Game Design Portfolio


Firefall was an absolutely massive game. With a budget that climbed to over a $100-million, it was an open-world, mmo-shooter with heavy RPG elements. Development started in 2005 and lasted 11 years. I was there for more than half of it.

When I started, there were elements of a story, but most of it was vaporware. My first task was to develop a backstory to help lay a foundation for the world. From there, we built out characters, factions, and flavored the points of interest in the game world. There were tons of direction changes along the way as we tried to figure out how we would deliver an ideal narrative, but ultimately we leaned on the tried-and-true methods of a campaign and open-world missions.

What I've listed here isn't everything I did while working with Red 5. Not even slightly. This is just of a collection of the more memorable projects and, to be completely transparent, what I can harvest from the internet and old flash drives since the Firefall servers went down in 2017.

Campaign Missions (Writing)

The goal of Firefall’s first campaign was to establish certain characters and factions. Rather than immediately throwing the player up against the main threat, an alien army called the Chosen, we wanted to treat them as a terrifying force steeped in mystery.

To do this, we put the main focus on a character named Oilspill, a sleazy mechanic/pilot with a heavy southern charm. Oilspill works for the player and eventually drags them into his drama with an ARES faction called the Devilhawks. This group of mercenaries is a bunch of wild thrill-seekers who are obsessed with locating a mythical treasure known as the MIDAS. The only issue is that the MIDAS is deep within a dangerous energy storm known as the Melding. The player joins the Devilhawks on their quest by attacking rival mercenary factions and helping the Accord (the military that protects humanity) on “suicide” missions. Eventually, the player finds themselves in a position where they must rescue the Devilhawks from their failed expedition to reach the MIDAS- but in doing so, the player comes across the true threat to humanity – a Chosen superweapon that is slowly approaching civilization.

The purpose of the Devilhawks was multi-layered. We wanted to establish likable characters that the player grows to like and eventually loses; creating a level of animosity for the Chosen. We also wanted to give the player a sense of personal growth from a directionless greenhorn into a badass who is called in to save the “original badasses” who taught them the ropes.

Ultimately, this campaign proved to be a successful foundation for the story to follow and it garnered a lot of praise from the community.

I was responsible for outlining the campaign’s story beats as well as writing the majority of it. I worked closely with content designers to map out how and where we would deliver dialog and how we could boost story beats. The campaign missions linked on the left are the four I enjoyed working on the most.

Open World Mission (Writing & Design)

As we were approaching launch, there was one major issue with Firefall: not nearly enough content. To address this situation, we built a mission system that would chain together multiple tasks and utilize a dynamic framework where designated locations could be used for multiple gameplay experiences.

This approach turned out to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it helped streamline the content creation process. On the other, we couldn’t explicitly integrate location as a story element. This forced us to be vaguer with our writing. We tried to combat this with a heavier reliance on characters and longer quest chains to provide exposition.

One sample on the left is a chain that spanned four zones and detailed the Accord’s problem with a small ragtag criminal faction that was disrupting the flow of resources. The other sample is one part of a chain dealing with mutated viruses – this mission was intended to have a lighter tone.

My team developed over 300 quests during the 4-month period leading up to launch. I wrote close to half of them. I was knee-deep in the process, setting up the standard for how quests would flow, writing dialog, plotting the gameplay tasks, and directly implementing many of the quests myself.

Mission Flow (Design)

As Firefall prepped for its launch in China, we used it as an opportunity to reexamine the open-world missions and find ways to optimize the experience. What we came up with was called the “Golden Path,” a revamp of the missions to create a more linear story and a higher quality mission experience.

The original mission system chained together multiple tasks to create what we called an arc. The location of each step of an arc was selected by the server’s mission director to ensure that each player, or squad, had a dedicated play-space. Once the player arrived at the designated play-space, the target monsters or interactables would spawn for the player to complete the task.

This was an attempt to make missions feel fresh if replayed- because they wouldn’t take place in the same place twice, and it reduced the chances that other players would poach the monsters that mission tasked the player to kill. However, this system came with two major downsides.

One, it took the world out of the story. Instead of having a mission that culminated with the player infiltrating an enemy base to take out their leader, you simply found that leader by a random rock, or if you’re lucky, in a random cave. This greatly hurt the immersion, and made the world feel less lived in.

Two, travel time was an absolute bitch. By randomly selecting one open space out of a few dozen options, there was no guarantee that each mission task would be nearby. In fact, there were many times where a mission task would send you to one side of the zone and then the next would send you to the opposite side. This was an obvious frustration for players.

With the Golden Path, I spearheaded the effort to make mission POIs matter. I worked with world builders to create areas that were dedicated to the various monster factions and to ensure those areas complimented the mission stories. Now, if you were fighting bandits, you’d find them amongst shacks and hideouts. If you were fighting alien bugs, you’d find them in giant, subterranean nests.

I also designed the mission flow for a large percentage of the missions. As seen in the slider-image below, this allowed us to move from the randomly selected play-spaces to more directed and efficient experience. Except for very rare circumstances, every mission step was walking distance from the previous one. The majority of travel time was allocated to the first and final steps of missions.

Populating POIs (Design)

One of the bigger projects I worked on was revamping the player hubs to create cities and POIs that had vibrant NPC populations. This was a huge undertaking that required coordination with multiple teams. I’ll try to list the highlights of this project in as concise a manner as possible.

First, we had to redesign the existing NPC populations from the ground up. Before I took over the NPC populations, we had a very clunky system. NPCs were smart, they would find and interact with various nodes throughout a POI. However, this came at a big cost. Because they were so smart, these NPCs ended up being a sizable drain on the AI server. To avoid issues for gameplay, we put a limit of about 15 NPCs per POI. This was fine for small POIs, but it turned large cities into ghost towns. Furthermore, the process for creating NPCs, setting up their visuals, and placing them in game was also a sizable dev cost. It took a designer multiple days to fully populate one POI… again, with only 15 NPCs.

The first things I did after taking over the NPC populations was design new systems and work with tools programmers to create more efficient ways to insert NPCs into the game. One thing we did was create a visual randomization tool. Rather than having to set the visuals for each individual NPC record, this tool allowed us to create a single NPC and attach a visual group to it. The tool would randomly choose from a bucket of selected head and body meshes, as well as color templates and ornaments, to create NPCs that looked different but still fit within a desired faction or culture.

Another thing we did was create an NPC anchor that could be directly placed in the world editor. This allowed us to move away from creating lines upon lines of NPC spawn commands in LUA for each individual NPC. Instead, we could simply throw down a few NPC anchors, adjust a few variables, and be done.

After reducing dev costs, I began working with our AI programmers to create a “brain-dead” behavior. The goal was to do a single basic task with as little server cost as possible. These tasks included things like following a path of anchors in a town, saying something to players as they passed by, having custom repeating animations, or having lore related conversations with each other. It was bittersweet to get rid of those old smart NPCs, but the benefit was that we could boost the population of a town from 15 NPCs up to 300.

With these new processes, I was able to quickly change our POIs from ghost towns to vibrant, living populations. NPCs would walk by, look at you, and sometimes say something. They would have conversations about the stories in the surrounding area, and we even had Q&A NPCs that would tell you about the town’s lore if you asked.

SIN Imprints (Writing)

Early in the development process, the resources for narrative content were slim-pickings. We had a live-beta that focused on PvP and repeatable content with minimal narrative. This left much of the player base wanting for more lore.

To address this, I worked with the Audio team to create SIN Imprints- little recordings that were found throughout the world. We leveraged a voice acting schedule that was set up to record player and NPC barks and had those actors record a few of these radio shorts.

The goal was to plant story seeds throughout the world and it ended up being a great means of conveying POI backstories and history, building up character personalities, as well as introducing potential mysteries.

I banged out 25 of these SIN imprints and directed the VO sessions.


Mission from Firefall
Oilspill takes the Player to help him deal with a mercenary group he's in debt to.
Sci-Fi Screenplay
After a catastrophic alien attack, the last human colony survives through radio silence.
Fantasy Screenplay
A curse from the gods has transformed the world into a drought-ridden ocean of sand.
Sci-Fi Prose
A woman tries to prove she is human and not a genetically engineered weapon.
Sci-Fi Screenplay
A lone outcast tries to free the world from its addiction to immortality.

Copyright 2020 Michael Scott Burgess