Interview With Stompy Bot Productions, Developers of Heavy Gear Assault

Heavy Gear Assault is the upcoming resurrection of the Heavy Gear franchise's video game legacy. It is an online mech combat arena in which players fight with highly customizable gears in an eSports setting. I recently had a chance to sit down with Vince McMullin, the President and CEO of MekTek Studios (who are developing the title) and John Nguyen, Marketing Director at Stompy Bot Productions, the publisher.

Me: How is it working on a franchise that hasn’t had a new game since 1999 and bringing it back to life?

Nguyen: So, a bit of my history. I worked for Dream Pod 9 before coming to Stompy Bot and I worked as marketing director for five years at Dream Pod 9. I’ve always been a fan of Heavy Gear since the beginning, since the late nineties.

Heavy Gear has been around since the mid nineties. So there’s a lot of history, a lot more from the tabletop side, the RPG side. There’s a lot of material to work with, a lot of rich history to work with, and seeing that their games came out in the late nineties, and then there was a lull, bringing it back just gives us the chance to refresh it, like things have always been with large franchises with a lot of history.

And so there’s a lot of inspiration to draw from but there’s also a lot of room to grow. We’re pretty excited about adding a new twist to it and our own vision of what is a very colored history and bringing it into the next generation. We’re very happy about that. We’re very excited to be able to work on something like this.

So how did you come to work on the Heavy Gear franchise? What made you decide to pick it up, as opposed to starting a new IP?

Nguyen: Vince, you should take that one. You’re the one who approached me when I was at Dream Pod 9.

McMullin: That’s right. So Heavy Gear’s always been an intellectual property that I’ve been fond of. Huge mech fan. And so, during my time working on the MechWarrior franchise, originally MekTek Studios was a mod team. We developed mech packs for MechWarrior 4, community-built expansions back in the early 2000s. When we were working on the mech packs, we played lots of other mech games; Heavy Gear, Starsiege, Tribes, and everything in between. You know, Armored Core, Gundam...the list goes on and on.

Heavy Gear has been one of those properties that we’ve always wanted to work on. Internally at MekTek, for about five years or so, before we approached Dream Pod 9, we were talking about, we wonder what’s happening with Heavy Gear. We knew that Activision must have the license for the property because Activision developed two games in the nineties, so we just assumed that Activision was in control of the property and there was no real opportunity.

However, over the years, we got to the point where we were very curious about what was happening with Heavy Gear, so we contacted Dream Pod 9 and we found out that Dream Pod 9 actually had the license back from Activision and that they were actually interested in looking for studios to do another video game and at the time we were in the right place with MekTek Studios. After creating Stompy Bot, the publisher, we licensed the property from Dream Pod 9.

So it just kind of worked out in your favor?

McMullin: Absolutely. It’s a property that lots of our developers enjoy. We find Heavy Gear to be a very interesting property. It has a lot of great story. That’s something that some other recent mech games have been lacking. There’s a history here. It comes from the tabletop game. There’s books, there’s toys, there’s miniatures, but there’s a whole following out there of Heavy Gear players that play the tabletop game that are very interested in seeing a video game developed as well.

How has it been moving from working on mech packs for MechWarrior to Heavy Gear?

McMullin: It’s really interesting. It’s certainly been a transition. First of all, the gears have the ability to ski, or roll, so they’re not really walking tanks. They’re quite quick. They’re agile. They’re smaller machines, so instead of a hundred ton battle mech, you’re in a four ton gear. They’re more akin to, you know, in the BattleTech world, elementals and very small scale mechs. But they have the ability to be very agile and the ability to be able to move in the environment much more similar to, I compare it to the nanosuit in Crysis. They have the ability to be able to present the player with the capability of being able to respond to things like missile fire. To be able to respond to another player throwing a grenade, very quickly you can dodge. That’s something that you don’t see in most mech games.

For our game we also include things like prone. You can get into a position where normally, it’s simply just, like the stormtroopers, they’re able to actually get into position because they’re agile, they’re human beings. You can do very similar types of movements with gears.

So it’s mostly been different pacing for you, like working with a different pace, rather than working with different mechanics?

McMullin: Right. There’s a secondary movement system—which is the ability to skate—and you have wheels and treads, so certainly that’s an interesting dynamic to work with. The inventory systems on these gears is also different as well, so there are more components to work with.

If you’re familiar with how a gear lives, basically, your gear has weapons that it mounts on its backs and grenades, for instance, on its belt. The ability for a gear to carry a massive amount of weaponry is not the same as BattleTech because this is a smaller machine. So you also have to play a bit of strategy when you put together your weapon systems. When you get into looking at the property, we realized that there’s a lot of weapon systems for Heavy Gear, and we want to include as much of the arsenal as possible in our game. So we decided to take that and develop a customization system that would allow us to be able to customize the weapons loadouts. To allow us to be able to even go so far as customize the actual skeletal system. So to be able to swap parts on the skeletal system and be able to take advantage of the fact that gears are essentially machines that are built from pieces.

If you look at the intellectual property a lot of gears are based on previous designs. Most gears are based on the original Hunter design. Basically, what we’ve done is we’ve built a system where you can swap parts from one gear to another and there’s impacts associated with you swapping those parts.

In going with that, I saw that there were twelve gears available for purchase currently. How many more are planned?

Nguyen: In the lore, if you count all the variants, variants being loadouts, makeups...there are about 100 gears. Maybe five different factions. If you count the other types of walkers, of vehicles, striders, which are basically more like your traditional “walking tank” type of mech, we have well over 100 different types of walkers and combat vehicles. Then you add tanks to that and NPCs but that’s later on in the more military style single-player that we plan on implementing.

So yeah, right now 12, but we are going to branch out during development of this product to cover everything in the lore.

So you are planning to try and get everything in there?

Nguyen: Correct. And then also variant armor plates for a specific gear. For instance, you wanted a more old-school look to your hunter. We plan to roll out more old-school parts because some of these gears have been retrofitted over their service lifetime. So different parts and different variations thereof, as well, so there’s going to be a lot of gears and a lot of parts, leading to some very unique builds to say the least. I’d be surprised if there are two people out there competing with an official tournament that have the exact same build. Like I’d be highly surprised.

What’s currently determining the price of each gear on the market?

Nguyen: So what we’ve determined in terms of pricing is the equipment they come with, the different classes that they operate in. Actually, these are blueprints. Very, very important to note that the difference is that basically, these are the crafting recipes to get the stock variant of the gear. This is going to come later on in our Black Market module when it comes out but, suffice to know, if you buy into the game now you will be able to access anything in the game forever and for free. But the blueprints allow you to fabricate them.

To answer your question directly, it’s a combination of the parts and the ability of the gear.

So there is a bit of a ranking system for the gears that goes into that? And some of them that are higher-priced might be considered slightly better?

Nguyen: They fit the role. Heavy Gear, the lore at the very least, has always been very role-specific. For instance, the Spitting Cobra is designed for a more frontal assault role/fire support role and the Grizzly is more suited as a long range artillery gear. Both of them are in the same class roles and serve more or less the same role but slightly different philosophy and design. So there’s always a balancing between a faster gear that’s role-specific and a more general-purpose gear like a Hunter or a Jaeger that can fill basically any role but aren’t particularly good at any of those roles.

So we’ve developed the point system that’s drawn directly from the tabletop game, called Threat Value, that we’ll be implementing. So these components will have different Threat Values. I know Activision took up that particular aspect as well, in Heavy Gear 2, for balancing. Basically, the components will have a Threat Value associated with them and that will determine your build’s cost. That’s going to be one of the balancing mechanics.

I noticed there are going to be two clear control styles with the mech style controls and the first-person shooter style controls. Is there concern that players are going to favor the first-person shooter style controls or do you see it more like turning off flight assists in space sims?

McMullin: I see it as turning off flight assists, absolutely. I also see it as turning off aim controls on console games, as well. The way we’ve envisioned this is that we’re going to have a lot of console gamers who are interested in taking a look at the game. We want them to be able to pick up the game and play it as easily as possible. So, if you can grab a 360 controller and you can play the game with the FPS control we don’t have a problem if FPS players play that way.

In my opinion, they will be at a bit of a disadvantage because they won’t be able to torso twist, which is one of the main pillars of mech games. It would be fairly difficult to do that with a 360 controller. But if they have fast reflexes and they are used to playing that playstyle, they might be pretty effective on the field using the FPS controls.

So it has been taken into consideration and you aren’t concerned about the imbalance between the two styles?

McMullin: No, absolutely not, and the thing about mech games is that they should have the ability for players to customize controls to whatever extent they want to. Certainly not everyone plays the same way. Controls are built predominantly for right-handed people but there are left-handed people who play the game. Can they change the control scheme so that it suits them to play left-handed? Of course they can. We also have support for joysticks, for multiple different types of controls, rudders, pedals—those types of controls as well. So if you wanted to build yourself your own simulation cockpit and you wanted to sit in that cockpit and play the game, then you would have the ability to fully map those controls to the game and play it that way.

We don’t have any problem with people doing that and, in fact, one of the things that I remember about the old MechWarrior 2 games is that clan members used to share their control schemes with other clan members because it is a complex task to set up a really efficient control scheme, and really good players used to share them with their clans so that their clans could play the same way they do and learn their playstyle. Yeah, I really don’t have any problems with it. My concerns are more for the FPS players who aren’t taking advantage of the fact that they can customize their controls.

Nguyen: I mean, considering our background with MekTek and the mech packs, it’s not surprising that we went this route. This is where our origins are and this is the kind of playstyle that we want to encourage. We want to encourage a simulated style that mech fans have been without for a very long time.

How are persistent features going to work?

McMullin: So what you’re referring to is what we’re developing right now, which is the Black Market module. The Black Market module is going to be introducing quite a bit of the persistence to the game. Basically, we have the ability now to be able to track certain persistence that we haven’t turned on yet with the game. We’re still in Early Access and we’re still trying to work out the kinks, but that system is going to bring to the table the economic system, the ability for players to be able to buy, sell, and trade gear components on the Black Market. The ability for them to assign Threat Values to individual components that are installed on the gear.

So John mentioned the Threat Value that’s assigned to the player and the gear. But we’re also assigning Threat Values to each individual component. So if there’s a component on the Black Market that has a high threat value, that component is going to be more valued on that market. When the player picks up that piece of inventory and make it their own and they use it, they increase the threat value of that piece of inventory, and they then put it back on the Black Market, and its value will continue to increase.

Very similar to how, if you know how, EvE plays and how EvE works with their ships. It’s a very similar sort of concept in terms of assigning threat values to the gears. And so, there’s a whole suite of persistences associated with the gears and with the inventory and each part that’s being used in the game. Once that’s being tracked, particular game types will allow people to actually be able to salvage gears, salvage parts from other gears that have been destroyed on the field.

It will also allow players to play each other in what we have referred to internally as “pink slip matches.” You know what a pink slip is with an automobile, it’s basically a piece of paper that says you own your car and that it’s registered to you. When people race against each other, if they win the race, you give the other guy the pink slip for your car. What we’ve done here is said, “okay, let’s come up with game types where if players want to play against each other, they’re warned that once you launch into this game type you get slapped in the face.” You’re told that this is a very risky match and you may lose everything, you may lose the gear that you have in your inventory to the other player if they beat you. It goes to the other player. You’ve been fairly warned that this could happen.

We’re looking at integrating that into ongoing tournaments as well. We’re looking at high-stake tournaments as well. Because this is an eSports game, we want the ability for players to be able to play in these high stake matches and for them to be able to use the tournament system for them to be able to not only win prizes that are provided by us and our sponsors but also for them to be able to earn that fame and glory in-game through a persistent ladder.

In going with that, are you planning to eventually have competitions, leagues, etc, that other eSports are doing?

McMullin: Absolutely. This is 100% what we are planning on doing with the game. We want players to be able to play in ongoing ladders. We want to provide that official mechanism. But we also would love to see eSports leagues also running their own competitions using their game as well.

Nguyen: It’s pretty much what we’re aiming for, an eSports competition. The whole reason we’re going with Heavy Gear is that we’re exploring an aspect of the lore whereby characters in the universe actually do this for entertainment and sport. It already is a sport in the lore. We want to push it to the next level and explore it some more. It’s never really been done with the franchise. So that’s where we’re taking it because of the development of eSports in recent years. I think we really want to put the players in the hot seat of these competitions and really push them off to stardom all the way up. Organized events are going to be a key factor in Heavy Gear so tournaments, prize support, pink slip matches, high stakes matches, etc.

In that system, I noticed on the site that you’re going to have player sponsorship as well. How is that going to work?

Nguyen: So there’s a number of fictitious corporations that are in the lore that manufacture these inventory items and gears, etc. We want to have it so that a player that prefers a certain brand can entice those sponsorships from these corporations, to come in and sponsor them so either they get discounts or they unlock various decals for this corporation or they gain favor and they get some sort of piece of kit from this corporation to tryout and advertise in the arenas.

So that’s going to be a sort of automatic thing that happens, that the game manages, rather than something that an actual person controls?

McMullin: Right now, we’re still working out exactly what that’s going to look like. We’re still designing that aspect of the game. But basically, from a very high level, the way we see spectators being able to sponsor other players is through these fictitious corporations like Paxton Arms, who may have developed a piece of weaponry that that player may be able to take advantage of.

So what we’re looking at is giving players who may not necessarily be able to get in-game and play right then and there the ability to go to a mobile place, a mobile app, and be able to actually sponsor a live streaming match that’s happening right now. So they could go ahead and click on this player and say, “I want to sponsor this player and I want to give them a new piece of inventory.” When they click the player and they sponsor them with a new piece of inventory they may be doing it from their phone, sitting at their dentist’s office, their doctor’s office, or sitting on a train, or sitting at work, and they can’t actually play. They sponsor that player that’s playing and you get a popup in-game saying you’ve been sponsored by this other player and you have a new piece of inventory. And then you can go ahead and choose to outfit your gear with that new piece of inventory. If you win the match, that player that sponsored you receives the credit because you won the match and they’re your sponsor.

Okay, so it will be something that a real person does but maybe there will be an overall progression that works with an automatic thing that comes from the corporations?

McMullin: Correct.

Will there be another form of progression other than consistently working towards new parts and gears?

Nguyen: So basically, every gear, the way a gear functions is a set of hydraulic parts but what really pulls all of these parts together is a computer called an ONNet, Optical Neural Net. Basically, that’s the brains of the gear and that’s installed underneath the pilot. In the lore, when you evacuate a gear, you’re supposed to take the ONNet with you because it’s actually an advanced computer with the intelligence of a smart dog, and over time, it learns the pilot’s style, abilities, and loadout that it’s in. Over time, it improves and optimizes those performances according to the inputs the pilot puts in.

We want to build that kind of progression with the ONNet system. There will be some kind of computing device that will be in the gear that is optimized based on how the player plays, based on the loadout they use it in, and it’s going to be very specific, so the longer this ONNet is installed and in a given loadout, and played with by the player, the more familiar it becomes. So when the player takes it out and puts it into a different gear or different loadout, it’s actually going to adversely affect the player’s gameplay because it’s not optimized for that kind of setup.

So we envision that kind of progression as well for our game, and we also envision players wanting to trade their ONNet on the market to other players.

So you will be able to have multiple ONNets?

Nguyen: Yes. Or at least that’s the vision.

I read a bit about players from a year or two ago being concerned about ejecting not having enough consequences. When I heard you talk about the ONNet the thing I thought about was if you get killed once you’ve ejected from your gear will you potentially lose the ONNet or not get the benefits from that match?

McMullin: In terms of this discussion it’s been an ongoing one. Certainly one our developers have taken the fans' concerns into a great deal of consideration when it comes to the consequences of ejecting and what that means. The CPU in the gear is ultimately the most valuable thing in the lore. There’s actually a CPU that has seen military action. It is an advanced CPU. It contains information that pilots value a great deal in the universe.

So if you do eject, a consequence of losing that CPU is something that we’ve been considering and it’s not something that I’m willing to commit to in this interview, but it is definitely on the table as being if you eject, and you ruin a perfectly good kill, there’s going to be a consequence. There’s got to be a consequence for you as a pilot. And if you do that and you’re foolish enough to do that in a game type where you lose your inventory you lose your CPU you’re foolish. But if you’re playing in a match, and you’re playing in a high stakes game where you could lose your inventory, and you’ve been warned there’s nothing stopping the other player from coming over and claiming your gear and your CPU.

As a pilot all you have left to do at this point is to try and find your way back to the gear bay, get into another gear, get back onto the field, and defend yourself and your piece of equipment that you left out there.

I noticed on the maps that you guys are going for heavy weather effects and a lot of visibility impairment. What else are you going for with the dynamic environments that you’re advertising?

McMullin: The environment that I can’t wait for actually is a funny story. One of the environments that we’re working on right now actually slipped out in one of our alpha patches. We’ve released about sixty  patches to the game and one of the patches, one of the developers basically forgot to keep this map out of the patch. It got out there and it was a space map. It took only a few hours for one of our alpha testers to find the space map in the game and they got a server up and started playing on the server with the space map.

There was a space map in Heavy Gear 2 and gears that have jets—they have jet propulsion, they’re in zero gravity, they’re in space—are ridiculously fun to play with. So they were playing on this map and the response that we got was pretty overwhelming from the alpha testers that had actually played on the map. The next patch we pulled it back because we weren’t finished with it and we’re planning on releasing it in the next couple of months. Honestly, it’s one of those types of nuances that people remember when they play Heavy Gear on a zero gravity environment. It’s just so damn fun.

Nguyen: I mean, it is a key gameplay feature in Heavy Gear 2.

McMullin: So that’s one environment that I look forward to releasing but we have a number of other environments that are planned. We have a tropical environment that we’re still working on. That was released a couple of times to the alpha team to play on. We’ve continued to keep perfecting that environment to the point that we’re working on things like dynamic vegetation—the ability for you to be able to destroy trees—for you to be able to actually be able to destroy parts of the environment. For next-gen games this is just a natural progression (for a game that is being developed on Unreal Engine 4).

It’s something that we want to get right and it’s something that’s going to be coming in the months to come. The ability to destroy, but perhaps not the entire environment because that’s a huge resource for any development team. But certainly some of the big items in the game will be destructible. That’s a dynamic that is going to change gameplay again.

You know, if you have a bridge that’s separating you from the other team and you manage to take out that bridge’s objective, now the other team’s got to spend a lot of resources finding another way to your base to capture your base. Or play reverse capture the flag. We’ve got a game type in the game right now where the players have the ability to be able to pick up a bomb and drop the bomb off at the other players’ base. We want the ability for players to be able to not only interact with their environment but change their environment.

Weather is something players don’t have much control over. We’ve been experimenting with a lot of weather effects. We love what we’ve done with San Lopez and the desert environment with the sandstorm. It’s one of those things that players have to rely on their sensors and they have to rely on their pieces of equipment and inventory. We’re actually going to be introducing more pieces of inventory and a more complex radar system into the mix which players are actually going to be able to use in dense weather patterns on Terra Nova and have the ability for them to be able to use those sensors to win the match.

We have a snow pattern in Pioneer that is very dense and, when you’re playing in that kind of weather, one of the things we’re looking at is a kind of weather shader for the gears. So you can see the snow and the sand build up on the machine and, if we can hook some kind of value to those weathering effects happening, we could actually create some kind of damage to the machine. You know, old mech games if you stood in the lake and fire the lasers you could fire them all day because you wouldn’t be affected as much by the heat that’s being generated by those lasers. We want to bring some of those elements into Heavy Gear Assault.

For the tactical player that’s playing it really gets you thinking. We want people to be thinking while they’re playing the game. It’s not a straight up shoot-em-up game. You have to be thinking about the environment and the type of gameplay style you want to employ with competitions and such.

Nguyen: I’ll add to finish off that the universe takes place in a very inhospitable planet. Inhospitable by our standards anyways. There are a number of environmental issues that are unique to the planet that they’re on. We wanted to integrate that as not only part of the tactical gameplay but as immersion into the world of Heavy Gear.

Before I forget, I was having issues finding a straight answer on the forums. Heavy Gear is going to be buy-to-play, right?

McMullin: So Heavy Gear is a buy-to-play game. I don’t know where the confusion started but I think it came from an article that came out a couple years ago. Somebody from the press said that it was going to be free-to-play. After that article came out there was continued confusion to this day about the game being free-to-play. Our intention has always been for players to buy into access the game and use that model to build a serious PC gaming community around the game.

As it’s going to be an online game, and those require upkeep, are you going to continue to sell the blueprints as an option to progress faster or is it just going to be buy-to-play once it’s out?

Nguyen: Well, the blueprints are not to progress faster. It only gives the player the additional ability to craft items so that they can then sell additional inventory off into the Black Market. That being said it is a buy-to-play product and there is also a server pack that is going to be available so that players can go offline and set up their own local networks and play with their buddies without ever having to deal with any of the other external persistence or other factors if they don’t want to participate in that.

But how are you planning to support the game after the initial box fee?

Nguyen: Well, the box fee, and we’re going to be releasing episodes, as well, of the single-player aspect.

So the episodes are still going to cost on top of that?

Nguyen: Yes but the initial box fee will consist of at least one episode.

Are episodes planned to be ongoing or are they going to be finite, say 12 hours?

McMullin: We would like to be able to continue to push episodes. It’s one of those things that the market needs to tell us whether players want to have single-player episodes, right? So what we want to do is we want to put a really good quality single-player episode similar to what Valve did with Half-Life with its episodes. So they were the ones that developed that model originally and we want to use episodic content as a way to reach those players that may not necessarily want to play in the online multiplayer but we also want to develop the ability to tie at least some of the mechanism back to multiplayer to encourage those players to at least give it a shot.

So we’re looking at a co-op gameplay mode where players will be able to play in the single-player campaign but also be able to co-op with other multiplayer players who are interested in participating in the single-player campaign at the same time. Standard co-op mode type of setup.

But the way the single-player stories are told is they’re flashback moments. So we basically sat down with the Heavy Gear literature and we took a few really good war stories and said, “these are stories we would like to tell as flashback moments.” And they’re flashback moments of pilots that are now playing in the tournaments and Heavy Gear arena and are remembering old war stories.

So the opening scene for the single-player is a couple of guys sitting in a bar, telling stories, and this old war-torn pilot walks in and he says “you guys want to tell a war story? Well I’ve got a story for you.” Then it flashes back to this story being told and you’re the player playing as that old war hero.

Nguyen: The thing is the universe is so large and there’s been so many conflicts and wars, and pivotal moments in battles that we feel the episodic content for the single-player campaign is the best vehicle to use to tell a chunk of the story and introduce people to the war. Your original first question was “it’s been ten years.” A whole generation of gamers have gone by. We wanted to show that there is this universe, it’s huge, there’s a meta storyline, there’s a micro storyline. The episodic content allows us to tell a part of the story, a piece of it, and later on fill in the backstory and more and more of the story as we go along, and basically spoon feed the story to a whole new generation of gamers that may not be familiar with Heavy Gear.

Another “before I forget” question. How much functionality is planned for community-hosted servers? I see that the persistence is going to be lacking, but will their online account have any bearing on that, will all gears automatically be unlocked and you just build a loadout?

McMullin: So the way we’ve developed this is that we basically want players to have the ability to go off the grid. It’s an eSports title. We know that there are players out there, we’ve actually had a number of great conversations with Asian eSports players who have requested this. Our grassroots as a development team, we actually had to reverse engineer MechWarrior 4 before we partnered with Microsoft, to develop community-based tools for hosting your own games with the MechWarrior series. So we actually have a lot of experience around this. So we decided, let’s give the player the ability to go off the grid, play the game, host their own dedicated server, in an isolated environment, and give their friends the IP address, and let their friends join, and let them play in a completely isolated environment.

What we’ve done with this is say it’s a little unfair for the players who paid for the inventory to get access to the inventory off the grid. Because essentially what we’re saying here is that if you haven’t been awarded that piece of inventory, when you come to play on the official servers, such as if you’re playing in a tournament, you’re going to create this unfair advantage where you’ve had access to all the inventory and all the gears because you’ve been playing off the grid and maybe someone doesn’t have the technical capacity to set up their own dedicated server and run their own games like that.

So we said, when you run the game the first time, let’s download that information to the user’s client and basically you have that blueprint sitting on your hard drive of what your inventory was. If you pull the ethernet wire and run down to the local LAN and play a couple of LAN games with a few friends that blueprint will sit on a dedicated server and you will be able to use that blueprint that was paid for. But you’re not going to be able to expose the entire inventory of the game to your friends.

So you will still have to earn it the same way.

McMullin: Yes.

At this point, we load up the game for a walkthrough.

Gear customization in the game is already fairly robust. Are you going to continue to expand it?

McMullin: Yes. So we don’t even have the decal system yet. The decal system is going to be coming in as soon as Unreal Engine 4 finishes their decal system. So we’re going to be implementing that. It’s going to be basically the logos, the stripes, all of the final end of the bling, if you will. I look forward to seeing what players actually do with the decal system because I think that’s going to be really fun. You can create your own logo and save it to the disk, and upload it to the game, and use your own logo, and stuff like that. That’s going to be really fun.

So you’re going to let people load their own JPGs and PNGs into the game and use them on their gear?

McMullin: Yeah, absolutely.

Nguyen: You have to. I mean, it’s an eSport. You have to have that clan logo. That ability to customize it to the nth level, am I right? Because here’s the thing. You’re going to be representing yourself and your clanmates in the tournament, right? So if you’re showing up at a world tournament, you’re going to have to have that pizazz and that showmanship, as well, right?

It’s just so uncommon that it’s a little...

Nguyen: Weird to wrap your head around? Yeah.

A lot of people are more concerned about the side-effects of what people are going to put on it than the benefit it could provide.

Nguyen: Well, you’re always going to have those types, right?

McMullin: If you want to make your gear look terrible, that’s your choice.

Nguyen: I mean, if you start putting unacceptable stuff on your gear, that’s on you. You’re going to be the one looking like a douche, right?

It’s like in real life, right? Would you parade down the street with a swastika? Sure, you could do it, but what would people think of you, right?

A lot of the bot names are quite nostalgic, with a lot of puns in there.

Nguyen: So the way we figured that out is actually hilarious. We actually said, well, how are we going to randomize bot names? So, we think, “well, let’s just make a random list and the system picks two names from each list and put them together.”

So that’s how it came together and we had the dev team just put random stuff into each list. And many of them are pretty funny, at the same time. I think the worst one I ever got was “DirtyTwerk.” Or was it “GangstaBalls”?

It really says something about our origins as old-school gamers from the early nineties.

I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of information that shows up on the HUD, from the range finder to the hydraulics, electricity, and fuel meters.

Nguyen: Yeah, those will be the resources you will have to manage. Obviously, you’ve noticed that there’s no minimap or radar. That stuff is going to be implemented. It’s also going to dependent on what you have installed on your gear. We want the HUD to be completely customizable, as well.

How is artillery limited, since it’s significantly more powerful?

Nguyen: Well, you still have to aim the thing. It’s kind of hard to aim something if you can’t even see it. So that’s where the role of the scout comes in.

So the scout will find a spot and tell you where to launch it.

Nguyen: Exactly. And we want to have some kind of gameplay mechanic where there’s going to be some electronic warfare to it. I don’t know how they’re going to implement it here. There are still ongoing discussions about that in our dev team.

In the lore, those comm callouts can be blocked by electronic warfare. So the scout’s yelling “c’mon, shoot here, shoot, shoot, shoot. I’ve got coordinates. Why isn’t the rain happening?” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, everything he’s broadcasting is completely jammed up by nearby electronic warfare. So the fire support teams are like “I didn’t get any coordinates” and it’s all staticky white noise.

So there’s stuff to counter that and actually punch through the ECM blanket and get your message across or affect your radar acquisition. Stuff like that. We want to implement that layer of tactical gameplay as well.

So maybe the opponent’s running some sort of electronic interference gear, right? So you want to maybe to take him out before he causes too much damage to your teamplay.

And there’s also going to melee. So that’s adding another layer of interestingness.

Melee as in swords or just punching?

Nguyen: No, swords. Punching. Knives. Freaking hammers. Pikes.

So this game is based heavily on Heavy Gear Arena, which is a tabletop game by Dream Pod 9. If you look at the cover of the tabletop book, there’s a Spitting Cobra there with twin katana blades.

You can also have like a riot shield and a gun.

Is it possible to take a gear that somebody else has spawned in?

Nguyen: Oh yes. Absolutely.

McMullin: You can even take a bot’s gear. But I’ll leave you to figure out how to do that.

Nguyen: Yeah, you can totally jack someone’s gear.

Have Early Access sales been going well in terms of keeping development going?

McMullin: Well, it’s very early to comment on but Early Access sales have been doing pretty well. We’ve been happy with the amount of folks that have been buying into the game. But like any Early Access it usually takes a while to get to its plateau. And one of the reasons why we didn’t do Steam Early Access right away was because we wanted to actually test the infrastructure among more players first. So getting players in and playing the game and making sure that the infrastructure is actually there to be able to handle a massive surge of players is something that at least our developers and engineers are always talking about and concerned about.

You know how big tech companies have launched products to the gaming community that completely go offline because so many people are playing them? We don’t want to have any kind of situation like that on our hands so we’ve done access in waves. Our alpha sales have always been in waves. Early Access is essentially just another, bigger wave of players. We want to grow sensibly and we look to do the game on Steam at some point but we don’t want to do it just yet.

Nguyen: We want to do it right. We don’t want to just ship it out and say “hey, it’s done!”

Is friendly fire possible?

Nguyen: Yes. You can also blow off fingers.

Down to the fingers, huh?

McMullin: You can create zombie bots, which is really fun. If you take out their hands and they run out of missiles, or rockets, or grenades, they just basically dance around and do nothing. They’re just clowns at that point. They don’t have the ability to do anything because you took their hands away.

We’ve had a lot of fun, the alpha players actually started doing that and I jumped on a server one night and a couple of alpha guys basically had a map full of bots with no hands. I was like wow, what the heck happened here? I originally thought it was a bug and was in the process of reporting it on our bug tracking when I was like “wait a minute. What are they doing?” There were like 50 bots on the server without any hands.

How big would you say the community is?

McMullin: Well, we’re over about 15,000 registered players on heavygear.com. I’d say we have about 3000 regular players that regularly check in and check out the game and download patches. Sometimes we have big turnouts for Play With the Devs, which we do every Friday night.

Our community right now is pretty spread out geographically. As the community grows, we want to make sure we have servers for every region. When we were at Gamescom, we actually found out that our server in Europe was very close, it had to have been very close to where we were at Gamescom because we had like a 30ms ping all the time.

So how was Gamescom for you guys?

McMullin: It was great. We had a lot of press take a look at the game. We got some very, very good articles in response to the Early Access announcement. We were pretty happy with the response from the industry and the press. We’re looking to do something a fair bit more ambitious with the consumers at Gamescom next year.

Once you’ve got the Black Market module in where are you planning to go from there?

McMullin: Once the Black Market module is in there’s going to be some development happening on what’s called the Intelligence module. We may actually bring together the Intelligence and eSports module for one release. We’ve been talking about combining development effort on both of those modules.

With the Intelligence module, basically we need to introduce the player to the ability to have more complex interactions with the AI. One of the things we haven’t introduced into the game yet are other vehicles. So there are other vehicles in the game, like mechs. They’re called Striders and Striders are the bigger machines that are used during the various wars that have taken place on Terra Nova.

What we wanted to do with the Striders is we wanted to basically build game types around the Striders. We want those to be sort of the boss AI that teams would play against and complete objectives against and, of course, provide the ability for players to be able to capture those Striders and use them as part of their team inventory and be able to pilot them. Striders typically are capable of taking out four or five gears in the tabletop game. It’s a piece of inventory you would really want to have as a team in game types that Striders are allowed to be used.

We also want to introduce, as part of the Intelligence module, a more advanced radar system. The idea behind the radar system is that it supports a more realistic range, or, I want to say emulation of radar, by using a line of sight model. We’re also looking for more advanced targeting equipment to be provided, as well. Weapon guidance, more advanced targeting acquisitions systems that are used with some of the more complex missile systems that are able to be used in Heavy Gear.

So we can’t offer those pieces of inventory on our store until we have that logic sort of developed for those systems, like guided missile systems and stuff like that, are a real possibility once those systems are developed.

Nguyen: There’s also guided mortars and fun things like that.

McMullin: There’s also the ability for you to be able to choose which sensors are installed on your gear, so we want to be able to provide players with the ability to be able to install different sensors on their gear to be able to detect and hide from enemies in different ways. So you know, cloaking systems, the ability for you to be able to hide from your enemy is a large part of this.

So right now, we have a simple radar system. You get too close to an enemy it beeps to let you know you’re close to somebody. That’s going to get a little more complex. It’s not going to stay that way.

And so that, basically, is what we’re going to work towards after the Black Market module. And of course, we want to be able to start developing the single-player, as well. So the single-player episodic content is something we want to really start focusing in on after Christmas.

We’re going to start pulling together the single-player in Q1, Q2. We’re looking to start releasing that around Q3, Q4.

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Heavy Gear Assault Early Access is currently available on the official site for a minimum of $39.95.

I've been playing MMOs since back in the day when my only option was to play Clan Lord on the family Mac. Since then, I've played too many MMOs to count. I generally play niche, sometimes even bizarre, MMOs and I've probably logged the most hours in Linkrealms prior to its current iteration. Currently bouncing between a few games.

  • gumby

    Fascinating read. As a huge fan of mech games I'm looking forward to Heavy Gear when it's fully complete. In the meantime I might have to check out the tabletop game.

  • Great interview Matt! Game looks gorgeous. I love that they're letting people import their own images into the game too. Makes things feel more custom/awesome. Surprised more games don't do it... I'll be checking this out soon as it comes out

  • Werewolf486

    I backed this team early on and I've enjoyed every minute of the experience from the game development to the friends made playing the game. This was a great article that gives great coverage to the work and the game! Thanks Matt!

  • Zertoss

    Loved the interview with Vam. I have fond memories of the old mektek community and pissing off Vam. These guys really know how to build something incredible. Give them time and your support and they will deliver memories that will last a lifetime.