Image: Daybreak Games.

'PlanetSide' Is Dead, But a Group of Players Is Trying to Bring It Back to Life

How hacking 'Planetside' became the only chance it has to not be forgotten.

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Aug 22 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Daybreak Games.

In a brief moment before the apocalypse, there was no more war. For the first time in 13 years, the continents of PlanetSide, a massively multiplayer shooter for PC, knew peace. On the wind-swept deserts of Ishundar, players from the three warring factions met at a place called Stonehenge, and there they gathered to welcome the end of the world—of PlanetSide—together.

In true PlanetSide fashion, that peace didn't last long. One player ordered an orbital strike where the masses had gathered, and in an instant dozens died in a radiant explosion amid screams from the voice chat server a hundred of us gathered to play on. The congregation scattered beneath the hail of laser-fire and chaos resumed. Some soldiers took the opportunity to kill, others gathered with their friends to watch the end together, and I, being a stranger in this world, merely looked up and waited.

Moments later, the sky began to fall.

On July 1, over 13 years after launching, PlanetSide closed its servers forever. Its developer, Daybreak Games, stated that this was "due to evolving business needs and technical requirements," but that's little solace to the players who loved and invested hundreds of hours into it. I was there to capture those final moments, which you can watch above. Luckily, though PlanetSide might be gone for now, thanks to the effort of a dedicated group of fans and one programmer trying to rebuild it, it might not be gone forever.

The End of the World

"The thing about PlanetSide, unlike most games, is it has a lot of memories. You can really picture moments you had while playing because every moment matters," a player by the name of 'Chord' told me over Skype. "You felt very invested with the game itself because of its permanence, it actually had meaning."

Unlike most first-person shooters that existed at the time when it first launched in 2003, PlanetSide allowed thousands of players to battle simultaneously over its 10 alien continents. Instead of small matches that lasted only a handful of minutes, like a round of paintball, PlanetSide simulated war—complete with shifting frontlines, supply chains, and coordinated maneuvers between hundreds of players. PlanetSide's three player-run empires didn't fight for highscores, they battled over bases and strategic objectives that they would then have to defend—sometimes for days on end.

Where World of Warcraft is teeming with computer-controlled 'NPCs' who dole out quests or help tell the story, PlanetSide's story was entirely written by the players fighting—and dying—together.

"[PlanetSide] was ambitious, bold, and perhaps even a little ahead of its time, but for those who experienced it, they could never go back to smaller scale conflicts. This was a game that is truly unique and helped shape many people's expectations for [first-person shooter] games going forward," Tony Jones, Daybreak Games' lead community manager told me in an email.

According to another player by the name of 'Mook,' that wasn't the only thing that set PlanetSide apart: "Without players, especially friends, it's not really much of a game. It has no [non-player characters], and shouldn't. It's all about player interaction." Where World of Warcraft is teeming with computer-controlled 'NPCs' who dole out quests or help tell the story, PlanetSide's story was entirely written by the players fighting—and dying—together.

Hundreds of players gather to prepare for an assault. Image: Daybreak Games

But in an industry where new games are constantly pushing boundaries and technology, PlanetSide began to fall behind as it got older. Eventually, it was no longer the genre-defining game it once was, and by the time Daybreak Games released PlanetSide 2 in 2012 for PC and later for Playstation 4, its population had shrunk considerably. By 2014, when PlanetSide scrapped its subscription-based payment model and went free-to-play, it was evident that it was already dying.

I spent PlanetSide's final day playing with the small community that remained. Many of them are players disenfranchised by how Daybreak Games has handled development of PlanetSide 2. One player points me to a thread posted on the PlanetSide subreddit by Daybreak Games laying out their roadmap for the next year. The top-rated comment in that thread, this player told me, captures the attitude of some PlanetSide 2 fans perfectly: "I'll believe it when I see it." It's not that PlanetSide 2 is entirely bad, he told me, but it represents years of empty promises and neglected concerns.

"As a result of the lack of support, attempts to exploit the apparently shoddy security were not prevented," Mook said. "There were a lot of malicious individuals exploiting game weaknesses to drive players away."

That cynicism reaches back to PlanetSide. "I didn't play [PlanetSide] as much as I wanted to," Mook said. "The game wasn't supported by its development team." He told me that, as PlanetSide got older, Daybreak Games (then known as Sony Online Entertainment) began investing in the game less and less. And the less Daybreak Games paid attention to PlanetSide, the more hackers did.

"As a result of the lack of support, attempts to exploit the apparently shoddy security were not prevented," Mook said. "There were a lot of malicious individuals exploiting game weaknesses to drive players away."

"It was just never going to be fixed," Chord said. "And as long as it wasn't going to be fixed the game could be ruined by people who were hacking." He explained that hackers could manipulate PlanetSide's code in order to teleport at will, increase the speed and accuracy of their guns, and even kill whole platoons with only a few button presses. With Daybreak Games seemingly uninterested in stopping them, it wasn't long before the only war being fought in PlanetSide was against its hackers—and no one was winning.

Hacking the Hackers

Chord isn't just another member of the PlanetSide community, he's also the developer of PlanetSide Forever, a project that aims to emulate PlanetSide so that players can continue to play using their own servers instead of relying on Daybreak Games. As a teenager, he was intrigued by the way hackers could manipulate PlanetSide's code and began experimenting in the "dark arts"—peeling back the game's skin to see the flesh and bones that no player was ever intended to see.

In the final day before PlanetSide shut down, I stormed bunkers with other players, routed enemy advances, and participated in Normandy-style airborne landings behind enemy lines. But what I didn't see was any hackers. "We had some people who were downloading the actual hacks themselves and essentially just waiting for them to appear and if they saw them do something, they'd just punish them, like judge, jury, and executioner," Chord explained. "It was pretty lawless, but the only option was to fight fire with fire."

It's a massive undertaking, but before PlanetSide closed Chord managed to capture over 87 million packets of information thanks to the help of 42 players who used his software.

While hacking was, according to many of the players I spoke with, the poison that slowly killed PlanetSide, it is also the reason PlanetSide has any hope of existing after being shut down. As Chord's curiosity for how PlanetSide was built evolved along with his skill in programming, his focus shifted to the idea of building a perfect recreation of PlanetSide that could exist independent of what Daybreak Games did with the original.

Unlike most games that feature a single-player component, PlanetSide and other massively multiplayer online games use a central server that players connect to, acting as a hub that coordinates the actions of each one while playing. When Daybreak Games switched that server off, they effectively switched off the entirety of PlanetSide with it.

Players gather at Stonehenge to await the server's closure. Image: Daybreak Games

The problem with building an emulator, however, is that while Chord has access to the data and programming stored in the PlanetSide game files each player downloads, he has no understanding of how the server is built or structured. But in those final moments of PlanetSide's life, while I was watching the sky fall and everyone around me die as meteors slammed into the earth, there were programs that were watching too. Chord developed packet sniffers, programs that would intercept network traffic while playing PlanetSide and logs the data transmitted between a player's computer and the PlanetSide server. Chord could then read that information and, piece by piece, begin to reverse engineer how it all worked together.

It's a massive undertaking, but before PlanetSide closed Chord managed to capture over 87 million packets of information thanks to the help of 42 players who used his software. It's enough, he hopes, to build a replica version of PlanetSide's server that players can connect to and play.

"It's a lot of work," he told me, sounding just a bit weary. Already he's invested over a year into the project, and he's unable to guess how many years it will take until PlanetSide Forever is fully-functional. Already players can download it, login, and walk around an empty version of its world—it's not much but it is progress. And even though there's still a long road ahead, Chord remains optimistic.

"At the moment the project is quite healthy, we have people interested and people contributing," he said. "Having community help was absolutely the right choice. It's the only reason this project has made it as far as it has, having that community there is really important."

An Uncertain Future

Whether or not Daybreak Games is going to decide to see PlanetSide Forever as a threat to their intellectual property and shut it down is a far bigger obstacle, however. While emulators—like the ones you can use to play Nintendo games on a PC—have a legal precedent in the United States, server emulators like the one Chord is developing exist in an awkward place because they often appropriate copyrighted materials directly from the games they replicate. The server code that Chord creates might be his own, but the graphical assets, artwork, and audio files aren't.

Image: Daybreak Games.

The legal battles over private servers for online games is as long as it is depressing. Recently, the shutdown of a World of Warcraft private server by Activision Blizzard prompted huge backlash from the community. Last year Daybreak Games set a major precedent by sanctioning a private server for Everquest, another of their online games—but it remains to be seen whether or not they'll afford PlanetSide Forever the same benefit. I asked Tony Jones about Daybreak Games' opinion of PlanetSide Forever in an email, but he elected not to address the question.

Chord, however, remains hopeful that an arrangement can be made. Some players in the community are championing PlanetSide Forever as a viable alternative to PlanetSide 2, but Chord told me he has absolutely no intention of PlanetSide Forever being little more than a small attempt at preserving a game he and others love so dearly. "We don't want to step on [Daybreak Games'] toes, we don't want to draw anyone away from their existing games. We're not looking to profit from this emulator in anyway whatsoever from now until the end of this project. We don't really have any expectations of thousands of people coming back to this game. It's just a pet project for us in a way." Whether those intentions will be enough to cause Daybreak Games to continue ignoring the project or to sanction it as it has others only time will tell.

Players flee as meteors crash to the earth in an apocalyptic final event. Image: Daybreak Games

One question Tony Jones did respond to was my concern that, in closing down PlanetSide and providing no way for players to experience its unique gameplay, Daybreak Games was essentially erasing a very crucial part of gaming culture. "We aren't too worried about PlanetSide 1 vanishing entirely from history because we know it will live on in the hearts of our employees and the fans who played it," he said.

As I sit in PlanetSide Forever's voice chat server, quietly listening to a hundred players audibly groan as a message appears on screen informing us that we have been disconnected and that PlanetSide is now officially dead, I'm not convinced that's going to be much consolation. "We, the players, invested so much time and money and our net result is disappointment," Mook told me bitterly. "Our characters are gone. Poof. We don't own them. We never did. [Daybreak Games] have the keys, and all we have are memories."

If Chord can see PlanetSide Forever to completion, fans of this 13-year-old online shooter will have a whole lot more than just that.

Correction: This article originally stated that PlanetSide had four alien continents. It actually has 10 continents.

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