mag photoSony’s MAG is an experiment in group psychology. In this online game, 256 players can engage in first-person combat in the same online session. The question is whether the games will be organized duels between armies, or a crazy free-for-all where it’s every soldier for him- or herself.

I played the beta of MAG (which originally meant Massive Action Game), a multiplayer-only online game debuting on the PlayStation 3 early next year. If the game works as advertised and the supporting PlayStation Network holds up under the stress of so many players, MAG will represent a huge step forward in simultaneous multiplayer gaming.

The title has been a labor of love at Zipper Interactive, the Redmond, Wash.-based game studio owned by Sony and the maker of the SOCOM: US Navy Seals series of combat games.

This game is set in 2025, where there is official “world peace” between nations but private corporations wage war against each other in the global economy. There are three different private corporate armies you can choose to play. Valor Company is comprised of former U.S. and U.K. special forces soldiers. SVER (pronounced “sever”) has soldiers from the downtrodden states of Asia and Eastern Europe. While the Raven Industries faction has high-tech Western European gear but is the least battle hardened.

mag 1Most first-person shooter games max out at 12, 16, 32, or sometimes even 64 players at a time. No one has tried to build a network so good that it can support as many as MAG can. Seth Luisi, design director at Sony, said in an interview that the company has been working on the goal of creating massive “frag fests” for years. One of the technological tricks it has learned is cool. It’s hard to track so many moving objects at once; but each character only sees a few things moving around at a time, so the game itself only updates data on moving objects that are within a given character’s view point.

It’s truly impressive when you move into an overhead view of the battlefield and see all of the blue or red dots moving around, each of them an individual soldier played by a real human.

With MAG, the battles can take on a much larger scale and even require organized strategy. For instance, players need to capture certain strongpoints on a map in order to move closer to victory. They can fire artillery barrages at the enemy, prompting air strikes against the artillery from the other side. But the air strikes won’t be effective unless the infantry advances and takes out the other side’s antiaircraft missiles. If the infantry advances far enough, then reinforcements can spawn closer to the action and make resupply easier. These actions require so much strategy that it means that the soldiers and the squads that they belong to have to be guided by smart human commanders.

The character outfits are customizable. You can decorate your character and it shows up inside the game. You can create five “loadouts,” or collections of gear that your soldier can use in different combat situations. You can create a loadout for a medic, for instance, or a sniper. You can arm yourself for close combat, electronics hacking, marksmanship, heavy support, or explosives — whatever you want.

If you choose heavy weaponry, you have more firepower, but you’ll move slower. You get to spend a fixed number of points tricking out the character; that equalizes the game since everybody gets equal treatment. This is all fairly standard in multiplayer combat. If you work your way up to level 15, you can become a squad leader, who can be in charge of eight soldiers at a time. As a squad leader, you can assign objectives to your players and give them a leadership bonus in the fighting when you are near them. You can gain double experience points if you fight as a group. That’s one of the things the game designers have done to avoid a free-for-all Lord of the Flies environment.

At 350 leadership points, you can become a platoon leader, in charge of four squads, or 32 soldiers. The highest rank is Officer in Charge, who can lead 128 soldiers. In the beta, there are 12 maps available. There are vehicles in the game which you can control, such as an armored personnel carrier. If you move the vehicle around on the map, it can become a mobile spawn point, which means it’s the place where soldiers respawn after they die.

Your character advances based on experience points. If you level up enough, you can create your own clan, a kind of virtual posse of players who fight together. You can unlock goodies that help you fight better, such as a gun grip that gives you better aim. At any given time during the action, you can look up stats on which side is winning and who has the most kills.

I’m embarrassed to report that I got only four kills in an 18 minute match. That was pathetic. But these enemies really had my team pinned down as we tried to cross a bridge or ford the river below it. It was easy to forget that every enemy within sight of me was a smart human who could see movement and would likely fire on me if I moved into the open. Unfortunately, in this game, we had to try to advance on the enemy after they blew up the bridge. They were mowing us down with big fields of fire and dropping artillery and poison gas on us regularly. I think that meant that their defense was very well organized while our attack was uncoordinated. I tried to move to the side of the map in an attempt to flank the enemy, but some well placed snipers stopped me cold.

It’s too bad the game won’t be ready for the holidays. Sony recently extended the beta test until Dec. 5, and the actual game will debut on Jan. 26. During the beta test, Zipper has been evaluating the data, such as kill maps that show where soldiers are dying most often, or navigation paths that show the most traveled parts of a map. They adjust the levels to make the maps more balanced. Let’s hope they do a decent job finalizing. I’m looking forward to a lot of frag fests.

Sony has given VentureBeat 50 beta codes to give away. To get a code, send an email to The beta will continue until the stroke of midnight on Dec. 5. [Photo and video by Alexa Lee]