For as long as I’ve been playing MWO, I’ve never really seen Piranha Games Inc (PGI) release drastic or dramatic changes in a single patch. Instead, I like to think of their method as more of a ratchet: they slowly but surely keep on ratcheting forward in quality, content, and polish. The February 5th patch is a good example of what I mean: some nice additions that add one more layer of varnish to the UI as well as some minor gameplay changes. For this feature, I’m going to reflect on the journey MWO and its community have made over the past year.
Early Closed Beta: The Good, The Bad and The Pubbie
At the start of the closed beta, it was obvious that the game was just out of alpha. If you think the netcode was bad in open beta, you would have been appalled at its performance back in this primordial ooze of an era. SRMs were more clustered and slower in flight speed, which made hitting a moving target at 100+ meters a notable achievement. Armor values were initially in line with the tabletop version for a short time before they doubled them, which made the fights, like uncivilized life, brutish and short. LRMs went in and out of vogue multiple times, a trend that continues to this day. Headboxes on mechs were much bigger and easier to hit. For a while, it was as common for Atlases to die to head shots as to torso kills, especially from LRMS. There wasn’t any group matchmaking at all, so you could sync drop but you would end up having to murder your friends. All players were new to the game, and unoptimized mech builds were the norm in this age of inexperience and constantly changing balance numbers.
Some of my fondest memories of the game come from this time, though; a fact I directly attribute to the Lunchback. The Lunchback was a Hunchback 4P with an XL 300, XL 325, or XL 350 engine and 11 small lasers that is impossible to replicate today due to engine limits. At the time, however, you could easily go 120+ kph, fire your lasers long enough to core an Atlas, and hunt down defenseless Jenners with ease. Due to the netcode and speed, you were pretty much invulnerable to most fire while moving at top velocity. At 33 damage a volley on a specific point, it made a mockery of your enemies and the balance system. Lights couldn’t outrun it or outfight it, and were therefore useless in the metagame. Other mediums couldn’t match the speed and firepower due to the 4P's unique 11 laser hardpoints. Heavies and assaults couldn’t chase it down or turn to keep up with it. So they were faced with a choice of constantly torso twisting to fend off attacks, or focusing on other targets and finding themselves without rear armor and quickly dead.
Imagine this but with 100% more lasers and 200% more murder.
One of the most annoying aspects of this time was the absence of information on how aspects of the game worked, such as damage, heat, and cooling for weapons and heat sinks. There was a resource page in the closed beta forum, but it was always out of date. This led many people to simply get into the habit of checking the XML data in the game engine to get accurate numbers after each patch. Countless stealth changes were only discovered through that tactic. As a side note: if you are playing MWO today, you are blessed by many community mech builders. The best were built by Word of Lowtax’s Hubis, who designed the nifty web-based Mechromancer fitting tool that lets you build and examine the stats on different mechs and builds without buying them.
Outside of the game, this is also the time when Word of Lowtax (WoL), Squawking, and Chancellor Mittani emerged. There was a heavy NDA in place at the time, preventing beta testers from even saying they were in the beta, let alone talk about it. So the vast majority of MWO fans had nothing better to do than read and post on the official forums. I myself caused a butterfly effect when I wrote a thread drawing on my community warfare background from different games to give some advice to PGI after reading the official PGI dev blog on community warfare. While it was well received from the community at first, the conversation quickly turned to Goons and how terrible they are or aren’t. With bored posters on both side, it was a perfect storm to spark a forum war, the likes of which has not been seen since.
Whats worse than a Goon in a flame war? A bored Goon in a flame war.
The fact that we had chosen House Liao came into the spotlight as people, frustrated at their inability to play or talk about playing MWO, spent their time hammering on keyboards and writing poor posts trying to figure out what a ‘Goon’ was. In particular, there was bad blood with the ‘old guard’ of House Liao roleplayers. They were outraged that these strangers had come out of nowhere and had the audacity to not only ignore but openly mock them when they expressed their desire that Goons fall in line with their self-appointed House Liao Leaders. If you know anything about Goons, you can guess where this is going. There were a lot of threads and a lot of posts, most of them terrible. Some of the best stuff was deleted, but if anyone saved some of the best ones, post them in the comments so we can all appreciate this part of our cultural heritage.
To sum it up, the early closed beta was a time of Wild West balance changes, really poorly implemented menus and UI, and constantly changing and broken gameplay. With only the Forest Colony and the Ice Map, it got stale fairly quickly. They initially set pretty much everything to tabletop values and adjusted slowly from there. I don’t really miss it.
Mid-to-Late Closed Beta: Premades in Paradise
This era was mostly defined by pub stomping. There was no weight matching or premade-to-premade matching. The average game I experienced was an eight-man premade, traveling in a fast-moving assault blob, murdering the random matchmaking in clumps of two or three as they split up and wandered around the map. The credits and XP flowed like honey, and the stats resembled that of someone with an aimbot playing Counter-Strike.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that it really took them awhile to polish up the grouping mechanics. Groups would usually have at least one person placed on the wrong team and sometimes up to three. At the time, we were all grateful to have grouping in place, but it caused bad blood between WoL and a lot of people as a result of the antics of pilots placed on the wrong team. Thankfully, they managed to fix grouping within a month or so, ending the great Goon terror.
Founder’s pre-package deals also went in during this time, and this is when many people got their first look at the game, as a founder's package got them into the closed beta. Founders got premium time and, depending on the package, either a hunk of MC, a bigger hunk of MC and a pick of a Founder mech, or a gigantic hunk of MC and all the Founder mechs.
The best Founder's mech, but not even close to the best fitting.
This is when they added in side torso kills for XL-Engines, nerfed the Hunchback 4P down to nine energy slots instead of 11, and, at the end of the beta, introduced engine limits to mechs, tolling the death knell of the Lunchback as the ultimate killing machine. While good for the game overall, when this was announced, a two-week mourning period was declared by the Word of Lowtax on behalf of the valiant warrior who had laid low so many foes.
The Gauss Cat also came into its own around this time as the premier sniping mech. PPCs were unpopular at the time, and it took a while before people started giving the Gauss Cat the respect it deserved. Until cockpit sizes were reduced, assault class mechs were dying like flies to head shots, as people were still learning to look away from double gauss rifles. Eventually the metagame shifted. People learned to primary Gauss Cats and more options for sniping and burst damage became feasible.
From Launch to Today
The open beta launch on October 29th is widely considered the actual launch of MWO in everything but name. That was when PGI wiped all progress from the closed beta and announced that all progress made after open beta would never be reset. They also announced that all MC purchases wouldn’t be reset and started counting premium time, although founders got a free ride of premium for a while until they programmed in a button to activate the founder package's premium time.
PGI continued to make improvements and add balance, but more of their focus shifted over to producing more varieties of mechs, hero mechs, and more maps. Recently, I would finally say they have reached the level of what I would expect a modern video game to be at in terms of UI and the out-of-game experience such as the mech lab and matchmaking. There is still a decent amount of low-hanging weapon balance fruit to be fixed, however, such as ballistics being worthless on mechs under 50T, invalidating way too many light/medium mech variants.
For the future, the big question on everyone’s mind is community warfare, especially with the devs being so tight lipped on details. I remain cautiously optimistic, but as long as PGI keeps that ratchet of progress turning, we will eventually make it to that the community warfare paradise they promised us so long ago.