Leading up to the launch of any game is both exciting and stressful for a development studio. The excitement stems from the obvious relief associated with a game finally reaching its goal, but the stress is sourced in the anticipation of how it will turn out. While both could be sensed when I visited Red 5 Studios in Laguna Hills, CA last week, the excitement definitely overshadowed all else.
James Macauley, the current acting CEO of Red 5, took over after quite the debacle regarding the former man-in-charge. Full details are still scarce at best, but suffice it to say that James was pulled up to the CEO role in less than conventional means. Nevertheless, he has done a remarkable job righting the ship and getting Firefall in launch-shape within a short timeframe.
Below you can read my full interview with James Macauley as we discussed the game’s long history, some of the big fundamental changes in store, as well as what is in store for the future.
David Jagneaux: First just tell me about how excited you are for launch.
James Macauley: I am really pumped for it. This is a very personal thing for us. I got pretty emotional last week checking out our stats of playtimes. Seeing that with player tests. Being on Steam is new for us and now we have access to piles of data: playtimes, average playtimes, and it was just very touching to see that we have finally arrived. It has been a long struggle, a long journey. We have been at this now for 8 ½ years and to finally reach the point where we are finally here. This is, truly, the game that we have always wanted to play. We have devs who have invested 70-80 hours in the last two weeks playing Firefall and I’m like, “Are you sleeping?!” because they are here working during the day and playing at night. Seeing that just warms my heart that the team making the game is so pumped and excited.
DJ: What has the transition from VP of Development to CEO been like for you?
JM: It’s been an incredible year, really intense. A round of firsts and new experiences for me. I was asked in December to be CEO by the board. For the first couple of weeks, there was really a lot of stuff coming my way. I had been with the company since the very early days, I had a great relationship with the team, and people on the board. But there is a lot of new stuff. As CEO I had a lot of responsibility across the company with stuff like HR, Finance, Legal, Budget, and all that – those aspects of the business.
We have always been a small company so we didn’t have discrete silos as much, but it’s still a change of pace. It’s been exciting, and I feel fortunate that we have such amazing people. We have an incredible team across the board – operations, development, HR, marketing, community, business, finance – across the board we have an incredible team. That transitional period was a lot of new things coming my way. Very quickly it became, you know, having all the right people in the right places. People could take ownership and keep it moving forward in the right direction. It has been wonderful – it’s been awesome. Back on the game side, as a company you can really focus on launch, on the core experience and content that we have been dreaming of for so long.
DJ: Open Bet was on July 9th 2013, a year ago yesterday. How has the game changed for you in that year? Do you see it as realizing your vision, or has the vision changed?
JM: In many ways, especially for people that have been following the game would definitely say that we have improved a lot. At the core though, the core vision that we set out to make with this game, there were a lot of details and challenges along the way that we just had to figure out how to resolve. How do you do deep character progression and crafting in an MMO, but in a skill-based shooter? How do you balance those two seemingly opposite worlds? Well, as you saw, at least I think you noticed, last year we had a major focus on eSports. Well, we had to learn a hard lesson and go through those troubles of spending a lot of time as a team to invest in technology. We had our spectator mode, our leaderboards, our matchmaking, our skill rating system, I think 6 or so arena style maps and we even had jetball. We spent a lot of time focusing on that and then we realized it shouldn’t have been the core part of Firefall, not a primary goal. But appropriately, an early dream that we had was for a game with true open world PvP. The design experts always talked about PvP and the dream they had, like Scott Youngblood, one of our Lead Designers who worked on the Tribes series, has been trying to make a game like this for years.
DJ: Looking back at your tenure as CEO so far, are there any things that you wish could have been better, if you knew then what you know now?
JM: On a personal level, I am always trying to improve myself. I am trying to look at situations and see how I could have done better and communicated more clearly, achieved the goals. That’s something that we as a company always try to do and improve ourselves. As a company, one of our core values is “Inspire Excellence” so I internalize that. I try to think of how we could do better as a company, how I could help people do better, how can I support them, help them get more focus? That sort of stuff.
DJ: There has been a shift from overly complex systems such as the overly detailed battleframe customization and now it’s primarily about leveling and perks with a more traditional progression system. What do you think spurred that shift?
JM: We did our research and made some interesting observations. First, once players got into the game and played a bit past a certain point, like let’s say 2 hours, the drop off rate significantly decreased. Players tended to be hardcore and play for hundreds of hours at that point. However, we saw a huge number of players drop off within that initial 2 hour window. So by looking at data and the metrics that we have, and also just talking to people with surveys and such to players that didn’t return, we clearly saw some things.
It wasn’t clear how to play the game. The content was not directing players and our core systems were complex enough that it was really hard to understand. I mean, you could see things in zone chat where people were asking basic questions like “What am I supposed to do now? What should I be doing?” We recognized that as an opportunity to then step out and say: “How do we build out this world of dynamic content, but still give the player direction in where to find that content?” That’s where you see things like the ARES job boards coming in as a solution to that sort of problem. That was born out of that discussion. Players complained about not having enough story, and we have a huge backstory already developed, but it wasn’t coming through in that dynamic content.
In Open Beta though, we just got so focused on dynamic content, but not as much on the story. That’s where we needed to improve. So we decided to create content that had a lot of voiceovers and characters that build up this story. So if you play through the jobs, of which we have hundreds now, you can start to piece together this world that is war torn in the future and has a lot of problems. I mean you have the catastrophic firefall itself, the collapse of the arc light, the attacks of the chosen, the melding – it’s a civilization that has gone through a tough time and now you start to see and feel that and that’s coming out of the content we are building after open beta. This is all stuff that we are creating based on how players are responding.
When we originally launched Open Beta, we had a far more complex progression system. We of course thought it was adding lots of depth; we wanted lots of customization, min/maxing, theory crafting, etc. In the end though, it was just complexity for the sake of complexity. We didn’t really end up achieving depth at a fun level, but instead just ended up confusing and frustrating players.