When MegaBots’ Gui Cavalcanti describes the fight between his company’s giant robot and a Japanese counterpart as a “strange event,” it’s both accurate and a bit of an understatement. The bout in question, broadcast last week, was the culmination of a Kickstarter campaign, YouTube series, and more than two years of hype. But the fight was more BattleBots than Transformers: the two robots stood still and took slow swings at one other while commentators did their best to inject some drama into the situation. Some fans were disappointed by the “fake” fight, while others were just happy to see it actually happen.
“There was a ton of overwhelming excitement,” Cavalcanti tells The Verge, before adding, “And we had a bunch of fans who felt like it was not exactly what they imagined. And I think the first time you create anything you’re going to have a lot of critics who say it’s not what they imagined. The Beatles were not immediately popular, right?”
But The Beatles never had to make 15-foot robots that could match up to the killing machines of popular culture. MegaBots’ initial social media campaigns were incredibly successful because they promised fights of “epic” proportions, but this was always going to be a hard proposition to actually live up to. The company’s robots are certainly big and powerful, but they’re not exactly agile, and with pilots inside each cockpit, their weapons have to be quite tame to keep the squishy humans safe.
Cavalcanti avoids answering directly on whether or not the fight was scripted (“I would just say that both teams took precautions to make sure we didn’t kill anyone.”), but it was already known it was prerecorded over the course of several days. Repairs on giant robots aren’t easy, and the teams had to take time out for that.
“We took some cosmetic damage: we cut up some wires, some of the hoses got snipped. But I think all in all it was only 10 to 15 thousands dollars worth of damage, which is pretty low compared to the price of the robot,” says Cavalcanti.
Despite criticism from some, MegaBots wants to power on with its plans to build a whole giant fighting robot league. Its bout with team Japan (aka Suidobashi Heavy Industry) was a “first step,” says Cavalcanti, and now the company wants to standardize its robot designs, creating modular parts that snap on and off, as well as a blueprint for safer cockpits. This should make fights quicker as repairs will be speedy, but also allow the robots to fight faster and more freely, with less fear of hurting humans.
“We’ve already been talking to around two dozen teams around the world who have been wanting to challenge us, so in the next phase you’ll actually see us start to help other teams with some of the technological barriers,” says Cavalcanti. “We want to basically serve as the R&D group for the league; we’ll push the boundaries for the state of the art, then share it with other teams, so it doesn’t take them two years to build a robot.”
Cavalcanti compares his vision for the league to monster truck shows, with plenty of spectacle and showmanship, saying: “We need robots that are 20, 25 mph fast, zooming across the arena. And they need to be able to punch each other, and they need to be able to punch faster.” He adds that this is all possible, but MegaBots’ current robots just aren’t “optimized for speed.”
Technical challenge aside, the difficulty is knowing whether there will be enough fans — and money — to support the next step. Comments underneath the fight on YouTube (now at more than 3 million views) range from “I’m so disappointed. I would better watch a duel of 2 big excavators” to “I actually need more of this, This is Awesome!!!” A live tournament with multiple teams would “ideally” take place next year, says Cavalcanti, but after the company took two years to produce a single 30-minute slice of internet TV, this might be a generous estimate.
Whatever happens next, MegaBots is confident that if it just listens to its fans, it’ll all turn out okay. “Our goal is to really create the Universe our fans want to see,” says Cavalcanti. “They have totally valid feedback and criticism and we want to address that and show people what the process actually is. And we want to be creating a sport that’s fun to watch and actually fulfills the desires of our fans [...] We want to put people in seats, in arenas, and we want to have robots fighting in front of them.”