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MechWarrior Online ISN Tweets: Generating story in 140 characters
On December 16, 2011
For those that haven’t read MechWarrior Online (MWO) Developer Interview 2: Randall Bills yet, I generate the tweets posted from MWO‘s ISN.
Several months back when Piranha Games spun up the announcement/launch of the MWO site, they posted two or three days of single in-universe tweets using ISN. I loved the idea and immediately asked them if in addition to the other aspects of my work with them if I could tackle those as well. They enthusiastically accepted and we were off and running.
Beyond providing me the guidelines of “touch on all factions and all aspects of life”, and a format that needed to include “XXX. XXX 18, 3048”, they’ve given me complete latitude to generate what ever I want.
In a lot of ways this reminds me of working on the BattleTech Trading Card Game. Wizards of the Coast asked FASA to generate the flavor text found on the cards of the initial set, and we had roughly 10 words. Trying to tell a story in 10 words sounded like such a cool challenge. Sharon Turner-Mulvihill (FASA editor at the time) and I were basically locked into an office with a pile of books for two+ weeks while we hammered out hundreds of 10 word stories.
As I mentioned in the interview above, coming to FASA I had an almost ludicrous encyclopedic knowledge of BattleTech. Since this was all before PDFs and searchable documents and so on, I’m not sure we could’ve done the work without that knowledge. And even with that and Sharon’s wonderful ability to massage words, it ultimately was a terribly difficult job.
While I continue to have what Norms would consider freakish knowledge of the universe, I know I don’t command that instantly as I once did. So having almost the entire BattleTech catalog in searchable PDFs is a towering tool that makes life so much easier. Not to mention 140 characters seems like so much more room than those “10 words” we were saddled with all those years ago.
Course, it still is good, solid work as you sift through dozens and often hundreds of PDFs to find kernals of data that can be turned into a tweet that tells a story.
Initially it was relatively easy. I just typed in “3048” and a good host of data popped up; I just needed to massage it into a 140 character story-telling form. While specific days are almost never mentioned outside of novels, it was easy enough to find “at the end of 3048…”, then bang, assign it a date and we’ve a new bit of canon.
However, one of the things that quickly became apparent is that thanks to the 20 Year Update sourcebook and how anemic it is on minutia, there’s actually relatively few details of the late 3040s; when compared against time frames such the early 3050s. This meant that simply being able to type in “3048” and find starting points dried up before the first month was out. Then it was a case of starting to mine for data much further afield and extrapolate it down to the time frame needed.
For example, typing in 3040 and then opening up Historical: Brush Wars, you find the following:
Almost without notice, the Free Worlds dispatched security troops to Gibson in mid-August, taking charge of the militaryindustrial complexes on-world amid rumors that Sir Samuel Humphreys had been using the Gibson Federated BattleMechs plant to support his cousin, Duchess Catherine. No direct link was ever proven but the federal authorities retained a tight control on the military plants until the end of the conflict in 3040.
Since both in-universe and real-world examples abound of how when a “military operation” ends, especially if it’s one involving a region which holds critical strategic importance to the State in question, “federal oversight”, whether in the form of political/industrial/diplomatic pressure, is often exerted for years to come. That’s especially true in this universe where almost all events are strung out across long, long years.
As such, it was natural, IMO, for that paragraph to lead to the following story tweet: While official control of Federated BattleMechs ended in 3040, Gibson once more protested League federal oversight.
Another fun angle is that with almost three full months of tweets now, I can go back and expand initial tweets, showcasing the crucial “living universe” feel of BattleTech.
For example, the very first tweet I generated was: Wed. Oct 5, 3048: Marshal Harrison Bradford issued a personal thanks to Norse-Storm BattleMechs, Inc. for the receipt of a DVS-2 Devastator.
A tweet that just posted last week then expanded on that initial tweet: Mon: Dec 12, 3048: Marshal Bradford of the 3rd Royal Guards has reported tests of new DVS-2 Devastator is above expectations in the field.
That type of thread building, while continuing to generate new tweets, will be a lot of fun.
Course, even with all of those tools at your disposal, often it still requires having regional maps out, and multiple physical books spread around to help verify different angles of the data you’re looking for. As I wrap up this latest batch that’ll take ISN into 3049, there’s almost a dozen books I’ll need to put back on shelves latter today.
It’s fascinating, really. As much as I still love the experience of enjoying BattleTech, reading what other authors/developers contribute to the fabric that is the universe we love, the professional in me is immensely satisfied that 15 years of working on the universe in a host of ways, I’m now doing something relatively new and wonderfully challenging. Telling 140 character stories with the idea of introducing computer game players to the universe well beyond what previous such games have presented, and in the process, hopefully, enriching the MWO experience.