Red 5 Studios' free-to-play shooter Firefall is essentially two games in one. There's the MMO aspect of the game, where hundreds of players can work together in an open-world environment and take part in the overall meta game experience. Then you have the competitive multiplayer, where players will use their custom-designed classes to kill each other to death.
Firefall has seen players in the invite-only beta for almost a year now and in that time, the studio has been gathering fan feedback on how to improve the game. The months of feedback have finally been implemented in the latest major update, all of which made its public debut during gamescom this past week, where players were able to compete for 10,000 Euros in prize money in the Firefall tournament.
There are a lot of new things in Firefall, so I spoke with David Williams, lead class designer at Red 5, to show me just how much has changed.
"We didn't like the time between upgrades and the fact that the player couldn't really choose their upgrades," David told me. "It was 'Congratulations, you just spent 30 hours gaining experience, and now we give you this!' because that was the next thing on the list. We've actually switched to a tier system, and within each tier you have an entire tech tree for your Battleframe (loadout). So rather than gathering experience points to level up, you're now spending experience points in the tech tree to unlock different upgrades for your battle frame."
With the tier and tech-tree system, you call the shots for how your character progresses. You can upgrade a secondary weapon to give it faster rate of fire, or upgrade the shotgun so it will have a faster reload speed. "As a player, you're having to make choices about what kinds of bonuses you want."
Another significant addition to Firefall is the changes made to a couple of the classes. Originally, there was a Medic class and "what the players found, and what [Red 5] found, was that at a competitive level you basically had to have [a Medic] and all of the combat was being balanced around the expectation of two or three medics on a five-man team."
Anytime that the team nerfed the Medic in some way, people ended up going from using the Medic all the time to never using him at all. "They were either so good that everybody had to have them or they were completely terrible and nobody liked playing them at all. There really wasn't an in-between point, the balance point largely didn't exist."
So instead of rebalancing the entire game around the Medic, Red 5 decided on reworking the class entirely. The replacement class is now called the Biotech, and he no longer has a specific healing weapon for teammates. Instead his new main is the needler, which has a vampire-like effect that gives the Biotech health every time a needle strikes a target. While the class doesn't have a gun that's a constant stream of healing energy anymore, that doesn't mean he can't aid other players still. He has a healing wave ability, which is a wave of energy that will heal any teammates that get hit by it.
"Now of course if you're going to take something away, we still want this class to be fun," David adds. "So we added a strong secondary component to the class which is poisons. The same nanites that he's using to heal guys he can also use to poison his enemies. An example of that is this poison trail ability that he has. So for a couple of seconds he leaves this trail of poison which is going to rip apart any bad guys that try to follow you. It's also hard to see through. Personally one of the things I like to use it for is if one of my teammates goes down, I run over there, do a quick circle around him with the poison trail and then I can crouch down and I have enough time to get a revive off while the enemies can't see me. As much as possible we like to have our abilities have a dual function, dual purpose."
Lastly, David and I discussed the eSports side of things with Firefall. There's no doubt anymore that competitive gaming is here to stay. An entire hall at gamescom was dedicated to eSports alone, with a number of different games all hosting live cash prize tournaments. To give you some context, this one hall is as big, if not bigger, than either of the main halls at E3. That's a lot of eSports, folks. It was amazing (and difficult to get through) the huge crowd of gamers all standing in the booths and aisles, watching the big screens of other people play games while the other four halls of gamescom had a ton of unreleased games on offer.
David believes that Firefall is a eSports game all the way, and a lot of the changes cater towards the pro players. "There was a bunch of things about the game that weren't quite shaping up the way we wanted them to ... The skill cap wasn't high enough and the really top players weren't really able to distance themselves enough from a standard player … We really wanted to push on raising the skill cap, giving the highly skilled players the ability to distance themselves and really show off their skills in Firefall."
Don't let this scare you off if you've never played. Firefall is still "accessible early on" as David told me, they're just providing something that lets the advance players get more out of the game.
David told me that players have already posted thousands upon thousands of videos since the launch of the toolkit a couple of weeks ago. It's obviously a good marketing tool for Red 5, but it's also important to the studio as eSports "means that there is always a skill goal for the players. They know there time spent in game is always going to make them better and better and better. You don't want to feel like you've never learned everything about the game or that you cannot get any better at it. If you do, you get board. There's just constant improvement that is still going to be available. You don't want to hit your head on the ceiling and say 'Oh okay I guess this is as good as I can be.' There's only so good you can get at Tic-Tac-Toe. But there is no limit to how good you can get at chess, for example.
And then the other side is that having a pro circuit it creates a short of a long-term goal for people. I know it was true for me when I was playing Magic professionally for a while. There was only about ten of us making money at the time. But the guys who weren't still liked the idea that we existed, and loved talking to us about it because even though I'll never be a professional videogame player, I like the fact that they're out there. It gives you that 'you know, maybe someday' feel to it. That helps make the game more exciting. Maybe if I play this a little more, I can get good at it. Maybe this is that game that I can really dig my teeth into and I get so good at it that this could happen to me. It's a real cool long-term goal for people to have in the back of their heads.
Even when I stopped playing Magic professionally, I still had that in the back of my head -- 'You know, maybe if I focused on it again, I can get back up there.' And I bought a whole bunch of cards with that in the back of my head, even though I knew realistically it wasn't going to happen. Having that in the back of your head makes the game a little more fun than it would be otherwise."
At the end of the day, it's all about the community. The eSports features add to the overall experience, and gives players something to talk about. It gives players stories to tell, asking each other what they thought of last night's game, much like people do with any sports match.
Look for Firefall at PAX Prime this year, otherwise keep tabs on the official website to see how you can get into the beta to check all this out for yourself.