Firefall was finally released in July this year, though work began on the MMO back in 2005. In that time the game changed radically, as did the studio making it: it’s dropped its Arena PvP, its eSports aspirations, and none of Red 5’s founders remain at the studio.
We recently sat down with Firefall’s lead designer Scott Youngblood and design director Scott Rudi to talk about the Firefall’s potted history and their plans for its future, beginning with how it could have been the Tribes MMO.
I heard a rumour that Firefall could have actually been a Tribes MMO.
Scott Youngblood: When I started here Mark [Kern, former CEO] asked me if I wanted to buy the Tribes license. I thought about it briefly and I wish I’d said ‘Yes’. If we’d said yes we would have stopped Hi-Rez making a Tribes game, which would have been fine by me, but I wanted this game to be its own game, not a Tribes clone or a ‘It should have been like Tribes but it isn’t so now I’m pissed off at you.’
If it’s a totally different game then people have different expectations.
What didn’t you like about Hi-Rez’s?
Scott Youngblood: We announced what we were doing and, it was three Gamescoms ago I found out they’d bought the licence, I thought ‘God, I should have bought it defensively’. I didn’t want them to make a game like ours. In hindsight it probably doesn’t make any difference now but at the time it did.
Scott Rudi: I’m just glad someone thought it was worth bringing back to life.
Were you tempted to put Tribes-style skiing in Firefall?
Scott Youngblood: Yes. In fact, we did have an early form of it inputted which we ended up shelving and never went back to which I called ‘sliding with style’.
Why didn’t you continue it?
Scott Youngblood: The map design was different and the speed of momentum for Firefall was not the same as the speed of momentum for Tribes. It’s one thing when you have one server and everyone’s in a relatively good ping but when you’re running an MMO where the variant of the pings is so much larger. The movement of the players becomes something you have to be in more control of.
Scott Rudi: Back a couple of years ago I was working on all the sliding and skiing stuff and in my test map it felt great, I dropped into Coral Forest and was like ‘Ah man, everything’s at right angles. There’s no slopes, no places to ski, we’re not going to go and redo Coral Forest. Let’s table this and in the future we could bring it back.
It sounds like you didn’t have strict design plan when you started development, how much much does the Firefall you released resemble the original idea?
Scott Youngblood: We’ve gone through a myriad of different design phases and philosophies. When I first came on board it was going to be a PvP focussed game where you have one hub and all these other instances. It was just like Destiny but this was back in ‘07. Then we said ‘Well, we have the technology to do more or a shared open space. Let’s not do the hub and try to push this as far as we possibly can in terms of a shared contiguous experience. We’ve kind of hit the limits right now in terms of the size of these spaces we’re able to put together but if we can get through those hurdles I see us charging ahead gleefully to create much larger spaces. I don’t see us doing those kinds of big technology changes anymore, the game’s direction is fairly consistent.
Over the course of the seven years I’ve been working on this we’ve tried lots of different strategies, we were influenced by lots of different things and we had the ability to try those things. I wish we hadn’t have spent the time on some of them but those are lessons we’ve learned and moved forward on.
Scott Rudi: In years past, one of our philosophies was that when you hit 40 you just start another battleframe and that was ignoring the thing of ‘I’m a nighthawk, I only want to play as a nighthawk. I’m a hardcore sniper, one shot one kill headshot guy. Why are you asking me to go start a dreadnaught?’ Over the past year we really started looking at alternate progression models for advanced players: reputation, faction, that kind of stuff, as well as other world activities - armies and the ever escalating operations, and boss fights. It’s motivating, people need challenges and goals.
It’s making sure those goals aren’t a chore.
Do players feel they’re out of beta?
Scott Youngblood: It depends on who you ask.
Scott Rudi: Some of them are quite critical, rightly so.
Honestly, there’s been some mistakes. There’s other areas that we do stuff that is pretty good. I think the game itself is out of beta. On the other hand, as we add new content, what’s going to happen when people start playing in their tens of thousands the operation Miru? We’ve identified things we can do better even in today’s playtest. What’s going to happen when you’ve thousands of players going through it? They’re going to find some interesting things.
Once we tell the users they’re part of establishing that foundation, that we’re going to try this and we’re going to see how you like it and how you play it, a lot of them get on board with it really quickly. They’re like ‘Oh, this isn’t the finished thing.’ They’re wanting to work with us to get to the finished state.
Look at World of Warcraft’s patches ‘We’ve nerfed this, we’ve done this and that.’ The game’s been live for 15 years and they’re still doing that. That stuff never ends. You don’t want to call that game beta. It’s definitely live.
It’s not so much bugs that are the issue. There were features available in the open beta that have been pulled out. It’s like you got to 1.0 by taking things out not putting things in.
Scott Rudi: That’s a fair perspective.
What made it 1.0?
Scott Rudi: Earlier this year we identified a lot of the stuff that wasn’t working: a lot of the eSports stuff, overcomplicated progression and crafting systems. It was turning a lot of people off. What we wanted to do was go through them, work out what the issue was, listen to the feedback, do our own internal analysis, figure out what we wanted to change.
While we were doing that the other half of the team we were working on pure content. We had no content that was going throughout the entire world. The game had been built on layers of dynamic events. You’d go to a new place and there’d be a new version of the melding tornado and that was the game.
Some players need a little more direction, which is why the jobs went in.
Did you have to be 1.0 to release on Steam?
Scott Rudi: No, we had Steam availability. You had to buy a starter pack to get in.
Now you’re out of beta do you have to approach development differently, how do you added things to Firefall?
Scott Youngblood: Try and ask, try and ask. In my opinion this is the best way. You might get some player fatigue over time, you’ve tried too many things and they don’t want to look at your stuff anymore but if you give people the opportunity to experience something and their feedback is aware enough, they’re not just pissed off and angry and railing at you because you didn’t do it the same way their favourite game did, if they give you honest feedback about what their experiences are and what they would like then you can make something better.
Scott Rudi: We always have the metrics as well. What are people actually playing? They can tell us something but we know what they’re actually doing.
How do you find the issues?
Scott Rudi: Forums are a great tripwire but also looking at the metrics and other methods of finding out ‘This + this = broken game’. Broken peninsula exposes most of this. As soon as players are motivated to kill other players they’ll find all kinds of min/max stuff.
You think you’ve been really smart then you release 10,000 people on it and they’ll break in hundreds of different ways. When we were doing design we were saying ‘Oh, the player will never do that, that doesn’t make sense, there’s no logical reason for player to go this way instead of that way.’ And I’d say ‘That’s exactly why some players will do it.’
There’s no logical reason for players to sit there and stack themselves to see how high they can get. We have lots of people dedicated to getting new records.
Players are stacking themselves? How high have they got?
Scott Rudi: Beyond our draw range. It’s ridiculous.
You launch new content and you just watch. It doesn’t matter how good your QA is the players will absolutely... you’re not going to find this stuff.
Scott Youngblood: Even then there are standout players who are so far outside the box you’re like ‘Holy shit’ as soon as you see them do that stuff. For me, that moment was I entered a contest for Carmack’s Ferrari. We’d played a shit ton of Quake and figured we could do this. Out of 3,500 people I made it to 117th, my friend Mark made it to 16th. But the guy who won, ‘Thresh’, nobody could touch him.
Thresh had figured out a mechanic, I’d figured out a different way of exploiting it and he took it and took it 180 degrees in another direction. The mechanic was that if you had a rocket launcher and if you shoot a guy when you’re close enough it will impart some velocity in the direction of where the explosion was in relation to him. So, what I would do is shoot at players’ feet, bounce them in the air so they couldn’t change their direction and then shoot the walls and bounce them that way. Thresh was like ‘I’m not even thinking about you. I’m going to shoot the ground and jump and create a whole new route to go up to that door. Once he did that we were like ‘Holy crap’. To be honest, that's where the jetpacks in Tribes came from. Here’s a player who can do something so far outside the norms that changes the way he plays, and everyone has to change how they play too. That’s cool.
Even on Tribes we had all sorts of things I never intended players to do but turned out to be awesome. Like Dave Moore who was doing our physics came into my office and said ‘I have a bug but I need to show it to you before I fix it.’ He brought me into his office and I sat down and he told me what to do but he didn’t tell me what was going to happen. So I jetted up and as I was going down to this hill he said ‘start tapping the spacebar’. Well the bug was that it computed the jump before it calculated the friction based on the player hitting the slope so by pressing jump at the right time basically negated the collision friction that meant you could slide down and build speed. You could use that to launch you up the hill on the other side. This created a ‘holy shit’ playground for Tribes. It changed the way I was designing maps.
Scott Rudi: That’s how the skiing was born in tribes, by mistake.
Has it been a struggle to balance so many battleframes and items, especially with the core game changing as much as it has?
Scott Youngblood: That was one of the big things. As we went through and redesigned our systems, it was having a big impact on weapons and abilities, and perks on top of that. We took care of a lot of the big things that were painfully obvious before launch. Then, again, you bring in loads of people who are so good at min/maxing and they’re finding all kinds of stuff that, no matter how much testing we’d done internally, they find the good stuff.
How free are you to respec after a balance?
Scott Rudi: Gear-wise, if you’ve geared up for a certain playstyle, especially if you’re chasing a dominant strategy, there’s not too much we can do. Perks [are easier]. It’s not too hard to give everyone a free respec with this patch because we made some pretty major corrections and it’s on us. We made the mistake you shouldn’t have to pay for this.
You switched to a free to play model part way into development, how different is making a free to play MMO compared subscription-based?
Scott Rudi: It’s about how best to get people into that point where they’re not only playing but will consider paying. Mobile does this stuff very effectively but with different rules. The mobile games, the time to convert to pay is aggressive, people will be in and out of those games. For PC it’s a ritual turning on your PC, especially if it’s a desktop. It takes time, it’s why on PC the average play session is longer than on mobile games.
The key to PCs is getting them to having fun and get them hooked. Eventually, if they like your game enough, they will convert. At some point they see a hat that they have to have. Or, ‘Gosh, this level seems to be going a little slowly, I’m going to pay 25c to boost my xp for an hour.’ The important thing for us is to never actually make it a requirement. I’ve no interest in that. Why would you fracture your playerbase? You’re just hurting yourself.
Scott Youngblood: Like those rechargeable battleframe stations. They’re one of those epic items that let you change your battleframe everywhere but you don’t have to have them.
Scott Rudi: And you can craft them. The only thing is the convenience of not having to craft them. And it’s got a cooldown so it’s not a clear advantage. We don’t want people to have a clear advantage over you. It’s convenience not pay for win.
If you’d known at the start you were going to be free to play would you have designed the game differently?
Scott Youngblood: We didn’t think of all the things we could monetise, so we didn’t integrate our systems with the least intrusion to the player experience as possible, which created for a much more difficult situation later.
Scott Rudi: With the free to play game market it’s not just who’s played your game before or are they totally new, but, of the players who have played before, how many have bought something. The mobile industry has done this for years, you’re starting to see some of those strategies, differently applied because you’re not just going to pop the game open while you’re waiting for the bus but there’s things we can learn.
When someone buys a $5 or $50 pack from you they have that feeling of buying the boxed game and feeling commitment. Even if they don’t like it they will play it for a few hours to try and make it work, to justify that expense. Free to play is easy in and easy out. Reclaiming those guys is one challenge. Going after the people who have paid, committed, and voted with their dollars, we have different strategies for those.
A lot of the issues we had in later years was because we couldn’t wipe all the characters and start over. People had already paid and we’d promised not to have character wipes. As a designer that’s puts a certain limitation on what you can do. I guarantee anyone, not just us, who knows their business model from the get go will have a much smoother time of it.
On the issue of fracturing your playerbase, how are you going to reintegrate arena PvP without pulling people away from Broken Peninsula?
Scott Rudi: It’s not really a concern for us. Broken Peninsula’s geared towards the massive organised gameplay, ie guilds and armies. It’s the perfect playground for army activity. We’ve got teams of 20 and I don’t know how many teams it could support.
Scott Youngblood: It’s undefined. It’s n teams, right now.
Scott Rudi: 5v5 arena isn't going to compete with that. Players don’t see it as ‘I can do this thing or I can do Broken Peninsula.’ Usually the choice is ‘My whole guild is online, we’re going to Broken Peninsula’ or it’s an off night, no one’s around ‘I’m going to the arena.’ It’s not a fracture, it’s a content avenue.
When can arena be expected to be back in the game?
Scott Rudi: We don’t want to announce that. We’d prefer the marketing guys to announce that.
Is it likely to be this year? By the end of 2015?
Paul Chiang, Red 5’s associate brand manager: We’ll explore as we get closer to it. Right now, it’s a little premature to talk about our plans for arena.
It was an interesting move. We rarely see developers so publicly remove a feature.
Scott Rudi: Usually the right decisions are the toughest.
Scott Youngblood: We were spread too thin. We were trying to do too much.
What are you working on adding at the moment?
Scott Rudi: We’re trying to get the new player experience right. With the previous versions we weren’t seeing enough players give us a chance. They weren’t hooked by that first five minutes or first hour. that’s really been the focus of a lot of the stuff we’re doing.
At the same time, we’ve been focussing on the end game. We’ve been getting those bookends, the first five minutes/hour and what you do when you get to 40. A lot of teams call that the second game.
We also want an enjoyable solo experience but for me, and a lot of people everything is funner in groups. If you can have people you’re talking with, you’re helping them, and they’re helping you that’s all good.
Scott Youngblood: A lot of our open world design is based around that. You can put down a thumper to get resources and if another player coming by if he helps you, even just a little bit, they get a benefit and it doesn’t take anything from you. Sharing is caring. The dynamic events, even if you help just a little bit you’ll get credit for taking part.
Scott Rudi: A lot of them are intentionally spammy. Like a melding tornado, you can see it on the map and visually from a long ways away because we want as many people as possible grouping up to take on that tornado. As soon as you get 15 players taking on a tornado you have a different experience, it’s a lot of fun. At the same time you don’t want to have tornado after tornado, that would get repetitive. It’s all about weaving back and forth between these gameplay experiences, making them opt in, what seems interesting to you? You could do Ares job, Ares mission, tornado, crashed thumper or just sit there and thump, thump, thump because you have a different goal. One of the things we like to do is ‘What happens if a tornado senses a thumper nearby?’ It will start guiding itself towards that thumper. You get that extra dimension of the random encounter with the player-initiated encounter interacting with each other.
Scott Youngblood: Smart players will use thumpers to lure tornados to areas where they will cause more havoc.
Scott Rudi: Smart or evil.
Scott Youngblood: They’re having fun that’s what we want them to do.
Scott Rudi: They’re dragging the tornado into the new player area!
Scott and Scott, thank you.
Editor's note: travel and accommodation to Red 5’s offices were paid for by Red 5 Studios.