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RPG Evolution: How a RPG Company Launched Virtual Reality Gaming

The concept of virtual reality is not a new one. It's been a staple of science fiction for some time in books, television, and movies. But it took a pair of tabletop gaming entrepreneurs with vision to launch the virtual reality gaming industry.

The concept of virtual reality is not a new one. It's been a staple of science fiction for some time in books, television, and movies. But it took a pair of tabletop gaming entrepreneurs with vision to launch the virtual reality gaming industry.


RPG Roots

The concept of virtual reality goes back to science fiction novels of the 1930s, but the term didn't enter the modern lexicon until 1987:
Even after all of this development in virtual reality, there still wasn’t an all-encompassing term to describe the field. This all changed in 1987 when Jaron Lanier, founder of the visual programming lab (VPL), coined (or according to some popularised) the term “virtual reality”. The research area now had a name.
One of the immediate applications of recreating a virtual reality was in military applications. Specifically, in managing a ship's bridge:
The history of first ship’s simulators dates back to 1959, when first radar simulators were being developed. The first ship’s bridge simulator that used computer generated vision, the Visual Bridge Shiphandling Simulator (Puglisi, Case & Webster, 2010), was constructed in 1975 in the United States Merchant Marine Academy.
The Verge explains how the experience with the Visual Bridge Shiphandling Simulator inspired a new company:
In the late 1970s, two teenage students at the Merchant Marine Academy in New York — Jordan Weisman and Ross Babcock — saw their first training simulator. The sim was a crude and extraordinarily expensive re-creation of a ship’s bridge, designed to help pilots learn to steer. But in it, they could see the future of entertainment: a world where instead of going to see a science fiction movie, someone could buy a ticket and step onto a starship, joining a crew of like-minded participants. Inspired, Babcock and Weisman dropped out of the program, wired together a series of Apple II computers and attempted to imitate the multi-million dollar military system.
Their new company did not attract investors, so Weisman and Babcock shifted gears. They decided the name of the company would be FASA:
In high school, myself and some other social deviants founded a mythical country called "Freedonia" as an homage to the country in the Marx Brother's movie "Duck Soup." The goal of this country was to provide creative excuses to continually throw parties - which it did admirably. Everyone at the parties had "official" roles within Freedonia, and among mine was Vice-Chairman of FASA (Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration). Some old jokes never die.
FASA Corporation was founded with an investment of $350 in 1980 by Weisman and Babcock, "a college gaming friend who happened to have $175.00 dollars and some time on his hands," according to Weisman. Five years later Weisman's father, Mort Weisman, joined the company to handle the growing company's management.

Entering Role-Playing Games

Unseen: A History of FASA, Battledroids and BattleTech by Michael "Sigil" Todd picks up the thread:
FASA’s initial entrance into the war and role-playing game (RPG) market was producing licensed game supplements for Game Designers’ Workshop’s (GDW) science fiction Traveller RPG game, a franchise first introduced in 1977. FASA produced Traveller supplements between 1980-1983. It should be noted, however, that technically FASA published Battlestar Galactica in 1979 and their logo appears on both the front and back of the box. However, there is no copyright attributed to FASA for the work, instead it explicitly lists only Universal City Studios, the company responsible for creating the initial television series in 1978.
FASA went on to produce products for Traveller, as well as other licenses like Star Trek (1983), BattleTech (1984), The Doctor Who Role Playing Game (1985), Shadowrun (1989), Earthdawn (1993), The Last Starfighter Combat Game (1984), The Masters of the Universe RPG (1985), and Top Gun (1986). FASA Corporation ceased active operations in 2001, selling the BattleTech, Earthdawn, and Shadowrun properties to WizKids ... a company founded in 2000 by FASA co- founder Jordan Weisman.

BattleTech started as Battledroids in 1984 after Weisman and Babcock hit upon the idea of Japanese mecha models as board game pieces. FASA, who was pursuing a Star Wars license, changed the name from "Battledroids" to "BattleTech" in 1985 to avoid conflict with LucasFilms' "droid" trademark. But the FASA founders had other plans that went beyond tabletop gaming.

Virtual Capital

FASA created a sister company, Environmental Simulation Project (ESP), later known as Virtual World Entertainment. Its resumed the mission FASA had started seven years earlier: to create a computer-based, multi-player, real-time virtual combat simulator. In 1989, Tim Skelly was employed by Incredible Technologies to create BattleMechs for the BattleTech-themed virtual game. The original BattleMech models were too complex for use in a virtual environment, so Skelly created OmniMechs as a solution, a "prime" chassis with alternate configurations tweaked on the mech to give it a different appearance. The virtual game would come to fruition a year later:
Virtual World built a series of cockpit-like pods with complicated physical controls and put them in what the company called a BattleTech Center, the first of which launched in Chicago in 1990. While spectators watched on televisions outside, players could pay $6 to $8 and pilot a three-story robot through a 10-minute firefight. Enclosed in the pod, they would look through a video screen and see an endless alien desert, inhabited only by their teammates’ and opponents’ mechs. Despite its name, Virtual World consciously avoided the head-mounted displays that define VR today...On their own, BattleTech pods were more like arcade cabinets than rides—a few "outposts" found their way into the restaurant and arcade chain Dave & Busters. But with funding from Tim Disney (Walt’s grand-nephew), VWE imagined building larger centers with a range of games that would appeal to everyone, somewhere between a high-tech arcade and an indoor amusement park. In 1993, the company opened a Pasadena-based Virtual World Center adorned with proto-steampunk decor from a fictional "Virtual Geographic Society," complete with a bar and restaurant.
A total of 26 sites opened in Japan, Australia, London, and several major U.S. cities. They were clearly ahead of their time:
Indeed, they were featured on the Discovery Channel’s Beyond 2000 TV programme back in 1992, when the awed presenter declared: “This new video sport is expected to spread wherever science fiction buffs have the money and the inclination to become part of this fantasy.”
It didn't last. After Microsoft bought FASA's computer gaming operation in 1999, the centers were gradually closed.

FASA's Legacy

Virtual World's Entertainment work set the foundation for entertainment that we still enjoy today. In addition to its many tabletop games, the company was responsible for numerous video game incarnations of the BattleTech universe. But it was also the predecessor to groundbreaking technology game companies like the Oculus and VOID's new Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire virtual reality game. And for that, we can thank FASA.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


They also did a pair of promotional videos starring Jim Belushi.

Also, the Battle Pods themselves survived. There are at least four companies I'm aware of that maintain sets of pods and they frequently bring them out to conventions if you want the chance to climb into the cockpit yourself.

In the first years of the 90's playing with friends in a online multiplayer, counter-strike or Quake, for example, still was sci-fi.

Later the VR glasses reality arrived, and people felt bad after using them for a time.


Fascinating bit of history. Thanks for this.

Always have been a HUGE Battletech nerd. Still play it from time to time. And the recent computer adaptation from Harebrained is an excellent game.


Just the other week I asked myself, “What the hell happened to Battletech?” Multiple game lines, hundred of novels, video games, and licensed merchandise at their peak in the mid-1990s. I know BT is still around today but it’s not nearly as popular.


That's my dog, Walter
I really enjoyed the recent Steam game but wished it was more than two player multi player. I would prefer to play WITH my friends and against randoms or something.

Battletech is one of the best examples of sci-fi franchises getting old very badly, because new generations miss new technologies from later decades (mobiles, new materials, internet, genetic engineering) . It has had got videogames, novels and even a cartoon serie, but today if a geek would rather a mecha title he would rather transformers. Even in the current manga is a almost forgotten subgenre.

And ask somebody who knows about military technology and he will say you a bipedal vehicle is too expensive, vulnerable tothe anti-tank weapons in the legs, and more expensive and slow to repair than the classic wheels or catepillar. And bigger means growing exponentiality because double size is eight times heavier.


If military or current technological abilities when compared to a science fiction franchise was the problem then how do we explain the continued success of Warhammer 40k?

Von Ether

If military or current technological abilities when compared to a science fiction franchise was the problem then how do we explain the continued success of Warhammer 40k?

For my two cents, a couple of reasons.

Technically, 40k is science fantasy with hyperspace going through hell and back again. And the company embraced it with psionics and demons and all that.

The second is that BT tried to have an advancing story line while pretending to be "realistic" with their technology. And I get the strong impression did anybody holding the Bell tech license still wants to try to continue honoring that concept. Which is always going to be two steps behind extrapolating future developments from the technology of today.

So while 40k has squeezed some recons in, the actual universe fictional tech and cultures hasn't changed for decades. Only recently has new/old tech been reintroduced to make new space Marines.

YMMV, but I think the game needs a hard reset back to its roots. Make it a fast playing beer and pretzels game again set in a Mad Max meets Dune universe.
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Mechwarrior Online was a fun game that never really got its sharp edges polished properly. There's something satisfying about gameplay where you gradually grind down your opponent, and where you suffer damage that forces you to adjust your playstyle.

I mean, if we made games realistic, we'd each have fighter jets on opposite sides of the horizon, and we'd launch missiles and hope our chaff could distract them, because if they don't we'll be obliterated in one hit. That's not really a fun game.

Big giant robots that can take massive damage and keep working, though, are awesome.

Now, how could such technology actually get built?

You'd have to reach a point where defensive technology outpaces offensive technology. It's kinda weird, actually, how missiles work in Battletech. You fire a bunch of short-range things that each weigh literally 20 pounds according to canon. They fly maybe a thousand feet and then peter out. And instead of firing the biggest gun possible, they usually have 'autocannons' that spew a bunch of tiny shots. (Later on, though, they did get rail guns.) They also have fusion engines, and shuttles that can fly into and out of atmosphere repeatedly.

Retooling the Tech of Battletech
I think if I were going to retool Battletech for modern sensibilities, I'd keep the vibe of "far future, wracked by war to the point that we lost the ability to create our best technology." They've got fusion engines mass produced by factories, so power production is easy. Let's say that fusion engines can project force fields, but force fields interact badly with the ground, so tanks can't use them - they keep losing traction.

Likewise, forcefields muck with air flow, so helicopters and jets can't use them, though space planes can.

Meanwhile, they have reached the technological limit of how much damage you can cause with an explosion or kinetic projectiles. Lasers are better at pouring damage onto a surface, since a force field can't stop photons. Other weapons are designed to pepper the target with multiple strikes in short succession, which can overload the force fields.

That's the flavor.

The mechanics of the game would remain much the same, though we might retool the math to match the flavor (and maybe for some better game balance).

Instead of 'armor' and 'internal structure,' you have 'shield' and 'structure.' The rationale is that shield emitters are placed along the outside of the mech, with this being abstracted into different 'body parts.' As they block damage, they eventually get overloaded and stop working, but if you are out of a battle for a few hours, it's fairly easy to reset them to replenish their defensive abilities.

Some weapons would be better against shields, like autocannons and small missile barrages; maybe even give machine guns their due. Then other weapons like gauss rifles and thunderbolt launchers are mostly ineffective if shields are up, but can really devastate the structure if the shields are down. Lasers might bypass shields entirely, but do relatively low damage. PPCs might be amazing against shields, but fairly useless against structure.

You might also rework the combat system a bit, so that there's an ability to aim at components, instead of having all hits be random. This lets you use a combo of weapons to soften up an opponent, then get a big shot in. It also makes lance tactics more valuable: a light mech could rush in and try to lower someone's shields with missiles or machine guns, while the heavy hangs back and slams powerful projectiles into the now vulnerable targets.

naughty word, I want to make this game now.

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