Lessons of the Lunchback

Mechwarrior Online is a PvP multiplayer game, reminiscent of World of Tanks and, oddly enough, MOBA games like League of Legends or DoTA. All of these games focus on team-play, by having a role within your team that you fill via the traits of your chosen avatar. PGI's continued dedication to provide a community warfare system will shape the game into a Massively Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game, which presents some unique challenges.

A big issue I've always had with MMOs, and competitive games in general, is that there is frequently only one "optimal" fitting or character. I view this is more the result of player's nature, the desire to do everything possible to maximize their shot at winning. This drive for raw efficiency is something that should be embraced, as having a competitive enviroment can give even a game with un-stellar gameplay, such as EVE Online, a dedicated playerbase. These environments in multiplayer games are frequently based around teams of players, where each person performs a role within their team. Even American Football has dedicated positions. 


Do we even need a tackle?

Allowing players to chose from several clear and useful roles on a team promotes a healthy and long-lived game, if the fundamentals of the game are solid. MWO has some very strong fundamentals, but the utter lack of specific role definition has lead to a slowly stagnating game. I feel that providing these clear role definitions should be PGI's top priority in Phase 2 of matchmaking. As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American Football can tell you, the game is about players making 'plays'. Each player on a team has a role that he fills, and the player focuses on performing his role on the field. MWO is also a team game, and has already had some indistinct roles emerge. Most of these are along the same lines as the game that birthed it, Battletech. Unfortunately, most of these roles have also been brushed aside like smoke.

PGI needs to quantify mech roles in a more solid fashion than just having hard points. Failure to do so means that new mechs, such as the Trebuchet, will dominate their respective brackets. What good is a HBK-4J, a Hunchback with dual LRM/10s, when the Trebuchet can accomplish the exact same role, at the exact same weight, but can carry a larger engine and has a better layout for its hard-points? There is even radical imbalance within classes if chassis. For example, the HBK-4J is radically outclassed by the HBK-4SP, and the HBK-4G is completely overshadowed by the HBK-4F. Why bother with all these nearly-identical variations if half of them are inferior to the others? PGI also needs to make EWAR a valid and specialized role. When any light mech can carry a full suite of EWAR gear, what good is the Raven?

This game is tons of fun, but if it wants to remain fun, it needs a diverse role selection, rather than just trying to optimize DPS on every design. Battletech, as a board game, has several unspoken conventions between players that ensure that its mechanics don't get horribly broken over someone's knee. MMOs don't have these "gentle-person's agreements".

The Year of the Lunchback

Those of us from the closed beta remember the terror that was the "Super Lunchback". A HBK-4P that shed everything but its engine and as many small lasers as we could fit.

The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why.

When I saw the HBK-4P in MWO, I knew this would be the end result. The HBK-4P, also known as the Swayback, is already one of the most utterly lethal mechs in Battletech, and the only thing that kept it from utterly dominating every match was the random scatter of shots across a mech. The "Super Lunchback" was the first portent of the future of this game. People laughed, and danced about in the darkness of the Internet, celebrating their creation. It was the most optimal, the most deadly, the single strongest combination of all the desired elements of a mech: speed, armour, and weapons. This deadly creation was capable of coring an Atlas in three or four salvos on its own. Now imagine what happened when half your team are driving these things. We of the Word of Lowtax ran nothing but Lunchbacks. The unending and endless victories were punctuated by several high-intensity fights with other organized groups, but for the most part, shooting robots became a chore.

When PGI announced the implementation of engine size limitations, I saw the opportunity they had to define and create roles for mechs. I was overjoyed. Not even the "Great Market Crash of 3049", when PGI temporarily cut C-Bill rewards to minimal levels, could dampen my spirits. Unfortunately, PGI didn't act far enough. In what has quickly become a characterization of their company, they did just enough to 'fix' the game, while remaining "faithful to canon". The power vacuum left by the "Super Lunchback" was not going to remain unfilled. Members of the Word gnashed their teeth, and they went back to their drawing boards. There, they found an old design made by "elite" goon scientists as a gag mech, the now-infamous "Gaussapult".

Darwinian Optimisation

The "Gaussapult" is a Catapult-K2 that strips all of its weapons and frequently large portions of its armour to fit a pair of gauss rifles into the machine gun ports on the left and right torsos. Gauss rifles hit 50% harder than a PPC, generate almost zero heat, and have a 660m range. A double-tap from a pair of them will almost decapatate a mech. There is no mech that can survive three gauss shots to the head.

Boom. Headshot.

Previously a design relegated to a supporting role, or a gimmick of sorts, the "Gaussapult" quickly rose to super-stardom among the competitive, driven by their desire to win. While its luster dimmed in the weeks to follow, the "Gaussapult" remains emblematic of the most competitive players in its uncompromising dedication to efficiency.

In the weeks that have come and gone since, we've seen new fittings bubble to the top, as patches tweaked game balance. Large Lasers, in particular, are now a solid and dependable choice for a weapon, but the Gaussapult still looms over all other mechs, unmatched in its purity of design. The recent re-discovery of Endo Steel has only further hightened its domniance as the apex of current mech design.

This Darwinist approach to mech design has lead to some clearly defined 'losers' in the game. If it's not a Catapult, -4P or -4SP Hunchback, Jenner, Atlas or Awesome, it's not competitive.

Let's you and him fight

As far as declaring a chassis a 'loser', I look at the two things that people build their mechs based on: survivability and damage. The current matchmaker does not delineate between mechs in the same weight class, which leads to directly comparing mechs that ostensibly have slightly different battlefield roles. One such case of this is comparing the Jenner and the Raven. Even mentioning the Commando in this discussion would be laughable; it curently does nothing that the other two mechs can't do better.

While I compare these two designs, I want you to keep in mind the two things that matter for all mechs: survivability and damage. Survivability is a combination of three things: Armour, Speed, and Profile. Damage is the "sustainable DPS" of a mech, based on its weapons and heat sinks.

Comparing the Jenner and the Raven is very easy: they're both 35 tonne mechs that have some laser hardpoints and maybe a missile hardpoint or two. In the current state of the game, the Jenner is superior in almost every situation. All Jenners have at least 4 energy hardpoints, peaking at 6 with the Jenner -F. The Raven with the most energy hardpoints, the -2X, has 4. The ballistic hardpoints on the -4X can be entirely disregarded, as mounting a large cannon on a light mech is a foolish, albeit entertaining, idea. It could have some merit if we had a drop-weight limit, but that's a completely different hypothetical tangent. All the variants of both mechs, with the exception of the Jenner -F, have at least one missile hardpoint, and the Raven-3L's second hardpoint is for a NARC beacon, which makes shooting missiles out of it frustrating, if amusing.

Given that energy weapons are de-facto the best weapon type, the Jenner is more capable in the damage area than the Raven. A Raven could strip all the armor off it's non-weapons arm, but even this (minuscule) weight savings isn't enough to make its hardpoints and their layout competitive with the pure killing capacity of the Jenner.

Their identical weights means the two frames and their variants all share the same max armor. The difference in theoretical top speed between the Jenner and Raven is mostly inconsequential, with a slight edge to the Jenner, which can also mount jump-jets on all its variants. With the exception of the RVN-4X, no Raven varients can use jump-jets. The only real advantage the Raven can claim over the Jenner is that its legs are slightly harder to reliably hit - a marginal advantage at best.

Jump-Jets are always a good thing.

Canonically, the Raven is an EWAR platform. However, if PGI fails to provide a reason to select the Raven for this role, the lack of meaningful differentiation between mech chassis will be the final nail in the coffin for my favorite bird-mech.

Necrolab Mecromancy

I've clearly illustrated why quantifiable roles are necessary for each weapon and chassis, if not each sub-variant. Lacking these roles, most mechs will be relegated to the scrap bin as players relentlessly pursue the handful of optimal designs. PGI has several options here, each with ups and downs.

One such option is to have weapons consume multiple hardpoints,

One way PGI could further differentiate chassis is by having some weapons consume either multiple hardpoints, multiple criticals, or both. An alternative approach would be to introduce the concept of hardpoint size. While neither method addresses the issue of intra-chassis balance such as the dominance of the HBK-4P, it does neatly eliminate the Gaussupult, and force more choice between weapons loadouts. I'm not in favor of this approach, though, as it's an additional restriction on customization in an already complex fitting process.

A different approach PGI can take is to lift a page from EVE Online's playbook, and give a chassis/variant further differences by providing quantifiable bonuses to equipment mounted on the mech, or to the mech itself. For example, Hunchbacks could receive a modest bonus to autocannon damage, while Centurions get an increased cap on engine size for their weight bracket alongside a faster or wider torso twist. Ravens could receive a significant bonus to ECM Strength and BAP range (assuming ECM/BAP are useful additions to a mech), cementing them as EWAR mechs.


PGI could even go farther and offer the HBK-4G a bonus to AC/20 ammo or a reduction to the weight of the gun. I know that last sentence probably has some of you old-timers clutching your heart at the thought of adjusting the weights of weapons, but this game needs to seriously reconsider some of the foundations of Battletech, and how they work in a skill-based video game.

A third way to help differentiate mechs and establish team roles, without providing a chassis bonus or restricting loadouts further, is via Modules and Mech Certifications. These little chips are an anomalous entity in Battletech canon; no other licensed title in the franchise has them. It's a good opportunity to really go hog wild with some of the alternate rules in Battletech that aren't present in most games.

A module should add functionality to a mech, or enhance a specific trait. A "Ghost Targets" module could let you scramble the HUD of a person who you have locked or flood your ECM range with red triangles your opponents have to sort through. A "Bounding Leap" module could grant units with jump-jets an alternate movement method: one where they charge their jets, and hurl their mech forward. A module like the "Bounding Leap" as described would also be a great opportunity to introduce the infamous Death-From-Above, a maneuver where a pilot uses their jump-jets to land on an enemy, alongside the Spider and the Highlander. PGI appears to have already realized this with their PIP Zoom module. Despite all it's flaws, it still enables a new action.

Mech Certifications, also called "Mech Skills" provide a quantifiable bonus, and are a good path to provide future differences between designs. For example, Centurions could get "Speed Tweak", but Hunchbacks get access to "Rapid Fire". PGI has, once again, started to move in the right direction by offering these perks to pilots who drive a specific mech enough to unlock them. They just need to take the next step, and replace their omnipresent skillset with mech-specfic perk trees.

So I guess we really do need a tackle.

Having a clear role for each mech in MWO would go a long way to revitalizing many designs and add depth to a game that is sorely lacking in it. PGI are so very close to having an ideal tank-mech game, where player skill meshes with teamwork, tactical thinking, and strategic pre-battle mech planning to produce an endless and (nearly) infinite matrix of team compositions, tactics, plans, and giant robot violence. The endless variety offered would make even two or three maps well-designed maps bearable, and add depth along with character to the future community warfare system. League of Legends, Counterstrike, and DoTA2 all show that you can have a very limited map roster and role selection, but still manage a massive and energetic community if your game is complex enough to offer a wide range of sufficiently optimal choices.

I'll fill this out if I get bored