Jordan Weisman on Adapting BattleTech into a Video Game

Jordan Weisman, the creator of BattleTech and the co-founder of Harebrained Schemes, has recently spoken to PCGamesN about the tricky nature of bringing a board game into the digital realm, be it as a first person shooter, like MechWarrior, or a turn-based strategy, like the upcoming BattleTech. An excerpt:

However, when it came to MechWarrior games - a series of games that adapted BattleTech into a first-person shooter - there had to be some fundamental changes. While the mech design and heat systems remained, all the dice rolls were thrown out.

“The difference between a twitch-based game and a tactical game is pretty big,” Weisman says. The reward for players is skill-based, not tactical. “You're trying to hit something that's physically moving as you're physically moving. It becomes a real skill you have to develop,” he adds. With that in mind, MechWarrior recognised the change in perspective, from looking down on the table to being in the cockpit, and rewarded players for focusing their fire on individual limbs. “In the twitch-based game, being able to target specific areas of the body becomes a rewarding skill you build as a player,” Weisman explains.

In the BattleTech board game, you can only single out limbs or the cockpit of an enemy mech after it’s been knocked to the floor, because, as Weisman points out, “there is no skill that has to be developed on the part of the player to successfully shoot at legs.”

Weisman goes further, explaining that if you put limb shots into the tactical take on the game “we end up with one of two things. Either: a) the odds to hit were so low that you missed a bunch of times and it became frustrating, or b) the percentage chance to hit let you hit a number of times, in which case mechs were destroyable much too quickly.

“You're just clicking on a headshot and rolling for your lucky headshot number. Or you'll take their legs out really quickly,” Weisman summarises.

Currently, Weisman’s studio, Harebrained Schemes, is working on a turn-based tactical videogame version of BattleTech called… er, BattleTech. Despite it being much closer to the board game than, say, MechWarrior, it is still an adaptation.

“Tabletop play is very different from computer game play,” Weisman tells us. “You have the inherent socialness of people at the table, you have the tactile nature of the table and the pieces, and the tableau of the game.

If you simply take the rules of BattleTech and make them work in a videogame those aspects of the board game don’t carry over, Weisman explains. However, the biggest loss is a small thing in principle but a major one in practice: rolling a dice.

“There is an inherent drama to a die roll that doesn't exist in a computer game,” Weisman says. “You can put little dice rolling across the screen but it's not the same because tabletop gamers know for sure that they can psychically control dice. They've known this forever. And we don't believe we can psychically control digital dice.