Firefall is one of the more interesting and brave massively multiplayer online games currently in the works. Despite lofty promises to the contrary, games like Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, and The Old Republic all feel incredibly samey. Firefall dramatically shifts the MMO template with heavy real-time first-person shooter elements, a Borderlands-esque art style, and a bold free-to-play strategy.
I participated in the ongoing closed beta a few months back and found the game to intriguing but somewhat unbalanced and undercooked. Since then, Red 5 has implemented what could easily be considered Firefall’s Adventure Update (for any Minecraft fans out there), adding and tweaking lots of game systems and content. This includes removing the typical MMO leveling system altogether, allowing players to build the characters they want with fewer restrictions on a more open-ended customization tree.
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With that in mind, GamesBeat sat down with Red 5 Studios CEO Mark Kern to chat about what’s new, Firefall’s Kickstarter-inspired Founder system, and cosplay.
GamesBeat: Can you highlight some of the major changes based on the ongoing feedback from the beta?
Mark Kern: We learned that our PvP, while it was very approachable, would sort of max out for skilled players. They’d say, “OL, I can go this far with my skill and not any higher.” What we did is we raised the skill ceiling. It’s a lot higher. At the higher tiers of competition, you have a lot more capability to display your twitch reflexes and everything else. That was one major change, based on feedback.
The other one was that the whole leveling system wasn’t working out for people. It didn’t seem to fit right with the game. It kind of fought against the horizontal progression that we’ve wanted to do. But we still wanted to have some type of different classes of progression. We broke it up into tiers instead, and that way we give you a road map of your character. You know what to expect. You kind of plan your way to what you want to unlock. That’s been very well received. It’s something where it wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t been willing to share our earliest systems in the beta.
A lot of companies, companies I used to work for, they would polish the heck out of something. Then they’d put it out there and get the feedback. If you’re Blizzard, good, you take it and you redo it. That’s very demoralizing for the team, though, because they polished it to such a high level in the first place. If you’re another company, you often don’t have that luxury. You’ve done a commercial beta, not a real beta. By the time you get that feedback, you can’t make dramatic changes to the system.
GamesBeat: I did play the beta several months ago, and I noticed that I felt that the difficulty, even from the onset, was pretty rough if you tried to do it either solo or with a two-man team. Especially for newbies who are starting out and maybe don’t know how to work together. Do I just suck, or is the game intentionally designed to be a multiplayer-only experience?
Kern: It’s really good that you picked up on that, because that’s the next round of beta feedback for this milestone. Our PvE milestone. We did our classes-tuning and our leveling progression in the last couple months. Now we’re working on the PvE aspect and the solo-ability of the game. We want you to be able to participate in world events and get credit for it even if you’re not grouped up. If you just show up, we’re going to be building in public quests. That type of dynamic where you can get points for participation even if you’re not grouped.
We also want to make sure that when we guide you down the path, the difficulty is matched much more to the ability of the solo player, but group players can still have that social experience and get a couple special things out of it. So I’d agree with you. I think the game, as it stands right now, is too hard to solo. That’s one aspect that we’re getting feedback on. We change everything and create fun. That’s our motto.
GamesBeat: What has the overall reception been to the game so far? And the player retention? How long do people play the beta before they move on?
Kern: I can’t give out specific numbers, but I can say that prepatch and postpatch, we’re about three times stickier than we were when you played the beta. So the changes we’ve made have gone to great lengths to make it stickier. We’re still in closed beta. We’re not inviting everybody in yet. But everyone who plays at PAX automatically gets in. That’s kind of our thing. I’m really happy with the retention rate right now. It’s much better than it was, and it’s going to get even better with the PvE patch.
GamesBeat: How do you guys feel now that PlanetSide 2 is on its way? Do you feel that kind of gives you a little extra competition?
Kern: Oh, I know [Sony Online Entertainment’s] John Smedley really well. I put him in the Firefall beta a while back. He likes the game. I like PlanetSide. I was a big PlanetSide fan. I think we fill two different niches. They’re about the massive PvP, we’re more about the eSports PvP, as well as this big component of PvE, exploration and co-op multiplayer that you can’t get in PlanetSide. So I think we complement each other really well. But I keep teasing him, because we’re coming out with a massive PvP mode that we’re going to be in beta with in the fall. At that point, maybe it’ll be a bit more competition. But right now I think it’s a really good way to get two different experiences.
GamesBeat: At the beginning of PAX, you guys unveiled your founder system. There’s three different tiers. Was that inspired by Kickstarter?
Kern: It really was. I was amazed by Kickstarter, and then I saw… like, MechWarrior Online did a pack. I asked the community months ago, “Would you like to see something like this from us?” Overwhelmingly, the response was “Yes.” They want to support Firefall. So, OK, let’s put something together. We did three packs, and they’re doing really well.
GamesBeat: It’s a cool system. Plus the XP gain, the permanent XP gain, I was sold. In-game pets and XP boosts will do it for me every time.
Kern: Yeah. The Merch is really special. When you unlock it, we’ve got a lot of behaviors we’ve coded into it to be true to the Penny Arcade version.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about the cash shop and what players can expect there?
Kern: OK. We’ve got the beta shop open now. We truly mean “beta” shop, just like our beta is a true beta. We set some price points to experiment. You can buy a lot of aesthetic items, eyepieces, different hairstyles, different hats that you can wear. We sell temporary XP boosts — 1 hour, 3 hours, 8 hours — for 20 percent. We also sell garage slots. If you like the game, you want to experiment with more tiers of battle frame. If you unlock more garage slots, you can keep them all on the same character.
GamesBeat: I know that, for a year or more now, you’ve been using Crystal [Graziano], the cosplayer, to represent your game. But in this weird unprecedented move, you’ve also sponsored the other costuming she does. Non-Firefall, non-gaming sometimes. I was wondering, why that very specific move?
Kern: I think it’s because we wanted someone to play Mourningstar at conventions who was really a gamer. Not only that, we wanted a real cosplayer, someone who could appreciate the costume that we’re building. It turned out that Crystal is a huge fan of Steve Wang, who’s a Hollywood effects guy that designed the Predator. A big name. He did these costumes for us, for Typhon and Mourningstar. She was just thrilled to meet him. We’re actually shooting a show about here, kind of behind the scenes with her and Steve about building these costumes. We’re going to be releasing that as a video pretty shortly here. Something you can view for free online.
We sponsor her other costuming because Red 5 is really about getting the gamer’s story out there. A lot of our stuff, in the industry, is very PR-focused…. Here’s the front of the mask, right? We want to change that. Because now we’re a direct-to-consumer industry, especially us. PAX is the show that we love the best. Sponsoring player activities, cosplay is well-loved by gamers, that’s how they show love for games…. So let’s sponsor that. Let’s sponsor eSports. Make it about players in the game.