The Rise and Fall, Fall, Fall of Firefall

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When someone talks about first person shooters (FPS or just “shooters” for the purpose of our conversation), it’s a safe bet to assume that they’ll be referring to competitive shooters like multiplayer modes of Call of Duty or Halo, much in the same way that analysts who mention “video games” are actually referring to the narrow subset of “console games”. It’s still considered somewhat necessary to include a single player component in AAA shooters, but the talk of the town is almost always about how the online, PvP modes sell the game and keep it relevant until the next installment is released.

Firefall started out no different from these multiplayer games when it was announced in 2010. The game was to be set in a world in the midst of a collapse after a several cataclysmic events that made most of the planet unlivable, and which paved the way for an extra-dimensional condition called the Melding.  The player would be taking on the role of an ARES pilot, an elite soldier of the world government called the Accord, and tasked with keeping the Melding-mutated Chosen at bay, and to hopefully push back the Melding and reclaim the planet. There would be mission structures that allowed the players to follow a story arc over time, as well as take one-off missions for currency, reputation, and other awards. The biggest selling point of the game was that player activity would actually have an impact on the shared world by allowing players to activate Melding repulsor devices that would reveal new sections of the map, but would require upkeep to ensure that the Melding didn’t fall back into place.

I played Firefall for quite some time a few years ago after the game had it’s own real-world cataclysm. According to street-lore back around the time the game was in closed alpha, production was stalling and behind-the-scenes the company was a mess. Mark Kern, the CEO at the time, was apparently a hot-head and had made several poor decisions, so the story goes, including spending a massive amount of money on a custom built Firefall branded bus that contained several game demo stations. The plan was to drive the bus cross-country to advertise the game, but in the end the bus never even made it onto the road (literally…it didn’t run, from what I understand). The game itself had shifted directions several times, from a balanced PvE/PvP game to a majority PvP game with an intended focus on e-sports, to a majority PvE game which is where it sits today. At one point the PvP content was totally removed from the game (or at least made entirely inaccessible), which was a complete 180 degree turn from what the game was supposed to be when it had been announced.

Firefall ended up being a legitimate punchline in some sections of the gaming community. Since hearsay is an official currency in some gaming circles, everyone claimed to know that Firefall was a disaster, had no direction, and wouldn’t live to see another year (every year). As someone who played it quite religiously during what I’m now personally calling it’s “golden age”, I thought that things were moving along nicely after the company appeared to be getting back on its feet after ousting Kern and promising to get production back on track. For the most part, the game itself has always flown under the radar, which was both a blessing and a curse. It allowed the team at Red 5 to work on the game without constant toxic scrutiny that the gaming public usually provides, but it also allowed Red 5 to continue to operate more or less in the dark, a factor which kind of crept up on everyone at the end of last year when a post on Reddit from a supposed employee of the company claimed that the company had failed to make a payroll deadline, leaving everyone in the company without their expected paycheck. Once again, Firefall and Red 5 were being put through the community ringer for being mismanaged and an unmitigated disaster.

I opted to jump into the game this weekend to see for myself (how novel!) how things had progressed since the Golden Age. Red 5 had just released a new mega-patch, albeit one that was apparently having some issues with legacy characters who needed to be ported to a new mechanic. Overall, the game is still recognizable as the Firefall that I played: the main focus is on PvE, although the arena PvP game “Jet Ball” has returned. I was able to reclaim my old battleframes — swappable weapons platforms usable on a single character — although a few were retired, and the management for all of them was totally different. Whereas before you’d simply improve the existing frame, now each frame has slots for different parts of the armor like arms, legs, torso, head, reactor, and operating system that you can upgrade discreetly. Primary and secondary weapon slots are still present, as are the three standard and one mega-ability slots you can trigger in addition to your main fire modes. They did make some changes to the weaponry — for example, it used to be that the right mouse button offered an alternate fire mode, but now it simply aims every weapon, and the main weapon of my Firecat frame now acts as a flamethrower and not the beloved splash-damage fireball shooter I so enjoyed. I was surprised and a bit horrified that even with my advanced frames, I was being asked to perform the tutorial mission arc, a task for which I was way overpowered. It helped me get back into the game, but the “tutorial” melds into the story missions (some of which I’d done way before now, and before they were part of any coherent story) didn’t seem to care that I was well beyond the proper level for them to be anything more than busy-work.

That jarring juxtaposition of trying to create a normal, logical game from this point forward, and the existence of legacy players and designs appears to be the hallmark of the current state of Firefall. It seems like there’s two different ages of the game going on here at the same time. One is the legacy game with all of it’s original promises and conceits like the terrain, the battleframes, the Melding, and the Chosen, and the other is trying to correct the mistakes that had been made throughout the years in some of the mechanics and presentation. It’s like building a skyscraper around an ancient cathedral, where the mandate is to not wreck the beautiful work that’s already been done, but which also needs to upgrade the space for the modern era. These two states are co-existing, but are not always complimentary, and sometimes unintended consequences arise like missing voice overs and strange camera glitches that should have been (and were) fixed years ago, in addition to a number of bugs that are simply unavoidable in software development.

Red 5 has a deal to bring Firefall to China, and as always I hope it pans out for them in many ways. I still really like the game, and had played for a few hours this weekend. I really enjoyed the new mission arc that I’ve been plowing through, even though I’m way overpowered for it (they now have a zone down-level feature, although you still get to use your up-leveled arms and armors). But every now and then I ran into some baffling situations that were so incongruous that they couldn’t be anything other than bugs. This is taking its toll on the existing community, as you’d expect. I watched one player scream at a community manager in general chat about the litany of sins that Red 5 had committed with this game’s muddled mission-statement and the company’s attitude towards the player-base over the years, and while I certainly would never condone the kind of behavior that player was displaying (double especially when directed at someone who has no decision making power and whose job it is to willfully interface with the community), I can appreciate that his frustration was the end result of years of apparent indecision and bad management of a game which really has a whole lot of potential, even to this day. It seems that for every step forward that Firefall makes, it always manages to fall back on it’s ass somehow.

There’s not too many games like Firefall out there or planned at the moment from what I can tell, and I think we’d be poorer for not having it around. Had it all gone swimmingly from day one, I think Firefall would be a game that people would be talking about in positive tones as something special that stands out as a welcome hybrid among the fantasy MMOs and testosterone-laced military shooters. It has an interesting story, great community-goal mechanics, and a solid feel to it’s gameplay. Everything wrong with the game doesn’t seem to be with the game directly, but with the decisions and the directions made about the game and their implementation, and I’m worried that it’s gotten itself so tied up in knots at this point that it won’t be able to un-knot itself to realize it’s potential. At any rate, it’s damaged goods in the eyes of many gamers, and if history is any indication, there’s no way even the best case scenario could redeem it going forward. That’s why I hope it does well in China, that it brings in new money, and allows the game to get itself back on the track that I think the game deserves.

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