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Gamescom 2012: Talking Firefall with David Williams

Mike Mouthaan

Firefall has undergone quite a few changes over time just like most betas. As the size of the testing base slowly grows to massive proportions, more and more input fuels the ideas-machine at Red 5 Studios as it improves an already-impressive game. The immense booth at this year's Gamescom was testament to the amount of ambition the developers have for this free-to-play MMOTPS, and the sheer number of convention-goers in, up, and around the booth revealed no shortage of interest in the game. We were led into a small, air-conditioned room in the undercrofts of this behemoth of a booth so that we could have an intimate chat with Firefall's Lead Class Designer, David Williams, away from the noise of the show floor crowd.

Right from the get-go, we made the mistake of asking Williams when Red 5 plans to release the game to the masses. "With a title like Firefall, we don't plan on a release per se," he told us. "It's an ongoing process as we continue to invite more and more people to experience our game. Eventually, we'll have to let go of the beta suffix, but don't expect a huge opening event or anything like that." He also revealed that his team plans on ramping up the number of invites dramatically in the very near future, so those craving a slice of Firefall beta should keep their eyes wide open.

Gamescom 2012 Talking FireFall with David Williams
Little big changes

Williams was candid about the massive overhaul of the beta: "About two months ago, we decided to stop normal weekly updates and took a week in the office to question every single decision we ever made in the game. We wanted to clear our minds and ask ourselves, 'What if a completely new team of designers stepped in and was allowed to change every aspect in the game -- what would they change?' The answer? Everything!"

One of the minor changes that Williams highlighted was a simple one: run speed. "Currently, run speed in Firefall is 60% faster than it was before we patched it, and it was a change for the better," Williams said cheerfully. Another change was made to jump jets; whereas previously you could only lift straight up for a short distance, now you can really gain height. How much height? Three times the usual.

"These changes seem small but have a tremendous impact on gameplay. Now, movement is much more permitting, which has a incremental effect on combat speed and mobility. It just got that much more intense," Williams explained. "We felt that, previously, Firefall was easy to learn but also a bit too easy to master. We wanted players with high skill to distance themselves from the rest. We want them to have kill-death ratios of 10-1 instead of 3-1. Note that these intended ratios are for the very, very best players. The elite." How elite? E-sports elite.


With great e-sports ambitions come great balancing burdens. Williams is aware of this fact and highlighted some of the class changes that were made for the sake of gameplay balance. "We had issues with the Medic class in that it was preventing other classes from being well balanced. Everything had to be balanced around all the healing that was being done. It was impossible," he told us. "At one point, all the successful teams would bring two or three healers to a match. When we nerfed healing, no one would play the Medic anymore. That was not what we had in mind, so we changed the Medic class, changed its name to Biotech, and changed its weapon so that it no longer did any healing. Biotechs can still heal with their abilities, but using them incurs a cooldown. The class can no longer heal continuously."

We saw Williams play the revamped Biotech class a bit, and what we noticed was its ability to do some nice damage to enemies via poisons. One ability left a poison trail behind the Biotech, damaging all enemies following in its wake. Williams' favorite trick was to encircle a downed friendly player with the poison trail and revive him in relative safety. "That's what we mean by skilful use of abilities," he said. "We want them to be used creatively so a skilled player can excel above the rest."

Another class that has undergone changes is the Engineer. Williams clarified: "The Engineer in its previous iteration was more similar to a Team Fortress engineer. Firefall is a very mobile game, so we made the Engineer class less stationary. Instead of protecting one turret with his life, the Engineer has turrets that are more temporary, that are easier to set up, and that have more than one turret up at any given time." We also saw the Engineer's ability to place a turret on walls and ceilings, enabling very creative and less positionally predictable turret placement.

Gamescom 2012 Talking FireFall with David Williams
Dynamic encounters

One of the cool new things the latest patch introduced has to do with dynamic events. According to Williams, these events are now truly dynamic in that they can land anywhere on the map at any given time. Players are given the choice to either handle the situation or ignore it completely. This was exemplified by a Chosen invasion somewhere on the map. In the first phase, Chosen will settle in an area on the map and randomly start attacking players that happen to pass by. In the event that this incursion is not quelled by players on scene, the Chosen will start harvesting materials and building a forward base.

This encampment will grow into a fortress over time, as will the number of Chosen in the area. At some point, these enemies will start attacking towns, and should these town not be properly defended, the Chosen will take them over completely. Any assets in town, be they garages or crafting materials owned by players, will be lost. "These events will take place within six to twelve hours, allowing enough time for players to step in and deal with the situation. If left uncontested, they will have a much bigger threat on their hands that can potentially disrupt and ruin valuable assets in the area," Williams warned.

It's a cool new system that encourages players to go out and explore instead of idling around areas like Trans-Hub (a massive new hub also recently introduced). It's also a great way for players to gain resources and rewards by putting a halt to these incursions, and it provides incentive to be active and involved in Firefall's open world.

Gamescom 2012 Talking FireFall with David Williams
Shoutcaster's heaven

Clearly, David Williams left his favorite bit of added content for last. With giddy, dramatic showmanship, he revealed why we will see a lot of Firefall content on places such as YouTube and Twitch in the future: "We've sat down with some of the greatest shoutcasters in the world and asked them how they would like to see shoutcasting tools implemented in Firefall. We rounded up some of the most innovative ideas and put them in." The result is a robust replay tool that lets you focus in on any aspect of a match with the stroke of a button. Zooming in, zooming out, rotating, selecting hotspots -- everything we could think of was already there.

We watched a live session in progress from the show floor so Williams could show off his best shoutcasting skills. By pressing the number keys, he switched effortlessly between camera angles, players, and even replay speed. Slow-motion looked like it came from a processed source rather than a live match, and the effects of battle gave the whole thing a very cinematic feeling. As he explained, "You can just record this without having to alter or edit anything. It's made with livecasting in mind. Send it to Twitch [Red 5's media partner] or upload it to YouTube. Anyone can do it." One of the coolest features we saw was the automated system for finding action on the map. The game would recognize conflict anywhere and zoom to that location automatically. It worked surprisingly well.

Last but not least, Williams unveiled his favorite aspect of the replay-toolkit: "We've added multi-screen support for those shoutcasters who really, really take their work seriously. One screen is set up as shoutcasting monitor; a second serves as a multi-camera monitoring tool. You can watch the second screen, see a cool event on the map, and instantly, seamlessly switch to it on the main screen. It's very similar to a real television studio. We are absolutely psyched that we have this feature coming."

With all the changes made to Firefall recently, it's impossible to sum them all up right here without your losing track. It sure takes guts for a studio to overhaul a game this way, but I've learned that it's something that Red 5 Studios is all about: bigger, better, more inclusive. If you've been to Gamescom and visited the booth, you know exactly what I'm on about.

Every summer, the gaming industry descends on Cologne, Germany, for Gamescom, the world's largest trade fair for interactive games and entertainment. Massively's on the scene in 2012, bringing you all the best scoops, impressions, and interviews from the MMOs at the show!

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