PAX East 2011: Firefall, the non-MMO MMO

Last weekend, one of the biggest booths to dominate the PAX East showroom floor was a game called Firefall by Red 5 Studios. This shooter game has gained a lot of attention in the past because it pulls elements from different games such as Borderlands, Team Fortress 2, and even Halo. However, none of the comparable games is an MMO. Thus, Firefall really stands out among its peers. There are mechanics of this game that really scream "MMO" to the average observer, yet there are very non-MMO designs as well.

At PAX, I had a chance to sit down with Red 5's CEO, Mark Kern, to discuss many of the design philosophies behind Firefall -- in particular, I wanted to know why Red 5 doesn't label the game an MMO when it clearly features many of the hallmarks of the genre. "The potential of MMOs is so much broader than the tag would indicate. We are broadening that definition and taking a crowbar to it. If people want to call us an MMO, that's great. We aren't going to call ourselves an MMO, because we want you to think fresh thoughts along with us," Kern explained.

I also had a chance to play this unique game, so follow me after the cut as I give my impressions of the game along with some key quotes from my talk with Mark Kern.

Firefall made its mark by sporting one of the loudest booths on the trade floor, and the huge sign that proclaimed the name Firefall certainly grabbed my attention. I was certainly not ignorant of the game. Many people in the Massively IRC chat room asked about it. In fact, they wanted more information, but I was adamant about not covering the game, because the developers weren't calling it an MMO. We are Massively. We cover MMOs. If a game chooses to compete with shooter games rather than MMO games, then we don't want to turn off our audience by covering a game that isn't really an MMO. However, my mind was changed as soon as I began talking to one of the designers. This game will really appeal to MMO players, particularly those who play Global Agenda or those are looking for something different from the MMO genre.

After explaining some of the key elements to our Editor-in-Chief, he decided that we could definitely cover it. But I will take the heat if, after reading this article, you still don't think this game is an MMO!

Marketing the non-MMO

The very first thing I had to ask Mark was why Firefall is not marketed as an MMO. This sparked a great conversation about what elements make up an MMO. He explained that the MMO audience wants particular things in its games. From my perspective, Firefall had these elements, so I asked why the developers didn't call it what it was.

"I think it's really because we wanted to make sure that the expectation was right. We're trying to do something different. If we had called it an MMO, I think people would have thought about dice rolling and equipment vs. skill -- and massive amounts of grinding content. That's really not what our game is about. We are really about starting with an excellent shooter. If we don't have that, what's the use of tacking on anything from the MMO universe to your action shooter game, right? If you can't have action that's up there with a Halo and TF2 -- you're not anywhere in that territory -- then I'd rather play a regular MMO. We started with that. That was actually a hard lesson because I think we were much more in that MMO territory when we started given my background. But we said, 'No, let's make it a great shooter first. Let's cherry-pick MMO elements that make sense for the type of game we're making.' That's what we did, but as soon as we did that, we had a game that was very different from an MMO. If we went out there and called it that, I think people would have got the wrong impression of the game."

Lore-rich

Although not everyone who plays MMOs reads the backstory of the game he is playing, each game usually has deep lore, which helps to motivate his character's actions. Firefall is similar in this way.

The world as we know it has been destroyed in a devastating event called the Melding. This energy storm absorbed all biological life on the planet except for -- as far as we know -- a small portion of South America. Now the human race has to fight to survive and rebuild its world, but unfortunately, the people cannot agree on the best course of action. The land of New Eden is divided into two major factions: one that wishes to forge a different way of life than before and another that wishes to restore things to how then were.

In the midst of this battle, a third non-player race has been born from the Melding. The Chosen, as they are called, raid human settlements and attempt to prevent humanity from expanding the borders of New Eden.

Classes

Like most MMOs, Firefall has a class system, but in the tradition of separating itself from the pack, Firefall uses the term "battleframes." The Assault and Medic battleframes were revealed prior to PAX. These two character builds are fairly traditional in the third-person shooter genre. The Assault battleframe is a heavy, with large amounts of consistent DPS being its forte. The Medic battleframe is designed to help keep people alive; however, it can also deal a nice bit of damage when the need arises. And for PAX East, Firefall revealed the Recon battleframe. As its name suggests, this class of fighter is all about sneaking around, making the quick attack, then bolting away again before anyone realizes what happened.

"We don't call them classes because you can switch your battleframe at will between any of these," Kern said. "There will be different battleframes that you can buy or that will drop in the world. And you will want duplicates even of that battleframe because you can slot it with different abilities. You can have multiple loadouts. An MMO player would call them specs."

A persistent world

The game centers around the Fragment, which is, as Kern put it, "Melding-free land" in Brazil. The set-up can be likened to Champions Online' server set-up. There are multiple servers of the same instance, which hold hundreds of players (versus CO's 99). The only time it appears you are in an actual instanced situation is when you queue up for PvP. And even the PvP maps should be familiar to players, as they are taken directly from the persistent world.

An interesting point of fact: The designers took real Earth data to create the land of New Eden. They even went so far as to map out the constellations, so when you look up at the night sky you see the correct formation of stars and celestial bodies.


"You can't change the MMO genre simply by calling yourselves a different type of MMO. I think you've got to change everything about it, including the terminology that you're using."

Armies

Just as other MMOs have guilds, Firefall has armies. These are groups of players who support each other and may battle other armies for prestige. However, it's not all about PvP. Armies have to work together to grab resources to build up better armor and weapons. To use the MMO equivalent: It's like leveling your guild. Do I smell a crafting system there? When I asked whether certain armies could specialize in a specific type of equipment, Kern smiled and replied, "We are saving that for another time." I took that as a "yes."

Is this an MMO?

If you were to ask me, I'd say absolutely, yes, Firefall is an MMO. However, I understand the resistance to label. Kern told me, "You can't change the MMO genre simply by calling yourselves a different type of MMO. I think you've got to change everything about it, including the terminology that you're using." Maybe the definition is expanding. Perhaps it doesn't mean what it used to.

I will leave you with one final thought from Mark Kern. I asked about other games that are quite different from the traditional MMO yet still call themselves MMOs. Here are his thoughts: "I think by calling themselves an MMO when they're fairly different, they kind of fall into that trap. And you can fall into that trap from a design perspective, too, which we did at the beginning. You start to pull a bunch of mechanics from MMOs that start to dilute the action experience. You do more and more of that, then suddenly you're lost in the wilderness like we were. Then one day, we just woke up, and we said, 'No, let's pull back to a pure shooter core and make sure we get that right.'"


Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

This article was originally published on Massively.