We ride at dawn: A story of emergent gameplay in Planetside 2

We saw the Prowler before it saw us. Located on a ridge outside the Terran Republic headquarters, we were expecting to see a constant stream of enemy vehicles exit the base. The lone driver of the TR’s trademark tank, however, had no reason to be keeping an eye out for us; we were deep behind enemy lines, with no chance of capturing territory. No reasonable soldiers would be in this deep.

We weren’t reasonable.

“Let’s set an ambush!” exclaimed my companion, TeslaZero, over the comm system.
“I’m an engineer,” I replied. “I don’t have any anti-tank weapons. I can’t damage it.”
“I can,” he noted, referring to his Solar-1, a sort of futuristic rocket launcher that fired slow-moving fission warheads. Technically, he was right, but it was tantamount to suicide; the S1 was meant to be fired in groups to chip away at enemy armor. One on one, tank beats infantry. But if we had wanted easy kills, we would have stayed with our allies.

“Sounds good. I’ll distract him.”

We hid behind some long-dead coral jutting from the ridge, remnants of when this desert was an inland sea. It was less than a minute before we heard the tank’s trundle, crushing sand and gravel as it drove blindly north on the road immediately east of our position. I mounted my ATV and revved its engine.

The Prowler’s treads poked around the corner. “Now!” we exclaimed in unison, and I was off, my ATV racing down the hill towards the tank as Tesla’s comet-like projectile arced towards its target. It hit about the same time I crossed into the tank’s line of vision.

I expected to die the moment our foe’s twin turrets started to swing towards me. But he didn’t take aim, or fire. I could see the questions racing through his head: who was attacking? What was going on? It didn’t make any sense. All he could do was swerve and swing his turret wildly as I drove alongside him, ramming him ineffectively with my quad. The second rocket hit.

At this point time seemed to stand still; I doubt I drove for more than ten seconds, but it felt like an eternity as I waited for the Prowler to wise up. Eventually, he did. His first barrage missed, but at 10 feet away I didn’t have much room to maneuver. My ride exploded with his second shot.

“I’m dead!” I announced, or tried to; by this point we were both laughing convulsively. The Prowler turned around to finish off my friend, who ran amongst the skeletal pillars, still giggling and firing off explosives. I only had an audio feed of his subsequent death.

When we had calmed down, I suggested we respawn at our HQ, the Vanu Sovereignty’s warpgate, to prep for our next adventure. “I almost had him,” he swore, not at all bitter that he had failed. The attack has been its own reward.

Planetside 2’s main selling point is its size, and it’s little wonder. The typical player count for an online FPS has actually shrunk in recent years, a side effect of the big shooters typically using consoles as their lead platform. This reversion to small-scale deathmatches ultimately lead to the absurd scenario of EA aggressively trumpeting the huge, 64-player maps of Battlefield 3 for its 2011 release…despite these maps being the same size as the ones released with Battlefield 1942 nine years earlier.

Planetside 2 zooms past this arbitrary benchmark with 6000 players supported on each of its massive contiguous continents. The scale escalates the skirmishes of other shooters into something akin to actual warfare. While Planetside 2 is in no way a simulation – its far-future setting is intentionally campy, and the class-switching and vehicle-hopping is just as abstracted as ever – it offers the visual awe and metagamic complexity of a wide-ranging, combined-arms conflict.

An inevitable side effect of this open-world take on the FPS is the opportunity for the sort of sandbox play that has been a trademark of single-player games in the genre, from Grand Theft Auto to Far Cry 2. These games offered incentives (namely sidequests and collectibles) to explore and experiment outside the central story. Planetside 2 has no such offerings. The resources used to buy vehicles and consumables (grenades, medkits) are slowly generated by the territory your team holds and automatically given to the player, while certification points (the game’s equivalent of experience) are gained by shooting enemies, healing teammates, capturing bases, and the other normal array of combat actions. The mechanics guide players to a constant stream of large battles, and most will never need or want anything else. What’s a shooter without shooting?

And yet the option for something different is there. Experiencing battle fatigue after hours fighting with Tesla, I suggested a new challenge. We grabbed two unarmed ATVs at our faction’s warpgate; placed a waypoint at the enemy warpgate; and drove straight for it.

This was intended as a suicide mission, an unofficial score attack to see how many yards down we could get before we got blown to smithereens. It was leveraging Planetside’s mass of players to organically emulate the jeep-on-rails segments popular in heavily-scripted shooters. There was an exhilarating freedom in the knowledge that no designer had mapped this experience out for us.

Against all odds, we made it. We swerved between tanks and ran over lines of infantry. Some enemies didn’t bother to engage us. Others sprayed bullets and shells in our direction, but failed to account for our agility.

Once we broke through the Terran Republic lines at Zurvan, all was quiet. We zipped across the desert uninterrupted, appreciating the beauty of this carefully crafted world, cresting off of dunes in an effort to catch the biggest air. Eventually, the shimmering bubble of the warpgate came into view on the horizon. We rode closer and dismounted on a low cliff to the south of their base, barely believing our luck.

We saw the Prowler before it saw us.


  1. love stories like these. the little moments in battlesims carved out by human error and imagination.

  2. reminder that any game designer’s greatest asset is the player