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Sunday, April 14, 2024

We Asked Giant-Robot Experts to Critique Video Game Mecha

In games, mech pilots often have the job perk of dying in their seats. With mech windshields spiderwebbed with bullets, arm-guns overheated, energy cores depleted of uranium, and bipedal legs leaking hydraulic fluid across whatever near-future landscape they’re fighting in, oftentimes these mechs just blow up and players respawn across the map. Overwatch, Titanfall, and various Call of Duty iterations use multiplayer mech combat to their advantage (and the suspension of disbelief for the player). It’s all fun and games, but how often do you think about the long-term safety, maintenance, and unintended side effects of giant robots? If these mechs were real, a lot would change—and a lot could go wrong.

Although fictional mechs come in all shapes and sizes, the widely used hulking, humanoid mech design is the most common in gaming, and in life, as we’ve seen with real life attempts to build the kinds of giant mechs that we love in fiction. From Japan’s 1:1 scale Gundam in Diver City to 2017’s USA versus Japan giant-robot duel to popular movies and media like Pacific Rim, Power Rangers, and even the campy Robot Jox, the mech designs that capture our imaginations are all essentially armored humanoids, just sized up. But all four experts we spoke to, from real-life mech builders to heavy machinery designers, agreed that the famous humanoid form should be tossed out from the get-go.


“Why do two feet suck?” asks Jon Pope, an industrial designer of heavy machinery. “Unless you put really huge feet on it, it’s flotation and ground compaction, really.” Few urban environments are built for the heavy, concentrated-mass steps of a mech like Fallout’s Liberty Prime—the pavement would collapse, and basements or tunnels would turn into massive potholes.

Natural environments wouldn’t fare much better, according to Erol Ahmed, director of communications for Built Robotics, an unmanned construction robotics company. “Soil is not solid; they have different weight densities if it’s sandy or clay.” Material testing if a battlefield is silty clay or loamy sand, and then redistributing weight accordingly, isn’t exactly a bipedal mech’s most pressing goal during combat, but it would need to be if its pilot wanted to survive.

Pope sees three solutions to bipedal mechs in real life: massive shoes comparable to metal clown boots, multilegged mechs that look more like caterpillars or worms, or a mech with treads instead of legs. “Ultimately, I would argue, if you want a robot that's just going to destroy everything, I would build a giant bulldozer,” Pope says. He designs giant bulldozers for a living; the design makes sense. Shagohod, the Metal Gear Solid 3 mech known as the Treading Behemoth, was designed to use screw treads instead of Metal Gear’s chicken legs, and the design is much more stable (that is, until Solid Snake bombs it).

But especially with treads, piloted mechs can be hellish for riders. According to Jon Pope, operators of industrial vehicles, like wheel tractor-scrapers or log skidders, can only drive machines for a few years. “After that your body literally cannot handle it anymore,” he says. Demolition vehicles can be the same (and similar to mechs in their goal of destruction). “You’re constantly hitting a wall all day long,” Pope says. “It can be a carnival ride of a day.”

This lines up with the experiences of two game-inspired mechs that were built in real life. When Matt Oehrlein, CEO of the giant-mech company MegaBots, began designing the two mechs that his company built, his north stars were ones piloted in the 1995 computer game MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat. Although the in-game mechs were bipedal, stability made him switch to treads, and his mech rocked a lot when he sat in the pilot’s seat. Starting up and driving felt to him like riding a rollercoaster or a carnival ride, and less like driving a vehicle. “The engine starts up and it just roars to life and the whole robot is shaking. There’s big hydraulic hoses with 3000-psi hydraulic oil running up through them and they're, I don't know, a foot away from your spine. If that hose bursts, real bad things are happening,” Oehrlein says. “Most of the fear comes from the unreliableness of the system.”

Unreliability is a serious problem for mechs of any size—even with what we could view as “simple” weapons used in robot combat competition shows like Battlebots. Flippers, spinners, and grabbers are complicated tools that could be damaged in play, according to Battlebots judge Lisa Winter. Throughout the show, robots break and the operators don’t know why. Adding flamethrowers, ion cannons, and large-rocket missiles to already complicated giant mechs would likely only result in more mistakes and inexplicable failures. Mechs with simpler designs and fewer moving parts make the most sense to rebuild today: think Half-Life’s Dog or Alien’s Power Loader, for example.

Safety systems, similarly, would not only need to be as simple as possible, they would have to have backups, and backups of backups, in order to keep pilots safe and minimize the risk of a catastrophic failure. Mechs in Overwatch and Titanfall use ejector seats to release pilots, a solution which could fail if metal is warped in use, or if the ejector is simply pointed in the wrong direction. “What are the escape paths for a person? Some of them may be built in like ejection or exhaust systems or water sprinklers,” Ahmed says. “But some might just have to be good old-fashioned mechanical things like poles and ropes and stairs to get out of, or maybe not” get out of, so to speak. Pope recommends several catwalks (not just for exiting, but for engine maintenance) on the exterior of a mech. These sound simple in theory, but could be crushed or destroyed in combat, leaving a pilot stuck 40 feet in the air, in a potentially damaged or about-to-explode mech. First, there is a world of safety solutions, and unintended side effects, designers have to explore. Have Lancer’s mech companies been sued for causing micro concussions? Are Armored Core pilots striking until their mecha are upgraded into safer multilegged designs, more similar to Horizon Zero Dawn’s machines? Is there a cottage industry of mech catwalk manufacturers and installers? What about OSHA, ANSI, ISO, and other standardization programs? Many experts had questions about how these mechs would fare under independent scrutiny, and what circumstances would prompt mech use in the first place.

In almost all cases, mechs are not especially suited for movement or consistent warfare. Most of our experts agree, mechs seem best suited for awe-factor, either in propaganda or entertainment. “They just look cool,” Oehrlein admits. All of the technology is here to rebuild game-inspired mechs, just like he did, but “they just don’t make any money.” In Fallout, when Liberty Prime is constructed, it’s described in-game as the “very embodiment of American military might” whose use in combat is almost secondary to its geopolitical use.

In real life, a country could sink billions into developing a similar 40-foot mech, but if they’re in the market for efficiency or reliability, Ahmed recommends swarm robotics. “You could have one really big machine that only needs one scoop to remove all the earth, or you could have lots of little machines,” he says. “If you have one hundred of them, they can work just as quickly.” Crowds of smaller robots can more easily move, and would likely be remotely piloted, creating a safer environment for bystanders and pilots alike. But a dozen small robots just doesn’t have the same visual impact as a single giant one, even if they’re safer and more efficient. Mortal Kombat’s Smoke, a ninja made out of swarming nanobots, just doesn’t pop the way an Iron Harvest dieselpunk mech does.

If game mechs were built in real life, there would be enormous hurdles, from the taxpayer cost of Liberty Prime to the soils that *Daemon X Machina–*style mechs would walk through. But what about the opposite: how do real-life constraints alter games’ worldbuilding and mechanics? “I think if video games use more real world considerations of real-world mechs, they would probably be a lot less fun, but they would probably teach people a lot more,” Oehrlein says. Customizing parts, choosing the right build materials, and the physical constraints of assembling heavy machinery is a challenge in itself. “Organization and fitting components into a robot is an art, and it's just as important as any cool or effective weapon,” Winter says, comparing the work she does building robots to playing a game like Tetris.

Ahmed sees it a different way, since the goal of robots is to free up humans to do higher-level tasks. “There might be less active gameplay. They're doing what you're asking them to do, and hopefully doing it well,” he says. “You're getting home earlier to spend time with your family or you're picking up a new hobby, you're reading a book, maybe you're inventing new technology.”

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