Earlier this week I had a chance to talk to Matt DeWald, community manager at Red 5 Studios, the company making Firefall. It's a shooter that promises to do new and unusual things to the free-to-play space. The game was the big surprise at the most recent PAX event in Seattle, with its blend of cartoon good looks, Tribes-like shooter action, and a persistent world. Perhaps most intriguingly, Red 5 is the company that Mark Kern and William Petras went on to form when they left Blizzard. It seems to have both the vision, and the design pedigree to be a really big deal. I asked DeWald to go into some of the details.
RPS: Can you tell us a bit about what Red 5 is all about? Why a shooter? What is the philosophy with Firefall?
DeWald: So Red 5 was founded by Mark Kern back in 2006. He had just got done with World Of Warcraft, and he was looking for something new. At the time he was working on World Of Warcraft he was playing a lot of shooters, and he ended up thinking “Well, there's not a game that combines these elements with a persistent open world and massive scale and character progression, or the stuff that I find really fun in WoW, so let's do that.” He went ahead and formed the company and was able to pick up Scott Youngblood, Tribes lead designer, and after that he really pulled together a great team. So that's where we come from with Red 5, we really like shooters, we really like MMOs, we really like a lot of genres, and we want to combine a lot of the best features from them. And I think we have come pretty close to doing that with Firefall.
RPS: And it's free to play.
DeWald: Correct. We're planning to release at the end of 2011, and you will be able to download and play for absolutely free. We will obviously have a marketplace to support the game, but we are working to not have anything on there which would compromise the game. We're making a shooter, first and foremost, and with that comes skill-based play, and so we find it really important not to unbalance the game. You shouldn't be able to buy your way to the top, so making that balance with gameplay is really important to us.
RPS: You guys must be pretty confident in the free to play model to announce that's definitely the way you're going to go. Was that always the plan?
DeWald: It's not a recent development, it has been the plan for quite some time. Free to play is a proven model in quite a few different games, and we think that this is the way games are going. Going to a store and buying a $65 box is really not where games are headed, especially if you can buy triple-A games as download, we feel like free is the next step. We want to push the limits on that, we want people to say “are you sure this is really free?” And be able to prove you can make a free to play shooter that is kick-ass, looks great, everything else. We want to push that model. I mean it was tough decision, there was a lot of debate, it went back and forth, but this is the best model.
RPS: Yeah, you see a lot of scepticism with free. “Can it really be free?” is something I saw asked a bit when the Firefall video hit. Do you think that's a problem? I mean there's an issue there with how free games are perceived by many gamers, isn't there? How do you find yourself combating that kind of scepticism?
DeWald: It's going to be tough. Until the game is in players hands I don't think it can beat that scepticism, but I think we have a game that can beat that stigma away. Once people get to play it, those comments will fall away. We want to get rid of the general consensus that free to play equals poor quality. Firefall will do that.
RPS: Let's talk a bit more about the game, then. Can you talk through the game experience a bit – how much is it based on skill-based combat?
DeWald: All gameplay is, in some way, based on skill-based combat. There is no tag targeting, there's no automated attacking. Every ability you use and every shot that you take will be skill-based. So let me give you a run down of how the game will work for the player going into the game. Say that I am working towards an army technology progression, for instance the thumper is an army technology, and I want to increase my thumper capacity. What I need to do is to gather some resources, so I am going to look for a dynamic mission that is going to allow me to collect those resources. I open up my world map and I look for an available mission. Other players, or the game director, may have found a deposit for me to use. I will call down a thumper and start that on collecting resources. The thumper will then come under attack. So I am soon playing a shooter like this Starship Troopers defence experience, fighting these creatures, and immediately I am in this game where I have to think about how long I keep the thumper out here, do I hold on until I get 100%, or do a fall back because there are too many creatures? I could die! This is all skill based, there are no dice rolls happening while this is all going on.
Of course something else will happen, too. So I send my thumper back and see that another dynamic world event is going on. The city of Dredge is under attack by enemy forces, The Chosen, so instead of sitting worrying about thumpers out there, I head back to Dredge. By the time I get there it's been taken over, so we need to take it back, and it's not a defence anyone, it becomes an attack. This is stuff you have seen during the PAX gameplay, but the point is that it can dynamically change as you play. These are just some examples of how that could happen. It could be different depending on the time of day, the time of year, what other players are doing. That will all determine what missions are available to you.
RPS: “The Chosen” are the big bad NPC faction?
DeWald: Yes, we thought it was really important to get across that this Earth, and this is humanity's last stand. We're trying to get rid of the enemies so we can survive on Earth. It was really important for us that everyone feel like they could push against a common enemy.
RPS: But there is PvP too, right?
DeWald: Correct. Think of it as a kind of Wild West area, so people are fighting over resources. Players fight as part of these mercenary armies, and these will fight for specific goals, for bonuses, against each other. We will have a mature competitive multiplayer aspect to Firefall, but we're not revealing too many details. Right now we want to talk about the co-op campaign.
RPS: Can you explain a bit about how the Firefall world works? Is it instanced, open and all co-op? How does it deliver as a persistent space?
DeWald: One of the things we're trying to figure out right now is the exact number of players that we can have in the open world. We're working on hundreds, but whether that's two hundred or three hundred we just don't know. All these players will be sharing their world, and they will be co-operating or competing, or at least seeing each other, forming up into squads for dynamic missions. It's a living, breathing persistent world. Leave and then come back and things will be a little different. There will be multiple instances of that one shared world.
RPS: The other thing I wasn't clear about is progression. I guess with the WoW designer in there people are expecting a vertical level structure. How will that work in Firefall?
DeWald: So it's a bit of a combination of multiple things. There are levels for each of the battleframes. These are different sets of a equipment that players use, and each of those can level up independently. They can be switched out in the fly, so you could switch out in the city, or someone has a battleframe depot out in the field, and they need a medic, so you switch to your medic battleframe right there. We have multiple battleframes, but we are just talking about assault and medic right now.
Not only do we have levels for the battleframes, but we have resource gathering to buy components, so there's this gathering mechanic to think about. Then we also have complete customisation for battleframes and equipment, and these are drops and mission rewards and other things like that. This will equate to things like, say, you want greater accuracy in your assault rifle so you put a 5% accuracy mod on there, or you might want a level 2 crater ability that does a little more damage, and you will have to unlock level 2 to do that. So there's is the process of gathering equipment but also the unlocking equipment as you progress.
RPS: So does that create an imbalance in PvP? Aren't high level characters just going to be too badass to take down? Or does the skill aspect mean low level types have a chance?
DeWald: No, we are definitely cognisant of that, and we want to make sure that a low level character is still competitive with a high level character. We don't want to operate along the lines of the classic MMO structure where if you are level 65 and he is level 75 there's no way in hell you can even harm them, let alone kill them, this is a skill-based game, so skill should matter. The upgrades are understood as being about having more options than necessarily having more power. There will be a power increase for levels, but it will be small. You are really opening different modules, different areas for your abilities, more variety of options for you to explore. A level one player will still be able to play in the same game as a level thirty player, he will just have to be good.
RPS: Can you talk a bit more about the powers that are available to these medic and assault battleframes, then?
DeWald: Well the two different sets have different roles. The medic is a support role, and its abilities are focused on buffs, heals, keeping people alive. The assault battleframe is about dealing damage, so you have crater and shockwave, for example, which cause massive damage abilities against areas. Other, different battleframes will have different specialisations.
RPS: And will there be any non-combat abilities? Any crafting and so on?
DeWald: Actually, crafting is something we're still looking at, and we are not sure exactly how that would work in Firefall, so we won't talk about it at the current time.
RPS: Fair enough. We saw a dropship in the video, is that an indicator of other vehicles to come? It seemed on rails, public transport sort of thing?
DeWald: We will have vehicles for your to drive, we can't talk about what they are just yet!
RPS: And the dropship is a scripted thing, like WoW's griffon and so forth?
DeWald: Yes, in the PAX demo it was a scripted event, it was public transportation in that, but whether that's what it is in the final game, we're not sure yet.
RPS: So I've been thinking a bit about the natural reaction of companies to say that the items purchased in the free to play game won't actually have major in-game implications for players, that they won't give them an unfair advantage. I wonder about that, I mean, why shouldn't my cash make me more powerful? If I want to pay to be tough?
DeWald: I do think there is a definite application for cosmetic items, and I think that does have an impact in the world, to be able to strut your stuff and look good while you are playing. But that also doesn't mean there aren't possibilities for other stuff to buy that aren't power items. Short of buying weapons that just make you more powerful, there are other options such as, for example, paying to gain access to different areas of the game before other people. We want to make all content available for free, but paying might give you early access to new content, also there is paying to save time. You might pick up a 10% boost to your crystite mining ability. You're going to get more per second than I would. It doesn't give you direct power, but it allows you to pay for impact in the world, and save time if you can't play as much as I can. What we're working towards is to make the paid items diverse, but to avoid anything that directly impacts power.
RPS: Another thing from that PAX demo – the perspective seems to move back and forth between first and third-person perspectives. What's the thinking behind that?
DeWald: Well, that's kind of funny. We had gone back and forth between first and third-person in the office, to the point where we had lively and heated debates about whether we were a first or third-person game. In the end we decided that the public decide. If we were split then so would the players be, and so we made it easy to switch. We are, of course, a game that breaks the genre conventions. We are a skill-based shooter, but we have character progression and character customisation. With character customisation you will want to be able to see what you have done, in the world. I tend to run around the world in third-person, to see my character, and then switch to first person for the combat because I am better in first person. It's really just to give people options.
RPS: How much is being part of guild or a clan going to influence the game experience for you? Is it important?
DeWald: Well we think playing together is essential, and the main game we are talking about today is a co-op campaign. However, while there are places to go and hang out when your friends aren't around, we want to make it really easy for you to group and play with anyone. For instance, when you attack Dredge, that might involve twenty or thirty people, and you don't want to be messing around with squad invites and all that stuff, you just want to get stuck in, so we made it so that as long as you are a part of the attack you will get a reward.
But also we have made it so that your army (guild) will have its own progression. It's foremost a social structure, but it will also have impact on the game world. There's a technology tree to unlock through your army, that allows you to call on various tactics for combat in the world.
RPS: So then: the Tribes question. You have the Tribes designer, the jetpacks, the vehicles... how like Tribes is Firefall really going to be?
DeWald: Ooh, tough one. Well my first competitive game was Tribes, and obviously there's Scott, but it's tough. We're still working on just how much boost there is, all those sorts of balancing issues. That's the stuff that's going to change as we head toward release, and it will probably change after release too. But it's worth saying that we don't see Firefall as a sequel to Tribes, we're very much “we love Tribes and we want to capture some of what was special about it.” We're not trying to copy it or create a sequel to it, but we are trying to replicate some of the fun you had while playing it.
RPS: Any word on that beta?
DeWald: We're not announcing the final date for that, but announcement soon, hopefully. We're an open company, we want feedback. Feel free to sign up to the beta, get on the forums, tell us what you want to see.
RPS: Thanks for your time.