No-Win Situation: The Troubled History of Firefall, Part 3

This is a third 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. Read Part 2.


If there’s one thing Red 5 Studios has had during its seven-year history, it’s ambition.

For employees at the studio working on the officially unreleased massively multiplayer online shooter Firefall, Red 5’s only game, and other projects, it was a place of big ideas, and the studio brought in lots of people to execute them.

But those concepts and projects were met with various degrees of success. Former employees have told GameFront that with lots of big ideas came a lack of focus. Under then-Chief Executive Officer Mark Kern, ideas and systems being worked on in the development of the game would often be abandoned or changed on a whim.

Other areas, such as Stage 5 TV, a YouTube arm that produced video content both related to Firefall and not, received a lot of attention and resources from Kern. Former employees said the ultimate ambition was for Red 5 to create a digital game portal not unlike Valve’s Steam service, with Stage 5 TV serving as its marketing arm. Eventually, though, the reality failed to live up to the ambition, and a large portion of the Stage 5 TV team left the company when it laid off reportedly 10 percent of its staff in September 2013.

Even before Stage 5 TV was attempting to drive players to Firefall through video content, though, there was Red 5’s focus on another burgeoning area of the video game world: eSports. The early vision of Firefall after Red 5 was purchased by Chinese publisher The9 in 2010 was to make the MMO an eSports contender, and lots of people at the studio labored to realize that vision.

For several years, the studio made investments in building an eSports community, focusing on tournaments, hiring staff with eSports backgrounds, and commissioning the creation of a custom vehicle that the studio planned to use to tour the country.

It never quite happened, though — despite the efforts made by Red 5’s staff and the resources spent on eSports, eventually, former Red 5 staffers said Kern decided a new direction was in order. It was a shift that meant years of work were rendered obsolete and resulted, in one way or another, in several staffers leaving the studio.

The MGU and eSports

Red 5 made its push into eSports as Firefall was being developed. The shooter’s player-vs.-player mode reportedly was something Lead Game Designer Scott Youngblood worked on extensively, using his previous experience from working on the Tribes and Syphon Filter franchises.

As an eSports game, Firefall needed work, but the groundwork was there and the PvP mode was fun, former employees said. Players responded well to it even if there were few maps and Firefall included some balancing issues, which the design team was working to fix.

“PvP was broken but it was still fun,” one former Red 5 employee. “Most eSports start off as being a fun thing to do and then the community picks it up. And there was a lot of people who were great at this game and were really, really ready for an eSports initiative. That was really encouraging….”

“…there was a lot of people who were great at this game and were really, really ready for an eSports initiative. That was really encouraging…”

In support of making Firefall a powerful player in eSports, Red 5 hired people like Morgan Romine, the former captain of professional gaming team Frag Dolls, to coordinate that aspect of its community. The game’s design team also worked on creating an “eSports toolkit” that was released in 2012 and which gave players the ability to broadcast Firefall matches and to spectate online.

The studio also began work on another project related to eSports: the “Mobile Gaming Unit.”

The MGU, as it came to be known, was a converted bus that would allow for mobile setup of Firefall game tournaments. The idea behind it was that Red 5 could use the bus and its on-board AMD server to create local multiplayer games that, reportedly, would support as many as 1,000 players or more.

The bus would be an eSports broadcast station as well. It included 20 game stations, complete with their own chairs, computers and screens, where players could try Firefall or participate in tournaments. A central “shoutcaster podium” station was meant to be manned by another person, who could stream broadcasts of the games to the Internet.

Red 5 contracted with custom car shop West Coast Customs through The Trade Group to create the bus, and work on it was to be part of the reality TV show “Inside West Coast Customs” on Discovery HD Theatre. As work was being done on the bus at WCC, Red 5 staffers were organizing a cross-country tour, with the plan being to drive the bus to colleges, conventions and other locations, organizing tournaments and promoting Firefall.

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5 Comments on No-Win Situation: The Troubled History of Firefall, Part 3

LTenhet

On April 2, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Very good set of articles; pretty terrible for the (former) employees, Firefall was pretty fun when I played it a while ago, but nothing really special.

Let me also add: Really? A book and movie deal? He hasn’t -done anything-, talk about egomaniac.

quicktooth

On April 3, 2014 at 12:08 am

Just imagine Kern as an employee. He’d last, about, a week tops? No one would hire him forever after he’d inevitably been fired, and the industry would be better for it. He’s the picture of a narcissist. Actually looking for a movie deal about himself, having *failed* CEO to so much as finish a single game, and wasting tens of millions doing it. And it’s hard to even think about how stupid he was while in charge, not to mention (possibly legally culpably) abusive. I have a close relative who spent years training in games design at university, and by the time he’d finished his degree he’d decided to never work in games at all. He’d heard, you see, over all those years about people like Kern… everywhere in games. And the sweatshop conditions he’d be hired under. And the lack of job stability. And other kinds of inexcusable exploitation (like low wages etc). I wonder what games he would have made, what fun we all could have had. What all the other smart guys, too smart to get into this poisonous industry, would have done.

Riney

On April 3, 2014 at 9:17 am

I really hate how this article seems to care more about Mark Kern, even though its been reported time and time again that he was the problem. It sounds an awful lot like it was co written by the man!

Carnage

On April 3, 2014 at 4:17 pm

@quicktooth Kern was an employee, for blizzard north, on a few small titles like World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo I & II… the wrong thing to do was not keep him on a direction, free will was his downfall. When he had to report to a higher power, he did well. But given the ability to do whatever he wanted was where he failed.

quicktooth

On April 3, 2014 at 8:51 pm

@Carnage – Condescension will get you everywhere, right? Just look at Kern. Of course I knew he was at Blizzard. But that was before *years* of astonishing waste, failure and abuse. He doesn’t look so great anymore, does he. And your argument is literally that if *other people* used his skills, that he didn’t use his free will at all(!), then “he” would succeed? So if you and logic team up, those weren’t really *his* successes in the first place. And now people know the “new Kern” (as he put it), who very publicly wastes tens of millions of *other* people’s dollars. Pretty sure that “new” stands for “unhireable”. Ohwait, was that the sound of Kern actually making games development *worse* every time he condescends to participate in it? Yep. Don’t know what he personally contributed to those amazing games of before, but he’s a very different ‘developer’ now. And God forbid someone ever let’s him get in *charge* of something (we can only hope he’s lying about founding new companies)…