Before we close out the year, I’d like to share this interview with artist Ben Myers, one of the concept artists working with Catalyst on the newly designed models for the Clan Invasion Kickstarters and recent resculpts. Instrumental in redesigning some of the best bad ‘Mechs, including the Assassin, the Sentinel, and the iconic UrbanMech, Myers and I discuss what it’s like working for Catalyst and how it feels to redesign these classic machines. Enjoy.
Sarna (Sean): Good afternoon Mr. Steiner! I think we can start with introductions in case a Sarna reader doesn’t already know. Who are you?
Bishop Steiner (Ben Myers): Who am I? My real name is Ben Myers, but after so many years in MechWarrrior Online, Bishop Steiner just kind of is easier.
Pertinent details to my life? I’m Autistic. I’m an artist. Big fan of ‘80s / early ‘90s mecha anime. And I’m a huge Battletech (and tabletop role-playing paper game in general) nerd.
I started gaming when I was 7, with basic D&D, and discovered Battletech around 1987, while in junior high. By the time I left high school it’d become my primary game and favorite IP for reading, and of course, to draw. Have played pretty much all the PC games, and was instrumental in pushing Russ Bullock into giving the Urbanmech a chance. I am the “UrbieDaddy” and patron saint of bad mechs.
And today, I sub-contract for Catalyst Game Labs (CGL) doing concept art primarily. Slowly working my way into line art, and hoping to convince the bosses to give me a shot at writing a TRO entry or two. And of course, do a fair bit of fan art of the Battletech community, both commission work and just because.
Sarna: Oh my! Well, if you’re the patron saint of bad ‘Mechs, what’s your favorite bad ‘Mech?
Bishop Steiner: Name it, I’m probably a fan. My absolute favorite medium ‘mech is the Assassin. In fact, I pretty well love most of the 40 tonners. Big fan of the JagerMech in the heavy category. Obviously the Urbie in the lights, but also its antithesis, the Hussar. I find “flawed” Omnis like the Mad Dog, Gargoyle, or Summoner a ton more interesting than ultra-optimized ones like the Timby.
If pressed, though probably the Assassin. But the Vulcan is a close second. And when the new art is revealed, it might be neck and neck with the Assassin.
Sarna: We kicked off the Bad ‘Mechs series with the Assassin, so we’re kindred spirits there. I don’t recall the Mad Dog to be particularly flawed, it just didn’t have Endo Steel. I guess it was kinda hot in the primary config…
Bishop Steiner: Mostly people whinge about ‘Mechs with less than max armor. It’s not quite Hellbringer bad, but between that and the heat issues… Thankfully it’s a gorgeous machine, which is why I think it gets a pass with the public where others might not.
Sarna: The Hellbringer; now there is a flawed OmniMech.
Bishop Steiner: Indeed. Flawed enough that even I hesitate to run it. And I think the paper armor was one of the biggest things that pushed PGI to allow armor mods on the Omnis in MechWarrior Online. Pity that. Still, Anthony did a good enough job on the redesign that I might make an exception, even if I am not a huge Clan guy, outside of the Goliath Scorpions.
Sarna: Woof, we’re even getting into hipster clans already.
Bishop Steiner: Hipster? Isn’t that the Wolverines?
Sarna: That’s practically renaissance.
But before we go into which abjured Clan could beat up which invader Clan, we should at least discuss how you came to freelance for Catalyst. How’d you get involved in remaking so many iconic ‘Mechs in ilClan?
Bishop Steiner: Dumb luck? I’d made acquaintance with Anthony Scroggins, a bit on the side, between beating him on an art contest for fan redesigns of the Marauder over on the MWO forums, and some stuff on DeviantArt. Anyhow, as Shattered Fortress was approaching its release date, apparently CGL got in a bit of a bind for art and basically let Anthony cast a net for artists who might be able to contribute.
He shot me a message and asked if I’d be interested. To be honest, I didn’t think I had what it took, but also trying to do art for the actual game officially was too good a chance to pass. So I was given a pile of art briefs, and the moment I read the brief for the Battle of Dieron, the scene pretty much popped into my head, complete. Anthony had me reverse the composition and do a few tweaks, but apparently it was good enough. Don’t think they sent that same art brief to Jason Schmetzer, as his details in the new novella Shell Games differed quite a bit from what I was given, but what can you do? We are only stewards of the IP; can’t get too attached.
Anyhow, once the Clan Invasion Kickstarter was announced, Anthony knew from my past Urbie work that I had to be the guy to do the UrbanMech redesign. I pushed it into existence in MWO, nagged Mitch at HBS till they upped its frequency in their game, and even got my own “Hero” Mech in the K9.
That was going to be my only piece, but I guess they had another crunch during Wave 2, and just kept offering me more designs. And so I just kept drawing. I think one thing that Anthony appreciated is that while I have opinions and a “vision” for my redesigns, at the end of the day, I don’t get too attached. They aren’t my designs; they existed before my time, and will quite possibly be reinterpreted again, in the future. Sometimes as artists we can get our egos too involved in the work and forget that the designs belong to Battletech. And that can be an issue.
Sarna: Which is a pretty great segue into my next big question. How do you approach redesigning these ‘Mechs when some of the older drawings are super basic? Like, let’s take the Lancelot as an example. There were very few images of the Lancelot, and the ones that existed often didn’t even bother placing that torso-mounted PPC. How much is reinterpretation and how much is outright creativity?
Bishop Steiner: Really varies a lot with each ‘Mech. I always try to pick out what I consider the key aesthetic details of each design. Is it tall and lanky, short and stocky? What shapes immediately jump out? What features have to stay? Some, I also get told to basically blow up. The Mercury was one. Others I push a little more–like the Enforcer–to not be sexy because it’s not a sexy mech, it’s a utilitarian one.
And then I do have to look for those details. Are the weapons actually correct? News flash: for a ton of designs, that’d be a NOPE. Do the joints make any sense? TRO 3055/3058? Nope, nope, nope. And then I get as many of the official images, minis, the MWO stuff, even some of the better fan art, and look for what stuff is consistent through all the versions.
The Lancelot for instance had to have a janky, angular torso, and be relatively lanky. The PPC I am not 100% in love with–the location made the most sense, but I think in retrospect maybe putting it coming from the lower glacis would have been more pleasing visually. And the legs maybe should have been a bit slimmer. But that’s the thing–after it’s done, I can go back and pick apart the “woulda/shoulda” elements of all my designs.
Sarna: Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Let’s jump to the Assassin since it’s one of my favorite ‘Mechs too and it’s one that has always been at least a little mysterious in BattleTech for the cockpit. People have always been confused about the positioning of the Assassin‘s cockpit–what made you decide to stick with the teeny-tiny front-facing window over the more fighter jet-style cockpit that’s hinted at in the historical art?
Bishop Steiner: One thing that helped was talking to Duane Loose on the regular, and I was able to ask him. But even before that, all one needed to do was read the lore texts. It’s constantly referred to as a cramped, dangerous place, one that even has crippled long-time pilots. It even suffers from the Cramped Cockpit quirk. That doesn’t line up with what the cockpit would be if one did the scaling and math of say a relatively spacious, F-16-like canopy.
Now in fairness, the “truth” as it usually is, isn’t that simple. In talking to Duane, he explained that the design was made before the rules were finalized and what he had in mind was a tandem cockpit like on an attack helicopter, with the gunner in front and pilot up top/behind. But when the rules were finalized and only single cockpits were a thing, it was moved to the front cockpit. Admittedly the emphasis has shifted in the various arts and minis, and nobody bothered to just ask the guy who designed it. It’s similar to the Commando head conundrum and why everyone screws up the location of the Dervish‘s medium lasers–which I then intentionally moved on the new version. To be a jerk.
But lastly? In my opinion, it just looks better. I always felt that with a big glass dome up top and the pointy “nose” it looked like Big Bird; kind of dorky. Along with being terrible for actual ground visibility, which seems like a bad choice for a ‘Mech jumping 210 meters at a pop.
Sarna: All great points. I kinda like the attack chopper look, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a ‘Mech. Not unless we start talking about external cameras and whatnot.
Let’s talk the Sentinel. Another fav, another bad ‘Mech, and another truly bizarre-looking ‘Mech in the historical art but one that at least had easily identifiable parts. Which of those parts did you really feel the need to focus on for the redesign and why?
Bishop Steiner: The Sentinel. Well. The biggest issue was it was a beach ball. With stick legs. So that took a lot of sorting through various reference pieces to try to salvage.
I knew the human legs were a non-starter. But I didn’t want to totally lose the silhouette, either. The leg answer was one of the CCG pieces if I recall correctly. One done by Mike Jackson that had digitigrade-ish legs. And that kind of gave me the freedom to give some character to the legs. The upper body had potential, I just needed to tone down the “egg” effect.
I wanted to keep the big cylinder shoulders and as many little details as possible. The solution for the front was partially inspired by the version of the Sentinel Rudy “Shortpainter” Valle had done as fan art, to give the nose more of a harsh glacis. From there it was just adding more interesting shapes to things like the arm autocannon, which if I recall, I based off the chaingun from an Apache helicopter.
From there it was just finding a way to make the details serve a purpose like the odd bulbs on the side torsos, using one to house its laser, the other to do a sensor pack, and then the usual greebles, sensor pods, radars masts, etc.
Sarna: We can’t possibly not talk about the UrbanMech. What do you think makes it so iconic? Did you worry at all about ravenous BattleTech fans angry at your take on the machine? Or has everyone been very supportive of the stylish new Urbie?
Bishop Steiner: Iconic or ironic?
I think it’s a mix of factors. Some of it, like the Charger, the first glance “what were they thinking?” stat line. And then for those who actually gave it a shot in city combat, the “little engine that could” bit. And let’s face it, it was loveably derpy-looking in most of its renditions.
Did I worry about angry fans? Naw. Urbie fans are chill. It’s the haters who screech uncontrollably, and haters are gonna hate, either way. The fans I’ve seen have all been very happy, and it seems to have made some new Urbanites.
The haters? Still hating. And I just keep grinning and giving their “cool” Mechs the bad touch.
Sarna: I don’t think the new Urbie is bad at all! It certainly is less dumpy, I think, but it’s got all the right bits where they should be. And maybe people would even be proud to drive an Urbie that doesn’t literally look like a walking trash can?
Bishop Steiner: Perhaps. I certainly wanted to make it still make sense as a mass-produced garrison machine, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dumpy or dull.
And I think if people actually gave some of the later models, be it the 68 with its MRM30, the FedSuns model with the RAC5, or the 96 series I designed for Recognition Guide 2, with its Hardened Armor, SN-PPC, and Improved Jump Jets, they might be surprised how effective it can be.
Admittedly, most of the folk who hate on it the hardest are usually min-maxing types, or your typical angry “get off my lawn” types.
Sarna: Were there any ‘Mechs that changed substantially between start to finish?
Bishop Steiner: I’d say the two with the most change, overall were the Mercury and Enforcer. While Anthony did a fair bit of rework on the Crossbow Omni and Charger, in a lot of ways the details didn’t change massively. With the Merc and Enforcer, they were my first ‘Mechs after the UrbanMech and neither had nearly as crystallized in my mind as the Urb did.
The Mercury, because I wasn’t sure what Anthony, Randall, Brent, and Ray were looking for or expecting yet, I knocked out five rough concept sketches from close to the original to the out-of-left-field design we ended up with. I honestly didn’t expect that one to be chosen, but the decree was: “Nobody likes the Mercury. Blow it up.” The Enforcer was mostly there on the body. Anthony had me make the biggest tweaks on the thighs, if I recall correctly. The fun was with the head; the original cockpit was similar to the final one, but a bit more complicated. The feedback from Ray was “the head is boring,” so I slapped together a concept list with 16 different head designs. And after much back and forth they settled on a simplified version of my first head concept.
So overall, I guess I’ve been pretty lucky in that my concepts haven’t really changed much. With our group workflow, if either I or Anthony just don’t feel we have the right flow and feel going, he’ll reassign or take over the design. An example is the Crockett, which I just had zero clicking, so I handed it back to Anthony. I forget if that’s when I took on the Lancelot instead, but Anthony’s direction on the Crockett was very different and a lot better than where I was going. Being able to take ego out of it really allows us to (mostly) work toward just getting the best we can out of each design. There are probably a few places where egos maybe got in the way, but I’d say it was the exception.
Sarna: Let’s talk about the Mercury, Lancelot, and Sentinel for a sec. I’ve noticed a somewhat more insectile vibe from each of the Comstar ‘Mechs. Was that a running theme for your Comstar redesigns?
Bishop Steiner: Insectile? Hmmm, I do see that now that you mention it, but it wasn’t really intentional. I did want to make them look more advanced than the Succession Wars staples. More curves in various places, less flat angles, and such. I think the Insectile aspect is just a happy accident.
Sarna: Fair enough. I did see the curves, but also that there weren’t any weapons discarded for the sake of maintaining a curve. Perhaps that’s what can explain away some of those earlier drawings. Do you have any particular favorites of your redesigns? Any that you’re particularly proud of?
Bishop Steiner: From the Clan Invasion designs, I think probably the Sentinel is the one I am most proud of the results. It’d be between it and the UrbanMech for my favorites. With the Mongoose and Enforcer coming in just behind. Even though I’m most well known for my love of the UrbanMech, even I realize it’s not a scout. And for light mechs, the Goose has always been my overall favorite, so getting to redesign it was huge.
Of the ones that I’ve done since and haven’t been released, I gotta go with the Vulcan. And it’d be a coin toss between it and the Sentinel for the one I am most proud of. As much as I love the Assassin, I think my Vulcan and Sentinel redesigns are just probably my two overall best pieces, to date, period. 40-tons to freedom!
Sarna: Gotta love them trooper ‘Mechs.
Bishop Steiner: Yup. It’s a pity ‘Mechs like the Vulcan and Firestarter don’t see a little more granularity in their weapons systems in A Time of War or Destiny, as the AC2 on the Vulcan makes sense in fluff and reality, and not at all in tabletop mechanics. But basically having a 40mm Bofors for taking out barriers in infantry support makes perfect sense… except in the actual game, lol.
Sarna: Yeah, autocannons in general are just plain bad on anything less than 70 tons, frankly. Especially light autocannons. But they’re great fluff, and both authors and the modern games tune their damage output to better reflect that.
Is there any ‘Mech you’d love to redesign but haven’t gotten the chance, either because it just hasn’t come up or because it’s just not popular enough to really warrant it?
Bishop Steiner: Oh man. A lot. I’m a huge fan of TRO 3055. And I really want them to not just sweep Project Phoenix under the rug. Even with all these Kickstarter redesigns of the Unseens, too much lore is tied up in the whole Vicore Industries and Project Phoenix.
But instead of generalizations, let me think of specifics. I did cover quite a few of my dream ‘Mechs in my mad dash through Inktober. The Gurkha is one because I think as currently presented, it’s an insult to those amazingly brave Nepalese warriors, being that they didn’t give it a kukri. I have ideas for the Berserker, Naginata, and Hollander.
But probably near the top of the list would be either the Sha Yu or Jackal. The Sha Yu I really want to return to the ideas in the MechCommander 2 version. No offense intended to Franz Vohwinkel, but the TRO 3067 version just fell flat compared to the MC2 version I was introduced to.
And the Jackal… well, Anthony accuses me of having an “egg ‘Mech fetish”. I think it’s a killer design hampered by bad art. Even Matt Plog and Anthony’s versions were hampered by the edicts of the time, to not stray from the original too far. I have a piece on my Patreon right now where I preserve the details, but strongly re-proportion them that at the risk of sounding immodest, I think makes the Jackal look absolutely lean, mean, and lethal.
Beyond that, I would love to convince Brent and Ray to allow me to make some of my more wild ideas happen on existing redesigns, like my twin Thumper Cyclops or the “Einherji” variant of the Grand Dragon I made for the 3040s era KungsArmé of the Free Rasalhague Republic.
Sarna: And what’s on the Einherji?
Bishop Steiner: It’s basically a Grand Dragon with a couple pieces of Lostech, with load out and aesthetics modified to fit the FRR. PPC in the right arm, hatchet in the left, SRM-6 in the center torso, medium laser in each side torso. Being a 3040s design, it had FerroFibrous armor and CASE.
Non-canon sadly, though based on a description of mods the Drakons made to their ‘Mechs in Era Report: 3052.
Sarna: Ah, a Viking Grand Dragon for the FRR! I dig it. Always loved the Dragon, and the Grand Dragon in particular.
Bishop Steiner: Barely 100 made before Operation REVIVAL, with the factory lost along with most of the ‘Mechs during the invasion, was my explanation for the lack of records and examples in the TROs. Maybe a dozen left kept running due to major components compatibility with Grand Dragons.
Anyhow, again, not canon, but the kind of idea I keep trying to float for Shrapnel. Maybe someday. And yeah, Grand Dragon is a beast, with the 5K probably being my favorite ‘Mech on TRO 3050.
Sarna: Are you able to give us a preview for some of the ‘Mechs still yet to be redesigned? And is there anything else you’d like to promote while you’ve got the platform?
Bishop Steiner: Hmmm. Can’t really promote anything we haven’t posted to Anthony’s Patreon yet, so aside from teasing what’s on there, like the Dervish, Charger, Javelin, Assassin, Vulcan, etc. There’s definitely other stuff on the works as we speak, and she will be a pretty welcome surprise, I think, but nothing I can comment on.
As for promoting, but really sure? Obviously I’d be happy for anyone to check out my Patreon, or my public gallery on DeviantART. Besides that? I don’t know. I’m terrible at promotion, self or otherwise.
Thank you, Bishop Steiner, and be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He’s also got a Ko-Fi if you’re feeling generous.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.