The Mech Touch

Chapter 47: March of Progress

The inevitable advance of science and technology rendered today's machines worthless and turned tomorrow's miracles into everyday goods.

One of humanity's better characteristics was the race's insatiable curiosity of the unknown. Nothing better expressed the rise of humanity better than to track its technological advances. From fire and sticks, the race took a scant blink before it mastered more advanced technologies such as agriculture and forging. A few thousand years after that, humanity escaped the limits of their home planet and spread their presence into the greater galaxy. Each time humanity advanced, it was due to a new scientific breakthrough.

This dynamic process of introducing new technologies to the market was not an entirely positive experience to everyone. To the people involved in the mech industry, many companies might lose all of their customers if they progressed one step slower than other firms.

The earlier years of the mech renaissance was a wild west, with new inventions haphazardly being introduced into the market as soon as they turned economically viable. This led to bizarre situations where there was once just nine years in between one generation to the next. All the businesses that invested heavily in designing and fabricating the mechs of the old generation were left with a huge pile of underperforming junk.

Those who hadn't yet made the jump got lucky and invested in the new technologies, thereby massively gaining an edge over the producers burdened by old ballast. The financial crash that resulted from the imbalance was the largest since humanity spread out into the stars. So much wealth had been lost that some economists calculated that it set the humans back as much as thirty years.

Losses valued in trillions of credits could potentially continue if this chaotic advance was left unchecked. Fortunately for everyone on the supply side of the industry, the MTA's restrictive certification and sales procedures imposed some semblance of order in this process of renewal and destruction. The mech industry now adhered to a semi-fixed schedule of grouping technological advances into generations, each lasting about thirty to fifty years.

Commercial mechs that incorporated modern technologies available to be licensed in the open market were regarded as the era's so-called current generation, or currentgen for short. The generation that preceded it was called the last generation, or lastgen. Generally, the differences in performance between the two was distinct, but not overpowering. As an offhand rule, it took four lastgen mechs to beat three currentgen mechs. This left producers stuck with lastgen designs a period of time to accumulate savings in order to invest in new technologies.

Ves was currently in this boat, except he had much less time to renew his aging assets.

Most analysts plying their opinion in the talk shows warned their audience that the current generation was going to be a short one. As about twenty years had passed since the first currentgen mechs were put on sale, that meant Ves had ten to fifteen years to invest in a new production line.

In practice, his time was shorter as at the last three years, hardly any pilot could be fooled into buying a lastgen mech on the verge of turning obsolete. From now until the generations shifted, the prices of lastgen mechs would continue to decline.

First, he had to come up with a new design. If he chose to produce variants, then he'd have to license a decently good base model, and those often cost a fortune to license. At a minimum Ves expected to fork out a billion credits for a basic currentgen mech. If he wanted anything fancier, then the cost might rise to as much as two to four billion credits.

Then he had to find replacements for his rusty 3D printer and assembler as well. If Ves wanted to fully exercise his growing skills, then he'd have to acquire a more robust assembler system, which amounted to about 300 million credits. He also couldn't leave out the vital 3D printer. Without renewing his old model, it was impossible to fabricate all of the latest gadgets by himself. A small but premium model could set Ves back by 700 million credits at a minimum.

In total, Ves had to accumulate 2 billion credits in savings in order to survive after ten years. It was a daunting amount of money, and anything could happen within that time that could force Ves to lose his savings or force him to spend it on something else.

With such a colossal spending plan, Ves felt the shadow over his shoulder returning with a vengeance. Though it loomed a bit further away, its shadow nonetheless dwarfed the previous worries in his mind when only his interest payment threatened his business. He'd have to churn out hundreds or even thousands of mechs to accumulate such a sum.

"Do I really have to save up 2 billion credits?" Ves asked himself as he scratched his head.

Replacing the 3D printer and the assembler remained a priority. His current equipment limited his options too much. As for the licenses, Ves thought up an alternative.

"I don't necessarily need to license a complete mech design. I already had a taste of designing an original mech when I cobbled up the Drake together out of spare parts in the qualifiers for the Fusion Cup."

If Ves was generous in his description, then mech design was simply a process whereby the designer puzzled different components together. Nowhere did it state that the mech designer had to reinvent the wheel and design all of the parts by himself. With the widespread availability of component licenses in the open market, the only thing a mech designer needed to do was to grab a couple of existing parts and stuff them together into a single frame and voila, a new design emerged from his hands!

The benefits of designing an original blueprint were numerous. First, he saved out on licensing costs. The money Ves coughed up to license a full set of components was as much as a quarter to half the amount required to license a complete design. If Ves picked his parts from the lower-end segment of the market, then his total costs would not amount more than 300 million credits.

"The System will also be happy at me for stepping up to original designs."

This was the second benefit of choosing to go this route. The System considered designing variants of existing models to be a low-class occupation. It only offered grains of DP for each new design and sale of a variant mech.

The System in fact awarded him with 28 DP for his first real mech sale. It seemed the System treated real mech sales differently, chopping off six digits from credit price of the sale to determine the amount of DP Ves earned. It sounded like a minor windfall, but considering that the prices of the items in the Skill Tree and Store increased dramatically to purchase the better stuff, then 28 DP per sale might not sustain him for long.

Ves already drooled at the potential amount of DP he could earn from selling his own designs. "The System can't be that generous, right?"

Original designs also gave Ves an advantage in another way. If the quality of his design surpassed the average of the market, then Ves could potentially enjoy a final benefit. If his mech proved to be a radically popular product, then he could take the opportunity to license out his own design. Needless to say, the amount of money he could potentially earn from such an arrangement was astronomical, and the best thing about it was that he didn't even have to lift a finger.

"If others produce my design through a license, will the sale of their mechs still earn me DP?"

The System unfortunately kept its mouth shut. This left Ves helpless in determining the answer. Still, from the way the System worked so far, Ves guessed it might not be too stingy. It treated virtual mech sales as a source of DP even if Ves left the production to the game operator's servers.

Naturally, all of these possibilities were fanciful daydreams. Ves was nowhere close to designing and fabricating an original design, let alone come up with something that could win awards and attract licensing requests. He had to build up both his monetary reserves and his personal skills before he revisited the issue.

"Alright, at least I've set a long-term goal for myself. In ten years time, I want to replace my equipment and come up with at least one viable original design."

It was a lofty goal that very few mech designers could fulfill if they stepped into his shoes. In order to create a viable or popular design, it needed to outperform the basic currentgen models in the market while possessing a unique feature that Ves could tout as its main selling point.

Take the Caesar Augustus for example. Despite its many detriments, the mech attracted a small but devoted fanbase. The old design achieved this success by relying on its unique points, that being the merging of outstanding defense with flexible offense.

Coming up with a design that performed marginally better than the mainstream models wasn't enough. If Ves wanted to stand out with a design just like Jason Kozlowski had all those years ago, then he had to incorporate something unique only to him in his work.

He had to specialize.

His consideration in this area excluded the X-Factor. Not only was such an elusive concept difficult to perceive, Ves also lacked the means to advance his skills in this area with his Design Points. Rather than throw himself against a wall trying to make something invisible as his selling point, he'd rather focus on improving something that his customer could touch and see.

"The question is, what will my specialization look like?"

Ves already considered this question once before. He chose to focus on developing his ability to design light and medium mechs. But that still included too much possibilities. He risked scattering his focus if he cast too wide a net. He had to narrow down his future aspirations in order to come up with a realistic spending plan for his DP.

Looking at the massive Skill Tree wouldn't help due to the plethora of choices it offered. No, Ves had to decide from his heart. Only by pursuing a path he fully invested into could he take it to the end.

"Let's leave out the options that I won't be pursuing."

First off, he flatly ruled out the exotic developments. He lacked the background to start messing around with building a mech from organic materials or experimenting with juggernauts.

Next, he ruled out heavy mechs. While developing such a hugely expensive mech might offer great returns, the amount of investment required to master all of its systems took too long. Usually teams of mech designers pooled their respective specialties in order to develop a viable heavy mech design.

Now that he was left with the basics, Ves further narrowed down his scope by leaving out weapon systems. The development of lasers, cannons, missiles and sophisticated melee weapons was a discipline in itself. As the technologies behind these weapons were already quite mature, it took an exorbitant amount of effort to squeeze out a few drops of improvement. He risked neglecting his foundational skills if he diverted too much effort in improving his weapons development.

It was better to leave this area to the professionals and rely on licensing. Only an extraordinary genius like the 'Polymath' could keep up with all the developments and even advance the field with her own efforts. People almost couldn't count how many patents Claire Gramza registered. Everyone was convinced she earned more money from licensing out her technology than selling her mechs.

Ves took inspiration from another star designer instead. The Armorer brilliantly carved a spot at the very top by developing the best armor for his mechs. Tons of enthusiastic mech pilots with a bit of money to spare flocked to his products. While his mechs might not excel too much in other areas, the mere fact that a mech designed by Raul Mendoza cut back on casualties by as much as fifty percent was a miracle in itself. Pilots always valued their lives.

"Focusing on just armor might not be good enough."

His starting point was lower than anyone else. To achieve measurable success in the field, he had to develop his skills pretty deeply in order to compete against geniuses who specialized in armor at the start of their education. Ves already had a taste of the immense disparity when he competed against Edwin McKinney in the finals of the Fusion Cup.

Instead, Ves took his idea on another track. Working with the Fantasia models and well as the Caesar Augustus allowed him to glean certain insights into the challenge of balancing protection with speed. His interests ignited when he considered the beautiful way Jason employed the armor on the Augustus. Ves already played around with the armor scheme when he redesigned the mech to be built with the HRF armor plating.

"I think I'd enjoy the process of developing my own armor schemes. Trying to achieve the greatest amount of protection without sacrificing speed is an eternal dilemma every mech designer faced."

Instead of taking the route the Armorer took and try to achieve the absolute best protection, Ves only needed to develop something good enough while allowing the mech to maintain most of its speed. This fit in the quintessential design scheme that underpinned medium mechs, so Ves decidedly left out light mechs in his future plans.

Many designers with a better foundation than Ves have tried to make advanced in both speed and armor. Most of them failed miserably, while the rest eked out mediocre earnings with designs that marginally performed better than the competition. While he could also fall flat, he still possessed one thing many others lacked. The System.

Only up to this moment did he open his Skill Tree. He first glanced at the skills involved with developing medium armor. It was a broad and intricate tree that offered paths that specialized in either weight reduction or maximum protection, along with many other choices such as signals absorption and self-repair alloys. Ves was spoiled for choice.

"Hm, it will scatter my focus a bit if I want to walk down multiple branches of this tree, but the benefits will be remarkable once I build up my basic competencies in my specialization."

The first step in his plan started with producing a more faithful rendition of Caesar Augustus. The Marc Antony might be a good mech for its price, it nonetheless bastardized the original intentions of the mech. If he applied good quality armor instead of the cheap stuff, then he would be able to design more expensive mechs.

"I'll be able to charge a much higher price with my premium designs. The pilots that fall into this segment don't care as much about saving every penny. My profit margins will swell as a result."

Higher profits resulted in higher investment. He'd be able to acquire new licenses and replace his old gear much faster as a result. Ves needed to work briskly in order to stay ahead of the transition into the next generation of mechs.

Ves already formed a bold medium-term plan to make this dream into a reality. He could invest in a dedicated armor fabrication machine.

While the 3D printer was an incredibly advanced piece of technology, it remained a product borne out of compromises. It had to focus its capabilities on producing uniform slabs of armor plating as well as tiny, delicate parts. By acquiring a machine dedicated solely in producing armor, Ves could achieve much better results with much less effort.

At a conservative estimate, such a machine could cost 600 million credits, but that could be halved as the next generation loomed closer. As such specialized machines were usually capable enough to produce most nextgen armor, Ves did not have to worry too much about acquiring something obsolete.

"With a modern armor fabricator, I can modernize the Caesar Augustus and earn some time and money for my next steps."

The complexity of his 10-year plan grew deeper. Though diverting his attention into acquiring an armor fabricator might seem like a needless distraction, as long as it improved his earning potential within the next couple of years, then it could pay off very soon.

After formulating his future direction, Ves quickly finished his financial report. Of the fourteen million credits that remained of his profit, he reserved about eighty percent towards his taxes and the piggy bank. That left him with about 2.8 million credits in readily available cash for him to spend on whatever he liked.

Any future earnings would of course be less extravagant. With an average profit of 8 million credits per sale, he'd have to reserve 6.4 million credits off that sum, leaving him with only 1.6 million credits as play money.

While that might sound like an incredible amount of wealth to a commoner, a mech designer always had more things to spend his money on. The cost of virtual licenses in Iron Spirit ran up pretty fast as the star rating increased.

Furthermore, Ves also had to keep his workshop's safety in mind. The security measures in place paled in comparison to what real manufacturers boasted. He'd cry until his eyes ran dry if some hooligan crashed his mech into his workshop one day.

Ves also considered doing something unimaginable to him when he was still burdened by his debt.

He wanted to hire an employee. Specifically, he wanted to employ a full-time fabricator that supplied the mechs to Marcella.

"But if I do so, how will I hide the System from my new hire?"

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