On the last day of E3, I was lucky enough to catch Planetside 2 Creative Director Matt Higby in between appointments for an interview. Nevermind the fact that this was towards the end of the grueling 72 hours of gaming nirvana known as E3, Matt was just as excited to talk about Planetside 2 with me as the people seeing it for the first time at the Sony Online Entertainment booth.
What began as a conversation about his favorite part of Planetside 2 became an in-depth discussion about the his own breakthrough into the games industry, Sony’s culture of fostering internal talent, and the importance of involvement from the fan community in game development. Read on for some insight into the one of the main men bringing you Planetside 2, or if you just want to read about a director who’s doing it right.
Matt Higby: I love that subreddit, man. The coolest thing about working on this project for me, and I say this all the time so it’s almost clichéd, but it’s such an awesome thing to have a community that really follows us, and cares what we’re doing. A lot of times, you’re working on games, and you’re at work at ten o’clock at night, and you’re just miserable about it, but knowing I can send out a tweet of an image, and people will be like, “Wow, that looks really cool!”…it feels really good. [It feels] like we’re building something for a purpose. It’s not just being stuck at work all night, to ship some box that people aren’t going to play, or gets a crappy Metacritic rating. Having that community involvement has been rad.
BE: So what’s been your favorite part of Planetside 2, so far?
MH: There’s a couple things that I really love about it. I’m really satisfied with the way we’ve gotten our weapon combat to feel. The actual gunplay itself in the game…it’s been an enormous challenge for us not to sacrifice that quality, or compromise anything with the FPS fundamentals to be able to make it work in a massive sense. That’s been really awesome to nail that to the point that…well, I don’t feel like we’re done yet, but I feel like we’ve done an awesome job of making a AAA FPS game, so I’m stoked on that.
I think our vehicle physics are really fun…I love flying around in the game. The day/night cycle is really cool. I mean, there’s so many things about it, it’s hard for me to pick out just one thing I really like. I feel like we’re doing a lot of things right. All I see are things that I want to make better, so it’s been really cool getting people who’ve never played the game before, and getting a fresh perspective, and seeing them say “Oh my God, it feels so good already” because I’m like, all I see are flaws. People are saying “Oh, this feels amazing. This feels great already,” then I know that not only have we done it well enough, but we also have room to grow. If I see more things we can just fix and make better, that means that we can make it even better, and if people are already stoked on it, we can make it better still. That’s a pretty good feeling.
BE: I can imagine! It must feel a bit like being an artist regarding their painting. You’re only going to see the places you want to improve on it, and there’s always going to be little stuff you’re going to want to do to move it forward.
MH: That’s right!
BE: I can’t blame you! It’s your baby. Just out of curiosity, which faction did you play as, in the original [Planetside]?
MH: (Pulls out New Conglomerate dog tag) NC for life!
BE: (Points to New Conglomerate dog tag on his E3 badge) That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
MH: Me and Tramell (Issacs), our Art Director, he’s always on the Vanu side, so we get into these grudge matches about which one of the factions is the best one.
BE: Laser beams? Forget that noise.
MH: Oh yeah man, it’s garbage. Magnets! Magnets! Gauss Rifles! Railguns! All that stuff! That’s what I want. I want the experimental stuff.
BE: What got you into game design in the first place?
MH: Well, Everquest. In 2000, I was playing 18 hours a day, and that caused me to drop out of college. I packed up all of my stuff in my car, drove all the way from Florida cross-country to San Diego, knocked on the door of the SOE offices, and asked for a job in QA…and I got it. I was in QA for three or four years, and eventually moved into game design. I’ve been at SOE for 11 years now.
BE: That’s a really heartening thing to hear. I went to college for game design, and had the same Everquest obsession…which is why it caused me to take seven years to get through college, and without a doctorate. I went to college to get a degree in game design, but it seems that more people fall off that path after college than make it, so it’s always nice to hear stories of people who just follow their dreams.
MH: This company has a really interesting corporate culture because we have that [level of passion] all over the place here. Mine isn’t even a unique story. We have people who met their wives through Everquest at our company. A lot of the people who are in development, either programmers or artists, they came up through being players, coming to San Diego, working in customer service, and Sony will pay for people to go to art school, pays for people to learn how to program, teaches these guys who are working $10/hr jobs in customer service and QA how to become game developers. We really foster our own internal talent because these are the people who are passionate enough to drop what they’re doing and come out to work on games, and those are the kinds of people we want to have working on building games, too.
BE: Definitely. It seems like passion is the most important part. I mean, you can have all of the technical experience in the world, but it won’t make up for passion.
MH: You can’t synthesize passion. You can teach people how to program…well, I mean, you have to have the capacity to be able to [learn the skill], but if someone already has that desire, and they have the mind to be a designer, or the mind to be a producer, or the mind of whatever…we bring those guys up, and it’s the best thing we can possibly do. When you’ve got a bunch of people working on your team who’ve got QA experience working on MMO games…it’s such an easy way to ramp them into being developers, too. They already know how to think of games not only as their number one passion, but also as a product. They know what things go wrong with the games, they know what things go right with the games, so being able to get them in and help out with doing design stuff…it rules. It’s so good.
BE: I guess they [former QA testers] would have a more holistic, critical sense when it comes to game design in general, as opposed to just solely playing for enjoyment.
MH: You can kinda get myopic when looking at a game as an outsider, where you just think of it as an entertainment. Sometimes you have to figure out where you’re actually making entertainment, and where you’re actually overstepping and doing something that is just not gonna work, and having some QA experience really helps with that a lot. Also, customer service experience. Actually being able to interact directly with the players who are playing your games, and see what stuff is frustrating them, and what kind of things they’re getting problems with…those kind of people make great designers because they look at stuff and say, “Hey, how do I solve these problems before they actually happen?“ because they already think in that way.
BE: So it’s about what’s best for the customer to them.
MH: Exactly, right, and if you’re thinking with that mentality, if you’re thinking, “How can we not only delight our customers with amazing gameplay experiences, but also how do we make sure they don’t have issues that cause them to be turned off by a game?”, whether it’s technical issues, or community-related issues, or whatever…if you’re already in that mindset and thinking about that kind of stuff, you end up building a better product from stage one. We believe in that really strongly at SOE, and we’ve been embracing that a lot.
BE: I’d say it’s evident in the quality of the games SOE has put out since, well, Everquest. They’re all great, even if some of them weren’t the critical successes they might have been, like Vanguard for example. Personally, I wanted that one to take off like crazy.
MH: Oh man, Planetside is the prime example.
MH: So ahead of its time. Planetside has such an enduring and passionate fanbase right now because in 2003, if you were stoked on RTS games…there’s a dozen RTS games you could have played between now and then that were awesome RTS games that came out. If you got bit by the MMOFPS bug…what else was there? Nothing until Planetside 2. The fanbase is so strong and so connected because they understand the potential and the epic scale of what Planetside can be, and they’re so stoked on us actually coming and making that game again, and not giving up on it.
BE: And now that it’s free to play, it’s just going to expand the audience like crazy.
MH: That’s right, and this is a legitimate FPS game. It’s not something that we’ve compromised or sacrificed on the FPS gameplay to be able to make it a massive game. Straight up, legitimate shooter game that you also happen to be playing with thousands of other players simultaneously. It’s a pretty disruptive idea, and the execution on it so far has been really good, so we’re so stoked that it’s come together and that people are reacting so well to it.
BE: It just has so many elements that other games just don’t do. One of the first things I noticed when I came in for my gameplay session was the use of the tablets and smartphones in the gameplay itself. It’s such a seemingly obvious, simple idea for the use of a tablet to control voice channels, as well as transmit and receive audio, and it makes perfect sense for Planetside 2.
MH: The idea of an MMOFPS isn’t something where light shone down from the sky and someone just thought of it…it’s a natural extension of what shooters have been doing for years, which is getting bigger and bigger, and creating more in terms of scale and scope, right? Thing is, it’s an enormous technical issue. You have to have a huge amount of backend [network infrastructure], and we have a really, really deep reservoir of experience in making this type of game. So we know what kinds of things work, what kinds of things don’t work, we know what sort of connectivity tools our community wants, we directly talk to them on Twitter, on Reddit.
I mean, you’ve seen me on Reddit all the time. I want feedback. I want to hear what people want, and I when people tell me they don’t like something, I go to the people who are working on it and say, “Hey listen guys, what can we do to make this aspect of this better?” Like the kill screen we had in the game for a long time. People on Planetside Universe and people on Reddit were saying they didn’t like the kind of Battlefield-style kill camera that we had that showed your position to the character who killed you. We said, “Ok, cool. We’ll get rid of that then,” and we did.
We created a brand-new kill screen that still works as an educational tool because it tells you what kind of weapons attacked you, if you were being attacked from multiple people…it gives you a lot of information on how to play the game in the same way that a positional killcam does because that just helps you learn the level. Helps you learn where snipers are going to be so you know where to watch out. So, now we’re not teaching you that part of it anymore, but we’re still teaching you a lot about the game and how to play better, and we’re doing it without having to sacrifice the ability for a sniper to be able to find a really cool sniping roost and be able to sit up there for a while, which people really want to be able to do in a big, tactical game like this.
So, we directly listened to what the feedback we were getting from the community was, and acting on it, and it’s been incredible because those guys are really, legitimately helping us build a better game.
BE: Has there even been something reasonable that someone has suggested that just wasn’t feasible to change in the game?
MH: I can’t really think of anything, to be honest. A lot of times, if we get feedback that we can act on, we will. If it’s something that we can just, say, make it an option, then we will, and then it’s something that can be toggled. For instance, I really wanted to have a centralized UI mode where I can see all of my information without having to look away from the center of my screen. I can see my jumpjet fuel without having to look away from the center of my screen, and when I fire my weapon or get hurt, ammo and health count down around the center also. This really helps me out a lot because I can play the entire game without ever separating from watching the center third of the screen. But, some people don’t want that, and they’re more used to a Battlefield-type UI or a Modern Warfare-type UI, and they want to have something more like that, so we have that in there as an option. They just click through [the options] and choose a different one.
That’s easy to do. Every game on the planet could be doing that kind of stuff where you create these different modes, and you let people choose how they want to play the game. Lots of games do, but we’re doing they by taking player feedback directly from them while we’re in development, which I think is kind of unprecedented. Tramell will take an art asset when it hasn’t been textured yet, and say “Hey, what do you guys think of this gun? Do you like this gun? Should we change this gun? This is our chaingun model”, and we’ll get things back where people say “No, it needs more barrels,” and they’ll put more barrels on the damn thing. It’s really cool to be able to do that at the stage where we’re at right now.
BE: It brings in some investment on the player’s part because if they want the game to be a game they’d like to play, then it’s on them to let you guys know. Since you brought up the UI, are there any plans to enable players to create their own UI mods?
MH: We’ve talked so much about that, and it’s something we really definitely want to be able to do. I’m not sure if that’s going to be technically feasible when we ship, but it’s something we absolutely want to do in the future. One of the things that we’re gonna do is have a UI customization screen where you’re able to drag around all of the UI elements, be able to select where they’re going to be on the screen, scale them up and down, and those kinds of things.
That’s where we’ll probably be at ship, but post-launch, it’s always a possibility to allow people to put in their own customizable mods. We use Scale Farm for our UI, which is Flash, so anybody who knows how to make Flash movies is going to be able to put stuff that they can plug into the UI. We just need to actually make some of the API calls publicly available, and people can make their own UI mods.
BE: Fantastic…finally all of that Flash programming I learned in college will come in handy.
MH: There you go! So that’s something down the road that we’ll think about exploring.
BE: OK, great. Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I’ll be honest, your story makes me want to pack up my stuff, run down to San Diego, and knock on the door at SOE to get a job.
MH: You’ve got to follow your heart, man.