Why aren't there more massively multiplayer shooters? I don't mean online shooters with large player communities like Battlefield and Call of Duty. I don't even mean upcoming shooters that utilize elements of massively multiplayer games but don't fully embrace their MMOG roots, like Destiny and Tom Clancy's The Division. I mean full-fledged persistent-world shooters in which thousands of players roam the same shared spaces taking missions and shooting creatures when they aren't busy shooting each other. There are a few out there--PlanetSide 2 and Defiance leap to mind--but the persistent-world market is dominated by role-playing games that eschew real-time shooting in favor of more manageable battle systems.
The answer, of course, is quite simple: MMO shooters are incredibly difficult to make. James Macauley, Red 5 Studios' CEO, knows this all too well. I recently sat down with Macauley for a few hours to talk about the developer's massively multiplayer shooter. "It took a tremendous amount of work to build the engine, the technology, the tools to produce the content and define our art style, and also on the design side, there are just a lot of design challenges," Macauley told me. "We try to have a super skill-based game that also has character development and progression and customization, and crafting and a player economy, and all this stuff. So we are really excited to be at a point where we've solved those problems, we've built a core experience we're extremely proud of. This is the game we've dreamt of playing for years."
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These kinds of development challenges might explain why Firefall has been in the beta stage for what seems like years. Actually, it has been years: the game's first closed beta test was in 2011. But all betas must end sometime, even Firefall's perpetual testing phase--and so end it does, on July 29th, when Red 5 officially removes the beta tag and will consider the game to be in full release.
Clearly, Firefall has been a long time coming. Says Macauley, "We started off back in 2006 with a dream of taking the high-action combat and mobility and sci-fi feel from some of the shooters we've really come to love, and taking it to a massive open world with hundreds of other players, and bring social features, character progression you're used to in MMOs, more traditional ones." And based on what I saw of Firefall's release version, the game seems poised to set itself apart not just from other MMOGs by nature of being a shooter, but also from other shooters in the same space. PlanetSide 2 is all about competitive battles; Defiance is all about player-versus-environment missions and cooperation. Firefall offers a breadth of content I haven't seen in an massively multiplayer shooter, along with a colorful science fiction world that initially reminded me of Borderlands (due primarily to its cel-shaded look) but actually holds a lot more visual nuance than Gearbox's successful series.
As with most MMOGs, you choose a class of sorts, but in Firefall, classes are represented by battleframes, which are exoskeletons to which you equip various weapons and skills. What makes battleframes distinct from typical MMOG classes is that you can equip any battleframe you want, thus changing classes without having to create alternate characters. Dreadnoughts are the heavies of this world, while engineers use turrets and shields to establish a foothold. There are five main battleframe types, and each type of frame comes in several variants. You can also further customize battleframes by leveling them up and thus earning perks that further enhance your frame--or any frame, really, since you can apply a perk to any frame you equip once you unlock it. And when you reach higher levels, you can install modules to further modify your equipment, perhaps by increasing its damage output or its clip size. At full launch, Firefall will offer around 12,000 weapon variations, so there should be plenty of room to experiment and find combinations that work for you.
I watched as Macauley played through the opening tutorial mission, as well as several other tasks, as a dreadnought. The dreadnought might be Firefall's version of a damage-soaking tank, but there's nothing slow and methodical about this battleframe. Indeed, mobility is an important aspect of Firefall no matter which frame you choose. When Macauley told me that the game's lead multiplayer designer is Scott Youngblood of Tribes fame, it immediately made sense why zippy movement was such a priority. As I watched Macauley thrust into the air using his jumppacks while hammering his enemies with a minigun, he explained that the levels put an emphasis on verticality--even indoor levels that you would suppose should limit maneuverability.
Given all that maneuverability in large spaces crowded with other players, keeping the player experience as smooth as possible is clearly important to Red 5. The game ran exceedingly well on the laptop Macauley was using, but the test server he occupied wasn't exactly teeming with hundreds of other players. Luckily, the development team spent a good deal of time refining its technology in order to reduce online latency as much as possible. "With a high-action combat game, players do not want latency, but latency is a fact of life," says Macauley. "We spent a tremendous amount of time on our networking layer to compensate for latency. So we actually do collision detection in the past, so that what you're shooting at is what you're hitting, versus a more traditional networking model. The monster may have already moved out of the way but you might not have gotten that update in your client, so you're shooting but you're missing even though you feel like you should be hitting. So we built out some really robust technology to compensate for that, and to make sure combat and mobility is snappy."
The Firefall experience begins with taking missions and fighting the Chosen, a race of aliens that emerged after humanity created a disastrous energy storm when attempting faster-than-light travel. (This wasn't humanity's first major disaster in Firefall lore, mind you: the meteor shower referred to in the game's title wiped out the majority of Earth's inhabitants.) I saw both the dreadnought and a biotech frame variant called the dragonfly, which Macauley says requires a lot of skill to handle correctly. No matter which frame you choose, your primary goal when entering a new region is to uplink to a SIN (that is, Shared Intelligence Network) tower, thereby unlocking access to jobs in the area. As Macauley headed off into the great beyond toward his job's destination, we glimpsed other players engaged in their own battles, and in one case, summoning a device called a thumper, which is used for mining resources.
So we actually do collision detection in the past, so that what you're shooting at is what you're hitting.James Macauley, Executive Producer
Red 5 isn't relying on the "shooter" part of its gameplay to stand out from other MMOGs. The team is also focusing on dynamic encounters to keep exploration fresh, as well as to make missions fun should you wish to play them again. Not a single creature spawn point is hand-placed; instead, developers designate which enemies are appropriate for which areas, and the game procedurally spawns in creatures and resources. Objective waypoints will differ and elite enemies may appear; you may even encounter otherworldly tornados that initiate large-scale group encounters and reward your success with desirable loot.
The Chosen aren't your only enemies in Firefall, however. The game will also feature large-scale player-versus-player battles focused on base capture, territory control, and resource collection. Such battles mark a noticeable about-face for Red 5, which had originally approached its competitive play as an esport. Says Macauley, "We took a step back over the last several months as we were preparing for launch. We made a conscious decision to step away from calling ourselves a competitive esports games. We went down a path we shouldn't have gone down. And so we've been really focusing on PvP that makes sense for Firefall."
"Competitive players want pure balance," Macauley adds. "They want no variation on gear, or your damage, or your weapons. It needs to be perfectly tuned and balanced, and it created some difficult problems. It took a long time to figure out the right balance, how we approached this." Anyone will be able to jump into Firefall's PvP and contribute to the battle, but competitive play is aimed at max-level players, and Macauley plans for it to grow significantly in the months and years to come.
If you're wondering what will be different between Firefall's open beta and its launch release, Macauley tells me that the size of the world will quadruple, and that the game will offer 15 times the amount of content once updated later this month. At the same time, chapter one of the game's primary story will be introduced, making the release patch "the biggest game update we ever had," according to Macauley.
Will Firefall be a success? The odds are good. After all, the game has boasted a dedicated community for years, and it doesn't cost any money to check it out. As our meeting drew to a close, Macauley told me how people responded when hearing Firefall would be free to play. "It's funny, when we announced Firefall at PAX 2010, at that point in time, free to play was still just taking off in the West," he said "League of Legends was either still in beta or had just come out of beta. I remember doing interviews at PAX Prime, and one of the number one questions was, 'Why are you doing free to play, how are you guys going to make money?' It's so funny now to see that's the norm."
I haven't played any Firefall yet. I've been waiting for the full release, which I'm glad is now just around the corner. I am not sure yet whether I'll buy any of the game's cosmetic items, or will pay to speed up my crafting projects. But I will surely be there on launch day, ready to explore yet another new world--or in this case, an old world (Earth) as it may exist in the future. That future may not sound bright, given alien invasion and flaming meteors, but a world this colorful, and this stuffed with things to do, might just be the escape I've been hungering for.