I was very excited about Planetside 2. The promise of planet-scale warfare with thousands of other players is something no other game has. It’s enough to make a thirty four year old gamer’s mind spin. It’s inspiring.
After only a couple of hours with the game, I uninstalled it. The reason is not its gameplay, which works fine, even if it’s very disorienting to a newcomer. I had no performance issues, either. What it came down to was art.
How is it that the developers of the game do not seem excited about the promise of Planetside 2? The game is just bland – so bland I found out I have no interest in playing it anymore.
There’s two sides to this and both are big issues in games.
One is technical art quality. If you can’t run the game on “high” settings, it looks very bad. The “low” settings are reminiscent of bad Playstation 2 titles. This is something many PC games have been suffering from lately. The engines running the games no longer scale properly. Gone are the days when you could be sure that the game would look nice, and it was a matter of how much extra candy you could layer on top. I think this is also the domain of art direction – you should think about how the majority of your players are going to play the game and make sure it’s something you’re happy with.
If you can crank everything up, things do improve. It’s flashy enough and the scale of the game offsets a lot of the problems. What it doesn’t help with is (and this is the second issue) art direction in terms of identity. Not only should you be able to conjure a look that’s your own, you should evoke something that’s worthy of tens and hundreds of hours of play.
Planetside 2’s visual design is not based on anything. It’s cheap Saturday morning cartoon science fiction meets 90s PC gaming – cheap in terms of textures and polygons, lazy in terms of imagination and structure. There is no reason a shooter couldn’t look beyond make-believe ray guns. Aliens is the building block of most Western scifi because it’s so plausible – functional and based on what we know works in today’s world. Star Wars (IV-VI) are so powerful visually because of the believable, used and worn and lived-in look of its whole universe. Even places like the Death Star feel like something that could exist. You can go as far as basing your shooter on art deco like Bioshock did: it doesn’t matter that nobody in your audience knows what art deco is, but they know a consistent, unique, cool look when they see it.
The non-existent basis of the art leads to problems you don’t have when you’re dealing with reality. Even in something completely non-imaginative like Battlefield 3 or Ghost Recon Online, I care more about my avatars because I understand soldiers. I don’t understand these weird classes of Planetside 2 that don’t seem to exist anywhere. An interesting comparison is Tribes Ascend which is directly based on 90s shooters. It doesn’t make any more sense, but there is a stronger (visual) identity present and thus it makes me care.
Even on a purely functional level, there’s a lot the art should address. It’s very hard to tell apart the various guns, gadgets and classes in Planetside 2. It’s hard to even tell apart the fighting sides. Vehicle and building silhouettes don’t evoke anything. It’s just… stuff.
Normally I eat up concept art because it’s so evocative, even when it ends up normalized and weak in-game. In the case of Planetside 2, even the concept art is just as uninteresting. They don’t seem to care, and neither do I. I was insulted by seeing the first enemy tank that killed me. Surely nothing so lazy and worthless should be able to kill me!
Another big budget title that baffles me with its uninteresting art is The Elder Scrolls Online. When it should be evocative and exciting, it comes across as matter of factly and bland, like something directly descended from the “it’s just a game” identity of Everquest. Compare that to World Of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, which both have visual identities so strong they make people play them on their looks alone. And this is a world with titles as breathtaking as Morrowind and Skyrim in it! It’s not enough to just present art as a quantity anymore. You need soul in it to stand out.