Welcome back to another edition of Community Outreach. This week, Sarna sat down to talk to Mark Nicholson, 3D artist at PGI, and one of the architects turning ‘Mechs from mere ink on a page (or pixels in a digital image) into an actual moving, stomping, Autocannon-blasting giant robot.
Mark has been talking about his work over on the MechWarrior Online forums revealing some of the finer aspects of his job, but I wanted to get a little bit more into some of the technical issues of building ‘Mechs designed for customization. MechWarrior Online is the first MechWarrior game that really changes the look of your ‘Mech as you change its loadout, which makes building modular 3D models an enormous technical challenge. I find the whole thing fascinating, and I hope you do too. Enjoy.
Sarna: Hi Mark! This is Sean at Sarna. Thanks for sitting down to talk. How about we start with a bit of an explanation of what you do at PGI and how you help build MechWarrior Online?
Mark Nicholson: Hi, I’m Mark Nicholson, I’m a 3D Artist at Piranha Games. In the past, I’ve made cockpit items, modeled 15 or so ‘Mechs. More recently I’m now one of the small handful of developers who’ve returned to making content for MechWarrior Online, mostly developing the look of and building the assets for, booster packs: Stryker, Warden, Hunter, and hopefully another Clan-focused one in December.
Mark Nicholson: It’s not something I’ve been involved in measuring often. As well, it becomes very subjective when you consider things like whether people like the great houses or clans as organizations, or just like how their ‘Mechs look, or perform in any particular game, or specifically in MWO. The recent Warden pack outsold the Stryker pack before it, but I don’t think that had much to do with Clan preference over IS.
Sarna: How about a few background questions. How long have you been working at PGI?
Mark Nicholson: I’ll have been at PGI for 6 years to the day when the Hunter pack comes out with the October patch.
Sarna: I know not everyone at PGI is a BattleTech fan, but Sarna is a BattleTech wiki, so I usually ask some stuff like how many MechWarrior games you’ve played and the like. Should I skip those questions?
Mark Nicholson: I’ve been a fan since ’89, so this will be a long answer.
Sarna: Niiiiiice. Alright, then let’s do the full spiel. What first got you into BattleTech?
Mark Nicholson: I had some siblings who were quite a bit older than me, they got me into a bunch of stuff at a young age; I saw Robotech when it aired, and The Transformers, and joined them in some other role-playing games before they found and introduced me to BattleTech. I’ve been hooked on giant robots since before I attended school.
Sarna: So giant robots from a young age, like so many of us. What BattleTech games have you played, either tabletop or video games?
Mark Nicholson: Almost all of them. I don’t think I played much of the Crescent Hawks games, and I never got far in MechWarrior 1. I’ve not played the SNES game or MechAssault 2, and only a bit of MechCommander, and I think I might have missed one of the MechWarrior 2 expansions. Otherwise, I’ve played everything, from the Sega Genesis isometric game to the MechAssault on the DS.
Sarna: I too have played MechAssault: Phantom War. Not the finest BattleTech game ever made, but it was decent for a handheld title. So you’ve had plenty of experience with ‘Mechs and probably wishes for the same things I did while playing MechWarrior 2, that when you customize a ‘Mech it should look different. And now that’s what you do, which is pretty cool
Mark Nicholson: Yeah, I knew then, and appreciate so much more now how much work that is.
“I love nothing more than to take some fully realized concept art and faithfully recreate it in every detail.”
Sarna: Let’s dive into that. How much work is it to go from one of Alex Iglesias‘s wonderful drawings to a functional ‘Mech in MWO?
Mark Nicholson: It depends. Personally, I love nothing more than to take some fully realized concept art and faithfully recreate it in every detail. One of the things that got me interested in applying to Piranha Games in the first place was seeing ‘Mech models in-game that didn’t quite match the proportions of the concept art. I am one of those people where that bothers me a lot, and I’ve had many other fans express that same sentiment. I knew I could do it, and better, and I think I’ve only mostly succeeded. There’s been a few ‘Mechs where it’s not turned out quite right, and sometimes those little niggling details end up against production deadlines.
I find it more challenging when I’m left to my own devices and don’t yet have a clear picture of what I want myself. Things like, “What do you put in the middle of the Uziel when it doesn’t have its iconic SRM-6?” I’ve also spent enough time drafting and building practical models and props that tend to spend a lot of time making sure stuff works without clipping and makes functional sense instead of just looking decorative.
But on the whole, it was usually about five scheduled months of work, across several artists, a designer, and all the database, QA, and other small technical tasks to get a ‘Mech made.
Sarna: Have you been involved in building every ‘Mech or is that distributed across a team of engineers/artists?
Mark Nicholson: Not really, we had a handful of artists each modeling a ‘Mech, so I was modeling every third or fourth release. I was part of the larger group that would consider what ‘Mech we were making next, as well as the smaller group considering what weapons and hardpoints it would have. There had be a selection of canonical variants, but sometimes they wouldn’t actually translate well into MWO‘s system.
Sarna: That’s fair. On my end, it seems mostly seamless with every ‘Mech that’s in the game, but I could see a version of the Orion or something where there are just too many autocannons on one side of the torso or something.
Mark Nicholson: At one point we were considering the Valkyrie, and it turned out that while there are tons of variants of it, they’re all described in the same way in MWO: an energy weapon in the arm and a missile weapon in the side torso. It just didn’t work. I suggested the Javelin instead, because it was faster, and had a lot more weapon variety. I don’t dislike the Valkyrie, but the Javelin was easily a better choice. I got to model the Javelin too and was rather pleased when it ended up one of the first ‘Mechs you play with in MechWarrior 5. It’s also my daughter’s favorite ‘Mech.
Sarna: But hasn’t MWO made up a few variants to bring more variety to those iconic ‘Mechs? Like, other than Hero ‘Mechs I mean. I think there’s a new Panther…
“I got to model the Javelin too and was rather pleased when it ended up one of the first ‘Mechs you play with in MechWarrior 5.”
Mark Nicholson: Yes, we’ve made up variants, or more often adapted designs from too far forward in the timeline, or where our game doesn’t offer certain technology.
Sarna: In MechWarrior 2, there was no visual customization–changing your loadout didn’t change the model at all. In MechWarrior 3, I think there were a few slight changes based on armament, and MechWarrior 4 went a little bit further with slots that could be changed as well and offer some visual identification that a stock loadout had been modified. Then we get to MechWarrior Online and now every gun, every missile launcher, every laser, and everything else gets a custom look when you take it into the ‘Mech lab and swap out everything.
This might be a very broad question, but how does that even work? Like, are there just thousands of different models for every possible combination, or is MWO‘s engine capable of creating smaller modules and adding them to a larger model before each match?
Mark Nicholson: And what a headache it is sometimes to try and fulfill that challenge while not making things look wonky.
Sarna: It occurs to me–has anyone done the math? I feel like with the technology in the game now, it’s way more than “thousands” of combinations.
“As a fan, I always find it both fun and very weird when obscure variants of a chassis end up becoming popular in MWO’s meta and significantly altering the perception of what a specific chassis should be.”
Mark Nicholson: At a few points we’ve gone further into standardizing the weapons, but there are dozens of ‘Mechs with custom lasers or whatnot, especially legacy ones we didn’t want to change because they’d been out for long enough that it wouldn’t have been worth changing it on players who’d grown to love a certain look. Every missile launcher is individually modeled though, and yeah, it’s a lot. Most ‘Mechs have something like 150+ individual weapons, so “thousands of combinations” is probably way short of what it probably is.
As we model them, we’re obviously using tricks to mitigate the amount of work, mirroring missile faceplates with small panels that cover some of the holes, a weapon mount that can fit both large Autocannons and Heavy PPCs.
Sarna: You mentioned the Valkyrie was a ‘Mech that was proposed but just didn’t have enough variation to bother with. I surmise that’s the same problem with ‘Mechs like the Stinger and Wasp (that and they’d be woefully under-gunned). Have there been any other classic ‘Mechs that you’d love to put in MWO but just didn’t have enough variation to justify the work?
Mark Nicholson: Oh tons! I basically started dreaming about a Stinger/Wasp pack or a Stinger/Wasp/Valkyrie/Crusader megapack around that same time. At other times, I’d pushed for things like the Chameleon and Executioner, which I think both fell short for this reason.
Sarna: Has there been any discussion about maybe throwing in an iconic ‘Mech that might not have a lot of different configurations but is still so beloved that it might make sense as a one-off? Something like… maybe the Caesar or Grand Titan?
Mark Nicholson: No. The investment to produce new chassis has always been significant, enough that making a whole chassis and selling only one variant was never an option. Part of why the Valkyrie lost out to the Javelin was that it was apparent that we just couldn’t make five extra variants out of it. As a fan, I always find it both fun and very weird when obscure variants of a chassis end up becoming popular in MWO‘s meta and significantly altering the perception of what a specific chassis should be. Things like the Raven with a pair of ER Large Lasers, or the Assassin as an SRM bomber.
Sarna: How hard is it to make a ‘Mech still look good even if a player outright removes weapons from a ‘Mech and doesn’t replace them? There are quite a few builds that actually consolidate weapons rather than expand them, sometimes leaving arms as just bare nubs rather than gun barrels. What do you do in those situations?
Mark Nicholson: Yes, it’s quite challenging. Especially because you can’t easily predict what will become meta builds for a chassis. Or that a chassis was never really designed to look correct without its iconic weapon. I personally really dislike the way the Assassin looks without its arm laser, and yet, so much of BattleTech in general (and MWO in particular) isn’t set up to just let me give it another hand when there’s nothing equipped. As well, figuring out how to build that kind of stuff always comes at the end of building the ‘Mech, right when you’re about to hit a deadline, so it’s always a challenge of trying to envision what all sorts of configurations could look like and building something that works for every scenario in a hurry.
As well, some of my fellow artists aren’t as heavily invested in the IP–it’s just a job to them–which is fine. Along with considering what extra hardpoints or variants to give a chassis, I’d be involved in predicting where there might be significant weapon placement issues and coming up with solutions for them like all the rockets being capable of swapping for LRMs on the MAD-4HP Marauder II, but that was never something I got extra time for, so I had to do that along with my other tasks. It’s also just generally not fun to keep coming up to your co-workers all the time and saying “WELL, ACKCHYUALLY” after the work was finished. Reworking these things can be frustratingly harder than making it right the first time. That’s part of why I’ve been reworking some of the weapon art for the Phoenix Hawk and Stalker as I’ve been working on them for the new booster pack, trying to address some of these lingering issues when I can find the time. Some of it I can fix, but often it’s the price paid for allowing so much freedom in the ‘Mechlab. Having art that keeps up with the myriads of combinations you could possibly make means that you can alter the look of a ‘Mech significantly. There’s no way it’s not going to look janky some of the time.
Sarna: What ‘Mech do you think was the most challenging to get right?
Mark Nicholson: The Corsair. On top of everything else, I got ambitious and we made a whole second set of arms to use for different variants. It was a lot of work, but I thought at the time that it’d be worth it. It’s cool looking, but it was such a pain that I regret doing it. I’ve heard it’s caused more problems being imported into MW5 as well.
Sarna: Is there any ‘Mech that you’ve had a hand in building that has a really good story behind it?
“The Huntsman was something I thought laughable when I looked through old TROs as a kid, but Alex’s concept art got me hooked, and by the time I was modeling it and learning what it could do, it’d turned into a favorite.”
Mark Nicholson: I’ve always liked the Assassin. I just think it looks so cool, despite how it actually performs on a hex grid. So when I got to model it for MWO, I brought my old Assassin mini from home that I’d painted when I was around 10 years old. It sat on my desk as I made the new version.
Sarna: Let’s maybe cap this off with the classic question: what’s your favorite ‘Mech in MWO? And what’s your favorite ‘Mech overall?
Mark Nicholson: This is like trying to pick my favorite child. but I’ll list off a few that mean a lot to me and why: The Stinger was the first BattleMech I played with regularly, all those years ago. The Crab has always been reliable, cool-looking, and my fan model helped get me this job. The Vapor Eagle is probably my favorite ‘Mech to play in tabletop, and it was a long effort on my part to get it into MWO, because I love it and because I knew it would do well. The Huntsman was something I thought laughable when I looked through old TROs as a kid, but Alex’s concept art got me hooked, and by the time I was modeling it and learning what it could do, it’d turned into a favorite. In MWO, it’s a swiss army knife, able to do anything with a single variant and a couple of OmniPods–the jack-of-all-trades that the Shadow Hawk hoped to be.
Sarna: I do enjoy the Huntsman, but it needs to have some quirks reviewed because it seems to be falling behind a bunch of other mediums at the moment. Hopefully, the Cauldron gets to it soon.
Mark Nicholson: Yeah, I’ve always felt it’s a bit too squishy, especially the CT, but I also know I don’t torso twist enough.
Sarna: Is there anything you’d like Sarna’s readers to know about? Feel free to get shamelessly self-promoty
Mark Nicholson: As for self-promoty, obviously this thread that brought you to me would be a good place to start. I think it’s been going reasonably well, and I think I’ll continue to do them for these booster packs going forward.
Thank you, Mark, for this enlightening chat. I’ll never look at a ‘Mech in MechWarrior Online quite the same way again.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.