The rise and fall of promising titles within the gaming community isn’t a unique phenomenon, unfortunately. Anybody can have an idea, but it takes talent, resources and money to execute one successfully. Simply put, some games have it, some games don’t. Firefall by Red 5 Studios appeared to be made of natural twenties and crits for days. It was founded on the seemingly awesome premise of a skill based shooter with elements of RPG-like progression thrown into a world of dynamic events and coordinated, intelligent enemies. I am not exaggerating when I say that this was probably the game Halo was originally slated to be before Microsoft’s buyout for the first Xbox—An epic, sand box FPS where anything could happen. With founding talent from hallowed franchises like Tribes and World of Warcraft, the sky was the limit.
I can’t help but to sadly laugh at just how far this game has fallen from that promise.
The roots of its failure can be traced back through seven years of development; nearly five of it in relative secrecy before finally emerging into the public spotlight with promises of greatness. By the time the shroud of mystery had been pulled away from Firefall, many of its original Founders had left or been forced out, while the partnership between Red5 and developer Webzen Games had likewise come to a bitter conclusion. CEO and co-founder Mark Kern was the last man standing when the dust settled and made the command decision to sell the franchise to The9 Limited in order to secure 20 million in continued funding. Further funding was obtained through player founders packages and more promises of content.
The future seemed bright in spite of the warning signs*.
Production of Firefall continued to lag through 2012 as the first real signs of leadership failure began to emerge. It didn’t take insider information to discern that there was a critical fault somewhere within Red 5’s development process, and that fault pointed to a distinct lack of vision as Red5 began to compromise Firefall’s initial goals and features. Design and priorities shifted wildly from the world content that had stagnated since beta to an unwanted progression system that continued to mutate through 2013 into a product that punished players with excessively redundant grind in the form of battle frame progression, manufacturing, gear decay and research. Skill had effectively taken a back seat to big numbers, and the official forums became an increasingly poisonous environment as to the direction Firefall was heading.
The truth was more desperate. Red 5 was once again running low on funding. The initial war chest that CEO Mark Kern had secured was drying up due to his ineffectual leadership and player income was at an all-time low. Red 5 wasn’t producing a game players wanted to play and its player base wasn’t buying the severly limited content available. The in-game economy became his answer. Once again lacking the resources to get the job done, Kern cut began to lay off his workforce and cut Firefall back to life support. The decision was made to axe PvP and turn PvE progression into a self-sustaining, player based economy that required as little of Red 5’s development resources as possible. In theory, it sounded like a decent idea with shades of EVE thrown in for good measure.
In practice, it was a nightmarish kludge of grind and fail with multiple currencies and a number of overly-redundant advancement checks to compensate for the ongoing content drought. It highlighted in every way possible Red 5’s lack of financial wherewithal and ability to execute Firefall’s original vision. It was, in fact, the anti-thesis of what the franchise had initially set out to be- A skill based shooter with shades of RPG. Whatever Firefall had become, it had almost abandoned that mission statement outright and public opinion began to follow even as Red 5 ignored their pleas for a return to sanity. Further desperate measures were taken in order to "encourage" Founders to retire the currency they had been hording for lack of substance and hopefully jump start the economy. The first new cosmetic content since beta was finally release in mid-2013… Through slot machines and random chance, not the established cash shop vendors. It was an obvious, unsavory tactic to prompt players to gamble until they got something they wanted, not make single targeted purchases.
As mentioned in the Crush Depth - Firefall entry of this blog, something had to give. Finally, it did in a big way: Mark Kern was removed from his position as CEO, likely due to gross mismanagement and a continued, unescapable track record of failure since taking over sole responsibility for the company’s wellbeing. Coincidentally- or not so -The9 Limited was able to secure another 23 million in funding for Firefall through Shanghai Oriental Pearl Culture Development Co. Along with Mark Kern’s exit, another price was exacted, specifically a 20% minority stake in Red 5 Studios, with acting CEO James Macauley at the helm.
Now we turn to the future.
Specifically, does Firefall even have one? It’s tough to say, really. Red 5 Studios appears determined to remain tight lipped as to any specific direction they will take with the franchise. In fact, the only official word coming down the pipe has been the same one that their player base has received for the last three years—“Trust us, it’ll be great!” Needless to say, the official party propaganda is being met with a lukewarm- if not openly hostile –reception.
On the other hand, 23 million can make a heck of a dent in any budget, but how big of a dent very much depends on how much of it goes toward damage control. 23 million can likewise get slurped up in the blink of an eye just through operations alone, and while I’m confident there will be tighter budgetary controls on spending, the 2014 timeline to re-launch is suspiciously ambitious and in my opinion, overly optimistic considering the damage the brand has endured; as if the developers and shareholders realize that the axe head of time and competition looms closer with each passing day, as does the waning interest of their audience.
Much as I hate to do it, I’m going to pronounce summary judgment against Firefall and recommend you avoid it like Ebola herpes. At very least, keep an eye on it, but under no circumstances should you feed cash into what is looking more and more like a money pit of financial despair. The original start-up capital, plus Founders money, plus The9’s investment couldn’t build this game into a successful franchise. Maybe the new leadership an 23 million can, but Red 5 isn’t the sole issue here. The9 Limited isn’t what you would term a sound financial investment either, nor do they seem any better at avoiding legal action.
I might very well be wrong. I hope I am. But I’m all but certain that Firefall won’t be the game we were all hoping it would be when it re-launches.
[late edit] - I've come to the conclusion that the problem is not talent or money. It's the mindset of those in charge, even after Kern's exit. When a developer addresses specific player issues on the forums, it's invariably turned back upon the players in some way, shape or form. Excuses are likewise made for bad game design, as if they are rooted in concrete and cannot be changed or should not be questioned. It's development through apathy. The will to succeed seems completely absent, hiding behind a myriad of justification and excuses.
This, more than anything, is why Firefall will fail.
*Glassdoor. Specifically noting any review prior to 2014.