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MechWarrior Online is aiming for the stars on Steam

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But is it too late for stompy robots?

Longtime readers of the site, especially folks that read my c-blogs and recap articles before I became a staff writer, know that I have a weird, on-again, off-again relationship with MechWarrior Online. It's a game I want to love, but frequently don't. One that I'll play for months at a time, get fed up with some problem or another, and quit in a huff -- only to come back a few months later to start the cycle all over again. It's very Sookie and Bill, only with less sexy vampires and more swearing at a keyboard.

This weekend MWO celebrated it's launch on Steam with an event designed for its biggest fans. Over 100 mech-head diehards gathered in Vancouver at PGI's studio to commiserate, gently trash-talk longtime rivals, and find out exactly where the game is heading. I was there too, and had the opportunity to sit down with PGI president Russ Bullock, and MWO's creative director Bryan Ekman, and finally ask them some of the questions I've had on my mind during the past three years of my kiss-kiss-slap-slap affair with stompy robots. 

The biggest news for MWO, and the focus point for the event is that the game is now available on Steam. After three years of existing as an independent product, MWO is now on the monolithic game service. While this is obviously big news for the game, and PGI no doubt hopes to capture a wider audience on the more visible platform, my question was “why?” MWO has existed as a stand alone product since launch and has cultivated a loyal, if not massive, core audience. The mech combat genre is nowhere near as hot as it was a decade and a half ago, and with plenty of other free-to-play games already available and established on Steam, why make the move so late in the game?

Russ says it wasn't a decision the team took lightly. “It was always in the conversation... We became certain that we definitely wanted to go to Steam about 12 months ago, and we spent that much extra time making sure that we were ready as we could for that new influx of players.”

“Part of that conversation, though, was just the features you need for that audience” added Bryan. “We felt that if we were going to go for Steam, we needed to present a product that was accessible for that [broader] audience.” Recently added features such as a guided tutorial and fresh UI options designed to ease new players into the complicated mechanics of the game certainly seemed to be aimed at that. MWO has long been a “learn by dying” experience that tossed new players into the deep end, an experience I remember only too vividly (cue awkward break-up #1). Giving new players a rundown on the basics of movement and what all the gauges on the HUD mean before having them wander into a combat will be a more welcoming introduction to the game than expecting them to refer to the manual while under fire.

As for keeping that new audience, PGI has a few plans. Russ confirmed that they have at least one more “big update” planned for Faction Warfare, the persistent territorial control game mode that pits the Great Houses of the Inner Sphere and the warring Clans of BattleTech lore against each other.

The galactic conquest is supposed to give players a reason to invest in the world and care about the game on a deeper level than a series of robotic death-matches by giving them something to fight over. Future plans center around making the acquisition and holding of planets more valuable by providing resources to successful groups (a nuclear like artillery strike was teased) and unclogging stalemates by introducing attacker or defender based advantages in contested battlegrounds.

There are also plans for single-player content in the works. “That's one of the great aspects of MechWarrior that has been unexplored for the past 15 years, so that's definitely going to be part of our future.” This is something that a lot of fans of the original campaign driven MechWarrior games have been hungry for, so it's great to hear PGI is actively working towards that goal. But don't expect to hear anything about it soon, Russ was quick to position it as a future project. 

What PGI seems to be hanging its hat on in the meantime is a greater emphasis on community participation and eSports. Later that evening during a stage presentation, PGI unveiled their plans for a worldwide MWO tournament slated to begin in the new year. Complete with regional qualifiers, play-off elimination series, and with PGI already committing to a $100k seeded prize pool, the announcement broke to the absolutely thunderous approval of the gathered fans. If PGI was searching for the thing that would appeal to their core fanbase the most, they certainly found it – as the ringing in my ears could have testified.

I'm not so sure that's what the game needs though, especially when trying to capture a broader Steam audience. We've seen many games try to come out as “the next big eSport” in the past few years and almost all of them have failed to take off (looking at you Evolve). While everyone in the room that night can't wait to watch (and probably participate in) a huge worldwide bracketed tournament, I have no idea who else is going to be interested.

Even with improvements to the game's spectator options and a focus on tighter, fast paced four vs four mixed-tech teams, the game is still working in the confines of the fairly niche mech combat genre. When I tried to envision who would actually watch a such a spectacle, all I could picture was other tournament players watching while waiting for their turn to play.

What I personally found more exciting were the two separate VR demos on display. While the virtual mechbay tour on the ghetto-holodeck HTC Vive seemed like an impressive but COMPLETELY unnecessary exercise in BattleTech nerd wish-fulfillment, the smaller Oculus Rift demo caught my attention. While it was obviously in the very early stages of development -- little more than a stationary mech that could swivel its torso around and test fire a few weapons into a nearby mountain range -- it was captivating. Just being able to look around the cockpit and survey the area with a quick side-to-side glance was unbelievably thrilling. Honestly, it felt like the way stompy robot games were always secretly meant to be played.


I squatted the unit for a good ten minutes trying to make myself sick by rotating the cockpit in a clockwise direction while trying to rotate my head in the opposite (easier said than done) and dreamed of the future in a dizzy haze. I've been as excited as anyone for the dawning VR age, but I've always been skeptical that a lot of "real" games would translate well to the experience. I don't want to see a future where the potential of VR is squandered on quaint virtual tours and on-rails shooters.

But, a mech simulator that naturally sits you down in a cockpit while you manipulate a suite of controls makes sense with what the technology  is currently capable of and has that one-to-one coordination between what you are doing and what you are seeing that really makes VR pop. Nobody asked me, but this seems like THE thing to focus on instead of trying to carve out a slice of the already picked apart and wholly devoured eSports pie.

A bunch of smaller features were also announced. Improvements planned for the Faction Warfare mode with expanded career options, ranking progressions, and leaderboards seemed like a big hit with the fans. As was the newly demonstrated decal system that will let MechWarriors plaster the ancestral battle machine of their noble family with gaudy stickers and logos like a warmongering Dale Earnhardt. I joke, but it is my secret shame that I would love nothing more than a big giant decal of a wrench to slap on my favorite mech.


As a longtime player who has seen the game go through several ups and downs, I had to take the chance to ask about some of the more controversial decisions and notable difficulties the game has encountered. Things like the total about face on third person view, a feature PGI promised would never be added to the game during the beta, but was nevertheless eventually introduced to the collective disdain of the community.

The sluggish pace of development that delayed key features for months if not years past announced launch dates. The introduction of consumable items purchasable for real money and a myriad of other insular grievances that sound completely crazy to people outside of the MWO bubble, but created serious rifts and a huge amount of distrust and negativity within the community.

Russ acknowledged that the issues that set the fanbase off haven't always been predictable and they've been caught off guard once or twice. “It can be frustrating, but there comes a point where you don't have to understand why they're upset, you just have to know they're upset, and face it head on.” He says that after the departure from former publisher IGP last year, the team doubled down on communication with the fans and focused on providing concrete proof that they were addressing their concerns. “We weathered it, I think mostly due to 'put up or shut up' type things. We said we would pick the pace up and we did it.”

When asked about the working relationship PGI had with IGP before separating ways, Russ and Bryan were quick to point out that there were some great people who worked there, but admitted there were difficulties. “In the end, it [working with IGP] really impacted our speed at which we could do work, implement features, and interact with out community. It was too policy driven.” says Russ “Our community suffered for it.”


In comparison, he went on to describe how much faster the work flow is now. When the team wants to make a change, they can do so without having to hold several meetings about every decision. He pointed to the more frequent community facing Town Hall meetings and Q&A sessions with fans as proof of PGI's dedication to their audience.

I don't know if I'm personally ready to lay every past snafu at the feet of IGP. At this point, MWO has broken my heart so many times that I'm not sure that I'll ever completely trust it again. But on the other hand, it has seemed to enjoy a new lease on life in the past few months. Big balance changes, new features, fresh players, MWO has really cleaned up its act.

Maybe this time it really has changed. Maybe this time we can make it work. Oh what the hell, I'm gonna reinstall. Nothing serious, just going to test the waters.

Relationship status: It's complicated.

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Nic Rowen
Nic RowenAssociate Editor   gamer profile

(formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for more + disclosures


 


 


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