Video game designer Dave Perry predicted a few years ago that a day would come when a company released a high-quality game you'd expect to pay full price for but will play for free. It would change everything.
When the polished free games come out, Perry speculated, it will be hard to pay $US60 for a game again.
The last thing I learned about Firefall when I saw it last weekend at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle was that the game would be free: free to download, free to play. That didn't compute. The game looked too slick, too complex, too advanced to be free. There will be microtransactions. Players will be able to buy items for the game, but Mark Kern, CEO for Firefall development studio Red 5 and an ex-Blizzard guy, says that even the purchasable items that may involve gameplay - the ones that aren't just cosmetic - won't imbalance the game.
The implication of all this is hard to believe and send off the too-good-to-be-true alarm bells, the kind of pitch we've seen only rarely with games like Combat Arms or Need For Speed World: a game that looks this good for which we wouldn't have to pay a dime?
The gameplay video for Firefall (above) shows what Kern played live for me at PAX. He talked me through the two gameplay sections, describing Firefall as a late 2011 PC online shooter that would blend "hundreds of player co-op" in an open sandbox world with strong clan support (leaderboards, clan stats) and an optional cooperative-enabled campaign threaded through Firefall's mysteriously alien version of planet Earth. The game's a shooter, meant to be played in first-person or third-person views.
The first gameplay section featured Kern's character calling in an air-dropped mining pod, which was supposed to thump a mineral called Crystite from the ground. The thumper attracted bug-like enemies which Kern had to shoot, lest they destroy the thumper. The longer Kern waited to retrieve the Crystite being mined, the more Crystite accumulated and the more the bugs came. There was risk and reward. Wait longer to get more mined mineral, but risk those bugs destroying the thumper and therefore destroying it all. Kern played this event solo but said that the game's artificial intelligence director would adjust the encounter if more players had joined cooperatively. After the encounter an enemy dropped loot. The loot is colour-coded. Purple loot is about as good as it gets. That dropped item could be used back in one of the game's towns to upgrade Kern's character's backpack. The backpacks can be armed with a few abilities, like a ground-pound area attack.
The second gameplay section had Kern in the game's town. He explained that the game will dynamically generate missions. As an example, scripted just for this demo, the town was suddenly invaded by a humanoid enemy force. Kern was offered the mission of helping to defend the town for some specific reward. He could have ignored the mission and the reward, though it wasn't clear to me how the town invasion would play out if every player ignored the mission. A second demo-staged dynamic event kicked in. A large monster, a melding titan, showed up, attacking town invaders and townspeople alike. Kern got his guy in a turret to fend it off, and then the demo clicked off.
The Red 5 people say their game will be free because they want to get it into as many people's hands as possible. But what's hard to understand is how a game that has such an attractive world, that seems like a melding of massively multiplayer online game, Tribes and even Borderlands could reach its potential without a price tag.
A free $US60 with zero cost of entry for full enjoyment? If it's great and free, without the asterisk of any imbalancing microtransactions, then this will be an important test of that Dave Perry theory, a test of a future that seems today just a little more possible. Firefall is scheduled for a late-2011 release.