UPDATE: After being asked, yes, I am willing to repurchase Firefall from The9 if they are willing. I want to deliver the Firefall that vets deserve.
[Note: This is not about Crixa, my tabletop miniature space opera RPG, but about the previous video game I worked on that I was not allowed to finish]
People regularly pop into my Twitter feed and ask me what “my” vision for Firefall was going to be. My feed asks this because when I was ejected, and prior to the game shipping, the executive team scrapped the game I was working towards and replaced it with a traditional level based MMO grinder. As we know, that turned out to be a complete disaster. The game went from a promising beta during my tenure with nearly 20k concurrency (prior to Steam launch) to…well this:
I’m writing this to satisfy a little of the curiosity out there that I receive on a weekly basis via Twitter. “What WAS Firefall supposed to be?”
Fun fact: Firefall was originally going to be a WWII MMO game set in a fantasy alternate reality with Hilter pursuing occult artifacts. This was back when we were just getting started with three of us and no funding. But after beating my head against the design, I felt it wasn’t going to work. First, we could not maintain enough accuracy to history and maintain some sort of power/equipment progression without pissing off WWII enthusiasts. Second, I wanted much much more flexibility to design player abilities and mechanics, and even straying into the Hilter occult power stuff was not going to help the Allies’ side much. It would be too difficult to design and satisfy the WWII flavor…it would morph into something NOT WWII.
At that point I proposed to take the game Sci-Fi. It would still be a wargame, but set in a sci-fi invasion of Earth. Sci-fi would give me all the leeway I needed as a designer to include better tech and weapons and abilities to aid progression, without worrying about staying true to any form of WWII history (even an alternative one). We all agreed and “Invasion Earth” is what was pitched to investors and accepted by the original publisher (Webzen) as well as from venture capitalists like Benchmark Capital (backers of eBay, Uber) and Sierra Ventures.
The game was to be a combined arms simulation. We wanted players to fly vehicles, drive tanks and fight on the ground. The plan was always to have it be a MMO simulation of a war. At that time we arranged it into seasons, where the war would be fought by all sides in areas of the world that would open up over time and leading to a final victor, whereupon the game would reset and a new season with new maps would be available. It was pure PvP, with no PvE at all. The game at this point was called “Terrafire” and here is some of the pitch art we made:
Things changed, and investors changed. By the time we were in full swing again with new investors (The9), we had a much more developed concept, but it had expanded in scope (while at the same time collapsing from 3 playable player factions to just 1 vs AI). The game would still be a war simulation, but the alien enemies would be AI driven instead of player driven, and we would not have seasons fighting over zones that came and went, but an open world where the battle against the AI could ebb and flow with the push/pull mechanic of the Melding. Alien territory was behind the Melding, a vast energy swarm that engulfed the Earth that was semi-sentient. The Aliens were psychically sensitive humans who were lulled into the Melding and converted to its cause. The NPC Aliens would attempt to push the melding into human territory, and the humans job was to push it back and beat the Aliens over the course of several expansions/updates.
It was at this time I knew we wanted a resource based game to drive sandbox building features. War needs factories, bases, defenses, aircraft, tanks, and weapons. I came up with the idea for Crystite as the energy source for all this tech, and also came up with “thumping” as a fun way to find and procure Crystite in the game. Thumping was taken from the book Dune, where small devices were planted in the sand to attract giant worms. I wanted that sense of danger to the resource collection in the game, and the noisy extraction of Crystite attracts hostile creatures and the Chosen (Alien troops) to your location. Thumping was meant to have progression, from the small, individual thumpers we had in beta, to allowing players to upgrade them into giant refineries. In fact, our earliest playable prototypes had players fighting over these “giant thumpers” that were as big as buildings. Thumper progression was a vital part of the design that, unfortunately, was never implemented.
To have a war, we needed something to fight over. Instead of having standard MMO zones restricted on leveling and with static quests that happened in the same place all the time, I wanted us to move to what I termed “time based domain” gameplay. You see, up to this point, all MMOs were static and firmly attached to their locations in the world “geographically based gameplay.” Even GW2’s dynamic events were the same things happening in the same places on the map. I wanted to move away from content being tied to physical places, to events that could unfold anywhere, with the AI adapting to whatever location it spawned into. This tech was deemed impossible at the time, but eventually we did it. Our system let us set up encounters and the server AI could “drop” them anywhere on a map and dynamically find spawn points for everything and even change what enemies you’d fight depending on where the encounter happened and who was fighting. To me, this was essential for a simulated war that was truly dynamic – because I was building a war-game, not an MMO.
The entire game was supposed to be about The Chosen Invasion(tm). Human territory had been pushed back by Melding storms into small remaining pockets of livable territory. The war effort, lead by Admiral Nostromo (a nod to one of my fav movies: Alien), was to have the humans being given dynamic missions to acquire resources with increasingly bigger thumpers, deliver them via convoy routes that would need to be defended to processing plants, and then using those resources not only to improve personal battleframes, but also build entire bases (we had several base prototypes up and running with capture mechanics), turret defenses, and also war vehicles: tanks, planes, you name it. It was going to be Battlefield 1942 (a game we played to death while making WoW) in an MMO setting with aliens and shit.
To oppose the humans, and direct the flow of gameplay, I was working on an AI game director of my own design, and later supplemented with ideas when I was beta testing Left 4 Dead in the original Turtle Rock team’s offices (which were located in the same building prior to Valve buying them). The Chosen would be lead by a NPC General (Graves) who would actually have real AI on the servers that determined where the Chosen would attack based on what players were doing. It would find the weak spots and determine the most fun way (for the players) to attack them. Thumpers, convoys, bases under construction, finished fortifications, essentials like food and water…ALL of it was to be fought over. The humans were supposed to defend and build all this while pushing back the Melding and reclaiming more territory from the Chosen. Every quest, every dynamic event, was supposed to be built around this war story theme. Our entire technology of the engine was built to be able to do all this (including dynamic pathing recalculation for when new buildings were put on the map – it worked!). The AI was also supposed to “watch” players like it did in L4D, to determine the best points of tension to entertain them with a new unfolding event. Unfortunately, this AI director/general was never made a priority to implement, much to my constant frustration for over a year and half.
The world was build upon a 1/10th scale of actual NASA data. It was never meant to be completely seamless or “zero loading screen” as this would have been too risky to do from a tech perspective. Instead you were to hop between these pockets of human territory surrounded by Melding, “dropping into” areas on the globe map as new warfronts opened up. Pushing back the Melding would enlarge pockets, but after a certain size you’d have to port into the other pocket of the Earth that needed expanding.
Crafting and sandbox building was to be the core of the game. I called Firefall “minecraft with war.” Gathering resources with bigger and bigger thumpers, building war machinery, bases and vehicles and defending all this from an AI driven opposing General, while constantly unlocking new zones/warfronts, was what I had wanted for Firefall.
Of course, what shipped with Firefall was a compete redo of my original game (they spent six months undoing my game and implementing their own version prior to ship). The Firefall you can play now is level based, more about progressing your character than fighting a war. In fact, I think the war parts (like the Chosen invasions we had) are completely gone. Thumping is gone, crafting is gone, and dynamic quests have been replaced with traditional static quest givers, or job boards. Its pretty much a standard MMO now, instead of the simulated massive war game that I had always wanted to make. It’s really a shame.
Hope that answers some of your questions about what I was trying to accomplish with Firefall and what the original vision was. I think you can see I was pretty consistent in that vision, even from the very beginnings of the game. I’d still like to make it one day.