Where’s BattleTech in MechWarrior Online? A Case Study in Game Adaptation

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MechWarrior Online (MWO) is a free-to-play combat simulation based on BattleTech, a tactical board game launched by FASA Corporation in 1984. MWO is only the latest of a long series of digital games based on the board game, yet both its commercial model and its dedicated online play set it apart from its predecessors.
As with all online games, there is a lively discussion among players on both official and unofficial forums about the game, especially about the balancing of units. The most heavily contested issue is the upcoming first major expansion to the game, the Clan invasion. While this event means little more than additional units to players without a background in BattleTech, to veterans of the board game, it must appear highly problematic: Within the fictional world of the board game, set forth in dozens of rule books and over a hundred works of fiction, the invading Clans use technology which is vastly superior to that of the defenders. The implementation of these forces will, therefore, mean one of two things: introducing massively overpowered units which break the game balance, or introducing balanced units and completely deviate from established lore.
This paper presents results of an ongoing study of the modes of adaptation used by MWO developer PGI. Analyzing the logics of movement and combat in the board game and their implementation in the real-time, physically correct environment of MWO, the paper shows how PGI have successfully identified and resolved underlying issues and created the most convincing interpretation of BattleTech rules to date. This is mostly due to PGI’s considerate interpolation of spatial and temporal measurements from BattleTech’s coarse granularity. The board game is played on a surface with hex squares of one inch in diameter, operating at 1/1200 scale, and each turn represents ten seconds of game-world time. The paper shows that PGI achieves great fidelity to BattleTech rules because they make creative use of the side-effects of realistic time and space in their game-world. By fine-tuning elements not present in the board game but necessary in real time, e.g. acceleration, twist rates and angles, the various game units become even more clearly differentiated from each other than in BattleTech and thus more viable in their individual roles on the playing field.
The paper argues that while PGI have absolutely mastered the game design aspect of MWO, their implementation of a free-to-play model and the manner in which they are handling the Battletech franchise’s fictional side have created problems and will continue to do so. The Clan invasion will serve as an example for this unusual case in which friction between rules and narrative arises not because narrative is forced upon a game, but because its role in the original game is ignored in the course of adapting the rules. Because PGI had to focus on short-time commercial results to keep their company functional, the originally planned ‘community warfare’ game-mode was never released, although it would have been pivotal to introducing novice players to the fictional background of the franchise. ‘Community warfare’ was supposed to introduce a large-scale strategic level to the game, where warring factions would have fought over planets prior to the clan invasion. Before the backdrop of this strategic scenario, players would have had to cooperate across factions to defend their territory from the overpowered, yet initially landless Clans, thus automatically reiterating the scenario from BattleTech fiction. As PGI decided to generate revenue by pre-sale of Clan technology and introducing the Clans before ‘community warfare’, they are effectively negating the strategic effect of both elements and endangering the longevity of their game.
Original languageEnglish
JournalWell Played
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)11-34
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • adaptation
  • freemium
  • free to play
  • game mechanics
  • monetization
  • game balancing
  • board game


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