Building a Bigger Shooter:
The Grand-Scale Level Design of an MMOFPS
An Overview of Planetside 2's Level Design
I was brought over to the Planetside 2 team in October 2011, about six months into development, to work on various facets of design implementation. Though I filled a variety of roles in my 3+ years on the project, such as streaming, writing lore, and theming/naming weapons, the vast majority of my time on Planetside 2 was spent designing and building the environments where players would fight. It was an exciting part of the game to work on; the world team launched Planetside 2 with a stage set for the game's massive battles: three 8km x 8km continents, each with anywhere from 50 to 100 unique, handcrafted bases.
Given the game's complex moment-to-moment combat, open world, and an almost unexplored genre, Planetside 2 proved to be a challenging title to initially make levels for. The big ticket bullet points alone, such as the combined arms combat and its massive scale, all made what works in Planetside 2 a bit different from the typical FPS.
We found out pretty quickly how deeply these traits worked together to fundamentally change the way levels are put together, and strive to encourage fun dynamics, mitigate the undesirable ones, as well as accept the chaos that will occur when players are allowed to fly two dozen gunships over a fight.
Even the most well-designed bases may be vulnerable to the tried-and-true "throw fifty fighters jets at it" strategy.
The L-B-F Layers
The scale of Planetside 2's combat splits the game's level design concepts into the three L-B-F (ləˈbʌf) layers. These range from the abstract, continent-wide Lattice down to the Facility, a (sometimes literally) concrete outpost where infantry fights occur most. Each individual Facility on a continent is far from self-contained; the composition of individual outposts can have a significant butterfly effect on the entire regions depending on how well it harmonizes with other the layers, and vice versa. This piece will focus on Quartz Ridge and Indar Excavation Site, a couple of bases on the western coast of our first continent I had personally iterated on over several years. Though initially we tried to solve a stagnant slugfest between the two bases, it became a testing ground to iterate and observe the resulting changes in player behavior.
(Left) Map of Indar & the region this write-up looks at inside the yellow box.
(Right)The Lattice around Quartz Ridge and Indar Excavation, the area we'll be taking an in-depth look at. In this picture, Quartz Ridge and Indar Comm Array are vulnerable to each other, and a fight may pop up between them.
At the highest layer of PS2's level design is the Lattice; a zone-wide web that connects any given base to at least two more bases nearby. While the Lattice itself is an abstract layer that only provides the answer for "Can I attack this next base?", this zone-wide skeleton is where the continent gets its flow.
It can function like Indar, where asymmetry, high outpost density, and extra connections make enemy attacks difficult to predict. Or like Amerish, which uses a connection-light Lattice, pushing players to commit to a single lane and giving junction outposts a higher strategic value.
An important facet of properly integrating the Lattice was the interplay between connections and the terrain around them. Being able to see a base as 'attackable' only to find out it wasn't proved frustrating, as anyone who successfully fought into a disconnected base has discovered. This harmony is important between other layers as well, where placing a base entrance too far from where the road hooks in can cause mass confusion trying to find the front door.
If the Lattice layer forms a continent's skeleton, the Battleground layer is its muscle. Forming the middle of PS2's level design and arguably much of the game's iconic feel, the Battleground is composed of the terrain between any two facilities. We agreed that the aesthetic of a massive, combined arms advance towards an outpost and the resulting fight were experiences that really defined something special about Planetside, so we did our best to encourage these ad-hoc field skirmishes.
We also discovered how the flow and rhythm of a Battleground gets shaped by what's carved into it. Big open spaces encourage combined arms firing lines, where shots are exchanged from the extreme sides of a vast no man's land. Adding gentle, rolling hills and human-size cover gives infantry safe lines to follow along the field, leapfrogging between objects to break LOS of high threats. Cover or buildings large enough to deploy a mobile spawn truck behind act as repeaters, refreshing the flow of infantry that may have become 'attenuated' while crossing the field, and allowing that force to more easily push towards the next outpost.
The arrows show typical troop and vehicle movements moving along the Battleground between Quartz Ridge (left) and Indar Excavation Site(right). The long barren stretch of land and the Excavation Site's high vantage points makes the second half of this Battleground advance high in attrition.
The final stop on this human body metaphor is at the lowest layer and heart of any fight, the Facility. At this layer, PS2's level design overlaps a considerable amount with modern military shooters. Here, a man-made Facility contains capture areas that transfer ownership when held by an attacking force for several minutes. When it finally changes hands, any connected bases are now vulnerable to attack, and that force can continue to move along the Lattice and gain more territory.
Looking at its most basic pieces, an individual outpost is created by choosing locations for several cap points, choosing roughly equidistant (50-150m) locations for hard and mobile spawns, and then partitioning out layers and lanes that can scale to accommodate anywhere from 20 to 200 players. Letting a side spawn closer to the cap point(s) gives them a significant advantage, so these values can get tweaked to create hour-long meatgrinder fights or quick skirmishes depending on who gets the handicap.
Arrows show a typical circulating fight at Quartz Ridge, a Facility, once the attackers have deployed mobile spawn points at the perimeter. The road on the bottom allows a force to deploy in multiple locations, putting pressure on the defenders and spreading them out, ultimately making the fortress a little less defensible.
While there's only a few basic pieces that form the foundation of an outpost, there are a significant amount of variables to consider when making decisions due to the game's depth and unrestricted player behavior. At this level of granularity, some choices were made to restrict this freedom to provide consistent experiences and scale with varying populations. For instance, nearly all capture points are housed in a building or covered space, limiting the engagement range to the room it's in, as well as restricting cap point combat to infantry-only.
As a result, the base can function well both in small fights with only 20 soldiers, as well as with large, combined arms fights that bleed far out of the cap point area. While the ability to keep a point clear by placing snipers on a nearby hill or carpet bombing the it with gunships technically offers depth in number of options, we found Facility interiors played best when reined in to around 5 to 50 meter engagements.