Monday, April 3, 2017

Why PS2 Needs Squad Spawn on Squad Leader

I'm shifting a bit from my normally more historical posts to things which I think can help PS2 and MMO-FPS in general. The game is not dead, and it wasn't my intention for this to be a post-mortem in blog form. However, I will start with a little bit of history for context. So this is going to be long.

The spawn system has been the most core piece of the PlanetSide 2 experience, and it makes or breaks many FPS games. It's undergone many iterations in PS2, but the fundamentals have not changed much in this history of the game. But there were several major spawn changes in PS2:

A Look Back at Significant Spawn Changes

I'm not going to review all spawn options or changes, just the ones that I would consider "game-changer" caliber changes. These are changes that significantly altered the way the game is played.

Squad Spawn via Drop Pod

In tech test (early Beta), PS2 did have Squad Spawn. Squads were 6-man at the time, and squad members spawned on the SL via drop-pod. The SL had a beacon that could be dropped so the pods would come on the beacon instead of the SL. The drop-pod was part-cool effect, and part immersion, as the designers of PS2 wanted to always have players coming from somewhere, and not just spawn into thin air. So to them the players came from drop pods, spawn tubes, and galaxies (more on that soon). There was no publically-known attempt to have squad spawn directly on the SL. 

This method of spawning was reduced to just the squad beacon, as the drop pods at the time were very maneuverable and damaging, and were frequently being used to kill vehicles and travel across a base. Players also had difficulty staying next to the squad leader, due to the drop-pod spawn not being very good in the case of indoor fighting. Players would spawn on roof tops and be farmed by vehicles camping the buildings, and the players would try to steer the pods to kill the vehicles, completely breaking cohesion. You also had players hot-swapping SL to keep a squad going, which was annoying and made eliminating a squad difficult. So with all these issues the spawn on SL was removed, and just the beacon remained, which itself has gotten several changes over the years, along with drop pods which are now far less maneuverable and less lethal to vehicles. But that's the origin of the squad beacon still used today.

I would argue that the problem here was the method of spawning, not the idea of squad-spawning. The drop pods were the biggest problem, especially with the level of vertical gameplay PS2 has.

Sunderer Spawn

In Beta, PS2's original spawn vehicle was the Galaxy, which deployed just like Sunderers do today. This underwent several iterations to handle issues of farming spawners with Flak and to add additional protections. The main problems with the Galaxy as an empire-deployable spawn point were its size (it's actually over-sized, but that's a tale for another day) and its ability to bypass front lines entirely. This made geographical choke points, tank pushes, and ground vehicles largely irrelevant for pushing into a base, because all you needed was to fly a galaxy over them, land behind a rock, and you had insta-zerg. Once landed, a Galaxy was an easy target, and easily killed. They were very difficult to defend beacuse they were just too big and Flak MAX were very effective against them, even when landed. 

A player (I can't remember who, sorry) pointed this out in Beta and made a great case for changing it to the Sunderer, and the devs agreed. The Sunderer created far more stable fights and alleviated many of the problems of the Galaxy. It also more closely resembled the spawn truck of PS1, the AMS. One of many instances where PS1 ideas were able to slowly creep into PS2. And that's how we got the Sunderer spawn.

Reinforcements Needed

Instant Action (now known as "Join Combat") was always intended to be the way you get to fights initially. In Beta, players could Instant Action to locations. Those were directly marked on the map, and you'd arrive in a drop-pod. The IA spawn points were determined by an algorithm, and players had a choice of 5 places they could spawn-in. The problem is that it didn't really have much restrictions, and organized groups created "Steel Rain" where they would select a location and drop-pod en-masse, destroying many vehicles en masse and completely dumping on a fight. This was soon changed to Reinforcements Needed. This used the same system under-the-hood, but it was purely defensive, and it was not available after 50% threshold was reached. This actually had some pretty bad bugs for a long time, which still persist. Its still abusable by outfits and organized players and that's just part of PlanetSide 2 now. It remains a point of frustration and contention among players, some of whom rely on it for their daily entertainment, and others who see it as limiting the gameplay and fight quality.

And that's how we got Redeployside. It was always there in some respect, but there was a time on Amerish when the IA spawn points were not set correctly, so there really was no reinforcements needed or Instant Action on Amerish. It was quite awful, so this system does serve some useful purposes to creating fights and not scrapped entirely. It does need some tuning, but that's not today's topic.

If you notice a trend, most major spawning changes occurred in Beta, when the game was very different than it is today, and the level design and mechanics like Lattice did not exist. Since then, major changes have not really happened. This is largely due to not wanting to risk potentially game-destroying changes. In Beta you can do those things and players are forgiving and are excited by these sort of changes, but once Live you have to be careful not to completely alter the game overnight and destroy playstyles of players and outfits. So since then, there's really only been minor changes to the spawn system, with the exception of one.

Squad Spawn on Vehicle

Transport vehicles (Galaxies, Sunderers, and later the Valkyrie) were given the ability to allow squad members to spawn into it. The vehicle had to be occupied by someone in the squad. This was a fairly significant change, and is often used with Valkyries today (typically to drop C4 on sunderers and tanks). This is a sort of light way of feeling back in squad-spawning, but due to fear of destabilizing the game, it was done very cautiously, and slowly over time. The feature has been mostly positive, and does allow some additional sustaining of squads. You will often see Galaxies or Valkyries hovering high over a fight so its squad members can spawn in and drop out, and low-altitude Valkyries will duck in and out of a fight to drop off spawners and their explosives. 

This also shortens flight-based redeploy for many organized groups, as they can have a squad member spawn a Galaxy from the Warpgate and have their squad redeploy into that Galaxy as it is in-flight to their new destination. This is probably not good for the game, given that it allows outfits to more quickly relocate to places where they cannot redeploy. However, this feature is typically used to quickly reinforce an attack, which does not have reinforcements needed option. As it primarily benefits attackers, I think it is an important feature since attacking is very difficult in PS2.

The Next Big Change 

We are long overdue for a real game-changer in the spawning department. The devs have shown us two areas of improvement that are both notable - capturable hard spawns, and a medic tube. I've already written on what I think of the medic tube on Reddit, and the Hard Spawns are the right idea but the wrong implementation for PS2. With two potential game changers in the pipe, depending on how they are implemented, it is an exciting time. Which brings me to why I feel the need to write on Squad Spawn on SL.

Why Squad Spawn on SL

This is not really new territory for PS2. We've had Squad Spawn on SL before, but drop pods don't work well, and they can be very advantageous in certain vertical locations, and terrible for others. I believe the other major issue - Squad Leader cycling - is something that can be tuned to not be a significant problem. It was a problem with spawn beacons, for example, but not so much anymore. There are other problems, and I'll address them later on. We've also had other forms of Squad Spawn working without breaking the game, like Squad Spawn on Vehicle. This has added some stability to fights, provided you have a vehicle.  The next step is direct squad spawn. It's not a some crazy new concept; it's an evolution of what's already in the game.

These are in no particular order.

Its Natural

To stop a squad spawn, you have to wipe out the squad, not a deployable object or vehicle. This is natural for players. They want to kill other players. PS2 is also a game about spawn control, so what better way to have spawn control than the most natural thing to do in a shooter - shoot the bad guys? 

To take advantage of a squad spawn on SL, all you have to do is spawn on the SL. This should be the default spawn option for every player - assuming they are in-range. Doing so means they will naturally stick together as a squad, improving cohesion and promoting more teamplay, and if we're lucky, a little socialization.

Supporting Squad Play Helps the Game and Every Player

A very important reason to do this, is to reinforce benefits of a squad and help encourage players to be in squads. Players may not realize this, but there were very strong correlations with monetization and stickiness in squad-based play, and active outfits. Both of those are great for the game. It keeps people playing, and paying, and keeps our game running and most importantly growing so we can get continued new features and development, and many more years of enjoyment.

Squad Spawn is Safe(er)

In the spirit of not wanting to rock the boat too much, Squad Spawn is a lot safer than an empire-wide medic spawn tube. You won't have an entire empire popping out of one spot with direct squad spawn. Its limited to a single squad, so any one squad spawn area is manageable. 

Outfits can't abuse squad spawn like they can an empire spawn, and everyone can take advantage of squad spawn. They abuse the hell out of reinforcements needed, and can still dump on any fight they want with a little warpgate -> galaxy action or spawn hopping. It so simple that anyone can use it, and anyone can take advantage of it.  

The most critical thing to understand is you don't need organization to use it effectively. Anything that requires organization to use effectively is going to benefit organized players the most. This is the biggest flaw with the medic tube. Squad spawn doesn't have that problem because a single squad isn't critical to a fight.

Sustainable Fights

Squad spawn can add the layer of sustaining that is missing from the game today. You'd have several layers of redundancy to every fight.
  • Sunderer / Hard Spawn - Empire-wide reinforcement point, limited by NDZs/placement. Blow up or capture to destroy.
  • Squad Vehicle - Valk, Galaxy, etc providing squad-level reinforcement. Blow up or drive off vehicle to destroy.
  • Squad Beacon - Easily discoverable and destroyable backup spawn for a squad, limited by timer and spawn rate.
  • Squad Leader - Primary spawn for every squad. Kill the SL & wipe out squad to destroy.

With the primary spawn being the SL, the primary way you fight the enemy is kill the enemy. Strategically, you also want to go after deployed sundies, squad vehicles, and beacons. These are good tasks for Light Assault and Infiltrators and players with a more solo play style. But as long as Spawn on SL is the primary spawn, fights will be sustained without Sunderers or Squad vehicles - at least for a time. With Spawn on SL you have time to bring in new Sunderers for resiliency, and bring back vehicles to the fight without losing your foothold immediately and Suddenly. Squads can hunker down when their main spawns are down while others or squad members go back to bring in Squad vehicles, Sunderers, or both - keeping the fight alive and going.

Better Small Fights

Smaller fights have a big problem in the game today, and that is that in order to work you need to have a Sunderer, and a spawn beacon is easily discovered and unreliable. Many outfits can do pretty well with just spawn beacons and a hovering Galaxy or two, which is pretty close to squad spawn, With direct squad spawn, you don't need a Sunderer. You'd probably still want one - a cloaking one in particular that you can stash away as a fallback spawn. Without people spawning at it, it can be easily overlooked by defenders, allowing you to sustain a fight with your primary spawning being on the SL. The spawn beacon could still exist as a fallback spawn as well. With a sustainable spawn for attackers (and defenders), a small fight could be practical, and sustainable without needing massive logistical investment, or constant guarding of a Sunderer which can still be easily destroyed. 

Spread out Larger Fights

When everyone is spawning at an empire-spawn, there is a huge pile of players all in one tight area. This is bad for performance, and bad for combat. Fights need to spread out. Squad Spawn enables that. As squads move out from the empire spawn they will spawn on each other. They could all still be clustered, but chances are they will fan out a bit, spreading out the reinforcement spawn. More of an outpost will be fought over; you'll basically have limited spawns in several places, instead of 1-3 main spawns that can shift with a single vehicle or deployable being blown up.

Spawn Camp Alleviation

With squad spawn, you only need to get a SL out of a spawn to break out of a camp. This can be a very useful role for an Infiltrator or Light Assault as a SL - break out, get the squad spawning outside the spawn room, and now you can flank the attackers, push on the point, go after one of their hard spawns, etc. This is a lot more viable than getting a medic out, which has no stealth or mobility advantages. 

I'm sure there's a lot more reasons to do this, but these are plenty. 

Common Squad Spawn Concerns

I'm sure some readers are already thinking of abuse cases for squad spawn and "what about this..." I believe all problems with squad spawn can be addressed with some rather simple tuning and some small UI features.

Identifying the Squad Leader

How does the enemy know who the SL is so they can prioritize killing them? There's a few options here. The simplest is to make the enemy spot icon for a Squad Leader become a large star icon just like friendlies see their own Squad Leader. If you spot the SL, they will have that star and you'll know who to kill. Can also add an XP award or extra notification when you kill the SL. If the spot icon isn't enough, can add a shield shimmer effect or some other visual indicator that the target is a SL. I'd prefer seeing how the icon and other feedback tools work first though. They should also have a different minimap icon when spotted too. Adds value to recon and spotting, which is a good teamwork activity in general.

Squad Leader Cycling

Most concerns with squad spawn we have already seen happen with Squad Beacons. Because of that, we know the most likely abuse is Squad Leader Cycling. And we know that an effective mitigation for that is adding a delay after cycling squad leaders before the spawn activates. How long? I think somewhere in the 30s to 60s range, maybe 45 to play it safe. Could be easily tuned based on how players start using squad spawn. 

There are legit reasons to squad cycle - like the SL logs off, or moves to a different squad, but with a squad spawn delay that is big enough, it will discourage squad cycling unless it is absolutely dire and they want to take the risk of the delay. I believe there's a number that will achieve that. Not sure exactly what it is, but that's what testing is for! :)

Squad Members Spawning into Unsafe Conditions

Basically, squad members spawning in under fire. Ultimately this is the squad leader's responsibility to be safe. But the SL should  have some tools to help mitigate this, namely awareness of impending squad spawn, so the SL knows to get safe, or get as safe as possible for the teammate that's about to spawn in. An audio cue and maybe a text message are probably all that's needed here, with maybe a 3 second warning. Spawn sound -> 3 seconds later your teammate's coming in. If you hear a lot of them in quick succession you know your squad is in trouble and it's time to get as safe as possible. On the other end, it's a lot like taking a revive - the Squad member has the option to not spawn on the SL, or in the case of more organized groups, coordinate or ask the SL if it's a good time to spawn in. 

I don't think this is a particularly bad problem, and it's easy to mitigate.

Squad Leader is a Shitter

Easy mitigation - join a different squad, or make one yourself. You can also try educating the Squad Leader. They may not realize they have become the SL or simply not know that what they are doing is making the squad less effective. Lot of problems fall into this category, like SL is in an ESF, SL is being dumb, SL is cloaked all the time, etc. 

Squad Leader wants to lead-from-the-front

A common concern with Squad Spawn on SL is that they constantly pressured to play super safe and be a spawn point instead of enjoying the game the way they want. There are a few mitigations for this.

Medics allow the SL to be more aggressive than in games that have squad spawn and no revive, since they can bring the SL back up. Battlefield 2 is a good example of squad spawn w/ medics. 

Squad beacons, squad vehicle spawn, and Sunderers are also all mobile spawn options for the SL to return to the fight. As long as the SL puts down a beacon and has a bit of awareness they should be OK to take an occasional death - even one in a bad spot.

Ultimately your SL needs to be mindful not to over-extend or put himself in a bad spot for revives, and needs to be mindful of not putting himself in a bad spot for incoming spawners, but they don't need to play hyper-safe.

Another simple option is to not be the SL if you want to be very aggressive or run off by yourself. SL is a responsibility. It's a leadership role. It's not meant to be a role for everyone, just as not every class is for every player. If you don't like that responsibility, don;t be a squad leader.  Promote someone else in your squad who is playing more conservatively or is more to the playstyle to be the SL.

Squads are Too Difficult to Wipe

Tuning spawn rate, range, cost, and delays can all address this. By "cost" I mean a nanite cost, and before you freak out, I don't think it should be necessary, but it's always available if the resource aspect of the game ever becomes a more important role, or fights become so constant that you need it to create an attrition mechanic. If the fights are so constant that we need this, then I'd say it's a very successful system! :)

Infiltrators as Squad Leaders

I can see cloaking being abused to provide invisible difficult-to-find spawn point, unlike Sunderers which are fairly limited and much easier to locate. I think a simple mitigation could protect against it - you can't spawn on the SL if the SL is cloaked, and adding a short delay after decloaking before the spawn becomes active. This forces the infiltrator to be vulnerable, for at least a short time, in order to enable squad spawning. Only downside to this is noob infiltrators that end up as squad leaders may not know this and inadvertently disable their squad spawn. That's solved with education, or with the same solution as SL being a shitter.

I also think infiltrators have an important role as SL, because they can escape spawn camps the easiest and get their squad in a good position to flank. It adds an important teamwork aspect to infiltrators.  Choice of class for the SL should be an important consideration, and this is the benefit of being an infiltrator as SL.

Light Assault as Squad Leaders

Guys are spawning on rooftops!! We already have that issue with spawn beacons and Valkyrie's & Galaxies. It actually sorta happens all the time these days. It's kind of annoying at times, but not really broken. This would actually help mitigate it by allowing you to counter by having your own SL as a light assault, get up there, and fight them on the rooftops. It could be fun!

Like Infiltrators, I think Light Assault offer a unique benefit when combined with SL spawning by helping bypass obstacles for the squad. It's something for SLs to consider. They should also consider that while they may have a jetpack, their teammates may not. There's also the safe fall implant, which could become more useful if your SL is a Light Assault; equip Safe Fall so you can take the most advantage of their vertical spawn advantage and not accidentally kill themselves.

MAX as Squad Leaders

I don't really see a problem. It's an interesting tradeoff - durability for flexibility. They are harder to kill, but also harder to revive, and it takes a more balanced team of medics and engineers to keep the SL rolling, while normal infantry just requires a medic and can be brought back quicker. Worst-case, disable squad spawn if in a MAX, but I don't think that would be necessary. It's an option if it becomes a real problem, but I doubt it.

But...this only helps outfits and organized players have more advantages!

False! This helps everyone. And being squad-based limits it to the squad, which makes it more difficult for outfits to coordinate them, unlike an empire-wide spawn, which anyone in an outfit can put down and everyone benefits. It encourages outfits to be effective at the squad-level, in every squad. Non-outfit and less organized players can still leverage the value of the squad spawn simply by being in a squad. They don't need to coordinate with anyone, they just need a decent SL and a willingness to spawn on that SL.

What about Fire Teams?

People use those? Honestly not sure what to do about those, but I've yet to really see value in them. I'd say either cut or still have spawn on Squad Leader regardless of fire team.

What about Platoons?

No change in functionality for them.


Here's a sample list (not exhaustive) of some of the main tuning knobs for a squad spawn:
  • Spawn Range - The range of a Sunderer seems about right as a starting point. Could also have a different range if the SL is in a vehicle like Galaxy or Valk. A tighter range also mitigates the cycling issue somewhat.
  • Spawn Rate - Can slow it down if its too difficult to wipe out the squad. Same as Sunderer to start.
  • Spawn Activation Delay After Cycling - Time after switching squad leaders before squad spawn activates, a primary mitigation for SL cycling. 45-60 s or so seems like a good starting value, especailly if the range on SL spawn is large. Needs to be big enough to discourage SL cycling, but not too restricting for legit reasons to cycle (like the SL leaves the squad or logs off).
  • Spawn Activation Delay After Decloak - Time after the SL decloaks before squad spawn activates (I don't think squad spawn should work with cloaked SLs unless there's a Darklight Implant or other way to more easily find cloaked players.
  • Spawn Cost - Nanite cost of spawning on SL. To start with I think this should be 0, unless costs are added to many other spawn methods. But it is a tuning knob that can be used to force attrition. I think it should be something that's added only if needed.

I think I covered most of the common concerns and didn't miss any big ones, but if so I'll edit them in.

The Game Changer We Need

This is the change the game needs to really move the needle and address spawn stability. It's long overdue, and I don't think it would be all that difficult to add to the game. Most of the foundations of it are already there, afterall, we had Squad Spawn before - can't be too difficult to revive and tweak that functionality. The UX work is relatively minor, and overall it's not a massive feature to implement, but it is a massively good feature for the game.

Tell me what you think!


  1. holy shit! thanks for your hardwork man!

  2. Interesting history. Having not been here for most of PS2's history, that was very enlightening.

    I liked your focus on the concerns and tradeoffs. And overall, I do think this is a good idea.

    I'd offer some of the following thoughts:

    Spawn Cost: Should be 15 nanites to start with. The rationale here is part psychology and part practicality.

    Psychologically, if it costs 0, this could let it go up in the air as a "Well, we can add that code section in later. Let's focus on getting the core mechanic done and we'll revisit that later."

    And then it never gets revisited.

    From the players perspective, it creates the psychological aspect of not treating it as a license to human wave their opponents just because they have a closer spawn.

    Practically, it creates an actual attrition mechanic. If I, as the person opposing whoever is using Squad Spawn, can put them in a bad way that results in large volumes of random zergies getting farmed in a room, even if I ultimately lose the point, I will have dented their initiative substantially by reducing their ability to pull assets.

    So that MBT they wanted to pull to carry forward to the next base and continue the lattice push suddenly becomes a lightning or harasser. If its an engineer or medic who has been spamming mines and grenades each life, the effect becomes even more profound.

    This in turn rewards skilled leaders who aren't just waving spawn rooms or doing foot zergs and spam tactics, but who are holding and spawning from secure locations with good angles and defensible places, and who are directing their spawn-ins to survivable objectives.

    Cycling: I'd like to see it requiring a respawn to actually cycle the ability. The rationale here is that the more organized teams will task pair of infils to sit in the hills and then cycle between them. Even with the delay, it'll still turn into the never ending squad.

    I can resolve that because I actually know how to do recon, and I know how to train and order recon.

    The majority of leaders and players, do not. Their conception is "PUT MOTION SPOTTER ON POINT."

    The most advanced I've ever heard from someone not in my outfit is "DART THE DOORFRAMES".

    With the current meta of beacons and cloaked sundies, this is not a problem: Both can be found with time.

    But the tactic I mainly envision being a problem is the Mass Recall.

    So I have a platoon. I send an infiltrator in. They take up position inside obscure outbuilding room. I then make them SL, wait 60 seconds, then have 3 others spawn in on them. I then make them SLs for my other squads. All this time, I'm moving my people inside the spawn range. The timers are up, and I then do a mass-redeploy.

    Externally, this looks like a small number of ghost cappers or fly through ESFs. Until an entire platoon appears inside a hex and pre-positions on the spawn room before the hex-pop even updates. Sound implausible? It is the exact strategy I would use if this feature gets implemented.

    Want more? Lets say we have two lattices, within spawn range of each other. I've got my people attacking one and doing a feinting action, not camping the vehicle terminal. I then have them draw the enemy away, encouraging them to zerg their armor. I then order a charge, resulting in the entire platoon dieing. We've just re-appeared at another, more important base next door. By the time the enemy wises up, we're locking the spawn room and are 30 seconds into the cap.

    The enemy is now forced to either pull massive amounts of armor from the base their at, respawn at the base I'm attacking and walk their guys into a farm, or pull their own sundies and attack one of my bases. Whichever they choose, I'll have an advantage.

    The way I see around this is to link the ability to squad spawn to the presence of the beacon in inventory, much as you describe the original beta system. IIRC, when one is made Squad Leader, you have to respawn to get the beacon.

  3. I would also note that I overall think this is a good idea for improving the leadership experience in PS2, and that we do need more leadership tools to sustain and improve the game.

    But I would temper that optimism by noting that we are asking this of the same group of people who still have not given Non-SL PLs (People who are leading a platoon without leading a squad) access to Smoke, Request Markers, and Command Chat).

    So I can't assert that leadership and organized play is a stated priority focus for them right now.

    This is important because it compels people who want full access to platoon leading to generally manage 47 people, while ALSO micromanaging 11 people in a squad. Only then can they also add to their workload by talking in command and using /orders (/tryhard).

    The mitigation that people do for that is generally to not talk in command chat, either by definition through full delegation, or by choice by axing the command chat off their workload.

    This means the only people left in command chat are people willing to put a lot more work in, or single squads who while being useful, are not as impactful from a coordination standpoint, and of course, the 6-man shitter teams that no one likes being in command chat in the first place.