Our very own Chris “Lynx” Chapman has been serving as the VGL “Loremaster” and historian for a long time. This former VWE / FASA Interactive employee (and MechWarrior in MechCommnder) has been working with those who created the BattleTech VR pods from the beginning.
Early Development & Prototyping
The initial concept for the BattleTech Center was developed by Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock while they were students at the Merchant Marine Academy and being exposed to the Bridge Simulators used to train cadets. Weisman believed that this technology could provide a new type of entertainment.
To bring this concept to life, Weisman and Babcock worked to use off the shelf technology to bring the concept of a simulated starship bridge, with different players operating different positions like the bridge crew of “Star Trek.” The concept proved untenable at the time due to technological limitations. Weisman and Babcock would found FASA Corporation in 1980, and the virtual reality project would continue under the label of ESP which officially was branded as Environmental Simulations Project but was also known internally as Extremely Secret Project.
The development of the tabletop BattleTech game by FASA in 1984, created a new avenue to explore in a virtual reality setting. The concept of utilizing multiple networked cockpit simulators with players fighting with and against each other while piloting BattleMechs began to gel. Weisman and Babcock began to develop the idea, seek investors, and develop prototype systems under the ESP name.
ESP chose Incredible Technologies, based in Vernon Hills Illinois as the initial co-developer on the project in 1988. The Incredible Technologies team would include leaders in US arcade game development including Tim Skelly and George Gomez. The prototype system featured 4 networked cockpits playing in one game instance. Controls included a left and right hand joystick with a trigger and two top firing buttons. The two joysticks controlled the two “arms” of the BattleMech and the weapons on each arm. Two target reticles would be on screen for independent targeting control. A center based throttle would control vehicle speed, while two foot pedals would be used for steering. The primary video display would be a 24” Wells Gardner color raster monitor, providing an “out the window” view for the cockpit. A second 12” color monitor would be a secondary display that would display radar, map, damage display and a help screen. Additional LED displays would be used for Weapons systems, damage messages and a BattleMech heat scale. 36 buttons would be used for weapon assignment, and 6 rocker switches would be used for control modifications.
The primary video display was based on a Texas Instruments CPU that was originally designed for production video titling and could process a very high number of sprites onscreen. Commodore Amiga 500’s would be used to render graphics on the secondary screen. Sprite rotation and scaling would be the heart of the primary graphic display in the game.
The 32MB Ram limitation of the hardware led to the shared arm and leg geometry of the BattleMechs. Two sets of legs, and three sets of arms would be used on 4 central torso chassis. This limitation would define the look of the 4 BattleMechs used in the game, and would be revealed in FASA BattleTech 3050 Technical Readout publication. With the dual ownership of FASA & ESP, artwork would be shared between the two entities and the new Madcat, Vulture, Loki and Thor designs would begin to be featured in FASA products with the Madcat design becoming iconic for the product line.
The 4 player system prototype would be used by ESP to continue to raise investor backing in the concept. The system would be repurposed for its first public unveiling in 1989 at the Detroit Auto Show, reskinned as a Jeep racing simulator game. Later that year, the BattleTech Center concept would be unveiled at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Illinois. With investment backing secured, the concept would be refined for the first retail site to be opened in 1990.
ESP & Incredible Technologies would refine the prototype cockpit based on playtest feedback. The center throttle and second targeting joystick would be dropped from the design. The right hand joystick would be retained with only one targeting reticle onscreen. The throttle would be moved to the left hand side of the cockpit, and the LED and CRT monitor layout would be retained.
Gameplay would be expanded to support up to six players in one game instance. Combat would be in a desert environment with randomly generated obstacles on the game map. The environment could be rendered in day/night/dusk lighting conditions with minor weather/fogging effects available as well.
The six player game cockpits would be communicating over an ARCNet network. Game event highlights would be sent back to the central Console to create a mission review scoresheet. The entire experience would include a 5 minute training video, and a 10 minute game session, followed by reviewing a game score sheet printed for each player. While two sets of 8 cockpits would be deployed onsite, game stability would drop under the 8 player network load. This resulted in cockpits on each set being held in reserve as backups in the event that other cockpits were down due to technical or maintenance issues. Heavy traffic, 6 player games could see frame rates of 12-14 fps as regular experience. System 1 cockpits would only be deployed at the Chicago BattleTech Center.
Development of System 2 began in 1991, with ESP rebranding as Virtual World Entertainment. Cockpit hardware would be replaced with a CPU based on the Texas Instruments TMS 34010 processor to drive real-time 3D polygon rendering, while a Commodore Amiga 500 would be used for secondary screen rendering. The goal of the new game engine would be to maintain a higher frame rate, and maintain 8 players in one instance with stability and a relatively high frame rate compared to System 1.
The cockpit design would retain the System 1 layout and controls. A new rotating player seat would aide in egress in and out of the cockpit. Games would be served from a central A/Rose enabled Macintosh computer over an ArcNet Network. Game highlights would be compiled into individual player score sheets, and for the first time a spool file of game events would be created, sent over an AppleTalk Network to a Mission Review computer. After a 10 minute game, players would then review their score sheet while an accelerated Mission Review would be played.
Some members of the original Incredible Technologies design team would stay on with VWE, and VWE would invest in hiring its own team of engineers and programmers to develop System 2, led by Weisman and Babcock. System 2 would be deployed at the Yokohama site in August of 1992, and soon after deployed in Chicago in October. Six player frame rates usually were 20-22 FPS. 8 player, high traffic games with heavy on screen geometry would drop to 14-18 FPS.
Tim Disney (Via Shamrock Holdings) would purchase VWE in 1992, and the cockpits would see their first major redesign, tied with an overall rebranding of the VWE Cockpit experience. The initial concept of players going to a 31st Century BattleMech Pilot Training Facility would be replaced with the concept of the Virtual Geographic League and the cockpits being a dimensional transport. This would open up the story telling for letting a single cockpit platform be used for different game worlds/environments. The clean white cockpit design would be replaced with a heavy, dark, rectangular design that featured individual cockpit art on each cockpit.
Internally, System 2.5 would be nearly identical to System 2, but would feature a revised sound card solution where a separate sound/amp board would be utilized for the first time. System 2.5 would be rolled out at the Walnut Creek Virtual World Center in 1993. System 2.5 would also see the launch of VWE’s second game, Red Planet.
VWE would refine the design again with the System 3 cockpit. The CPU would be upgraded to a Texas Instruments TMS 34020, and the sound board would be redesigned to sit in the cockpit card cage, instead of behind the primary monitor. System 3 cockpits would externally be the same as System 2.5
With System 3, VWE would support both BattleTech and Red Planet development through 1996. Hull Pressure, a 3rd submarine based game would begin development on System 3 but would transition to System 4 and be renamed. System 3 would see the implementation of SiteLink technology, allowing cockpits at different sites in the United State to play each other via ISDN networking. SiteLink would go live in 1994, connecting Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas, Denver, Walnut Creek and San Diego sites. System 3 cockpits would go on to be deployed in Toronto, Kyoto, Sacramento, London and additional locations in Japan and Australia. At their peak, more than 300 cockpits were deployed around the world.
System 4 (Tesla System)
VWE would begin development of their 4th Generation cockpit, named the Tesla System in late 1994. An entirely new game engine would be built around the Division Limited Pixel Planes Technology allowing for high resolution, texture mapped 3D polygons with a target, locked frame rate of 30FPS.
Large card cages would be excised from the design, moving to a PC based design. The Division Pixel Planes card would require 2 EISA slots on the motherboard, and for sound support the Tesla system would utilize 2 EISA Creative Sound Blaster PRO cards to support the Tesla cockpits 12 speakers breathing a full, 3D sound experience. The CPU was initially an Intel Pentium P90 by way of a DEC Prioris XL PC. Later, the Tesla system would use Micronics M6ME Pentium Pro 200 motherboards. The remaining components would remain the same.
Internally the cockpit would be centered around a primary display that was being reflected through a beam splitter into an Infinity Optics curved mirror. Surrounding the primary display would be 5 monochrome auxiliary monitor displays intended for vehicle/weapon information, and a full color secondary monitor display for map displays. The joystick would be upgraded to a HAPP B6 joystick with tophat featuring HP optical encoders, while the original style throttle and foot pedals would be retained.
The games would be served from a console running on a Macintosh Power PC platform, with all of the cockpits working on a Novell DOS 7.x running custom network applications to handle network traffic. Struggles with the TCP/IP network architecture and the Division Pixel Planes technology would force development delays.
Red Planet would be the launch title for Tesla System 4 in 1996. It would be deployed first at Le Monde Virtuel in Montreal, Canada, followed by the Chicago BattleTech Center and the Indianapolis Virtual World Center. Design issues with Tesla BattleTech would force it to be released nearly 6 months after Red Planet.
Tesla System BattleTech & Red Planet would both feature a full, mission review in 3rd person mode following the action. Since this would not be time accelerated, the entire experience would be a 5 minute training video, 10 minutes of gameplay, and 10 minutes of mission review with score sheets as well.
Tesla System 4 saw the development of 3 unreleased titles by VWE. Hull Pressure, the submarine game originally envisioned for System 3, had transitioned into a “Mission to Atlantis” which was an on-rails rescue game. “Mission to Atlantis” was previewed for the 1996 SiGGraph trade show but never moved past that stage of development. “Caverns” was an underground exploration game that was originally designed to be a persistent game world that could be modified and explored simultaneously by players at different VWE sites. Development never moved past basic environment proof of concept. The final title, “Corsairs” was to be the long sought after air-combat game for VWE. Basic game design and initial art was developed, but the game never moved to full development. Assets were shared by FASA, and the game was released as the pen and paper “Crimson Skies” game, and would later be developed on PC and Xbox. Cockpit software development at VWE would be suspended until the next generation of cockpit hardware would be ready, Minor software releases of new maps for Red Planet and new BattleMechs for BattleTech would be the only software releases until 2002.
Tesla II: Firestorm
In 2002, VWE began the process of upgrading the hardware inside the Tesla cockpits. Partnering with Microsoft, Alienware, and GameLeap, a new generation of hardware and software began to be deployed. The Alienware hardware was centered on supporting the MechWarrior 4:Mercenaries package that was the basis of the BattleTech:Firestorm software package. BattleTech:Firestorm would support a console that would also be PC based, removing Apple Macintosh computers from the VWE cockpit for the first time in more than 10 years.
With Division Ltd. Pixel Plane cards no longer in the PC’s, “Red Planet” was removed from the game lineup.