No-Win Situation: The Troubled History of Firefall, Part 2

This is a second of our three-part series on Firefall creator Red 5 Studios. The names of sources found in this story have been changed to protect their identities. Read Part 1.


Mark Kern might have likened his last year as chief executive officer at Red 5 Studios to a “no-win situation,” but he wasn’t the only person working there who felt that way.

Employees working at the studio under Kern who spoke to GameFront told stories of struggling through situations they didn’t feel they could win, either. After seven years of development, the studio’s only game, Firefall, remains unfinished — and many sources said the reason for that is a combination of wasted work, a lack of direction from management, and an often-toxic working environment.

That wasn’t the case for all employees, though. For some, Red 5 Studios was a place where like-minded gamers came together to work to create something new, and for whom the studio’s inner culture, known as The Tribe, was a tight-knit community that made them feel welcome and excited to be there.

Kern helped seal the deal that kept Red 5 from closure — and, at the time, saved many employees’ jobs.

Most agree, however, that the studio could be a volatile place under Kern’s leadership. He was the ultimate authority at the studio, and his decisions on gameplay designs often meant throwing out features and projects he’d previously greenlit in favor of new directions.

What was worse, though, was Kern’s explosive temper. The boss was prone to yelling, and was often absent, which made trying to pursue the ideas and goals he laid out even more difficult. What’s more, disagreeing with him was often a good way to get fired.

But what made Kern, the last of three founders who left Blizzard Entertainment and start Red 5 in 2006, such a central authority figure? The studio’s flat hierarchy, which meant that almost no one was considered “above” anyone else, was one part; the lack of defined producers and middle management was another.

And there was the fact that in 2010, Kern helped seal the deal that kept Red 5 from closure — and, at the time, saved many employees’ jobs.

It was also a deal that returned Kern to the position of CEO, after he’d left the position in 2008.

‘A hero’ with ‘bags of money’

Things were looking bleak for Red 5 Studios in 2009. The end was imminent — three years after its official founding, the studio was close to shutting its doors.

“The company was running well and everything was looking great. Then the economy dropped out that summer.”

At that point, Firefall was in a prototype phase, with Red 5 looking for a new publishing contract, which would have meant more money and the ability to take the game to a completed state. The studio had made a deal in 2006 with Korean publisher Webzen for worldwide rights to Red 5’s game for about $25 million, according to The9 financial documents, but issues with that deal had resulted in Red 5 getting publishing rights back in many territories, including North America and Europe.

“We spent six months and we had a prototype, and we demoed it for Sony and EA, and everybody, and we had a great response,” said Greg, a Red 5 staffer who had been with the company since around its founding.“EA was vying for it and Sony was vying for it, and finally, the company was running well and everything was looking great. Then the economy dropped out that summer.”

With that economic hit, the publishers Red 5 had been pitching were less willing to spend, and backed out of any potential deals. Soon, the studio found itself running out of money, so Red 5’s management was looking to exit gracefully by providing severance packages and closing up shop, one source who worked at the company at the time said.

But the studio was saved from closure, thanks to an agreement to sell a controlling interest to Chinese publisher The9. The sale injected millions into the company, and gave The9 an 81-percent controlling interest in Red 5.

The deal also elevated Mark Kern to the position of CEO.

For many at the studio, the deal with The9 must have seemed like a life preserver tossed out to a drowning victim.

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8 Comments on No-Win Situation: The Troubled History of Firefall, Part 2

Riney

On April 1, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Been in this beta a long time, and ever since Kern’s release, its honestly been changing around there. Patches were getting done, and it seemed like things were solid. Now, the lack of content I believe is from the remainder of Red 5 taking a page from Kern’s book, or twitter account anyway. Advising to close the beta and get much more done, I believe that Red 5 is working on several different aspects of the game so they can barrage the players with new content, including OWPvP, Story Missions / Campaign, and the PvE battlefronts.

I say give them time. Time is all they need.

Betrayed

On April 2, 2014 at 12:08 am

As I commented in Part 1 of this article, all of this sounds about right. This industry has way too many Kerns (and his cronies) and, as a result, will undoubtedly face another crash as a result.

Too many people’s lives have been ruined; too much bad blood and shattered perceptions have occurred because of this kind of malignancy. There is HUGE supply of naive 20-somethings fresh for the meat-grinder but, after a few short years of maltreatment, even they will become bitter and worn out.

Eventually, the bubble will burst because the infection cascades down into the quality of the products and, let’s face it, we’re not really seeing anything inspirational churned out of these studios/sweatshops lately.

Here’s hoping that the inevitable “new” start-up this monster and his cronies announce in a few months from now doesn’t destroy more people’s lives/aspirations the way Firefail has.

Fox

On April 2, 2014 at 5:50 am

Firefall isn’t a bad game, it just lacks purpose. The good news is that its getting that focus and purpose now. It’s definitely not the same game I played last time. As Riney said, all they need is time.

eniac

On April 2, 2014 at 10:39 pm

These series of articles are BS

the.AC

On April 4, 2014 at 5:23 pm

I’m confused by the layout of these articles. It seems the story is being broken into segments, and I’m expected to come back for additional Parts. But when I read half of a 7-page article and it simply rehashes the previous part or even repeats itself several times, I get kind of annoyed. Not to mention ending Part II kind of abruptly. But oh well, I’m not the one getting the big bucks to journalize game exposés.

Phil Hornshaw

On April 4, 2014 at 5:30 pm

@the.AC

Well, sorry. It’s a bit repetitive for two reasons: first, because of the length, I was trying to keep it easy to track across multiple parts. Second, because different parts get into different sets of details, but because so much is interconnected, I was trying to keep those connections clear by restating the relevant bits. Apologies that you found it irritating – I was hoping to keep it easy to follow, especially for people who we’re reading across the three days in which we posted the series.

Aquedius

On April 4, 2014 at 7:58 pm

The decision to sell to the ( was already considered the inevitable before Michael left, it’s actually part of why him and some others elected to resign as they did not see the long-term relationship to be positive.

Aquedius

On April 4, 2014 at 7:58 pm

The 9,* sorry for the typo.