MechWarrior Online’s Renaissance Is All Thanks To The Developers Putting Players In Charge

courtesy of EldoniousRex

Something pretty remarkable is happening in MechWarrior Online. After years of falling player counts and being basically put on life support as developer PGI diverted funds and resources into developing MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, MechWarrior Online players are returning to this once nearly-dead game. 

There are a number of reasons for this unexpected renaissance. To start, PGI began providing MechWarrior Online with updates at the end of last year. PGI also hired a new community manager--a well-known figure in the MechWarrior and BattleTech community--to help reach out to players and convince them that MechWarrior Online was worth another shot. 

But I’d argue that the biggest reason why players are returning to MechWarrior Online is that PGI has done the unthinkable: they’ve put the players in charge of MechWarrior Online.

Not all of them, of course. Even an almost dead game still has thousands of players and most of them couldn’t be bothered to dive into the spreadsheets of data necessary for a game as large and complex as MechWarrior Online. But a small group of players plucked from all levels of play have coalesced into a governing body that has largely been given the authority to determine MechWarrior Online’s future.

Those players call themselves the Cauldron--a name chosen to represent their melting pot of opinions. Like many online PvP games, MechWarrior Online has a diverse group of players of differing skill levels, and like BattleTech itself, they all love different aspects of the game. However, this group of players has been able to do something that PGI has struggled with over its many years of MechWarrior Online development.

The Cauldron is bringing fun back to MechWarrior Online.

MechWarrior Online’s Many Missteps

MechWarrior Online is a textbook example of what happens to an online service game when it expands faster than its developers can keep up. You can hardly blame PGI for wanting to monetize MWO as best they could, but the way they decided to do that was to keep throwing more and more ‘Mechs and weapons into the game until it became too overwhelming for their dev team to keep up with both balancing the game and also creating the next big thing.

Those big things often became sweeping changes to MechWarrior Online‘s mechanics that nobody really asked for. Perhaps the best example of this is MechWarrior Online‘s absolutely byzantine skill tree--resoundingly panned for being both overly complicated and ludicrously expensive at launch, and that opinion hasn’t changed much in the years since. 

Throw on engine desync, overly quirked Hero ‘Mechs, pay-to-win airstrikes and artillery strikes, and the still-infamous golden ‘Mech cash grab, and at times it seemed almost like PGI was deliberately trying to alienate MechWarrior Online‘s audience.

It certainly alienated me. Until recently, I hadn’t even touched the game since sometime back in 2017. And although we don’t have a complete report on MechWarrior Online’s total player count, we can assume based on the game’s Steamcharts performance that it also alienated plenty of other players over the years.

By early 2020, MechWarrior Online had reached its lowest point. With few players still left actually playing the game, it made far more financial sense for PGI to focus on creating MechWarrior 5 than it did to waste resources in a game that nobody was playing. Although the servers remained online, few players meant extra-long wait times for MechWarrior Online’s matches to start, and so PGI declared official updates for the game would end in January of 2020.

At that point, the writing was on the wall. MechWarrior Online was on life support, and it seemed only a matter of time before it became more profitable to turn the MWO servers off rather than keep them online.

Then 2020 happened, and the whole fucking world changed.

A Pandemic Makes Fools Of Us All

In February 2020, there were as few as 577 players on MechWarrior Online via Steam. Then the pandemic hit, and despite the fact nothing in the game had changed, government-imposed lockdowns meant that lots of people were stuck at home with nothing to do. A free-to-play game like MechWarrior Online was a worthy diversion for BattleTech fans worried about an apocalyptic new virus, so by March, MechWarrior Online‘s population had jumped by nearly 25%. 

By July, MechWarrior Online‘s player count was nearly double what it was a few months before without the game receiving a single update. I don’t really know what was going through the minds of PGI’s upper management during this time, but from their actions, you get a sense that they weren’t entirely ready to give up on MechWarrior Online

First, PGI hired a brand new community manager in October. Daeron “Bombadil” Katz is a well-known figure amongst the entire BattleTech community for his time as co-host for No Guts No Galaxy, and especially well-known in the MechWarrior Online community. There was basically no better person to reach out to MWO players and ask them just what could be done to revive the game.

Second, PGI was purchased by Swedish games publisher EG7. Unlike many publishers, EG7 seems to be a very hands-off sort of company, content to simply fund studios to develop their games and then reap the rewards. With EG7 paying the bills, PGI could now afford to take even the tiniest financial risk in setting up a small team to once again begin updating MechWarrior Online

But it was a very small team, and both Bombadil and PGI marketing head Matt Newman made it clear in the early months of 2021 that they just couldn’t make the sweeping changes to MechWarrior Online that some players had hoped for (chief among those was porting the game from CryEngine to Unreal Engine 5, a heroic task even for a much larger developer). 

Matt and Daeron promised small fixes, some new events, and perhaps a new ‘Mech pack or two. Game balance--which by this point was hopelessly out of control thanks to high-tech-era weapons and over 1,300 different ‘Mechs--was mentioned, but never really highlighted. The effort required to rebalance MechWarrior Online simply cost more than PGI would get in return. Or so they thought. 

Welcome To The Gulag

Before we can talk about the Cauldron, we have to talk about the Gulag, a name chosen for several reasons but chief among them was the idea that they were providing PGI with free labor. The group first formed in early 2018 after several updates took MechWarrior Online‘s balance in a decidedly un-fun direction, nerfing certain weapons and ‘Mechs to the point where they became basically unusable for no particular reason.

The Gulag was by all accounts a reactive movement, but one with the best intentions. The group created spreadsheets of game data and made reasonable arguments to revert the changes or institute entirely new ones for the overall health of the game. MechWarrior Online‘s developers, however, weren’t a receptive audience.

“The attitude that PGI had at the time [was] sort of the ‘we don’t want your help, we can do it ourselves’ type,” Bear_cl4w tells me in an interview. The group operates mostly as a collective, but Bear_cl4w serves as the de-facto leader. 

“When we had finished our work and showed it to the community the feedback was generally positive. But again, the response from PGI… They saw it and told us, ‘yeah we’ve discussed it internally,’ and then nothing,” Bear_cl4w recounts. “Little did we know that at the time they were working on MechWarrior 5, which led to maintenance mode for MWO.”

Things changed over the course of 2020. Maintenance mode reverted back to active--if somewhat tentative--development. With PGI’s resources mostly diverted to MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, the free labor offered by the Gulag suddenly seemed like a far more attractive proposition. 

But once spurned, twice shy. PGI needed to make amends, and that job fell to MWO‘s brand new community manager. 

“Daeron I would say is a big part in why it has happened,” fellow Cauldron member Krasnopesky tells me. “I agree,” adds Bear_cl4w. “Daeron is a familiar face in the community due to his ties with No Guts No Galaxy and his recent hiring with PGI, but it was less about the individual and more about the message: they were asking us for help.”

This first step to mending fences meant that the Gulag was back on board. Only, they couldn’t be called the Gulag anymore. To avoid all the negative historical connotations, and to represent their new partnership with PGI, the Gulag “had to lose the edgy name.” 

The Cauldron, as the group calls themselves now, got straight to work fixing all of MechWarrior Online‘s many ailments. “The Cauldron has been sort of set to high gear,” Bear_cl4w says. “Rather than tackling one part of the game, we intend to re-balance as much as we are able to. Or as much as PGI currently can do.”

Made Better By Real MechWarriors

Mechwarrior Online May 2021 Patch Review
Watch this video on YouTube.

Certain aspects of MWO are just beyond the Cauldron’s abilities to change. Fundamental aspects of the game--such as the team deathmatch format, the 12v12 matches, and user interface--require engineers on PGI’s end to alter, which are in terribly short supply given the company’s focus on MechWarrior 5. But anything that can basically be boiled down to a number on a spreadsheet is fair game, and the Cauldron loves its numbers.

They’ve also got a plan. “The Cauldron is going about it as strategically as possible,” adds Bear_cl4w. “For example, our April patch was the big weapons pass and some light quirk changes, and for May, there is a map rework coming from the recently added map guy PGI hired, Francois. But after every big step, there will be an iteration on the previous step. So for May, it’s a big mobility step, small weapon iteration, and some more light quirk work.”

May’s recent patch notes make Bear_cl4w a man of his words. April’s weapon changes get slight adjustments, but there are also some big developments when it comes to ‘Mech mobility. Old, outdated designs like the Centurion, Hunchback, and Firestarter have all received massive agility enhancements, while designs like the Jagermech, Jenner, and Cicada have all received armor and structure buffs.

It’s no exaggeration that these changes make all these old ‘Mechs feel like new again. I’m actually excited to take these old gals out for a spin, and I’m not the only one. Feedback on both Reddit and the MechWarrior Online forums has been universally positive, not just for the ‘Mech reworks but for the reworked Canyon map as well.

What’s next for the Cauldron and MechWarrior Online? Once again, Bear_cl4w lays out the near-term plan. “We are getting some significant stuff this year and we’ll push for as much as we ourselves and PGI can do. Our intended path is weapons, agility, quirks, rescale, skill tree.”

Not everything will come at once, but rescaling certain ‘Mechs to be smaller or larger than others (the Shadow Hawk has been annoyingly tall in MechWarrior Online for some time now), as well as a simplified skill tree will only help to bring more players back to the game and maybe even get new players to give MechWarrior Online a try. 

Courtesy of PGI

Before I heap all the credit for MechWarrior Online‘s revival entirely on the Cauldron, it should be noted that PGI has been uncharacteristically generous with its events recently. Last month, they gave away the Mad Cat Mk II-B, a powerhouse of the old meta with its twin UAC/5 and twin UAC/10s. For May, PGI is giving away the Timber Wolf-C, a laser-vomit specialist and one of the ‘Mechs that benefited greatly from the recent mobility pass. And even if you don’t play enough to get the free ‘Mechs (which honestly doesn’t take too many matches even if you’re of average skill), there’s still tons of free C-bills, skill points, MC, and Premium Time up for grabs.

But just by the very nature of the game, players wouldn’t come back to acquire these new ‘Mechs if they didn’t think there’d be anyone to use them against. The Cauldron has changed the perception of MechWarrior Online as a dead game without a future into something much brighter. 

For the past seven months, MechWarrior Online’s player count has only gone up. In my own experience, the time spent waiting for the matchmaker to find players for a game has gone down. And when those games actually start, I’m far more likely to see new and interesting custom loadouts that nobody has ever seen before. it honestly feels like a whole new game.

MechWarrior 5’s release on Steam in the coming days is sure to bring renewed interest to MechWarrior Online. When those players come, they’ll be met with a game being made better by the very same MechWarriors they’re facing online. Just as it should be.

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26 thoughts on “MechWarrior Online’s Renaissance Is All Thanks To The Developers Putting Players In Charge

  1. Revanche

    Thank you, Sean.

    I was completely unawares of this. while I’m setting up in MW5, I fully intend to take another go at MWO, give it another look.

    Reply
    1. blag

      yeah but at this point there is no way i am willing to give pgi money they scammed us all treated us like shit i am not a beaten wife

      Reply
  2. Palor

    Bear_cl4w was once PGI’s chosen champion for this weekly tournament they did. It was a lot of fun. Eventually it came to an end. It is interesting PGI is given the players some control over game dev, since PGI was once strongly against anything players suggested.

    Reply
  3. Frabby

    Old players coming back en masse might explain why I keep getting my backside handed to me so often in MWO recently… but as far as gaming goes this is a good thing. I like a challenge and I don’t mind losing if I can learn something from the experience. :)

    Reply
  4. Michael Ridgeway

    Thanks for this update, Sean.

    I can’t remember when that garbage Skill Tree went into effect, but that is the last day I ever played MWO. I remember posting passionately about my opposition to the nearly undecipherable and pointless changes on the MWO forums, only to be shouted down by the forum Trolls. The game died and I resisted the urge to post “I told you sos” on the forum. MW5 never really appealed to me, and I was not going to throw more of my money at a company that screwed me over so thoroughly. Instead, I took refuge in the PC Battle Tech game — which is just excellent.

    I truthfully would never have even given MWO another look had I not read this. They sometimes would send me emails, but they’re now relegated to the Spam folder. It’s a sad thing too, since I really liked the game. But I just don’t have the energy to completely relearn the skill tree and the new mechanics. All of the mechs I liked to pilot before were nerfed out of existence — hundreds of hours of play and even more in actual real world dollars felt like they were completely wasted. I’m not certain I can drink that Kool-Aid again, to be honest.

    But you’ve got me to thinkin… ;)

    Reply
    1. chaos_noise

      The skill maze killed the game for me. Just the thought of having to log in and apply skill points for hours just to use the mechs I want was too much. Even if I had a full guide on how to optimally setup every build I ran it was just this massive, artificial, unfun, time sink instituted by a dev team I little confidence in. (Why spend hours on a system they could very well scrap in a month?)

      If they are actually listening to the community and instituting changes MWO may be worth another look. /shrug

      Reply
      1. Firewolfslayer

        thankfully they actually are listening can confirm, sadly bc of how they calculate mobility or something they couldn’t roll out the entire mobility patch in one go so they are doing it one by one, really hopeful for everything, the timby FEELS SOOOO much better now, haven’t been playing too long only since 2018 and only around 1200-1300~ games but the game feels so much better now, the march patch really f*cked it up but after that it was glorious really hyped for the next patch

        Reply
  5. Kdogprime

    The only reason MWO is still running is because of the EGS’s exclusivity money, and the EG7 buyout. Otherwise, lockdown-boosted player count or no, the game would not have received further support, and it would probably be shut down already. Now that MW5 is out to the public at large, I suspect that MWO’s player count is going to drop again.

    Also, it’s too little, too late for PGI to start listening to the community now. They’ve burned bridges they aren’t going to be able to rebuild with most fans. I sold my MWO account years ago, and they couldn’t pay me to make a new one.

    Besides, it’s still Counterstrike with giant robots. The community can’t fix the twitch shooter foundations this game has. As for porting it to UE5, bwaahahaha! Good luck with that. That’s a fever dream at best. Unreal was the engine they should have been using from the beginning, and they’ve finally realized it too late, as usual.

    “Hindsight is 20/20,” should be PGI’s corporate motto by this point.

    Reply
    1. Rookh

      Just because you’re bitter doesn’t mean everyone holds such a deep grudge. A lot of old veterans are coming back to MWO, including myself.

      Also UE4 didn’t release until well after PGI was deep into the development of MWO; so it’s funny to hear you talking about Unreal being an option, particularly since UE3 was very long in the tooth at that point (being nearly a decade old) and vastly inferior to the capabilities of CryEngine at the time. It’s easy to be angry about PGI not picking Unreal Engine 4 when you don’t actually pay attention to the fact that it literally wasn’t an option when development of MWO began, smh.

      As for your theory that people will stop playing MWO to play MW5; I must point out that MW5 is single-player… when people beat it and still have the stompy robots itch, they look to a multiplayer version, which is MWO. We might see a dip in player counts in MWO with the release of MW5 as players play through the campaign, but there isn’t anything to keep people in MW5 after they’re done, and there are going to be plenty of MW5 initiates looking to take their newfound mech-killing abilities into the multiplayer world. We’re already starting to see some of them in-game as MWO is featured prominently on the MW5 Steam page.

      “The community can’t fix the twitch shooter foundations this game has.” I mean, that’s what Mechwarrior is… a twitch shooter in giant robots. What do you think it should be?!

      You say that hindsight is 20/20, but given what you’ve written here, I think you need to get your eyes checked.

      Reply
      1. kdogprime

        And I think you need to learn the difference between a simulator and a simple FPS shooter.

        Reply
        1. kdogprime

          As for UE3, it may have been getting towards the end of its life, but it was a proven, stable engine, and UE4 was released in 2014, only a year after MWO’s “official” release.

          Other projects have transitioned over, and it worked for them. http://xingthegame.blogspot.com/2014/04/we-made-switch-to-unreal-engine-4.html

          The only reason PGI picked CryEngine 3 is because, at the time, a CryEngine licensing fee was cheaper than Unreal Engine’s. It was purely a money-saving tactic, but at the same time, they picked an engine that was lacking in support and more difficult to use as a result.

          There is a reason why UE4 is the number 2 gaming engine by total users while CryEngine is number 6. It’s the same reason PGI used Unreal Engine to make MW5; better tools, better documentation, better support.

          MWO is not going to be ported to UE5. It’s going to live and die on CryEngine 3.

          Reply
        2. anaris

          “first person shooter shooter”
          u definitely know the term ur using well and can be snotty about it to others :)

          Reply
      2. Grimbrand

        I was one of the original backers. I spent the big bucks to fund them when they got started, and then, upon realizing that we were getting a deathmatch instead of what they’d originally promised, I bailed out a month before actual game launch.

        I asked for a refund.

        Instead, I was mocked by the admins via email, and told that I needed to forget about Battletech, and embrace the changes they were putting in. Like ghost heat. Gold mechs. And ‘build-of-the-week’ nerfs and buffs that strangely coincided with the hero mechs they were selling.

        I disagreed, uninstalled, and have never played again. Am I bitter? Sure. But in my opinion, it wasn’t much different from the E-bay sellers who sell pictures of items instead of the real deal, and collect big money. Russ stole $250 from me, and to this day refuses to give it back. PGI may have some great people working for ’em, but Bullock and the rest of upper management are a bunch of jerks.

        Reply
  6. James Scott

    Along with PGI’s prior dishonesty with the MWO community, you left the Steam/Epic bait-and-switch that seemed to be the final nail in MWO’s coffin last year, as well as Russ’ admission that MW5 was the game he REALLY wanted to make all along, and that MWO was just a means to an end. The ugly truth is that PGI planned to walk away from MWO and its headaches after MW5 was released (as Russ explained here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCIjC6oK3D8) but suddenly needed to revive it after MW5 fizzled last spring and negotiations for PGI’s sale to EG7 began. He needed something to pitch to the Swedes and it wasn’t the incomplete and buggy MW5. So back to MWO Russ went, at which point your narrative begins with the hiring of Daeron Katz’s to engage with the long ignored Gulag/Cauldron team and also beg old timers to return to the game. The whole point was to get the player numbers back up and make PGI look more attractive to EG7! That’s what happened!

    Reply
    1. Kdogprime

      Lol, so instead he pitched the buggy and unbalanced MWO?

      The way you described it is just perfectly PGI.

      Reply
    2. Volt

      Smith & Tinker and PGI always wanted to Make MW5 even before MWO. The game was officially announced in July of 2009, but in 2013, we got MWO instead.

      Reply
  7. Pht

    Rookh
    2021/05/30 at 3:53 pm

    “The community can’t fix the twitch shooter foundations this game has.” I mean, that’s what Mechwarrior is… a twitch shooter in giant robots. What do you think it should be?!

    Mechwarrior means armored combat game. Not slower shooter with more armor and weapons.

    So far the game has not lived up to the promise and fun it could be because this has not been acknowledged by people who make the games. It’s just *another* shooter, in which the armored combat units don’t matter nearly as much as they should and in reality the ‘mechs’ are treated as nothing more than slower avatars of the players.

    Biter has nothing to do with it and that’s a red herring. There are huge really important sections of the game missing under the hood that, if implemented, would make for a more compelling and fun game.

    Reply
  8. Arthen00

    Seeing MWO started to being revived like that makes me glad.

    I’ve played many mech games, and so far many haven’t reached the quality of MWO in terms of realism and variety outside a single game.

    Really hope to see it continuing with updates, as well with more mechs, weapons, maps and game types.

    It does have a lot of potential to be the best mech game of all times and for a long, long time.

    Reply
  9. Byron

    How is the community? I was a founder but left the game LONG ago because of ingame commnity TOXICITY. Nothing to do with PGI per se, but more the group of gate keepers, that made me want to never return. I’ve bought mechs and all that in the time since, but haven’t played a match since. Thinking of giving it another go, but how is/are the people in the community? I guess I could poke my head in and see.

    Reply
    1. Kdogprime

      People being pissed off at a game for it’s lack of quality and at the developers for their lack of competence is not “gate keeping.”

      I have never heard anyone who did not like MWO say to someone who did like it that they are not a true Mechwarrior fan for liking the game. MWO is not a very good mech simulator game compared to others, that is true, but it’s just as much a part of Mechwarrior as MechAssault, which isn’t a simulator either.

      Reply
  10. Elfcat

    I for one am glad the game was around for me to find. I had lapsed from Battletech games for a long while – my last serious involvement was FrontierMUX – then I was just in time to become a beta contributor to HBS Battletech, which was cool, and then just on a random search I discovered MWO. I hadn’t seen MW since MW2 on my Mac almost 20 years ago, and coming across this live multiplayer game was insanely great. I haven’t had this much fun since Virtual World (Walnut Creek California was my VW Base). It seems like I came across this at just the right time for all these changes, and I’m jazzed to hear about it going into a growth spurt. I hope MWOComp and Aces Wild and others keep putting on competitions. I hope the devs add the Naginata and Longbow. A further fantasy might be a future with the option to field at least ground vehicles. There are a lot of ways it could go. The Discord teams are awesome and have opened up a whole universe of new online friendships. In all I think we have a pretty sweet cadre going here. And for my two cents, I say you know a game is good if you have fun even on nights that you totally suck rocks and get a sick smackdown. CLAWS OUT!

    Reply
  11. CatLady

    It is interesting – and somehow unsettling – how much effort and free work people are willing to give to game that was, basically, a low-tier effort at grabbing in the freemium/pay-to-win market. Would be understandable if it would be only MP mech game – but there is MUCH better, free and monetizing-free from the very start, MechWarrior: Living Legends.
    Instead of pay2win airstrikes, you have full combined assault gameplay (with mechs, tanks, hovers, ASF, gunships, longtoms, thumpers, etc) – on big, natural-looking maps (not the dumb nascar arena styles of MWO) all done by the volunteer work of passionate through the more than 7 (!) years. All of this, with active playerbase for the whole time.
    The fact that some people STILL prefer to give free work to PGI, instead of focusing on something more productive and community-driven from the star,t is astonishing. But, everyone to their own, I guess.

    Reply
    1. wangmauler

      I’ve been playing MWLL on and off since 2009. Tried MWO so many times and always come back to MWLL.

      Reply
  12. HKK

    From:
    718 Mech Joint Repair Bn. “You twistem off, We twistem back on”

    Cheeze und Krackerz, Bombadil ist driv’n now?

    Got to dust the cobwebs off the account and see if it’s true.

    HKK

    Reply

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