MechWarrior Online developers share details, explain how MWO evolves the series

Rob Zacny at

Ekman and Atlas

Worried that a free-to-play MechWarrior might be a cynical cash-in on a beloved franchise? So was I. But after talking with Creative Director Bryan Ekman and Russ Bullock, president of Piranha Games, I was not only more confident about MechWarrior Online, but genuinely excited about the direction they are taking the franchise.

Ekman and Bullock are serious Mech fans, and knew exactly where my questions were coming from. They were also crystal clear about one thing: this is the MechWarrior that PC gamers know and love. This is about taking the gameplay of MechWarrior 2 through MechWarrior 4 in directions those earlier games couldn't even contemplate.

Let's talk about what MechWarrior Online is going to be. The first question on my mind as I read this press release is that, honestly, when I think MechWarrior, I'm thinking of, well, MechWarrior 2 through MechWarrior 4. Is MWO in that vein?

Creative Director Bryan Ekman: Yeah, absolutely. From a gameplay point of view, it's the online component of those games. It's match-based gameplay. So you go in, you fight, and you come out. So in that sense, it's absolutely true to the heritage. The way you control the Mech, and the way the Mech works, and the options available to you during gameplay are inspired by Mech 2 through 4. Anybody who has played those games will feel right at home playing MWO.

OK. Does that mean it's going to be in a Mech cockpit, playing from the first person?

BE: That's right.

Russ Bullock, president of Piranha Games: Just a quick little filler there. I understand your question completely. And I think that's the number one question a lot of fans have. They want to know if the game we're making is going to be a MechWarrior product, or if it's going to be some new evolution, or similar to, say, the past Mech Assault products.

Very simply, I think we can just say, we are making a Mechwarrior game.

Just for - Oh, hell, it's PC Gamer. I know a million people are going to be asking this question: what's the over / under on joystick support?

BE: Haha. Very good. You got very good odds on joystick support. We will have announcements down the road talking about some more of that. But we are very excited about being dedicated to the PC platform, because of all the little tools and hardware and things we can do with it. Including joystick support, and advanced joystick support. So, yes, absolutely. We're dedicated to it.

So I remember when I talked to [FASA founder and BattleTech creator] Jordan [Weisman], it looked like the plan was to set it in the 3015 BattleTech universe. Why the shift to 3049?

BE: We set the game in 3015 originally. And we really wanted to set it there because it was this time and place in the universe that didn't have a lot written about it. And we could really explore some new characters and some new storylines and have some fun with that. It wasn't a well-written area.

As any BattleTech fan knows, there's a ton of lore and a ton of history in this universe, and this was a great place to kind of restart and evolve the franchise.

When we started to look at the F2P game, one of the core pillars that emerged was this concept of community warfare. The fact that this was an online game that's primary component was going to be round-based combat. And how do we take that to the next level? How do we evolve that in a way that made sense in the MechWarrior universe? And that inspired us to set the game a little bit forward. A little bit further ahead in time, in the Clan Invasion era, because it allowed us the maximum amount of change on a regular basis.

So we have this concept of the Inner Sphere, which is galaxy that the BattleTech universe takes place in. And there's a lot change that happens starting in the year 3048 and right up until 3067. And we wanted our game there because our timeline is live.

So the minute this game goes live, every day that passes in our world, it passes live in the Inner Sphere world. So August 1st 2012 is August 1st, 3049. And so we had a live content stream with a live, evolving universe going on as time progresses. We wanted to set it during that period of time because there's a lot of change. The Clans come down, they invade, there's the introduction of new technology. There's lots of story pieces that are happening, and lots of territory change.

So you're going to be roughly following the outline laid-out in the novels and games?

BE: Absolutely. So any date-time references that exist within the novels, so the time the clans first meet the Outbound Light, it's going to be there. In fact, we've already referenced it. It's already referenced in our Twitter feed that's live right now, which is simulating what the players are going to experience once the game goes live.

So all of the canon, all the stories, all the references will be distributed through this community portal that we have that is MechWarrior Online in the form of news stories, articles and - this is the best part - what players do. ...So this allows the player, and their exploits, to actually become part of the what's going on in the universe. So they actually contribute to the story and the timeline of the universe.

And we take all the existing canon and all the existing story and we use that as a backdrop to initiate change and create conflict for the players to participate in.

What about social options? One of the things that's huge in the BT universe is mercenary outfits, elite regiments, they all have their own unit histories. Are players going to be able to interact with some of the Inner Sphere's famous units and people? And are they going to be able to create their own units and histories?

BE: I'll answer the second half of that first, because I think it's probably more important. Yes, absolutely. They'll be able to band together in the format of a lance, which is four, and they'll be able to band together as a mercenary corporation for hire. And that's not unlike a guild. And we have a whole editor and mercenary HQ for players to explore that allows them to customize the look and feel of their corporation, their membership, the structure of how they enter battle, the lances, their names, ranks, all kinds of things.

We really wanted to put as much control into the community's hands as we could. They can create their own legends.