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Bryan Ekman, the creative director of MechWarrior Online at Piranha Games, is hoping for a big revival in Mech’s, the walking robot exoskeletons of the future.
He was on hand at an event where professional players competed to be the best in North America in the online free-to-play game. The title has garnered more than a million registered players, and it has been live for a few weeks now. Will it live up to the expectations for big mech games? That all depends on how well Ekman and his team crafted the game and how they modify it in the weeks ahead.
We caught up with Ekman recently to find out. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on MechWarrior Online?
Bryan Ekman: It’s going on two years in development now and about a year since we went into open beta.
GamesBeat: Is that from the very start of the project?
Ekman: Yeah, we started in 2011. That was preproduction and pen-and-paper design. We’ve been going all the way up until now, where we’ve hit commercial launch.
GamesBeat: What was that whole process like? Were you already a big MechWarrior fan?
Ekman: Absolutely. When I was a kid, it was one of the first games I played on my computer, back in 1990. I got my first 286, and it was MechWarrior, the first one from Activision. I played through the whole franchise’s history, up until we took over and became the stewards of the brand.
GamesBeat: Were you bummed when Microsoft let the series lie fallow like that?
Ekman: It was unfortunate. I think they could have done more with it. But I don’t want to lament that, because in the end it’s the reason we got to make MechWarrior Online.
GamesBeat: The odd thing is that they thought it was dying off. Now there’s this sort of mech revival going on.
Ekman: Sometimes an [intellectual property] has to leave the marketplace for people to grow attached to it again. It needs to be out of the public eye for a while to let it breathe. A lot’s changed since the last time a MechWarrior game was around. I think consumers are looking for something different again. That period from the last MechWarrior until now was really dominated by action shooters — really high-paced games. We’re able to bring something that’s familiar to those players, but different.
GamesBeat: And there are new business models around these days, new ways to fund things.
Ekman: Yeah. There are so many great options, from crowdsourcing to free-to-play. We have a hybrid model that’s worked really well. We have presales. We have a free-to-play core business model. We did a little bit of crowdfunding at the very beginning. Nowadays, with the direct connection a developer can have to the customer, it opens up all kinds of different funding models. It allows us to go to our consumer and involve them in the process much earlier than with a traditional publisher. That gives us the opportunity to get money directly from the consumer for a product they want. It’s a fun time for game development.
GamesBeat: Original MechWarrior creator Jordan Weisman was saying the game had a lot in common with World of Tanks — the way you’ve built out the simulation with all kinds of vehicles and lots of customization. It’s almost like World of Tanks learned that from MechWarrior, and now you have a chance to learn from them.
Ekman: Absolutely. When we started this project, we looked at all the competitive games out there — all the hits. You have learn what works and what doesn’t. You can’t ever just make a carbon copy, though, because every game requires something slightly different. Our model is very similar to World of Tanks, but it’s also similar to League of Legends. We have avatars and all that. A tank’s not as sexy as an avatar or a mech. Our mechs are the characters. They’re the stars. People want to be able to customize them and make them look special. They’re mostly humanoid in shape, so they have that extra connection to who we are.
GamesBeat: Will Wright was talking about World of Tanks once, and he called it a first-person shooter for old people. You don’t have to have split-second reactions to play it well. Does that apply to this as well? Are you trying to appeal to that kind of player?
Ekman: We tried to make the game fast, or faster than previous versions. It’s a lot more intense. But it’s still a tactical game. It’s still a team-play game. You can really slow the pace of gameplay down with solid tactics. Just by virtue of how fast the mechs move, the fact that they’re walking tanks, it changes the dynamics. It becomes way less twitchy. It’s less about reflexes and more about tactical thinking.
GamesBeat: What do you observe in the professional players and how they play?
Ekman: They’re obviously the top one percent, the guys who come to these things. They have a regimen that they follow. They have strategies for every map. They know where their mech is supposed to be. They know how to work within the team. They know how to configure their mech to be the best within that group. They take gaming to the level of an art form, really.
GamesBeat: How would you describe the way a typical match looks between these really good players?
Ekman: What you’re going to see, especially here tonight, is a lot of caution at the very beginning. It’s a chess game. They’ll put their pieces in place and then go and see. They’ll scout and try to find the enemy, then try to adjust their tactics based on where the enemy is. Then you’ll see a lot of focused fire. In this type of game, players form lances, which are teams of four. You’ll see those teams of four and try to do flanking maneuvers once they find the enemy and try to eliminate as many of the opposing force as possible as quickly as possible.
It’s a battle of attrition. As soon as that first domino falls, the team is at a disadvantage, so it’s important to get in there quickly and get that first kill. That’s why you’ll see that chess-like style of gameplay. They don’t want to lose that first piece because as soon as they do, they’ll have to change their tactics.
GamesBeat: What do you guys plan to do to keep this going and enhance it down the road?
Ekman: We have no end of content. We’re working on two big features right now. There’s UI 2.0, which is a refresh of our UI to make it a lot more friendly, a lot easier for new players to use. It describes the game a bit better and communicates some more complicated details more easily, in more of a graph format. Then we have our community warfare feature, which is an umbrella that sits over the entire game. It brings meaning into every single match.
I’m looking forward to developing this game for the next several years. There’s so much content we have left to do. It’s never going to end.