Stage 5 TV: how Firefall developer Red 5 wants to forge the future of gaming television
Red 5 Studios are based about forty-five minutes south of Los Angeles. They make games, but some of that city's preoccupation with movies has bled out: a few blocks from the building the company are making jetpack-toting MMO shooter Firefall in, they have their own TV studio.
The studio – christened Stage 5 – was the location for Firefall Fest: a week-long special event, streamed live with a revolving cast of Firefall fans, professional gamers, and celebri-nerds. Wil 'Wesley' Wheaton dropped in alongside Felicia Day, captured on TV-quality cameras as they played Red 5's game. Later in the week, I sat with Sean 'Day' Plott in the studio's green room as he waited to be taken through to makeup by a dedicated makeup artist. Later on set, flanked by exposed brickwork and sofas seemingly stripped from the front of cadillacs, the same makeup artist sprinted toward Sean's face, rustled around in her pouch for some powder, and jabbed it toward his cheeks. A producer at the back barked “thirty seconds to air”, and told everyone quietly talking to shut up.
Stage 5 isn't some side project. I scanned the room as I sat on set. Ignoring the monitors showing Firefall footage, the Firefall shirts the hosts were wearing, and the topic of conversation on camera (Firefall), a casual observer would've been hard-pushed to work out the link to a videogame developer. I've been to video studios and sound stages at other developer offices. They usually look and feel like afterthoughts. Stage 5 looks and feels like a fully-fledged TV studio.
Red 5's CEO, Mark Kern, is excited about Stage 5's potential. The day before Day visits, Kern's sitting in the same green room, a few feet away from the guests and the cameras through a soundproof wall. He's watching three of his community managers responding to a litany of requests emanating from their Twitch.tv stream chat, and cackling at the screen. The three have an easy chemistry. Community managers tend to be chosen for their forum presence and obsessive knowledge of the game in question; I'm told than one of Red 5's was picked specifically for his background as a stand-up comedian.
Kern's present for much of Firefall Fest, even stepping on camera to film a bizarre skit with “professional trolls” Mega64. The week-long event is an obvious attempt to generate interest in Firefall, but it's also something of a litmus test for Red 5's video capabilities. Mark describes his aims for the studio in the long run: he wants to provide network TV-quality videogame coverage on a scale several steps above that currently offered by bedroom casters and YouTube long-players.
I spent the first half of the week at Red 5's offices, alternating between Stage 5 and the company's offices proper, during which time I was witness to no major stream cock-ups: a distinct rarity when broadcasting largely uninterrupted, live video. The guests are understanding, engaged. When there are problems – Sean can't see the monitor he's playing on from his position on the couch – they're solved quickly, armies of stagehands and camera-people sweeping in to dig out a spare monitor and bolt it on to the table in front of him.
Kern and co don't want to keep Stage 5 as Firefall-focused as it is during the Fest: Stage 5 TV calls itself “an entertainment network dedicated to emerging trends in gaming and geek culture.” It's already provided home to a set of young filmmakers who've used both the Stage 5 studio and Red 5's in-house video studio to make CGI-heavy sci-fi and fantasy shorts under the Continuum banner (http://www.youtube.com/show/thecontinuum). The intention is to provide a hub for gamers and geek culture aficionados to find their televisual entertainment, or even produce it themselves with top-end hardware without needing to pay Hollywood prices.
Prior to seeing Stage 5, I'd have argued such an aim would be impossible. Gamers are surely too disparate in interests to align under one banner. Precisely the reason that casters such as Day have such a following is their focus on single, hyper-aware communities. But Firefall Fest shows an ideal middle ground: the loose jocularity and ease-of-swearing that bedroom shows allow married to the slick production and professionalism of proper television. Whether it'll work out is yet to be seen: Red 5 have Firefall to focus on first, after all.