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
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.
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.