Following Chris' enthusiastic BattleTech review, Evan sits down with Harebrained Schemes' Mitch Gitelman and Mike McCain to talk about the game's reception, incoming bug fixes, and what the studio might explore in future expansions.
PC Gamer: BattleTech's been out for a little more than a week. How do you guys feel?
Mitch Gitelman, studio co-founder: Our heads and our hearts are full. Put it that way. [laughs] We’re not relaxed, I’ll tell you that much. We’re not sitting down and smoking cigars and high-fiving each other.
Mike McCain, game director: Yeah. Launch is always a roller-coaster of emotions. The number one thing, though, is just that there’s a sense of accomplishment, and there’s a sense of—
MM: Reward? All the incredible stories people are sharing, it’s incredibly fulfilling. And then there’s a sense of duty, a sense of what’s next. How are we going to keep on building on the success? That’s been the arc of our journey over the last week, culminating with that Kickstarter update. All right, we’ve been working on this game for two and a half years. It’s out there and it’s amazing. We’re hearing a lot about what was done well and we’re hearing a lot about the places where people do still have some feedback. We’ve been synthesizing that, and now we’re jumping back into the fray with a rich plan for what’s next.
I think some folks have this perception that you ship a game and everybody goes on vacation.
MG: Yeah, no.
The way we describe it internally is we just ran a marathon to get to the starting gate. And now, finally, we can start in earnest, growing this thing from the platform that we built.
How do you feel about the commercial performance of the game so far, and the critical reception?
MM: We’re happy with both.
MG: Yeah, yeah. Relieved.
Would you say it’s performed to your expectations so far?
MM: Yeah, definitely, without a doubt.
MG: Without equivocation.
One of the vocal, minority reactions to BattleTech's release centered around a microscopic element of the game—the ability to select a gender pronoun during character creation. Right now, of 1,023 negative reviews on Steam, 47 mention "gender," and 60 mention "politics." What was the reaction within the studio as you were seeing players with very low playtime negatively review BattleTech for such a tiny feature?
MG: We only have one on-the-record answer to that. Internally, what we say to each other is, our work speaks for itself, right? And that’s that. Our only public statement is, we believe that… we make great games that are welcoming to everyone. Our character creation system just reflects that belief. That’s it. And that’s it.
How many people made BattleTech?
MM: Average team size, if I had to pinpoint it in the middle somewhere, was around 30. We peaked at almost 45 people in the final stretch of development. But starting out it was just a few of us on preproduction, and then a core team of maybe 10 or 12 people that were working on the initial prototypes and establishing the framework of the game. Over two and a half years we’ve scaled from that small initial team up to, I think, probably still about 45 people here right now.
Some players have been experiencing crashes and performance issues, which you mention as a top priority in your post-launch roadmap. Do you have a grip on what was causing those issues?
MM: We do now, yeah. It took a few days and some long nights from some of our developers here. We see that stuff happen and there’s a strong emotional reaction. Nobody wants somebody to not be able to play or have a good experience with our work.
MG: The team here is focused less on the bug and less on the game than on the people that they’re hurting. You know what I mean? The people that are hurt. They’re really focused on solving problems for people, which makes it really cool to work here.
MM: That said, it is a small percentage of people that are experiencing a combination of hardware and software compatibility issues, primarily. We have a couple of leads and a patch that we’ll be likely putting out. We just put our first patch out yesterday. We’ll likely have a new public beta patch coming out [Thursday] or [Friday]. The way we do that is we put it out to a beta branch on Steam first, so that people experiencing issues can hop in. This next patch, we believe, has a fix for some of the video player crashes that people have been experiencing. We’re hopeful to continue improving that for the people that are experiencing issues, and obviously we’re continuing to provide a great experience for everyone else who’s been playing.
MG: Like we said in the update, that’s number one. Nothing else matters to us right now besides smoothing that experience for people.
Another thing that some people have noticed is that BattleTech seems to work their GPUs harder than expected.
MM: That one, also, we’re pretty confident is hardware-specific. We’re still working to triangulate a little more within that. We’ve been talking to Nvidia about it. That’s not to say they’re to blame, just that we’re investigating.
MG: We’re aligned in our goals.
MM: Again, it’s specific to some users. We’re also looking at—this next patch will push some memory usage optimization as well. Some improvements there.
Outside of the technical stuff, one of the other conversations around the game has been difficulty. You addressed this in your most recent update, talking about options and managing difficulty spikes. What to you represents undesirable difficulty in BattleTech right now that you want to fix?
MM: When it feels unfair and poorly communicated. When we talk about spikes, we’re talking about outliers to the intended curve and variance of that curve. We’re not looking to create [a situation where] I see a two and a half skull contract and I know exactly how challenging that will be. Some of that variance is exciting. That lends to the drama. "I scored big on this mission or I had to retreat from this mission."
But there are a few issues we’ve had. Either we’re not properly communicating when reinforcements arrive, or every now and then there’s some bugs in that system too. We’re investigating the outliers where it doesn’t feel like part of the intentional difficulty of the experience we want to provide.
Speaking for myself, it's a double-edged sword. Sometimes I roll into a mission all cocky like, "I can use my B-team on this one and use it as an opportunity to level them up, it’s two skulls, whatever." And then I’m getting owned by Demolishers, PPC Carriers, assault mechs. "Oh god, I have to find a way out of this. Maybe I have to withdraw."
MG: The way I think of it, if it tends to make players feel like it’s a bug, or it makes enough players feel like it’s a bug—
MM: Then it’s a bug.
MG: It doesn’t really matter whether it’s officially a bug or not. That’s the kind of stuff we’re trying to fix. If it felt like an intentional surprise, then that’s a big success.
Will we see an ironman setting among the new difficulty levels?
MM: Yeah, we definitely want to do ironman. I don’t know exactly where that will fall on this roadmap, though.
MG: A lot of people right now online are telling me that they’re playing something called, what is it, "Honorman?" Instead of ironman? They’re just doing their own version of ironman. Which I think is kind of cool.
Another thing mentioned in your announcement this week is that Harebrained Schemes would "love to release a paid content expansion or two." What direction might this take? Is it stuff that you think would be very systemic in nature, that would be fit into the existing structure of the game and enhance it? Would it be a new stand-alone campaign? What’s appealing to you?
MM: I think it’s a little too early to say right now. I can certainly say that we have an abundance of ideas. But right now, we’re just a little more than a week past launch. We’re really focused on playing the mid-game. We want to make sure that we’re getting people critical fixes and that we’re reacting to some of the immediate trends and feedback for the game. We want to set this title up for a long and healthy life and growth. As far as DLC, we’re just starting to have some of those conversations, but I don’t want to put a stake in the ground now that we might have to pivot from.
It seems like the BattleTech timeline would allow for several different approaches.
MM: Here’s what I will say, just to set expectations. Any first expansion we put out will not be, "We’re advancing the timeline and here’s the Clans now!" We’re going to start—
MM: Yeah. We’re gonna work incrementally.
MG: But yeah, we like the idea of moving the timeline forward. We like it. We’ll see what happens, but we like it.
MM: Certainly the Clans are not off the table. But just setting expectations now, if we put out a first thing, that’s not where we’re going first.
MG: BattleTech’s timeline and history is so vast and has so many interesting hooks to play with. The hard part is actually figuring out which of these great hooks to use.
On that note, how did you guys tackle telling your own story in a big, complicated universe that's been around for 30 years?
MM: I think the goal from the start was to bring the BattleTech universe to life in a way that did not require prior knowledge of the lore. We managed to find this blank slate on the BattleTech map that we could work within. That was just fantastic, because it let us build this story without being constrained at every step of the way by lore, the way we would be if we’d tried to integrate a story into the politics of Inner Sphere at the time, which have already been written about extensively. And then, as we’re building this story, we had so much to draw upon from that lore. We could integrate that into our story to enrich it, bringing in the adjacent factions to the Origan Reach, the Magistracy of Canopus and the Taurian Concordat. All these things big and small.
But rather than being beholden those things, we could pull them in strategically to our story based on our story’s needs, to hopefully deliver a strong character arc, and also to onboard people to what makes the BattleTech world exciting. That’s one of the reasons we chose that classic betrayal story for this first title. We’re not going to pretend that we invented this type of story, right? But what we’ve tried to do is tell our betrayal story, tell it well, and make it special by having it in the BattleTech universe and featuring these characters that we care deeply about.
MG: All of that detail that we brought into it adds a layer of texture to it and makes it feel part of something. It’s not just a story that’s on top of the BattleTech universe. It’s within it and it’s surrounded by it.
Best of luck working on the next phase of fixes.