up with Major League Gaming, and will also be making an appearance on the PlayStation 4. Clearly, SOE is pulling out all the stops for the MMOFPS. I asked Tramell about what kinds of accommodations had to be made for the Chinese to accept Planetside 2 in their country.

“It was a little weird,” he says. There are apparently anti-indulgence laws in China that prohibit gamers from spending more than 4 hours at a time on a video game. To incorporate this on the game side, SOE had to code in a four hour limit on gaining XP in Planetside 2 for Chinese players. “Once you hit the four hour mark, you stop earning anything. That’s it, you’re done.” It’s a drastic example of the difference between cultures - but it is far from the only one. Chinese video game operator The9 is SOE’s partner for the Chinese deployment, and their support goes beyond simply operating the servers upon which the game runs.

“They give us reports, like demographics,” Tramell says, regarding things as miniscule as what kind of helmets the average Chinese gamer prefers - closed or open faced (for the record, they prefer closed). These cultural preferences will be taken into account as the art team moves forward with new designs for helmets and armor, but will be made available across all Planetside 2 servers, allowing Americans and Europeans to enjoy some closed-helmet goodness in the future. For now, the team is primarily focused on furthering vehicle customizations.

With up to 8 slots on vehicles, Tramell sees the vehicle customization market expanding greatly in the near future. Now that players can mount multiple accessories on their vehicles, it is probably a safe assumption. When quizzed on specifics of what we might see next in terms of customization options, the SOE developer plays it cool while admitting that the team isn’t wholly focused on the low level stuff. Instead, Tramell sees a future where the players themselves will not only dictate what is popular - they will make what is popular for themselves, as well as a little cash on the side. The Player Studio looks to be a very large part of Planetside 2 customization going forward, which not only reinforces the player feedback model that SOE is such a large proponent of, but also frees the art team to focus on other things - like the PlayStation 4.

“Right now we’re working primarily on the UI,” Tramell says regarding the upcoming port of Planetside 2 onto the PlayStation 4. “The rendering is fine right now, the architecture of the PlayStation 4 is tight.” However, the UI is no small task, as Planetside 2 was built from the ground up as a PC game. Consolidating a few dozen hotkeys down to a console controller, as well as the condensation of information in a readable and aesthetically pleasing way on a console, is no small feat - but it is one that the art team and others at SOE are already working on.

For now, the plan is to have PC and console Planetside 2 players separated onto different servers. When asked if this is for the safety and mental well being of the console players, Tramell laughs. “When I was working on The Agency, we had console players and PC players together on the same servers, and you know what? The console players really held their own.” However, there are certain logistical concerns with backend server architectures as well as currency exchanges that prevent the unification of console and PC players at this stage of development.

While SOE is ambitious with its expansion plans for Planetside 2, at the end of the day that’s not what really stirs Tramell Isaac to continue working on the game. Instead, it’s the lasting legacy that matters most, perhaps somewhat understandably coming from the man who made the Pip Boy in Fallout. “It doesn’t matter whether or not we’ve made a million dollars. We’ve made a classic. 10 years from now they will be talking about Planetside 2, and you can’t take that away from us.”

Fortunately for SOE, it’s looking like they’ll be able to have their legacy and their fat bank account too. Planetside 2 is well on its way to commercial success worldwide and across platforms - thanks in no small part to the motivation of people like Tramell Isaac, Matt Higby, and so many others like them at the studio that, despite all the accolades, still see themselves as the plucky underdogs, coming from behind to show everyone what they are really made of. And fortunately for us, we get to play the game that they make - for free.

Just a dude