Wednesday, February 15, 2017

PS2 Origins: The Lattice System

I've been putting this one off for a long time simply because it is such a deep topic, and I fear I won't do it justice. It will likely be several posts to really cover Lattice in its entirety.

First, if you haven't already, please read my two previous related posts on Density and The Hex System. It is really important to understand both of those before Lattice can make any sense. This post is going to be more focused on historical events rather than a deep dive into the merits and criticisms. That will follow in another post.

Before Lattice

To understand Lattice, we have to go back. Way back. No, not PlanetSide 2 beta.  PlanetSide 1 Beta. Some readers may have been in diapers at the time. Not many know these events well, but I remember them quite vividly. I've seen some strange recollections of PlanetSide Lattice over the years, but here are the historical facts and effects as best I remember them.

I started playing PS1 in Beta, around mid-April of 2003. At this time there was no Lattice. There were ten continents that had 3 hard-links to sanctuaries and the rest of the links were to other continents. It gave each empire 3 places to start. To encourage fighting, the big continents each had 2 direct sanctuary links, each with a different empire pairing. There was an order to it, but the end result was that a whole lot of nothing happened. What fighting you did see was on those big continents, and other encounters were few and far between. We would load up in a galaxy in sanctuary, fly out to a continent and start capping bases. We'd spend I think 5 or 10 minutes at each one, anxiously awaiting defenders to arrive, but they never came. They had no reason to, unless they wanted to try to pick a fight, but they rarely did becuase they were more interested in farming capture XP since those captures awarded 5000 xp, way more than any kills. And so we would go around capping various locations, getting certs, and trying out the new skills in the game.

But occasionally, maybe once a day, you'd get a skirmish for a little while, often by sheer chance because two squads happened to try to capture the same base at the same time. And when that happened there was magic - the game was amazingly fun with awesome graphics, especially for its time. There was just one problem - those awesome moments were few and far between.

After about a week the game started getting quite stale and frustrating. It was still fun, but the lack of consistent fights and meaningful engagements really took its toll. Players started inventing fight locations and organizing battles in the forums. It worked to some extent, but the game desperately needed a way to do that on its own. It was becoming obvious that unless something changed, this game with huge potential and many great features was going to be an epic fail.

Here's a beta image of PlanetSide 1, before the Lattice. This was about 2 weeks before I started playing.

This image captures well the chaos of pre-lattice PlanetSide. There's captures going on all over the place with no coherence or battle lines, just ghost capping. In case you're wondering, the yellow-greenish splotches are weather fronts. :)

PlanetSide Is A Series of Tubes

To those who read Density, the problem should be obvious. There weren't a lot of people in Beta, and the capturable land mass was massive. Player density was extremely low. The entire world was capturable at any time, and nothing encouraged you or even helped you find the enemy. Around this time there was a popular forum post. I can't remember for certain whether it was a player or a dev who posted it (I'm reasonably confident it was a player), but that person outlined the problem fairly concisely and proposed a simple solution - a connection network linking all the bases on a continent into a web, and you can only capture bases where your faction had an uncontested link.  About a week later, that idea was in the game, and the effect was was about four orders of magnitude more combat and action, and entertainment. It was incredible, and I was hooked for life.

With Lattice came other changes to experience earning for captures - no more did a capture give you a static 5k XP. Instead 5k was the upper limit, and how much you got for a capture or resecure depended on enemy presence throughout the stretch of time before and during the capture attempt. And those captures/defenses were the only way to earn "command XP", which is what Squad Leaders had to level up their squad leading. So not only were there fewer places to attack or defend at any given moment, but each squad leader and member was motivated to go to where the enemy actually was. Ghost caps were not valuable; places that were defended were valuable.  

Here's what the lattice looked like late in PS1.

Same continent as above, only with Lattice. Clearly much more ordered and coherent. The yellow links were the border links - anything with a yellow link attached to it could be captured by you or is vulnerable to capture. To see what you can and cannot attack or what you need to defend, just look at the yellow links. Solid color links are secured and not vulnerable to capture.

The old days of ghost capping and avoiding the enemy were over. Now finding the enemy was easy - they and us could only attack a few places. Go to those places. It also led to an ebb and flow - defending a base led to a counter-attack on the nearest enemy base in the lattice. So the battle would transition from base to open field to base. If you lost you'd spawn at the next base back and the process would repeat. Quick travel wasn't easy except for drop-pods from sanctuary, so players tended to stay in the fights they were in, so those battles were consistent.

It wasn't just the lattice that did this; the experience changes motivated players to create fights, and the spawn rules and travel restrictions kept those fights reasonably stable. But the Lattice is what set the framework and took that massive play space and reduced the actionable play space to a much smaller area, increasing the density greatly. You could still go anywhere on the continent, and the fighting would eventually progress around the continent, keeping things fresh. It was a nice compromise of having a big open world but needing to have some focus for the players to have real and consistent fights.

Impact of the Lattice on PlanetSide

Lattice was in the game for a couple weeks before launch, and it played a big role in saving the game from certain failure. I have zero doubt that without the lattice, PlanetSide would have been a cautionary tale instead of a revolutionary game.

Lattice, combined with Continent Locking is what solved the scaling problem of player density. The connectivity of the ten continents broke up combat into typically 2-3 continents at any one time, which scaled down to one continent off-peak when all the others locked and players gravitated to wherever the best fight was found. At peak we would see many unlocked continents with battles raging on all of them. Within each continent, the Lattice focused the limited population to a subset of the bases and kept the fighting solid. The many relatively small continents & locking allowed the play space to scale with population decently well, and the lattice did the same within the continents. OK, lets fast-forward to PlanetSide 2.

Why No Lattice in PS2 Launch?

Ok, at the risk of being too forward, I'm going to be a bit candid. One of the big reasons was the stigma on PlanetSide, largely passed down from the top. There was a strange belief that PlanetSide was not "successful." I always found it bewildering, because if it wasn't successful, why the hell we were making a sequel and borrowing some ideas from it but not others? And I firmly believed (and still do) that many of the ideas in PlanetSide were very successful and sound, especially Lattice since I saw first-hand how it transformed the game in a very positive way. Regardless, PS1 was generally viewed as a big tub of bath water and it needed to be entirely thrown out, babies and all. Not everyone on the team believed that, but the PlanetSide fanbois were very outnumbered. It was sad.

However, be that as it may, the biggest reason is that a new game often has new fresh ideas and generally people want to try new things with learnings from later games. It's a fair point to say that the way an old game did things may not be applicable in the current era of gaming and to start fresh. To put it into context, the breakout game Battlefield 2 was released two years after PlanetSide. That's how far back we're talking. PlanetSide pre-dates vanilla World of Warcraft.  Many things change, and with it, ideas on gameplay. To great credit, PlanetSide 2 got a lot of inspiration from Battlefield Bad Company 2, which IMO was the best Battlefield ever released. The general idea of PlanetSide 2 is that we have a giant Conquest map, as if you stitched 6-9 battlefield Conquest maps together you get something like Indar. I wasn't there for the creation of Hex, but I believe that's roughly how it originated. If you want more information on this design, check out my post on The Hex System.

So the reason PlanetSide 2 did not have lattice straight away was because borrowing from PlanetSide 1 was taboo, and the team believed they had a more modern and effective design. As I explained in the Hex post, it did seem like a pretty good design at the time. The need for the Lattice simply wasn't there, and even if it were, nobody wanted to see it without first trying out the new hotness.

Rush Lanes

As described in the Hex post, Hex had problems straight away, and while it was stitched up it had fundamental flaws that go back to Density. In spite of greatly improving Hex, it was still not performing the way it needed to, and in the process of being fixed up and responding to how players played the game, the game shifted to being very different from what was intended under Hex. After going through Beta and 3 months of Launch, the ideas upon which Hex was designed had fallen apart, and it was slowly changing into becoming more lattice-like.

Meanwhile players were still avoiding each other, doing a lot of ghost capping, and large zergs roamed around capping things, occasionally bumping into each other, and then going a different direction. Nothing really forced them to fight each other, and nothing motivated them to fight each other, so those fights didn't happen.

A common pattern we did see was where bases were really close together we'd see a smooth flow that often played out like a Battlefield Rush map. There was a common lane of combat between Allatum and Zurvan where players would go from Allatum to Ti Alloys, to THE CROWN, to Zurvan. That would go back and forth and when it didn't dissolve and go another direction, it was a good fight. That pattern existed in many places on all continents, but particularly on Indar. The next evolution of the Hex system was to further restrict the connections to reinforce these lanes and create more stable fights. These were then known as "Rush Lanes."

Here's a picture of the Indar Rush Lanes.

The hexes were made tiny to have clear separation between the lanes and reduce the number of connections, which was not possible with the larger hexes and when every hex bordered another. In the middle we can see the aforementioned Allatum <-> Zurvan lane, as well as many others. The intent was quite simply to focus the fights more. We erred on the side of less connectivity to really push the idea to the limit to see how dramatic the effect would be. Even early testing on a very unstable test server showed far better fights with a much lower population than typically on live.

Return of the Lattice

The astute observer would recognize that Rush Lanes bear a striking resemblance to a Lattice, except it's uglier and more confusing.  Remember above where I said PS1 had a stigma associated with it, and ideas from PS1 were taboo? The moment anyone said "Lattice" some influential people would shut down and immediately write off the concept as being part of PS1, and therefore a failed idea. When describing Lattice in more abstract terms and drawing on similarities to recent popular games like BFBC2's Rush Mode, we could have a conversation without triggering the automatic PS1-is-fail response. Please don't think that everyone was dumb and didn't make the connection; that is not true at all. Everyone knew that Rush Lanes were really Lattice, but we weren't using PS1 context so it was successful in deflecting the instant dismissal. We could move past the stigma and talk about the merits of the system irrespective of its history in PS1, because we weren't talking about PS1 at all.

Once we saw the system in Test and the very promising results, it was clear that this was the change the game needed. We were then committed to it, so we addressed the elephant in the room - Rush Lanes, while functionally effective, look absolutely terrible. instead of shoe-horning the Hex system, a complicated computer science data structure was used - a graph. :) That graph then got visual representation and improvements. This is the point the Hex system completed its transformation into Lattice.

Here's the  functional equivalent of Rush Lanes with the Lattice face-lift and new map UI. Hex coloring is in heat map mode so the lattice links are more clear.

As with the original PS1 lattice, the yellow links indicate capturable/vulnerable bases.

After a long road, PS2 has a lattice similar to PS1. However, it is important to note that the number of bases on a PS2 continent are far more and the size is far bigger than PS1. The lattice didn't quite play out the same way. That's a different problem though, one of continent size being too big and not granular enough to enable good scaling. But the effect on combat was still quite dramatic. Moment-to-moment gameplay in PlanetSide 2 was greatly improved with this change, and many of the zerg-balls avoiding each other ended and fights became a lot more stable.

Looking back, the Lattice was an inevitable evolution of where the Hex System was going as it was being tweaked. The directions of the changes culminated with Rush Lanes, which were a hex representation of Lattice.

I think this post being a mostly historical chronicle is a good start. I'm going to save the analysis of the merits and criticisms of the Lattice for my next post. Thanks for reading!


  1. This Blog is touching on some things I have been trying to discuss on the forums and to devs since Planetside Tech test, which I was in. They keep trying to stay away from the things that were in Planetside 1, as if it was unsuccessful. When in reality the only reason the game took a shit was because they purposely sabotaged it by disabling core combat right at launch of Planetside 2. Planetside 1 even had Miraculous battles well after Planetside 2 launched, they just ruined the meta of the game by literally removing content from the original.. content I paid for when it came out btw.

    My biggest gripe with the way they have handled Planetside 2 is that everything is just rushed and half-assed. Half of the Dev team for all of SOE was fired around the time of Alpha Planetside 2 and therefore they just told them to rush it and launch so they could monetize it. Most of the Devs that knew how to develop the game are far gone/fired at this point....

    So here we are years later with no working warpgates, non-persistant captures of continents and the silliest balancing I have seen. We dont have destructible spawn tubes, generators etc.. (im not talking about pushing a button to self destruct) with a lack of doors and interior complex buildings the meta is pretty lame for a shooter really. I mean seriously we haven't had a new Continent in nearly 3 years and they are worried about tanks one hitting infantry, its horrible. The game is just being rushed to monetize and its very frustrating as someone who loves the franchise. Just about everything they have added that was in the original was a success, its so very sad that they just keep killing the game by not developing the key components

  2. Thanks for writing this. It's sobering to see how merely attaching a name to something (planetside 1) can close people's minds to concepts that were completely necessary.

  3. If the snobs at SOE had just taken the lessons learned from PS1 and put it into PS2's graphics & general updating, PS2 would probably be considered one of the best games of it's time.
    Even 5 years later, it's still just a long-duration, large mapped glorified TDM.

    Planetside 1's appeal was to create an environment for WARFARE, and let the players create the stories.

    It's good they finally embraced the lattice, but alerts suck. Hopefully if we get another 5 years it'll be because they added intercontinental lattice, functioning warp-gates, and sanctuaries. Oh and get rid of redeployside.

  4. The Lattice is extremely boring, it's quite telling that a religion worshipping it has cropped up, even though it was an idea that was come up with in 5 minutes and never changed since. Planetside 2 died the moment that shit was reintroduced.