BattleTech Intergalactic Combat Made Easy

by Robert Lemos

In all the world, Tokyo is known as the place for technology. If you want to remind yourself of this, just step into a BattleTech Center and take part in the BattleTech "location-based entertainment game" (as co-creator Ross Babcock has dubbed his brai nchild). Or visit the Dr. Jeekans' Center in Shibuya to experience the new Red Planet game.

In the BattleTech games - probably the closest thing to virtual reality entertainment in Japan - up to eight players compete for ten minutes, with death costing just a few seconds of playing time. Each player sits in an enclosed pod and controls his v ehicle with a throttle, joystick, two foot pedais, and myriad buttons. Control of the vehicle was designed to be realistically complex, so that the player becomes immersed in the game. Beginner and intermediate modes do exist, however, to help ease novice players into this brand new world.

"Whoever thought intergalactic combat could be so easy?" Originally from the United States (where there are BattleTech Centers in Chicago, San Diego, Houston, and Walnut Creek), BattleTech is based on the role-playing game of the same name. Go-creators Ross Babcock and Jordan Weisman designed the Mechs (large combat robots, like the ones frequently featured in Japanese manga) and the role-playing game while in college. Upon graduation in 1980, they founded FASA together with Mort Weisman, Jordan's fath er. After several years of trying to unsuccessfully raise money to fund their dream of a virtual reality game, they founded Environmental Simulations Project (ESP) in 1987 using the profits from the successful FASA. ESP slowly developed the concept into a viable game, one that so impressed Tim Disney and his partners that they decided to buy a controlling share of the company in 1992. The name the company was changed to Virtual World Entertainments (VWE).

The first BattleTech Center was built in Chicago in 1990; two years later, BattleTech landed in Yokohama. Today, there are five centers in Japan: one in Yokohama (near Tokyu Hands), two in Shibuya (in Rongo Rongo and Dr. Jeekans), one in Nishi Ogikubo (in Amuseum), and an outpost in Kobe.

In most of Japan's game centers, anyone can race in a "virtual" car against other players. Such races are generally short, the interaction between players is limited, and immersion in the game's reality is only partial. Games of BattleTech (or WVE's n ew Red Planet game), while at best a limited virtual reality, do achieve a surprising degree of immersion for the participants. The integration of all the controls and displays is done well enough that you give minimal thought to the hardware around vou a nd concentrate on the game. As Dooley, the female hot-shot pilot in the WaltDisney-produced training video, remarks: "Whoever thought intergalactic combat could be so easy?"

In addition to the limitation of a fixed screen as the viewport on a virtual world, two problems still intrude upon the realism of the game: a slow frame rate and low polygon count. With an average frame rate of seven to ten frames per second (sometim es dropping as low as three or four), the action sometimes gets extremely jumpy, frustrating for even a patient player. Meanwhile, the low polygon count limits the BattleTech universe to one of planes, angles, and solid colors, which detracts from the vis ual appeal of the game. Yet, despite these flaws, the games are fun and almost addictive - as evidenced by the fact that some local players have played over a thousand games. At 1000 yen per game, BattleTech can become a very expensive habit.

Not your father's virtual reality Recently several industry pundits have proclaimed that the computer industry will be driven by consumer entertainment products. Virtual World Entertainments has proven that this does not lust apply to the low-end home entertainment games or the high-end theme parks. Virtual reality may not yet have come of age, but W17E has already shown where the money will be: not in the virtual operating rooms or virtual engineering design workshops (though those niche markets are i mportant), but in the virtual arena pitting your own skills against those of others.

Considering all the inadequacies of the current technology that interfere with the experience, the fact that a large, dedicated following has formed could be considered amazing; but it only proves how ready the market is for this sort of product. The next upgrade in technology will come early in 1995, in the form of Power Mac front-end systems and more powerful custom boards that will enable 30 frames per second (the same as in movies) and a polygon count of at least 3000 (50% higher than the current system). This upgraded hardware and software will almost certainly help BattleTech to steal the glamour - and patrons - away from arcade games.

While WEIE's BattleTech Centers may be seen as directly competing against video-game arcades, co-creator Babcock is quick to disabuse anyone of the notion that his Centers are at all similar to arcades. The Centers are supposed to be designed to have a certain atmosphere: a fusion of Victorian and sci-fi industrial. However, Babcock says that because real estate in Japan is so expensive, "we can't really do the Centers the way we would really like them. Any space that doesn't directly earn money is ve ry hard to justify here. And therefore, some of the waiting areas and briefing areas that we have in the US just aren't available here."

In Japan, the Centers have few props and an atmosphere somewhere between an airport lounge and a Star Wars hanger bay. There is little space for "pilots" to sit down, have a drink, and socialize. This is the main problem Babcock finds with the Japanes e Centers. He sees the future of his "location-based entertainment games" as being social - like going out to a movie, except you become one of the characters.

The politics of Clan Kurita

The social interaction of the players not only during the game, but both before and after - is the facet of the Centers Babcock stresses most. "One of the big attractions... of our Centers is the social interaction," he says. "The fact that total stran gers can sign up [to] play the game against each other, watch the mission reviews, and have a built-in introduction. By the end of the game, they have [made] friends and acquaintances that grow and flourish in the Centers." A "virtual culture," complete w ith formal clans and social history, has grown up around BattleTech.

It is the social potential that seems to be spelling success for the Centers Just as arcades offer better and more exciting versions of games that may be available on famicons (home game computers), the VR amusement centers offer more social interacti on than single-player video game arcades. In Tokyo, where one's friends usually are found in a company or university, such a method of introduction can be a boon. Japanese with "callsigns" such as Zephyr, Mad Player, Freeze Moon, and Ranthard come in ever y day after work and to talk with each other, occasionally playing a game or two. In the US Centers, a bar serves nonalcoholic beverages. Mech pilots can rest up and swap stories or dicker over details of a battle. In Japan, the lack of space makes such a luxury impossible; pilots end up finding space to congregate wherever they can.

Where worlds meet

When BattleTech and Tokyo (the city of gadgetry) were combined, some interesting combinations emerged. One of these is a wireless data network that has sprung up between players based on the Zaurus personal information management tool (reviewed on page 37 in this issue). To increase their chances of coming out on top, many of the players keep data files on the Mechs and players. Using the Zaurus wireless infrared transmission, the players can beam information to each other, keeping teammates up-to-date on the latest developments and strategies.

Americans generally are less willing to go to such extents for a game, but for the Japanese, this is one aspect of the mastery of this "virtual sport." As one player commented, "Other than the basic information provided in the game's pamphlets, there i s little information out there. If one person finds something interesting, he will find he has something valuable to his circle [of friends]." The extent to which some players are willing to go to get unpublicized information can be amusing to an outsider . When Ross Babcock came to Japan in April for the international competition, he often found himself surrounded by players seeking the latest information.

Stables of the "virtual sport"

In the States (to date, the only other country with BattleTech), teams are usually formed by groups of friends who get together and decide to play in a tournament. In Japan, though, serious players have formed "stables" similar to those in sumo, Japan' s national sport. The most famous stable in the BattleTech community is Shiki Tai (Death Demons), led by a pilot named "Think" who has chalked up over 1,300 games (that's about US $13,000 worth). According to the VWE newsletter Scueamsheet, Think observes rookies play to scout up-and-coming talent. Those who meet his standards are invited to join his stable. So far, he has gathered together 16 members, and the teams they form have never lost in the virtual arena. Players outside Shiki Tai have mixed feeli ngs about the teams - some accuse them of being elitist, while others are jealous and would like to be invited to join.

Those who observe virtual amusement with an analytical eye are also of two minds. Some see the amazing potential of virtual reality; others see costs to society. One of the warnings made by critics is that people will tend become immersed in their own little artificial world (lust as many children, as well as adults, have been sucked into the home computer game world) and lose touch with reality. Children who spend four or five hours with computer games have been diagnosed as having atrophied social s kills. Another aspect of this is that solitary people who normally spend a lot of time alone may ease their boredom with computer games. The attraction to artificial "reality" may represent an effect rather than the cause.

Both staff and customers of BattleTech realize that most of the customers are otakki - what passes for a "geek" in Japan. (Many say it with pride). Unlike home computers, BattleTech games can bring people together rather than isolating them at home. F or many otakki, BattleTech is more than just a game: it is a social culture. Isolated by circumstance or design from "normal" daily social interactions, many players find the culture that has grown up in the Center one that they can feel a part of.