Firefall e-sports toolkit revealed: Red 5's Morgan Romine on building the next big competitive shooter

Chris Thursten

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Firefall devs Red 5 are rolling out support for the e-sports community with a toolkit that gives casters and commentators the power to broadcast live matches from any angle - and even slow down, rewind or pause games in progress.

The game's competitive PvP takes place in instanced arenas where teams compete in objective-based and deathmatch modes. Red 5 are taking the game's e-sports aspirations seriously - for them, it's a way to prove that their free-to-play shooter has real credibility while building an active and loyal community. In the exclusive video below, Red 5's e-sports maven Morgan Romine takes you through the new tools, including those for regular broadcasters and the special powers granted to dev-sanctioned community broadcasters.

We spoke to Morgan about Red 5's plans for e-sports, what makes a shooter work in the competitive arena, the importance of community, and their plans for GamesCom and beyond.

The latest patch seems to have really overhauled the game. How big a factor was e-sports in deciding to do that?

I think that a lot of the feedback that we got in the beta during the earlier phases really spoke to people's desire to see a higher skill level in the game. We have a lot of competitive players because we expressed that e-sports is a high priority for us. We're lucky to get a lot of beta testers who have some professional gaming experience or professional gaming aspirations that came into our beta and gave us a lot of feedback that was applicable to our own e-sports goals.

So we did make a lot of changes to things like combat speed, movement speed - it's a lot faster now than it was a year ago. A lot of the abilities that we've tweaked, as well as the battleframes that we've got - we did away with medic entirely and brought in the biotech instead - a lot of that was driven by ensuring that all of the different battleframes would be able to contribute something special to an e-sports environment. We want this to be a game that is balanced so that everybody can shift through whatever battleframes make sense in a given context and not just have it be predictable.

Certainly with the toolkit that we're coming out with, that's something that we've been talking about doing for a really long time so this patch is just our opportunity to finally implement it. We're really excited to finally be able to do that, because we do want to make sure that we're trying to cater to the desires of that community. We've seen in the past - and this is certainly something that I have experience with - where developers have not really provided nearly enough tools. I've always seen these opportunities for developers to provide tools for shoutcasters and for players to review replays in a much more detailed manner, to spectate live games and understand what's going on - particularly in FPSes.

It's been a very difficult thing in the past - if you know Counter-Strike really well then you know what's going on but if you're not familiar with Counter-Strike in the first place then it's not that interesting to watch. We lose out as an e-sports community when we can't bring new people into the fold by showing them all the exciting stuff that's going on. I'm hoping that this toolkit is going to allow us to translate the excitement of what's going on to the spectators who are watching.

Counter-Strike's a really good example of an e-sport that is hard to follow if you don't know what's going on. I think that's true of shooters in general - unlike an isometric RTS or Dota, you're limited to the perspective of one person. How do you go about mitigating that?

Well, it's certainly a challenge! I'll say that in the beginning. We recognise that it's a challenge, but the simple goal is that we want this game to be an e-sport, we believe that it can be really entertaining to watch, and we believe that it's a way that we can bring more players into Firefall. So the question is, “how can we use e-sports and our elite competitive play to bring in more players?” The first thing is that they have to understand what's going on.

As you just said, with FPSes it's really hard because you can only watch from the perspective of one player at a given time. That's still going to be the majority of the gameplay that you're watching as a spectator, but one of the things that we've provided in the observer mode is the top-down view. So at any given time, kind of like if you're watching a basketball game or a soccer match, the broadcasters will show you the view of the field so you can see where all of the players are at a given time, which gives you the layout of where the action is, what momentum is driving the gameplay.

Being able to return to that regularly as a broadcaster or a spectator is really important because it gives you the overall picture. You can see this especially with objective-based game modes where if you have a flag, for example - we don't have capture the flag in the game right now - but I like to look to objective-based games as some of the best possible for e-sports because they have a narrative behind them. There's a story: there's this flag that you have to capture and you have to get it back to your base. If you have a top-down view it's way easier to see that because you can see where all the players are and you can see where the flag is. And if you know that the goal is to get that thing back to the base then the drama is there, the narrative is there and it's really easy to capture in that one screen. There have been other games that have sort of allowed you to do that but really I've always been surprised that that's not something that you've seen enabled by developers - it's normally mods that other people create to allow players to see what's going on in a match. I think we're going to continue to hone that because it's so important.

We also have - I'm calling it the action cam, but it's a kind of directed spectator. The program will identify through the code where the action is happening, where the firefights currently are and it'll direct your spectator to it. So you can even let it go on its own and it will follow the action, which is kind of cool too. Of course you can also pop out to any of the individual players, so if you know there's this sniper hanging out he's not going to be right in the middle of the action so you need to check in on him every once in a while, but you have control of all the different player commands and you can keybind them any way you want to.

There's going to be some broadcast skill, I think. The best broadcasters are going to be the ones who can figure out how to make the most of these tools, but we're trying to provide the tools to make that easy for them.

Next: Fostering a new generation of casters, the industry's growing support for e-sports, and the importance of community.

In the trailer you mention the idea of catering to a whole range of casting abilities - that's an interesting side of it that people don't always think about, that you need to get people in at the bottom of commenting in games...

Yeah.

Is that something you feel you're taking on - are you taking people to caster school?

Yeah, I think we could be a caster school because we're providing the tools in the game. In the past you've needed capture cards, you've needed various different production capabilities and you're having to bring in these outside tools to do communicate what you want to with the game. Not everybody has the technology or the money to put behind it - it's hard, when you don't have that skill-set already, to be like “I'm going to invest this money that'll let me do this.”

So you have a very small community that have really been able to get into shoutcasting and get good at it. I think with this toolkit that we're providing we'll see a lot more amateur shoutcasters, as it were - and I think when you have a bigger pool of people you have people who are even better coming out of it. We're looking forward to seeing how people take advantage of what we've provided.

What was the thinking behind splitting up observer mode and broadcaster mode?

We wanted to save broadcast mode for special occasions, and for those approved broadcasters who we know are really standing out. We can give them access to broadcast modes for specific online tournaments. If you were to phrase it as the question “are we going to unlock that for everybody at some point”, that's a really good question! But as it is we're only just launching it and the observer mode is really powerful. I don't know that your beginners are going to need to take advantage of much more than what we're giving them. You can do replays through the game client just in the observer mode and I don't know of anybody that has a replay mode like that. It takes higher skill to be able to use the broadcast mode because there's a free flight cam that sounds really awesome and fun but you can lose track of the action if you're not someone who is used to following that stuff.

So it makes more sense to give people the easier way in first?

I think that we're already giving people a lot of power in the observer mode - a lot! But you know what? We're extremely open to beta feedback as we've seen in the past, so it may be that we see people scrambling for those additional features right away. One other thing, for example - the multicam preview functionality that will let you see all of these cameras going on, that's going to take some major graphics card crunching power probably. There are certain tools that at this point it makes sense to save for special occasions, but we'll see - if our beta community is like “we want those tools! We can make good use of them!” then we'd be perfectly receptive to that feedback.

Is there a next step for the toolkit, or is feature complete now?

No, I'd say that this was phase one of the e-sports toolkit. We plan on expanding, refining and watching how the community uses it and being responsive to what needs emerge. We can only anticipate so much, you know. I feel like we've anticipated a lot, through years of experience of watching demos and watching shoutcasts and playing ourselves - our dev team really represents a large body of e-sports experience - but players are always imagining new ways to use things and I definitely see this as a phase one.

E-sports have been one of the fastest parts of gaming recently. Do you think that the industry isn't moving fast enough to support it?

That's an interesting perspective. Well, the industry is facing its own growing pains and challenges right now, and I think that e-sports is a small part of it. The games that have been able to cater to that audience - League of Legends being a great example - it's to their benefit! It's obviously been a great thing for Riot that they have made e-sports a priority and that they have been focusing on that. I think that's huge for them and they're very smart to be doing that. Because we think that's smart we want to be taking advantage of that momentum as well.

I do think that people in the industry are starting to realise “oh, this e-sports thing has some legs finally.” Especially people who have been in the industry for the long time and have known about e-sports but never really taken it seriously, either because it's a niche population of gamers or because budgets and development cycles haven't allowed for it. I think now as the industry is changing, we're becoming more aware of the potential. Certainly in games that are free-to-play - this is speaking from our perspective - for us, longevity of play is a really important thing. We want to make sure that our players are happy and that they're willing to keep playing for a long time.

We want to have an FPS that has the long term viability of a Counter-Strike, because we're not catering to the model of “we want you to buy our box once for $60 and then we don't care if you play it.” For us, we want longevity - and e-sports is a great way to do that. You have people who are playing and practicing and trying to improve and as they become really good you have shoutcasters who are showing off that gameplay, then you have new people who are like “I want to be that good!” They start playing, they get their friends into it - there's a whole snowball effect that happens.

That happened with Halo, as well. Halo was was, well... I think that Bungie was very happy to discover that Halo had that potential but the reason why it was so good is because people wanted to compete and they could play against their friends and that's what kept them engaged with it. That's our hope: by catering to that it'll be part of our successful business model as a free-to-play game. As the industry is moving towards free-to-play I think there's going to be more recognition of the benefits of investing in e-sports modes. I haven't seen too much of it yet - we're hoping to pioneer that.

Is that's why it's so important that your commentators come from the community? Are you giving those tools to the community because it has to come from them, this extra life of the game as a sport?

You can't have a successful game without your community backing it, without them thinking of bigger and better ways to play the game. I think any successful game should be embracing their community. Certainly, we've been all about the community since the beginning and our unusual launch cycle of “we're in beta until we think that it's ready” is this big long window of engaging with the community and getting their feedback and engaging with that. That applies to big successful game development in the current era in general, not just in e-sports.

The only reason that beta program is possible I guess is because the game is free-to-play.

Yeah. Well, basically. We have a special, magical environment here [laughs] because we have people who think the game is really good, so we have the luxury of doing that. I think the games industry is a tough environment right now in general, so... well, I'll say that much. Because we're free to play, and because we have a really high standard for quality, and we really understand the value of community, doing the beta this way is the only way it made sense for us.

For a while now, people who play online games tend to divide themselves between PvE and PvP, and over time that division has become much pronounced as people identify as one or the other. There's a hard division between how those different games play [in Firefall], but you've still got both. Are you interested in getting people to cross over?

So, this is coming from me specifically - trying to think of what my colleagues would say to this, but - I think the consensus that we'd come to is that it'd be awesome to see more crossover, but we also recognise that there are going to be dedicated hardcore players who only want to do PvE raid-style missions or there are people who are hardcore PvPers and are only going to be interested in that. So we wanted to build a game that could stand alone on either side, so if you only want to PvPer you can do it. You can get the experience that you need, you can get the equipment that you need - you can do pretty much all of that within PvP if you want to. You can isolate yourself if you want to and still have a really fun and fulfilling experience. But we also want to make the game enticing enough on both sides that people want to cross over. Mostly because it'd be a damn shame if we spent all this effort on making awesome PvE and PvP experiences to have people isolate themselves into one. I think that'd be their loss! But we've built it in such a way that both of those halves of the experience can stand alone if necessary.

Next: Firefall's GamesCom beta tournament and upcoming showcases in North America.

You've got a big tournament coming up at GamesCom. How is that going to play out?

So we're working with the ESL, one of the biggest e-sports leagues in the world and certainly one of the most prominent in Europe. We really want to kick off with Europe in a really strong way, and we thought that partnering with the ESL would be a good way to do that especially because of how strong their e-sports community is in Europe.

We are considering this a beta tournament - it's the first of its kind, the first one using this beta build. So we're prefacing this with all of the players that this is our first test and like any of the other stuff we're doing in beta we're open to feedback and I think everybody should be ready to experience this as a beta tournament. But we wanted to put some money behind it also to reward people who are early adopters and are willing to jump into Firefall as a brand new IP - and somewhat of an unproven game so far.

We have two seated teams, including Team ALTERNATE who are a Counter-Strike team that have expressed a lot of interest in Firefall and have been doing some of their own beta testing, and then we have another team that we've actually compiled from beta testers who have been really supportive of the game so far in Europe. So we have two seated teams that are automatically going into the semifinals that happen on the Saturday, and then on Thursday and Friday we're going to have qualifiers each day. The way we're running it is a king-of-the-hill style so if you show up with your team of five you can register there, you can also register beforehand on the ESL website. You can show up, sit down and play and if you win you keep playing. At the end of the day then we'll do play-offs with the top two teams and then pick a qualifier from that. That'll happen both on Thursday and Friday, and then on Saturday we'll be on the ESL stage. We'll all be on ESL Stage 1.

Any plans for after GamesCom? As far as e-sports goes.

In North America we're rolling out a bus tour - we revealed our Mobile Gaming Unit at Anime Expo this year at the end of June, which is a giant customised bus that has a server in it that can locally serve up to a thousand different players, plus twenty AMD machines inside the bus itself. It's essentially a mobile LAN centre that we've optimised for tournaments. We've wanted to do that - first of all because it sounds really fun! - but to bring Firefall and the competitive experience of Firefall to people locally in North America. We'd take it to Europe too but it's kind of hard to get a giant bus over there!

We're going to be doing a tour this fall, and we'll be doing a bunch of different mini-tournaments throughout. That'll actually start at PAX - we'll have the bus there at PAX, and we're going to be doing other stuff at Penny Arcade as we have been doing for many years now. As far as the rest of 2012, we definitely would like to do a few more formal competitive tournaments but I'm still considering this our beta event year. Then 2013 is when we expect to really kick things off in a big way.

Thanks to Morgan for her time.

More details of Firefall's GamesCom tournament are available in the announcement blog post . Check out Craig's Firefall preview for hands-on feedback on a previous version of the beta, and watch the new engineer and biotech trailers here .

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