MMO Anomaly: Behind the scenes with the world builders of Firefall

How the writer of Spec Ops: The Line and a handful of 38 Studios vets plan to reinvent the MMO.
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Richard Pearsey hasn't seen his wife in weeks. If all goes well, he may not see her again for years.

Pearsey is the writer of the critically acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line. For that job, he (along with Walt Williams and Cory Davis) spent almost two years living in Germany working with developer Yager to create a story for its shooter action title from scratch.

This time around, Pearsey is working on a much bigger game. Thankfully in the United States. Unfortunately on the wrong coast from his family.

Originally from Texas, Pearsey now resides (on paper) in Missouri City, where his wife is the City Attorney. Her job is decidedly not mobile, yet Pearsey's requires him to travel all over the world. Which right now means Southern California, home of game developer Red 5.

Pearsey is the new "story shepherd" for Red 5's upcoming free-to-play shooter/MMO Firefall. He's been given a team of writers, access to every tool and resource Red 5 has to offer and an amount of time that has yet to be defined.

Yet in spite of this wealth of resources, the task he is faced with is not a small one. His job: take the hundreds of pages of backstory and history that have been created for this game over the span of several years, by a variety of developers, and weave those details into a narrative that can support hundreds of hours of play and survive being cut into dozens of shreds compatible with being digested in short, MMO-style missions, playable in any order, at any time.

Helping Pearsey build this world is a large team of veteran designers and artists, including 38 Studios vets Demarcus Holbrook and Clancy Powell. This summer, Red 5 will begin rolling out the fruits of its labors in a series of open betas featuring missions built from scratch that team members hope will redefine the Firefall experience and, possibly, MMOs in general.

And if it all goes well, Pearsey may never go home again.

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Firefall has been in development for years. Exactly how many of those years are relevant depends on who you ask.

According to Pearsey, the current iteration of the game has been in active development for just over three years. Before that, there was another game called Firefall in development at Red 5, but recent hires, a high-level strategy shift, the founding of a TV studio (Stage 5) and a radical technology revamp have all but obliterated most traces of it. What remains, say Red 5 staffers, is so far removed from what it was that it is essentially a different game.

Still, whether it's been three years or ... more than three years, one would think, judging from the game's presence at various trade shows, that there would be more to it by now. At the Penny Arcade Expo two years ago, Firefall characters coated every mirror in the Washington State Convention Center, staring at attendees while they peed. At the same event, a giant statue consisting of two life-sized Firefall characters and a Dune-like thumping device standing well over 10 feet tall resided in a main hall, blasting lines of dialogue and special effects at regular intervals. This past year, Firefall skipped the mirror hijacking, but the statue remained, tormenting attendees with its jarring presence advertising a game most hadn't yet seen.

What the Firefall team has been able to show for this work has been very little to date. Just some trailers, an online comic and a closed beta highlighting the combat. With the upcoming open beta this summer, Red 5 aims to change that.

"That was a challenge coming into making this content," says Clancy Powell, designer of the upcoming Blackwater Anomaly mission, Firefall's first open beta. "We need to create a world story, or continue creating the world story that was envisioned, and get it into the game.

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"If you play the game right now, you get an idea of ... 'This is kind of what the world's like. There are some bad guys called the Chosen, but who are they really? What are their motives? What are they doing here?' What we haven't done yet is convey that."

A lot of that challenge is on Pearsey's shoulders. After meeting with Red 5 founder and Firefall creator Mark Kern and lead designer Scott Youngblood to get the high-level details of what makes Firefall Firefall, Pearsey dug in to the wealth of backstory that had been created for the game, trying to learn what it was all about and how he could translate what had been written into an experience suitable for the game they wanted to create.

"There's this very intricate backstory that's built up," Pearsey says. "That's actually a real challenge: how to communicate this very complex, very interesting, very well-thought-out backstory to players in an experiential manner.

"What we have, in a lot of ways, is very suitable for a very large novel. Of course, games and novels, the intricacies are very different. How do we craft a shooter campaign out of it, one that's not a shooter campaign because it's an MMO? ... You cannot necessarily have the day-to-day stuff be linear. And so how do we tell a non-linear linear story?"

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Here's the backstory, in a nutshell: At some point in the future, Earth gets hit by a giant space rock (the event itself being the eponymous "firefall"). The space rock devastates the planet, but turns out to be filled with some sort of McGuffinite, a near-magical source of energy. Humanity rebuilds. Then, predictably, the McGuffinite runs out. Humanity searches the stars, finds some more on a nearby (relatively; this is space after all) planet, builds a spaceship (the Arclight) that can fold space (arcfolding), making it possible to travel faster than light, so they can go there and bring back the McGuffinite before everyone dies. Unfortunately: tragedy! The Arclight blows up, creates a rift in space-time, unleashes an evil force from another dimension (the Melding) and crash-lands in South America: go!

You begin the game as part of a group of survivors of Earth's second apocalypse, one of the newly militarized "Texas Ranger-like" shock troops (called ARES Operators) helping to hold at bay the creatures from the Melding (called the Chosen) that now threaten to overrun the last bastion of humanity (New Eden) that isn't covered with the thick, smoke-like cloud of creeping death that now envelops the rest of the planet. Your mission will be to start fighting back ... and learn more about what the hell is actually going on.

Up until now, however, the game hasn't had any of that in it. Just some heavily armored dudes and dudettes in cat ears running around shooting other dudes and dudettes. Also jetpacks.

"Being able to take this huge combat instance and layer some story in ... it's not naturally a place where you would have story unfold," says Pearsey. "We're going to tell a story of this one individual ... we're going to talk about what happened to the previous attempts to go in [the Melding]. And then, at the end, we're going to drop some cool stuff on you … literally."

This is Pearsey's first stab at broadening the scope of Firefall's narrative and a first for the game in many senses. The first mission to take players outside of New Eden. The first to include a shooter-style mission structure. The first appearance of Firefall's "Big Bad." And the first Firefall mission created entirely from scratch by industry veterans Demarcus Holbrook and Clancy Powell.

Pearsey, you may have heard of. He did, after all, write the story for one of last year's most arresting shooters. Holbrook and Powell, though, get less press. They are part of a small, hand-picked team inside of Red 5 experimenting with new ways of generating Firefall content. And if they pull it off, they could change the way this game (and potentially all games) are created.

Their level, Blackwater Anomaly, will be a self-contained mini-mission that players could potentially experience at any point in their time with Firefall. The plan is for it to reveal just enough of the overall story for it to make sense, but not so much that if it's played out of order, it could mess anything up.

"What we're doing, this group five-man instance that we're trying to release for open beta, it's been done internally, when the game was ... Basically it was like Firefall [version] one, and [now] we're like Firefall [version] some huge number," says Powell. "Because we've gone through so many different iterations. We changed how we do our tech and stuff like that. This experience has never been introduced to the public. It's the first time."

The idea is that in Firefall, players will eventually have the option to experience whatever type of game content they want, whenever they want. Blackwater Anomaly is a shooter-style mission with a straight-up objective and a mostly linear progression. But there will be other kinds of levels, and all of them will combine (somehow) into a variegated whole that will (hopefully) provide players of this yet-to-be-released game enough variety and excitement that they may never need or want to play another game.

Yet as grand as this all sounds, it starts small and simple, with Powell, Pearsey and Holbrook and the evolving game development techniques they've been polishing for decades. Or, in Holbrook's words: "Design, narrative and art."

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Design

Don't call Clancy Powell a "lead."

For one thing, he isn't a lead. He's just an ordinary line-level designer. For another, the title "lead" itself is anathema at Red 5.

The studio prides itself on being "horizontal," meaning, apart from a few really high-up boss types, nobody works for anybody else. Some people just happen to get dealt the responsibility for making sure some things happen in some order. Occasionally.

Powell is one of those people right now, with the design side of Blackwater Anomaly. (Overall project management is in Demarcus Holbrook's hands.)

What Powell is responsible for is designing the way the level works, how it plays and what the player is doing. And he's really only in charge of that because he happened to be working on it and nobody else got in the way.

"How it came to be that I have this particular thing, the ownership of this product," says Powell, "is because ... a little bit of it is my past experiences."

Powell, like Pearsey, is new to Red 5. He started last year. Before that, he worked at Sony and Zenimax. (He worked on the never-released MMO The Agency.) Immediately prior to coming to Red 5, however, he was at 38 Studios, the now-defunct MMO developer founded by Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.

"I wish things had been less bumpy," Powell says of his time at 38. "But at the same time, I learned a lot out of that."

Powell was working on the project known as "Copernicus" when the realities of 38's shaky finances came to light and the government of Rhode Island pulled the plug on the partially publicly funded studio.

"I'm actually kind of glad that my first exposure to the industry has been a rough one."

For Powell, the constant threat of such an unpredictable and untimely end is the worst part of working on games.

"I'm actually kind of glad that my first exposure to the industry has been a rough one," he says. "It makes me more critical now, of the type of companies that I want to work with, the products I want to work on, the teams I want to be with. ... Being able to roll with the punches like that has taught me some valuable lessons."

Powell grew up in Northern California and Montana, where his family owned a succession of ranches. (Although he wasn't "the rancher type" — more into music and video games than ropin' and ridin'.) After graduating from high school, Powell shipped himself off to Tulane University in New Orleans just in time to get hit by Hurricane Katrina.

After evacuating back home to Montana, Powell finished school with a business degree, then a master's at The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University. He credits his business school experience and the many twists and turns of his road into the games industry for his resilience.

"Anybody who has a business education, the one thing that they take away the most is, 'I'm working on a team with people who don't have the same skill set that I do,'" he says. "You do it every day and you do it until the problem is solved. It takes all of you working together with real cohesive vision and approach to solve that problem.

"I use that every day."

This strength would be tested during Hurricane Schilling. A heavily funded team comprised of multiple veteran developers. A well-known writer. An MMO. Comparisons to Firefall can be made.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried," Powell says. "I think if you work in the MMO business ... I would go as far as to say if you work in traditional game development now, it's probably the scariest it's ever been, because of the amount that it's grown, how high-profile it is, how visual it is from the outside in. People are looking at you. The payment models are changing to free-to-play. That means you really have to put the right foot forward to get people to invest in your game.

"It's a scary time."

Narrative

All the more scary for Pearsey, who, at age 46, has a family to support, two kids graduating from high school and a growing reputation as the go-to guy for crafting compelling video game narratives.

"For me, this is an opportunity to expand my skills," Pearsey says, "to move into an area that I've not worked in before and to learn how to tell a story in another realm. That's what's cool to me."

Pearsey has been spending the past few months learning and then forgetting Firefall's exhaustive backstory so he can focus on the plot points that will be exposed to players. He's writing and recording (among other things) a series of in-game audio logs that players will discover as they explore Blackwater Anomaly.

One of these logs reveals, piece by piece, the fate of another group of soldiers sent into the anomaly, and just like any good mystery, the story raises more questions than it answers. At least at first. Which, according to Pearsey, is part of the plan.

"To me, all shooters are mysteries, or they're best done that way," he says. "Because what is the most user-active type of story? In a sense, it's a mystery. You're involved in what's going on. So we're starting in medias res here. It is six months after the world has ended.

"[W]e've got that layer [of the story] in, and so people are beginning to realize, 'Oh, wait, the Chosen are looking for someone. Who's that?' Well, we don't tell you. But that will pay off."

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Pearsey won't reveal how his massive, years-long story will end, but he knows. For him, knowing the endpoint is the key to knowing where to start and how to go on from there. Which, for Firefall, has meant creating a plausible and worrisome villain, then drawing from the major plot points to create nuggets of story that players can interact with and learn about as they progress through the game.

His biggest challenge so far has been dealing with a character that hasn't tested very well. It's one of the two characters that interact with players constantly, feeding them mission details and so forth. People don't like him and don't care about him. Pearsey acknowledges that feedback, but wants to turn it on its ear.

"What I'm doing, and this is probably not the most mature thing," he says, "but what I've said is, 'OK, I'm going to see if I can't make people like him.' Instead of just ripping him out, let's do some things with this guy."

The trick for Pearsey is keeping a constant eye on player feedback and playtest results. To not get so far ahead of players with "big ideas" that the story becomes confusing, or worse, boring. With a game like Firefall, with multiple betas and, eventually, a free-to-play structure with missions rolling out periodically, there's an opportunity to roll in the community's feedback and let them help make the game they want Red 5 to make as the game is still being developed. It's a novel way of approaching big-budget game design that, in spite of being readily accepted in the indie community, hasn't yet trickled too far into triple-A games.

"There's a lot of surveying that goes on beyond just forums," Pearsey says. "So there's a lot of give-and-take, on a massive scale and on a smaller scale, with the community. ... It's very much a community-inclusive development. [We] really do want that feedback. [We] really do want to know what's working. [We] don't want to just say, 'This is our product and you will use it as we intend.'

"[But] I think you have to be careful. Because it's a business. I like money. I don't want to sell out, but I want to eat. ... You can have your cake and eat it too in this industry. You just have to plan carefully. All problems are engineering problems. You can, I think, be creatively true to what you want, and at the same time present something to the public that is popular and makes money. There's no reason you can't do both.

"Now, as to what's going to make money and be popular ... you don't know sometimes."

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Art

Demarcus Holbrook calls himself the goalie.

Holbrook is a senior environmental artist. He creates worlds, visually. The way the rocks look, the way the lighting impacts the level geometry, the way a log has fallen over, creating a bridge between two points. Everything visual about Blackwater Anomaly falls under his jurisdiction, and oversight of the entire design just so happens to be his. Not because of his seniority (he has none at Red 5) or his title (environmental artists aren't typically in leadership roles), but because it was his turn.

"At this company, the process is slightly different," Holbrook says.

"Everybody gets a turn, who [the higher-ups] felt should take the lead on different things," he says. "We work as a group, as a team. ... The overall point is to make sure we get communication and information out to everybody."

For Holbrook, that means keeping a list of what's broken, what feedback he gets from playtesters and what he and Powell decide to do with Pearsey's story direction. The three of them then attempt to harmonize their efforts so the overall product feels finished and complete and not the product of three separate creators working in three separate directions.

The art aesthetic should complement what Powell is doing with the design. The design should incorporate what Pearsey intends for the narrative. The narrative should be keeping in mind what the players are doing, and what kind of environment they are in. All three pieces should gel, and it's Holbrook's job to make sure that they do.

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"[Holbrook]'s the hotshot world builder in the group," says Powell. "But I understand what his work is and what his role is, so when I design stuff, I keep that in mind. I'm able to empower him to do that. Likewise ... while he's world building, he empowers me."

Holbrook got his start as a prop artist working in Hollywood. He designed weapons and gadgets for the film League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Then he went to Valve to work on Counter-Strike and Half-Life 2. He eventually drifted into "world building" as a specialty, thinking about how the rocks would look on a given world, based on rainfall and wind. How the vegetation would appear. What the player would see based on their expectations and the demands of the level design.

He was the first artist hired to work at 38 Studios, on Copernicus.

"We were making the MMO ... that one turned out to be a really big project," Holbrook says, revealing a gift for understatement.

Copernicus was so big, 38 decided to acquire a separate studio, Big Huge Games, to help out. Holbrook was a member of the Copernicus strike team sent to integrate BHG into the 38 fold. Then he moved back to Rhode Island to hire his boss and the rest of the Copernicus art team. Then they got to work.

Then, as they say, things started to unravel.

"I'm really brokenhearted," Holbrook says. "When our company died, I was really in a ... I was so very proud of the work that I did. I couldn't wait for it to get out. We got Reckoning out. And the next day it was just gone. I found myself going home, talking to my wife, saying, 'I have to find another job.' She's like, 'We just had a baby.'

"I was just one of 400 people who were out of a job."

When it came to helping Red 5 build Firefall, Holbrook leaned on his wealth of experience and all but uprooted the way the game was being made.

"There was a milestone where we had to come up with 35 new [rooms] in one month. Everybody was terrified," Holbrook says. "And so I took that opportunity to take more of those rooms from people. ... Basically, I introduced the three-ring layout, where ... you start with a circle shape and ... repeat that three times over, and each time you have a different room. When I made my first one, a lot of the guys were like, 'Huh, that's pretty simple. There's gotta be more to it than that.' ... Before you know it, we had more than 100 rooms within two weeks. I have to admit, I was actually surprised myself. People caught on so fast."

"What is the space? Where are we? What's the climate? What's it like geologically? What is the space?"

When it came time to design Blackwater Anomaly, Holbrook took it back to basics, called everyone into a room and started from scratch.

"One of the things that I tell the artists," he says, "[is] first of all we think about it on paper. What is the space? Where are we? What's the climate? What's it like geologically? What is the space? So then we start hashing out ideas. Everybody. You don't have to be an artist to just brainstorm."

Holbrook likes to gather people together for brainstorming sessions (he calls them "free your mind sessions"). Then he takes the ideas everyone has freed from their minds, works with a team of artists to create mood paintings, then shows the result to the game's art director. Some work, some don't, and the best ones are what will get made into levels.

That's how Blackwater Anomaly started out, just a mood painting drawn from a brainstorming session. Then Powell, working from Holbrook's mood painting, created a giant playspace, called a white box, containing basic shapes of what the final level will look like. That whitespace was playtested while Holbrook and his team slowly added art and textures to the blank, white geometry. Eventually it became what you'd recognize as a game.

"What I'm hoping is, the cues and the compositions that I've set up in the levels ring true to players," Holbrook says. "People can go in there and they can be taken out of reality and feel like they're in a real space ... they can get a sense of direction just from the visuals. And to be able to tell a story through the visuals ... That's one of the biggest things that I try to accomplish in any game that I work on.

"That's why working with design and narrative is so important for me. I look at myself as a hybrid, an artist and a designer. Somewhere in between. I'm kind of that guy who speaks between the two disciplines, or three. Design, narrative and art."

Anomaly

When the Blackwater Anomaly mission begins, you're in a starting area, waiting for four teammates to arrive and get situated. Your first objective is to find an Arclight generator, power it up and wait for it to turn on. This is what will keep the Chosen away while you finish the rest of the mission, but until it's fully active, hordes of them will come at you.

It's a classic defense-style mission, but in Blackwater Anomaly it serves to let you get your bearings and become familiar with the controls and your array of weapons before you're given your next assignment: find the namesake anomaly and destroy it.

The overall quest will take players through a huge environment, where they will encounter more waves of Chosen and a series of gigantic "chains" — essentially towers that snake up into the clouds, with one end sunk deep into the earth. Along the way they will fight Chosen, discover story bits and use their powers, weapons and jetpacks to wreak havoc and (hopefully) have fun.

For Powell, the goal is to create an experience that's fun even when you're not doing anything you'd normally associate with having fun. Like, for example, moving around. This is why: jetpacks.

"Everything needs to have a good pace and have peaks and valleys and things like that," Powell says. "But what I mean is, from a moment-to-moment standpoint, even my lows are fun. When you're moving around, moving is fun in our game.

"Moving is something that players do more than almost anything. They do it more than shooting a gun in these games. If you make that part of the game fun, and you make the shooting fun, you're already in a good place."

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Powell, Pearsey and Holbrook hope to prove that their design is the new way forward for Firefall, and, potentially, MMOs in general.

"It's not a traditional MMORPG," says Pearsey. "It's a strange hybrid. ... Because this is skill-based, whereas a lot of MMOs are almost mathematical exercises. It's a whole different type of gameplay."

"It's a 40 to 60 minute experience that feels nice and meaty," says Powell. "It feels like a shooter game. If you were playing through, the enemies shoot back, for example. Whereas in the open world we have a lot of melee-type enemies. I wanted to cherry-pick the shooter elements, what I feel makes it a compelling shooter game, and build gameplay around that specific thing."

Aside from the innovations in world building, the shooter-as-MMO conceits and the narrative-driven story elements, perhaps the most ambitious and potentially world-changing idea this team is bringing to bear on game development is the idea that failure actually is an option. In an industry where hundreds of millions of dollars and years of people's time are spent attempting to achieve perfection, and entire teams can be shifted from one end of the world to another and release dates pushed back years at a time simply to avoid releasing a flawed product, the idea of releasing something experimental — and then changing it — is shockingly new. And it could just be what the game industry needs to keep it fresh and, more importantly, survivable.

"If I was going to move, it was going to be entirely for a project that was right, for a company that was right."

"There's no reason to fret over a mistake when you learn from that mistake and you improve," says Powell. "You do it better the next time, or you do something that you know is going to be more successful the next time."

For Holbrook, the experience of releasing Blackwater Anomaly will be just another part of his journey through this industry, and through life. It may work, or it may not, and he'll try to learn from the experience either way.

"I try my best to listen and stay humble," Holbrook says, "because I only learn when I hear from other people. A lot of times, if you're constantly talking, you miss stuff. It's worked for me. If nobody wants to hear what I have to say, I'll just do it myself in my own personal work. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't."

And if it does work, Red 5 will be able to keep at it. That's the best case. And that, ironically, will mean Pearsey might not see his home again anytime soon.

"Splitting the family up is ... not good for us," he says. "But if I was going to move, it was going to be entirely for a project that was right, for a company that was right.

"[Firefall is] unique, which is what attracted me. It's a complete high-wire act, which is what really attracts me. I'm not interested in doing really rote stuff. I don't mind ending up where I can pay bills. Sure, I'll do a great job. But I'd rather do something that's kind of out there, on the edge, doing something interesting. Babykayak





Editing: Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Matthew Sullivan, Warren Schultheis

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