Ex-Red 5 CEO Mark Kern Discusses Buying Back the Firefall IP

Published: May 28, 2016 8:57 PM /


Firefall Artwork

Mark Kern, the ex-CEO of Red 5 and one of the developers behind the PC game Firefall, has stirred up a hornets nest on Reddit over the past few days.

A post by Kern (which has since been deleted but has been archived) titled "What buying Back the Firefall IP Really Means," claims that he is not really interested in the Firefall IP in its current form, calling it "WoW with guns." He does, however, express interest in the IP if Firefall were to fail, stating that he would be interested in purchasing the rights to it. The post comes after he recently wrote a blog post detailing his original vision for Firefall and sparked twitter and forum talk.

Kern goes on to state that purchasing the rights back to Firefall would be cheaper if the game is shut down, as he would acquire art assets, codes, and other parts of the game without paying for the full price of development. He argues that a purchased IP could be purchased cheaply, citing the MMO APB as being sold for $50,000- a claim that is insubstantial when APB was sold to the K2 network for £1.5 million ($2.4 million) in 2010, according to several sources

To this end, Kern states that he would only purchase the IP if the game fails, and seemingly urged  players to stop playing Firefall, stating that "Firefall has to die. There can be no confusion that the version I want to make is DIFFERENT and not a continuation. For that, Firefall (current) must end. So don't play it, don't buy anything for the game. Just let it crash, so it can live again as it was supposed to be."

The reaction to Kern's assertions has been negative on the Reddit forum, with several users, claiming to be Red 5 employees, calling out Kern for misinformation. One early poster claimed that Kern was "full of shit" and cited a well known reddit post from 2014 by user BrutalWimsy as being accurate information regarding Kern's tenure with Red 5. Kern himself has been vocal against detractors on the Reddit forum, and took to twitter and called out PCGamesN, who posted an article on this earlier, for "cherry picking" quotes from his article. 


We reached out to Kern, who graciously took time with us to provide an interview via direct message on Twitter. The following is the interview, with some edits to clean up grammatical errors and removing sections deemed irrelevant to the main discussion. 

Well, first any general comments on the post? Also, why was it deleted if you can comment on that?

I deleted the thread because of 2 things:

1) My answers to false accusations were being brigaded and downvoted below threshold, so that I had no chance to defend myself or give the facts. Nobody would see it.

2) The mods let the thread get rampant and violate their rules in terms of personal attacks, asshattery, etc. They did not reply when I contacted them. I don't mind people asking hard questions, but if they can't see my answers, it's grossly unfair. 

The post was to clarify my blog article which got picked up on Reddit.  People asked me if I would pick up the Firefall torch again and I said yes. If the game folds, I will be first in line to buy the IP.

Ok then, down to the big one first then, and I quote: "Firefall has to die. There can be no confusion that the version I want to make is DIFFERENT and not a continuation. For that, Firefall (current) must end. So don't play it, don't buy anything for the game. Just let it crash, so it can live again as it was supposed to be." Can you clarify that quote then? For many it reads as you are encouraging players to leave the game.

First of all, Firefall is already dying. It's down to 200 players a day at peak. They've had 2 years [since I left] and 4 major overhauls of the game to make it work. It's already done. My statement was in regard to people voting with their dollars, if they want to see the original vision of Firefall, then don't play the new one. If they want the current version, by all means stay and play. The key here is that I was ejected because the Executive Team and The9 wanted "WoW with guns" while I wanted an open world, horizontal progression massive Battlefield 1942 style MMO.

Left Red 5?

Yes, when I left Red 5, they spent 6 months undoing my game and creating a new, WoW-like, level based, traditional MMO.

Why do you think so many former Red 5 employees speak out against you there then, presuming they are Red 5 employees?

First, we are talking about maybe 10-20 employees out of 200-300 over the life of the game. There was a creative difference at the top levels of the company. Those filtered down and caught the team and pulled them in two directions. I caught the heat, because I was CEO, that's my fault. As CEO I should not have let such a division occur, the team was the unfortunate victim.

And the accusations regarding you being the decision maker? To quote one person, "The eSports focus? Mark. Founders Packs? Mark. Higher-tier frames? Mark. (He wanted to sell a new one monthly, so he could be like League.) Real-money, per-use paint jobs? Mark. Vehicles, Pets, and dozens of other random features that were irrelevant to the core gameplay? Mark. The completely fucked up UI? Mark. He thinks he's a UI genius, and put himself directly in charge. Stage 5 and the clusterfuck that was the bus? All Mark. Cutting PvP? Mark again (and he told the forums before the devs)."

That's a lot of false accusations. I explained it all in the Reddit thread, but my answers were downvoted, so nobody could see them. I was not allowed to tell my side of the story or present the facts.

Ok. In a nutshell, they are false accusations then?

Every accusation has a bit of truth, but it's vastly overblown overall, taking actual successes like Youtube/Twitch marketing and painting them as failures, and accusing me of making bad decisions that were actually the Executive Team's moves that I fought against. That thread is 99% posters who have never worked with me, by the way.

You mentioned in your piece that the reason for a purchase would be due to how cheap it would be, and you cited APB in particular for selling for roughly $50,000. Our own research pointed to the MMO selling for 1.5 million pounds to K2 in 2010. This was also collaborated with articles from GameindustryBiz and Eurogamer, and PCgamesN also refuted that claim. Can you explain the example, did you mean a different title of some kind?

From what K2's early insiders have told me that information differs from mine. I might be off my some amount out of recall, but the prices for failed IPs is very low in this industry. In any case, Firefall would not be worth as much as APB because APB had far more users when it sold, vs the 200 peak players for Firefall now. The game did much better when I was CEO in terms of users. If it were true that I was the source of all problems, we should have seen an uptick in users after they rebooted the game. Instead, we got a steady decline.

Do user numbers equate to the overall value of an IP every time?

Yes, user numbers and size of market predict the future value of IP. APB transferred with thousands of players, Firefall has 200 during the week and 340 on the weekends.

The accusation that I was responsible for the sweeping overhauls to game systems is, frankly, false. If it were true, the revamps would have stopped after I left. Instead, they accelerated. They completely ripped out my version of the game and put in "WoW" with guns prior to launch, and they massively reworked it 3 times after that. I fought the revamps. I spent 3 months arguing with the Executive team not to redo the game from when it was based on Tiers.

You mention that if you could you would keep the Firefall name but strip the current gameplay design. Why though, if the Firefall most are familiar with would recognize the brand as that "WoW with guns" gameplay? What value does Firefall really have as an IP if you plan on changing it to your original vision?

I've been remarkably consistent in my vision for the game since its inception. My blog posts details this from the beginning of the company.

Yes, but why not just make that vision under a new title? Is the name and brand recognition of the Firefall title paramount to that vision? Or is it a case of assets and development costs, which you do bring up in your piece?

Because I was able to attract over 1.5M people through our marketing to Firefall, and any IP, even a controversial one, is going to get more attention and support than an unknown new IP. There is a large portion of veteran Firefall players out there that remember the old vision and want to see it revived. They started a movement called "MFGA" or MakeFirefallGreatAgain and they have already offered support.

There is also the benefit of having the original art assets, which are 90% of the cost of next-gen development. It would allow me to get the game up and running much quicker...to get to the important part: gameplay.

So you, officially, don't discourage players to abandon Firefall if they enjoy the current iteration of the title?

Of course not. Anybody who enjoys "WoW with guns" should continue to vote with their preference. And remember, the game is already dead. I didn't do that. They did that themselves over 2 years after changing my game many times. I'm saying to fans of the old version to just let it go gracefully.

Also, on the point of my being out of the office being an accusation: The9 barred me from going to the office for months prior to ejecting me. They did this to the subsequent CEO as well. It's what they do. By keeping me out of the office, it was easier for them to engineer their version of the game which was 180 degrees from mine.

Can I clarify one thing that has been misreported widely about my leaving Red 5?

Go ahead.

I was not fired or terminated from Red 5, the BOD voted to have me step down as CEO. It was their intention to keep me on as a "dormant" employee in order to continue to use my name. This triggered a clause in my contract and I resigned from Red 5 immediately. They did not expect this, and in fact, approached me a few weeks later to ask me to come back to the company. I refused.

So you were never told to leave at all after you were voted out of being a CEO?

Not at all. I was barred from the offices, but was retained as full-time employee; we were in talks when I decided to resign.

[Author's Note: Here are some of the comments made after Kern left Red 5]

Do you have any documentation to show that, possible emails or correspondence with the CEO's regarding your role, and the nature of your resignation?

I do, but sharing them would violate my NDA. I would look through the initial public comments made by Red 5 after their internal email leaked, they show much confusion about my status, but all of this...this is just history of he said/she said.

The real story here is that, despite redoing the game 4 times after launch, Firefall has already failed. I'm only offering to give vets what they were promised, if they have enough interest. Everything else is ancient history. If The9 is willing to sell back the IP, and the veterans want to see the game I outlined in my blog, then I'm willing to meet with them. Why focus on the past? What's important to me is the future of Firefall.

Firefall User Usage as Tracked on Steam, From Mark Kern
Firefall User Usage as Tracked on Steam, From Mark Kern

Is it really your call to say Firefall has already failed, despite the game still having a fanbase playing it?

It's a fact. Look at that Steamchart. 200-300 players is not enough for any MMO.

Although 200-300 players is also the max capacity for a server shard, according to some users on Steam.

Are you saying the steam chart only reflects ONE shard? Look at the overall graph for the 2 years I sent you, since I left. Steam reports all users logged in, not just a single shard.

I have yes. My point though is does it really matter if it's a fact or not? Doesn't the failure or success of Firefall only affect the current playerbase, however small it may be, and with that, any accusation of the game failing or being shut down would be met with hesitance or hostility?

If players want to think that Firefall is a success, that's fine. I'm obviously not going to be able to change their minds. Looking at the information I have on Steam and the forums, I see something different. Regardless, I've been quite clear. I'm not taking any action unless the game is taken off the market. That's not up to me. That's a decision for Red 5.

Regarding your comments then, the overall point of your post was to clarify what you would do with Firefall, and for fans of your version of Firefall to not play the current version because it's already dead, in summation?

Yes, it was an echo of the call of the MFGA movement: if you want to see the original vision of the game, then stop playing WoW with guns. If players want what they see now, keep playing. I'm asking players to vote with their playtime. And I'm certainly not advocating the shuttering of a company. But if they did, that team would be welcome to rejoin me in a reboot if they believe in the original vision.

Do you worry how that statement regarding players to "vote with your playtime" is taken?

This is a free market, so I don't see what the problem is. I can't force people to play or not play. Can you tell me what the issue is because I just don't see it, it's capitalism.

Well let me put it this way, do you think that the people currently playing Firefall are wasting their time since the game is already dead? Reading between the lines it implies that those who are still playing Firefall are wrong or wasting their time with the game.

No, they obviously enjoy what they are playing. I'm telling the original vets who supported my vision that there is a possible alternative should the IP ever come up for sale. Please don't read between the lines and make stuff up. That's not what I'm saying.

That's why I am asking what you said. How it read was negative, regardless of what you meant.

And it shouldn't be. I'm not telling people who enjoy the game that they are wrong. I'm asking players who wanted the version I posted on my blog to vote with their playtime. This is just pure capitalism and market forces; there is nothing wrong with it. I'm just betting there are more that enjoyed my version than are enjoying this "WoW with guns" version now.

Can you blame people, however, for reading your statements wrong then? Your original statement said Firefall had to die and you encouraged those who wanted your version to not play it. Is it not unreasonable for people to take that at face value as an attack, whether it was intended to be or not?

If they took offense at saying, essentially, that players should play only if they enjoy this version, then that's ridiculous. Right up there with being afraid of chalk and needing a safe-space.

Why do you keep asking me to confirm that I meant something I didn't? Should we be forcing players to play a game they don't enjoy? Because that is the corollary to what I was saying. Obviously not.

So those who misunderstood your intentions were wrong then? I keep asking because how it read came off as very assertive, and I want to clarify what you meant so it is clear and concise for your reader-base, and ours as well.

It is assertive. I'm saying if you really want to see a new version of Firefall, I obviously can't make one unless this current one is gone. If that's offensive, then that's not my fault.

Regarding forcing players to play a game they don't enjoy, do you feel that those playing Firefall right now are not enjoying their time with the game? Is that based on general feelings, concerns or tweets sent to you? Just your opinion? I understand you are probably referring to the vets who prefer your vision of the game in that statement, but for clarification sake that is who you are speaking to?

If you look at my previous answer, I said quite clearly that players who are playing now are obviously enjoying this "WoW with guns" version of the game. I never said they were not. And yes, my statement was directed at the hundreds of thousands of vets who no longer play Firefall or might be playing sporadically, that I'm willing to deliver on my original promise if they really want it.

Gameplay screenshot courtesy of Coop Comrades
Gameplay screenshot courtesy of Coop Comrades

What would it take in terms of resources to deliver on your original promise?

Depends on the sale of the IP. Having all the original art would allow much more freedom to get something running quickly under UE4.

How long do you think it would take to get something running under UE4 with the original assets, best case scenario?

I would probably do it in stages, focusing on a build that did movement and PvE combat first, but maybe not a full MMO, then building upon that in steps. I think if we had the original assets, we could get something running in a year and a half, but not the complete game. Again, I think a staged approach would work best. It would also build confidence as people could see progress step by step on a milestone basis, instead of waiting a huge amount of time.

This would also tie into potential crowdfunding, which you also mention in the original post.

Yes, it would have to be. No publisher will fund an IP should they close it down. The vets would have to want to see it again and that means crowdfunding.

You feel that Firefall has no chance with a publisher because it was a failed IP?

Isn't that an obvious answer?

It would be extremely difficult to find publisher funding for any failed IP. Firefall doesn't, technically, fall into that category until they close it, by the way. Also, a recent statement by Red 5, seemingly in response to mine, is that they intend to keep the IP for mobile games and PS4, so the point may be moot, anyhow.

But it has happened before, APB was one example you cited, although a 1 to 1 correlation doesn't make sense of course. I guess, then why is it so difficult based on your own knowledge on the subject?

APB is an outlier. How many MMOs have successfully been renewed by another publisher? Not very many. Also, APB had far more active users at the time of its sale.

Publishers don't like to take risks, they like sure bets. That's why it would be difficult to find publisher funding should they close Firefall. Also, there isn't much funding available for MMOs in general, right now, too many failed attempts to duplicate WoW's success.

If APB is the outlier why did you include it as an example then? Just to prove a point?

It's to show that *sometimes* a failed IP will be picked up, but when it does, it's at a steep discount.

Although the numbers you gave, once again,were not correct according to other sources.

Perhaps not. I was told something different internally but I may be misremembering it. But even then, 1.5M for APB would reflect its playerbase of thousands of active players.

What amount would you consider appropriate for Firefall based on the current active user base? Like what would be your top offer?

For 300 players? I would ask your readers what they would pay for an IP with 300 players. On a cost-per-payer basis, it would not be an insurmountable amount of money

I'll refrain from speculating further, as I would only be negotiating against myself.

But I am asking you personally, then. If you were to buy the IP in order to make it great again, what would you willingly pay?

See my last answer.

Can you then maybe give an estimation on how much it would take to get Firefall up and running with what you have planned, including using Unreal Engine 4 and crowd-funding? Not stage by stage budget of course, but your estimated cost by the year and a half mark in your estimation as a developer for your game.

That answer would take a lot of serious contemplation and an evaluation of the current state of the existing game assets and technology. I can't even ballpark that without taking a lot of time and thought and having access to the current state of the game.

 While we have been talking I was also looking through twitter for a few things. Namely I checked out the #MFGA campaign you referenced, which had maybe a little over a dozen tweets with the hashtag as of right now. Does the low amount at all concern you regarding your bets that the veteran fanbase is more interested in your vision of the game, as you stated earlier?

Look on the official forums, there is more activity there. But, yes, it's not up to me. I don't know if there is enough interest in the version of the game I intended to create. But if you want to see it, let me know and tweet #MFGA @Grummz so I can see it. If not, that's fine too, I'm busy making my tabletop game.

I have been checking out the Forums like you mentioned, the general mood is sort of mixed regarding your reddit post before it was taken down, with what seems to be a minority in favor of what you want to do with Firefall, mixed in with general forum shenanigans. 

Yes, most vets have left a long time ago. I'm hoping your article and others will help get the word out.

Some of the people, however, are a bit less trusting of you personally, perhaps because of the issues regarding your kerfuffle with Red 5 as CEO. In fact, when you were fired there was a lot of relief, at least in the fan base. Do you feel that the fanbase would want to have you back in charge of it, or is it ultimately up to the fanbase like you said, regarding free market and all, and what you feel doesn't matter?

Really it's up to them. I'm offering this because I don't like not delivering what I promised because I was physically stopped from making the game I wanted to make and they wanted to play. They were told a lot of false things and hyperbole. It's up to them if they still want this version of the game from me or not. I just feel an obligation to deliver. If they free me from that obligation I have plenty of other things I'm working on.

We'd like to thank Mark again for talking with us and we hope that this brought some light to the recent issues surrounding the controversy.

Have a tip, or want to point out something we missed? Leave a Comment or e-mail us at tips@techraptor.net

Me smiling
| Staff Writer

A longtime player of games, creator of worlds, and teacher of minds. Robert has worked many positions over the years, from college professor to education… More about Robert