Of Mechwarriors and Lawsuits

27 09 2009

Ok I really wanted to make a far more grandiose entry about my love for the Mechwarrior series and my rising hatred of Harmony Gold, but I seem to be in a bit of a creative trough so instead you get this.

GIVE US BACK THE UNSEEN OR THE ONLY THING YOU HAVE TO YOUR NAME GETS IT

GIVE US BACK THE UNSEEN OR THE ONLY THING YOU HAVE TO YOUR NAME GETS IT

All right all right all right, I’ll be more in-depth. See Harmony Gold, despite basically having the same legal standing as a piece of wet cardboard, decided to impolitely inform IGN and Catalyst Game Labs that putting the Unseen version of the Warhammer in the trailer for the new Mechwarrior game was somewhere in between robbing an orphanage and taking a dump in a cop car on the scale of illegal and heinous actions. This despite the fact that Catalyst was assured they had the rights to all the Unseen. What are the Unseen you ask? Well to tell you that story first I must tell you another story.

The year is 1996 and I’ve just discovered the greatness that is computer gaming magazines with demo CDs. This was back in the days when magazines like “Computer Games Strategy Plus” and “PC Entertainment” still existed. Course, for the life of me I can’t remember which PC gaming magazine had a mechwarrior 2 demo so i’ll have to guess it was either PC Gamer or PC Entertainment because those were the two I looked at the most. Needless to say I played the demo of Mechwarrior 2 probably hundreds of times before I actually understood what I was doing (hint: don’t let the enemy blow up the base you’re trying to defend), but despite that I had fun regardless. Maybe it was because I was in a giant walking battletank with enough weaponry to level a city on its own, or maybe it was just because seeing said giant walking battletanks explode was awesome. I played that demo so much I can quote from memory the readout for the planet from the mech’s onboard computer (Planet: Baker III. Ambient Temperature -34.54 Degrees. Local time is 11:43:43 GST. All Systems Nominal)

Anyway, 1996 is also important because it’s the year that a three way series of lawsuits between Harmony Gold, Playmates, and FASA resulted in the most convoluted image rights issues one could think of. Basically the problem stems from the fact that the lineart FASA used for a few mechs was taken from various anime, including Macross, which is what Robotech is if Robotech wasn’t a horrifying mashup of 3 other anime. FASA thought they had gotten the image rights from the right people, but that’s not how Harmony Gold saw it. Playmates’ role in this is not as big since it’s basically a whole image rights kerfuffle that started the whole FASA v. Harmony Gold part. Needless to say apparently FASA was getting cease-and-desist orders from Harmony Gold ever since the 1980s when Battletech first started, but, well…I’ll just let TV Tropes explain it.

“One of the stranger aspects of all of this was how Harmony Gold was able to gain the US copyright for Macross simply by defending the rights to Robotech. At the time, Japan and the US did not have reciprocity for copyrights, and Bandai/Big West (the owners of Macross) had sublicensed the international distribution rights to Tatsunoko, who licensed all aspects of Macross except the Japanese model kits to Harmony Gold. Bandai also licensed several mecha designs to FASA for use in Battle Tech, and they were incorporated and used in the miniatures game. Harmony Gold sued FASA for incorporating these designs, citing their license from Tatsunoko. The suit was successful, and the designs (now known as “The Unseen”) were withdrawn. Big West subsequently successfully sued Tatsunoko, as their license to Macross was originally only to cover the original animation content of Macross, and not any derivative content based thereon.

The end result of the convoluted legal snarl:

* Harmony Gold can continue to release the original Robotech stories, and can release their own DVDs of the original Macross in the US, but cannot create derivative works based on Macross (or it’s Big West stablemate Southern Cross).
* However, they can create derivative content based on Mospeada, which was wholly owned by Tatsunoko in the first place.
* In addition, they effectively have veto rights over Macross merchandise and series that are not covered by the original license — which has put all the sequels since Macross Plus in Licensing Hell. (This has not made them popular.) ”

So what this tells me is that Harmony Gold effectively has rights to…well nothing except Robotech, and therefore the people with the original rights to Macross (Big West) should be the ones deciding whether or not The Unseen can be Seen. So that’s why I’m holding a DVD boxset hostage with an airsoft pistol.

Anyway let’s fast-forward to when Mechwarrior 3 came out at the tail-end of the 20th century. Mechwarrior 3 is still what I consider to be the best-looking Mechwarrior game. Even if by today’s standards it looks bland I still say the mechs look like they should and it’s the only game to do an impressive job with damage modeling. Basically weapon strikes would gradually expose the internal components beneath the armor of the mech, thus leaving various scars of battle on friendly and enemy mechs as a mission progressed. In addition, mechs that took a heavy hit to one or both of their legs would limp from the damage instead of in 2 where losing a leg would pretty much doom a ‘mech and 4 where you’d have to lose a leg to get to the limping phase. 3 also introduced the idea of the “gyro overload”. See battlemechs are able to stay up via a complicated system involving a gyroscope that’s attuned to the pilot’s sense of balance. If a mech takes a heavy barrage of fire or a leg gets hit hard it will often knock the mech to the ground because of the gyro being overloaded. At which point the ‘mech is somewhat defenseless (I say somewhat, depends on how you fall) until it gets back up. This added, I felt, a big amount of immersion to the game. So did the damage modeling for hits to the head, which would make the player’s cockpit windshield crack and spiderweb as damage got progressively worse.

Now of course we have Mechwarrior 4, its expansion, and its spinoff, which personally I’m lukewarm on. On the one hand the combat works excellently. On the other hand I have serious problems with the graphics somehow taking a step back, and looking cartoony to some. Damage modeling is now reduced to areas that get hit just blacken from burn marks instead of looking like armor was ripped away. Gyro overloads happen sporadically and only when you hit a mech with ridiculous amounts of firepower, and sometimes badly damaged areas will have weapons get destroyed, but only to the player’s mech. However they did add a better damage modeling system in some ways, in that extraneous parts (like external missile pods on a ‘mechs shoulders) could now be targeted independent of the body part they were stemming from. In addition, weapon impacts will jostle mechs around more and cause aim to be spoiled, similar to how it should work, and does generally make up for the lack of a consistent gyro overload system. I guess where Mechwarrior 4 makes up for its shortcomings in the story (which uses the FedCom Civil War that ended the ‘Classic’ Battletech timeline), its gameplay (the mech combat is more fast-paced and feels a bit more fluid) and its modability. Granted it’s not easy to modify Mechwarrior 4 but people at mektek.net have done it, putting out 3 add-on mech packs for Mercenaries with a fourth on the way. In addition, all related Mechwarrior 4 games are being released for free, ostensibly to hype up the new Mechwarrior game which is now of ambigious status.

So let’s talk about that. Mechwarrior 4 came out in 2000, and Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries came out in 2002. This essentially means we’ve gone from 7-9 years without a new Mechwarrior game, the longest space of time ever. Many people theorized that maybe the fifth game would be set in the “Dark Age”, a new timeline 70 or so years into the future where battlemechs are rare and combined arms tactics are more appreciated (it was used for a tabletop strategy game). Personally I thought that might have been cool but in the end when we finally got word of a new Mechwarrior game it turns out they’re going backwards, to the year 3015 and the Third Succession War, something never before covered in a Mechwarrior game. The trailer was pretty exciting to look at, featuring a Warhammer fighting it out against a Jenner and an Atlas. Unfortunately the Warhammer is also one of the Unseen and…well…this time it was apparently a problem. Nothing has been heard about the game since then, which tends to worry me but on the other hand it was a short trailer anyway so maybe they have nothing to show us at this time. I do hope this game does see the light of day, and I really hope that the Unseen all get allowed in, but hey, what can you do.

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