What Firefall Was Supposed to Be

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:

Screenshot 2016-05-06 17.06.20

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:

Screenshot 2016-05-19 06.20.35          Screenshot 2016-05-19 06.20.23

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.

 

84 comments

  1. jaekwong says:

    The what-firefall-was-supposed-to-be makes me drool. I’d definitely support/play this in a heartbeat…. time to Kickstart(er) this vision! Thank you for sharing this post.

    – Lurker of your twitter feed

  2. in2Sanctuary says:

    Dear Mark,

    problem with new ideas is the fact that as soon as an external influences takes interest in it, a gravitational shift starts happening towards the framework that the idea it seen fit to be able to exit in. Meaning an investor wants to see return of that investment in a given market. There is not even an escape to it as the gravitational pull has set in the moment that the idea starts seeing manifestation. Return of investment is only achieved by creating a framework where consumers can exit within. Therefore a different approach to manifestation is essential. Not one of encapsulated consumers but evolving contributors. Creating a space where players are not sharing the given space within but having a share in the game. Literately being able to be shareholder of the company creating the game, buying one share when purchasing the game. Furthermore contributing with own content to the game when there is so much virtual real estate to be rented in a game like Firefall. Therefore creating a different source of income and input into the game next to the common investors and the f2p concept.
    I hope you will be able to realize your idea one day, maybe by starting it off within the Open Source community 😉

    • Mark Kern says:

      The key is alignment with your Investors. If the Investors want WoW, they are going to gravitate and drag you towards that. They were very sure of this and did not realize that a was a sure way to kill profits by being a “me-too” in an already overcrowded and dying market.

  3. Akhlis says:

    I’m so happy to see what you actually started to talk about your dev past experience, thing I asked you about (and maybe many more)
    <3 Keep them coming!

  4. Lothky says:

    I was 13 when one of my friends introduced me to Return to Castle Wolfenstein. I fell in love with the game when I first played the classic mp_beach map in multiplayer mode (the one simulating D day, Operation Overlord). I played that game for hours and hours during around 2 years, until I discovered Diablo 2. Then I shared my free time with those two games, until WoW hit Europe. Once WoW launched, I got so hooked I ended up leaving RTCW and D2 behind. But as I played WoW, I always thought “Damn, an MMOFPSRPG would be so cool”… However, I soon understood it was hard for a “MMOFPSRPG” to be developed, and I ended up enjoying WoW.

    But a few years ago, I started watching Sword Art Online. It was pretty OK, I liked that romance inside a videogame. But when season 2 started, I went crazy. The Phantom Bullet arc brought my memories of “MMOFPSRPG” back. After the 3 episodes of the arc I was so hyped I started looking for a game that could fit in that “genre”. The closest thing I got was Wildstar, which by the time PB arc started, the game had already failed.

    And soon after your name appeared in this Nostalrius topic this past month, I discovered Firefall. I thought that maybe it’d be the game I’ve been looking for. But after a few youtube videos, I found out it wasn’t.

    To be honest, what I’d like to see is something like the Phantom Bullet arc from SAO: Gun Gale Online. A shooting game with both PvE and PvP, as well as some character progression (even though not the typical stat improvement from RPGs, but something like gearing + ranking. Also not as “complex” as modern FPS, just something simple). And after reading this, I have a feeling if Blizz doesn’t give us Legacy and you manage to get Firefall back and modify it to fit your ideas, I might be one of the new players.

  5. Tozzeb says:

    I hope you’ll be able to get your hands on the game again and redo it.

    Firefall became everything they said it wouldn’t become. A grindfest with quest giving npcs. The early firefall closed beta is what made me prefer sandbox mmos. I realized that the carrot catching game wasn’t as fun as I first thought when they turned it into a theme park mmo.

    It just keeps telling me what to do, instead of letting me do what I want to do. And the addition of elite levels just made it worse by making it literally an never ending grind fest by doing the same static things over and over and over again.

    You have my support, even if it means I have to back a kickstarter, buy a founders pack or donating through patreon.

  6. Youngbllood says:

    Mark! Not sure if you recall – Skarth and I ran Bane Busters. I sure do miss those old days still. I keep a rather cynical eye on the degradation of the game…

    Bring it back, and we’ll come back. The9 is a cheap game mill. I hope they’ll part with the IP too…but for some reason I doubt they would show any brain activity as of their recent track record with Fau Fau.

    And to the others who stumble across this – i remember all of you…especially you trolls…

    • Mark Kern says:

      There is no direct comparison to what they did to Firefall and what I wanted it to be. Everyone would have to start from scratch. That said, if I was given the list of founders who bought founder’s packs, I think we could come up with some kind of cosmetic or other bonuses as a small thank you. I’d like to find some way to rewards players who paid into the game.

  7. Grimloon says:

    First off, I’ll give you kudos for letting people know what you were thinking of. I’ll also add that I’d been watching the game since the first public trailers turned up, signed up for the forum along with our clan/guild co-leader at the time to say that we were interested.

    Fast forward a while, I then had the misfortune to play the beta through Steam when progression was a matter of pure grind. While I didn’t mind the job board and actually liked the way that rewards were more random from the vending machines it still felt a little labour intensive. Considering the fact that I put over 1,000 hours in to a single Guild Wars character this is rather a damning opinion. Thumping and crafting were what I did for the most part as I received better rewards than from jobs and they were actually more enjoyable.

    I started playing the current version again a few weeks ago. I agree wholeheartedly that there is almost nothing of what you envisioned left. It’s mediocre at best, requires little thought for the most part and is entirely forgettable. So I play it after I’ve had a crap day at the office and really just need to see things go splat with minimal risk to myself. That bit is pure “WoW with guns” and the core mechanics work well. There just isn’t anything else. It’s all rather “meh”. But in an “I don’t need to think about this” kind of way.

    Should it fail completely and you acquire the IP I might give it a look. However, should you go with your initial proposal, crowd fund it and skip the publisher politics then I’m 100% behind you. RTCW, The New Order et al have proved that you need only a nod to historical accuracy for it to be enjoyable (I’m English, we accept the fact that almost all American films will misrepresent the timeline and contribution. Just saying!)

    Considering how bored most people seem to be of the futuristic approach and so fond of retro you have the many options of alternative history open to you. Trench fighting, combined arms of WW2 or Steampunk are all valid (and popular) choices. Add some form of technology to the empire building of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, it gives you a starting point of countries and somewhere to build from.

    I honestly do understand what it’s like to have put so much time in to something, have it snatched away from you and then be blamed for what happened after you had no involvement. Please trust me, I get it. I may just be at analyst rank but the firm I work for is small enough that I can submit BCRs and see them be mauled by the powers that be. I appreciate what it’s like to be side or back channeled when you’ve given an honest opinion, backed up by evidence, and yet still be overruled. I also understand what it’s like to have a different approach from the rest of the “team”. It doesn’t make me many friends, they don’t have grounds to fire me. Look at what you want and what is needed to achieve it, not “well we weren’t thinking of doing it that way”. You know this better than I ever will do, the highest I can aspire to is “Engineer” as I honestly don’t wish to play politics. I can (at basic, amateur level. Diplomacy and tact are reserved for purely shock value), it just leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

    TL,DR: Your vision in a different setting. You’ll have my funding up front, all be it only a few hundred quid.

    • Mark Kern says:

      Thanks, Grimloon. Given that The9 has posted “great plans” for the Firefall IP, they are unlikely to sell it. I’ve heard enough people say they liked the alternate WWII setting that perhaps that is an option, after all.

      I held back from saying anything for years, and it didn’t help. Speaking out has, at least, given me some peace of mind. TY for your post, it meant a lot.

  8. Thorn Brier says:

    See, this is the game I bought the Commander Founder’s pack to support. I felt very betrayed when the game went to level based progression, and then again when the map became geographically level based. I’ve already played geographically leveled grind fests for years, and I’m tired of it. They took the most promising game concept I’d heard in a long time and turned it into standard MMO garbage. Then with the betrayal and eventual failure of EverQuest Next after I bought the Trailblazer Founder’s pack… I’ve basically given up on the genre completely.

  9. Jorias says:

    what a crazy ride this dev company has had with this product, first it was supposed to be an alternate ww2 timeline. then sci-fi but pure pvp, then (As most of us know, after beta and a firing of a certain CEO….even the concept Red9 wanted dramatically changed) here’s for hoping Ember gets enough steam going (no pun intended) to actually make it a playable a game…Needless to Say Mark Kern was not pleased at all with this whole chrade, it’s a shame such great potential is wasted just to follow the crowed, i think you need to read his blog to actually know what i mean. Mr. Kern, i promise you if i ever EVER come across the resources to help you achieve the game you want, i will gladly help you i am currently on my way after this post to your crowdfunding page for Ember. From 1 passionate gamer (who also played Battlefield 1942 all the time) to another, keep strong man and carry on.

  10. Galen_Silas says:

    I remember playing Firefall around when it first early released, I really did miss the arc portals to pockets like Antarctica, what is now Devil’s Tusk and what could be surmised as the Amazon, mainly when it came to crafting I really miss the value system that was attached to minerals, rarities in ores which made you hunt and search for better ores qualities so the gear you made reflected that. It always gave you a sense of progressing to be better and better at the game and improve your experience. Granted from what I understand some of that was done on a micro scale to give a feel for how it would be full scale but even the early implementations were really fun and themselves could have been expanded as they were. Hopefully Ember comes and delivers what is desired here.

  11. Enjinn says:

    I’d like to believe, I really would.
    I played from near the start of it all, was enthralled by the concept and potential and it greatly enjoyed it, for a while.
    With every feature and iteration though it wobbled toward an ever more complex and time consuming model of play and after wobbling around it went lurching into the endless mire of designing and redesigning an ever more complex and unwieldy crafting system that relied on farming ad infinitum.
    We never saw core gameplay adapted or advanced, we never saw the concept of battle frames built upon (but for the depthless, lightless pits of crafting and mining); We never saw any interesting vehicles surface (though gliding was cool and the bikes worked pretty well)… Just like StarWars, there was never any kind of war – sure, towers were nice little events along with the city invasion event but there were never any shifting borders or boss fights that might decide (or help decide) the fate of a region or location. Drop pods were cool but just so random and the instant I went anywhere interesting I was just swarmed with enemies – game balance was completely out the window for anyone who didn’t have top-tier gear.

    It was very inaccessible to new and F2P players, who could only ever scratch the surface and had an extremely different gaming experience to those who invested moderately and even they had quite a different experience to those who invested heavily. I can’t say that it was pay-to-win but the cash grab was real, and real disappointing. I never managed to get any of my friends to try it for more than a few days and their response was always “Well, it looks nice but I’ve got nfi what’s going on or what to do or how to improve my situation.”
    I understand though that it can be a difficult balance with a small studio building an expensive game but you’d have to do an infinitely better job.

    I believe the game could have worked as either a fully open world rpg shooter, grindy mmo or some other direction but it just became so densely packed with minutia with every year that passed while the core gameplay was completely ignored… I have no idea what Red5 was thinking – a game company packed full of dedicated and passionate game designers working ridiculous hours for years on end whose gameplay never evolved beyond its original base concept but sunk everything into peripheral projects.

    Despite all of that, in discussion with friends and devs of other games (when the opportunity came up) I often pointed them toward Firefall as an illustration of what could be done (sans the train wreck of course).

    So yeah… I’d like to believe and I wish you every success. I appreciate that you’re the original guy with a dream and not the Red5 management team but after the unprecedented, breath taking train wreck that was Firefall…

  12. Dangasa says:

    I liked everything you visioned here, just that I’m still in favor of the alien invasion based setting as you described it. The thing that matter to me the most is the mechanical feeling of controlling your own character within the in-game world. That’s what kept me playing from the very moment I started. If you can’t bring anything else from the old Firefall then please at least bring that feeling there was before the version 1.6.
    I started playing in 2015 so I can’t tell how the “old” Firefall used to be – (referred to as the beta version), but I’ve only heard good things about how the game used to be so I guess it cannot have been that bad to start with. I have my fingers crossed for you and sorry that I didn’t participate in the crowfunding campaign as I was absent at that time or should I say; “I’ve been absent for the past 7 months.” Anyways good luck and I hope you enjoy working on this project “Embel”, because I’m looking forward to it with utmost pleasure.

    -Dangasa

  13. Tazuras says:

    Interesting article. Clears up some of the things I found relating to Firefall over the years I played and what was going on behind the scenes. The only major thing that I’m still confused about is when Firefall was marketed and developed as an E-sports game. What was the idea behind that?

  14. fitzy898 says:

    Hi Mark, it’s great to read what you intended Firefall to be, and I would wholeheartedly support it if you were to try and create something similar in the future. I’ve been a long-time Firefall player for about 4 years now but over time, with the updates that kept ruining my enjoyment of the game I had several long breaks between playing. I wasn’t aware of the dev issues until recently when I saw someone in the chat mention “there’s no devs left at Red5” and I was really quite shocked to read about everything that has happened with this game that I must have played for 500 hours or more (before it was on Steam). Every time I logged in after a long break there was always some major ‘upgrade’ that had reset various character options etc. I miss the crafting system on the molecular printer, like you say, having a “minecraft with war” system would have been great. I hope by some miracle, Firefall will be bought out and saved, to be the game that you envisioned.

  15. maxmanzero says:

    The current incarnation of FireFall is pretty pedestrian it has to be said. I Foundered Up back in the day and the thing I miss most is the resource gathering. Especially the richness and potential of the crafting. It finally seemed like an MMO was going to actually build a system where crafting was going to be complex and nuanced. Especially blending different isotopes to get better “flavors” of materials. Coralite, Azurite, Silicate, Bismuth, Quartzite, the red stuff whose name escapes me. I loved thumping and gathering. Even after my friends decided they got bored with it I would be running around hammering the ground to find new veins to exploit. Yeah, that would have been a fine game.

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