Mechwarrior Franchise: Heavy Metal Zombie

It’s still alive after all these years! I can remember thinking something along those lines when seeing the first news post about Mechwarrior Online a couple of years ago. I felt the familiar surge of mixed emotions rise up once again: excitement instantly tinged with fear and horror at how badly this might end. Like seeing a shambling zombie rise from the grave for the sixth time.

Much like the land of Mordor, one does not simply play a Battletech PC game. To say FASA’s never-say-die intellectual property has a history is like saying the Empire State Building is tall. And that’s just the PC games. I could write a college dissertation about the table top beer and pretzels version which spawned the original Mechwarrior PC game back in 1989.

So let’s stick with Mechwarrior, shall we? That should narrow the scope of what I’m talking about a great deal, and even then it might not be enough! I played them when they came out. All of them. From the Crescent Hawk’s Inception, to Mechwarrior II, to the console games, to Mechwarrior Online. Everything. About the only official Battletech game I haven’t played is Multiplayer Battletech EGA, the abortive online effort back in the days of GEnie’s online service. This sci-fi mecha franchise has been around the block.

Published by legendary PC developer Dynamix for Activision in 1989, the original mech masterpiece was an unequaled game in its day. Certainly not the first PC game to simulate being in the cockpit of a vehicle (see Dynamix’s Arcticfox), nothing would rival it for years. The in-game mechs were made of simple, colored, untextured polygons, and the user interface looked like a child’s crayon drawing compared to the UI’s of today. But like a lot of games in the 80’s, you only needed a little imagination to fill in the gaps.

Though limited by the technology of the time, Battletech fans had their first, precedent-setting taste of what it might be like to pilot a mech. But you could not yet play against other human beings. The Internet was still gestating, and doing anything online was painfully slow, limited, and expensive. So the developers gave players simple AI to fight in a single player campaign. The game combined elements of single-player role-playing games, a basic trade economy, and first-person battlefield perspective into a single game. It wasn’t perfect but it would certainly do for experiencing the world of Battletech.

Multiplayer Nirvana

Then came the development debacle of Mechwarrior II. It was my first encounter with the term ‘vaporware‘. I remember working a summer job at a game store (one of the precursors that would eventually become GameStop) called Software Etc, back in 1993 when I heard the game was first announced. The store kept a big yellow board with hot release dates for upcoming games, one side for consoles, the other for PC. Software Etc had a tentative release date for Mechwarrior 2: The Clans in ’93 when I quit to go back to school. However, as month turned into month, it became evident the mech game to end all mech games was not coming anytime soon. Finally, sometime in 1994, I saw it list as ‘cancelled’.

I was mortified. At the time, it was obvious there was pent up market demand for the game. Online player vs player mech combat was coming! Or it was. For Mechwarrior II to be cancelled, something must have gone badly wrong behind the scenes. Indeed, something had. Beginning work in 1992, Activision hired a new dev team to begin working on the game. They labored for two years to get a basic program working. By 1994, they still failed to convert their working code to protected mode, which meant the developers were limited to using a mere 640k of RAM in DOS, the precursor operating system to Windows.

Let that sink in a minute. That’s not 640 gigabytes of memory storage. Or 640 megabytes of RAM. That’s 640 kilobytes, less than a megabyte of random access memory. You can walk into Office Depot today and find calculators with more than that. DOS had to run as well, so you were really getting 512k of RAM to work with, not 640! The original Mechwarrior I was a minor miracle because Dynamix managed to squeeze 8 different, untextured, polygonal, three dimensional mech designs into a game that fit on a single floppy disk.

By 1994, Activision’s crew still couldn’t get more than 2 mechs into the game because of the memory limitation. Finally, while their boss was at a trade show for a week, they managed to get the code into protected mode (without the use of the Internet, mind you) and open the flood gates. The design team, which suffered complete and total turnover during the process, was able to complete the game and get it shipped in mid-1995. However, the cost was high: not a single original developer remained by the time the game (with the new moniker ’31st Century Combat’) was published.

Upon release, Mechwarrior 2: 31st Century Combat was game of the year fodder for the press. It featured 18 mechs, 9 different planet locations, 30 missions, and unprecedented  3D visuals for any game of the period. No one had seen anything like this on a PC, let alone consoles. At the time, it was akin to a game being released in virtual reality with no motion sickness, with goggles, for $49.95. It is considered the pinnacle, the Everest, the holy high mountain of game play for Mechwarrior games. And it made Activision’s boatloads of cash, to the tune of $70 million within 4 years.

A primary reason for this was the constant release of add-on packs that gave the game more content and more mechs. Initially Mechwarrior 2 had no online component, but Activision soon released an add-on pack, Netmech, which did. This finally allowed up to 8 players to play against each other. Mech PVP, after years of delays, finally arrived. Not only did this push more copies of the game, but extended Mechwarrior 2’s lifespan for several years. Online multiplayer had transitioned from being a novelty to becoming a full-fledged game design replacement. Why spend a year or more making single player campaigns when you could let players duke it out and save you the work?

Despite the sales success, Activision’s experience of absolute development hell to make the core game lingered. For them, it was a no-brainer: Mechwarrior 2 would be their last Battletech game. After all, losing an entire production team to one game can be cost-prohibitive, extremely stressful, and possibly sink the company. At the time, Activision wanted to minimize earning a reputation for being a development slave shop. I’ll let you ponder the irony of that situation for a moment compared to their reputation with customers today. Instead, they opted to make Heavy Gear, Battletech’s direct competitor.

The Way Forward

In 1990, FASA, original creators and rights holders to Battletech, hired Virtual World Entertainment Group (VWEG) to create the Battletech Center, a networked arcade game featuring TESLA pods that allowed up to 5 players to battle each other in mechs. The Battletech Center originally began in Chicago, Illinois, and branched out to other locations around the world by the late 90’s. Once Activision opted not to pursue development of Mechwarrior 3, FASA decided to create a new Mechwarrior game themselves using the Battletech Center’s software.

Although wise in hindsight, the move ended up crippling Mechwarrior 3’s online play. FASA Interactive Technologies, the new division of FASA tasked with creating the sequel, decided to publish the game through MicroProse, a well-respected publisher of the time. However, in 1996, MicroProse’s parent company, Spectrum Holobyte, released most of the company’s employees, then rebranded itself ‘MicroProse.’ Two years later, the newly christened Microprose sold itself to Hasbro Interactive. This game of corporate musical chairs created a lack of publisher oversight in Mechwarrior 3’s development that nearly doomed the game.

Meanwhile, FASA Interactive encountered serious delays with their game engine based on the battle pod software running on PC hardware. At the same time, the company merged with VWEG, original creators of the Battletech Center. The buyout stopped development completely while the companies figured things out. Another developer, Zipper Interactive, was brought in to wrap up Mechwarrior 3 so it could ship. Zipper merged the existing work FASA Interactive had done into one of their own in-house game engines. The end result was Mechwarrior 3.

Something else happened in this period that affected Battletech game development to this day: Microsoft bought FASA/VWEG. Yes, that Microsoft. They decided to keep FASA Interactive and spin off the rest of VWEG in the process. This gave Microsoft the rights not only to Mechwarrior 3, but Mechwarrior 4 as well. When Mechwarrior 3 (finally) released in 1999, it featured the branding of five companies (three publishers and two developers): MicroProse, Hasbro Interactive, FASA Interactive, Zipper Interactive, and Microsoft.

The game sold well, easily beating out rival Activision’s Heavy Gear 2 on the PC sales charts. The single player campaign worked well, and it shipped with online gameplay. Most importantly, it improved upon the graphics of Mechwarrior 2. However, the online component was a buggy, laggy, unplayable mess beyond anything Zipper or FASA was capable of fixing. Worse, the singleplayer AI sported terminally stupid AI. This state of affairs left the existing Mechwarrior community with a mediocre single player campaign, and unplayable multiplayer. Alternatives for online gameplay meant staying with the dying Mechwarrior 2 community, or switch to Starsiege, the last Dynamix mech game Activision would ever produce. Something had to be done to give Mechwarrior fans true competitive multiplayer.

FASA Interactive immediately started work on Mechwarrior 4 soon after its acquisition by Microsoft. The buyout moved VWEG’s developers for the Battletech Center over to FASA Intereactive. So the Battletech Centers continued to operate, but were unable to develop their own new content. Instead, FASA Interactive was tasked with creating a new engine that ran on both PC’s and the Battletech Center’s TESLA pods. The new FASA Interactive veteran devs had a high bar to meet. Fans had high hopes: multiplayer was the core feature everyone wanted in a Mechwarrior game.

After 2 years of development work, Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance debuted. However, the team’s changes upset much of the existing Mechwarrior player community. Previous Mechwarrior games featured slow-moving mechs, essentially slow tanks on legs, pummeling each other with energy weapons, missiles, and autocannons. Part of the appeal of playing Mechwarrior was figuring out the complex mech interface better than your opponent. If it wasn’t complex and difficult to figure out, many fans didn’t like it because they no longer had a skill edge over their opponents.

MW4 had been designed to work on both PC and VEWG’s Battletech Centers. The end effect was a faster, streamlined user experience. Complicated mech weapon load-outs had been simplified. Gameplay was faster to keep up with the likes of Quake and Unreal Tournament. Instead of lumbering tanks, you got something more like true, fast-moving mecha. This caused some consternation to some of the die-hard community, but the game still became a best-seller and critical darling. In essence, Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance became the second coming of Mechwarrior 2.

Then Microsoft ‘changed directions’. After ringing the community dry with expensive mech packs and not one, but two add-ons, sales finally fell off.  The Battletech franchise, which had been around since the late 80’s, was also looking long in the tooth. After determining a sequel would not sustain their sales targets, Microsoft cancelled Mechwarrior 5 in 2003. And then sat on the intellectual property. FASA Interactive’s employees were moved to other game divisions until only customer service employees remained to assist the lingering MW4 playerbase. FASA Interactive finally closed in 2007, ending almost 20 years of Mechwarrior development. If Microsoft wasn’t making Mechwarrior 5, no one else would either. Things looked rather hopeless for fans of the series.

End Game

This brings us to our last stop: Mechwarrior Online. After all these years, multiplayer online play had matured along with the Internet. MMO’s, massively multiplayer online games, had arrived and thrived since the 90’s. World of Warcraft energized the game world in 2004. Quietly behind the scenes, Jordan Weisman, creator of FASA and the original Battletech tabletop game, began a long term effort with Vancouver-based developer Piranha Games to make a new Mechwarrior game.

Weisman formed a new company, Smith and Tinker, with the express purpose of salvaging the rights to FASA’s former games from Microsoft. They succeeded in 2007. With the rights in hand, the partnership made the rounds trying to find funding for the game. By 2010, it became apparent no publisher was going to touch the project. Not wanting to see the franchise slip away, Piranha Games saw once last chance at making the game financially viable.

Piranha bought the rights to Mechwarrior from Smith and Tinker in 2011, renaming the project Mechwarrior Online. Instead of another Mechwarrior game, Piranha successfully transformed it into an MMO, much like World of Tanks. Today, the game continues to thrive financially, but in a much different economy than its predecessor Mechwarrior 2. Instead of buying a single game, or add-on pack, you download MW:O for free and purchase mech packs. Some cost more than twice the price of a full game! So where does this leave veteran grognards like myself?

Stick around, find out in my next article as I review Mechwarrior Online and the next Battletech game on the horizon!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *