The Game Archaeologist: Firefall, an MMO tragedy about more than just a bus


Back when I first started writing for Massively and was energetic enough to go on trips to trade shows, I hit up a PAX around 2011 or 2012. As I wandered all the booths on the show floor, one caught my eye with the crowd of enthusiastic fans that swarmed it. As the banner above their head pronounced, this was where Red 5 was showing off its highly anticipated sci-fi MMO, Firefall.

I drifted over there and looked at it a bit… until I heard that this was to be a strictly PvP game, at which point I noped out and went looking for more carebear worlds. But little did I know that I was witnessing the start of a weird, twisty-turny adventure of a game, a bus, and an egotistical dev studio.

Something fell.

While today the game studios founded by ex-World of Warcraft developers are legion, Red 5 may have been one of the first. Mark Kern, who had been with Blizzard since 1997, left the studio to co-found his own outfit in 2006 with Tribes lead designer Scott Youngblood. Red 5’s first project was an ambitious MMO shooter that rejected fantasy for a sci-fi setting and would be developed by experienced industry vets that the studio wooed with iPod Shuffles and other incentives.

“When I founded Red 5, I knew I wanted to do something different than anything I’d done before,” said Kern. “I wanted to take the best of what I learned making online games and bring that to skill-based shooters.”

After toiling away in secret for a few years, Red 5 formally announced Firefall in 2010 to an industry that was seemingly primed to jump out of World of Warcraft’s shadow and into new realms. Firefall was based on the Offset Engine, the last such game to use this little-known codebase. The company’s shares soon were snapped up by Chinese firm The9, which acquired a majority controlling interest by 2010 and injected a much-needed $20 million boost into the project’s coffers.

The announcement of Firefall stirred up a lot of excitement, especially when Red 5 revealed that it would be giving the game to everyone for free and funding it through microtransactions. This news came out a year after the free-to-play revolution began in the west, and with some titles still stuck in an older business model, it made Firefall seem fresh and accessible.

Initially, this was to be a PvP-driven experience in the vein of PlanetSide where players would duke it out over territory and resources. However, Red 5 realized that this would limit its audience and pivoted in mid-development to a more PvE focus with PvP esports (including a highly publicized $1 million tournament in 2013 that). But even that hybrid approach didn’t stick, and the studio ended up canning its esports plans and tanking the tournament.

No doubt inspired by the Tribes developers who worked on the project, Firefall equipped players with high-tech “battleframes” that could glide, use jump jets, and swap weapon loudouts. They fought across a visually stunning world, performing rote MMO tasks along the way (tasks that were partially randomly generated).

“Players will protect the Earth through the use of high-tech battleframes, which can be customized extensively to unlock the power of Firefall’s class-based combat. Battleframes allow players to specialize in their favorite style of play, while giving them the flexibility to swap and trade their way to new configurations on-the-fly. Whether you enjoy supporting your team, aggressively assaulting an enemy position, or sneaking behind enemy lines, there is a battleframe for you,” the studio said in its 2010 press release.


While there were initial hopes to launch the game as early as late 2011, Firefall’s development and testing stretched a few years past that mark. Beta testing commenced in 2011, with the studio beginning to sell in-game items the year afterward. By all accounts, the project was a mess of shifting goals, experimental tech, and always-changing ideas. Much of the blame for this was attributed to Kern himself, who would allegedly randomly fire employees and march into the offices and demand that teams drop projects and start new ones on the fly.

Things languished so much that the studio had to consciously decide to go “radio silent” in 2014 and stop talking the game up so that it could actually finish it. Eventually, the MMO slithered out from an open beta and into a live environment on July 29th, 2014, following a “re-announcement” of the game for those who had forgotten it existed.

Initial reviews were not that kind to the title, with critics noting the “lifeless” environment, failed potential, and muddled setup. It ended up with a lackluster 60 on Metacritic — a bad omen for the game’s long-term prospects. Even more nerve-wracking was the fact that 10% of its staff was let go in preparation for this moment.

During the development of Firefall, Mark Kern kept the hype insanely high. He was clearly convinced that this would be the next big thing in the MMO space and seemingly recklessly spent money to promote the as-of-yet unfinished title. Reports eventually surfaced of the studio funding an expensive video soundstage setup to make Firefall live action videos as well as dumping cash in unrelated projects.

The capstone of this foolish spending was the notorious Firefall bus, a modified vehicle that would travel across the country to host localized competitions. Reportedly, this stunt cost the company $3 million — and greatly displeased the other leaders of the company. A year before Firefall launched, Kern was removed from his position as CEO by the board of directors to try to minimize the damage.

Bye! Wait, no. Wait, yes!

This wasn’t a capsizing ship (or a bus) that could be righted, however. Firefall came roaring onto the scene with expensive hires and promotions, only to find that it couldn’t keep that momentum. Numerous rounds of layoffs happened both during development and afterward. By the end of 2015, the studio announced that it couldn’t even pay its employees on Christmas week.

Things didn’t get better from there: Red 5 fully laid off all of the game’s developers by summer of 2016, ceasing work on the project while keeping the servers open. This maintenance mode period limped on for a full year before Firefall officially met its demise on July 7th, 2017.

While the closing announcement dangled the possibility of a mobile version in front of players, nothing came of this. As for Kern, he attempted to stay relevant by talking a big game, weirdly inserting himself into the World of Warcraft Classic debate, and beginning work in 2016 on a Firefall “spiritual successor” called Em-8er (which still hasn’t launched).

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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