EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Firefall Production Lead James Macauley

With a science fiction setting, jetpacks, and a studio called Red 5, no one would fault you for thinking that the free-to-play PC sci-fi shooter MMO Firefall is one funny ’droid short of being a Star Wars game. But in talking to James Macauley, the CEO of Red 5 Studios and production lead for Firefall, it turns out that George Lucas’ space opera isn’t the only big influence on this game.

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Let’s start with the basics: What kind of game is Firefall and how do you play it?

Firefall is a sci-fi, MMO shooter that takes place on a futuristic Earth. It combines many elements of a tactical, skill-based shooter with a role-playing inspired progression system in a massive, shared open world. The experience is not like a single player shooter campaign. Instead, players can explore the world and go anywhere they want at any time. Our world is filled with dynamic content that is procedurally spawned and actually takes on certain attributes based on the location and on surrounding content.

The controls of Firefall are very familiar to other shooters with two major additions. First is the introduction of jump jets. This adds a whole new dimension to combat and movement that opens up the entire world for greater exploration. With this important feature, we have been able to make verticality a major part of the experience. At some points there is even a sense of playing a platformer as you’re estimating your jump times and creatively finding pathways up and over obstacles or mountains.

Second, Firefall introduces abilities and calldowns that add to the high-action oriented combat experience. For example, a player can calldown a glider pad which launches them into the air with glider wings. The player can then use one of his Assault abilities afterburner, to thrust himself even higher in the sky and then end with using his ability crater that dishes out increasing area of effect damage to enemies based on the height of the drop. Between abilities and jump jets, combat is filled with tons of movement and action.

Mobility aside, Firefall is an MMO shooter that puts heavy emphasis on shooting action. There are a lot of skills and tactics involved with the shooting combat for both the PVE and PVP content, which not only adds a lot of excitement to the gameplay, but also a great deal of replayability.

So where did you get the original idea for it?

It began with our unending love of shooters. We wanted to build the next generation of online shooters by taking the high-action combat and social play of some of the best shooters ever and pull in some of the things we had come to love and enjoy from MMOs. This included such things as character progression and customization, a rich story and a vast, shared open world.

What other games do you think Firefall is similar to? And I mean in both how the shooting works, and how the MMO aspects work.

Firefall pulls a lot from many different games and genres and combines different elements in a way that provides a unique experience. We definitely share some similarities with various other action-oriented, class-based shooters. We also pull in many elements from different MMORPGs such as our social features, an in-game player economy, questing, character progression and instanced content.

What about the science fiction elements, what are some of the movies, books, comics, TV shows, and other games that inspired those parts of the game?

We drew inspiration from all over the place. Our art style is heavily influenced by anime. We really loved the look and feel of Appleseed Ex Machina, along with other works of Masamune Shirow. In addition, there were quite a few sci-fi movies and TV shows that left an impression with us. We greatly enjoyed such movies as Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Prometheus, and Star Trek. Often, we would sit around the tiki bar talking about the latest episode of shows such as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, or Game Of Thrones. In fact, I always thought Edward James Olmos would make the perfect Nostromo for Firefall. Honestly, there are influences in Firefall from all over the place.

Given your company’s name, Red 5, are Star Wars references a given, or did you avoid making any in Firefall because that would’ve been too obvious?

The name Red 5 Studios is definitely a nod to one of our favorite sci-fi inspirations. That said, we have kept this reference subtle and have not made too many explicit references in-game.

Sure, but I have to ask, do you think, with some aesthetic changes, that Firefall could work as a Star Wars game?

Ha! I think “some” would have to be a whole lotta some. Every aspect of Firefall is uniquely tailored to our game. This includes everything from our art style and rendering techniques to our class design and abilities. We have built our tools and technology in a way that would allow us to build a vastly different game but this would be a new game and not simply aesthetic changes to Firefall.

Though I do like to think that Boba Fett would gladly sport one of our jump jets.

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Some have compared Firefall to Tribes because both have you using short burst jetpacks. Do you think this is a fair comparison?

Most definitely! In fact, our lead multiplayer designer, Scott Youngblood, was the lead designer on Starsiege: Tribes and Tribes 2. I still remember his first week at Red 5 when he ever so politely demanded jetpacks in the game. Though we have yet to add in skiing, there is definitely influence and inspiration in Firefall from the Tribes series.

So what do you think Firefall does better than Tribes?

We have a lot of respect for the Tribes games. In fact, it was games like Tribes that inspired us to create Firefall. We wanted to take the high-action oriented combat and fun social interactions from other shooters such as Tribes and add to the experience things we had come to love and appreciate from other genres. This is what led us to build a vast, open, shared world, social features such as our in-game army system and loads of ways to customize your character.

And when you guys saw the first trailer for Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which also has jetpacks, did you guys think, “Okay, cool, we’re on the right track” or “Fuckin’ hell!”?

We were pumped to see the announce trailer. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare looks great and I can’t wait to play it.

What about when Bungie announced Destiny, did you curse their mamas or did you think, “Hey, now we can see if a shooting MMO will work on consoles, and do so on Bungie’s dime”?

Collectively, we are all very excited about Destiny. I’ve actually been following Destiny more closely than Call of Duty because it shares a bit more in common with what we are doing with Firefall. I am eager to see how Bungie has solved or handled some of the design and technical challenges that we had to work through with Firefall.

Firefall is playable from both the first- and third-person perspectives, and you can actually switch between them on-the-fly. Which is not something most games let you do, especially not shooters. Why did you decide to do this?

This is something we debated heavily on internally for quite some time during development. Did we want to be a first or third-person shooter? We knew very well during these discussions that this decision would have a profound impact on the feel of the game as well as on our production cost. At the end of the day, we felt too strongly about having both to let either one go. For many players, the use of first versus third person perspective is situational. If I’m super focused on combat and aiming I’ll switch to first-person. If I’m playing one of my engineer battleframes or am playing with other players and want a bit more awareness of what all is going on around me, I’ll switch to third.

How hard was it to make a game that worked in both the first- and third-person perspective?

When we first made the decision to implement both first and third-person perspective, we expected it to greatly increase the amount of work to make combat feel solid. This ended up to be true. Though things like concepts, special effects, and audio are shared between the two perspectives, there are many art, design, and technical differences. For example, in third-person your gun is far enough away that it doesn’t make sense to allocate memory for a super high-resolution texture. However, when you switch to first-person you absolutely want that texture looking crisp and detailed.

We also had to give consideration for things like camera field of view differences, camera and weapon positions, communication of various status effects, and animations. There were definitely challenges with the implementation, especially with striking a visual balance between the perspectives, but we are extremely proud and happy with the ultimate implementation.

So how do you prefer to play Firefall?

Honestly, I switch perspectives all the time. I do really like customizing the visuals of my character, so naturally I jump to third-person to check-out my changes. When in combat, though, it really is situational and whether I am playing solo or with a squad.

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Firefall is free-to-play with microtransactions. Why did you decide to go with this pay system?

Prior to announcing Firefall at Pax Prime 2010, we debated our business model heavily. We were at a time when free-to-play often felt like a last resort for games that had not succeeded with boxed sales. We did not want consumers to think about Firefall in these terms, but we also saw how hugely successful this business model had become in Asia.

The main tipping point, for us, was our desire to make it as easy as possible for people to be able to play with their friends. We strongly felt that some of the most fun gaming experiences to be had are when you’re being social and hanging out with other people. Making Firefall free and easily downloadable was the biggest step we could take to remove barriers to people trying out the game.

We took the Field Of Dreams leap of faith in believing that if we built a fun, compelling, and engaging experience that players would come. And if players were playing and having fun, some of them would be comfortable spending money. We have since seen so much of the industry shift to this business model that it sometimes feels strange to pay $60 for a game. It will be interesting to see where the industry goes in the coming few years.

What kinds of things will people be able to buy?

We offer a wide range monetization items and services. We sell many different types of cosmetic items, warpaints for your battleframes, decals, pets, hair styles, hats, etc. We also sell quite a few convenience items and boosts. For example, you can purchase an XP boost or buy a VIP membership to receive several different perks including a crystite boost, which is our in-game currency, and a special VIP boosted glider pad to help with getting around the world faster.

Another big thing players can purchase or earn through in-game means are our 11 advanced battleframes. These grant the player access to unique signature weapons as well as new, battleframe-specific abilities.

A lot of recent free-to-play games with microtransactions have run into trouble for being too aggressive in making people pay for stuff. What are you doing to make sure you won’t piss people off?

At the end of the day, Red 5 is comprised of a bunch of hardcore gamers. We have many passionate discussions when it comes to monetization in an effort to make sure we avoid crossing that invisible line of either too aggressively monetization the experience or making players feel they must spend money to have a good time. From the beginning, we’ve made commitments about making sure the entire gaming experience can be enjoyed completely for free. The responsibility is on us to be creative in offering additional value to players who don’t mind spending money while not upsetting free players. Some of this comes with the types of things we sell while another part comes by offering non-paying users alternate means for acquiring certain monetized items.

Firefall is currently only available for PCs. Are there any plans to do versions for Mac or Linux?

We would love to bring Firefall to these other platforms. This has been a part of our plan for a long time, but there is a non-trivial amount of work to properly support these platforms. Currently, we are most focused on making sure Firefall offers a phenomenal experience on PC before we start in on supporting additional platforms.

What about for consoles?

Taking Firefall to consoles will take additional work on top of what we would need to do for OSX and Linux. This includes things like input design changes, a full overhaul to our user interface, and making sure all of our core technologies can work properly on console. This project is definitely something we have talked about, but at this point it is too early to make any commitments.

What about the idea of making a version of Firefall for consoles that’s much more in line with other console shooters, something with separate single-player campaigns and competitive multiplayer

Not at the moment, but nothing is ever out of the question.

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Finally, if Firefall does well, and you get to make a sequel, what timeframe would you personally like to see it set in: World War II, modern day, the not-so-distant future, even further into the future than Firefall, what?

The day we can sit down and begin serious pre-production on a sequel will be an exciting day. Personally, I would love to see it be even further in the future so that all of the major accomplishments players achieved in Firefall could be included as a major part of the story in the sequel. The idea of including even player names seems cool to me. This would also allow us to build greatly on top of the existing lore and in-game science of the game.

 

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