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The challenge of making BattleTech's first two hours matter

April 20, 2018 | By Bryant Francis

Next week, Harebrained Schemes' BattleTech hits Steam, and while we're normally happy to play any game that features giant robots doing giant robot-y things (including but not related to stomping on vehicles, smashing buildings, and standing still while pilots scream at each other), we also were excited to check in with a smaller company that's managed to put out interesting games while running with a smaller team. 

So today on the Gamasutra Twitch channel, we checked in with BattleTech director Mike McCain and Harebrained Schemes producer Mitch Gitelman to discuss the game's design and development, and get some solid takeaways from the process that could help out other game-makers. In particular, we had an exciting conversation about how smaller companies compete in a crowded game market, and the process of adapting tabletop mechanics for a digital game environment. 

If you've got the time, you can watch our full conversation up above, but if you're hopping into a Blackjack right now to make some cash for your mercenary company, here's some quick takeaways for you to read on the drop down. 

Your game's first 2 hours will literally impact your game sales

This should be fairly obvious to many developers on Steam right now, but as we chatted with Gitelman and McCain about the learning curve of BattleTech, Gitelman explained that a lot of decisions about the game's tutorial process orbited the fact that if Steam users didn't feel attached within 2 hours, they'd be returning the game under Steam's refund policy. 

That meant a lot of focus for the BattleTech team was on balancing the early story, the tutorialization, and encounters that occur within those first 2 hours (which roughly amounts to 2 to 2.5 missions, by our estimate). It's not a lot of time, so every minute spent explaining to the player how the game works instead of letting them explore what BattleTech is about will have a cost in some way.

But the obvious trade-off is, as McCain admits, the game doesn't have the most robust tutorialization in the world, especially for some rather complex systems. It's a trade-off that definitely impacts how well players will understand concepts like pilot abilities, repairs, and more, but knowing it comes from a focus on early player retention adds a new perspective on what sacrifices developers have to make to preserve that early experience. 

Don't make knee-jerk playtesting decisions

When you work for a smaller company, as McCain pointed out, you probably don't have access to 100 players who can test new builds and provide raw data on how your game is working. That meant working with the 25 testers that Harebrained Schemes rounded up, McCain's job wasn't just to solve problems that playtesters reported, but respond to them carefully and consider the play experience of the person offering feedback. 

It's an approach that led to McCain, Gitelman, and company to try and identify "problem feelings" that they could address, rather than making proportional changes to each piece of feedback received. In one notable instance, the game's Kickstarter backer beta was originally delayed while the team tried to solve feedback about unit movement, and how it was "janky." The result was a system borrowed from the original tabletop game that encouraged players to move units further in order to make them more evasive and less likely to hit, and providing clearer incentives for staying put versus walking around the map. 

The RNG of BattleTech impacted how far Harebrained Schemes could develop all the promised game features

When Harebrained Schemes put BattleTech on Kickstarter, it used the backer goals to set clear milestones for how far development could proceed with different kinds of content. While it did rocket through those goals, we were curious if the realities of game development impacted the company's ability to deliver on those promises over time. 

According to Gitelman, there was one key gameplay feature that was scaled back during the development process, and that was the game's multiplayer. Right now, BattleTech supports 1v1 multiplayer, but unlike a lot of other multiplayer games on the market, there's no ladder, gameplay modes, or general broad variety of options. Apparently that's in part due to the fact that the core mechanics of BattleTech rely far more heavily on random number generation than was originally anticipated. 

As Gitelman and McCain explained, making that randomness work for the game's campaign mode meant it was difficult to create predictable outcomes for a multiplayer system, so rather than trying to bend literal randomness to their will, the BattleTech team opted to scale back their plans for multiplayer and create a more casual mode instead. (It's also a mode that supports player mods, so if players choose to alter the JSON files in their game, they just need to make sure both players have access to those values to create a compelling, personal multiplayer experience).

For more developer interviews, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel. 

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