Developer Interview 4: Omid Kiarostami, Thad Jantzi, Kevin Meek

by InnerSphereNews in [ Developer Interviews ] on, Feb 8, 2012 10:00 AM UTC 66  comments

MechWarrior® Online™: Can you give us a brief biography on each of you?

[Omid] I’ve been working in the games industry as a Software Engineer since 2006. My last game before joining Piranha was EA’s NBA Jam remake (you could say I have some experience working on old, venerable IPs). I’m also a huge MechWarrior fan, so even if I wasn't on this project I'd still be lurking on the forums and listening to "No Guts No Galaxy" with the rest of you.

[Thad] I’ve been in the games industry as a level designer since 2005. I originally got started in level design making maps at home for Jedi Knight and Rainbow Six 3. Since coming to Piranha I’ve worked on all manner of different games and genres including first person shooter, third person shooter, open world racing, track based racing, giant robots stomping around and now MechWarrior.

[Kevin] I graduated with my Bachelor's of Fine Arts degree in New Media in 2008 and have been employed at Piranha Games ever since. I’ve always had a strong technical background mixed with my love for architecture & video games, so the career choice was a no brainer. During my time at PGI I have filled multiple roles in the art department including: Environment Artist, World Artist, Particle Effects Artist, UI & Front End Artist, as well as Technical Artist.


MWO: What do you personally add to MechWarrior Online development?

[Omid] I’m responsible for making sure everyone on the gameplay team has a feature or system they are working on. I get to keep an eye on the big picture as it all comes together, while also getting my hands dirty writing code and tuning the game. Right now I'm focused on the experience of piloting a 'Mech and how it plays out on the battlefield.

A lot of my work comes down to creating these data-driven gameplay systems so guys like David or Paul have sliders they can push around.

[Thad] I’ve been a great fan of MechWarrior for a very long time. I remember playing BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception when I was in the 7th grade, and all the MechWarrior games since. So, in addition to years of experience designing and building environments for all different types of games, I have a general passion for sci-fi combat simulations and for the MechWarrior franchise in particular.

[Kevin] During the development of MWO I am doing my best at filling a few key roles. We’re a fairly lean art team so my ability to bounce from one discipline to the other is definitely a strength. In addition to my environment art and content creation tasks, I’m relied upon to firefight any content related problems, create new art pipelines, and R and D and then distribute any new processes or software to the team.


MWO: What’s your favourite part of the day working on MechWarrior Online?

[Omid] Definitely bringing Alex's concepts to life. There's something magical about taking these mean looking war machines and breathing weight and power and motion into them. Just watching what our team puts together is the best.

[Thad] My favourite part of the day is when I download a new build and find new and exciting things have been added, like the ’Mech has new weapons, or a new HUD, or the animations are cooler, or the explosions are cooler, or the ’Mech falls down or whatever. I get to stare at the stuff I’m working on all day long, but the real excitement is when I get to experience for the first time the fantastic things that everyone else is working on.

[Kevin] We’re in an awesome part of the development cycle right now where many of our initial features & goals are starting to wrap up and come together. There is a special feeling a few hours into your day when you realize the last problem you were trying to fix is actually staying fixed, or this feature you were working on a few weeks ago is starting to be fully implemented and is looking great.

Right now, when it is a few hours into the day, and no new insane issue has popped up, and everyone is working along smoothly, and I will probably be allowed to just focus on making something look as good as possible for the next MechWarrior game… that’s a great moment.


MWO: What was it like being told your next project was MechWarrior Online?

[Omid] It was awesome. I originally approached Piranha because they had the rights to MechWarrior. At the time no publishing agreement was likely, and the reality of a new ‘Mech game was just a twinkle in Russ Bullocks eye. But I knew that if there was even this slight, slight chance, I wanted to be a part of it.

So then comes the day when Bryan and Russ gather the team together and say: We’re doing this. We’re making MechWarrior. There’s this moment of “Awesome!” and “Heck yeah!” and a lot of celebration. And then there’s this moment the next morning when you wake up and realize… you’re making the next MechWarrior game: You’d better get it right.

[Thad] It was extremely exciting to finally get to work on this game. Not only had our company been working really hard to make this project happen for a very long time, but it’s also, from a personal perspective, the game franchise on which I most want to work.

[Kevin] It was a really exciting companywide meeting. We were deep in the grind of DLC for Duke Nuke Forever multiplayer and were all looking forward to whatever project was coming next. Keep in mind that we all thought that MechWarrior was benched somewhere to try again later so it was a pleasant surprise. It only took a few minutes of chatting with Russ and Bryan to really get behind their vision for what MechWarrior Online could be, and the MechWarrior universe has been fitting very nicely within their free to play strategy.


MWO: How does the ‘Role Warfare’ aspect of MechWarrior Online affect what you do?

[Omid] It has a huge impact, “Role Warfare” describes what everyone on our gameplay team is working towards. For one, it means each class of 'Mech needs its own feel and strengths. Controls are an extremely important part of that; they need to be intuitive while still retaining the "Sim" feel of piloting this huge monster of a machine. One of our first steps was to identify what aspects of movement we could vary to give the different classes of 'Mechs their own personality, while preserving that sense of piloting a Battle Mech.

Beyond that though, a key part of Role Warfare is about creating purpose for the various roles. Information Warfare is a big part of that, and it's really exciting to take MechWarrior beyond circle-strafing slugfests: When losing sight of your enemy can mean getting blindsided at the worst possible moment, the game becomes about more than just following the little red targeting triangle on your screen. This has definitely been the most discovery-inducing aspect so far.

[Thad] When we designed the original concepts for the levels we took great care to ensure that the environments we conceived were varied enough that they could accommodate all classes of ’Mech and styles of gameplay. It’s our job to make sure that no matter which ’Mech you are piloting, you will have the opportunity to be a decisive figure in winning the battle for your team.

[Kevin] Role Warfare is a big-deal pillar to MWO to me, and I have always been drawn toward team based, role based games where an organized team playing to their roles will always beat out a collection of good singular players.

As a technical artist it falls on me to work directly with the engineers to figure out how we can best accomplish whatever cool new feature Paul, Bryan, and David have just sprung on us / promised to you guys. The R&D phase of any new feature always extremely fun and challenging. The "problem solving" part of my brain is used most during R&D and bug fixing, needless to say the R&D phase is infinitely more fun. After we figure out "how can we possibly do this?" it is always about maintaining a proper balance between 'awesomeness of feature' and cost of implementation'.

Almost every vision mode adds a layer of complexity to the environment artists during asset creation, requires level design & code support, and requires additional HUD and post FX to really sell it. Giving buildings a proper heat signature for infrared vision is important, but where do we draw the line between creating accurate internal heat signatures and only having time to create a handful of buildings for the entire level? Being able to see through objects with the Magnetometer is awesome, but how do we stop players from seeing through all the blockers in a huge level and having their frame rate drop through the floor?


MWO: Do past MechWarrior games influence what you do?

[Omid] Absolutely. The previous MechWarrior games are our starting point, we're standing on their shoulders.

[Thad] The level that I’m primarily working on is unlike any environment I’ve seen in past MechWarrior games. It was also specifically designed to be unlike any environment I’ve seen in past MechWarrior games. So, yes.

[Kevin] The art team at PGI are constantly influenced by, and learn from, an extremely wide variety of games. We have a ton of huge MechWarrior fans on the team, and some of our best contacts at Crytek are the guys who worked on the MechWarrior Living Legends mod. It is quite common to walk past the art and level design desks and see an old MechWarrior game booted up on someone's computer to figure out how "MechWarrior ___" did it. We are often additionally influenced by the forums if there is a huge demand for how a past MechWarrior game accomplished whatever we are currently working on. We'll boot it up, check it out, and if we are inspired too then that is probably a good guiding direction for our initial implementation of the feature.


MWO: Do you have a favourite MechWarrior game?

[Omid] This is a tough question. I loved the original MechWarrior because it was my first entry into the universe, so it’ll always hold a soft spot for me. I also admire the way MechWarrior 3 captured the sense of actually piloting a 'Mech within the cockpit. But if I had to pick a favorite, I’d say MechWarrior 2. It was the single greatest improvement in the series.

[Thad] Yes. MechWarrior 3.

[Kevin] I haven't had much experience with MechWarrior games. When I was extremely young I used to play a ‘Mech game on my Dads Tandy1000, where I would basically just walk around this maze until I ran into another ‘Mech, and get destroyed. My Googling skills are failing me right now (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just a reoccurring childhood dream), but needless to say I had no idea what I was doing, would die on my first interaction with anyone, but I still had a great time walking around trying to avoid "the bad guys".


MWO: Does MechWarrior Online offer challenges that other games you’ve worked on haven’t?

[Omid] Yeah, nailing down the difference between Lights, Mediums, Heavys and Assaults is tricky. They need to be different from each other while still remaining useful in their own right. Role Warfare is both the challenge and solution to that core problem.

[Thad] It certainly brings more pressure, for two reasons. Firstly it comes with a fan base which is very passionate and very particular about what they want, so it’s incumbent upon us not only to build the best possible game, but to build the best possible MechWarrior game, which means the bar is set very high and it’s going to be measured against some of the best military sims of the past two decades.

Secondly, because of the free-to-play model, it is absolutely imperative that we craft a compelling gameplay experience that will keep people engaged and keep people playing the game. It isn’t enough to build levels that are fun for the player to blast through once in a single player campaign – we need to build levels that are interesting enough and fun enough to that the player wants to return to again and again.

[Kevin] The levels in MechWarrior Online are huge, and I mean multiple kilometres huge. Since day one our goal has been to offer a premium free to play experience, and on the art side that means that we need to have densely populated levels, current gen realistic graphics, and as many bells and whistles as we can throw at it. The entire team is pulling out every trick in the book to achieve a high art quality bar while maintaining performance numbers for a large scale multiplayer game.

Another interesting challenge has been creating a proper sense of scale within the levels. We need a lot of large objects in order to act as view blockers, but if too many things are large then the BattleMechs quickly look like toys. To counteract this, the levels need a large number of easily recognizable small scale objects for our minds to compare scale. On some levels with a ton of manmade objects like a city, this is relatively easy. However, forcing scale in levels with very few manmade objects can be difficult. Rocks and trees can be any scale, so it comes down to adding the right variety of objects and paying attention to each scene as a whole. Ultimately we should be able to take a screenshot of any scene in the level and accurately feel scale - this is easier said than done, but after a few months I think we are getting a pretty good handle on it.


MWO: Is there a ‘Mech you’d love to work on specifically?

[Omid] I both love and dread the thought of bringing the first Clan 'Mech into the game. The Inner Sphere 'Mechs of 3048 are a really rich palette to start with. And as someone who thinks carefully about controls and mechanics and balance, there's a lot to work with there. So even though I care about balance and how different 'Mechs from different classes interact, when the Clans arrive in our timeline... a part of me really wants to bring over that first Clan 'Mech in all its unbalanced, overwhelming glory. I want to say “To hell with balance, things weren't fair: This is the way it happened.” I really look forward to how we're going to tackle that.

So basically I want to create this fun, tactical, balanced game... just so we can thrash it all in a years time with an epic invasion.

[Kevin] My favourite BattleMechs are the ones that don't look extremely humanoid, and to me you can't get much more iconic than the Timber Wolf. Sadly the clans are many years off in the timeline [Ed: About 6 months actually, but who’s counting?], and our actual 'Mech Artists are pumping out absolutely stunning work - so the chances me being able to model it are slim to none.


MWO: If you had to pick a role (Assault, Command, Defense, Scout) which would it be and why?

[Omid] ALL OF THEM! Would you really ask a parent to pick a favorite child? Okay, okay Garth, don't hurt me. Right now I'd take Assault and charge in guns blazing. I enjoy blasting Paul's Hunchback too much.

[Thad] Scout so I can run away fast and hide from the good players.

[Kevin] That’s very difficult, but if I had to choose one I guess I’m frequently drawn to the speed and maneuverability of good Scout class Mechs. I like being able to tilt the scales of the battle in more subtle ways (with good communication about enemy component states, and having enemies on my radar long before I am on theirs). My play style as a scout takes a lot of inspiration from my TF2 Scout strategy.

In my mind, an ideal battle as a scout would play out like this:

I use my speed and smart use of my jumpjets to get into the battle before anyone expects me, get a few shots off, get half their team chasing me hoping for a cheap kill just in time for the rest of my team to catch up and roll over their now separated lines. I use my jumpjets and to escape to safety, relay information back to my team, and take sniper shots at my enemies most damaged components, crippling some, killing a few, and pissing off everyone else. It all works in theory, although I would probably take an auto-cannon to the face before any of that actually plays out.


MWO: What makes MechWarrior Online unique?

[Omid] I've never worked on a project where we've been in such close touch with the community from the beginning - as a developer, it’s a really cool experience to actively create a feature while the fans are being introduced to it. And as a fan, it's awesome to see how the community can get involved and influence development.

[Thad] I think MechWarrior Online is going to be the first MechWarrior game where the different classes of ’Mech really mean something on the battlefield instead of being transitory steps to pass through on your way to piloting the big shit kicker. There will be specific and very legitimate advantages to piloting each and every ’Mech in this game, and because of that the battles will have a great deal more character than multi-player MechWarrior battles from the past.

[Kevin] In my opinion there is still a lot of room for improvement in what free-to-play means. It is up to us as developers to deliver a solid core game, ensuring that paying players have no unfair advantages while creating incentives for people to actually pay, while fostering a culture where it is actually perfectly fine for someone to not pay a cent yet play the game for years. I have a lot of hopes for MWO to be able to really push this entire “premium” free-to-play market to somewhere really positive.


MWO: Are the different roles in your mind whenever you’re working or something?

[Omid] Definitely, the roles are a roadmap for determining our day to day tasks. Everything from the controls to InfoTech to game modes are being built to give each role a functional purpose on the battlefield.

[Thad] Our levels are conceived and built from the ground up to be environments where all classes of ’Mech will have the opportunity to excel in battle and to play their role. We’re at a stage now where we’re putting a lot of detail and effort into each individual area of each map and so role warfare isn’t always the first thing on my mind any more. But every time I fire up the maps and start stomping around in different ’Mechs, it becomes very clear, once again, that these maps are going to play very differently depending on which ’Mech you are piloting.

[Kevin] Really pushing the importance of Role Warfare is definitely a team wide & constant endeavor. There are many times when best new feature or unseen perk to a certain role are just stumbled upon during development of something seemingly unrelated. Interesting effects, cool areas in the levels, or new assets often add unforeseen levels of interest to different roles. The whole thing is quite fluid, the designers are always open to new ideas.


MWO: Has there been any aspect of the game that has surprised you so far?

[Omid] Yeah, the first time I came up on an enemy unaware, and the first time I lost track of an opponent - radar, targeting, everything - was an eye opener. You can't just rely on your instruments to tell you what's up, you need to use your eyes. Having friends around is important because they can watch your back. Even traveling through an area is different when you have no information. You're proceeding more cautiously, deploying sensors, hoping to see your enemy without them seeing you.

[Thad] Yes. I have been surprised by how many Thaddeuses there are in BattleTech canon. [Ed: Half of House Marik seems to be named Thaddeus]

[Kevin] Some ‘Mechs are incredibly fast, and some trudge along. Some ‘Mechs are insanely tall, while some are fairly low to the ground. We knew where a lot of our challenges were going to be heading into development but even I underestimated the repercussions of having such a dynamic variety of players. How big our level designers would actually have to make the maps to be fun for a Jenner running around at more than 100 km/h (and then we have to somehow fill that with a lot of high quality art that runs well on low spec machines, doesn’t tile from 20 meters high, and doesn’t take a year for you to download in the first place). Everything affects everything, and having such a wide variety of players definitely doesn’t simplify game development.


MWO: How is the level design different in this game from past games you’ve worked on?

[Thad] The main thing is sheer size. These ’Mechs are big and you can cover a lot of distance in a short time, which means our levels have to be BIG. The amount of work that needs to go into them is staggering.


MWO: How would you describe the art style of the project?

[Omid] All I know is that things look badass and I like it.

[Kevin] MechWarrior Online is sitting in this neat dirty sci-fi realistic art style that I really like. More Star-Wars or 2000’s Battle Star Galactica than Star Trek by a long shot. However, the Mech concept art style that Alex has been doing is definitely inspiring our final products, which I think is a big positive. Our architectural style is best described as ‘Brutalist Modernist Sci-Fi’, and makes for some really imposing, raw, angular, dominating structures. With pure Brutalism [it] is really easy to accidentally make “ugly 70’s,” or “soviet bloc” style buildings, so the Modernist + Sci Fi was an important addition.


MWO: How is making a Free 2 Play game different from a ‘normal’ game, Engineering-wise?

[Omid] There’s this one awesome difference from your typical boxed product: We can continue developing the game after it releases. Technically that means we need to get the game up and stable in its simplest viable form, before we get to add more features and content in a live environment.

It’s exciting because not only does the community get to experience the game much sooner than normal, the model allows us to continue working on it past the point most games would stop, ship, and move on. As a MechWarrior fan, that means this game has the potential to be the biggest, broadest entry into the series to date. It’ll be a fun ride and I look forward to going through it with you guys soon!


Stay tuned next week when we answer Q&A questions! Thanks for reading :)


I Make Ai Music Based On Battletech.
Jun 24, 2024 10:46 PM UTC

Watch The Mechwarrior 5: Clans Release Date Trailer Now!
Jun 24, 2024 7:01 PM UTC

Patch Notes - - 18-June-2024
Jun 24, 2024 12:04 AM UTC

June - July 2 Free Mechs And Faction Play Event
Jun 23, 2024 8:06 PM UTC

Ferroblast And Behemoth 2 New Legends
Jun 23, 2024 7:50 PM UTC

Platinum And Gold Sale
Jun 23, 2024 4:35 AM UTC

Platinum And Gold Sale
Jun 21, 2024 6:57 PM UTC