Lost in Translation has covered BattleTech before, reviewing the animated series and seeing how the setting could be adapted. This time around, it’s a look at how the game’s mechanics can be adapted.
BattleTech, at its core, is a wargame featuring giant robots stomping across the battlefield. The BattleMech is the king of the battlefield, carrying a number of weapons capable of melting a light tank. The game’s draw is having these massive mecha battle each other across a map. To this end, the game comes with a number of pre-made BattleMechs, but there are rules for players to design their own.
The mechanics allow for a range of weapons, including three sizes of lasers, a particle projection cannon, two types of missiles – long and short range – which can come configured in different sizes of launchers. To deal with infantry, there is also machine guns and flamers. In the 31st century, war crimes happen. Each different weapon does a set amount of damage that whittles away the enemy ‘Mech’s armour. Once the armour is breached, the internal structure can be damaged, with components, like arm and leg actuators or weapons and ammo, can be destroyed. Destroying ammunition can potentially destroy the location it’s in. Destroy the head or centre torso of a ‘Mech and it is down for good.
Turns are broken down into phases. Whichever side wins initiative can decide who moves first. Each side then, by initiative, then moves a number of their ‘Mechs, trying to get into a good position. Once all the BattleMechs are done moving, the shooting phase starts. Shooting is considered to be simultaneous, so no ‘Mech takes the effects of weapons lost during the phase. After all the shooting has been done, if two ‘Mechs are close enough, they can try to punch or kick each other. Finally, all the effects of being hit can take effect, with piloting rolls to stay upright and heat management taken care of. If a ‘Mech runs too hot, it can shut down, and even lower amounts of heat can slow a ‘Mech down and make it harder to hit with weapons. The game continues until one side is eliminated, achieves a mission goal, or the players run out of time for the game.
There are tactics and strategies to be considered. Should a light ‘Mech be sent ahead to draw out enemy forces and risk destruction, or should the slower ‘Mechs walk up? Even choosing which BattleMechs to use can make a difference. Sure, there’s an UrbanMech variant, the SuburbanMech, that carries a PPC and is speedy for an Urbie, but it’s still slow and light compared to a Panther, which also carries a PPC but is faster.
With all the moving parts involved, automating it is a natural next step. There have been video games in the past, including the MechWarrior series, but they’ve been focused on putting the player into the cockpit of a BattleMech. Harebrained Schemes’ 2018 release, simply called BattleTech corrects that oversight. Headed up by Jordan Weisman, one of the original creators of the wargame, the video game allows a player to create a lance of ‘Mechs to then take into battle.
The video game has three different modes of game play. The first is the Campaign mode, where the player goes through a storyline involved the fall and restoration of House Amano in the Aurigan Coalition, a minor Periphery nation. The player starts with a mix of medium and light ‘Mechs and can take mercenary contracts while also doing missions for the head of House Amano to restore her rightful place. The second is Career, which is purely a mercenary campaign without the story related missions from the campiagn. The third is Skirmish, which allows a player to take on the AI or play against another player.
In all three modes, the core game play is lance versus lance BattleMech fights. Initiative is decided by Mech size and character piloting skills. In Campaign and Career modes, players can improve the piloting, gunenry, tactical, and guts skills of their unit. With Skirmish, players can choose from a roster of pilots with varying skills. Once the player’s lance has made contact with the enemy, whether AI or player, initiative determines who moves when. Faster ‘Mechs tend to move sooner than heavier, and the piloting skill can affect the score further.
Instead of separating move and shooting into separate phases, each pilot on his or her turn can move then shoot. Manoeuvring becomes key; a ‘Mech’s rear armour tends to be thinner than in front. Cover and movement help in not getting hit by enemy fire. Heat management is still important, and different types of worlds can affect how fast heat is dissipated.
The game comes with a wide range of BattleMechs with at least one variant per ‘Mech. It is also possible to modify ‘Mech, exchanging weapons to match a player’s preference. The only limit is the ‘Mech’s tonnage and, in Campaign and Career modes, available budget. A Locust with a PPC is, in theory, possible, but the trade-off may be having paper-thin armour. Not every published BattleMech is in the game. The designers started the storyline in 3025, well before the Clans invaded the Inner Sphere. ‘Mechs are being added with DLC that expands not just the choice of BattleMechs but adding to Campaign and Career modes.
The video game emulates the wargame well, even taking into account changes that the new format requires. The BattleMechs look like they do in the books and as miniatures. Urbies are appropriately slow, and assault ‘Mechs are an absolute monster to take on. The computer does the heavy lifting of tracking expendables and damage and calculating whether a shot hits. What could take a full evening to play with friends takes an hour or so. There is a challenge when playing against the AI, and there is a variety of battlefields to choose. In Campaign and Career modes, the option to change a unit’s colours appears as a desk with minis being painted.
The BattleTech video game achieves what it set out to do, emulate the tabletop wargame, taking care of all the fiddly parts while letting players enjoy stompy robot fun.
Continuing Lost in Translation‘s look at adapting tabletop gaming settings, let’s jump into the future, a future where mankind has been at war somewhere in the galaxy for several hundred years. A future where feudal lords vie for control of all human space. Welcome to BattleTech.
Lost in Translation has covered the BattleTech animated series. While the series had issues, it did show off the then-current Clan Invasion metaplot the game was going through. In universe, the cartoon is anti-Clan propaganda by the Lyran owned Tharkad Broadcasting Company, with the characters based on real people in the setting. The BattleTech setting has several hundred years of history, providing a number of eras of play for players, from the Aramis Civil War and the end of the Star League in the late 2700s, the four Succession Wars, the Clan Invasion of the 3050s, the FedCom Civil War of the 3060s, and the Word of Blake Jihad of 3067. Conflict is built into the setting.
BattleTech has something few other tabletop games provide, giant stompy mechs fighting each other. No matter what form the adaptation takes, the draw will be war machines stomping their enemies into paste. The MechWarrior series of video games has focused on putting the player into the pilot seat of a BattleMech, controlling one of the engines of war. The recent BattleTech video game puts the action at the lance level, giving the player control of four `Mechs to fight against enemy units.
The question becomes, what level should an adaptation look at? Will the adaptation follow a lance of ‘Mech pilots getting in over their heads? Or will it take a top level approach, using the different Houses and their machinations to become the one ruling the known galaxy? Are the Clans threatening to invade, a threat not yet looming, or a pacified enemy that is now in competition with the Great Houses?
At the lance level, the best choice of unit is mercenary. House units tend to be in garrison unless either the war arrives on their world or they’re sent to the front. Mercenaries have more choice on what sort of job they take. In film, it’s almost traditional that the hired guns aren’t told the full story about what they’re getting into. The plot could be taken from other genres, from heists to Westerns. The smaller cast allows for more focus on just the unit, not worrying about the politics going on at the galactic level.
However, with the Great Houses, it’s possible for a BattleTech version of A Game of Thrones, The five Great Houses – Steiner, Davion, Kurita, Liao, and Marek – along with some Minor Houses such as Centralla of the Magistracy of Canopus, Calderon of the Taurian Concordat, and O’Reilly of the Marian Hegemony. Not only is there conflict between the Houses, there is conflict within the Houses. Conflict that bleed out to the battlefield, fought by BattleMechs. To continue the comparison with A Game of Thrones, the Clans can represent the White Walkers, lurking, ready to strike.
The Clans provide yet another approach to the setting. The Clans themselves are alien in thinking to the Inner Sphere, but they are still human. The differences is how Clan culture evolved, with scarcity, ritualized combat to prevent unnecessary losses of MechWarriors, and a stratified caste structure placing warriors at the pinnacle. Following a Star, the Clan equivalent of a lance, of new MechWarriors as they fight for position in Clan society, figuratively and literally, and dealing with how the Inner Sphere does things provides a conflict to build a plot on.
Suffice to say, BattleTech provides a wide range of potential for adaptations. The catch, like with most tabletop games, is that the game isn’t widely known. The video games, however, give the setting a boost in recognition. The other problem is the expense of special effects. The animated series had a limited number of BattleMechs for use during the enhanced imaging portions of a battle. Granted, the cartoon came out when CGI was in its infancy; it’s possible to have more models available for scenes now, especially if there’s assistance from the video games. Introducing the setting to a new audience shouldn’t be difficult; all works need to go through that, especially genre fiction, original or adapted.
BattleTech has a rich setting to plunder for adaptations, with the only common factor being oversized walking tanks ruling the battlefield. The BattleMechs are the draw; the story is what will keep the audience. Getting the existing fans onside shouldn’t be difficult, especially with the volumes written about all the factions that exist within the setting. A studio just has to choose an approach.
Lost in Translation has covered BattleTech a few times. The setting is vast with a history covering over three hundred years. Lost in Translation touched on the main eras with the review of the animated series, but the setting isn’t set in stone. Two eras not really covered in the past reviews are the Jihad and Dark Age.
The Dark Age is set about a hundred years after the classic 3025 Succession Wars era. When FASA, the original company publishing BattleTech folded, Jordan Weisman, one of the game’s designers, took the IP and founded WizKids in 2000. The first game produced by the new company was Mage Knight, a collectible miniatures game. At the time, collectible card games, also called trading card games, were hot sellers. Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering blazed a new trail with the Pokémon Trading Card Game following up. There were many attempts to cash in on the new big thing, but few survived the initial hype. However, a collectible minis game was a new approach. WizKids evolved Mage Knight into its Clix system, leading to HeroClix in 2002, where players could have Marvel and DC heroes and villains fight each other.
In 2003, the MechWarrior: Dark Age collectible minis game was released. The setting was still in the BattleTech universe, but with the timeline advanced. Gone were recognizable factions like House Marik, which had shattered into separate provinces, and several of the Clans. Instead, the Inner Sphere was recovering from the loss of the faster-than-light communications means known as Hyper Pulse Generators, or HPG. The Republic of the Sphere, having taken Terra from the Word of Blake, worked to restore humanity. Naturally, some factions still thought they were better at ruling than others and fought back. The BattleTech setting is one of war, after all.
Fans of the older games were put out by the advance of history and the sudden changes. The random selection when buying a box of miniatures didn’t help. With the older games, looking for the specific BattleMech needed for a unit meant looking through the racks of blister packs and picking up one or two Atlases for an assault lance, or four Atlases for a Steiner scout lance. The BattleMechs also came unpainted, so players had the option to choose their preferred affiliation. The collectible minis came pre-painted with most assigned to a specific affiliation. Still, there were players who enjoyed the game, even with a lack of UrbanMechs.
Topps bought WizKids in 2003 and shut down the Clix line in 2009 before selling it off to NECA. Topps kept the BattleTech and Shadowrun IPs, though, and licensed both lines out to Catalyst Game Labs for continued game development. With BattleTech, Catalyst filled in the gap from Clan Invasion to Dark Age. The Inner Sphere, seeing the end of the ComStar imposed Truce of Tukayyid coming up, decided to short-circuit the Clans and came together to form the Second Star League. The newly reformed Star League then eliminates Clan Smoke Jaguar and then fights a Trial of Refusal, ending the Clan invasion once and for all.
However, the Second Star League had all the problems of the original – powerful Houses that couldn’t play well with others. The League fell apart, leading to the Word of Blake losing what little it had left of its sanity. The Word of Blake lashed out, striking everyone and everywhere, plunging the Inner Sphere into chaos. The Republic of the Sphere formed over time to fight back and reclaim worlds from the Word of Blake zealots, finally putting an end to them. But the Word of Blake had one last trump card, the destruction of the HPG network, leading to the Dark Age.
With the details filled in, players can choose their preferred era, set out their favourite unit of BattleMechs, and engage in giant stompy mecha carnage. Some players go beyond just playing out battles on the tabletop battlefield and create their own narratives. With Games Workshop clamping down on fan-made animation, there has been an exodus of Warhammer 40K players over to BattleTech, where the IP holders aren’t hunting down fan works. There are enough fan-made animated videos to help newcomers figure out the BattleTech setting.
Case in point,the 2006 Mechwarrior film, MechWarrior – Age of Destruction by the Class of March 2006 at the DAVE School of Animation of NUC University. This six minute video is a mere sliver of time compared to the vast BattleTech in-verse history, but it is an intense six minutes as Republic of the Sphere Armed Forces triy to evacuate a world in the face of a Wolf Hunters invasion. With the help of Paladin Mandela, the invasion is delayed.
Paladin Mandela and Wolf Hunters leader Anatasia Kerensky are both from the source material. The designs are straight from the game, with Mandela’s Atlas being an Atlas III with a rotary autocannon. The mix of defense units is something that MechWarrior: Dark Age promoted; while every blind box had a BattleMech, they also contained other more conventional vehicles.
The video does have a few advantages. The producers are Jordan Weisman and Kevin Goddard, the people in charge of WizKids. The story was created by Kelly Bonilla, who was the lead deisgner for MechWarrior at WizKids at the time of filming, and Sharon Turner Mulvihill, who wrote and edited several BattleTech supplements, including the 1st Somerset Strikers Sourcebook for the animated series. The screenplay was written by Loren L. Coleman, who wrote several Battletech novels, and Lee Stringer, an instructor at the DAVE school and the director of the video. Details were going to be accurate.
Being a student production, there are elements that don’t quite work. However, the purpose of a student production is to provide experience to students on how a work is made. The only way to learn is to make mistakes, or learn from someone else’s mistakes. The acting isn’t bad; there have been other works reviewed here with worse. The polish isn’t there, not like experienced actors. Again, these are students, so this is them getting experience.
The short length of the video prevents getting in depth over what’s happening. It’s a short story, not a novel. The goal is to get to the core of the action, set up the conflict fast, and then resolve it in the short term. Yet, the video shows the Wolf Hunters winning the battle, but not necessarily the war. Kerensky gets her goal, the spaceport, but not the personnel, while Mandela achieves his by buying time for the Republic personnel to escape, then escaping himself.. This is but a skirmish between the two MechWarriors.
Lost in Translation approaches fan works in a different way from professional productions. Fans are usually working from a limited budget, with a smaller crew that doesn’t have the experience that would be found in a Hollywood blockbuster. To make up for the shortfalls, fans bring a passion for the original work. Passion isn’t always a replacement for talent and experience, but can make up some of the shortfall. In the case of Mechwarrior: Age of Destruction, the enthusiasm of the students guided by the people responsible for creating the setting results in a video that represents the original work, a video worth watching.
Lost in Translation has covered BattleTech a couple of times, once for the animated adaptation, the other for the fan-made Tex Talks BattleTech series. BattleTech started as a tabletop wargame, featuring BattleMechs, giant piloted mecha that are the kings of the battlefield of the future. The wargame spawned RPGs and video games, the most recent of which being published by Harebrained Schemes.
Among the various video games was MechWarrior 4 series, with MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries being released in 2002. The game allowed the player to become Spectre, the leader of a mercenary unit. The unit takes on several contracts in the region known as the Chaos March, the border between the Capellan Confederation and the Federation Commonwealth during the time of the FedCom Civil War. However, one of missions for the players takes place on Solaris VII, the Game World, where individual and teams of MechWarriors battle in arenas much like combat sports today, except with giant mecha. Matches are recorded and sent through the known galaxy, allowing for massive revenue for the licensor and licensees.
Of course, when there’s a sport, there is a sports announcer. In the game, the announcer is Duncan Fisher, voiced by George Ledoux. Ledoux wanted to get into Duncan’s head a little better, so he commissioned Cody Ouellette to write a short story about Fisher’s past. Ouellette at the time was a writer for BattleCorps, a subscription-based website that provided stories, news events, and scenarios for players. However, the story, “The Last Contender”, isn’t considered canon. It also doesn’t quite fit as fanfiction, considering what the story was commissioned for. It is an adaptation, though.
The story leans heavily on setting knowledge. As mentioned, Solaris VII is the Game World, along the lines of Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Silesia is the main city, home to the major arenas and split into sectors controlled by the major Houses/nations. Kai Allard-Liao and his customized Centurion, Yen-Lo-Wang, appear in a number of BattleTech works, including Michael Stackpole’s Blood of Kerensky trilogy covering the Clan Invasion. Allard-Liao was considered the best in the Solaris games, having won the Grand Championship two years in a row. Naturally, any MechWarrior in the games would want to test his mettle, much like Duncan does.
Like the early years of Vegas and Atlantic City, organzied crime has a foothold on Solaris VII. Fixing games isn’t unheard of. However, strong arming a pilot who has a massive walking tank tends to not go well. The media is also pervasive on Solaris; there is a demand for the games throughout the known galaxy, though there are elements that are not happy with them.
The story’s focus on Duncan Fisher is its strength. “The Last Contender” is about how an ambitious man became a popular announcer, bitter but still in love with the games, the former athlete now in the broadcast booth. All to get into the mind of a character for a small portion of a video game. But it works.
Duncan Fisher’s legacy continues, though. The character is memorable and has appeared in a number of the Black Pants Legion’s videos and is the arena announcer in Mechwarrior Online. Ledoux’s portrayal of the character gives nuance that is unexpected for an announcer role.
“The Last Contender” is a bittersweet story. One door closes, opening a new door for Duncan, who may not be ready for the change. There’s no doubting that Ouellette knows the setting, having worked with it prior to writing “The Last Contender”. Ledoux’s reading fits the grittier parts of Solaris VII, the side that the media would never show to offworld viewers. Combined with Shaw’s art, the story paints a picture of a man thrown off stride and trying to deal with the hand life dealt him.
Wrapping up the look a fan works, at least for now, Lost in Translation will examine a series from the Black Pants Legion, Tex Talks BattleTech.
Today’s BattleTech is a massive franchise consisting of a tabletop wargame and a tabletop RPG from Catalyst Labs, a popular online multi-player video game developed by Harebrained Schemes, and many novels covering the range of history of the setting. The game was first released as Battledroids in 1984 by FASA. The game was renamed after Lucasfilm reminded the company that “Droid” wasn’t FASA’s trademark. The second edition was renamed to BattleTech and had corrections and more advanced rules, including a way for players to create their own BattleMechs, the kings of the battlefield.
The second edition, the first under the BattleTech name, introduced a galaxy at war, with the 3035 Succession Wars. The five great houses, Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth, Kurita of the Draconis Combine, Laio of the Capellan Confederation, Marek of the Free Worlds League, and Davion of the Federated Suns. The initial BattleMechs provided were licensed from the designer of the mecha for Super Dinemsion Fortress Macross, Crusher Joe, and Fang of the Sun: Dougram. As the game line increased with supplements, Technical Readout: 3025 added more designs, some of which were also licensed from the mentioned anime.
The third edition came out in 1992. However, problems were looming. Harmony Gold, the studio that adapted three separate anime series – Super Dinemsion Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Squadron Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA – into the series RoboTech noticed that FASA was using mecha from Macross. The result of the lawsuit turned a large number of BattleMechs being removed from the game in 1996; those ‘Mechs became known as the Unseen. However, FASA was already advancing the setting’s time line, having released Technical Readout: 3050 with more new designs for BattleMech, AeroFighters, and conventional vehicles.
Since the game is based on BattleMechs battling each other, any peace in the setting could only be short-lived. For 3050, a new threat appeared, one that allowed FASA to use new BattleMech designs on the covers of their games. From beyond the Periphery came the Clans to reclaim Earth from the Inner Sphere barbarians. Lost in Translation covered this in some detail in the review of the BattleTech cartoon. The Clan Invasion looked to be unstoppable with their advanced weapons technology outstripped anything the Inner Sphere had. Two events caused the Clans to stumble. The first was the loss of the Khans of the invading Clans, taken out by a lone pilot, Tyra Miraborg, who A-winged her Aerospace Fighter into the bridge of a Clan warship.
The other event was ComStar calling out the Clans to Tukayyid for a proxy fight for possession of Earth. Until 3055, ComStar was the quasi-religious corporation that had the monopoly on interstellar communication. No one expected ComStar to have a vast horde of Star League-era BattleMechs, least of all the Clans. No one expect ComStar to survive with green pilots and soldiers. When the smoke cleared, though, on May 20, 3052, Tukayyid was in the hands of ComStar and the invading Clans were defeated.
The fallout of the Battle of Tukayyid was that the Clan Invasion was stalled for fifteen years, giving the Inner Sphere time to figure out what to do. ComStar underwent a schism, with the more religious of the corporation upset with what happened and splintered off to become the Word of Blake, named after the founder of ComStar. To the Great Houses’ credit, they saw an out that would cut off the Clans from further invading once the fifteen year moratorium ended. The Second Star League formed. Without the pressure of the Clan Invasion, the Lyran part of the Federated Commonwealth started a civil war, resulting in the polity splitting into the Federated Commonwealth and the Lyran Alliance.
The Second Star League didn’t last long. While the idea was sound, the implementation didn’t take into account the existing tensions between the Great Houses. After seven years, the Second Star League dissolved. The Word of Blake, feeling betrayed by, well, everyone, began their Jihad to punish everyone responsible for the Second Star League’s failure.
All of the above is just scratching the surface. FASA and, later, Catalyst Game Labs have produced a number of sourcebooks and novels that go into far greater detail. The setting’s vast history is a draw for fans of the game. It’s possible to play in any era, and the setting’s timeline is still being advanced.
The Tex Talks BattleTech series is a love letter to a game from such a fan. Tex started the series because of how much fun he had with the game and wanted to do something light with it. The first Tex Talk was on Tex’s favourite BattleMech, the Awesome. He followed up with the assault ‘Mech, the Atlas. He then turned it over to the fanbase on what to cover next. As with any Internet poll, the results were predictable. There’s always a so-ugly-it’s-cute item in any setting and in BattleTech, that role falls to the UrbanMech, a light ‘Mech that is essentially the Volkswagen Beetle of BattleTech, though Beetles could outrun one. Despite the Urbie’s performance, Tex treated the ‘Mech the same as he did the Awesome and Atlas, though with far more memes.
The turning point came May 20, 2019 with a special Tex Talk “remembering” the Battle of Tukayyid, with Tex giving a historical overview of the battle for Earth with insight on where both sides made mistakes. Tex does more than just restate the results of the fight; he gets into the tactics, the psychology of both the Clans and of the ComGuards, and adds his own opinions on why the battle ended the way it did.
The special was just a hint of what was to come. Tex and his team then took on the main event in the BattleTech setting, the one that set off all the Succession Wars, the Clan Invasion, the Word of Blake Jihad – the Amaris Civil War that ended the original Star League. Tex went back to the source material, spread across a number of sourcebooks and websites, to put together a 3+ hour presentation split into two videos to cover the build up, the war itself, and the fallout.
Again, Tex goes beyond the text, adding insights on everyone involved and analyzes why the Star League fell and what could have been done to prevent it. The videos can act as an intro for any new player to understand why the galaxy is constantly at war.
Tex’s video have a light touch, with humour to keep a potentially dry subject interesting. Tex himself is a voice made of well-aged whiskey. There are meme and running gags. Some, like calling ComStar “Space AT&T” are based on what the corporation does. Others are based on quirks of the various Houses, such as the Lyran use of assault ‘Mechs, the heaviest of the heavies, to do scouting.
Tex Talks BattleTech is a labour of love for Tex and his crew. They know the setting and have the sourcebooks on hand if they don’t remember a detail. Fans have been sending in more sourcebooks and other items, including painted miniatures of various BattleMechs. The videos don’t just do the surface details; Tex and his team get into details and analysis over several sources, working out the whys behind the whats, then adds a layer of humour on top.
Adaptations of games are an iffy prospect. There have been major failures along the way, from Super Mario Bros through Dungeons & Dragons to Battleship. Yet, studios keep trying, because the recognition factor of the names involved should pull in an audience, as seen with the announcement of the Tetris movie. With D&D, Battleship, and Tetris, there isn’t a proper setting as would be used in fiction. Maybe movies aren’t the best vehicle for game adaptations. World building takes effort, and movies don’t provide enough time to get the details down. Also a good idea is to pick a game that has a setting. D&D has several, but using them would mean making the movie using the setting’s name*, not the game’s. Yet, the animated D&D series was able to create a setting and a conflict that came from the game’s mechanics. An animated series also has the advantage of needing to be short and to the point without having to worry about the effects budget. Time to look at a game that has a developed setting and see how it was adapted. For this, let’s look at BattleTech, a game of mecha combat in the far future.
BattleTech started as BattleDroids, produced by FASA in 1984. The change in the name came after some legal pressure from Lucasfilm over the term, “droid”. Becoming BattleTech didn’t change the core idea of the wargame – two sides fielding walking mecha called BattleMechs to claim dominence of the battlefield. FASA licensed mecha designs from several anime, including Macross**, giving them their own attributes for the game. As the game grew, different factions were developed, and a history came about explaining why these interstellar empires were at war. The five nations of the Inner Sphere*** eventually received a supplement each, detailing their culture, economy, and interstellar relations – the Lyran Commonwealth headed by House Steiner, with German influences; the Draconis Combine headed by House Kurira, with Japanese influences; the Federated Suns headed by House Davion, with French and English influences; the Capellan Confederation headed by House Liao, with Chinese influences; and the Free Worlds League headed by House Marik, with Greek and Balkan influence.
As the setting expanded, the years progressed from 3025, detailing the Succession Wars to see who would form the new Star League. The Houses could barely keep their technology base, with many technicians performing rituals that were learned by rote instead of proper study. In 3049, a new threat appeared from beyond known space. The Clans, the return of the descendants of Star League forces that fled the Inner Sphere after the the revolt from one of the Periphery states resulted in the death of the First Lord of the Star League in 2766. The goal of the invaders was to restore the Star League and retake Earth. The Clan invasion forced the major Houses to research technology and upgrade to survive. Ultimately, the Clan invasion was stopped in 3052 after a coalition of forces fought a proxy battle for control of Earth. The major Houses then formed a new Star League in 3060 to pre-empt a second Clan invasion, but internal fighting inside the Federated Commonwealth, made of Houses Davion and Steiner, erupted as a civil war. In the aftermath, Houses Steiner, Davion, and Liao pulled out of the Star League, ending it. BattleTech grew from the basic box set to encompass published missions, a related role-playing game (MechWarrior), tie-in novels, video games, and even an animated adaptation.
BattleTech: The Animated Series aired in 1994. Produced by Saban, the fourteen episode series melded traditional animation with CGI and detailed the exploits of the 1st Somerset Strikers, an ad hoc team created by Major Adam Steiner, and instructor at the famed Nagelring Military Academy of the Federated Commonwealth Armed Forces (FCAF). Adam’s goal was to find out who attacked his homeworld of Somerset; at first, he believed the Draconis Combine was involved, but learns that a new invader was responsible. With the tacet permission of Archon Melissa Steiner-Davion, he commandeers a Draconis JumpShip to take investigate further. With him are Lieutenant Rachel Specter, Adam’s best friend and tactical officer; Lieutenant Ciro Ramierez, Adam’s assistant instructor at the Nagelring; Cadet Katiara Kylie, aerospace pilot and fellow Somerset native; Captain “Hawk” Hawkins of the FCAF; “Captain” Valten Ryder, mercenary picked up on Dustball; Franklin Sakamoto, Draconis smuggler and illegitimate son of the Combine’s ruler; Doctor Deirdre Nakamura, shipmate of Franklin’s; and “Patch” McGuire, mechanic.
The 1st Somerset Strikers soon learn that the new foe they face is Clan Jade Falcon, one of the invading Clans returning to take back Earth. The Jade Falcons forces in the area of operations are led by Star Colonel Nicholai Malthus and Star Colonel Kristen Redmond. Both have a technology introduced for the cartoon, an Enhanced Imaging implant that allows them to get a broader picture of the battlefield through virtual reality. At first, the ragtag Strikers spend almost as much time infighting as they do battling Malthus’s forces, but as Adam gains intelligence, the Jade Falcon commanders become rivals as Nicholai tries to defeat Steiner. It’s not easy for the Strikers; they lose Ciro to the Jade Falcons, where he is turned into a bondsman and becomes a ‘Mech pilot with an EI implant. In the final episode, the Strikers battle Nicholai and his forces over the fate of Somerset.
The EI implant allowed the studio to switch to CGI, showing ‘Mech battles via virtual reality. The characters are given ties to the setting, through relations, like Adam and Franklin, and through position, like Nicholai and Kristen. Ciro first appeared in Michael A. Stackpole’s BattleTech novel, Lethal Heritage. Franklin’s storyline began in Robert Charette’s novel, Heir to the Dragon. Distinctive BattleMechs were used, from Adam’s Axeman and Kristen’s Vulture to Valten’s Bushwacker, making its first appearance in the setting. Jordan K. Weisman, one of the series’ creators, also was a developer on the game. The production team took pains to bring in as many elements of the setting that they could fit, from having characters of both the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine working together to the choice of the Jade Falcons as the antagonists. Keeping the focus on the 1st Somerset Strikers helped the writers create their own stories while still using the decade of work already produced for the game as background.
There were some issues. As a cartoon, the animated series was aimed at the lower age of BattleTech players. The series couldn’t get into a lot of detail; a 22 minute episode doesn’t provide enough time to get into the depth of the setting while still providing an ongoing story arc and ‘Mech versus ‘Mech action. To get some of the ‘Mechs, the Technical Readouts were ignored. Hawk’s Mauler was originally a Draconis Combine-only design, yet the Fed-Com pilot has one. For the casual viewer, one interested in the series with little or no knowledge of the existing canon, this isn’t a problem.
Unlike the D&D movie, the problem with adapting BattleTech is the sheer amount of world building that has been done since 1984. Even in 1994, just ten years after the game’s first release, the Inner Sphere saw two Successor Wars, one that resulted in two of the nations becoming one through marriage and conquest, and the return of the descendants of the Star League. The political maneuverings between the wars were hinted at in the animated series, but could use more time to expand. A Game of Thrones does show it is possible, but a 22 minute episode requires a focus on the core characters without getting into too much detail of events beyond..
FASA did release a sourcebook based on the series, 1st Somerset Strikers, which served three purposes. The first was to act as an intro for new players brought in through the cartoon, explaining the different factions shown in the series. The second was to let existing players replay events in the series to see if things could go differently. The third was to bring the characters into the BattleTech canon. Star Commander Pytor, one of Malthus’ ‘Mech pilots, appeared in the Robert Thurston novel, I Am Jade Falcon while Adam became the Archon of the post-civil war Lyran Alliance, to name but two characters. However, the animated series is now considered an in-universe series detailing a fictionalized account of events that happened.
BattleTech: The Animated Series was an ambitious undertaking by FASA. The designer notes in 1st Somerset Strikers shows the efforts being taken to ensure that new viewers wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the setting while still getting key elements in, a challenging task, especially when different products and novels could show any given House as both savior and destroyer of mankind. The chosen format required liberties taken through necessity. Overall, the series makes an effort to adapt the game, even if it’s not perfect.
* For example, Dragonlance, though that adaptation had issues related to time needed.
** These ‘Mechs would later become “the Unseen” after a legal proceedings by Harmony Gold led FASA to remove their images. The conflict came about because of how each company had licensed the images; Harmony Gold had the Macross license, leading to Robotech, while FASA had approached the design studio instead of the animation studio.
*** There are minor nations outside the Inner Sphere, collectively known as the Periphery. They, too, have BattleMechs, but their capacity for warfare is limited compared to the major Houses. Some of the Periphery states still do have a role to play in interstellar politics.
Back in November, one of the news round-ups mentioned that there Hummingbird working on a sequel to It’s A Wonderful Life. With Paramount contesting the sequel, I want to take a look at the mess and how to avoid it.
With It’s a Wonderful Life, the problem stems from a clerical error; the movie’s copyright wasn’t renewed properly, sending the movie to the public domain. The owners, Republic Studios, managed to regain most of the rights through backdoor methods that allowed them to control who could show it and at what price. The short version, the film itself is in the public domain, but the story and the music are not. The question that a court may have to decide is how much It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story depends on the copyrighted story.
Before I continue, I want it made known that I am not a lawyer, not do I play one on TV. This article is all from a layman’s point of view and isn’t legal advice, even if it sounds like it.
The first thing when adapting a work is to find out who has the rights to it. If the work is old enough, it’s in the public domain where anyone can take it. As a rule of thumb, if a work is older than Disney’s “Steamboat Willie”, it is very likely in the public domain. Works by Shakespeare are definitely in the public domain, as are myths, legends, and fairy tales. To verify, sites like Project Gutenberg can be helpful. That Romeo & Juliet alternative universe rom-com* where he’s the son of a necromancer and she’s the daughter of vampires can be made with no rights issues at all.
More recent works, though, have owners who expect payment when someone else plays in their sandbox. Research skills pay off here. First thing is to find out who holds the rights. Sometimes it’s easy; a Star Trek adaptation has to go through Paramount to be made. Sometimes, it’s not. It is the rare company that survives a hundred years. Studios like RKO, Orion, and United Artists have gone under, leaving entire libraries to be picked over. With UA, MGM bought most if not all of its assets, including the 007 franchise. It is a matter of research to find out where the movies have gone. This is where It’s a Wonderful Sequel is running into problems. Both studios can rightfully argue their sides; the film itself is public domain, provided that it is not shown in its original order. The sequel, and any other movie, could very well use images and scenes out of context as flashbacks and not run afoul of the copyright.
Once the rights owner has been found, it’s time to convince them that the adaptation should happen. The easiest way is sums of cash, or, as it is better known, a licensing fee. The owner sets the fee, but could be negotiated down. If there’s no agreement, no adaptation. A possible alternative is to convince the owner that they want to produce the adaptation themselves, with the adapter at the helm of the work. This method works best when remaking a movie, but can also work in the comics industry. This is what I expect the outcome of the dispute between Hummingbird and Paramount to be, an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum that allows It’s a Wonderful Sequel to go ahead.
If the rights owner says no, that’s not the end of the adaptation. Unless the new work relies heavily on established canon, changing details such as character names, setting, and even genre may be enough to make the former adaptation look original. This process is, essentially, “filing off the serial numbers”. Done well, no one notices. Done poorly, and the work gets called a rip-off of the original work.
Let’s take a hypothetical** example. I want to create a dark and gritty remake of BJ and the Bear, setting it in a post-apocalyptic America where BJ and his mutant chimpanzee deliver needed supplies through blighted wastelands to the last remnants of humanity living in fortified towns and cities, getting past corrupt warlords who want the goods for themselves***. The original owners of BJ and the Bear are easy to find – Glen A. Larson and Universal. The two still have a working relationship as of the Battlestar Galactica remake. All I need to do is convince both parties that I can make it worth their while to license the rights to me. Simple, no?
Not so fast. BJ’s main adversary in the remake, Warlord Lobo, is based on a character that got his own spin-off. If I want to use Lobo, I need to make sure that his character isn’t stuck in some sort of rights limbo. The problem has cropped up; The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man were both set, at least partially, in New York City. However, Marvel licensed Spider-Man and his supporting cast to Sony Pictures, who isn’t about to give up the wall-crawler anytime soon. Both Marvel and Sony negotiated to get the Daily Planet into The Avengers, but, ultimately, the building wasn’t there. Marvel is running into a similar situation with the next Avengers movies with Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch. Fox has the rights to all characters related to the X-Men, including mutants. Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch not only are mutants but have worked alongside Magneto in their villain days. Marvel is skirting the problem by not mentioning the m-word (“mutant”) in the movie. However, there has been a massive crossover of rosters between the two teams; other X-Men who have been Avengers include the Beast and Wolverine.
The issue of rights doesn’t affect just movies. The Battletech game has what players have come to call The Unseen, thirteen BattleMechs that could no longer made as miniatures or be used in artwork as a result of a rights dispute between FASA and Harmony Gold. Both companies had licensed the mecha designs; Harmony Gold through the respective studios of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram, and Crusher Joe as part of Robotech, FASA through the design studio, Victor Musical Industries, for BattleTech. The case was settled out of court; FASA might have been able to win except the cost of fighting the case became too high for the company to justify. The loss of the Unseen meant redoing several books and creating new minis for the core game and led to the Clan Invasion.
In my hypothetical example, the competing rights issue doesn’t come up. Glen A. Larsons Productions and Universal are still the people to talk to about Lobo. However, if the word is no, I can make changes to remove the BJ and the Bear markers from the project. Keeping the post apocalyptic setting, I can change Bear into a horse that CJ rides. Instead of delivering supplies, CJ delivers news through the wastelands to the fortified towns. Or, since the new project is a little too close to The Postman for comfort, I change the setting to space, where CJ and his sidekick alien buddy try to make ends meet in their dilapidated space freighter while Space Admiral Lupine hunts them down for crimes they may or may not have committed.
In short, check the rights situation. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s not. When in doubt, rework to avoid legal entanglements.
Next week, 2013 in review.
* Yes, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy. That didn’t stop Gnomeo & Juliet.
** At least, I hope it’s hypothetical.
*** If someone reading does do this remake, I would like on-screen credit, please.