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Refining Firefall - A Preview / Q&A with Scott Youngblood

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 2012 by Ethec

Firefall Lead Designer Scott Youngblood

Firefall Lead Designer Scott Youngblood is no stranger to addictive shooter gameplay. As Lead Designer on Starsiege: Tribes, Tribes 2, and a bevy of other bestselling games, he crafted some of the most classic shooter experiences of all time, Scott brings that experience to bear in refining Firefall into one of the premium free-to-play MMO shooter experiences available on the market today.

But “refining” is the operative word. In our latest interview, Scott tells us how character development and two of the game’s 5 battleframes have undergone extensive revision since our last preview. Scott also previews some of the future Tier 3 additions and new content coming to the game.

Reduced to Tiers

Every level-based MMO has had it’s fun threshold -  that dreaded level where a player is no longer bourne along by story or gameplay novelty and the grind suddenly becomes very tangible. For Age of Conan at launch it was the moment you stepped out of Tortage, in vanilla WoW it happened somewhere in Stranglethorn Vale, but fortunately for Firefall the problem was identified early in beta and, according to Scott, solved.

“There were a few things that we didn’t like about the way our previous leveling system worked,” Scott explained. “One of the biggest problems I had when I’m leveling, when I hit a certain level, it was so hard to get that next level that I became disincentivized to keep doing it. In addition, we didn’t like the amount of power differential we were seeing on characters of different levels. ”

The solution was to toss the levels concept out completely, and go with battleframe tiers – a system that plays on the typical 3-path talent tree. But instead of one tree per class, each class has multiple branching trees that lead to new tiers (and greater specialization) within the battleframe or class.  The two Tier 2 options for the Recon class, for example, offer SIN manipulation (stealth and decoys) vs. the execution shot (which cause the target to be unrevivable or occasionally explode, dealing damage to other enemies in the area). Not to mention that Tier 2 frames just look cooler than Tier 1 frames.

Experience is still gained by skill – shooting an enemy in the face provides extra XP. “But what’s the point of XP if we don’t have levels – it seems odd. The thing I was really cognizant of, especially at high levels, was rate of reward.  There was a long draught before you could get something else new. I was looking for way to inject more rewards between levels. But levels seemed meaningless at that point, so let’s just get rid of that.” Hence tiers and more horizontal progression was added to the game.

Also, instead of rewarding players with stat boosts and the occasional new ability, traits (or certifications) are primarily built around unlocking new equipment and battleframes. It struck me as a hybrid between a traditional talent tree and a research tree a la EVE Online or World of Tanks, but Scott likened it to a car or racing game. “You buy a battleframe – that’s equivalent to a car – and then you can tech that out. Then buy additional battleframes and tech those out,” Scott explained.  In any case, the system seemed to work far better for Firefall’s free-to-play focus than the previous arbitrary level-up system.

Ways to Tech Up

Starting from the bottom up, better servos increase jump height and sprint speed, while improved jumpjets allow the player to fly longer. Different ammo types allow players to customize primary and secondary weapons for PvE and PvP content. New processors and reactors increase the CPU and power grid of the frame, allowing the player to pack in better equipment.  Finally, ability 1 and ability 2 slots allow players to mount frame-specific ability modules (like stealth, drop turrets, etc.) and specialty allows players to notch up their tier 2 (and above) abilities.

“More powerful items cost more CPU and power,  which leads to some really interesting tradeoffs that you’ll have to make in terms of battleframes,” Scott explained. “We expect that will incentize players to build multiple models of the same battleframe type just to get those choices.”

Medics No More and Engineers Re-engineered

Firefall has a total of 5 battleframes (think of them as classes if you like, but one player character can have multiple battleframes) . Though all frames have gone through extensive revision throughout beta, the medic and engineer have changed the most.

Let’s start with the Medic. “It’s now called the Biotech,” Scott noted. “We delta’d away from what the medic used to be, and now the Biotech gives the player a lot more options. “ For one, the Biotech no longer locks on to a healing target, running in their wak a la Team Fortress 2.  “Instead, I shoot a projectile,” Scott explained, rapid-firing a white downy-looking ball of health into a friendly. “That projectile has some interesting functions. When I shoot it at an enemy, it’ll start damaging them and healing myself.” A secondary effect of this Biotech weapon is that it debuffs enemies, making them more susceptible to ancillary damage.

The Biotech née Medic get some cool new weapons.

“Another new Biotech weapon,” Scott explained, “is the Poison Trail. He can run around leaving a trail of poison gas behind him to weaken enemies. Some NPCs (and players) are smarter than others about getting out of that.”

The Engineer also got some love in the form of multi-deploy turrets and forcefield. “Previously the Engineer was incentivized to stay put, keep stuff repaired, and it really tied him down. Which is not what Firefall is about.”  Now the Engineer’s deployables are thrown and can stick to anywhere, on walls, ledges, and other hard-for-meleeing-PvE-mobs-to-reach places.

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