Last Friday, the developers of Mechwarrior Online, along with almost 200 fans, got together to celebrate the long two years that brought them to where they are today. Held in Piranha Games studio space, on the rain-soaked streets of downtown Vancouver, I spent the evening marvelling at giant mech ice sculptures, drinking beers, and battling the sense that Mechwarrior Online is probably a game I would enjoy very much. Though it has certainly had its own share of ups and downs, delays, and missed deadlines, there was a feeling of excited anticipation towards the features that were announced and the new world championship tournament that would kick off in 2016.
But as someone who never really took the time to pay much attention to Mechwarrior Online and the much larger Battletech universe, the highlight of my evening was sitting down and talking with Russ Bullock, president of Piranha Games. If one person would be able to convince me that Mechwarrior Online was a game worth playing, surely this man would be the one. But as we made our way to a room where the thumping music and chatter of tipsy fans wasn't quite as all consuming, the conversation quickly shifted to the struggle of battling negative first impressions.
"In some ways, [Mechwarrior Online] was still an extremely solid product but also very light on depth," Russ said. "It kind of depended on how they went at it."
We chatted for a bit, exploring that first impression Mechwarrior Online made years ago. For some, the game was a solid and easily recommendable shooter. For others (hint: us), it just didn't click the same way. "I guess that's a part of the message here today," Russ added. "You saw the trailers of the last two years, and now it really is, I think, a complete product with a lot of depth and a lot of features."
"It's hard, and it's a big reason we're now on Steam," Russ told me, explaining that launching on PC's biggest digital marketplace would open Mechwarrior Online to a whole new audience. He has high hopes for the world championship coming next year too: "Hopefully the tournament is a big point in getting it out there and people seeing it on Twitch more."
"It can be difficult because we're not a brand new product, we're a mature product, so we got to be more creative in getting that exposure."
While there has always been the fight to get Mechwarrior Online in front of new eyes, there's also the battle to keep longstanding fans of Mechwarrior Online and the Battletech universe happy. "It's both amazing and challenging at the same time," Russ said. "I love all that lore as much as anybody, and I love trying to tell that story." He went on to say that he was proud of the progress that the game has made since it first launched, especially in regards to balancing the various mechs available in the game.
"We're the first Mechwarrior game ever that has light mechs and medium mechs and heavy mechs, and all of them on the battlefield, and you see guys dominating in all of them. It's viable." Where previous Mechwarrior titles were dominated by one superior strategy—like "jump capable, PPC sniping 95 ton assault mechs"—Russ is proud of the way Mechwarrior Online has made a place for every class of mech on the battlefield.
"Right from the get go we said we didn't want to have another arms race Mechwarrior game where you start in a little mech and then you get a little bit bigger mech, then a bigger mech, and then everyone's in—kind of like a World of Tanks model where everyone is in tier 10 maxed at the end. No, Mechwarrior's more about a battlefield with all these different roles."
Getting to this point hasn't been an easy trip for Piranha Games. Community Warfare, an overarching metagame that provides players with long term goals, was a feature that took the team much longer to implement than originally thought. During that development stasis, where fans started to get antsy due to the lack of communication from Piranha Games, the studio was also dealing with the collapse of their publishing deal.
Though Russ wasn't keen to dive into the rubble of their relationship with the previous publisher, Infinite Games Publishing, he said that the agreement led to a lot of "fear and publishing pressure". During that transition, a press release from Piranha Games alluded to the fact that tensions with Infinite Games Publishing was causing a lot of the slowdown that fans had been complaining about. "It is our expectation that this will lead to much more efficient development and marketing of the product," he said in the release. Looking at the pace of development since then, it would seem those expectations were accurate.