The Conundrum Of MechWarrior Online
All games have their issues, particular elements that varying amounts of people dislike (some people outright hate what developers choose to do to some games) and it’s nothing new. A lot of games overcome this with patches and feature additions that come with the different strokes of development cycles and, for the most part, games tend to find themselves well received.
Diablo 3 is a good example. Hated at first, it now sits happily in the position of being “The game that it always should have been”.
So why is it that Piranha Games Interactives’ efforts in the MechWarrior franchise, MechWarrior Online (Battletech inspired sim-shooter), are so back and forth and incur such massive community backlashes that it’s amazing people still play the game at all?
To begin with, I don’t necessarily think that MechWarrior Online is a bad game… it’s just a game that is constantly failing to reach the potential that it has. Ever since it began, MechWarrior Online has been mired in controversy; a 3rd person camera view that most fans didn’t want, the sale of gold ‘mechs drawing huge criticisms and accusations of cash-grabbing, founders that invested cash to get the game up and running being somewhat ignored for the first year or two before being rewarded with anything that might even be considered worthwhile – the list goes on.
Outcries have rocked the forums and MechWarrior Online world about the initial inclusion of consumables, heavy forum moderation, heavy handed nerfs set in place to try and change the metagame. Ghost heat, a mechanic in place to prevent large groups of weapons firing simultaneously, is still mocked and ridiculed today, years after its initial implementation.
When you add to this the removal of numerous community managers, for what one can only assume to be failing at their jobs considering the backlash they would often receive for their comments and acts (have Garth Erlam and Niko Snow been jetted into space?), numerous accusations of PGI lying about their intents and promises, all the way to more recent times such as an incredibly careless twitter comment made by PGI president, Russ Bullock likening the tragic events of 9/11 to accusations that PGI entice people into buying ‘mech packs and wait until they go on general c-bill sale before hitting them with the nerf-hammer and it’s not hard to understand why this game is surrounded by controversy. Its community, as a result, is constantly mired in drama and deliberation about all these issues.
When a football team isn’t performing well, the players and the manager or coach often come under scrutiny and often face the backlash of all the fans, all the people that invest their free time and money into supporting their team. Those fans, as passionate as they are, often find themselves dealing with a myriad of emotions, most notably betrayal and disappointment. With the exception of some, that makes up the majority of the MechWarrior Online community.
The most recent big controversy was the release of a game build onto the public test server that was meant to test a new attempt at balancing ‘mechs (one could argue that, if a game isn’t balanced after three years, then there is something fundamentally wrong in how or why it is balanced at a ground level and needs to be addressed directly).
PGI, and most notably lead designer and the man most in charge of balance, Paul Inouye, took a lot of flak for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there was a huge lack in communication when it came to informing the players which particular aspects of balance were being tested. This was later addressed, somewhat, by No Guts No Galaxy streamer Sean Lang—an associate to PGI.
Secondly, a graphic posted by Paul Inouye showed that one of the aspects the overall ability of a ‘mech would be measured and balanced upon was something called InfoTech. In a nutshell, InfoTech is the range and speed at which a ‘mech can acquire locks and ‘mech ragdoll information. This created a huge ruckus alone, notably from the competitive community and high-skilled players, due to the actual in-game effectiveness of what InfoTech entails. Furthermore, in the same post the above image came from, Paul Inouye implied that a lot of the previous balance attempts (what was known as the “quirkening”) were made after having consulted with the “competitive community.” He then goes on to say that those quirks got out of hand, due largely to high-skilled players knowing what works well and how to best use it, creating a min/max stable of ‘mechs and builds. In truth, however, only a couple of people were ever spoken to from the competitive community, and what little input and advice they gave was largely ignored. Almost immediately following this outcry, PGI released news that the Marauder (a well-known and liked ‘mech from Battletech lore and previous games) would soon be available, with respective pre-purchase packages available almost immediately.
The timing was, to say the least, questionable.
So what is causing the problem?
The problem is two-fold, in my eyes.
First and foremost, PGI as a games developer is still relatively inexperienced at dealing with a project of this size. Although the company has been around since the year 2000, their credentials don’t scream high quality or capable games developer. Following some drawn out efforts with a first-person shooter, Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza, A Bass fishing game and a couple of PSP titles, PGI likely doesn’t have any games that people even know of, never mind actually own in their collections. What has remained a constant, however, is their desire to work on a MechWarrior game. It’s been very much a stop-start desire since 2005, with the game finally making it into closed beta 2012 (it doesn’t feel like that long ago, but at the same time, it feels like an eternity).
The second problem, and a problem which certainly compounds on PGI’s relative lack of experience is that they’re dealing with a big, passionate fan base.
Battletech, the boardgame and universe that MechWarrior Online is based upon, as well as the numerous MechWarrior titles that have released over the years, has a pretty big following of what is a largely mature audience. Most people have been playing these titles, and in the BattleTech universe, for years, some even decades.
MechWarrior Online also happens to be the only game for these fans to be able to get their MechWarrior video-game fix from. There is nowhere else for them to go to get that.
So when you take these incredibly passionate fans and players, with a lot of smart people, not to mention skilled video-gamers, and then continue to develop a project with something similar to a “two steps forwards, one back, one forward, two back” mentality, then it comes as little surprise that constant controversy sits on the crest of every horizon.
How does one go about fixing a problem like MechWarrior Online?
I’m no expert, but I have my opinions as much as the next guy, and when you follow a game from the earliest stages to where it lies now, you like to think you have at least a little bit of weight behind your views.
I’m a football (soccer) fan and have supported Newcastle United for most of my life. They play in the top-flight of English football, the premier league, but things aren’t going so well for them right now. In fact, things haven’t been going well for them for quite some time.
Last year was hard for Newcastle, they performed badly, went through two different managers and barely escaped relegation to a lower division, thanks to a fortunate result in the final game of the season. Now, with a new season having started in early August, the critics are out in force again and rightfully so. It’s been a horrid start to the new campaign, regardless of having a new guy in charge, with a new coaching staff and having spent the 3rd highest of all English teams on new players. The reason for this, as most people point to and agree on, is from inheriting the problems of the past. Newcastle still have players who some have referred to as poison, and there’s little sense of any real change. Things have changed, of course, but you wouldn’t think it at a glance.
This is, in my opinion, where PGI is struggling with MechWarrior Online.
Communication was a huge early problem, and one that improved following a few near-disastrous community-riots but is once again rearing its ugly head. The lack of communication in regards to the latest PTS is a key example of this, old habits dying hard, problems of the past being inherited into the now.
In the past, two community managers have come and gone in the wake of terrible communication calls, namely Garth Erlam and Niko Snow, but the problems that PGI face are rooted deeper than community management. Whilst I’m not suggesting there needs to be a purge of staff (there is such a thing as overkill after all) what I think PGI and MechWarrior Online needs now more than anything else is a proper openness to input from sources other than those working at the company.
If we use balance as an example, the people that will be able to give you the best input on how to balance weapons and ‘mechs in MechWarrior Online are the ones who min/max every attempt at balance that is put into the game. High-skilled players, such as the competitive community, are the people who take every change and make the most powerful combinations that they can from what is at hand. Take the “quirkening,” for example, where large-laser boating IS ‘mechs suddenly had a massive power spike that evidently had PGI recoiling in horror, so much so that they decided to introduce this new attempt in the form of Battle Value.
That right there is a clash, not communication.
PGI changes weapons, ‘mechs and certain bonuses, the competitive community and number-crunching, high-skilled players then took those changes and made monsters out of ‘mechs.
The logic, however obvious this may or may not be, should surely be to use those same people, that same part of the community, to get the best advice on balance? If you attempt to balance a game in response to the advantages the community finds and takes, then you’re constantly balancing in a reactive manner, rather than a proactive manner. When PGI have tried to tackle this proactively, however, they’ve come up short. Beyond short, considering the outpour of ridicule and disbelief on forums, Reddit and social media.
A part of me wonders if there isn’t some part of PGI that’s still a little bit bitter about past transgressions. Someone over there is perhaps feeling resistant regarding the embracing of a community that is so quick to chastise and criticize, and who could blame them? In the real world, if someone is constantly on your back, telling you that you’re doing everything wrong, the last thing your instinct is going to want to do is start working with them.
This isn’t the real world, however. This is the world of game development, the world of big robots blowing shit up, with passionate fans (some more abrasive than others) and skilled video-game players. This is a world of heavy opinions and quick, hard judgements, but also a world of ideas and advice.
For PGI and MechWarrior Online, the best thing that can be done right now is to embrace the community. Pride serves no purpose if you want to be progressive, because we all know how being stuck in old ways seldom helps you.
PGI needs to open up proper lines of communication with the competitive community so they can really learn how best to balance the game.
Whilst they might still continue to survive as the only MechWarrior product around, they’ll never begin to truly flourish as they could until they embrace the community that plays the death out of their product. And should there ever be any competition to this title, in whatever form that may be, then MechWarrior Online will need much more of their community supporting them than they do right now.
Michael Chater is an avid gamer with a passion for the more competitive side of things and a severe fear of losing. He’s also grateful for your reading of this article and would love to invite you to follow him on twitter@M_Chicky_Chater as well as the NerdGoblin facebook and twitter @thenerdgoblin pages.