Oh boy I can finally tell you all about MAG
by Zipper Interactive
. Last week I attended the PlayStation Gamer's Day Press Event
over in Seattle. I also took a tour of Zipper out in Redmond, talked to some games designers and developers as well as had a hands on match with over two hundred players in one massive battle!
Zipper has had over 13 years experience building online games. Many of the key personal at Zipper have experience building military simulators. They have made MechWarrior 3, Crimson Skies and SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, as well as most of the SOCOM games until 2006 Sony announced that it acquired Zipper. The SOCOM series sold over 10 million copies and was one the essential online first person shooter of the PlayStation 2 era. However rather than make more SOCOM games Zipper went in a different direction.
MAG started off as being short for Massive Action Game but it is now pronounced "Mag" or "in the MAG". It is an online military style first person shooter game that has been designed to have titanic two hundred and fifty six player battles as the core of the game. There is no off line story part and there are no bots. It is a live online virtual battle on a gigantic scale. These are designed to be persistent battles that can last to an hour or more and the results of it will effect a constantly evolving global outcome of "The Shadow War".
The big thing to get your mind wrapped around on MAG is that there are no actions that are not caused by a real human player somewhere in the world. All the bullets, air strikes and foot steps are caused by the actions of other human players in the MAG. It is not like other first person shooter games where everyone is an computer controlled AI player with the exception of one or two humans. We are talking about absolutely everything in the battle is the direct result of human actions. I got it when I was playing it and shooting paratroopers with a rifle as they landed, some one playing the game was on the receiving end of my fire. If you are looking for a linear shoreline where AI driven characters hold your hand from point A to B you should go play a different game. This is war.
In his ground breaking 1984 book Neromancer, William Gibson defined the word cyberspace as the consensual hallucination shared by millions over global networks. That is what MAG is. It is a game that has been designed to be a real persistent place that does not die when you turn off your console. When you log on to the MAG you are assigned your battle and you do your part but the world will continue after you did your duty in the game that day. They are aiming to have MAG deliver, persistent battles and immersive war zones with constantly evolving gameplay. Battles are designed in stages and certain events will change the flow of battle. For example one a bridge is repaired and the anti-aircraft batteries are destroyed it can enable a whole different part of an invasion.
Another way of looking at 256 players at once is as follows. Imagine two armies of 128 each. Now 8 grunt players in a squad, 4 squads in a platoon, 4 platoons in a company and 2 companies facing off against each other as all 256 players on one giant-sized extended battle.
When you fist start to play MAG you create your account. There are no fees to play the game beside the cost of the actual game on the disc. There is no MMORPG tax. You join one of the three armies and customize your armor and weapons. Fighting in battles will earn you Experience Points that you can use to get better equipment, skills and eventually go up in rank. When you go up in rank in MAG there are direct benefits and responsibilities. You can be promoted to command a squad, a platoon and a company by moving up the chain of command. When a superior officer gives you an order there is nothing forcing you to do it but if you do you will be rewarded with more XP. If you make key contribution to the battle you will be even rewarded with more XP. Everyone has free will but if you don't follow orders you are not going to advance in your military career in the MAG.
You can customize your face, outfit (from the selection that matches your army), and game voice. There is no soldier class system but you can customize your load out and save three different load outs to choose from in each battle.
There is a themed interface to match your army, in game messages, friends online notification and pretty much all you need for "clan support" but it is not labeled "Clan support" because your butt is property of your Army not some clan.
The game is set a couple decades in the future. After a global economic collapse caused by an persistent Peak Oil energy crisis. This constant energy crisis made it economically impossible to stage wars with giant conventional heavily armored armies. The resources are simply too scarce. So the various nation states will employ the services of mercenary private military contractor armies (PMCs). These private corporate armies will fight for lucrative government war contracts to fight after the ever dwindling natural resources that the populations of the world want. This scenario is not really science fiction and it pretty much reads like long-term pentagon planning memos for the new crappy face of resource wars and global poverty in the twenty first century. You are fighting for a government contract to try and take food and natural resources by force from in other lands. There is also no civilians in MAG so there are no moral dilemmas about collateral damage. Wow a game that is not ripping off WW2 or Starship Troopers for the story!
But MAG is not about the politics it is about shared giant constant military battles. Joining an army is a pretty important thing because all your experience in MAG is going to be in that organization. they all have unique equipment, strengths, looks and cultures.
The three corporate armies are Raven, Valor and Sver (pronounced Sever)
The look and feel of RAVEN is sleek, high-tech, dark grey, carbon fiber armor and clean. They are a well financed, corporate army, clean shaven with lots of gadgets and strict discipline. After battle they probably drink corporate sponsored beer or lite-beer.
These are chiseled vet tough guys and are the closest thing to a traditional 20th Century army. They hail from the mean woods of Alaska (that is not that snowy anymore) and are likely to have some shots of whisky after battle.
They are sort of the aggressive underdog punk army with roots in guerrilla fighting. They have a DYI Punk attitude and are extremely resourceful in getting lethal results on a low budget under pressure. The are likely to have shots of Tequila with lime juice in a bloody glass.
I could see people getting tattoos of for their army. Choose wisely because once you do every action to take in MAG should be about the global success of their army. They plan on having news broadcasts and community sites carrying the real time news from "the Shadow War" to the gaming world.
Another key feature in MAG is large environments. I mean really big expansive streaming environments that you can get from one side to the other without seeing any loading. Long sighted ranges snipers will love it. These are lit with a really cool multi-layered dynamic shadows and light scattering fog. The particle engine help build the "fog of war" (pun fully intended).
Zipper has been aiming for approachable combat that is easy to pick up for most people who have played FPS games before but many fan service features that the hardcore FPS fans are going to eat up with their rations at chow time. The combat is not as fake feeling as other action games. There is no rocket hopping and instant kills via a rifle butting. This is not Halo or Quake.
There are escort missions, capture missions that can take up to or over an hour to play out. I saw a vehicle escort mission with bridges, anti-aircraft guns, artillery, paratroopers. One army was going to defend a research facility and another was laying siege to it in hopes to break in and steal a prototype armored transport and except with it. The battle had different stages as the invaders tried to peel back the layers of defense while the defenders tried to patch the holes and drive them back. It is not just a huge Deathmatch but there are well defined goals and objectives such as taking out communications or destroying an anti-aircraft gun. One cool thing that I saw what that they were using troop transport vehicles as mobile spawn points so you wouldn't have to walk across the map when someone shoots you good like.
Zipper has been making online multiplayer action games almost as long than some of their fans have been alive and MAG is an incredible technical challenge. Last year at PAX I sat next to a Zipper employee who shall remain unidentified and they said that they were working on MAG. I asked about how online multiplayer was going and they responded very well and that they were slightly ahead of schedule. I reminded them that I was a member of the press and they probably should not tell me that.
Their goal is at least 30 FPS of online data at all times under most high speed network connections and they have been hitting it. They have multiple server farms around the world with dedicated servers with help from Sony on the PlayStation Network. The secret to MAGs online mastery is that it is based on all server to client interaction with absolutely no peer to peer data that can cause bottle necks and lag from losers. This makes your online data frame rate based on your personal connection to the PlayStation Network. So if some dork in your squad wants to play MAG and his roommate is downloading Pr0n over Bittorrent on the same router it is not going to affect your game one bit. In fact it will help you since he will have a crappy laggy response while experience will be silky smooth.
There is multilayer cheat protection built into the server and client from the ground up. They will be running realtime data analysis lookouts for potential cheaters. Since both the server and client are on a mostly closed network and you can't run your own code on a normal PS3 here is hoping that MAG will be cheat free. They also will be doing audits of your military data so you can't just hack you save file and become a high ranking brass puke overnight. Your online service record is updated and expanded with every single match and that is going the help them with some advanced match making to help balance squads.
The communication in MAG is mostly built around non voice commands. Those military hand singles will result in commands given to the troops under you This is brilliant because of the relatively small amount of PS3 games that use headsets and it lets you use all the bandwidth to and from the server to be saved for gameplay data. I think in game voice chat in your squad is peer to peer based and there is an officers only chatline for executive battle strategy.
They have been running weekly developer tests with 256-tests sessions since November 2008 to help stress test and tweak MAG. These test include off site tests with various sony developers and home network connections.
I asked Twitter for questions about Mag and I got:
Since Zipper left the SOCOM series to work on MAG. What did you feel that MAG has which couldn't have been done with SOCOM series
MAG is an entirely different beast. It is all new from the ground up. It is a new generation of hardware a new story and an entire different approach to online combat. If you loved SOCOM you are going to die for MAG because it gave Zipper a chance to go back to square one and design the online military FPS of their dreams. I was surprised to see how physically close Zipper is the offices of Bungie. I've smelled what they have been cooking up out at Zipper and let me tell you something. It smells like victory.