Interview with PGI President Russ Bullock

"I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that trial mechs are no good.." "So I think for the most part people playing in trial mechs are not at a disadvantage.."I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that falling down leads to injury. Free fall is completely harmless for the human body. The actual trauma comes from contact with the ground.
I might have disagreed with you on a different point, but not this one. Trial mechs nearly drove off a friend I was trying to play MWO with. Something to make those first few hours of driving a poorly equipped, poorly configured mech less painful would be the second best thing for helping to draw new players into the game (the first would be some form of tutorial to explain the different elements, I walked him through those myself).
I agree, trial mechs aren't bad in a vacuum, but they are absolutely wretched when actually trying to use them against other people in customized mechs. And other trial mechs. And generally use them outside of some hypothetical scenario specifically concocted to prove a mech's utility.The biggest issue is that they're 1-1 copies of stock battletech designs, most of which were designed to run at the bleeding edge of the heat scale, a thing which works radically different in MWO.
What they need is a "battle level" system in addition to an ELO system. There is a persistent xp that players gain, so makes sense to match players with similar experience levels (basically similar tech level) together, on top of their ELO rating.New players (optional for experienced players) should have a "stock" matchmaking pool, where they can use trial mechs against other trials, or against those players who wish to use purchased mechs but limited to their stock configuration. Basically a "Stock Rules Mode" for more even matchups and no frustrating gimmicky builds.
"I’m not sure, some of these are getting pretty big, you might even know more than me at the moment just how big some of these groups are getting. But I think some of them are getting I don’t even know, are they up over 100 now?"AhahahaWoL is in a league of its own but my group of Davion fanatics is almost 300 strong now as well. Russ, love what you've done here in general but you need to look around the community more!Personally think it will be an epic fail if there isn't a scalable system in place that doesn't really care how many people you have in an alliance. Shouldn't require the EVE-like system of corps layered with alliances layed with coalitions to be functional.
The most important question to me went unasked. What is PGI doing to fix the numerous bugs in this game? If you play 10 matches, it is almost a guarantee that at some point your client will either not fully load (yellow screen anyone?), will crash part-way into the match, you will get the overheat bug (the overheat screen still shows when you power back up, shutting down and restarting again fixes this usually), the mini-map wont work, or just loading a black screen when the match starts.These are a serious pain in the rear, and my opinion is that fixing these should be a priority over developing new content.
why dont you go more by canon in terms of DHS etc.. but have teams balanced on credits spent on the mechs..
Trial mechs *actually* drove off three friends I wanted to play MWO with. Two were old Mechwarrior fans, one wanted badly to like the game, but…As it stands, these days I'm stuck with PUGging.

Ryan Vincent: Okay. Let’s start with matchmaking.

Russ Bullock: Yes, matchmaking. Wonderful subject. Obviously, extremely important to the game. You know, it’s one of those things where we’d like to have, you know, a perfect matchmaking scenario in place, you know, from the get go but it’s almost a matter of – you almost need to create the community and the players and start to grow a large player base and understand exactly what type of players you have and the way they want to play.

Of course it’s always a challenge on priority lists and [development] bandwidth to get all the features done but we’ve got a three-phase matchmaking plan in place. The first phase is already implemented, which is a small phase of limiting our group sizes to four in regular public matches, so that the general public players don’t get rolled on quite as easily. Obviously there’s a big disparity between the players that are experienced and extremely good at the game and those that are new coming in.

So that came in place, but now matchmaking phase two, which comes out is coming Tuesday, December 4th, we’ll re-introduce the 8 vs 8 full premade groups against each other and that’s something that of course that our core community is really excited for.

Ryan: Yeah, we’ve been seeing a lot of that, especially with the; we’re linked to the Word of Lowtax group. We do a lot of premade groups and that is one of the things that I keep hearing time and time again. In both our circles and more casual groups people are just chomping at the bit to be able to get back into 8-man premades.

The big question that I hear a lot of is “how is this going to be balanced?” Before, I believe, things were balanced by weight class. So if you were light, the other team would get a light. If you have a medium the enemy would get a medium, if you had an assault, you get the idea.

Russ: Yes, in the normal public matches then when you launch it definitely matches up, as you say, it makes sure the other side is an equivalent category BattleMech. Initially out the door for phase two 8 vs 8 premades, there won’t be any restrictions in place. That means you can take any 8 BattleMechs into the match you want and put yours up against anyone else’s. We have a pretty strong suspicion that will probably evolve fairly quickly into a weight limitation so its our hope that game will behave as we ideally wanted.

We hope that it will have well-rounded lances and most of that we’ve tried to reinforce through gameplay so that the scouts have strong roles, that if you want to have scouts in your group, smaller, lighter ‘mechs, medium, etc. but we will probably enhance this 8 vs 8 mode to include a bit of a weight restriction to encourage the lance makeup that we’re seeing. I think people do want that, ultimately, but right out the door it’ll be no restrictions, take any 8 BattleMechs that you want.

Ryan: Some speculation, since you mentioned the ELO matchmaking system earlier in a dev post (or at least a PGI staff member did), is that some kind of BV-like system is going to be implemented with matchmaking. How transparent will the matchmaking parameters be?

Russ: I’m sorry. Are you referring to phase 3, where you actually get into actual battle value and players skill level?

Ryan: Yes

Russ: Okay. Yeah, so I’m not sure if I can answer how transparent it’ll be. I don’t know what they have planned actually for the user interface and actually communicating to the players exactly how we rated them, etc. so I’m not sure if I can answer that very effectively. You are right about phase 3, which we don’t have a specific date for yet, but I don’t think its too far out. It’ll probably be just on the other side of Christmas.

We’ll then go that next level and say “Okay, now we’re gonna start to judge players based on skill rating and match them up that way.” That’ll really benefit a lot of players but especially brand new players of the game that might be playing on trial ‘mechs. Most of the time they should be playing another match, playing against other players who are also in trial ‘mechs and just getting to know MechWarrior Online.

Ryan: Hmm. It seems that trial mechs are definitely at a disadvantage, especially when dropping against premade groups

Russ: Well I think certainly anything has a disadvantage against premade groups. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that trial mechs are no good and you can’t win with a trial mech. We recently had a event where we let you hunt down some of the Piranha staff. And you hear some comments like “oh I bet he won’t hunt down a trial mech cause can’t win it in them.” And Paul, one of our guys quickly went out in a trial ‘mech and ended up with a couple kills and about 3 assists.

For the trial mechs, all they are for the most part is just stock variants and theres a lot of stock variant BattleMechs that are extremely good. So I think for the most part people playing in trial mechs are not at a disadvantage because they’re in stock BattleMechs, they’re at a disadvantage because they’re being put up against extremely advanced and experienced players. So once we get the matchmaker going where we get brand new players are being matched up against other brand new players they’re gonna do fine.

Ryan: I played with the Awesome 8-T. I believe that was one of the trial mechs a few weeks ago. I was surprised that with a little bit of heat management it was surprisingly effective, so that definitely helped change my opinion around trial ‘mechs.

Russ: Yeah I think that’s mostly the case. Certainly there are some that are just more difficult for new users. The trial ‘mechs, remember, fulfil two purposes. New players are actually only one half of it. The other half is that when there's a brand new BattleMech introduced into the game like say the Cataphract, players might want to try before they buy. Right before they spend their C-bills or their MC, so the other purpose is to just be able to trial that ‘mech before you purchase it.

So we’ve got two aspects for having the trial mechs and we’re continuously looking for ways to evolve the new player experience. Obviously, getting new players to come into the game, enjoy the game and keep playing it is incredibly important for the success of a free to play game like MechWarrior Online. Right now I think that’s tough right it’s tough for a new player to come in and get hooked for mostly those reasons we’ve discussed. Right now they’re being matched up against some pretty darn good players


A trial Cataphract posing a serious threat, and posing for a photo opportunity

Ryan: One thing I think doesn’t help much is that communication and coordination seem to be really key in helping players to truly be effective on the battlefield. One of the questions from our original list that had to be shrunk down a bit was on the command interface. What’s in the future for commanders on the battlefield and both the players following the orders? At the moment we have the little icons that hard to see on the display. Will there be any changes to make it more visible or otherwise easier to follow?

Russ: Absolutely. There’s gonna be...Theres a couple things there that’ll help. One of course, communication through VoIP, is the biggest thing. The Battlegrid I’ll talk about that in a minute, and we’re gonna make a lot of improvements to it, but that’ll always be secondary to the communication that happens over VoIP.

The only thing that we provide at the moment built into the game is a light integration with the C3 client so, which automatically sorts players into groups or rooms when they’re grouped together when they’re in the game. So whether you’re using that or teamspeak, that’s the best way to coordinate. We’re gonna continue to make improvements to the integration of VoIP in our product, so I think in the coming months it’ll become much easier. If you’re in a group with someone you’re gonna be able to press a button and automatically talk to each other. That’s the biggest thing.

And then the Battlegrid is gonna go through a round of improvements. I don’t have the specifics of the improvements here to talk with you about today. But certainly you can consider the Battlegrid at the moment to be phase 1. That’s the beautiful thing about a game like MechWarrior Online. You know, a free to play product. We patch the game frequently every week to two weeks and were just constantly looking for ways to make the game better, so there's no doubt that the Battlegrid is gonna go through a lot of improvements.

Ryan: And speaking of improvements, your weekly patches, and how things work into the overall bigger picture. A part of the original road map for the development of MechWarrior Online was the pilot skill tree, which is known today as modules. What prompted the change and what is in the future for modules? For all aspects of being a pilot on MechWarrior Online

Russ: Well I think you’re right, but I think it hasn’t maybe evolved as much as people think. There are still pilot skills, just not a pilot skill tree the way we were originally describing it to people. It did evolve from that a little bit but really the idea of the pilot skill tree was always to allow the player to customise or to direct what type of pilot they wanted to be. So if you wanted to be an extra-good scout, not only would you have your scout mech, mech trees and mech efficiencies maxed out, but on a pilot side you’d start to choose pilot skill points that would guide you more towards being a better scout.

We always talked about that unlocking module slots but it became clear to me that essentially to all of us on the design team that it was really those two things are one in the same in that you can really look at the modules as the specific pilot skills. So if you unlock the special information, targeting information, unlocking system and more relays, that’s choosing to become a better scout. So really in the end it accomplishes the same thing that we always wanted to accomplish, and that was to allow you to specialise in a type of pilot you wanted to be.

Ryan: it seems to me that as well going away from the tree structure allows for a little bit more freedom

Russ: Well I think so and also there is so much flexibility there. I don’t have any new modules to announce today, but suffice to say there will be dozens and dozens of them by the time we’ll just be continuously adding modules to just add depth to the game. So it’ll just be another way that people have all different kinds of builds and combinations of BattleMechs on the field and the number of strategies that’s  gonna come from the battle modules is gonna be pretty intense.

Ryan: Moving on, you mentioned role warfare in your little talk on the modules. One things that’s really changed a bit since the last patch a few days ago was ECM making lights a hell of a light more effective on the field. What can you tell us about equipment as far as roles go? MASC has been teased at some point, Beagle Active Probe is in and we’ve got ECM. What more can we look at for specialising from the equipment side?

Russ: Well at the moment there's not much else I can say about that. All I can really say is we’ve almost as you mentioned we’ve almost got all of the Battletech canon technology in which, in itself is pretty unique. No MechWarrior title in the past has ever had most of these technologies in any real function way whether its Beagle probe, TAG, NARC beacons, ECM. So yeah, ECM is going in very shortly. MASC will come in the game so I’m actually looking forward to finishing those things off. I think they’re great, and I think they had a lot of variety to the game.

That also means that we’ve also got all the basic technology into the game and now we can start to focus on other aspects and putting our engineers into towards other great features. so its all gonna be in there. ECM, MASC, its gonna give a level of MechWarrior that none of us have ever been able to have before.

Ryan: And a huge part of that as well is ‘mechs themselves. The hero ‘mechs have started to come in as well. You’ve had the Yen-Lo-Wang come in which was a Centurion, and there is a Cataphract variant that one of the people in the Giant Robots Newsroom said is actually invented by PGI. What’s in the future for hero ‘mechs and will we be seeing more canonical designs or more ones created for the game?

Russ: I think we’re gonna see both. You’re right, that was created by PGI, and that’s for a couple reasons. I think we always look to the canon first and the case of the Cataphract or in this case the case of the Yen-Lo-Wang, it was a real easy discovery for us. Obviously it’s a great famous BattleMech and it just worked out great.

When it came to the Cataphracts we looked at canon as well and there was a couple but there’s a few things that didn’t really work out. For instance there was one hero Cataphract called Lucky 13 that was actually in the canon. I forget the guy’s name but its there its in the canon but we found that the actual unit and its insignia and everything of the Lucky 13 BattleMech was very specific to a particular faction in the Inner Sphere, which would mean that the skin and some of the aspects would be used up.

It was something that we felt we wanted to keep for the upcoming community warfare update. So in this case we didn’t really see a particular variant in the canon that we could use, so we always wanted to create some of our own and create some brand new heroes. So we went that direction this time and I think it worked out really well.

I should say, some of those other requirements are we always want some of our hero ‘mechs to have a unique variant combination so it’s something you can’t go to the mech lab and create something off one of the other standard variants. For instance, Yen-Lo-Wang is the only one that you have the ballistics hardpoint and the right arm capable of autocannon 20 as well as having beam weapons on the ‘mech. So that was the uniqueness of Yen-Lo-Wang along with the skin and the bonus, and so when it came to the Cataphract again it just wasn’t something that met that criteria.

So in each case we looked to canon, but if its not there we’re not afraid to go and create something. And that’s also with the help of a little bit of help from the guys at catalyst and weighing on some things, so we’re definitely making sure that we’re thinking about all the things that are all the rules in the place and coming up with something that works.

Ryan: Speaking of insignias and paint jobs and the like the latest update also released the mechlab camo spec tool. We’ve seen some incredibly garish designs comes from it and we’ve also seen some rather nice customised ‘mech paintjobs. What do you think of the reception to the feature so far and do you see it playing much of a role in the future when faction warfare, comes out and people might see the need to show their colors, as it were?

Russ: Well its only been a day but I think ultimately there’s no doubt that people love it, I mean, customisation is one of the biggest things of games, period. That’s why mechlab is great and people wanna show their colors as you say whether its some ultra pink garish design or not. I’d rather not have the pink ones but what are you gonna do? people like what they like and we wanna give them all the freedom that they want.

Theres no doubt when you said this feature is great in general for just everybody to try and play around with but its absolutely critical and so important to the community warfare feature that’s upcoming. Every faction is gonna have- every mercenary is gonna have their colors that they want all their members to display, and I think what you’re seeing that as you’ve called it is phase 1.

Its just the tip of the iceberg - there’s just so much coming when it comes to cockpit items or other skins and patterns. I think also of course as faction play comes into the game there will be camo patterns that will be earned through faction play.

So it won’t always be patterns that you can purchase through C-Bills or MC. Sometimes it will actually be earned through great faction play and loyalty so its gonna add not just to the vanity aspect of the game. It will start to add to the complexity and depth of your experience too, as you earn rewards and show loyalty to the faction of your choice.


This is not the trial Cataphract from earlier.

Ryan: This goes back a little bit to what we were talking about earlier with the matchmaking and larger groups. Already we’ve seen groups that are both new to MechWarrior and Battletech in general, and people that have been around since the tabletop game came out that are starting absolutely massive groups. I realise that you cannot talk much about it at this stage, but do you have plans to handle the scale necessary for some of these groups as well as the newer and more tightly-knit players?

Russ: Yeah that is really good question. I don’t really have the answer for that as far as “will there be a size limitation for a player mercenary corporation?” I’m not sure, some of these are getting pretty big, you might even know more than me at the moment just how big some of these groups are getting. But I think some of them are getting I don’t even know, are they up over 100 now? I don’t know what the limitation would be at this time.

Ryan: Okay, that’s fair enough. And the other big question is...Just paint the big picture here. What sort of benefits are you planning for actual planet ownership and community warfare? Once again we know that it is early on in development and it is a far way off, but it is the sort of detail that people would like to plan towards.

Russ: Yeah I agree it is, but I don’t have a very good answer for you today. I think what we’re gonna have to do is get Heather and Stephanie to co-ordinate with you guys and make sure you get a great interview with Brian, our creative director, sometime soon.

I’ve been really pushing on him to do a big community update on community warfare. We know everybody wants it, we know everybody’s been waiting for it, it’s a major feature of our game and you know, we’re getting close to it. We wanted to take care some of these loose ends, well, they’re more important than loose ends, like matchmaking phases 1 and 2 in particular with 3, visual customisation, and some of these last pieces of technology in the game. Then we can really start to focus on that next major launch feature which is basically, of course, community warfare.

Ryan: The other major feature we’d quite like to ask your creative director, is one of the features that has been demanded time and time again by the community is fuzzy dice and from the Word of Lowtax, Tetetae bobbleheads. Can we expect either in the game?

Russ: Well I don’t have a list sitting in front of me but I think the answers yes. I’m not really sure about the second one but the fuzzy dice is obvious when you start to think about your cockpit and you think of some funny cheesy things, that’s really the very first thing that comes up. So I’m quite certain that we’ll see fuzzy dice but as you saw in the game if you’ve loaded up the patch at the moment there’s 3 types of items you can put in your cockpit. One of them is hanging items so fuzzy dice and I think also you’re gonna see some really great festive items come up in a patch really soon. We basically have some holiday or Christmas items coming in the next patch for you to put in your cockpit.

Ryan: Deck the halls with bells and Hollanders.

Russ: Eh, you know, maybe we’ll see some Christmas lights or something. There’s some pretty good stuff that will bring a smile to peoples faces.



Speculation that this Catapult-K2 will be fitted with festive red and green PPCs remains unconfirmed.

Ryan: It’s certainly a smile to me now. I realise that we’re going a bit overtime here, but one of the other questions that we have is with the net code, especially when it pertains to light ‘mechs. With ECM there is a 20m window for targeting light mechs so even the recently buffed streak machines are gonna have a bit of trouble getting a bead on them. Some users report you still need to target even after the net code rollback. Is there anything you can comment on here?

Russ: Only that it’s a constant effort and we have a really skilled engineer that is working on that full-time now, especially in the last couple of weeks he’s been working on that. So I think we’re gonna see a ton of benefits from that and we’re gonna see a constant improvement in the movement in that code.

So all those small little hitches like running over the rocks, all the little aspects like the hitbox with the faster moving mechs, all that’s gonna lead to great bug fixes that give a better gameplay experience overall and we’re not talking huge distances into the future. We should see some of these improvements even in the next couple coming few weeks so it won’t be long.

The other huge side effect bonus of all that work going into movement code is it’s helping us move towards our goal of having 12 v 12 matches. So one of our short-term goals, it’s always been there, everyone knows, is we’d like to move it from 8 v 8 matches to 12 v 12. We’re gonna get there, I just don’t know exactly when.

I’m really excited though for that to happen ‘cause I think especially with some of the new maps that are coming, that are getting a little bit bigger, it’s gonna add a lot more fun to each match where there’s a lot more BattleMechs and the matches just go on a little bit longer. More strategy will be involved in how you spread out across those maps and making sure you send your units in a nice uniform way

Ryan: One last question because we have gone well over the questions that we sent, in the ones that were made a bit redundant by the patch and so on.

We’ve already seen quite a bit of diversion from standard  Battletech rules, at least in terms of the engine limits and other such changes to how mechs are put together. We know the PPC is going to see a EMP-like effect at some point.

But, what other changes do you think that you’re going to make in the near future, for the sake of gameplay and fun that you wouldn’t have considered earlier due to trying to nail down the basic Battletech rules in beta?

Russ: Well I don’t know that I have anything identified at the moment. I think I hope the fans understand we’re never looking to diverge from the canon of the game in Battletech and our initial mandate was of course to follow it. Follow it 100% to make it as close to Battletech as possible. But there's always an understanding right from the get go that it’s never gonna be exactly like that.

Ryan: 1 to 1

Russ: Frankly the board game is a board game and MechWarrior has always been an interpretation of those rules. If you think about playing the boardgame and a lot of the dice rolls, the random rolls, are simulating the fact that these BattleMechs are moving around quickly and well in our game they are actually moving around quickly.

So some things do have to change but I think we always try to hit the rules first and then we discover that, hey, that just isn’t going to work. I mean I think double heat sinks are a good example, and we’re going to balance and change those and I’m sure we’ll see further adjustments. But double heat sinks was quite defined in the rules and were quite literally - when it comes to a real-time action simulator like the MechWarrior - product you can’t have that much disparity.

You’d quite literally create a game where if you didn’t have the double heat sinks on your battlemech, you cannot compete on the battlefield. So those things will always continue to evolve but I don’t have anything in mind where we say ‘we’re changing that’ for sure. I think each time we react. We implemented as defined in the rules and sometimes perhaps you can see it coming a mile away and you make the change prior but oftentimes you say let’s get this out there and let people play with it and let’s see how it reacts in a real time MechWarrior product.

Ryan: And are there any other final words you’d like to have for people reading this?

Russ: No, I just wanna thank everyone for their support. It’s been great making MechWarrior Online and I think there’s just no end in sight to the work. So everyone needs to continue to provide their feedback, we’re always happy to receive it, especially if they provide it in a very constructive way.

We want that feedback and they need to understand and realise that no one’s slowed down a bit since we started open beta we’ve had the full team still working away creating content and improvements as fast as we can and there’s really no end in sight to the work, so they can look forward to constant improvements in the game for years to come.

Ryan: Thank you very much for your time.

When we reached The Mittani for comment on camo spec, he said "We'll try our best to match the natural plumage of the Tetatae, as the Word of Lowtax is at the bleeding edge of the Tetatae roleplay movement. SQUAWK!"

The Word of Lowtax currently has 1230 registered users, with an additional 250 coming from related groups.


I'm a games writer from New Zealand.