This article originally appeared in issue 247 of PC Gamer UK.
On the first day I visit Red 5 Studios, the lifts are behaving oddly. They take an age to arrive, and stay at empty floors too long. James Macauley, vice president of development, tells me this is a common thing. Sometimes they break down with people inside them.
Later that day, James references the idea of the 'elevator pitch' – a spiel designed to sum up a project in a brief lift ride. He tries the Firefall elevator pitch out on me. “We're a shooter, we're an online shooter, we're a social game, we're an MMO, we're an RPG, we're an RTS. There's a massively persistent open world, deep character progression, deep backstory and lore, competitive PvP and e-sports-focused match types, ladders and leagues. We have all these different aspects of different games, we have the social features of MMOs, we have armies – built-in clan support much like a guild – we have all of this stuff and it's a free-to-play game.”
James smiles, aware of the difficulty of describing his MMO. “The elevator ride is done by the time you can say what the game is.” Even in Red 5's ambling elevators, Firefall is not an easy game to explain.
At the end of my interview, James flips it around and asks me to describe Firefall in a few words. I could try to explain what I've been shown, say that it's an MMO set on a future Earth under attack by everything from monster bugs to the pseudo-human Chosen, that it plays more like a shooter thanks to class choices and snappy, tactile combat. But then I would fall into the same, wordy trap. I mutter something about jetpacks and shooting.
It's a reductionist view, to define Firefall by its airbound combat, but for a game as huge as this, it's a good place to start – particularly when James and Scott Youngblood – Firefall's lead designer – class the game as an 'MMO shooter'.
The arrangement of the words in my description is wrong though: for James and co, the shooting had to come first.
“We have a test called the wall test. It should feel good to pick up a gun and shoot a wall. And once – and only once – it feels good to shoot a wall, then we look at making it feel good to shoot a player or shoot a creature.”
But as with the elevator pitch, it wasn't simple. Firefall takes place in an MMO world, and very few MMOs manage the kind of kinetic feedback Red 5 were chasing. “I can't think of a more complex system,” James tells me. “You have all these calculations. A bullet flying through the air could collide with any number of hundreds of players on that server at one time.”
But impressively, they've managed it: firing one of Firefall's guns feels like firing a gun in a singleplayer action game. It's infinitely more satisfying than the kind of behind-the-scenes dice rolls MMOs traditionally employ. James puts this satisfaction down to the game's lengthy beta test. The developers, he argues, were unafraid to go in and rejig entire elements of the game as the community provided feedback.
The beta – running for much of 2012 – heavily influenced the game's development. James constantly references design decisions as originating from what he describes as “the most amazing community of any game ever, period.”
Nothing was given a free pass. “We questioned everything down to movement speed. That's typically a sacred cow. Once you decide movement speed, all of the level designers, all of the artists, the rest of the team can start building a world based on that speed. Timing is so critical in an action shooter. But we decided that we'd rather have the extra work going back and modifying our existing levels, than to try to jury-rig fun into what we already had. So we made the call and we increased movement speed by 20 percent. We also increased jump height, we changed how gravity affects falling so you're a little bit more floaty, and we changed jumpjets completely, giving you a lot more burn time.”
Player progression was also addressed at a fundamental level. Early on, players earned experience points and levelled up one of five specific classes (see Get in the Picture, over the page). Those classes remain, but each now has an array of 'battleframes' under its umbrella, James explains.
“There's not just one assault any more. I liken it to cars: you want to customise it. You want to get better tyres, you want to have better suspension, you want a spoiler. You unlock a battleframe chassis, and then you customise it so you can change how your character plays to match your playstyle. We want you to collect all these different models, or battleframes. This gives us a platform where we can release new battleframes on a regular basis.”
New battleframes and upgrades for them are unlocked via a convoluted tech tree. Plug XP into these trees, earned for killing enemies and completing missions, and you'll eventually have access to the next tier of battleframe, and advanced specialisations that let you use class abilities. The assault frame, for example, branches into Firecat and Tigerclaw at Tier 2: one specialising in mobility, the other in damage.
James uses the assault battleframe again as an example. “It has Cannonball, which spins you forward 30 yards, doing damage as you go, or Afterburner, which jets you out of danger. Or Crater, which is a smashdown attack: you jump up, slam down to the ground doing lots of damage to enemies in the area.” There are further layers of customisation: “I love jetpacks. I like being in the air a lot, so I always upgrade my jumpjets so I have the longest burn time. The way I play, I don't care as much about jump height, so I don't need to upgrade my servos.”
These upgrades can only be earned through in-game experience. Firefall is free-to-play, but Red 5 swear the cash shop will only sell items of cosmetic or convenience value: examples so far include glowing tiki masks and XP boosts.
Player skill is Firefall's central tenet, and the thing that sets it furthest away from other MMOs. During my time at the studio, pro-gaming team Complexity flew in to duel a crack team of developers at their own game, in five-on-five scuffles over objectives and kills. Red 5's local heroes trounced the professional players 5-0, but bringing the team in wasn't a simple gloating exercise: Red 5 are pushing Firefall as a coherent, competent e-sport, a PvP game where shooter synapse reactions and mouse muscle memory matter.
The game has already been altered to make it a twitchier, more shooty shooter. James gives an example: “Our healing beam locked on, which completely discarded most skill components. If I was playing medic and I was doing my job, it meant that the entire match I'm holding down right-click right behind you. It wasn't skill-based at all. So we made the call to get rid of all homing weapons. Those were designed intentionally to make the game approachable, but we made it so approachable that it made it lose some of the high skill ceiling.”
Raising that skill ceiling is vital for Firefall's success, but James doesn't want to drag the skill floor up with it. “That's where PvE was a really big opportunity for us. You don't have to be a cutthroat PvPer to enjoy PvE.” For that, you need to venture away from Firefall's codified, queued-for PvP matches, and into its open world.
Future-Earth is already big, but the developers plan to expand it as the game grows – James mentions that the team have “five years of content features planned out.” It's also easy to get around. The jetpacks glued to every battleframe make traversal simple and – crucially – fun.
Much of my time playing the closed beta in Red 5's offices is spent trying to puzzle my way up the side of a canyon using my Engineer battleframe's jetpack. There's a clearly visible road I could use, but the freedom of movement is novel in an MMO, and I want to exploit it.
Finally reaching the top of the canyon, I happen upon a Chosen acolyte. The Chosen are the game's main foes: a new, angry race seemingly born from 'the Melding', the swirling purple and grey cloud that forms the perimeter of Firefall's currently playable area. The acolyte is a human warped into thinking the would-be murderers of his species are his best pals. He immediately opens fire as I get within range.
I pop out three of my turrets – the Engineer battleframe's first special ability – and duck behind cover. Firefall can be played solo, but the acolyte is one of the enemies designed to be fought with friends at your back. Earlier in the day I'd made impromptu pals. We'd congregated around one of my 'thumpers' – resource-collecting boring machines that you call down from the sky – protecting it together for experience boosts and the joy of shooting bugs with guns. Here I'm alone.
Or I was. Behind the acolyte, a gnarly spike falls from the sky, driving into the ground. A gang of grey-skinned humanoids spawns next to it, bottom-heavy in similar armoured boots to my own. They are the Chosen, called to Earth in a dynamic drop pod, the likes of which rain down on Firefall's world of their own accord. “I swear I didn't know that was going to happen!” James says, as the Chosen unload their powerful rifles in my direction and the screen washes red with death.
Traditional MMO questing asks you to imagine a person has decided to stand in one spot for the rest of their lives, gluing an exclamation mark to their forehead. James is not a fan. “We are not keen on that model for a couple of reasons. A new expansion comes out for WoW, how long does it take someone to reach maximum level... two days? We think we can improve on that. We're trying to step off the quest content treadmill.”
The replacement is dynamic questing. One of the most visible examples of which are the 'melding tornadoes': swirling expanses of purple and grey that wreak havoc on the game's habitable territory. They can happen almost anywhere, spawn weird creatures, and can only be calmed by direct, shooty action.
Thumpers provide another dynamic quest. These portable drills mine for minerals that can be used to craft parts for items and weapons, but in doing so attract the game's more lethal fauna, as James explains. “We're trying to build our encounters to be truly dynamic: if we're calling down a thumper... we're actually using the local region's creatures: enemies are different when you're in the melding, or different when you're down on the beach.”
But it's Red 5's future plan for those Chosen drop pods that provide the most exciting example of Firefall's dynamic events. They can be destroyed by organised bands of players, but leave them unchecked and they'll multiply. They'll build bases and outposts that can be spotted by the game's future-internet, the Shared Intelligence Network. Fail to push the invaders back with a serious force, and it's time for trouble. James again: “The Chosen will actually invade Copacabana [the game's first major city]. It plays out much like a shared open world raid: you want to have dozens of players helping defend the town. If you don't, you can actually lose it: the Chosen can take it over. And if the Chosen take over Copacabana, a couple of things happen. One, you lose access to all the amenities in town. Vendors, resource refining, battleframes. But – just as importantly – if, even at that point, players don't unite to push back the invaders, eventually the Chosen can and will actually win. They can take over the world. Mankind loses. You lose... you're kicked off the server. It's something I've never seen done in an MMO.”
Firefall is doing a lot of things not done in other MMOs. That's what makes it so hard to pitch in a single elevator ride. It's vast, it's dynamic, it's strategic and it's rapid-fire. It's already in a competent beta, but won't be released for ages. James says it's his dream game, and I'm inclined to believe him. Everyone else I speak to at Red 5 says the same thing, and I'm inclined to believe them too.
It is a dream game. It's an amalgamation of shooter and MMO and RPG. It takes moments and mechanics from a lifetime's worth of gaming experience – resource collection, social interaction, dynamic events, jetpacks – and lets them blend together in the wandering minds of its creators. Like a dream, it's lit by bright lights and colour. Like a dream, you can fly.
But dreams are intangible, ethereal, and difficult to remember the next day. Even harder to justify to others. Trying to explain their dream has caused Red 5 trouble, as James explains. “I always thought: 'what are the bullet points on the back of the box?' We really struggled with it because there were so many. Everything we added to the game made it...” He pauses, trying to measure the game in outstretched hands, before dropping them back to the table, momentarily defeated by the scope of the task.
“It's a big game, right?”