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Why do game developers love mechs?

Game developers weigh in on the "utter perfection" of giant mechanical robots.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

September 15, 2023

10 Min Read
A mech battles two other mechs in Armored Core VI.

It's no secret that mechs have a proportionally outsized presence in video games over most other mediums. The mechanical behemoths loom large in the world of 2D and 3D animation, but are scantly seen seen in cinemas, lost in the land of literature, and taboo in the world of television. (They're common in comics, but still play second fiddle to caped crusaders).

These giant humanoid machines (also known as "mecha") first rose to popularity in post-war Japan in the pages of manga like Atomic Power Android and early anime like Mazinger Z. Shows like Macross, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Super Sentai (Power Rangers) would catch the attention of the West, inspiring companies like FASA Corporation, which would create BattleTech—a seminal tabletop series that would merge the mecha design with a modern military aesthetic. BattleTech drew from the aesthetics from tanks and other heavy machinery than the distinctly humanoid shapes of their predecessors.

(Do we need to go into the way-too-long legal battle between FASA Corporation and entertainment distributor Harmony Gold over who owned the rights to different mech designs? No.)

Such shows, comics, and games would inspire game developers of the 1980s and '90s, and developers in the United States and Japan began adapting the mecha genre into the world of video games. The Metal Gear, MechWarrior, and Front Mission franchises were all early adopters in the genre—but then in 1997, FromSoftware released Armored Core.

Games in the mecha genre would come and go over the next two decades but Armored Core was one of the most tenacious. Though the series vanished for a while after 2013's Armored Core: Verdict Day, it came roaring back a ten years later with Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon, a stunning return to form for a studio that's spent the last ten years immersed in the medieval fantasies of Dark Souls, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and Bloodborne.

When the game was unveiled at the 2022 Game Awards, we were struck by how many game developers seemed fervently excited at the series' return. All developers have games that inspire them, but if you happen to know anyone playing Armored Core VI right now, you probably know there's just something about those damn mechs that turns some developers into utter sickos.

Why do developers love them so much? Why do they strike such a fervent chord in players? And why is it that this genre in particular seems to wildly swing from pulpy action adventures to existential meditations on humanity?

We quizzed a few developers who have a particular attachment to the genre—including the fine folks from FromSoftware—to find out.

Mechs make for good gameplay

Armored Core VI producer Yasunori Ogura had a rather literal answer for us. As he put it, mechs just make for a good game design foundation. "In Armored Core VI Firs of Rubicon, we are aiming to implement motions that go beyond the capabilities of a human being." he said. "Players can attack while dodging, and fire different weapons simultaneously when piloting mechs. I think that's what makes it so appealing...allowing players to execute multiple actions simultaneously and in parallel."

It's a pretty straightforward explanation! It helps to think about the mechs of Armored Core as more than just giant people carrying guns. Each limb of an Armored Core mech can be customized to serve a different purpose in the game's high-speed action.

As Ogura said, players learn to excel at the game when they internalize how to move, shoot with one weapon, and tee up a third or fourth weapon all in the space of a few seconds. It's a fantasy you don't quite get out of a first-person shooter, or even a conventional driving game.

Modifying the mechanical body is partly what inspires Inkle level designer Nat Clayton, who made a small mech game called Can Androids Pray with Priscilla Snow and Xalavier Nelson Jr. Clayton is among the many developers we've heard gushing about the mecha genre. "You get a fantastic, tactile weight to otherwise-standard shooting," she said. "They give mechanical justification to higher-time-to-kill combat, especially when in BattleTech universe games....you're losing arms and crippling legs and blasting off weapons."

A screenshot from Can Androids Pray. Two wrecked mechs lay in the desert night.

Clayton drew a distinction between the BattleTech-inspired mechs and those from the Titanfall series. In the former franchise, players spend time in the mech bay "fiddling with generators and heat sinks and weapon mounts," in a way that's customizable. In the Titanfall games, mechs are cool, but not as deeply personal.

Nelson Jr. weighed in on his love for the genre too, telling us that Mechs are "quite simply, perfect."

"They're deeply powerful, impactful engines defined by their intentional choices and limitations," he said. "The more thoughtful and holistic the decisions made in their construction, the more effective they are regardless of size."

This he said, is also a metaphor for game development.

Making Can Androids Pray introduced Clayton to the idea that mechs are "bodies we build for ourselves"—an idea also found in Neon Genesis Evangelion and various Mobile Suit Gundam sub-franchises. She said that Hawken's aesthetic of "industrial air conditioning units on legs" gave her an appreciation for the whole genre of mecha fiction. "It's a genre where fights are less about military maneuvers and beam sabers clashing as they are violent conversations between constructed personalities," she told us.

Violent conversations are of course, are at the heart of Can Androids Pray.

Are the developers of the Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme VS. games also inspired by violent conversations? Perhaps between players, less between characters. Bandai Namco Studios producer Jin Okubo told us that the series was created to "allow players to experience the exhilarating mecha action depicted in the original Gundam works."

Like with FromSoftware, Okubo emphasized the ability to design a wider array of combat mechanics around mechs compared to other games. "Mobile Suits go beyond the mecha and not only fire weapons but also can do melee attacks," he said. (The Gundam series has long-embraced swordplay, and machines inspired by the design of medieval armor). "The main attraction is the ability to create a more flexible and extended action experience in ground combat, dogfighting, and high-speed combat."

Okubo did not discuss the horrific war crimes that are the backdrop of Gundam series and are at the heart of its drama. Probably for the best—the harsh realities of war don't always make for great PvP design.

Strategy game developers love mechs too

Mechs and mecha have found a natural home in the turn-based strategy game genre. Titles like BattleTech draw from the tabletop origins of...well, BattleTech, but before Harebrained Schemes jumpstarted the beloved franchise again, other devs were cooking up strategy games made for mechs.

Harebrained Schemes co-founder Mitch Gitelman actually isn't what you'd call the biggest personal fans of mechs. He remembered telling BattleTech creator Jordan Weisman that he never wanted to work on the series—saying to him "giant walking robots are stupid, Jordan." He grumbled that it leads to mechanics where multi-million dollar military weapons platforms losing their balancing and falling down—in a world with hover technology.

But let's look at where Gitelman's career went shall we? Three months after sassing Weisman about BattleTech, Gitelman was running development on MechCommander, and would go on to make "around five or six" more BattleTech games in the years since.

A screenshot from Battletech. A charging mech fires four green lasers.

When Gitelman thinks about mechs, he thinks about the Hulk-style power fantasy that comes with them. "Lots of folks Have the fantasy of being untouchable—especially folks who've been bullied. That might fit the profile of some game devs I've known."

The team at Stellar Jockeys made waves in 2016 when they highlighted the plight of indie devs trying to find audiences on Steam—but since that early struggle, their game Brigador has lured in players with its unique blend of mech-based strategy.

Stellar Jockeys producer Benjamin Glover said the studio thinks there's something about how easily anthropomorphizable they are for young players. "It’s easier to imagine "driving" a mech as a kid as your body is already in that form," he said.

And kids, of course, are always looking for new ways to play. Studio co-founder Hugh Monahan said he has "vivid childhood memories" off of play-acting his own mechs inspired by the 1990 film Robot Jox. Co-founder Jack Monahan would design rules for him and his cousin to design the bots.

As developers, Glover pointed out that mechs are "far out enough technology" that real-world technology hasn't locked down how they "should" look. "You have kind of a blank canvas for the imagination," he observed. "It's why you end up with so many variations and hybrid designs."

Brace Yourself Games founder Ryan Clark (also a designer and executive producer on Phantom Brigade) also mused on the power of the fantasy that comes with the technology's unimagined potential. "With mechs you can suspend your disbelief maybe [someone] COULD make a machine capable of doing these things!"

Four mechs from Phantom Brigade stand ready to deploy.

As a designer, Clark says he likes building features around what human characters can't do. They can lose arms, legs, or be destroyed completely while protecting the human inside. "Mechs are a stand-in for humans, but cooler, more capable, more epic, more customizable, and without the downsides of blood or gore."

Toge Productions CEO Kris Antoni Hadiputra—who's leading development on Kriegsfront Tactics—echoed Clark's comments about humanoid-looking machines losing limbs while the humans inside stay safe.

Hadiputra is also one of the few developers we spoke with making a game that leans into the political intrigue seen frequently in the mecha anime genre (Armored Core VI does in its own way, just on a far-off planet with far-off politics). The game is set in an alternate 1970s "during an era of conflict in Southeast Asia," which if you remember anything about the 1970s it was a pretty brutal time for military conflict in Southeast Asia.

A mech from Kriegsfront tactics stands in a Southeast Asian jungle.

Because mechs don't exist in the real world, building a setting around them can make the speculative fiction question of "what if?" an easy one to ask. "War, conflict, and politics are difficult subjects—even taboo—where the audience can have biases and beliefs that get increasingly divisive because everybody refuses to see the other's perspective," Hadiputra said. "These mechs and their fantasy setting allow us to disarm the audience, stretch their disbelief, and take them to see a different perspective."

Mechs bridge the gap between machines and the people who use them

Gitelman's comments about the power fantasy of mechs pointed to how many mech games will fill their enemy roster with tiny tanks or soldiers that can be easily squished. "When it comes to mechs, size matters," he quipped.

But what's fascinating about that example is the counter-example—what happens in these stories when mechs and their pilots are being careful with the world around them. A scene I keep flashing back to is the opening of the 2013 film Pacific Rim, where the film's heroes disobey orders to gently ferry a fishing boat to safety.

Mechs can turn ordinary people into mighty mechanical warriors, but giving them all that strength can expose the heart of their character too. Clayton made reference to how many mech fantasies turn into over-the-top personalities screaming their hearts out at each other, and that context becomes especially potent when you examine how someone treats the literal "little people" around them.

You can't pick up and rescue a civilian while piloting a tank. You can't throw a fighter jet in front of a missile to protect innocents and expect to live. And you can't get to personally know your enemy if your job is piloting drones from half a world away.

Mechs can re-humanize what war dehumanizes. They free developers to experiment with what feats a player character can achieve, and they're a jumping-off point to make high-energy characters that players become attached to.

So here's to the mechs—and the developers who make them feel special.

Update: This story has been updated with a correction to Ryan Clark's job title.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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