A little while ago, BattleTech got a new line developer. We wanted to interview him back then, but he was busy with the Clan Invasion Kickstarter, then ilClan, and then there was a global pandemic, and it just never really worked out. But now that Wave Two is on its way and ilClan has shipped, we’ve finally got a chance to sit down with Ray and get to know a bit more about him. Plus, I got to ask a few questions about what’s next for BattleTech from the guy who should really know.
Today, Sarna talks to Ray Arrastia, BattleTech Line Developer at Catalyst Games. Enjoy!
Sarna (Sean): How about an easy one to start us off! How would you briefly introduce yourself?
Sarna: Hi Ray. Let’s start at the beginning. When and what got you into BattleTech?
Ray: Late 1986. Made a new friend in high school, he introduced myself and a couple others of my group to BattleTech. We were all hooked on the game and the lore. Our appetite for playing, buying, and reading BattleTech was voracious.
Sarna: So would you say you collectively had the entire collection of sourcebooks, novels, expansions, and such? And if so, did you have any particular favorites of them? Novels or sourcebooks?
Ray: I wasn’t, and I’m not, what you’d consider a BattleTech collector. But I did tend to get most things as they were released. I remember picking up The Star League sourcebook when it hit the shelves, and everyone thought that was a waste. “It’s a dead faction, that’s ancient history,” and so on.
So because of that, over the years, I did amass quite a BattleTech collection, with just a few holes here and there. I can’t pick out one single item. The Mercenary’s Handbook and the Davion and House Kurita books were so used and perused that all three fell to pieces.
Technical Readout 3025 as well. Now that one got so much use, I had to replace it several times over the years.
Sarna: Bit of a detour, but have you made the switch to digital media for these books that are, shall we say, high mileage?
Ray: Anything that FanPro or Catalyst Game Labs has put out digitally, I have. I’d probably prefer digital in some cases, but I’ve got physical items regardless since I worked on several of them. But otherwise… no, kinda stuck like everyone else. We’d love to eventually digitize everything in the catalog, but it’s not a high priority and there’s several challenges in doing so.
Sarna: Fair enough. And let’s get the most important question out of the way: what’s your favorite ‘Mech?
“Probably designed a half dozen or so myself, and been involved in countless TROs… but yeah, always come back to the Marauder.”
Sarna: And in your time working at Catalyst, how many ‘Mechs have you helped birth yet still decided to go with the Marauder?
Ray: Hah! Probably designed a half dozen or so myself, and been involved in countless TROs… but yeah, always come back to the Marauder.
Sarna: Of all the people I ask that question to, I think the Marauder comes up the most. It might not always be everyone’s favorite, but it’s almost always mentioned. Why do you think that is?
Ray: I think it’s a combination of the alienness of the visual design and the way it was overhyped everywhere in the early lore.
Sarna: Let’s change gears a bit and talk about your ascent to the height of BattleTech‘s development. What’d you do before you got hired at Catalyst?
Ray: My background is in graphic design and production. I left my day jobs to work for CGL, and to freelance a couple times in the past, where I was production or pre-production management. Lots of problem solving and got to be hands-on at different points in a project from concept to realization, but especially, of course, bringing the final piece to fruition.
Sarna: How’d you first get hired at Catalyst and what’d you start out doing?
Ray: When FanPro started up, they had their big event, Monte Diablo, but it wasn’t offered anywhere near me in South Florida (despite having a ton of BattleTech players). When the next big event, the Trial of Retribution came around, I definitely wanted to play in that as I was a big WarShip fan. And… I found that it wasn’t being offered down here. Like most fans in that situation, I was pretty upset with FanPro. There’s a big community down here, why isn’t BattleTech being represented? I thought they had a team of people that ran games and they airdropped them wherever they’re needed, behind enemy lines so to speak. It never occurred to me that running official games isn’t just for the community, but comes from the community, so I stepped up and joined their program, the FanPro Commandos. Just slightly too late to run the Trial or Retribution.
As part of the application, I had to create a BattleTech scenario. I put together a PDF and included some art and design elements, and with the formatting, it looked just like something out of a FASA or FanPro publication, so that got some notice, and pretty soon I was tapped for creating various materials for the FP Commandos. Whether I volunteered or was volunteered for the in-house fanzine, the Commando Quarterly, I really can’t remember. But I dove in there head first and loved every minute. From my time there I found that.no matter how passionately a community is… nothing just “manifests” according to wishes and wants, people need to actually “do” things. And add to that, anything that just grows organically never really seems to go anywhere. So passion has to be channeled into leadership, and by leadership towards end goals. So between Anthony Hardenburgh and myself, we planned, we solicited articles, we edited and honed submissions, and we made that magazine happen… for a while at least. It was a tremendous commitment of time and effort, and just like many of the BattleTech fanzines back then (there were quite a few!), we had to give it up eventually.
“I was one of the founding members (but it may have been a pity invitation!) of CamoSpecs Online, the “official” miniature painters for FanPro and the creators/keepers of the official paint schemes.”
Meanwhile, I was getting involved in the community in other ways. I had partnered up with Brian Plunkitt and Fighting Piranha Graphics and we were producing licensed BattleTech waterslide decals for the miniatures. I was one of the founding members (but it may have been a pity invitation!) of CamoSpecs Online, the “official” miniature painters for FanPro and the creators/keepers of the official paint schemes. Between all that and the magazine, that put me into regular contact with the folks at FanPro (Randall Bills, Herb Beas) and Iron Wind Metals (Mike Noe, Drew Willians), as everything I was doing I was trying to do in conjunction with those companies to better promote BattleTech and get it out in people’s faces.
So after a while, I started working directly for those companies as a freelancer, doing packaging or promotions for IWM and illustrations and design for FanPro. That continued as the license for BattleTech and Shadowrun was acquired by Catalyst Game Labs, since CGL ownership and staff overlapped with the staff (but not ownership) at FP. After a time I became one of the two main guys involved in layout and design in CGL, and I eventually became the BattleTech layout and design guy and was fully brought on staff for the first time. It was at this point that I became one of the “core” guys in BT, being part of the meetings and decision-making and all that. But in the background, where I like it!
OK, I can stop the answer there or run through when I was hired the second time?
Sarna: Oh no, definitely please do explain how you went from being folded into Catalyst from FanPro to being hired a second time.
Ray: There were some pretty good years in there, but there came a time where, for a lot of reasons, things just halted. We needed to run lean and cut back. And I think because of that, the storyline itself stalled. We were on the precipice of major changes but weren’t in a position to rock the boat with some of the things we wanted to do with the story or product. The Line Developer position went from full-time to freelance, and pretty soon I went from full-time BT design and production to general CGL freelancer.
Sarna: Just so I can sort of timeline things, at what point in the BattleTech lore was that? Dark Age?
Ray: Correct, this was as we were going to wind down the Dark Age era. If you map my employment to eras, I started working on BattleTech at the beginning of the Jihad, was hired full time during the Dark Age, and then there was a lull near the end of the Dark Age when my first tenure ended.
Interestingly enough, for not being on staff since things were in a sort of limbo, I was able to take on a sort of developer role and come up with both some low-impact product lines as well as some experimental products like the Combat Manuals.
After a couple years going back to work as a production manager, I still was heavily involved in BattleTech, just the amount of work involved was fairly light. As Catalyst geared up to make a comeback with BT, the workload increased, I was made the Assistant Line Developer under Randall, and a while later Brent was placed in charge of the line to give it the attention it needed.
We had known that where we were taking BattleTech in the next few years, we needed someone to completely take the role as Line Developer, and Brent was splitting his duties between that and being the Art Director for all of Catalyst Game Labs. As we started planning for the Clan Invasion Kickstarter, I was asked if I would take the position so that Brent could transition back to the massive duties of wrangling all that we were producing (the demands of which just continue to grow). And that’s how I was hired the second time.
Sarna: So, as the Line Developer, you’re basically in charge of charting BattleTech‘s future, but what else does the job entail?
Ray: There’s just so much that goes into the job that it’s mind-boggling. We map out what we want to do with the product line in the next couple years yet have to be flexible enough to adapt that as things change constantly (global pandemic? worldwide manufacturing and shipping slowdown? new, worthy ideas get thrown at you by surprise?). You work with the others in the core team on how the story and the products will work together. You put together the basic concepts and outlines for products and hand them over to other developers (if you don’t wind up running those projects yourself). You work with the art director and design team to make sure that we keep putting out incredible artwork that complements these games and books and captures the imagination, be accessible and try to be a positive influence in the community (I’ve gotten some flak for that, but I can’t get behind any kind of “us/them” type of thinking—I’m here because I’m a gamer and a BattleTech fan), and you constantly have to be thinking of new ways to engage the fans and entice new ones.
I apologize if that sounds way too simple and broad, I’m just afraid to get into the nitty-gritty; there really is just so much involved on a day-to-day basis. I can tell you on the surface, it’s probably not that unfamiliar to a lot of people: its tons after unmerciful tons of emails, lots of chatter on messengers of every stripe, and way too many meetings. But as much as to denigrate it, like most fans, I’d be happy to be a fly on the wall of any of those—let alone the fact that I’m a part of them! Hah!
Sarna: But speakin’ of enticing new fans, have you heard about that thing with Warhammer 40K? Some unpopular pronouncements from Games Workshop have pissed off a lot of Warhammer fans, and I haven’t gone a day without seeing Warhammer refugees flooding into the BattleTech subreddits. Do you have anything to say to these newcomers?
Ray: I say welcome! While BattleTech and Warhammer 40K share some influences, and their legacies go back to the post-D&D tabletop gaming and role-playing games, they’re both great universes to explore and enjoy. I welcome everyone joining us now, and I hope they find something new in BattleTech that they’ll enjoy that will keep them playing and reading for years to come.
To put it simply, I was asked recently what we’re looking to do to capitalize on this influx. Well, we make things for people to have fun. That’s what we do. If more people buy our books, games, and miniatures and have fun, we’ll keep making more.
“While BattleTech and Warhammer 40K share some influences, and their legacies go back to the post-D&D tabletop gaming and role-playing games, they’re both great universes to explore and enjoy.”
Sarna: Sounds good to me. Them Warhammer folks have a ton of backstory to get caught up on anyway. I think the best way to capitalize is to convince them that BattleTech has a bright future ahead of it.
Which leads me to ilClan. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, but before we do, how’s it feel to finally be free of Dark Age?
Sarna: Ah shit.
Ray: We’re actually about two years ahead of ilClan right now, behind the scenes. So in one respect, it was a huge feeling of relief and accomplishment to finally have Hour of the Wolf completed and sending the ilClan sourcebook sent to press, and then again when Hour was finally released and people read through it. And it’s going to be that feeling again when the sourcebook is finally released in August. However, we’re not there yet, and while we’re finally hitting these milestones, we’re constantly working. And so now we’re just waiting until everyone gets their hands on the next sourcebook, or hears about the product after that.
So: it feels great. But then we’re just bound and chained to the next thing, and the next.
What feels good is to have that time in between reduced to months instead of years.
Sarna: So, maybe I’m reading between the lines here a bit, but it sounds like there’s yet more upheaval coming even after this ilClan era, and that’s coming after Dark Age’s upheaval and Jihad’s upheaval. I know the Inner Sphere has always been a rough place, but are we still going to be a while until there’s a relatively calm period in BattleTech?
And by calm, I mean more like the 3015-3039ish period where it’s border wars and political machinations mostly.
Ray: Man, that’s an excellent question.
So for each of these upheavals, we’ve got an era, right? Right now we’re in the ilClan Era. We have a lot of plans for the next several years, all as part of this era, this initial catalyst, if you will, of the Battle of Terra and the culmination of an ilClan. But that doesn’t mean we’ll have a “Jihad” or “Dark Age” era in a couple years; everything in the foreseeable future is the fallout from the dawn of this era.
That said, when you bring up 3015-3039, to me that’s a question of setting stability, something I’m really keen on. The original setting for BattleTech, there was lots of action without huge changes to the setting, which means that there were endless opportunities for gameplay, whether tabletop or roleplay. Even replayability since the future was unwritten. But like many 80’s games, the metaplot demanded setting-shaking changes, and many older games didn’t survive their own metaplots. I feel that’s why we lost some fans in the Clan Invasion, and others during the Dark Age and Jihad: massive changes to the setting.
What I would like to see is to reach a middle ground where we could get to a stable setting, like the Succession Wars or the brief time between the Clan Invasion and the FedCom Civil War, where warfare is constant. We have a setting, games, stories, and characters that everyone is invested in, where fans can play and explore, and we can have major events, but we don’t feel a need to wipe the map clean and turn it upside down every couple years.
But we’re not there yet. Alaric Ward has upset the apple cart.
Sarna: He sure has. Alaric is an interesting figure. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, he’s very… morally gray. He’s no Victor, he’s no Katherine—he’s really in between, and there are a lot of Dark Age figures that also fall into this category. BattleTech has always had strong heroes to juxtapose its chaotic, often dystopian future. As we head into ilClan, is BattleTech going to see a few more heroes emerge?
Ray: Yes. It’s difficult for me to comment other than to say yes. I think some of that has to happen organically. There are some that are existing characters whose stories are far from finished, like Danai or Julian, and there are characters that we want to focus on, like Ronan and Bel Carlyle, or Trenton Marik, but then I think there may be others, who right now may just be in the background of an upcoming sourcebook or piece of fiction, but might rise up if they inspire the writers and fans.
Sarna: Alright, let’s talk tech. It’s 3150. The Clans have been around for a century, and in my reading of the Recognition Guides: ilClan, I’m seeing a lot of classic-era BattleTech ‘Mechs remade with Clan tech. This makes sense, given how Clan technology really should have disseminated across the Inner Sphere at this point. Are we heading into an era where Clan tech is the standard and we can throw away all our regular old Medium Lasers?
Sarna: Well. Asked and answered.
Ray: They’re all getting makeovers with ilClan era tech, yes. Not necessarily Clan tech in all cases.
Sarna: Well fair enough–the Clans no longer have a lock on innovation these days.
What you will see a bit of are combat commands resurfacing, whatever the method or reason. Gray Death Legion, Eridani Light Horse, McGee’s Cutthroats. You will see a bit of that, from some of the greats to some of the forgotten.
Sarna: Avanti’s Angels?
Ray: …it’s possible. Hah!
“We’re going to see a shift back to the earlier days when conventional arms played a major role but were second fiddle to BattleMechs.”
Sarna: This is more of a personal opinion question, but what’s up with tanks? I’m seeing a trend in recent BattleTech fiction where conventional forces are having more of a role in the narrative. Heck, there was even a tank crew that got a whole subplot in Hour of the Wolf!
I know lots of militaries use combined arms, and it was especially common during the Dark Age, but as a BattleTech purist, I’m here for the giant robots. Are we still going to see a lot of thanks for the foreseeable future?
Ray: We’re going to see a shift back to the earlier days when conventional arms played a major role but were second fiddle to BattleMechs. For most people, it shouldn’t be a change whether they’re ‘Mech purists or they live and breathe tanks/infantry/Aerospace. The difference should mainly be for casual or new players so that combined arms are further down in the funnel and not all part of the firehose that they’ve been expected to drink from.
Sarna: I think that’s wise. BattleTech can be dense enough without the rules surrounding tanks and infantry, although with Clan Tech as the new standard, I suppose there’s just going to have to be at least that much level of complication.
Here’s a quick hit: when the hell are the HPGs getting fixed?!
Ray: Maybe sometime this month—in about 1,131 years, give or take.
Sarna: Also, for all those former Warhammer fans and for the people salivating over all these fancy new ‘Mechs coming in the Recognition Guides: when can we expect more miniatures to arrive? Either for the new ‘Mechs or even more plastic resculpts of alternate-era ‘Mechs (such as Jihad or FedCom Civil War)?
Ray: Wave Two will arrive any day now to backers and then to retail. From there… it’s coming.
Sarna: Alright, that’s all I had prepared! Thanks so much for sitting down to talk to me and Sarna’s readers, Ray. We all appreciate it. If you have any more bombs to drop, feel free.
Ray: And I really wanted to give a shout-out to Aaron Cahall. Thanks!
Thanks again to Ray for telling his story and giving us a preview of what’s to come in BattleTech.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.