MechWarrior Online tournament

The cafeteria buzzed with excitement. People quickly gathered in groups of four to five, delegating their team captains as they weighed in on the pros and cons of using a wide assortment of mechs — giant mechanical suits equipped with large guns that players use to fight against one another — in the MechWarrior video game universe.

Strange names like Atlas or Jenner popped up in their conversations. Calculated strategies formed out of thin air. Pristine tournament brackets appeared on 42-inch television screens. Thirty-two high-end PC rigs, masquerading as virtual cockpits, lined up on either side of the room, waiting for would-be pilots to command them.

For both the fans and the developers, this was a homecoming.

The MechWarrior franchise hasn’t seen a proper release since 2002. The upcoming free-to-play (F2P) shooter MechWarrior Online, developed by Piranha Games and published by Infinite Game Publishing, changes that. Along with the publisher’s MechWarrior Tactics, the revitalized brand is set to make a big splash in this year. IGP continued its momentum by celebrating with the franchise’s diehard community at the Nvidia campus in Santa Clara, Calif.

MechWarrior Online Catapult

Before the mech-blasting began, GamesBeat sat down with Kelly Zmak, the president of the Montreal, Quebec-based IGP, who is one of the key folks responsible for MechWarrior’s sudden comeback. Zmak is an industry veteran: He started at Activision in the mid 1980s, and he worked his way up to various corporate positions, including president of the now-defunct Prototype 2 developer Radical Entertainment.

Dressed in jeans, a black collared shirt, and his trademark cowboy hat, Zmak’s candid answers offer some refreshing insight into not just the future of IGP but for the game industry as a whole.

GamesBeat: Infinite Game Publishing has only been around since last year, right? What’s the history behind the company?

Kelly Zmak: Yeah, since August. The initial efforts actually started almost five years ago now. A group of guys got together — Nick Foster, who’s currently our CEO; Anthony Brown; and a number of other guys got together — and started pitching a concept. It was a free-to-play space [with] a business model based off of, obviously, on a mindset of four or five years ago. And if you think about how the market has so dramatically changed over the last few years — even in my mind, the last year — you know the history of it started with an idea. Like most concepts do.

Kelly Zmak

Above: Kelly Zmak, the president of IGP.

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And then really in April/May of last year, when I got involved in 2011, the ideas had formulated. We had established some good relationships with investors, and we started to really identify the business model and the business plans associated with it. So the history started from just a pretty humble beginning of the ideas and a group of people involved, to evolving last year to a [set] of business models and proposals that we brought to an investment group. The most difficult thing of any idea is actually getting somebody to put some money into it and to give you the opportunity to prove that you can do it.

That was really what we were focused on. I was joking with my wife the other day [that] August 19 is our one-year anniversary of the business, and it’s been a wild year. But that history is actually, like most great starts, just an idea and a group of people that got together and said this is what we want to do.

And back then, it involved MechWarrior. So it’s always really revolved around that IP. It’s evolved and changed and certainly modified and grown as we’ve gone through the years, but it’s been a great humble beginning to a place where we think we’re gonna see some great things over the next few years.

GamesBeat: It seems pretty timely, because even four or five years ago, F2P games weren’t up to the quality that they are now with games like Tribes: Ascend or Blacklight Retribution. Was F2P always in store for the revitalization of the MechWarrior brand?

Zmak: Yeah, it was F2P and really focusing on triple-A [quality]. I’m largely from a retail space. I started in ’85, and consoles have always been kind of my heart and my soul, though I’ve had PC experience throughout the years. I was involved in the original Mech 1. I was involved in Mech 2. I was involved in Mech 3. So I have a lot of history with MechWarrior.

When I came in the organization and saw the license and the IP and saw [Russ Bullock, the president of MWO developer Piranha Games] and his team, I really had an opportunity to dive in to what they were wanting this product to be. And then we worked together to evolve that concept. But it always stayed true to the basic premise that we wanted a F2P model that focused on a core gaming audience. We felt that was a niche market place. We felt that it was a untapped audience.

We believe that the maturity that you see in the F2P market in Korea, you’re gonna see in the North America market. We believe that the success of our key competition clearly demonstrates that there’s a desire among consumers to invest in games that they like and are willing to participate in this process. Really, what we’re talking about is a transition from retail boxed product, where I had to think I knew what the product was going to be when I shipped it.