Interview: MechWarrior Online is Coming, Russ Bullock Talks About the Present and the Future
It’s no mystery that I’m excited for the upcoming return of the MechWarrior franchise. I’ve been a fan of the pen & paper RPG and of its tabletop wargame counterpart for a long time, without even mentioning the computer games, since the era of the Commodore 64. After all it’s one of the deepest and most iconic mecha franchises in the history of gaming.
I’ve finally been able to ask a few questions of Russ Bullock, President of Pirahna Games and the man at the helm of MechWarrior Online. He gave us some juicy details about how the game is shaping up, and on the development plans for the future
Giuseppe: MechWarrior Online will launch in an incredibly competitive market, with literally hundreds of free to play and freemium MMOs clashing for a market share. What do you think are the best assets for your game to set itself apart from the crowd and what are the biggest challenges for launch and the foreseeable future?
Russ: While it is true that the market is becoming more saturated with free to play products, this is a very positive sign that free to play is continuing to solidify its strong position in the industry. Especially in regions like North America, where the levels of acceptance have gone up dramatically even in just the past 6-12 months. Besides this growing trend, MechWarrior Online has the huge advantage that there really is nothing else like it out there. It is not just another MMO or another traditional shooter; MechWarrior has always had and continues to have a very unique set of play mechanics, in fact we find that for all those players that are tiring of “just another shooter” MechWarrior Online is the perfect solution. MechWarrior Online contains a great fresh balance of vehicle, sim and strategic action to be both refreshing and highly addictive to action gamers.
G: Personally I’m a big fan of the CryEngine, so I was very happy to hear that MechWarrior Online is based on such a powerful platform. What determined the choice?
R: In order to realize MechWarrior Online the way we desired both through visuals and gameplay, we knew we needed a premier front line engine. Once that was decided, there were really only a few to choose from and each more than capable of creating top products. In the end, what excited us the most about CryEngine was the fact we felt our product would stand out, with the engine’s clean and impressive visuals. It was also great for us to see just how excited the guys at Crytek were about MechWarrior Online and it was clear to us that they would really treat out project like a major product using their engine. All of these elements together made the choice simple and it has not disappointed.
G: When I heard that light Mechs will be viable against heavier ones, it immediately piqued my interest. In basically every game that has a progression from lighter to heavier machines (including past MechWarrior titles), the light ones get discarded as soon as the heavy ones get available. How did you ensure that light Mechs will still be viable and desirable choices for advanced players?
R: Right from the start we knew the balance of light and heavy Mechs was our most important design goal. And in today’s modern market, we were going to have to have a successful PvP product. With that knowledge, we fully embraced this approach. With the “arms race” mentality removed from the game entirely, players needed to be able to choose freely from light to assault Mechs from the moment they began playing. It was definitely a scary prospect to try and tackle this issue which has plagued MechWarrior games since the beginning, but I’m happy to report that currently in Closed Beta, a light commando or Jenner is not disregarded on the battlefield and they can even be seen to dominate the scoreboard from time to time when used by a skilled pilot.
G: One thing I always found interesting is the way MechWarrior Online will work with the timeline, with every real world day corresponding to a day in the world of the game, starting with 3049. Operation Revival (the invasion of the Inner Sphere by the clans) begins in August that year, translating to our August 2012.Was the start date of early access chosen on purpose to match that? Can we expect other special events to celebrate such a climatic moment in the MechWarrior timeline?
R: The Fact that the MechWarrior universe uses the earth calendar is really great. That along with all of the 27+ years of fictional canon really means that our release schedule to a degree is all laid out for us. Whether it’s a big event like the clan invasion (which starts in earnest in the spring of next year) or just the release of a particular technology, we will follow the timeline as best we can manage.
G: BattleMechs are really large machines, and they require quite a bit of space to do battle. How big will the maps be in MechWarrior Online? Will they all be the same size, or we can expect areas of varying sizes as the game evolves?
R: The maps in MechWarrior Online will range in sizes. In fact, in the Closed Beta, we see a range of player interaction and strategy taking shape on small to large maps. Where Forest Colony is a fairly small brawling map, Frozen City is mid sized while Caustic Valley and a fourth unannounced map are quite large, making scouting and long range weapons very effective.
G: Speaking about maps: I still remember my time playing MechWarrior 2’s Ghost Bear Legacy expansion and having a lot of fun with underwater maps and zero gravity ones. Can we expect any “exotic” environments like that?
R: As long as the maps compliment the tactical gameplay of using scouts and all classes of Mechs, then I think the broad history and canon of MechWarrior means we are sure to see some very alien landscapes.
G: MechWarrior Online is based heavily on teamwork. Is there any plan to include a training area where player units will be able to practice their teamwork, gunnery and skills without having to deal with a live enemy? Maybe even a possibility to create mock battles with training weapons between the members of the same unit divided in two teams, or between two friendly units?
R: I think all things are possible post launch if we have a successful product on our hands. The only thing planned for launch or just after is a tutorial level where we can teach players that are new to the MechWarrior universe how to pilot the unique controls of a Battlemech.
G: While I can’t wait to be able to tear a few Mechs apart online in MechWarrior Online, the MechWarrior franchise has always been heavily story-driven, also powered by some great sci-fi novels. Are all projects for a story-driven single player game shelved, or we can still hope for surprises, maybe in the wake of a possible success of MechWarrior Online?
R: Well I think you said it. All plans for a single player product are shelved for the time being, as we are focused solely on PVP combat. The fact that it has been a full decade or more since the last true MechWarrior title means that we’re on a mission to revive the brand and bring it to modern gamers. However with a successful launch MechWarrior Online, I’m hopeful that a big new single player title would be just around the corner; the future holds the answer.
G: On that train of thought, since there definitely is a segment of players that prefer cooperative multiplayer to competitive, have you ever considered introducing PvE missions in the future, with players prompted to team up and fight against AI-controlled opposing forces? Maybe as part of an actual storyline?
R: I think the answer is similar to this question as the last. Having said that, I think this could possibly be a first step in bridging towards a more full traditional single player experience. It’s safe to say that the PvE question is one of the most popular and it is probably one of the very first things we will explore once our core game is complete and we go Open Beta.
G: I know it’s very early to even think about it, but have you ever thought about including elements from other tabletop games of the Battletech/MechWarrior franchise? I’m thinking about AeroTech, BattleSpace, BattleTroops and the others.
R: Never say never, but for us MechWarrior Online has always been about the Battlemech and we want players to feel like the most elite warriors in the universe. Under that philosophy, those other combat arms have more of a chance of showing up in MWO as AI controlled entities then player controlled.
G: Thanks a lot for your time and your answers Russ, and good luck for the launch of MechWarrior Online.
R: Thanks for all your interest and support.