Developer Interview 2: Randall Bills
MechWarrior® Online™: Can you give us a brief biography on yourself?
Randall Bills: I’ve worked in the Adventure Gaming industry for a decade and a half. I’ve lead the direct development and publication of over a hundred sourcebooks, rulebooks, box sets and game aides. In addition to writing eight novels and a host of online fiction, I’ve been the continuity editor for over fifty novels—as well as half a million words of online fiction—for BattleTech.
I’m currently the Managing Line Developer for Catalyst Game Labs, overseeing the strategic development of the perennial BattleTech and Shadowrun properties, while still writing/developing some BattleTech products under the direction of the current BattleTech Line Developer, Herb Beas.
In addition to those two giant game lines, I’m also overseeing the development of new universes and games, such as the alternate history/steampunk miniatures game Leviathans and the golden science fiction era, pulp-style Cosmic Patrol RPG, as well as new casual board and card games.
MWO: What does your position on MechWarrior Online entail?
RB: The best way to describe my job with MechWarrior Online is Continuity Editor and Fiction Content Manager.
Continuity Editor means that Piranha passes just about everything through me to make sure we put as much BattleTech polish on everything as possible within the constraints of their electronic game medium.
Now that can be a two-way street. For example Piranha might ask me for a list of BattleMechs that would be most appropriate to start the game with based upon the Era they’re looking at. I then generate that list and include a set of criteria for why I chose the list, so they can review and push back if they have in-game reasons for X or Y choice that might not be on my list.
The two-way street part is that instead of me generating content and/or lists completely on my end, they will send documents for me to comment on. For example they might send me a proposal for one of their in-game maps, which includes concept sketches, back-ground details on the specific world/terrain, and so on. I’ll then read through the entire document and provide specific feedback on where the details they’re developing need to be tweaked into X or Y direction to ensure it feels more like BattleTech.
For the Fiction Content Manager portion, that’s about providing the fiction content they need for their site and ultimately the game. This aspect is very much a “living position”, meaning it’ll be growing and expanding as development continues on the game. Currently I’m writing all the INN tweets they’re publishing and I’m just now starting to write (and coordinate the editing) on larger fiction pieces for the website. Heading into next year the demands for how much fictional content will be needed leading up to the launch of the game (and beyond, of course) will increase exponential. What I can’t generate directly (simply due to time constraints with all my other commitments), I’ll manage the creation of through the author pool of talent that’s been working on BattleTech for long years.
MWO: What is your favourite part of your job?
RB: The easy quip is “I get to make crap up for a living!”
The more complete answer is the single most enjoyable part of my job is working with motivated, creatively talented individuals in bringing cool, fun experiences to a community. Whether that’s a novel, a sourcebook, miniatures rules, a board game, an RPG: doesn’t matter what it is, or the ultimate medium…it’s all incredibly enjoyable and immensely satisfying.
I’ve had those experiences for most of my working career across a huge variety of projects. Yet working on something you love adds a whole other dimension. And despite over 15 years working on BattleTech, it still remains one of my biggest geek-loves…the inner 14-year-old in me still yells that titanic metal robots stomping across alien worlds and blowing crap up never, ever gets old.
To have that type of working relationship growing with Piranha so that I can be a part of bringing MechWarrior Online to a community that’s been waiting patiently for a BattleTech computer game this cool for a long, long time…I’m still geeking out about it (I’ve got a big, sloppy smile on just typing this up).
MWO: Why do you think the MechWarrior community is as loyal and dedicated as it is?
RB: At its core I think there are some basic elements that created an initial community and have kept that community all these years.
1. Giant robots blowing stuff up is cool!
2. The factions are incredible iconic and there’s plenty to choose from.
3. Epic story telling.
4. Vibrant, living characters that span the spectrum from hero to villain.
Each of those points overlaps in various ways providing many different ‘snares’ to any given fan. It creates a living, breathing universe that moves far beyond “just a game.” It spawns situations where players—whether in a computer game, a roleplaying game, or on the miniatures table—can have gaming experiences where they fight valiantly for their faction, they play apart of a critical moment described in a novel they’ve read, or they actually meet the characters from the fiction in their games…and survive to fight another day.
Those are the stories you share at conventions and across social media and emails and gaming tables. Stories that hook players into the universe and never let go…
MWO: How did you get involved with BattleTech?
RB: That’s a long, rather convoluted story…I’ll try and keep it short. I promise…ahahah.
First, fan-wise, when I was thirteen I’d moved to AZ and first saw a particular anime series of teenagers in transformable robots saving the world from alien invasion. I was blown away…I’d never imagined a “cartoon” so complex, so filled with adult themes and stories…and over-flowing with giant robots blowing crap up (note the theme…).
When I was fourteen I first saw the BattleTech box set (2nd Edition) on a store shelf and immediately thought there was a connection to the anime series and knew I had to buy it (the confusion was sorted rather quickly, of course, but that Warhammer on the cover just wouldn’t let go of my imagination).
But $20 was a good chunk of money for my 14-year-old self and it took me almost a month to convince myself to buy it. I finally made the decision and along with my best friends Chad and Tony, we biked down to the store and purchased a copy. We tore back home, read the rules at lightning speed and in less than 30 minutes we had a game going: Chad in a Warhammer, me in a BattleMaster, standing right next to each other alpha striking, and Tony in a Marauder plinking away at max range with its AC/5…and there was no looking back. In fact, thinking hard about it, I’m just realizing that that plunge into BattleTech was exactly 25 years ago this month…my head, it’s full of ’Mechs.
Professionally, that’s the convoluted part. In the early 90s my gaming group had begun running most of the BattleTech events at conventions in the Tempe/Mesa area and so my name had started to percolate just a little at the FASA offices (i.e. corresponding with FASA for convention support).
In ‘94 most of my gaming group traveled to Gen Con for the first time and despite best efforts made a nuisance of ourselves geeking out at the FASA booth (and I decided I could never ‘not’ go again; been attending ever since).
In ‘95 Brian Nystul, the BattleTech Line Developer at the time, was brought out to Hex-a-Con as a guest and I asked him if he wanted to play in a “3039 variant” I’d designed of the strategic-level BattleTech box set game Succession Wars. He actually said yes and we stayed up all Saturday night playing (I’ve still got that around here somewhere and while it’s painfully clunky…it was really my first attempt at serious game design).
Two months later my gaming group was back at Gen Con and we even got permission to go to the FASA offices after the show, where we were monster fan-boys, despite my best efforts to ‘be cool’. For example the Clan homeworlds map had not yet been published and we saw it pinned up on Bryan’s wall, so we were trying to distract him while we copied the map down. Ahaha…painful, but funny thinking back on it.
Right after that point FASA decided they needed a development assistant. While they started looking locally, someone said “hey, what about that guy from AZ?” First they didn’t believe I’d moved 1,800 miles to be paid the absolute deplorable wage they offered. But I also didn’t know until years later that they almost didn’t want to even interview me because of the fan-boy office experience. Only because Bryan had spent endless hours with me at that convention did he give me a good word and so FASA gave me a chance.
Course at the end I almost did balk at it…moving 1,800 miles for crap pay to a city I’d never been to, to an apartment we picked off a map, to a place with no family, no job set up for my wife, leaving all my friends and the gaming group I’d spent years building…I was a wreck for a week. But my wife, bless her soul, gave me the kick I needed: “If you don’t take this job, you’re not the man I married.”
They say behind every great leader is a great woman. Same applies here…I say behind every happy gamer (professional or not) is a wonderful wife (or husband) that puts up with far too much crap…no way I’d be here today, excited to dive into a brand new BattleTech adventure with MechWarrior Online without Tara.
MWO: Why do you enjoy the BattleTech universe?
RB: Beyond that inner 14-year-old above yelling that blowing crap up is cool?! Or beyond the points I listed above of what makes BattleTech compelling?
Now don’t get me wrong…I love aliens. In fact some of my favorite movies and TV shows I watch I’m endlessly bemoaning that the aliens aren’t alien enough.
However, one of the things that’s always fascinated me and something I often explore in my fiction, is the idea that what mankind does to itself can be far more horrific then any monsters or aliens. And that includes overt wars, Machiavellian amoral moves in the dark by geopolitical power players, or even how we endlessly damage ourselves.
Despite BattleTech’s scifi setting, almost without exception what occurs in the universe is driven by mankind. The most fantastic, uplifting achievements and the basest abominations: it’s all at the hands of the characters that populate the universe, from the best and brightest hero to the blackest villain.
Now BattleTech has plenty of black & white characters…simply something that’s going to happen when you’ve published tens of millions of words from hundreds of authors over two and a half decades. But even with those black & white characters, BattleTech is filled with a thousand shades of grey that bring the universe to life in ways that are always compelling. There’s always someone to cheer for and someone to love-to-hate.
Obviously I still enjoy playing the board game; in fact I’m right in the middle of starting up a rather large game with my son right now. But without those story elements that I can still read and enjoy, not sure the love affair would’ve lasted all these years.
MWO: You’ve written many books on BattleTech over the years – which one stands out as your favourite?
RB: Stop asking the hard questions! Hahaha. Seriously though, not even sure where to begin…so many favorites for so many different reasons.
If you’re asking about my novels I’d probably have to go with the Dark Age Era Heretic’s Faith. I was able to invent and explore a whole faction sub-culture there, as well as delving into different types of story telling techniques (such as a re-verse flashback sequence) that really pushed my skills.
As for the board game…I’d probably have to say Total Warfare, the current core rulebook (and by extension the entire core line of rulebooks for the board game). They were actually incredibly intimidating to tackle. While the core of BattleMech combat mechanics remain as they always have, I changed more in the core rules than every previous line developer combined. Not to mention completely changing the presentation of the physical books to color and hardback, mixing in heavy doses of fiction, folding in aerospace units, and more.
It was a huge undertaking and the book’s not perfect by any stretch. But a good chunk of the renewed interest in playing BattleTech that Catalyst Game Labs has revitalized these last few years can potentially be laid at the feet of that new core rulebook line, and stands as one of my proudest professional achievements.
MWO: Is there any part of one of the books you’d love to see re-enacted in MechWarrior Online?
RB: Two things immediately pop to mind.
1. Orbital insertions. Being on a DropShip and then getting inside the ’Mech, which is then cocooned and dropped into an orbital insertion. You’re totally blind as the ablative cocoon heats up around you and then suddenly it explodes away from you and you’re plummeting towards the ground, aerospace fighters attacking you as they streak by, as the boiling conflict below leaps towards you at terminal velocity and you’ve got to use your jump jets just right to survive touch down and instantly launch into a battle where the enemy’s got the upper hand… That’s a level of action and immersion that would take MechWarrior Online to a whole new level.
2. Physical attacks. Yes, even in the fiction and board games they’re not as effective as weapons fire. But there’s a visceral feel to punching a BattleMech, or chopping at one with a hatchet, or charging/Death From Above that’s just awesome when you land it. It shouldn’t work very well and be hard to pull off…but when you do pull it off it should be a move everyone in the game talks about for some time to come.
MWO: How many of the MechWarrior Video games have you worked on?
RB: I’ve had various levels of involvement with, if I remember correctly, half a dozen different BattleTech computer games of various types (including those I’m working on now).
MWO: Which MechWarrior Video game has been your favourite so far?
RB: That’s a hard question to answer. To this day I think the ability to roam across dozens of planets and negotiate your own contracts found in the original MechWarrior was wonderfully immersive and gave players a feeling of control of their experience that was more RPG than FPS.
At the same time being able to re-experience the epic-story telling of the Clan Invasion through MechWarrior 2 (and the various expansion packs) was awesome.
And of course MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries and its Solaris VII fighting was beyond a blast.
mmm…if push comes to shove, however, I think I’d have to go ahead and say MechWarrior 2. The epic nature of the experience and storytelling (even if the gaming experience itself was better in other iterations) rates it at the top for me.
MWO: If you had to pick the ‘greatest MechWarrior’ of all time, who would it be?
RB: mmm…I know this is likely going to spark discussion, but I think I have to go with Kai Allard-Liao.
The scene in Michael Stackpole’s Lost Destiny: Blood of Kerensky Volume 3 novel, where Kai is on Alyina and the Jade Falcon Elemental Malthus finds out who Kai really is—Malthus has been hunting him under a different name—and he and his fellow Elementals start laughing at themselves that they should’ve sent an entire Star (25) of Elementals against Kai…that scene remains one of my all time favorites, and is a wonderful end cap to the progression of Kai, showcasing how freakishly dangerous he is in a ’Mech.
MWO: What BattleTech rules do you think haven’t been translated well to Video games? Which have been translated well?
RB: I don’t think missile weapons and jumping have ever been done as well as they should to reflect the reality of the BattleTech universe.
In previous games a big assault ’Mech with nothing but long-range missiles could be one of the most powerful units in the game. LRMs absolutely have their place, but the lock, fire and forget vibe of previous games introduced an element that’s very rare in BattleTech. It should be the skill of the pilot, not of the BattleMech and its computers that makes the difference.
As for jump jets, some of the games were terrible at it, turning jump-capable ’Mechs into hover-BattleMechs. Others have been better, but I still don’t think they really captured the ferocity of a 70-ton BattleMech hurtling through the air in a harsh ballistic arc. There should almost be a growl sound as that 70-ton BattleMech hammers up over a hill and down into the ground, unleashing weapons right in your face.
As for things done right, the latest iterations of the game I thought did damage really well. Especially as a BattleMech starts on fire and then belches smoke, the way it limps and stagers as actuators are destroyed, and so on. That’s a great, visceral feel to watch as your opponent degrades in front of you as you continue to savage him.
MWO: Is there any part of MechWarrior you’d love to just take straight out of canon?
RB: I’ve said many times over the years that if I’d been there the game mechanics of the Clan weaponry would be very different. It’s not just how powerful those weapons are, but that it seemed from the get go to violate the story aesthetics as presented.
Here were these great, in-your-face warriors and yet they had weapons that allowed a player, in game to simply walk backwards and fire at crazy distances to down your enemy. When we introduced the Clan Heavy Lasers years ago those were more along the lines of what I thought the Clans should’ve had all along…really dangerous and powerful weapons, but shortish range, where the Clanner would be in his element, able to take down 3 and 4 enemy BattleMechs in a whirling dervish of expert maneuvering and markmanship.
MWO: BattleTech has a large cast of strong female characters. What is it about BattleTech/MechWarrior that allows it to highlight women so effectively?
RB: Well right out of the gate there’s an issue of BattleMechs and how much they equalize the playing field. If you're a great pilot your nationality, or your ethnicity, or your gender doesn’t matter…you’re still gonna kick butt and take salvage.
I think it’s also a matter of how, from the very start, most female characters have been portrayed by a variety of authors. Instead of the damsel-in-distress syndrome of far too many game universes, from the get-go BattleTech chose molds such as Elizabeth (The Virgin Queen), or using an example from other fiction, Sarah Conner from Terminator 2.
In other words, women in BattleTech can be just as Machiavellian and politically potent as any male counter-part, while they can be just as ruthless and physically capable. The scene of Sarah doing chin-ups in her cell when you first see her in T2 when the Dr. shows up, and she turns around with ‘that’ look in her eye and says: “Good morning Dr. Silverman…how’s the knee.” Memorable, powerful…literally forces you to take a mental step backwards in your seat the first time you see it…a heroine you know is going to savage you on any battlefield if you get on her bad side. I always imagined Natasha Kerensky was very much in that mold right there.
MWO: Which part of MechWarrior Online are you most excited about?
RB: Beyond blowing crap up…ahahah.
Actually the thing that has me most excited is the chance to see all types of BattleMechs have a place on the battlefield. While I’ve enjoyed many of the computer games over the years, almost all of them were either a race to the assault BattleMechs, or a race to some of the most powerful weapons (uummmLRMsuumm).
To know that I can jump in a light ’Mech and do exactly what you can pull off in the board game (and just as important, what the fiction depicts for the universe) with a true melding of multiple tactics to achieve victory …that’ll be a truly spectacular geek-out moment to experience.
MWO: Do you have a big timeline bible? A lot happens in the BattleTech universe, how much do you have memorized?
RB: Hahah…first, yes. Very big ones. The way in which Catalyst Game Labs told the story of the Jihad over the last six years was pretty unusual from previous story arcs such as the Clan Invasion or Fourth Succession War and so it necessitated keeping very good track of a living timeline. Back in 2004 before we launched the Jihad, Herb (the current BattleTech Line Developer) and I put together a 10,000 word timeline/proposal for how we’d be handling just the first sourcebook. Six years and a dozen sourcebooks and hundreds of stories latter that master timeline document that stretches in-universe from a few years before the Jihad (and the seeds that were sown for various events) up through the Dark Age era clocks in at a staggering 115,000 words.
As for what I remember, honestly, I don’t have memorized nearly what I used to. When FASA first hired me back in 1996 I had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the most crazy minutia within the universe; a consequence of my gaming group loving to try and stump each other in trivia across the gaming table. So in many ways the instant and correct knowledge on my tongue is less than it was…but I do almost always know exactly where I need to go hunting to find a piece of minutia if I can’t remember. (Not to mention if push comes to shove I toss out a quick request to our fantastic fact-checking volunteer apparatus…great, great, bunch of people that help ensure continuity quality for Catalyst books.)
MWO: What House would you pledge allegiance too, or are you a Mercenary?
RB: House Kurita. Something about the honorable samurai standing against a horde of enemies—even when his master’s betrayed him—that has always captured my imagination. Not to mention Heir to the Dragon remains one of my all-time favorite BattleTech novels, so I’m sure that colored my perception right at the start of my BattleTech experiences.
MWO: Do you have a favourite Mercenary faction?
RB: Northwind Highlanders. While I'm a proverbial “mutt” so far as I’ve blood from a pile of nationalities, one of the biggest contributors is Scottish…particularly the Campbell name. Due to that connection I’ve technically the right to where the black watch tartan. So not only does that already give me an affinity towards all things Scottish, but the death of the Black Watch during the fall of the Star League is one of my all time favorite stories of the BattleTech universe.
Then I was given the chance to write the Northwind Highlanders scenario pack my first year at FASA…the very first cover credit I ever received. That type of emotional/professional connection will always leave them my favorites.
MWO: Which is your favourite ’Mech and Why?
RB: Ahhaha…15 years at this job and I still get asked that question often. It’s almost impossible to answer, though. I’ve got favorite ’Mechs I’ve played, favorite ’Mechs I’ve designed, favorite ’Mechs for how they look…but if push comes to shove, similar to the “emotional connections” to Northwind Highlanders above, I think I’d have to go with the Banshee 3S. Here’s the path to why it became my favourite (sorry for the length, but it’s a fun story I hope the community enjoys reading):
In the original Technical Readout: 3025 BNC-3E Banshee write-up it discussed the fact that House Steiner had begun experimenting with a “S” variant of the 3E.
Enter BattleTechnology, a magazine published in the late 80s and early 90s as a companion to BattleTech. What made the magazine so compelling is that the entire thing (from fiction, to ads, to scenarios) was presented as though it were a magazine published from within the universe. It provided a level of immersion I’d never experienced with a gaming magazine.
In issue 0202 there was a full TRO write-up for the BNC-3S, which expanded upon the details of Technical Readout: 3025, covering its development and field testing, including discussing that a 3S was destroyed during a raid on La Grave in 3027. It was one of my first views of how you could add a whole pile of new, cool material within the lines of what’s already been published without upsetting any continuity.
The next BattleTechnology issue was covering the start of the Fourth Succession War (Michael Stackpole’s Warrior trilogy that began that story arc had just published), and the editor asked the fans to write in with a “where were you when the Fourth War began?” Again, this was an “in universe” perspective, so the write-ups had to be as though you were a MechWarior in the universe.
I’d fallen in love with what a monster the 3S could be on the gaming table. Then, having seen that BattleTechnology example on how you can write new material within the confines of existing material, I wrote up a letter to mail. On how I was part of a merc unit with a blood feud against House Steiner in the employ of the Draconis Combine and were part of the force that struck the La Grave system in ‘27 and were directly involved in the attack on that 3S. Since the snakes would never give salvage rights to a merc unit at the time, the merc unit did some obfuscation and managed to hide the salvage on their DropShip and get off planet with it. By the time of the start of the Fourth War a year later, the merc unit had managed to patch it back together and could ram the Lyran’s own 95-ton unit down their own throat.
In other words, I plugged all those details into existing continuity without upsetting any core issues…and took my first step down the path of the job of any writer/developer in an on-going, shared universe.
That little letter was actually published in BattleTechnology Issue #9. In fact I was at a local gaming convention called Hex-a-Con in AZ when I picked up that issue in the dealer’s room, walking the floor, and I stopped dead as I realized my letter had been published. The writing is terrible and it’s only a few paragraphs long…but my dream of being a writer and working on BattleTech were ignited on that day…thus leaving the 3S as my all time favourite design.
MWO: Which ’Mech redesign is your favourite so far? Are there any ’Mechs you really want to see redone?
RB: I really love the Hunchback. One of the things I love about Alex work (and why Catalyst Game Labs has used him many times for the board game) is that often he manages to capture the essence of what a particular BattleMech looks like and conveys that in a new and exciting way that makes you take a double-take on a design you’ve been seeing for more than twenty years.
Despite the subtle changes he’s made, the Hunchback “screams” Hunchback in a way that immediately makes we want to grab some dice…er…until MechWarrior Online is out, then it’ll be a joystick of course…
As for which I’d like to see a new version of…well, considering my emotional connection to the 3S…would love to see Alex’ take on a Banshee.
MWO: If you were a MechWarrior, what would your focus be? Scout? Brawler? LRM-Camper?
RB: Despite initially loving assault ’Mechs (as noted above), I prefer what I call “knife-fighters”. Designs that are exceedingly maneuverable with a small but finely-tuned set of weapons and I can bounce in and round the enemy units on the knife’s edge: death to the enemy by a thousand paper-cuts…but if I’m not patient and careful only a few good hits will take me down.
My current favourite for that is a variant I was lucky enough to design: PXH-7k Phoenix Hawk (the record sheet is found in the Record Sheets: 3085 Unabridged — Project Phoenix pdf). With its jump of 9 and Snub-nose PPC, along with enough armor to help you past a few mistakes…it’s almost the perfect knife fighter.
Now don’t get me wrong…walking a Clan Hellstar onto the field and unloading four Clan ER PPCs into an enemy that literally tears a medium ’Mech in half has its own visceral fun. But I love the skill of the knife fight…as well as the frustration on my opponent’s face that I keep him bleeding while he can hardly touch me.
MWO: How big a role does electronics gear (C3, ECM, Active Probes, etc) play in the BattleTech Universe?
RB: In the Succession War Eras, not much. But from the time of the Clan Invasion on it’s played a huge role. In fact the entire way in which the Clan Invasion was ultimately halted was presented from ComStar’s extensive training in combined-arms tactics, which including electronic warfare. And that aspect has only grown.
Personally I really enjoy playing such electronic warfare out on the gaming table. Conveys a fantastic level of immersion for my games.
MWO: Does the community ever surprise you with how well it knows the BattleTech universe?
RB: I shouldn’t be surprised at this point. But every once in a while they can still surprised me on that front.
Course I love how in-depth their knowledge is across the universe, because I know it comes from that same love and respect for the universe that I have.
In fact, it’s that very knowledge and love that we’ve harnessed over the last decade to create several volunteer fact-checking groups; great, dedicated fans that love to see the universe and game always growing and improving. Their in-put and support has made all the BattleTech books published by Catalyst Game Labs that much better.