First Look at Mark Kern’s Em-8ER – Interview, Life After Firefall, Fan Outreach

This week I was lucky enough to catch up with Mark Kern, who has established himself as a bit of a renaissance man in the gaming industry. Mark was previously know for being a producer on Diablo II, Starcraft, and most especially his role as the team lead on World of Warcraft.

Mark currently sits as creative director for Crixa Lab working on the now announced Em-8ER. Mark was nice enough to sit down with me and talk shop, exploring Crixa Lab and their first video game, Em-8ER.

Em-8ER (Editor’s Note: pronounced Ember) is described as “an online co-op shooter where players wage a persistent war against an AI controlled alien invasion.” While Firefall turned into some sort of World of Warcraft clone, which was not its original vision. Is Em-8ER what you originally envisioned for Firefall, or has the original concept changed over time?

Mark: “To those not familiar with Firefall, imagine this: Em-8ER is a shooter where you log into a persistent world to fight large scale battles against a ruthless AI controlled opponent. You use your mining mech and fight off hordes of enemies to gather resources that you use to build all your items, abilities, and military hardware. You invade alien controlled territory, capture it, and build bases there to control it. Meanwhile the enemy is fighting to stop your progress, and to invade territory you’ve already won. If you like, you can imagine a persistent Battlefield game with base building, territory capture and gear crafting. Or perhaps imagine Planetside where it’s a co-op game of players vs a very tough AI. Did I mention its mechs vs Kaiju? The players pilot powersuits called Omniframes, and have mining mechs called THMPRs. The AI enemy is a alien race of shape-shifters that control giant monsters through technology that they use to wage war. It’s all very dramatic and over the top.

As for Firefall, as we originally conceived it, was a player vs AI wargame played online. When I led the vanilla World of Warcraft team, we were playing a lot of Battlefield 1942 and we all thought: how cool would this be with a persistent world, territory capture and some MMO aspects? The beta version of Firefall that I lead was focused on invasions and dynamic war events, a story about a war with the Chosen, and fighting over resources used to fight that war. After new management took over, in the course of six months, they completely altered the game into a WoW clone. Suddenly Firefall had level restricted zones, a focus on questing and raiding, and a change in story away from war and more towards traditional MMO tropes. It was a big creative difference and we didn’t see it the same way. The whole last year I was there , this fight played out and players were the unfortunate causalities as we fought over the vision of the game. They would see features that didn’t make sense and lots of rapid changes as a sort of “push/pull” war broke out between visions.

After the Chinese investors (who wanted it to be more like World of Warcraft) ejected me, they redid the entire game and launched it as “WoW with guns.” I think the results for three years afterwards speak for themselves. It wasn’t good. It was a very bad direction to take the game. I keep a Steam chart around that shows the rapid decline of players over those three years where I was gone. It make me feel really bad for the players that supported us back when it was more of wargame/shooter than an MMO.

Em-8ER sticks to what we know was fun about the original Firefall ideas. The best times were when servers first started up. The Chosen AI would immediately invade entire zones and turn the map “red” to indicate how much they controlled. Players loved logging in at those times and clearing the Chosen out of the area, reclaiming the territory as their own. It showed me that this was the true core of the game, and Em-8ER focuses on that one single aspect. Firefall was kind of all over the place, in Em-8ER, we are super focused on the war experience.”

A big focus is on users piloting personal mechs, can you elaborate on these mechs at all?

Mark: “Players pilot Omniframes, which you can think of as light mechs or heavy power armor. They are equipped with jump jets and glider wings to help get to battles faster. The jump-jets also let you fight the bigger Kaiju, as their vulnerable control centers are grafted into their spines and neck. There are three base varieties: light, medium and heavy and they are all crafted with resources you mine in-game with your THMPR mech. It’s up to you to define your role withing these three frame types by choosing and crafting what modules you put into these frames. Do you want to take a light frame and make it a sniper, or an engineer frame with deployables? Do you want to take your heavy and be all about massive but slow firepower, or a walking shield that provides cover for other players? It’s all up to you. All frames share common blueprints for crafting power modules, movement modules, etc., but each frame has it’s own specialized set of blueprints just for that frame. Unlocking new blueprints by taking over territory collectively will unlock higher tiers of modules you can slot into your frames. In this way, it’s a community goal to fight the war together, because everyone benefits from the new blueprints becoming available when you win as a team. This is a bit inspired by World of Warcraft’s Ahn’Qiraj event, but takes the idea much further.

The other kind of mech featured in the game is the THMPR mining mech, which we’ve just finished modeling for the game. Gathering resources is really important to fight the war. You use resources to build your gear and establish and upgrade bases throughout the zones you conquer. But that last thing we wanted to do was give players a sonic pickaxe and have them bang on rocks. That’s boring. Instead, you call down a specialized mech with a huge drill, that begins to go to work on the resource vein you’ve discovered. As it mines it attracts swarms of enemies that attack it. It’s your job to defend it and then get it back to the nearest player base to refine your resources into elements you can use to build. In times of invasion, you’ll be able to call down the THMPR mech to fight alongside you. It’s sort of a giant robot pet. The faceplate lights up with emotive expressions and we hope to give it a real personality. We want you to become attached to your THMPR friend.”

You have stated that Crixa Labs will honor a sort of refund program for those who were originally Founder customers of Firefall, stating, “If they bought a $100 pack, they get a full credit of virtual currency in our game once the game launches.” Why do you feel that it is important to do this, as it seems the situation falls on Red 5 Studios and not yourself? Accountability, clever marketing, or a sign of gratitude?

Mark: “I put my name on the original Firefall from announcement to beta. People bought in early with founders packs to see that vision of the game through to completion. Unfortunately, the new management had other plans and created WoW with guns, which is not what people backed. I feel personally responsible for failing to stop this from happening. Offering a full credit of Firefall founder’s packs to new Em-8ER players is my way of making it right. We’ve set up a way for Firefall founders and even early adopters, to receive a credit in Em-8ER for their original Firefall purchase. Red 5 is certainly not going to provide this, so I should. I made those original promises.

Any Firefall players who purchased founder packs, or who joined Firefall prior to the end of 2015 are eligible for a full credit of their pack on Em-8ER. They just have to follow the steps found here.

I want to thank one of our community members, Xeevis, for creating this tool to help Firefall founders get credit for Em-8ER. We’ve had a lot of support from the old Firefall community, and many have helped us in several ways to help make Em-8ER a reality.”

Speaking of virtual currency, can you elaborate on this aspect of the game at this time at all or in part?

Mark: “Sure. We’re not a free to play game, as I feel free to play really distorts game design in ways that are not the best for the gamer. Instead, Em-8ER will be priced at an indie game price, and playing on our servers is absolutely free. We will be selling non-power cosmetic, utility and vanity items through our in-game store. Skins, decals, pets, etc. We’ll either use a virtual currency to purchase these items, or a straight up dollar amount. Either way, if you bought a $100 Firefall founder’s pack, you will have a $100 credit waiting for you in the game store when we launch.

But, and I can’t stress this enough, Firefall players will have to act fast to get the credit. They need to link their Firefall account to their Em-8ER account via the website. This is because we have no control over the Firefall side of things. The game could go offline at any moment and we’d have no way to verify your founder status. The best time to do this is right now as we can’t predict the future of Firefall.”

How does the tabletop aspect tie in? Are we talking miniatures like something out of Games Workshop or something completely different?

Mark: “I had offered to buy the original IP for Firefall from The 9 but they refused. I was already working on a tabletop space opera RPG called Crixa. So I decided to set Em-8ER in the universe I was already creating. In this way, Em-8ER has its own IP and themes. The tabletop has taken a back seat to Em-8ER due to the popularity of the video game we’re making, but eventually we plan to get back to the tabletop version of our space opera. The game is designed to host either RPG tabletop sessions or PvP miniature space battles with minis that you can print yourselves from 3D models we provide.”

Tell us a little bit about Crixa Labs.

Mark: “Crixa Labs is the company founded to develop both Crixa, the tabletop RPG and now Em-8ER, the videogame set in the Crixa universe. I love both types of games, tabletop and videogames, so I wanted a company that started to combine the two. After Em-8ER is fully underway, expect some more action on the tabletop front of our products.”

When will I be able to drive down to get some hand on time with Em-8ER so I can tell our readers about this ambitious project?

Mark: “This is where it gets interesting. After my experience with Firefall, I wanted to do this without large scale investors. But I also didn’t want to do a traditional crowd-funding campaign. Instead, we came up with milestone based crowdfunding.

You see, the problem with traditional crowdfunding is that it’s a big pitch for a full game, raising a huge amount of money. Then people sit around and wait 2-3 years to see if things work out. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted more accountability to gamers. So we borrowed the publishing model from AAA games. We break the development up into small steps called milestones. In publishing, if a developer screws up a milestone the publisher refuses to pay for the next one until it’s fixed. Each milestone has a very focused goal. The one we’re currently making is an art demo where you can run around, see the game, and trigger THMPR mech animations in-game. We raised a smaller amount of money just for this goal, and now we’re working on delivering it. We want to prove we can deliver and let backers judge the results before asking for the next round of funding. We don’t want to raise too much at a time. I had to eliminate stretch goals from the last milestone to stop too much money coming in. We’ve had two milestone fundraisers like this so far and they were both incredibly successful.

So these backers will be the first to run around the engine at these early pre-alpha stages. We’re going to have a couple more milestones like this to get to a full demo of a THMPR mining encounter, where you will mine resources while defending your THMPR from attack by the shape-shifters. Once we have that we’ll be doing a larger crowd-funding goal to start full scale production on the game, and continue to do milestones in the future.

As for ambitious, I want to point out we are super focused on ONE aspect that we found to be the most fun out of all our Firefall beta tests: the invasion. The game will ramp up features if it gets support and players, but our core is very tight.  You have an Omniframe and a THMPR. We have one type of shape-shifting alien a couple of their Kaiju. You fight on maps. It starts there.”

Have any final words for those looking forward to this project?

Mark: “Yes. I want to apologize to all the Firefall fans who ended up being so let down. I do take responsibility for this. It was never my intent to let the investors change the game and I was not able to prevent it. This time, I’m running the show, and the only people I have to answer to are the fans. Thank you to all the thousands of fans who have already signed up, to the hundreds that have backed the milestones so far, and I look forward to greeting all the new fans I hope this refund/credit program will bring in. It’s my way of making it right.”

I want to thank Mark for taking his time to answer questions and give us an early peek at his new project. If you would like to ask Mark a question about the project yourself, he will be holding a Reddit AMA at r/PCMasterRace 1/27/17 at 4:00pm PST.

Niche Gamer regularly interviews developers on a variety of subjects—if you’re a developer and want to chat with us, please contact us!

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Media, Marketing, Reviews, Interviews, and more. I do terrible things so you don't have to. Doing LIVE coverage of E3 to Tokyo Game Show for the last 10 years.

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