Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Empires Crumble, But Giant Robots Are Forever

The following is an interview with Catalyst Game Labs' Herb Beas, line developer for BattleTech.

JB: The whole giant robot craze strikes me as being sort of an '80s phenomenon. The BattleTech game itself came out in 1984. How have you kept the game fresh after all these years?

HB: I think the big thing about that is the story-driven nature of the universe, which is dynamic and ever-evolving. Characters evolve, grow old, and even die in this universe, as do their factions to a certain extent. This gives BattleTech way more depth than a simple "Big Robot A fights Big Robot B" kind of action. There's a depth and a complexity of the universe that's fantastic, yet not really "dumbed down" to childlike simplicity. This opens the universe up to a young audience who likes the look and feel of futuristic fighting robots, and the more adult audience who crave a deeper reasoning behind the war machines and the warriors who drive them.

JB: How have the novels helped define and evolve the game?

HB: There's just no understating the impact of the novel fiction in the expression of this particular universe. In fact, over the twenty-plus year history of this game, we've had almost a hundred novels published between Classic BattleTech and MechWarrior: Dark Age--not to mention the electronically published short stories, serials, and novellas we've put out with BattleCorps, our on-line subscription-based fiction site. Together, all this fiction allows us to show far more depth in the characters, factions, and units found in this game's rich backstory that simply cannot be covered by sourcebooks alone.

JB: I've seen BattleTech players with fantastically painted and detailed figures. Catalyst even includes a painting guide in the boxed set. Why is painting the figures such a huge part of the game?

HB: Well, the machines of this universe--especially the BattleMechs--are the center stage for the game and the action. A core aesthetic, if you will. So the visuals they bring are one of the things that helps drive the universe on the table-top. The true hobbyists who play this game have a genuine interest in expressing that aesthetic as truly as possible on their gaming tables, I think, and many show real talent and dedication with every single work they do. I myself have a large collection of figures, which I have enjoyed painting for hours and hours on end--it's a great hobby in and of itself, even when I find myself with little opportunity to play.

But I would be remiss in pointing out that perfectly painted miniatures are not really a requirement to play this game. Back when BattleTech was in its infancy, some boxed sets were published that provided stand-up cardboard counters to represent the various units. In my own earliest days of playing BattleTech, a friend and I used Lego figures on a hand-drawn hex grid, and most of our players in the greater community are well known for their rather laid-back attitude toward having perfectly painted and descriptive figures. A big collection of finely-painted figures on well-sculpted terrain is beautiful to behold and real fun to play on, but players can enjoy this game just as easily with cardboard chits on a hex grid.

JB: Why has sentient alien life never been a part of the BattleTech universe?

HB: The decision to keep this a human-only universe fits into a key part of core mythos BattleTech had at its inception, and one which separated it from a lot of the sci-fi we had in the 80s, which focused quite a bit on alien invasions in various forms. This was a universe where mankind had spread out, but still couldn't break free of its basic greed and lust for power--not to mention a universe where everyone's war machines were familiar and compatible.

JB: Over the years, did you find the Inner Sphere's history/storyline evolving in ways you didn't expect?

HB: Always! As I mentioned above, this is a very much a "living" universe. It's been a practice from Day One to drop red herrings, hints, and threads all over the place, to be picked up or forgotten later. In some cases, these could become a surprising new twist for a major story arc, or at least a fun plot hook for players to explore in their home games. As big a universe as Classic BattleTech is, there's always room to explore and grow.

JB: The BattleTech RPG allows players to roleplay the humans inside the big robots. Was there any temptation to more closely integrate these rules with the miniatures rules?

HB: Oh, yes. But as a role-playing game, it's got to be more than just that, too. Our new core rulebooks line will ultimately revisit the RPG, in fact, with an eye toward a better integration between the tactical scale of the wargame and the more open nature of down-to-Terra role-playing. We hope that the end result will be something that not only seamlessly interfaces with the wargame, but also works well in its own right as a vehicle for adventures.

JB: How does BattleTech stack up against the competition, e.g. Robotech?

HB: I don't think it's fair to say. I recently did a blog in which I likened Classic BattleTech to a steak dinner, with all the various extras and forms of this game likened to side dishes and seasonings. To me, following that rather weird analogy, other games are other flavors, and who am I to say my steak dinner is better than someone else's preference for, say, chicken? I was a big fan of Robotech back in the 80s, and still have fond memories of that series (and even the game); it simply has a different aesthetic, for a slightly different audience.

JB: What's next for BattleTech?

HB: Well, we're currently in the middle of a core rulebook revival, in the hopes of cleaning and polishing the game and the universe around it. There's also the current Jihad story arc, which we're also about half-way through and which leads to the Dark Age timeline that's represented in the WizKids' MechWarrior game. Beyond that (and even within that), oh, the stories we could tell!

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