Developer Interview 3: David Bradley, Bryan Ekman, Paul Inouye
MechWarrior® Online™: Can you give us a brief biography on each of you?
[DAVID] Let’s see, at the end of this week I’ll be starting my fifth year in the video game industry. All of that time has been spent working at Piranha in various level designer and game designer capacities.
I’ve always had a computer and a game console (starting with an Apple IIe and Atari 2600) for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been playing games on them for just as long. I also regularly play a variety of miniatures game, board games, and roleplaying games.
My primary role on this project is to design and oversee the actual gameplay. This covers everything from how the ’Mechs move and shoot to how information is displayed on the HUD.
Oh, just to through it out there, I’m not the game designer David Bradley who worked on the Wizardry series, and I’m neither the inventor of the Ctrl+Alt+Delete command nor any of the actors who share my name (though it seems that my name is in good company).
[PAUL] I was born in the South-Central interior of British Columbia… oh… game biography…
I have been interested in game development since I first played PONG in 1979 (yes, I’m that old!). It was a magical time when turning an analog knob on a box connected to a TV resulted in actions directed by me being displayed. I was in awe and wanted to learn how this was done.
I took it upon myself to learn the various disciplines involved with developing a game including: 2D and 3D art, music, audio, programming, and project management.
Fast forward a couple decades and after a post-secondary education in Computer Science (while dabbling a little in engineering and commerce), I was given my first chance in game development at EA Canada.
I am now in my 14th year of the game industry and have worked on several AAA titles shipping across 8 different platforms.
My main role on MechWarrior® Online™ is the injection of the F2P development model into this well-defined franchise. My experience in the F2P market comes from in-depth research and discussions with a key group of people at Nexon. It was here that I realized the nuances between the Asian F2P consumer and the North American F2P consumer had different expectations. I wrote a ‘thesis’ (for lack of a better word) on how F2P works and what motivates a player to play these types of games.
Now I work closely with Bryan and David to ensure that the title stays true to our design pillars and try to make the supporting game systems back this goal. It is my job to ensure that designs are well documented and presented for the engineering and art teams to do their thing. I can honestly say that this project is not only the most challenging title I’ve worked on but the most exciting as well. Interacting with the MechWarrior community, while designing the game, allows a whole new level of community feedback that isn’t really the norm in the gaming industry.
I’m now looking forward to getting the game into the player’s hands to get their first impressions so we can work to fine tune and launch updates as needed.
[BRYAN] Let’s see, where to start. I’ve been in the industry since 1998. My first title was The Red Odyssey an expansion pack for the venerable Activision game, BattleZone. Two years later I met up with my now partner in crime, Russ Bullock. At the time we were working on a little known Half-Life mod called Nakatomi Plaza. After receiving a cease and desist letter from Fox Interactive, we decided to try and leverage what we had by turning it into a legitimate product. Three demos and eight months later, we had a signed deal with Fox to make Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza, our first title under the Piranha Games brand. Since its inception in 2000, we have worked on dozens of titles for a variety of platforms including Need For Speed, Transformers, Duke Nukem Forever, and MechWarrior Online.
MWO: What do you personally add to MechWarrior Online development?
[DAVID] An eye for detail and the ability to quickly learn and assimilate the lore of a fictional universe and its game mechanics. I get to make sure that everything we include in MechWarrior Online matches, at the very least, the spirit and intent of the BattleTech game and universe.
[PAUL] As mentioned above, experience with the F2P model and a strong background in gameplay balancing.
[BRYAN] I have a few roles, primarily I’m what they call the Product Owner and I represent the voice of the customer and make sure everything we make has value for both the end user and business. As a Creative Director, I’m responsible for managing the design, art, and level teams. As a partner/owner of PGI, I also get to work closely with Russ on business matters, although he is the main business mastermind.
MWO: Is there any part of your job you love more than the rest?
[DAVID] In this project, I’m really enjoying the research. Every time I look up some information I need to design this or that, I usually learn a cool bit of lore, and sometimes get sidetracked looking through wiki pages. When I get really lucky, I stumble across something like Critter-TEK and can taunt Paul by threatening to include it in the game.
[PAUL] My favorite part of being a designer is watching designs come to life. The ability to be the first one to sit down and experience the game and provide tuning feedback and numbers. This is one of the most exciting moments in game development.
[BRYAN] I’m addicted to game updates, whether it be a new art asset, level, or newly implemented feature. I love walking the floor seeing what are team is making.
MWO: What is it like working with a title as old and venerated as MechWarrior?
[DAVID] Our last project was Duke Nukem Forever, which came with its own history, but this is something completely different. I’ve discovered that the MechWarrior fans are extremely passionate and they know this universe, whether it be from the video games, tabletop game, or novels, inside and out. Everyone has their favourite era, faction, and ’Mech, which makes it impossible to please everyone perfectly. So we have to take some of these considerations into play but, in the end, just make the best game that we can.
[PAUL] It’s rather nerve wracking actually. I mean I’ve done it before but the voracity of the MechWarrior fan base is what I’m not used to. I know that if I request or say something slightly off what history has presented… I could very well be tarred and feathered by the community. At the same time I have to make sure that we do what’s best for the game since this is what the end result of what we’re doing is.
[BRYAN] Cool, scary, exhilarating, stressful, wrapped in a warm fuzzy blanked. Only the fact that we have an amazing team of developers keeps being from being taken away in a straight jacket.
MWO: How is MechWarrior different from other things you’ve worked on?
[DAVID] The biggest difference is that it’s a lot more complex than most games. Usually there’s a single player character and a handful of weapons. The BattleTech universe has hundreds of ’Mechs that could potentially make it into the game along with dozens of weapons. And not only do we have to focus on what we’re launching with, but we have to constantly be thinking about the future as new ’Mechs, weapons, and other equipment are always just on the horizon.
[PAUL] The pure amount of customization options is something to behold. Whether or not we can fit all of them in is another question. It is this level of customization that makes it really a tough decision process when it comes down to what is included and what is pushed off the plate.
[BRYAN] MWO is by far the largest and most important project I have ever been involved in. The fact we control our own destinies and IP for PC and Xbox platforms, gives us the ability to push for quality and value over timeframes and rigid milestone schedules.
MWO: How much of the table-top have you played? How do you convert that experience to a digital video game? (or do you at all?)
[DAVID] I first got into BattleTech around age 13 or so, when my older cousin gave me his BattleTech, CityTech, and AeroTech boxed sets along with a bunch of other sourcebooks and miniatures. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play too many games of it back then as my friends weren’t really into it. Later, when I did have friends into those sorts of things, we played different games instead. Though I do still have some of those books at my desk right now for reference.
A few years ago (I refuse to believe it’s nearly been a decade) I was excited when Wizkids came out with their MechWarrior: Dark Age game and I jumped on it as I was (and still am) a fan of their other games. But that game didn’t hold my interest for too long (playing with IndustrialMechs and a mishmash of random infantry didn’t make for the best gameplay). And now those miniatures just decorate my desk. For those who are undoubtedly freaking out right now, don’t worry, the Dark Age isn’t going to have any influence over MechWarrior Online (or at least not for a very very very long time).
The last year or so has been a BattleTech renaissance for me. Not only am I working on MWO but I’ve been able to play some tabletop games here at work and have been dubbed the office “rules guy” who has taught and reffed games for the rest of the team.
As for converting the tabletop rules into a video game, it can be done but there are several things that need to be kept in mind.
The first is to figure out what a specific tabletop component was meant to represent, or how to interpret a tabletop mechanic into a real time game. Attacks in the tabletop game would randomly hit different sections of an enemy ’Mech; this doesn’t need to be recreated in a video game because it’s fully represented by the skill of the player. Though this change may need to be taken into consideration later as it’s suddenly a lot easier to hit a ’Mech’s head than it ever was in the tabletop game. Another example would be torso twisting. In the tabletop game it’s a fairly abstract mechanic that lets you instantly rotate your firing arc a set amount before instantly snapping back, and with no effect on other people shooting you. In a video game, this becomes a lot more complex but still preserves and improves the effect of being able to walk in one direction while you shoot in another.
The second consideration is the question, “Is it fun in a video game?” In the tabletop game, there’s what amounts to a random chance that your ’Mech will fall down and take damage every time it enters water, and every 30 meters it travels through the water. On top of that, every time your ’Mech has fallen and tries to stand (in the water or not), there’s a random chance that it will slip and fall back down again, taking even more damage. This isn’t fun for the player, especially since they don’t have full control over piloting their ’Mech in the way a ‘real’ MechWarrior would. And this leads to the third consideration…
Limitations. While the tabletop game has limitations, a video game also has a set of its own. They generally involve manpower and complexity. Manpower is the most straight forward; our team is only so large and can only work on so much at once so, at the very least, we have to prioritize. Though the beauty of the free-to-play model is that, given enough time, we can overcome this limitation and release a future update. The complexity limit is trickier to overcome. There’s only so much screen space, so there’s a limit to what we can show the player at once and still have them understand it quickly. Conversely, unless the player has their own neural helmet (though I’ve seen some of the cockpits you guys have built, so it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had one), even a joystick/throttle/rudder pedal setup is going to be limited in terms of controls and can’t simulate the piloting needed to avoid falling down from entering water. Plus we still have to keep the game playable for those who only have a keyboard and mouse.
[PAUL] To be honest, only a few hours. It was enough to get the intricacies of the play style down while Bryan and Dave cheated me and took out my Hunchback so I rage quit and never played again. It was however an enjoyable time and we made sure everyone on the team experienced it.
[BRYAN] After reading David’s novel, no comment.
MWO: Which is your favourite of the past MechWarrior games?
[DAVID] I think the only past games I’ve played for any significant amount of time were MechWarrior 2 and MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries back in the day. So let’s go with those.
[PAUL] MechWarrior 3 tops my charts, I like the gameplay more than the rest and it was bringing us a more detailed environment and really making use of those new-fangled “texture maps!” The original MechWarrior still holds a place in my heart as well. It was the first MechWarrior and the first to immerse me into a 3D-vector based game.
[BRYAN] MechWarrior and MechWarrior 2 and the expansion packs.
MWO: How is making a Free to Play game different from a ‘normal’ game?
[DAVID] There are a couple of different aspects that I like the best. The first is that, being a free game, there’s no barrier to entry for a new player. If someone wants to play it, all they have to do is create an account and download the game, so we have a chance to reach a really wide audience. The other aspect is that we can launch with a solid core game but then continually improve and add to it with regular updates. This allows us to not only get in new features or ’Mechs that we want to see, but we can respond to the needs of the community as well.
[PAUL] There are a few aspects that are key to the differences between developing a normal boxed game and a F2P title.
First off, the difference between a new F2P game and MechWarrior® Online™ is twofold. First and foremost, MechWarrior is an established franchise with a very deep and rich history. Second, MechWarrior® Online™ is one of the first titles to push the technology envelope by using CryENGINE 3™.
Next, we need to look at the wide audience we’re going to draw. The biggest benefit to developing a F2P title is that the game is (as the acronym suggests) free. If a game is free, why wouldn’t you give it a shot? After getting the first impression from a player, it’s very important to keep that player interested in your title. With F2P, the player who is playing for free has no invested interest in continuing to play if the quality and content of the game, as well as the community, isn’t up to their expectations. A player doesn’t have to pay to be invested into the game as long as they feel like they’re part of a community or league that has a lot of fun playing the game. In order to pull this off, we have to be sure that the game is solid, has the right features at launch, has a continual stream of new content and is accessible to the new and veteran player alike.
Does this mean we dumb the game down for the casual, new player? No it doesn’t. We just need to make sure the new player has an enjoyable time while they learn the ins and outs of the game as well as the intricacies of customizing a BattleMech.
Lastly, addressing the Pay-to-Win argument that plagues so many F2P communities is something that we keep at the front of our design discussions. What is purchased with real world currency and what is purchased with in-game currency is the question that is in the back of my mind when looking at any item put into the game.
There’s a fine line between Pay-to-Progress and Pay-to-Win. Obviously we don’t want the latter but the dangers are there for every item we look at. What you may think has no implication on gameplay can and will have an effect in one way or another when it comes to anything that alters the properties of a BattleMech. We even run into this situation dealing with Information Warfare and Role Warfare items. All we can do is make sure that we’ve covered our bases and watch how things fall into place during testing/public beta testing.
[BRYAN] Nothing much more to add here.
MWO: Was it a total shock when you became the MechWarrior project owner?
[DAVID] I’m the project owner? Wow, that is a shock; I honestly had no idea. I thought that Bryan was the project owner and… Oh, wait, this question was probably meant for him. I think that maybe I should just let him answer it.
[PAUL] I’m the Project Owner????!??!!?! I need to renegotiate my contract!
[BRYAN] Don’t look at me. Maybe Matt Newman is the project owner.
MWO: If you had to pick a favourite ‘Mech, which would it be? Ok, one Inner Sphere, one Clan.
[DAVID] Well, I feel like I’m almost required to say the Balius, but that’s only because that answer would annoy Paul. Or the Piranha, for obvious reasons. But really, the Hunchback was the first ’Mech to get redesigned as well as the first to get into the game, so it’s really grown on me. And, as for Clan ’Mechs, I like the Kodiak. I suppose I just like being able to run up to an enemy, point some big guns at it, and watch it hopefully explode.
[PAUL] InnerSphere – Catapult… as stated in the forums… I fought for this puppy and whined to Bryan more than I ever have in the gaming industry. Clan – Blood Asp, just cause it looks cool and is armed to the teeth.
[BRYAN] Wow tough choice. Right now IS – Centurion and Clan – Loki. Ask me again in 12 months.
MWO: Which games were you influenced by for MechWarrior Online? Which features did they have that you liked?
[DAVID] Well, the obvious answer is all the past MechWarrior games. Some of their features have provided great templates, or at least starting points, for developing our own.
[PAUL] Battlefield 2 for the BattleGrid, RISK for the Inner Sphere conflict/border wars.
[BRYAN] EVE Online, Battlefield, Call of Duty, MechWarrior (1-4), BattleTech, Warhammer 40K, Warmachine, World of Tanks, and League of Legends.
MWO: How will different playstyles be encouraged in MechWarrior Online? (And what are your preferred playstyles?)
[DAVID] It’s a combination of making sure that the weapons and equipment that a player needs to suit their playstyle are available, as well as giving them the ability to unlock and install modules that will further enhance their role. We also need to reward actions and objectives beyond the standard “kill your enemy until he’s dead.”
In games I usually prefer a combat role, but one that I can use on the front lines to support my teammates. I’m happy [to] jump in the way of enemy fire if it means that my teammate can capture the flag or hill or whatever the objective is. (And this way I can also pass the blame on to them if the enemy captures it instead. ;)) So I’ll probably be playing a medium ’Mech that can get me to where my buddies need help, and then have enough fire power to at least distract our enemies and have them focus on me.
[PAUL] Information Warfare and Role Warfare are our 2 motivators to have mixed class BattleMechs on the battlefield. Everyone here at Piranha loves a good co-op feel when playing multiplayer titles. While we won’t be having co-op in MWO, we will have some really cool team based gameplay that will become apparent in the next few months.
Contrary to what my co-workers think (they think I’m a griefer due to my vulgar trash talking), when I play competitive online games outside of work, I’m more into the team play aspects rather than running and gunning trying to prove something. If you were to look at my BF2 stats, you’d see that my K/D ratio isn’t the greatest but I did a crazy amount of objective completions. I’m always the assault/support class pushing the frontline forward and I’m sure that’s how I’ll be playing in MWO. Probably a Medium or Heavy class Mech balanced between armor and weaponry. I’ll be the one capturing points, or defending a location, or defending the scout or commander class Mechs. I’ll be monitoring all communications to see where I can help out the team.
[BRYAN] I’m all about quick precision strikes. Get in, get out. I like to balance max speed, stealth, and damage, not unlike a Ninja.
MWO: Can you guys explain how the Battlegrid works?
[DAVID] The BattleGrid is essentially a version of the minimap that has expanded to fill your screen and provide you with the ultimate tactical view in the game. From here you’ll be able to see your location, the locations of your allies, the location and status of objectives, the location of enemies in your line of sight, etc. You’ll also see any information that’s being shared by your allies. The BattleGrid is going to be the commander’s best friend when it comes to planning tactics, issuing orders, and calling down artillery strikes.
[PAUL] Imagine looking at a map of the environment you’re in. The more information fed to you from scouts or the commander, the more you’re going to see. Scouts will be able to relay tactical information to the commander who then relays that information back to everyone else on the field. The commander has the ability to issue orders, call-in support fire and recon sweeps. The more information shared on the battlefield, the more prepared all players will be when approaching hot spots on the map. All players will have access to the BattleGrid but only the commander will have interactivity with it. It would be in your best interest to keep him protected at all times.
MWO: Is there a favourite faction around the office, or are allegiances pretty evenly spread?
[DAVID] I’m not really sure where everyone’s allegiances stand. Maybe we should physically divide up the office to match the Inner Sphere map and everyone will have to move their desk into the area of their favourite faction. Then we put up electric fences along each border. The only downside is that all the Clanners would have to find room in a building across the street.
[PAUL] You know what? I’m not really sure. I refuse to acknowledge anyone who is not aligned with Kurita.
Update: Just took a poll… we’re kinda spread even across the board but the small majorities are Kurita and Marik in that order
MWO: How does the Line Of Sight/Display work?
[DAVID] The basic rule is that if you don’t have line of sight on an enemy ’Mech, then it’s not going to be targetable or even show up on your radar. Now, there are exceptions to this rule. The first is that if you see an opponent and then they disappear behind a building, there will be a few seconds before their information decays and disappears. The other exception is that teammates will be capable of relaying their information to you, and vice versa. There’s also support units, such as UAVs, that can be deployed to act as spotters for your ’Mech. On the whole, this is meant to increase the value of tactical information as well as the role of scout ’Mechs on the battlefield.
MWO: If I want to play MechWarrior Online as a Jenner pilot, am I going to get creamed by Atlas pilots? How do you go about balancing different ‘Mechs of different weights?
[DAVID] In a one-on-one fight in an open field, that Jenner pilot is probably going to have to pull off some very fancy piloting and pray that they don’t get hit in order to stand a chance. However, in MWO, the smart Jenner pilot is going to try and avoid that situation. If they have to take on an Atlas, they’re going to want to try and do it in an area with a lot of cover, like a city, where their superior speed and maneuverability will allow them to weave between buildings to flank the Atlas. But the real balance between a Jenner and an Atlas isn’t just about their effectiveness in combat, but rather what they can bring to their lance as a whole. An Atlas is undeniably an effective killing machine, but a Jenner is an equally effective scout. It’s fast enough to get ahead of everyone else, where it can start relaying the position of enemy ’Mechs to its lancemates, deploy various sensor equipment, and act as a spotter for LRM strikes.
[PAUL] Depends on your skill level. If you’re standing in one spot acting like a turret, you’ll get hit so hard you’re grandkids are gonna have black eyes. If you’re aware of your surroundings, know the limits of your Jenner, you’ll probably have a decent chance of making that Atlas realllllly hurt if not take it out.
MWO: What is it like working with Randall Bills and Alex Iglesias?
[DAVID] It’s great! These are a couple of guys who are at the tops of their fields. Randall’s oversight, with his knowledge and history of the universe, has been a great help at providing us with any info we need as well as keeping us on track. And Alex’s redesigns are amazing. The community here on the forums may always be waiting to see the next ’Mech, but the same thing happens here at Piranha. Everyone waits for our art director to approve Alex’s latest designs, so they can get posted on the wall and our internal wiki for everyone to see.
[PAUL] I haven’t worked with Alex directly but I do watch him post “wouldn’t it be cool if…” statements on our planning board. As for Randall, he’s super cool and gets my sarcastic sense of humor. It’s great having both of them on board to help us make sure our product is not only of high quality, but of high integrity with the BattleTech Universe.
[BRYAN] An absolute pleasure! Randall is my go-to-guy for everything canon. He’s a walking encyclopedia, and crucial to making sure we’re as authentic as possible. Alex has been responsible for rebooting the entire look of MechWarrior’s BattleMechs. Without his talent, modernizing the overall look and feel of MechWarrior would not have been possible.
MWO: What kind of role will all the sensor gear (ECM, C3, etc) play in MechWarrior Online? Will a team need people with those things?
[DAVID] As someone once said, “Information is ammunition.” (And some other group may have equated knowing said information to being fifty percent of the battle, but we care less about them.) The sensors and communications equipment are all very useful, and will allow a player or team to have a greater situational awareness of the battlefield (or disrupt the other team’s awareness), but it won’t guarantee an instant win. Also, like with anything else, if you’re brining all this sensor gear, then there’s probably other stuff you won’t be able to bring with you. A well-coordinated lance might find that they can communicate through voice and text chat well enough that they prefer to bring extra weapons instead of more sensor gear.
[PAUL] All that sensor gear is part of the Information Warfare aspect of MWO. Sharing information is high in priority but not mandated. A team, who can successfully communicate what’s going on amongst themselves, will probably have a decent chance at winning without that gear. The only time you’re going to really have a problem in combat is if you decide to ignore information/communications completely.
MWO: Do you have a favourite weapon in MechWarrior? (IE. PPC, AC/20, micro laser, UrbanMech toss, etc)
[DAVID] AC/20. Powerful, but you have to get close enough to your opponent that you can wave at them from your cockpit before you reduce them to slag.
[PAUL] Who wrote these questions?!? Uhhh… the Rotary AC/5 cause it sounds cool!
[BRYAN] Anything the melts my opponent to a heap of steaming slag.
MWO: What’s it like having the best Community Manager ever?
[DAVID] You guys are managed? (And did Garth bribe one of your guys to ask this or did he sneak it in himself?) [ED: I’d never do such a thing! ;)]
[PAUL] I think Metro is doing a great job!
[BRYAN] He’s part of maintaining my sanity, however he did write these questions which had me up until midnight writing answers. So the verdict is still out.
We hope you all enjoyed this, and thank you for reading! Just a heads up, the Q&A3 over here will be closed this Friday so we can gather them to answer, so get your questions in now!