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

Rob Zacny

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.

Going back to some of the things I talked about with Jordan. He said you guys had some very nifty simulation aspects, almost. Things like lance members being able to share recon data. You could send your light Mech forward and it could pull line of sight and send that back to your fire support Mech. Things like that, being able to work with air support units. Are you still planning on weaving some of these elements into the combat?

BE: Absolutely. That's another one of our core pillars, which is what we call "information warfare." Which basically boils down to controlling the flow of information on the battlefield. Whether it be your own information, or the information of your enemies. So we really want to establish more roles on the battlefield. We want to make gameplay be less about an arms race, where you start in a light Mech but you really want to get into an assault Mech, because it's the best thing there is. What we want to do is make that light, and those mediums and those heavy Mechs, have a purpose on the battlefield and give players the ability to have fun with them. And actually have a tactical advantage by creating well-composed lances and well-composed mercenary corps.

So the answer is yes. We have a core feature called information warfare that fits into what Jordan was talking about.

RB: It's really about making sure that we overcome some of the problems or challenges that some of the past games had. And one of those, frankly, is as Bryan said, it's an arms race. Some of that was due to the technology limitations at the time. With the wide-open terrain maps, it would quickly degrade into everyone has one of a couple different Mechs decked in one of two different ways.

And you're laughing because you know just what I mean. And we're just determined to make sure that the lance unit needs to be well-balanced. And you said it yourself: there's going to be opportunities for that light scout Mech to become such a valuable member of that lance, for him to go ahead through terrain that he can be well-protected in, find out where the enemies are, and relay that information back to his lance mates. And that's just one example of one class and role of Mech, and how they're going to become useful to their lance.

So, in an ideal world, a well-balanced lance would have one of each weight class, and one of each role, and there's going to be limitless ways of composing your lance. But the best lance is not going to be four 100-ton Assault Mechs.

How many players will be involved in these engagements? Is it just going to be lance on lance combat, or Mech company combat? How many people per team?

BE: The final numbers we're not announcing just yet. We are going to support multiple lances per session on at least two teams. So yes, there will be multiple lances and multiple team combat.

You name at least two combat modes here, Conquest and Versus. Am I correct in assuming that Versus is a deathmatch, and can you get into Conquest a bit?

BE: Yeah, Versus covers team deathmatch, deathmatch, one-on-one, and any type of head to head with no objectives other than to kill the enemy.

Conquest is more about controlling the battlefield. It's a mix of Conquest and Rush. You might need to occupy and advance, so it's a much more tactical gameplay. And this is going to be our primary mode that we roll out with, and the one I think players are going to enjoy the most. It offers more than just going out there and killing each other. You actually have to work together, work with the tools you're provided, control the information flow on the battlefield, and so on, so forth. So it's a much more detailed combat mode.

So you talk about upgrading skills, a leveling system, upgrading your Mech, and this is such a tricky area for F2P games. There are all these fears about pay-to-win games, and Mech aficianados, they know the specs on a Mech. They know what the Mech is capable of. How is progression going to work? It's F2P, but obviously money comes into it somewhere. What does your money buy you?

BE: One of the most important things in any F2P games, in my opinion, is not allowing players to buy skill. The fastest way to destroy your game is to allow your players to buy something that gives them a tactical advantage over an enemy. So we've been very careful about what you can purchase and what you need to earn.

Can you get into items and upgrades yet?

BE: You're going to to be able to purchase, using a variety of different methods, Mechs, Mech pieces, skills - but I'll be careful with what i mean about skills.

When it comes to the pilot, you'll be able to train your pilot to fit the role that you like. But you won't be able to pay real cash for pilot training, for example. That would be through earned experience points or earned in-game cash. So you would actually have to play the game to upgrade your pilot. Anything that would affect or give your a tactical advantage, you can't purchase with real cash. You have to earn that by playing the game.

So we have a pilot tree, a skill tree. As you level up you can unlock new features and new abilities. So if you want to be a scout, you would get skills related to information technology, or being able to move faster, hide, things like that. If you wanted to be more of an assault person, it would be more related to weapon control and such.

What variety of environments can players look forward to? Will different climates pose challenges?

BE: Absolutely. Because heat is a huge part of this game, we have selected a range of maps, from very cold worlds to very hot worlds, to everything in between. And scenarios that take advantage, and force the player to think about heat in different ways. As for the specific differences between maps, one of the things we can do these days that previous games weren't able to do well is urban combat. And it's a cornerstone of MWO, this ability to actually fight in detailed urban settings. So we have a smattering of urban maps, and some open terrain maps, and all require different tactics, and different roles, and different Mechs. So on a big open field, with huge open ranges, the Assault Mech might have an advantage. But in the city, the scout mech with its maneuverability might have the advantage.

Is there any chance of, say, cooperative missions? Where you're playing through a story mission, or a fun challenge mission with scripted events?

BE: We have considered co-op. We've discussed single-player. We're looking at how those will play out. But right now, as part of the initial launch, those will not be included.

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