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The lead-up to launch: Preparing Firefall for its official release

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Posted on July 9, 2014 AT 05:30pm

My tale of Firefall begins with a totally different game: Capcom’s Lost Planet 2. While not the first third-person shooter to exist, it gripped me in a way that few in the genre had before it. I’d been used to competitive first-person shooters for years at that point, but the switch in perspective added new dynamics and possibilities—and I wanted more. Sure, there were other options out there, but what I really longed for was something that looked and played like Lost Planet 2—a mix of future tech, quick movement, and a bit of lighthearted fun.

Not long after that, I stumbled upon Firefall. Announced in 2010 by developer Red 5 Studios, Firefall seemed like just what I wanted—only on a much grander scale. It had the sense of fast action combined with character progression and customization, all put together in an open-world package that tapped into the growing world of massively multiplayer online games.

As we chat to discuss Firefall’s upcoming graduation from beta status into full official release, Red 5 Studios CEO James Macauley remembers back to that time and the desires that would become the template for how the game would shape up. “Firefall was the game that we’d been dreaming of for many years,”  he says. “This is the game we’ve wanted to go home and play for so long.”

However, in 2010, the idea of releasing such a game as free-to-play didn’t seem like a smart move to many. Games that were given away for no cost, instead making money after the fact through microtransactions or premium subscription accounts, weren’t a perfectly viable business option back in those days—they were the desperate plans of developers that knew their projects weren’t good enough to otherwise be sold for full price. At least, that was the attitude by many from all sides of videogaming, something Macauley ran into during Firefall’s reveal.

“We announced Firefall at PAX Prime in 2010, and I remember every single interview I did—every single interview, and then tons of gamers coming up to the booth—being asked the question about how we were going to make money,” he recalls. “At the time, I joked that we were all volunteers. Fast-forward to last year, and I don’t think I was asked that question once at the trade shows I went to. It’s funny now to me, as a player, how my mentality has shifted so greatly in the last three years with more and more games coming out as free-to-play. Now, it’s an oddity to have [an MMO] you have to pay money for.”

Indeed, the question on players’ lips concerning Firefall in recent months haven’t been about the viability of its business plan—it’s been the uncertainty of when the game would finally be finished. Just shy of being in beta testing for three years as of this point, which can seem like a lifetime of waiting for a game project to be considered finished enough to open up to the general public. Macauley, however, says that those years have been crucial to Firefall and what it would be going forward.

“The beta wasn’t a marketing gimmick to get people to try it out before we launched—it was very much designed for us to look at what’s working, what’s not, and make sure that we have the adequate time to adjust, attune, iterate, and also build out additional content,” he explains. “We’ve taken that time very seriously, and it’s been awesome. The game we’re making is a very complicated one, and there are a lot of hard challenges that we had to overcome. The time that we spent in beta gave us that opportunity to do so.”

It’s hard to blame the team at Red 5 Studios for not wanting to be rushed through making sure Firefall has been playtested, iterated upon, and smoothed out. What developers think will be good and what players end up wanting can differ greatly at times, and in a world where so many free-to-play options now exist, people won’t hesitate in abandoning a game they feel isn’t up to snuff.

The question of the game’s readiness will now be put to the test. Firefall’s official launch has been set for July 29th, which will include something that’s been requested by many players: availability on Steam. Before that date on July 15th, current beta testers will gain access to everything that comes as part of the launch update—an update that comes after some months of silence from the team. Macauley explains that Red 5 went “radio silent” so that they could not only focus on getting everything ready for launch, but also so they could prepare a bit of rebranding to go along with its long-awaited public debut. This includes a small but very important win for Macauley: finally securing the rights to the firefall.com URL.

When Firefall hits its release date and the beta gets updated to the full launch version, Macauley says players will find a world that’s quadrupled in size over what was available during beta testing, with 15 times the amount of content to go along with that new territory. Leveling up your Battleframe armor will be an important new inclusion, as will Credits, a centralized form of currency that can be earned by trading in the sought-after resource Crystite. Credits will let all players make purchases for in-game needs, or they can be traded to paying customers for Red Beans, the for-cash currency that opens up Firefall’s cosmetic items for deeper character customization.

The biggest addition at launch for Firefall, however, will be ARES Jobs. These are new types of missions players can undertake either solo or with squadmates, and they’re dynamic in nature: Where you’ll be going or what exactly you’ll be doing can change every time you play them.

What that word—dynamic—means to both Firefall and its development team is an interesting question. Macauley acknowledges that the term has been tossed around quite a bit as of late, but for him, it means starting with a core layer of how Red 5 Studios wants to craft content in the game, and then building various blocks of logic upon that core. As one example, none of Firefall’s enemy spawns are hand placed; instead, the various regions of the world are defined in terms of type, and then the servers know which foes to spawn in which areas based on those types.

Another example is AI behavior, such as that seen in the various NPC town guards you’ll see in the game. Those sentries don’t have scripted patrol paths, so their AI decides where they should go depending on which areas of town are currently unprotected or in need of support. It’s a small example of what can be done in making a game feel more random in its experience, but Macauley believes the effort put into all of those kinds of details pays off in the end.

“As a gamer, as well as a game developer, there’s huge value in a world that’s different,” he says. “If we just had static quests in this town, and then other static quests with static spawns, very quickly the player would feel like they’ve done those quests and seen that town and finished the experience. That’s really counter to us building the lore and the narrative and the feeling for the gamer that this is Earth, and this is our last stand.”

For those who have been in Firefall’s beta for years now, July 29th will bring a grouping of updates that will change some elements of what they already know. For others, this will be their first (and possibly long-awaited) introduction to what the team at Red 5 Studios has been working on for years. What about the team itself? What does finally making Firefall’s existence official mean to them, and where did the game have to be before they could consider that goal reached?

“We had to make sure that Firefall was as fun and engaging and compelling as it deserves to be,” he answers. “One of the critical things for us was really making sure that the game was accessible and approachable by new players. What we saw during the beta were two very interesting things. Players who really got into the experience and got past the first couple of sessions played an incredible number of hours, and they loved the game—they were hardcore. But we also saw that the game had a level of complexity that scared other players off. For the new player experience, we were doing so many things differently than anything else out there, and we were doing things differently than shooters and MMORPGs. It ended up that it was challenging for new players to understand how they should be playing the game, because we were all about dynamic content, and the idea was that the world is your oyster—go out and explore. You go find the content. But what we found was that while many players love that, others do like a little bit of direction.”

There’s also another group of players Macauley hopes Firefall becomes a hit with: the developers themselves.

“I’ve dreamt of the day that our devs are spending so much time playing their game, playing Firefall, that I need to tell them to get other things done, like fixing bugs or working on scalability,” he says with a laugh. “If we’re all completely immersed in our game and geeked out and staying up until 4 a.m. playing instead of sleeping and getting ready for work, we’ve won. We’ve accomplished something.”

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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