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.


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


Scruffy and Determined
For mecha anime, BT mechs are slow plodding machines compared to default "LAM"s of Robotech and Macross. Never mind the dancing mechs of other shows.

I mean mecha is not a realistic genre period, but BT was doing it's 80s best to trying too hard.
eh I always found this discrepancy annoying. you can enjoy both "realistic" and "unrealistic" (read: unrealistic and super unrealistic) mecha franchises for different reasons.

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The Laughing One
For mecha anime, BT mechs are slow plodding machines compared to default "LAM"s of Robotech and Macross.
The LAMs from Aerotech (1609, 1986) are the same Mechs from Robotech/Macross, they are anything but slow and plodding. And a running Locust can join traffic on the highway at 130km/hour... And maneuvers like punching, kicking, axe wielding, dropping from dropships, jumping 180m+, or Death From Above, fire up the imagination! It's a shame that many of those maneuvers never made it into the video games...

Now, the current crop of BT video games might be one of the best commercially available implementations ever made imho, but true to any BT game, they are flawed in their own ways...

Battletech (Harebrained Schemes) is not a shooter, but a tactical game:

Mechwarrior Online (Piranha Games Inc.) is a shooter/sim, online only:

Mechwarrior 5 Mercenaries (Piranha Games Inc.) is a shooter/sim, offline only:

Von Ether

The LAMs from Aerotech (1609, 1986) are the same Mechs from Robotech/Macross, they are anything but slow and plodding. And a running Locust can join traffic on the highway at 130km/hour... And maneuvers like punching, kicking, axe wielding, dropping from dropships, jumping 180m+, or Death From Above, fire up the imagination!

To clarify again, I said "in comparison" in my previous post. You can still be fast and kick butt in BT, just not as fast nor as kicking compared to a cartoon where no one makes a several bad rolls in a row.

And several bad rolls in BT are just the worst.

I have seen a Locust jam down the highway, make a turn, fail a pilot check, and then become scrap metal on Turn One of a game. In BT, speed is life AND death. I know, I'm playing in a weekly game right now.

My team lost last Friday because two pilots couldn't even get their mechs to stand up for three turns of the game. In fact, they kept hurting themselves trying to do it. Not just the mech, the pilots were taking damage due to their "seat belt checks" as we call them.

That didn't seem graceful at all in comparison to anime mechs which can literally pirouette across a screen and move fast and beat you with your mech arm.

And while I thing dancing mechs would not fit the BT paradigm, they may have to make bad rolls less devastating in the next iteration of the game.

It's a shame that many of those maneuvers never made it into the video games...

More true than you know, video games have redefined the perception other hobbies. Gamer used to mean TTRPG and wargamer, not video gamer.

And right there is another example, why do we have to put a "TT" in front of RPG? D&D was the cornerstone of CRPGs and got here first -- but at some point that "C" in front of Computer RPGs was dropped so now the default phrase "RPG" means video game RPG to many more people than you and I.

It's become a pet peeve of mine.

Side note: I've seen DFA attempted many more time than it succeeded. Just because options are offered doesn't mean they are easily doable and back to that comparison that BT mechs can't dance.
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