Mechwarrior Online: Surviving Yesterday Pt 1

A Blast From The Past

For the most part, Mechwarrior Online avoided the technical pratfalls of Mechwarrior 3‘s broken AI and poor multiplayer, and completely avoided Mechwarrior 4‘s fan uproar over simpler, faster gameplay. However, it did suffer from the one constant illness every game in the series (with the exception of Mechwarrior 1) fell prey to: a publisher burning the IP to the ground in an attempt to suck every last cent from the fan base.

This trend is nothing new in the game industry. One recent example is game developer Bungie slicing off original content from their recent game Destiny for use as add-ons. This left Destiny sorely lacking in content upon release while Bungie charged full price for the core product. Players had to purchase several content packs released at a later date to get all the content originally intended for the full game. Mechwarrior 2, 3, and 4 were no different. What makes Mechwarrior’s franchise history unusual is how many different ways publishers have abused the IP using a completely different dev team each time. Make no mistake, I am not a social justice warrior calling for the abolishment of all corporations, blah, blah, blah. But game publishers in particular seem hellbent on slash and burn business practices.

Because they usually control the purse strings, game publishers command incredible power over game developers. Activision churned through an entire dev team while managing Mechwarrior 2. After its release, they relentlessly milked the series for 5 years with more add-on packs (Ghost Bear’s Legacy, Netmech, Mercenaries) before dropping the franchise like a spent shell casing. They ended up grossing $70 million dollars in sales, but that had more to do with the quality of the original game versus Activision’s marketing efforts.

Mechwarrior 3 set the series’ low with four publishers for one game. That’s still ridiculous even in today’s game industry. First, MicroProse hired on as the original publisher for Mechwarrior 3. Then MicroProse’s parent company, Spectrum Holobyte, laid off the company’s employees and rebranded themselves ‘MicroProse’. This magic accounting gimmick was followed up with a real vanishing act when, facing insolvency, the new MicroProse sold themselves to Hasbro Interactive. Finally, Microsoft stepped in and bought FASA Interactive, acquiring de facto publishing duties for the game. Whew, and you thought Enron was complicated. All of these publishing shenanigans combined with FASA’s own development delays (and subsequent hand off of the project to another developer, Zipper Interactive) almost caused the project’s failure.

Microsoft did the series no favors by doubling down on Activision’s penchant for add-on packs. Instead of merely settling for a few high-priced add-ons (Black Knight, Mercenaries), they upped the ante with two mech packs for $13 each, one featuring Inner Sphere mechs, the other Clan. Each pack gave players 4 new mechs, two new pieces of equipment, and two new maps. Both packs should have been included with the core game. Yes, I bought them at the time (and still have them). It took brass publishing balls to foist such an obvious money grab on the player base, but Microsoft had no problem stuffing it down everyone’s throat.

World of Mechs

By 2011, Mechwarrior Online looked like it might break the decades-old trend. The size of the developer combined with the franchise’s publishing history (not to mention the traditional technical hurdles it’s myriad developers wrestled with) did not inspire confidence. My initial fears grew upon reading MWO would use a free to play business model. By 2010, free to play latched on to the game industry like a leech, MMOs in particular. No one knew enough about the model’s long term sustainability to prove if it was viable longterm, but plenty of publishers were willing to try. What wasn’t a question was the ability of a developer to abuse the business model to their own game’s detriment.

World of Tanks, a popular free to play tank game created by Belarus-based developers, was in the middle of setting industry sales records. Mechs are seen as walking tanks. In fact, as early as the 1980’s, Jordan Weisman once pitched the idea of mechs as vertical tanks to artist Duane Loose in a bid to hire him for work on a Battletech reference book, called a Technical Readout. For developers and fans, the comparison was obvious: make Mechwarrior 5 using the World of Tanks F2P business model. But could Infinite Games/Piranha pull it off without resorting to shady business tactics?

As Mechwarrior Online started open beta in October 2012, there was an incredible amount of pent-up enthusiasm for the game. Battletech was making a comeback on the PC after a long Microsoft winter, and the early art and visuals looked fantastic. The game’s mechs, visually redesigned by Alexander ‘Flying Debris’ Iglesias, excited fans for the first time in years. No one had seen machines this good looking since the original Unseen (a set of designs imported from the Japanese anime Macross) back in the 1980’s. The game seemed about to hit a series high-note.

That quickly changed when Piranha and IGP announced the Founder’s Program. These were prepaid packages players could buy before the game’s release “to help fund development”. Starting at $30 and topping out at $120, each tier got you perks such as an in-game Founders tag, premium game time (earning players in-game credits at a higher rate), in-game currency to buy more mechs and equipment, and a variety of Founders mechs with special skins. Between July and October of 2012, the Founder’s Program garnered over $5 million in sales. However, compared to Activision’s $70 million in nearly 5 years, that’s chump change.

But the cost rankled the grass roots rank and file who ponied up the money for the packages, sight unseen. The $120 tier didn’t provide that many credits, let alone $30. The new mechs were reskinned versions of free mechs you could earn in the game for free. The only exclusive item paying Founders received were their in-game tags. This would have been less of an issue if MWO’s initial gameplay quality wasn’t suspect. When the beta began, and players could see the quality they paid for, the rejoicing turned into disappointment. And as anyone who is a gamefan knows, disappointment quickly turns into torches and pitchforks.

In part 2, we’ll see how Mechwarrior Online managed to survive its beta, its publisher, and especially its die-hard fans.


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