Video: Taming the player-murdering machine that was MechWarrior 5s level generator

Video shot by Sean Dacanay, edited by John Cappello. Special thank you to Piranha Games for providing MechWarrior 5 development footage. Click here for transcript.

First things first: No, you haven't been caught in a time warp and zapped six months into the future (at least, not that we know of). The subject of this "War Stories" episode is the unreleased MechWarrior 5, which is still on track for a September 2019 debut. This is the first time we've done a war story on a game that hasn't come out yet, but it also came with the opportunity to interview Jordan Weisman, the guy most directly responsible for the BattleTech universe and its giant stomping robots.

So we packed up our gear and flew off to beautiful Vancouver, where Mech5 developer Piranha Games is headquartered. Usually, pulling together a "War Stories" video involves a lot of brain-wracking and memory-hunting by the developers, especially for older games; this time, since we were interviewing developers still actively battling through the development process, all the wounds were still fresh and the memories vivid. We got to see a bit of the game in progress and hear some interesting tales about how one wrangles building-sized BattleMechs—and more interestingly, how one builds a world that can accommodate them.

The worlds the thing

MechWarrior 5 will see players hopping freely among a large number of planets in the Inner Sphere. As with many other games, developers at Piranha turned to automated tools in order to create those planets and populate them with realistic biomes and gameplay spaces. And, as with many other games, the quirks and features of those automated tools—and the levels they produced—ended up in turn defining a lot of the gameplay's shape and feel.

The trick, though, was tuning the tools to actually do what designers intended for them to do. Interestingly, the level-generation tools took a page from BattleTech's board gaming rules and created play areas using a system of tiles. The tiles each had programmatic rules to ensure that they connected to each other in ways that made visual and thematic sense (so no forest tiles on an airless moon, for example, or no city tiles in the middle of a mountain range).

Further, when left to its own devices, the level generator seemed as if it were addicted to murdering the player. Each generated level required time and effort in order to, say, stop a hundred enemy mechs from barreling straight through buildings and other obstacles to dump PPC fire on a single player-controlled mech; cities filled with autocannons and turrets would lock onto and melt player mechs in an apocalyptic alpha strike the moment the player crossed their borders.

Taming the level generator was a time-consuming process that is still somewhat ongoing. The lesson here is somewhat the same lesson that developers of other games leaning on procedural generation have learned—filling up the universe with places to go is only part of the work. The game's not done until it's fun.

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