When Harebrained Schemes launched Kickstarter campaigns for two turn-based strategy games based on Jordan Weisman's fantasy world of Shadowrun, the company raised more than $3 million.
Today Harebrained turns toward another Weisman franchise, BattleTech, with a new Kickstarter campaign that aims to raise $250,000. Weisman is CEO of Harebrained. Once again, the company is looking to tell a big sci-fi story through turn-based combat mechanics. BattleTech's focus is on post-apocalyptic giant mechs, while Shadowrun tells the stories of fantasy characters in a cyberpunk dystopia.
Weisman wrote BattleTech back in the 1980s, when he was running his own role-playing game company, called FASA. Originally a board game, BattleTech then spawned role-playing world MechWarrior as well as dozens of books, card games and, of course, video games. Currently, Piranha Games runs MechWarrior Online, a successful first-person online shooter. Video game rights for BattleTech are owned by Microsoft.
So what's this new game, due to be released on PC in 2017, all about?
"It's a turn-based tactical combat game in which you'll be commanding a lance, which in BattleTech parlance is a squad of four mechs," says Weisman. "Those mechs are modeled from a systems standpoint in very high detail. The [human] MechWarriors who pilot those mechs have very deep skill trees you'll be managing. The turn-based nature of it allows us to get into the nitty-gritty of managing giant robots and all the systems in them, giving you the tactical feedback to do awesome stuff with all their firepower."
"One of the things that I love is the grounding of it," says Studio Manager Mitch Gitelman, "We're grounding BattleTech, so it doesn't just feel like this goofy sci-fi future. It's a logical extension of how people would behave and how people might live. You can ask, what if giant robots were real? What would happen and how would people behave?"
"What if giant robots were real?"
Turn-based strategy games, such as XCOM and Shadowrun Returns task players with efficient movement, positioning and firing of units. Use of cover is generally an essential element in keeping units alive. However, the use of giant machines means that cover is a far less important tactical device in this game.
"A lot of other turn-based games, like our Shadowrun series, are very cover-focused," says co-director Mike McCain. "But mechs stomp on cover. They don't hide behind it. Philosophically our goal is to take the same approach to BattleTech as we did with Shadowrun, which is to adopt the spirit of the source material experience, but not the literal rule set."
Necessarily, all BattleTech games need to demonstrate scale. Mechs are larger than life. They tower above their surroundings. Thus, hiding behind crumbling walls or neatly placed trucks is not really an option. Also, in a top-down isometric view, it can be difficult to impress the player with large objects.
"One of the key things in art directing any BattleTech game is to constantly reinforce the scale of the mechs," says Weisman. "We have this top down-ish perspective. It can be hard to reinforce the scale of the mechs when you're in that perspective. But I'm excited about some of the things Mike and the team have been doing in pre-production that still manage to demonstrate the size and strength of the mechs."
Some of these tricks have been picked up over the years. This is largely the same team that made MechCommander, a successful late 1990s real-time strategy game, and its experiences remain relevant.
"We want to make everything feel like it has a sense of grandeur."
"The way the mechs move — they're very slow and deliberate and stately — gives you get a sense of their size," says McCain. "The camera shakes. There are particulates in their wake. Little cracks appear in the ground, or trees fall over. We want to evoke as much atmosphere and implied detail in the world as we can, to make everything feel like it has a sense of grandeur."
So, if cover isn't available, what else will aid the player in defeating enemy squads?
It's the amount of customizability in the mechs themselves," answers Weisman. "You can get in and tweak the mechs. Historically, in a lot of previous games, you could get in and play with weapon loadout and armor. We're going to do that as well, but we also have aspirations to let you get in even deeper and mess with some of the internal components of the mechs, changing their performance.
"We want to make a pool that's as deep as you want it to be. The mechs can be tweaked to fill different roles. There's also skill trees for the MechWarriors. You can guide them in their careers, specialize them in different mech chassis, weapons systems and maneuvers. You have these multiple tiers. A MechWarrior is being trained to operate the customized mech you created, and then that operates effectively within a lance of four mechs that you command to turn the combination of their abilities into a kind of one-plus-one-equals-three scenario."
According to Weisman, this game is going back to an early time in the BattleTech fictional timeline. This is a period of inter-factional violence. Players take advantage of schisms for their own ends.
"We wanted to set it there because we'd like to make a game in which the player is the head of their own mercenary unit," says Weisman. "At this point in the timeline, mercenary companies are at the forefront of feudal politics, as the noble houses engage them to mess with each other. It gives the player a lot of agency to declare their loyalties or work for a variety of different houses against each other."
As in Shadowrun Returns, story and character will play a big part in the game.
"That's one of the reasons BattleTech and MechWarrior have persisted for 32 years," says Weisman. "You can only maintain interest in big chunks of metal for so long. It's human hearts and egos inside of them that can really maintain people's enthusiasm. It's a very rich storytelling environment.
"The key thing for us is that we want to deliver an authentic BattleTech experience. Something that brings not only the tactical components of the mechs to life, but also the world of BattleTech. We want to make sure we're bringing something that's true, but is also accessible to new audiences."