This article originally appeared in issue 245 of PC Gamer. Preview by Owen Hill.
Making an eSport is hard. Creating something competitive, balanced, and broadcastable has been a priority since Red 5 began developing their shooty online sci-fi world.
They almost pulled it off first time: last year's build had the potential to wow with its massively multiplayer sensibilities and innovative take on resource gathering, but describing it as a growing eSport would have been a stretch. Firefall felt like a fledgling MMO with an emphasis on PvE and crafting, not something destined to rally commentators, tournament goers and pro gamers. Something was missing from the community's perception of Firefall. And Red 5 noticed it.
“We needed to raise the skill ceiling of the game,” says Dave Williams, chief class designer. “We believe in Firefall as an eSport and we want to make sure there's room on the absolute top of the scale for those super-skilled players. We needed to be able to show that difference.”
But how do you inject subtlety into your game? Red 5 went back to their basic assumptions and re-analysed them. “We needed fresh eyes to do this,” says Dave. Enter the community. Red 5 studied their forums, flew in the top 20 PvP players from the beta and imprisoned them in their office for a week. It was a way to get directed, instant feedback from the people who'd already dedicated substantial time to excelling at the game. If there was anyone who wanted the game to succeed as a highly competitive FPS, it was these guys. They were already desperate to be the best.
Red 5 took on the top players at one point in their research and lost. “We didn't even get embarrassed when we played them,” says Dave. “It was fairly tight. Yeah, those guys are really good. They quickly overtake you in skill. And they wanted to push up that ceiling even more.”
So how do you make a jetpack more pro? It's simple: directional thrust. Red 5 introduced momentum to the thing, changing it from Segway to skateboard, giving highly skilled players the chance to perform manoeuvres that casuals couldn't even dream of. It's one extra thing for the commentators to whoop about, and fans love it when they whoop.
Individual classes have been overhauled too. Previously the Engineer had a spray-and-pray flamethrower, similar to Team Fortress 2's Pyro – not the most subtle of weapons. Now he wields a laser tool that increases DPS over time. Stick it to someone for long enough and you're hitting them with the most deadly weapon in Firefall. Only, it's hard to keep a tiny reticule on a moving target, especially when their jetpack has just been patched with momentum.
Other classes got a complete revamp in both name and function. The Medic is now gone, for example, replaced by the Biotech. “It was important to us that no one be called 'Medic',” Dave says. “Medic implies that his job is to heal. Once you have a class that is fun and efficient, that class becomes necessary on an eSports level. We had to balance absolutely everything we did against this constant stream of health.”
It's an understandable concern. Top-tier armour, weapons and jetpacks are all craftable from materials, each with their own set of attributes. It's a nightmare for balance. You gather those materials out in the wild with co-op buddies – a far cry from clicking on a piece of ore and watching a goblin chop away with his axe – and this could end up as a great way to warm up for the main event. If Red 5 balance this well, then gathering, hunting, and competing could be in a glorious trinity. Firefall will be free-to-play, so the demands of player's time versus their wallets have to be considered carefully.
Biotechs can just as easily rip up the enemy as well as heal their allies. A Biotech's second strength comes from his stash of poisons and toxins, which leave a trail of gas in his wake that makes the area toxic. It's a deadly fart, basically.
“You can use the opacity to mask escapes; make a quick circle with the poison cloud, then crouch down and revive someone in there,” Dave enthuses. But enough about farts already.
The backbone of eSports is in the spectator tools, and Firefall's are some of the most impressive I've seen. Any game can be watched live with freecams, extensive stats, and seamless tracking of important events. It's obvious that Red 5 are committed to providing robust tools. Slow-motion replays can be triggered on the fly, and multiple monitors can be used to display alternate camera angles for serious broadcasters to pick their shots.
It's a showier approach than ShootMania's minimal attitude to competitive play, but it gives Firefall true potential to dent livestreams. I'm looking forward to playing it myself, too.
Developer: Red 5 Studios