Jordan Weisman is the father of the mech, that big, hulking robot exoskeleton that has become the staple of sci-fi combat games. So it’s only right that he was on hand for the revival of the original property that he first got started in 1980.
Last week, developer Piranha Games and publisher Infinite Game Publishing held a launch event for MechWarrior Online, the free-to-play version of mech combat that has drawn interest from lots of longtime fans of the franchise. The title crossed more than 1 million registered players even before its official launch.
Weisman and his father, Mort, attended the event, where e-sports competitors battled for the North American crown. They explained the 33-year history of the BattleTech, Mech Warrior, and Shadowrun Returns franchises. Weisman has been busy with the Shadowrun Returns reboot project, and his Harebrained Schemes studio has a Kickstarter going to raise money for a new tabletop game, Golem Arcana. But he took some time to talk about MechWarrior Online, which formally launched on Sept. 17. Here’s an edited transcript.
GamesBeat: It must be feeling like a bit of a mech revival these days.
Jordan Weisman: Between this and Shadowrun Returns, yeah. My dad and I were just talking about it. These properties are 25 and 30 years old, and they just refuse to die. They keep coming back stronger. That’s pretty rewarding.
GamesBeat: How does the history on this one go again? How long has this been in the making?
Weisman: BattleTech was published about 30 years ago as a tabletop game. In 1987, we built the Virtual World Centers together. The first one was the BattleTech Center in Chicago. We built those all around the world. They were the first multiplayer BattleTech games – in fact, some of the first multiplayer games available to the public, and the first 3D immersive games available to the public. In 1992, we licensed it to Infocom, which got bought by Activision, and we worked with them on MechWarrior and MechWarrior 2. I was just reading that MechWarrior 2 is still the single largest unit seller that Activision’s ever had.
Then we took the rights back in. We started working on MechWarrior 3. Microsoft had bought us in 1999, and we developed MechWarrior there for a number of years. After a while I left and it kind of went in the closet. So I licensed it back out from Microsoft four or five years ago.
GamesBeat: Did you ever get any indication of why it went into that sort of fallow period?
Weisman: Microsoft was going through a lot of management transition. The focus on intellectual property wasn’t too high at the time. There wasn’t any in-house champion at the time, so it just sat there. I licensed Shadowrun and Mechwarrior back from them and tried to get them placed.
GamesBeat: Were you thinking of online opportunities?
Weisman: It was for all digital games. We had a bunch of different things we were trying to get done. Russ Bullock and Bryan Ekman from Piranha and I teamed up, and we worked on the trailer for this game back in 2009. It took a lot of effort to get this thing back up and running. Bryan and Russ have done a fantastic job with it.
GamesBeat: It seems like a pretty complicated history.
Weisman: Everything’s a complicated history with me. [Laughs] Any time you have a property that old and you’ve sold the companies and it’s moved through different hands—there’s been all kinds of stuff. But it’s great to see it. Shadowrun Returns, we finally funded that through Kickstarter last year and shipped it on PC a couple of months ago. Today’s actually the release on iOS and Android. Apple was nice enough to give us the top banner spot, which is always appreciated.
GamesBeat: It sounds like that’s done well.
Weisman: Shadowrun’s been doing very well. We’re back on Kickstarter now with an interesting hybrid. This all started with tabletop games 25 and 30 years ago and then moved into computer games. Now our current Kickstarter – Golem Arcana – is actually a hybrid computer and tabletop game. It’s a tabletop game with a device we created that connects from the tabletop to your mobile device. So we get all the benefits of an MMO, effectively, but it’s played face to face on the tabletop. It’s interesting to think about how my career has always been bifurcated. Now this one object brings it together.
GamesBeat: Hawken is out. This is coming out. It looks like Titanfall is going to be next. I don’t know what explains the sudden surge in mech games.
Weisman: I think all entertainment is somewhat cyclical. Vampires are in and then vampires are out for a decade and then they come back in. I tried to do a pirate movie years ago. I wanted to get the rights to Captain Blood, that great movie with Errol Flynn. Every studio told me, “There will never be another pirate movie.” Everything goes in and out.
In this case, I do think that one of the things kicking this off was the trailer that Bryan and Russ and I made. It showed what the potential was a couple of years ago. It got people excited and thinking, “Hey, maybe it’s time for that stuff to come back.” I don’t know how much of a factor that was, but it was certainly out there before this resurgence took place.
GamesBeat: How well has this done so far?
Weisman: I’m not in a position to talk about that. You should grill Kelly Zmak and Russ and Bryan. But I think it’s off to a very good start.
GamesBeat: Going head-to-head against Hawken — did you guys see anything? They’re obviously different than MechWarrior. But is there anything you’ve seen that would say why one’s succeeding more than the other?
Weisman: Well, I honestly don’t know how Hawken has been doing. I’ve been head-down on Shadowrun and Golem Arcana. The games are pretty different. Hawken took on much more of a shooter dynamic, whereas MechWarrior Online returned to the roots of MechWarrior with a vehicle sim. Hawken is much closer to where MechWarrior 4 and the beginnings of MechWarrior 5 were going, where it became more of a shooter, more arcade-like. This one, I think, is going back to where it always had its heyday, when it was more like a simulator.
GamesBeat: It sounds a lot like World of Tanks in that way.
Weisman: Absolutely. If you look at World of Tanks and compare it to the 1992 MechWarrior Online that we did on the GEnie network, when people paid six bucks an hour to go online, World of Tanks is a direct descendant of what we did in those days. It’s a formula that works when it’s done right. To me, what’s most impressive about World of Tanks is that when that game first came out, it was crap. But they just worked it and worked it and it got better and better. It’s phenomenal.
GamesBeat: Do you think the mech theme has the potential to grow as big as something like that, to rise above what might have been more of a niche market in the past?
Weisman: Overall, in the 30 years since MechWarrior’s creation, we’ve seen geek culture conquer popular culture. If you look at the vast majority of Hollywood and video games and even publishing, with the dominance of fantasy in YA, I do think that geek culture is much broader now than it was in those days. The market potential is higher as well.
GamesBeat: This is also one of those projects that might do well with the Oculus Rift. There’s a new dimension to explore there.
Weisman: With the creation of the Virtual World Center, back in ’87, we were very early into the virtual reality component. We played with a lot of headset stuff back in the day. But in those days, the headsets were too big and heavy and bulky. The resolution was too low. The Oculus Rift obviously solves a lot of that. It’s a beautiful device. But it is a different software development, to make sure that doesn’t become a vomitorium. You really have to tweak your game for it. I don’t know if these guys are planning to do that. But it would be a good fit from a property standpoint and a gameplay standpoint.
GamesBeat: What would you say is the right way to play this game?
Weisman: I’ve not played it as much as I would like to, because I’ve been busy making other games. But I’ve logged in a fair number of hours. I love the way they’ve brought that sim nature back. All the different sub-systems are modeled out in detail. It combines to create really tactical play. The visuals are great. The world looks wonderful, and the connection between the ‘Mech and the environment – which is a very hard thing to do right – I think they got that. Another thing that’s hard to do with the visuals is to keep the scale of the ‘Mechs correct, so they feel big and powerful. If you do it wrong, they just look like toys. I think they nailed that. They still have that kind of gravitas to them, that scale factor that’s so important.
GamesBeat: There’s an e-sports angle that’s getting interesting here. You can see it at this event.
Weisman: That’s been in the property since the beginning. Back in ’89, when we launched the BattleTech Center, we started eSports back then by having tournaments and leagues. We hosted the first world BattleTech multiplayer competition in 1992. We had representatives from 12 countries around the world playing in real time. It’s at the core of the property, and it’s great to see it coming back in a robust way.
GamesBeat: They seem to have quite a culture around the game. Everyone’s getting into it.
Weisman: Yeah, it lends itself really well. It’s nice that they’re supporting the breadth of BattleTech and MechWarrior, with tabletop and online and the various versions of the software, from the squad-based tactical game to the first-person simulation.
GamesBeat: You could sell it back to Microsoft now.
Weisman: [Laughs] You know, we’ve had some interesting discussions. But Microsoft, I think, has become a good partner. They’ve been very supportive of all the efforts we’ve been working on. We’re adding value to a property they own, so why wouldn’t they be?