“Oh, shit!” was Derek Smart’s reaction upon hearing the announcement of Sony Online Entertainment’s PlanetSide 2. Smart and his team of thirty at 3000AD had been working on his newest, similarly-themed title Line of Defense for some time before Sony broke the news, but Smart is a PlanetSide fan and has no hard feelings toward the game or its team. “They’re not doing anything different. They’re not doing anything innovative. I see it’s more of a polished PlanetSide… which isn’t a bad thing. I say it on Twitter all the time, but I think people are going to be disappointed if they’re expecting anything different.” The bombast of SOE’s large and loud booth to play that game kept things in perspective as a few days earlier, I’d visited Derek Smart in a quiet hotel room for a one-on-one interview and preview of his new indie game, one he hopes will be his most approachable one yet.
In all honesty, it was humbling to meet Smart. I’d read about him since the extremely troubled 1996 release of his original game, Battlecruiser 3000AD; back before my puberty set in. “There was that,” he says, referring to the lashing he delivered to naysayers and publications that dogged his games over the years, but meeting him in person, he kept a smile and an easy laugh. While his games have been criticized for being released as buggy, unfinished, and complex, he’s taking some of it to heart by bringing us Line of Defense, a new free-to-play game MMO that allows you to fight from ground to space for control of the planet Lyrius. “There’s really nothing to figure out [about Line of Defense]. People tell me my games are complex… have you seen World of Warcraft? Have you seen all those other MMO games? Look at all those icons on the screen!”
But what Smart showed me on his high-end Asus laptop wasn’t so much a game as it was a game engine in its early alpha state. Disconnected from the internet, he wandered through large empty landscapes and bases with a slow jetpack, which exacerbated the loneliness. But this was a template for things to come, of the many things he had planned for the game. “We need to fix that,” or “we’re probably adding/removing that” were common throughout the tour while he popped off screenshots, shifted the time of day to show off the game’s lighting effects, and experimented with the Havok-based physics by launching vehicles off hills. Smart was quick to point out how large these spaces were, of which there are thirteen, with plenty of other planets and moons to expand to for expansion packs and DLC. Each of the four ground-based spaces is sixteen by sixteen kilometers governed by a starbase that can be used for orbital drops if captured. Above the planet are four large regions of space to dogfight in (joystick and Xbox 360 controller support is included) each with its own starbase and… look, it’s big. While each “scene” could theoretically hold any number of players, the game will host 256 people in each for the sake of stability and performance with discrete warp points between them. (Smart says the game will be on dedicated servers only to preserve the persistent universe against threats of hacking and piracy. Amazon’s EC2 cloud-based servers will be employed to some degree because of their easy scalability.)
But aside from toying around in some vehicles, that’s where the reality of the game ended and the theoretical began. Smart described a situation in which one of the mostly-static bases had a large shield generator that prevented orbital firepower from reaching the surface in a scenario not dissimilar to Return of the Jedi. Each faction will fight over capture points of varying capabilities, including armories, command & control modules, shields, and defenses. To prevent one faction from gaining a lot of momentum and the others, each base will only allow for a specific number of vehicles and units to be spawned while bases may potentially “unbind” themselves from a team’s control after a time so that losing teams have a shot at gaining an upper hand. Similarly, you’ll be able to create your own bases with your fire teams (Line of Defense’s version of guilds) and if your skills and certifications are in place, you’ll be able to craft vehicles right out in the field, allowing for some true asymmetric warfare. An economy is coming, but he didn’t know the shape of it.
Smart says that self-publishing through Steam and “the whole nine yards” is “the only way to go”. While Smart was building the games by himself at a point back in the day, he realized that in order to create a game that would breach into the mainstream, this would need to have a larger budget (they’ve spent near five million so far), and a team that still adheres to his ‘lean and mean setup’ philosophy. A PC exclusive, he says he’s not interested in a Mac port, “[it’s] too much aggravation. I’d rather do it on Linux.” 3000AD also partnered with DC Comics to produce a one-off comic to promote the game, which will be handed out during next month’s San Diego Comic Con. Smart also sees intense competition in the free to play arena that he’s leaping into now that it’s matured and gamers are beginning to take them seriously, “you can do high-quality games now,” he says. As a result, Smart says monthly subscriptions for MMOs are a thing of the past, “I would never do it. Anyone who does it these days is losing their minds.”
But somewhat ironically, Smart isn’t interested in moving the dial much to disrespect his current userbase who has allowed for reliable sales, game after game, despite their mixed reception. “You don’t know who you’re going to alienate until you’ve made a change. I’m not going to take that risk.” When asked about potentially reaching whole new audiences, Derek again shrugged it off. “I’m a firm believer of ‘leave well enough alone’. When I look at Line of Defense, am I still catering to my install base or one that doesn’t exist?” In a statement that caught me off-guard, he even said that the content created for Line of Defense would be migrated over to Galactic Command Online, a game he started before Line of Defense. “It’s like having an audio library, how many ways can you make a gun sound?”
But at the end of the day, Smart feels just fine about his approach. “We’ll be making money in month two, [Sony] will be crying in month six.”