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

In our latest Firefall feature, Lead Designer Scott Youngblood tells us how character development and two of the game's 5 battleframes have undergone extensive revision, and previews some of the future Tier 3 additions and new content coming to Firefall.
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.

Firefall Resources and Crafting

Scott showed off the new interface at the molecular printer, Firefall’s crafting station. “Here are your nanoprints,” Scott said, pointing out a long list of equipment that mostly corresponded to what we’d unlocked on the certification tree. Scott pointed out a base-level Omnidyne assault rifle. “I can use it right now – just build it and slot it onto my battleframe. But the people who really want  to start min-maxing their builds will want to look into how better resources affect the quality of their builds.”

“Right now, we have 8 different types of resources, each of which has different quality levels and properties – density, malleability, conductivity, etc. All of these stats affect the quality of items.” Scott showed how greater amounts of mediocre resources can be refined to smaller amounts of higher-quality resources.

Refining the coralite he had in his inventory, Scott could now make a green-level rifle with better DPS (the game uses the WoW color conventions).  “In choosing better qualities and rarities of resources, you can build much more specific weaponry or abilities that accentuates how you want to play a different battleframe.”

New Dynamic Events and the Melding Tornado

One constant criticism of Firefall has been the perceived lack of PvE content. Past an early tutorial masquerading as a series of quests, players felt they had little to do besides thump for resources. Scott explained that each content area has a new objective – for the first area, Copacabana, it was to give players their first Thumper (which mines resources even as it attracts enemies). 

Dynamic events will continue to add flair to Firefall's PvE content

Later content areas, such as Trans Hub, will let players acquire the first pieces of their LGV (a motorcycle-like mount) as well as other goodies. “During the course of those missions, you’ll actually get to drive the LGV, so you’ll know what you’re working towards.

Scott was interrupted mid-thought by a purplish tornado forming nearby. “This is the first time I’ve been able to show this. – a new dynamic open-world event called a Melding Tornado. This is going to spit pretty nasty creatures out into the world. If we’re successful at popping it, it will dump a mother lode of resources out on the ground. If you get too close, though, it’ll knock you far away.”

“We plan on having a lot more dynamic events in the open world,” Scott noted. One of which involves the Chosen patrols players encounter close to Copacabana.  “The Chosen can, and will, take over Copacabana.  There’s a whole other event for players to take it back from them. The AI system is governing how the Chosen will attack, but players play a big part in influencing that too.”

Firefall’s Future

One of the concepts we’re talking about for Tier 3 is passive bonuses. Think about our existing trees, but in the mix are little bite size chunks of progression that give you a passive bonus. For example, let’s say you were working with a manufacturer who specialized in capture-the-flag battleframes. Those passive bonuses might be run speed or jet thrust.”

I asked if these passive bonuses are sort of like set bonuses. “I didn’t say that word, but you should keep thinking it,” Scott laughed.

With the extent that players will be working with the battleframe manufacturers, I asked if Red 5 had any plans to add corporate story arcs.  “I eventually want to have corporations offer missions so players can go out and build reputation, to the point that players could eventually be sponsored by Omnidyne.” So Firefall players could eventually have their very own Ironman experience.

Taking back Copacabana

On the PvP side, Red 5 continues to step up their eSports presences. “Every PvP match is recorded and placed out on the cloud so it’s dissociated from the server.  The file can be streamed to however many people want to watch it – thousands, easily – without impacting performance.”  Scott explained that any player can watch live or replay PvP matches through the PvP terminals located throughout the game.  Live matches are delayed by 30 seconds to prevent cheating, except for registered shoutcasters, who can bring up individual player stats on screen during the broadcast as well.

This system records player actions, not linear single-perspective frames (as in the case of fraps or typical shoutcasts), so the files are a fraction of typical video filesizes.  Red 5’s system also allows producers or shoutcasts to show virtually any camera position or perspective anywhere on the map (with smooth, uniquely orienting transitions), and includes an automated instant-replay function.  In short, it’s the best toolset we’ve seen, either for watching or broadcasting with commentary.

Lots more PvE and PvP content are on the horizon too. “Once Coral Forest is realized, once all of our PvP game types are realized, we’ll start leap-frogging how we expand the game. We’ll add new PvE areas that add new resources and new technologies. We’ll offer new PvP game types and maps, and new ways to participate. Armies are coming in a big way – our Armies are our version of a community character. Armies will have their own technology tree that all army members can advance. And down the road, open world PvP is going to be very interesting for us.”


Our thanks to Scott Youngblood and the Red 5 crew for their time in showing us how Firefall has evolved since our last preview. With last week’s launch of the item store and this Friday’s introduction of the Founder’s program, Firefall is all but officially launched. Learn more at http://www.firefallthegame.com .

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