Mark Kern explains how Red 5 Studios hasn't run out of money developing Firefall.
It seems like a long time ago that I interviewed Mark Kern on his plans for Firefall fully adopting a free to play model. The sci-fi shooter MMO began its closed beta test soon after, in September 2011, and Kern's Red 5 Studios hasn't even announced a potential release date for Firefall. As I learned during lead designer Scott Youngblood's presentation, the team has rebuilt the game three times trying to perfect the underlying progression mechanics. I respect Youngblood and Kern's dedication to quality gameplay, but what I've been baffled by is how long this game will be in development. There's no store to speak of yet implemented, and only a few options are available for revenue through offering Founder's packages, so where exactly is all the money coming from to pay the 130 developers and staff of Red 5 Studios? How has it not gone the way of 38 Studios and closed its doors after failing to release quick enough?
"We have a budget like everybody else and we've raised a certain amount of money and it is less than what we spent on World of Warcraft, for example," said Mark Kern, CEO of Red 5 Studios. He should know, after all, he was the lead designer on WoW at Blizzard before he split off to found his own company in 2005. Kern says he's spent a lot less making Firefall.
"WoW['s budget] was 65 million dollars," he said. "Activision has been quoted as saying if you would try to do the original vanilla WoW now the price would be up to about a billion because of the amount of work that went into it."
So how is Firefall able to stay in beta and iterate without selling a product in the 8 years since Red 5 Studios has been in business? "We're doing it for less than WoW, we're doing it with a smaller team size," Kern said. "We've only recently grown to about a hundred and thirty people but we were hovering around sixty, seventy people for a long time. That is small for an MMO too. MMO teams these days are a hundred fifty to two hundred and fifty people so I'm actually pretty proud of the amount we're able to do because we're trying to change the way these games are made."
The long beta period is part of Kern's secret sauce for MMO success as well. A shooter MMO has a lot of special challenges that didn't have a model so testing early was key to the strategy of developing Firefall. "When I was working on WoW, we would look at EverQuest and we knew what systems worked and didn't work and we'd just build off of that and then add our own innovation," Kern said. "It's a really hard problem. What does progression mean in a skill based game? What do you mean that you can't have mobs that sit around and are just damage sponges and that they've got to have AI behaviors and be more interesting? What does that mean? What do you do for loot drops, what do you do for co-op play and how are you going to have these shooter like experiences when you have an open world and hundreds of players right now? You don't have the answers, so we decided let's share this stuff early before we take things to a hundred percent on any given feature."
Sharing the process has allowed Scott Youngblood's team to completely scrap the progression system and put in a new one twice. Firefall has morphed a lot, but somehow the beta community is ready to vehemently defend the game and Red 5's mission to iterate slowly. Will that kind of community engagement be another secret weapon up Kern's sleeve? "If you don't have a community that believes in what you're doing then you're going to have a very cynical group that is just going to come in and not have any skin in the game. Our community is extremely loyal because they have a lot of skin in the game," he said. "They've invested their time, which we treat as precious and that's why we don't do XP wipes. We recognize how much you've helped us and that time that you put in should never be wasted. Not only are we listening to you making changes but we're going to preserve the progress of your character in every way we can throughout beta."
All of that sounds extremely noble, but the truth is launching a new MMO is a shaky proposition right now. What happens to Red 5 if all this work and time spent engaging with the community and creating this fantastic world for people to play in, what happens if it doesn't work?
"First of all, I don't think it won't work because of that loyal community," Kern quickly said before pondering what he would do if Firefall failed. "Will it achieve super scale? Who knows, right? But someone's got to try. If it doesn't work out I suppose we'll have some tough times just like any developer. I think when you make an MMO it's kind of a bet, the company proposition. We have a lot of belief in our community that as long as we work with them, as long as we work together to make a game we'll have something that people will enjoy, if it doesn't work out at least somebody tried to change things. At least somebody tried, because if we don't we will end up with a very stagnant industry."
That, at least, is a very courageous sentiment. You can curse out the sameness of the industry, and the endless sequels or failed WoW clones, only so much without backing it up. Mark Kern is making Firefall because he wants to create something he thinks the industry needs, and if it doesn't work out, he can at least say he gave it a shot. I can get behind that.