Not zombies. Not terrorists. Not bandits, pirates, helicopters, or mutant helicopters. After dedicating my life to research, I've determined that mechs are the most fun thing to shoot in a video game. MechWarrior's mechs, specifically.
What makes mechs special? They're voodoo dolls. And piñatas.
(Above: digested thoughts in video form.)
There's a general notion in FPS design that where you shoot an enemy should matter. Most FPSes make some distinction between the effects of shooting an enemy in the feet and shooting them in the head, and when we fire a revolver, Spinfusor, or totally sick Stake Gun, simulated ballistics, hitboxes, damage modeling and work together to express our input. But these systems aren't in place simply for realism's sake—they're there to facilitate something humans have a need for: judgment.
“We have a deep inner need to know how we stack up,” as Jesse Schell puts it in The Art of Game Design (pg. 128). “The fact that games are excellent systems for objective judgment is one of their most appealing qualities.” Enemies are targets, targets are a method of judgment, and separating a target into segments is one way of building room for marksmanship to exist in a game. Headshots. The corner of the strike zone. The elusive 500-point hole in Skee Ball. How fun would a dart board be to throw at, after all, if the surface wasn't separated into segments?
Mechs happen to have more segments than most enemies: a head, center torso, right torso, left torso, right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg, and three equivalent rear torso zones. Eleven discrete targets. But it isn't necessarily that there are more areas to hit but that they have significance within the game itself. When you're being circle-strafed by a scout mech in MechWarrior, aiming for the legs is one approach to dealing with them. This act of “legging” an enemy epitomizes the "I have you now" moments the game produces: you get to steal from a light mech what made them special (speed), admire your marksmanship as the enemy limps, and make them experience the anxiety that comes from losing something that made them unique.
Lasering out a Jenner's legs like this takes a sort of body awareness that isn't present in other games. It's sort of akin to what's expected of a boxer. Defensively, a good mech pilot twists their torso to avoid exposing vulnerable parts to an enemy. Offensively, a crack pilot can identify and dissect weak or valuable zones of mechflesh, much in the way that a welterweight might exploit an opponent's cracked ribs. As enemies, mechs wear their hurt on their sleeves (occasionally losing those sleeves altogether), and MechWarrior is one of the only games that grants you a secondary diagram of what you're shooting—the 2D damage display, a kind of visual voodoo doll.
Central to the fun that arises from mech-slaying is how MechWarrior handles time. Mech combat (relative to Counter-Strike or Tribes, for instance) is slow and punctuated by many pauses. Waiting for heat to dissipate, waiting for weapons to cycle, waiting for a missile lock, waiting for your engine to catch up to your throttle command, waiting for your torso to rotate—these are purposeful delays. They create time to sweat, grit your teeth, iterate on tactics, or savor the gradual erosion of your opponent.
Without these delays, and without mechs' durability, there wouldn't be this temporal space for players' emotions to swirl in. If you've taken swings at a piñata, you've experienced the same sort of anxiety, uncertainty, and sadistic pleasure.
Whack. Did I get it?
Miss. Dammit. I'll choke up on bat this time.
Laser blast. His left arm is orange. Good.
A missile barrage curls over a hill toward an unseen target. Did I get him?
Boom. His right torso is red. A couple more shots could do it.
It's the player's uncertainty and the durability of the target that makes piñata-crushing fun. MechWarrior grants you a sense of your enemy's vulnerabilities, but the game never allows you absolute certainty about when their steel shell will crack open. Not knowing when an opponent will pop creates pleasant, see-sawing anticipation and anxiety—moments like sneaking up behind an Atlas, sitting in its blind spot, and carving at it with Medium Lasers until it... almost... so close... just one more shot... one more... drops dead. Mechs' literal weight differences, too, also means it's meaningful when a Jenner fells an Atlas, or a Catapult bullies a Cicada with LRM barrages.
A suite of interconnected mechanics are at work under mechs' skin. As enemies, they're as expressive objects as you'll find in gaming, and their design presents problems that are inherently fun to solve.
On the next page: a chat with Piranha Games President Russ Bullock.
PCG: How do you make it fun to shoot a robot?
Russ Bullock, President of Piranha Games: We play games to get away and to step into something else. When I step into a giant mech, I want to feel like it's powerful, that it can take some abuse. In some of the past games, you could die pretty quick. We feel like we've made some really good adjustments. What we're doing is we're making a giant robot battling game. It's based on BattleTech. It's based very heavily upon it. But in the end it's still an interpretation of what those rule sets mean in a live environment.
We have done a really good job of making players feel like they're in a powerful mech. That means you can take some abuse. It's not a slow, plodding thing. If someone comes and plays MechWarrior Online, they'll understand what I mean. It's fairly fast. It's fairly action-packed. But at the same time, you feel like one mistake doesn't kill you. You're something more than just a fragile shell. You can even plan to take some punishment on purpose in order to get what might be a killing shot in. Those are decisions that you wouldn't be able to make your regular humanoid shooter game. That helps you enter the world of being in a giant walking robot. You feel like you're a walking weapons platform.
I like that you bring up durability. How do you guys approach feedback? What do you consider successful or good feedback in MechWarrior?
Bullock: Probably the most important one is audio. Audio and animation. Those are the ones that really help you feel like you're in something. We have a great sound engineer here that's spent a lot of time trying to match what the sounds would be like, not only in your cockpit—because you're way up above the ground, right? You're 18 meters or whatever above the surface where your feet are hitting. And what are those lasers and autocannons sounding like when you're inside of that cockpit when you're being hit? If you bring all three of those elements... We're continually tweaking it, but those three elements will enhance the effect.
What do you think MechWarrior would feel like without modular damage?
Bullock: It gives the game a level of really interesting strategy. It definitely adds to the fun factor, when you talk about how mechs are the most fun thing to shoot in video games. Blowing off the right arm... There's a ton of strategy there. First off, the player is being given a lot of feedback. They have a lot of strategy behind every shot. They can remove the deadliest weapon that their enemy has if they were to take off that limb. There's the strategy aspect, but also, whether you're the mech getting the arm blown off or you're blowing it off, and you see it getting blown off... That does continue to enhance the effect of being in a giant, durable, walking machine. That arm just got taken off, but by no means are you out of the fight. You've still got a lot of weapons to bring to bear. The person doing the damage realizes that too. The fight's not over.
It's attrition, I guess, is the word that MechWarrior has. It can be a good thing and a bad thing. In a round-based game like MechWarrior, we only amplify it as being a good thing. You need to manage your mech in a way that leads to lowering the attrition on your BattleMech. If you can manage that properly, you'll last longer. The longer you last, the more opportunity you have to whittle down your enemy's mechs. There's a great sense of strategy there when you're looking at the enemy mech and doing a mental note of just how damaged it is. That affects not only how you should attack it, but you make a mental picture of... "Okay, just how close to dead is that enemy BattleMech?" You plan your attack based on that information.
Another bit that makes MechWarrior extra special is the notion that your BattleMech is extremely valuable and extremely important. Nothing's done a better job than BattleTech and MechWarrior of feeding the player the notion that they're a very elite warrior. Only the most elite warriors in the world get to become mech pilots. Just the term MechWarrior, the whole notion that you're the pilot inside of a giant BattleMech... All that. MechWarrior does a great job of feeding into the ego of the player and saying, "You're the most elite warrior in the world. That's why you get to be a MechWarrior. That's why you get to pilot BattleMechs." That's part of why it's so much fun to blow up the other guys.