Canadian Game Awards spotlight – interview with MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries’ Russ Bullock

Vancouver’s Piranha Games first began making games in 2000, when Russ Bullock and Bryan Ekman began working on the development of Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza. What first began as a Half-Life mod opened the door to two decades of video game development.

During the inaugural Canadian Game Awards, Piranha Games won Best Narrative for 2019’s MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries. Piranha Games has spent the better part of the decade entrenched in the franchise. MechWarrior Online launched in 2013. Since that time, the studio pivoted its focus into the development of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries. This would be the first time in a long while that the MechWarrior IP received a proper narrative for players to experience.

In the early days, Piranha Games developed titles in established franchises such as Medal of Honor: Heroes 2 for PSP, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Bass Pro Shops: The Strike

We discussed the studio’s history with founder and executive producer Russ Bullock. He also weighed in on the importance to include a story in MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries.

Steve: Piranha Games began as a way to create what appeared to be your passion project, Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza. Now, 20 years later, the studio has come a long way. What has this experience been like for you?

Russ: The thing we wanted more than anything was just to establish ourselves in the games industry. That was the ultimate goal. Those working on the mod project at the time never thought we would start our own company. We just thought that it would help us get jobs in the gaming industry.

Ultimately, I think we were passionate about the gaming industry. The way things worked out, we started Piranha games. At the time we didn’t really understand how big of an effort we were undertaking. But we had all the energy and we were young and gung-ho.

Over the course of 20 years, it went from that to a lot of work-for-hire, to co-production opportunities, to our own self-publishing and working on more of our true passion projects, being the MechWarriors games. It’s been a pretty remarkable run. Looking back on it now I can see how special it has been. It means a lot.

While you already had some experience developing a MechWarrior title, how did it feel to take the reins of a mainline title?

There is a bit of a difference between the two. At the time, when I was creating MechWarrior Online, it felt like an undertaking and a major title. But it didn’t fulfill that one itch. After MechWarrior Online had been out and people had been playing it for three to four years, we announced MechWarriors 5: Mercenaries. 

It was unfinished business. As much as everyone loved MechWarrior Online, one of the big messages we got from the players and community was “Where’s MechWarrior 5?” We always had that as unfinished business and I felt like if we were to move on from MechWarrior, we wanted to achieve that.

We dove in and it was tough. It was a long development. It’s our biggest game to date. It took four years from the time we first started to have a few folks work on it. It was two years of most of the studio’s focus. It was difficult to get it out there but it hit very close to my original goals for the product. I was very happy and satisfied. 

Do you feel like the vocal community that reached out were hungry for a single-player MechWarrior game again?

I think so. A lot of people grew up on the MechWarrior games. They were all singleplayer games. By the time we shipped it, it was around 17 years since MechWarrior 2, which was the last proper MechWarrior title on PC to release.

What was the process in crafting the narrative for the game?

It was challenging because it was an evolution. When we first started creating MechWarrior 5, it didn’t have quite as many story elements in it yet. It was going to start out as almost a mercenary loop simulator. As we were creating the game, we were creating that as the core foundational loop of the game. It just started becoming more and more clear that we needed to push harder on the story element to fulfill that long-standing desire for another MechWarrior title.

The story elements evolved throughout the development. It’s not exactly the best way to go about it, but it worked out pretty well. It’s one of those development stories that are common that things don’t always take the perfect path but we got it there.

Between the studio and yourself, what was the reaction to learn that Piranha Games was not only nominated, but actually won for Best Narrative?

A lot of us felt that it was a surprise. We’re developers and are so deep in the forest it’s difficult for us to see our own products the way the world does. When we released the game we were happy with the reception and reviews. Most of the major outlets understood what MechWarrior is. We got our 80s and 85s. We hit our mark that we were shooting for. We wanted to hit an 80% product and we feel like we got that. We got some lesser scores that dropped our average down. 

If we would have picked our game to be nominated for an award, we probably would have seen other categories as much more likely over the narrative. That was fascinating and a testament to the guys that worked on it.

The Canadian games industry has grown in many ways since the studio first took form in 2000. What has that evolution process looked like from the perspective of a studio lead?

It’s interesting to see from our perspective in Vancouver because it’s always been a top development hub. But we’ve seen a shift over to places like Montreal mostly due to tax credits. We’re seeing more and more top products developed in Canada. We have Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Microsoft’s The Coalition, Piranha Games and Phoenix Labs. I think there’s more top-tier games being developed in Canada than ever. This may because of the fact that it was primarily big publishers but now you see a lot more from more studios.

I think it’s healthy and strong. It’s as good as it’s ever been. I don’t see why it would ever weaken.

The studio appears to have a special sauce in that it has worked with a diverse lineup of IPs and publishers in the past. How does the development team stay so agile over the many years?

There’s kind of two tales here. That was definitely the story of Piranha Games 10 years ago. Our strength was that we pitched. We could strike and be agile and that’s who we were. But now we’ve been close to an entire decade of developing and publishing MechWarrior Online and MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries.

[Currently] we have staff that has been with us for more than 10 years, so they remember the previous era. Of course, there’s also quite a few staff that only know Piranha as being self-funded and self-publishing MechWarrior Online and MechWarrior 5.

It’s almost hard for me to go back and remember that first decade because it has been so long since we have been that studio you described. Nowadays we’re still agile, we’ve worked on two engines – CryEngine3 and UE4 – but we’ve been pretty focused. 

Do you miss those days? Are there any hopeful projects being discussed that would see the studio breakaway from the norm?

On the one hand you’re not anxious because you worked 10 years to get to a point where you can develop your own thing. In that regard, it’s not like we don’t want to go back. But we got there, we want to stay there. We mostly want to work on not only MechWarrior but also say an original IP of our making. That’s the top goal.

Having said that, I would say that now that we’ve been doing our own stuff for 10 years, there have been discussions lately of the possibility of seeing what’s out there and maybe working with some other big publishers. As you say, maybe get a bit of a change, get some experience with other studios. It’s been so long since we’ve been involved with other publishers.

The top goal is to stay where we are and continue to head in that direction and perhaps create our own original IP, for example. 

MechWarriors 5: Mercenaries will be receiving its Heroes of the Inner Sphere DLC in Spring 2021. Thank you to Russ Bullock for speaking with us.