Games Like 'BattleTech' Are Slow For a Reason


#1

There’s a surprisingly common complaint about BattleTech that I've found myself unable to put aside, even though I don't agree with it at all. In a lot of the discussions and critical reactions around the game, there's an undercurrent that the game is badly paced. The game is “too slow”, or it “wastes your time.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Alec Meer articulated this sentiment in his review:

Every animation is too long (even after all the ‘glamcam’ over-the-shoulder action sequence options are turned off), each action is followed by numerous ticker tape-slow stat and status updates, automated camera pans have all the speed and grace of a shopping trolley with four rusted wheels, and the entire game lapses into unexpected motionlessness for a few seconds as frequently as the exhausted pusher of said trolley. My heart sinks when new enemies lurch into view – not because of the (significant) threat they represent, but because more units means more waiting.

I’m fascinated by this accusation: the game wastes your time. Art and play are pyres where we burn time—to prove that we can afford to, to not feel like every minute of every day is a matter of survival, to exist outside the demands of life for a minute. Yet there seems to be a hierarchy of time here, one where some of the time spent with a game is valid, useful, important, while some other time is “wasted.” Where is that distinction? Wasted as opposed to what?

It is uncontroversial to mod a game to strip out moments when “nothing happens.” This wouldn’t be true of, say, an all-thriller-no-filler edit of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia.

And to be fair, interactivity—especially the sort of interactive we're most familiar with—invites this reaction. We get used to having that sprint button, to being able to hit X to skip a cutscene, and when that isn’t there for us we take it as an annoyance rather than as something communicative. One of the most popular and elaborate Skyrim mods started out as a way of removing the game’s unskippable, interminable, and unloved opening cutscene. The mod that speeds up animations and pauses between actions in XCOM2 spells out the sentiment in its name: “Stop Wasting My Time.”

But time is a component of games just as it’s a component of film or literature: Duration means something. But video game audiences haven’t incorporated it into their reading of video games, in the same way that we all have a cultural understanding of what time means in a film, even though pacing can carry every bit as much meaning.

From the 'Stop Wasting My Time' mod Steam Workshop page

In another article, Meer points out that BattleTech can be substantially sped up by editing some of the game’s files. Though the headline calls the changes “fixes,” the pauses are clearly intentional, as Alec indicates, given that they’re explicitly laid out in the files. But players have thought nothing of taking them away from the game, often with glee; the comment section on that article is mostly full-throated endorsements of shrinking BattleTech’s languid battles into rapid-fire skirmishes.

In its default state, BattleTech's pacing may not be perfect, and the game’s camera sometimes disarms that pacing by lagging behind the action or pointing in the wrong direction. But the game is better for its slowness, and in speeding it up something valuable is lost.

This is a game about eighty-ton robots smashing into each other, about huge missile salvos being fired, about battlefield drama on a very personal level. It should be slow. It straddles the line between a functional representation and a realistic depiction of its subject, and what it’s depicting isn’t snappy or inconsequential.

Nor is the game’s constant attrition, the gradual running-out of luck that leads to your ‘mechs being cored out or your mechwarriors dying, improved by making it go faster. Meer’s video of playing BattleTech with the pauses modded out just makes it look like a dull, dry tactical simulation; they’re plastic minis now, no longer hulking machines ambling over the landscape. Actions are drained of their spectacle and heft.

BattleTech is a game all about unseen combat resolution tables, about the chaotic results of bullets or explosives meeting a complex steel machine at high speeds. It luxuriates in those moments to show the player what is happening mechanically in a way that is part of the game world; it takes its time with them because those moments are complex. Weapons fire one by one not just for drama and spectacle, but so the details of what is happening on each shot can be read: which parts of the mech are being hit, by which weapons, and how badly damaged they are.

And for me, the slowness has led to a tactics game that walks the tightrope of feeling fair while keeping consequences real. I’ve reloaded maybe three or four times in my campaign, but I’m definitely not trying to perfect every mission in the way XCOM2 invites me to. Nor do I like I have to play an ironman campaign to get a real experience. When Dekker dies to the third lucky headshot in a row, or when Dekker misses a DFA attack and gets kneecapped and killed on the enemy’s turn, or when Dekker is blown to bits standing in front of a mission-critical macguffin, those moments feel earned and weighty. And I’m much more inclined to carry on fighting and let those deaths be part of my game’s story.

There’s an alternative, faster BattleTech where you click on the enemy ‘mech, its health bars go down, and you can mouse over it to see the damage more specifically. That’s a game I would have quit after an hour. BattleTech is trying to say: “We’re showing you this slowly in great detail because it’s important. See how different things can happen when you fire at a ‘mech?”

Which makes it interesting that another frequent complaint about BattleTech is that its combat mechanics are underexplained. There's some truth to that, but it also feels like the game’s attempt at showing players what is going on is being ignored because of how it happens.

But that attitude isn’t universal; BattleTech has certainly found an audience. And we need “slow” games like BattleTech, exactly to push video game language forward by making players more aware of time and more comfortable with those uses of it. Slowness has been used in games to significant effect; time and rhythm are design tools.

'Breath of the Wild' screenshot from a Nintendo promotional video

Look at the way that cooking in Breath of the Wild triggers a little sequence; at first, the animation itself is delightful and charming, but over time, it seems to say: “Do you really want to make Mighty Simmered Fruit 30 times? Wouldn’t you rather make just a couple and go exploring?”

Breath of the Wild is trying to create a pattern of play where finding a cooking pot is a helpful discovery, where periods of exploring are punctuated by periodic returns to base to resupply. If it was easy to load up on enough food items to last for several play sessions, that wouldn’t happen. But instead of clumsily limiting how much food you can carry or how often you can cook, it uses the slowness of the animation itself to make the grindy behavior feel grindy and thus discourage it.

There is, of course, a tension there: Breath of the Wild makes cooking slow so you won’t do too much of it at one time, while all you do in BattleTech is shoot at enemies and that game makes that slow. But part of advancing our language of time is navigating that tension; it’s slowly building up an appreciation, in the audience, that the significance of a pause or a slow animation can be nuanced. After all, that tension also exists within Breath of the Wild: The cooking animation discourages overly long and grindy cooking sessions, but like all the many delightful animations in Zelda games, it’s also a reward for cooking.

In BattleTech, what some perceive as a grating slowness is to others (myself included) revelatory: Here’s a game that puts value on observing, on taking something in, on inhabiting a world with your senses. I love BattleTech for its ponderousness. And if I’m not alone in this, that moves us towards a different balance of values in games; towards a broader way of responding and appreciating them.

Have thoughts? Swing by Waypoint’s forums to share them!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/ywezxj/games-like-battletech-are-slow-for-a-reason

#2

I do wonder about the difficulty of strategy games that people want to skip through. Not only does BattleTech feel deliberate but also I’m thinking about the coming moves and when to spend my morale actions, what thermal window I’ve got to play with, how to ensure my 'Mechs are still standing next round… even when the camera system is failing to keep up with the things being shown (which can be turned off in the settings, along with keeping the UI up during combat to give a really nice added layer of detail - as commented on in the recent Waypoint LP ep) then I’ve got a lot to be thinking about.

But also, later into the game, I was taking on 4-5 skull missions and only throwing 3 blocks of 'Mech tonnage at them (which the game warns players about with a message from the XO) because that ensured the challenge was where I wanted it. When the game is warning you about just playing how you want, they probably need to tweak the difficulty stuff to enable that sort of tough play that feels absolutely in keeping with the systems (withdrawal, ejections, optional side missions, evac vs cleaning up all enemies) rather than warning players away from it (at least for players who are not being walked over by the game and don’t need the warning). If I’d listened to my XO then maybe I’d find a lack of challenge and so stop thinking about each move, in which case I’d just be waiting for the animations to finish so I could do the obvious next alpha strike move on the minimal opposition. Hopefully with patches they will be able to tweak stuff somewhat to ensure more players feel the difficulty is appropriate for the entire of their campaign.

Edit: I think more options are also usually better so maybe offering faster animations in places (and, if possible, removing the gaps when things are happening you can’t see int he fog of war for people who don’t want to know how many hidden enemies there are by the length of the gap) is something they could build into a patch. But I think the above issue with difficulty options is actually the underlying issue that needs to be tackled (they’ve already said another pass is going to be made to, while not making the curve totally smooth, tweak the general range of mission challenge) which is causing a lot of this response about wanting faster animations/cutting directly to action (beyond the options to already remove lots of cinematic cameras which the game shipped with).


#3

Wow so much to decompress for me here! Firstly I would totally agree with the sentiment of Alec Meer that it doesn’t respect my time at all. Having been able to make coffee and have a cigarette whilst 12 trucks move and miss my mechs, then one mech trucks towards me (all off screen outside of turn order) with no indication of whats happening can be super frustrating.

Regards " I’ve reloaded maybe three or four times in my campaign" I’ve reloaded over 30 times if not more in my campaign and i haven’t gotten to smithion yet! I’m not letting Pearl or Glitch Die if i have to suffer a 60 day travel again, hell i’ve done that to switch the negotiation of the contract realising there was nothing to salvage worth having.

Ironically breath of the wild was my “buyers remorse” of 2017, but thats totally aside and really feel the game wastes my time alot. To be honest if there was a world of darkness RPG that wasted your time i’d not care either! That said i have 900 hours in elite dangerous so in comparison this game is not so bad (imo)

No shade to Bruno, and might have to go find this way to speed up the game especially speeding up turn times when the enemy are off screen (and not shooting), or the animation speeds! Thanks for the hint

Disclaimer: I actually left a negative review on steam and recommended not buying this at launch given the reinforcement bug and several aspects of the game and in no way attempt to appear impartial here. I’m still playing (after my refund was refused) begrudgingly and should take my comments with a pinch of salt (or a bucket : - ) )

Edit: Apologise to Bruno, reading this i assumed it was an ode from Rob on battle tech (and hope thats a compliment) and edited out his name for your own, and removed a line about being a table top fan of the original (not sure if you are)


#4

I completely agree with the premise that slow isn’t bad, or a waste of time (and I think talking about it as if the developers are willingly messing with you out of spite or incompetence is pretty rude). Pacing is a thing, and whether it’s to give the player room to breathe or reinforce how you’re shifting huge, 80 ton machines around, a slow pace can be used to amazing effect. A super simple example: who would want to cut the dead air from The Ladder sequence in MGS3? And as overused as the Half-Life style introductory train ride became for a while, it’s pretty essential to set the tone for that game.

Still, I fall on the side of the fence where BattleTech’s pace became just slightly too slow after having spent around 50 hours in it :slightly_smiling_face:. Even posted that link as a suggestion in this forum’s thread on it this very morning~


#5

I am genuinely conflicted about this, because BattleTech is one of my favorite games in years, but the pace of the game sometimes does mean I cant enjoy it in a way that fits with my life.

I do agree the slow turn pace actually feels amazing. Like the article says, it truly helps sell the idea I am issuing commands to four large stompy death machines and not four plastic game pieces. On top of that, the pauses give me the same visceral anticipation as shaking a handful of dice before a throw, or waiting for the dealer to turn over the river card in Texas Hold 'Em.

But…

BattleTech needs at least 2 hours to feel satisfying. The loop of prepping for a fight, doing a mission, then starting repairs and buying needed parts means one loop through the game’s systems takes about the same amount of time as a full movie.

I work weird ass hours and have family obligations, and will often go 9 or 10 days in a row without 2 hours of spare time with access to my PC. Speeding up the game means I get to play MORE BATTLETECH. And yes. Its not as good. Its a sub par version of the experience. But I watched Nostalgia the first time for a film class, and I did it in bits and pieces on my phone in between classes. I didn’t have a TV large enough or the time necessary to watch it the right way. I still was able to ace the tests and enjoy the film.

I dont think everyone has the time to burn. I dont. I sometimes dont have the minutes necessary to live outside the demands of life, let alone the 50 to 100 hours.

Now that I know I can speed up the game, I will. Not because its a better way to experience BattleTech, but because its the only way I can right now.


#6

While I agree with the premise that a slower paced games can be good and that it wouldn’t be Battletech if it wasn’t ponderous at time I’d suggest that not all the pauses are intentional.

At least some of the pauses feel unnecessary, unnatural and seemingly random (even when you modify the game files), there are plenty of times where literally nothing is happening and I’m wondering if the game has frozen. There’s pausing for dramatic effect, there’s giving time for players to pause and reflect and then there are bugs. I think that Battletech has a healthy complement of all three types.

That said, despite the bugs I adore this game.


#7

I haven’t played BattleTech yet, but I felt this way in X-COM often, where it feels unnatural and broken.


#8

I find it surprising that the author is surprised at the (as far as I can tell) pretty widespread player reaction.

It’s an extremely long experience (compared to, let’s say, “Nostalgia”), that by it’s very nature can’t be meticulously designed, directed and acted out (like… uhm… “Nostalgia”). Arguing that the problem is with a lack of appreciation for slowness or the meaning of duration by the audience certainly is a “brave” choice and might in my eyes be easier excusable if there had been a dearth of very deliberately timed and scripted games in recent years (there hasn’t) or no critism of pacing issues in many (other) works (oh lord, was there ever).

In addition to the deliberate slow pacing, the game also exhibits a couble of technical “features”, that probably lengthen the play time beyond what the designers intended (e.g. pauses for audio cues whether one is played or not, number of item types in inventory and number of save games affects load times). I feel, even if nothing else were, those certainly are a waste of time.
One can argue whether the mecha ballet’s tempo is well chosen, but at least in my opinion that’s something that is sufficiently subjective that any discussion about it quickly becomes a meaningless “…but I like…”.

For what it’s worth, I like to play at 1.6 speed with the audio pauses removed; the quips and comments are still played, they just ramble on while the next mech is already selected or being shot at. It feels like a more dynamic game and the mechs running and jumping, missles flying and exploding, seem better aligned with my expectations of what mech combat should look like.