Ves considered hiring a fabricator in order to ease the pressure on his time. If he wanted to advance his skills, he had to kept pumping out designs. If he wanted to earn lots of money, then he had to fabricate lots of mechs for Marcella to sell. He lacked the time to invest in both activities if his sales volume grew to more than three mechs a month.
The only problem with hiring someone was that keeping the System secret might be difficult. As much as the System appeared harmless, it was actually a miraculous invention that straight-up defied the laws of reality as Ves knew it. Such a precious treasure attracted covetous intentions, many of whom had the power to squash him like a bug. Letting the System's existence leak to anyone else was just asking for trouble.
Another problem which concerned Ves was that hiring someone else to do his fabrication would lead to sub-standard products. A full-time fabricator might be a wizard when it came to working with the 3D printer and assembler, but if he was ignorant of the X-Factor then the mechs he made would be devoid of life. Selling cheap products under his name only dragged him down just when he wanted to build up his brand.
As Ves couldn't figure out the solution to this dilemma, he called up Marcella.
"Heya Ves, I'm kind of busy right now, so keep it short."
"I'm having a bit of an issue here." Ves said, then explained his thoughts regarding his potential hire.
Marcella smiled at him as if the problem was trivial. "Well, it's too early to hire a mech technician, so you have plenty of time to think it over. If you want my opinion, why not do both? You can sell the mechs produced by your personnel at the standard price and charge a premium if the client wants a mech handmade by the designer. Just set the price point high enough so you don't get too burdened."
That was actually a great idea. It kept Ves busy without leaving the fabricator with nothing to do. He'd essentially leave the grunt work to his employee and only come out and fabricate in person if the money was worth it. Still, it depended on whether the clients were willing to fork out the extra cash.
"Don't worry about generating sales for your premium variant. I'll take care to pace you with such requests so you don't spend too much time on it. There are always at least some clients who make some requests to modify the design a bit. Sometimes they want the mech to be flashier. Other times they want the mech to bear a customized emblem in its armor pattern. I think the going rate for such customizations is 2 million credits."
Earning an additional two million credits per sale was a generous amount. Naturally he'd charge more if the client requested more drastic changes.
Marcella hung up in order to get back to her work. Before she left, she warned him to expect another prospective sale in about four weeks or so. That was enough time for their first client to provide feedback on the Phoenix Cry's performance in the field.
Ves considered the issue of hiring a fabricator later when he got a good idea of how many sales Marcella achieved. Instead, he turned to a much more interesting activity.
He was ready to go back to designing virtual mechs. He recalled the experience of designing different variants of the Fantasia and the Caesar Augustus and how much experience he gained in applying his growing skills. If Ves wanted to grow to the point of designing a viable original mech, then he'd have to become as good as the seasoned mech producers with a couple of successful designs under their belt.
With 2.8 million credits in his spending account, his scope had widened. Though he could easily login to Iron Spirit's market and purchase a huge amount of 1-star designs, what would be the point? He'd earn only scraps of DP with each successful design and sale.
"Hey System, can I ask you something? Since I can earn 1 DP when I design a 1-star mech and 50 DP when I design a 5-star mech, what are the rewards for designing 2, 3 and 4-star mechs?"
[The base rewards for designing a 2-star mech is 5 Design Points. The rewards go up to 10 Design Points for 3-star mechs. The reward further increases to 25 Design Points for 4-star mechs. Do note that these rewards are lower when selling a mech based on your designs. Please work diligently in improving your designs so that you may work proficiently with more advanced models.]
In other words, the System told him to get off his butt and start designing higher starred mechs.
Though he owned a pair of 5-star virtual licenses, his skills were too insufficient. The Marc Antony generated only a piddling amount of sales, and Ves doubted that would ever change since he hadn't really brought anything unique to the design other than the X-Factor. And even that last feature got diminished when Ves relied on the game server to produce new copies of his mechs.
"I shouldn't bite off more than I can chew. Obsessing over the Caesar Augustus will just warp me into Kozlowski's design philosophy. I should keep an open mind and develop my own principles."
Considering his generous budget, he felt it was a good idea to start upgrading to 2-star designs. To be honest, he could skip a grade and purchase a few ultra-discounted budget 3-star virtual licenses, but he still had plenty of time to reach this grade with a proper reserve of cash. For now, he preferred to make a gradual progression through the generations of mechs. By experiencing each major generational group, Ves could increase his insights into the history of mechs and their major developments.
As soon as he made up his mind, Ves eagerly logged into the game for the first time in weeks. He happily sauntered over to the location in the virtual city where they sold the virtual licenses. As he stepped inside a shop featuring endless 2-star licenses of any kind, Ves felt as if he stepped into a candy store.
The 2-star mechs represented the age where the most viable ideas from the previous generations got refined. The simple division of light, medium and heavy mechs solidified and the designers of the time started to incorporate components that only worked in their weight-class. For example, a laser rifle meant to be wielded by a heavy mech would burden a light mech excessively as both its weight and power draw were too much to handle.
"Since I'm only going to work on medium mechs from now on, I can filter out all the outer crap."
The projection of mechs and components on sale lost much of its clutter.
The crowded view thinned out again when he removed the variants. He wasn't going to produce a variant of a variant, that was just stupid.
Ves started to browse the mech designs first. If he wanted to design a new variant, then the choice of the base model was of utmost importance. The previous times, he got handed out a model from the System. This was the first time he actually had a choice in determining his future direction.
He considered getting his hands on an animal-shaped mechs. The bird and mammal-shaped mechs that started to feature in the 2-star generations incorporated design philosophies that largely extended to today. If he wanted to branch out his mech range to something other than bipedal mechs, then right now was the perfect opportunity to do so.
"Hm, animal mechs are much less popular than their humanoid counterparts. While I don't face as much competition, my clientele also won't be as diverse."
Going by the potential sales he could generate, then Ves was not optimistic in excelling at designing animal mechs. The mech designers who worked with such abnormal mechs usually put their whole careers into optimizing such designs. As someone who only intended to dabble with the unusual designs, he could never make a living out of it by half-assing his efforts.
Thus, Ves filtered out anything other than humanoid mechs, leaving him with plenty of choices but without any distractions.
"What would be the best mech to work on first?"
If he wanted to work on balancing armor and speed, it was best to start with an extreme. Mechs that already featured a pretty good compromise between the two were hard to improve and easy to screw up. He'd rather get his hands on a medium mech that was fast but lightly armored or a mech that was well-armored but slow.
"Since I already worked on the Caesar Augustus, I already have some experience working with heavier mechs."
Ves removed the mechs above a certain tonnage from his display. This finally produced a much more general overview of available designs. He guessed that he had a couple of hundred mechs to choose from, which was daunting but not too overwhelming.
The choice of mechs didn't matter except for price. Most 1-star mech licenses cost about 100,000 credits to acquire. The virtual licenses for 2-star mechs jumped up to an average of 1 million credits already! And the 3-star mech licences could only be acquired if you were prepared to cough up at least 5 million credits.
The prices the game demanded for its virtual licenses reflected the actual value of acquiring them. If a mech designer possessed some talent, he could earn back the money from his designs. The low amount of upfront investment was ideal for impoverished mech designers to earn a decent living with their skills.
As someone who already owned his own workshop and sold an actual mech, Ves wasn't in it for the money. While the extra income might be nice, he was more interested in earning DP. By pricing his designs low, he could ensure a higher volume of sales compared to those who relied on their designs to earn a living.
"Why bother trying to milk some credits in game when I can earn a couple of millions with each mech I sell?"
Discounting mechs worked best when the base price of the model was high. Ves cut out the economy and mainstream models and was left with only the premium mech designs. The prices of these mechs were all fairly high, which made them less popular to the older teenagers and untrained potentates who muddled in the 2-star range.
After browsing through the fifty or so models that were left, Ves stopped narrowing his criteria and instead just looked at the images scrolling past his eyes. His attention caught a glimpse of a reflection. He zoomed in on the mech.
A shiny chrome mech came into view. The Globe-Elstar Corporation's Octagon O-225C. Its reflective surface caught the eye, but not in a good way. Such a metallic surface offered no additional protection against any damage types and only influenced enemies to target the mechs first.
Perhaps aware of this tendency, the original designer of the mech focused on making the mech as agile as possible. Though he cut down on a lot of armor near the joints and other weak points, it made the mech exceptionally limber and could even perform some acrobatic stunts pilots would never even dare on a regular medium mech.
"Interesting. It's going to be fairly tough to upgrade this mech's armor without negatively influencing its range of motion."
The challenge of designing an improved variant of this base model intrigued Ves. While he always focused a bit on speed in his other models, he applied it mainly on movement speed. How fast a mech could get from point A to point B.
Agility was a different concept entirely. It involved combining wide range of motion with fast-moving limb reactions to turn a mech into a dodging champion.
Thinly armored simian mechs often specialized in these kinds of designs. The hunched-over posture and their strengthened arms afforded these ape-like mechs exceptional stability even when they jumped and crawled around forests and complex urban environments.
As for agility-focused humanoid mechs, they relied on sophisticated internals instead of mechanical design in order to stay upright. The Octagon featured the most advanced gyroscope of its generation to maintain its balance even as it dodged left and right. That was the main reason the mech got such a high price tag.
As for its other specs, the mech performed fairly average. Its speed was respectable, but not as good as dedicated sprinters. The armor was nothing to get excited for, but it did the job except when it came to the joints. The Octagon came with a standard loadout of two heated knives and a spear that could also be thrown in an emergency. Most pilots who bought this mech also added in a pistol or a submachine gun in order to turn the mech into a good close-ranged skirmisher.
All in all, the Octagon possessed plenty of character. Ves liked whoever designed this mech, as he was not afraid to break some rules in order to achieve a unique result.
He added the virtual license of this mech to his shopping cart. "That's 650,000 credits down the rain. Now I should add some components to complement this design."
The shiny chrome job defined this base model. While it did not entirely fit with modern aesthetics, Ves preferred to keep its shiny exterior. That didn't mean his choice of replacement armor was restricted. He merely had to add an extra step to his production process by painting his mechs with a reflective coating.
His choice of armor had to meet certain criteria. First, it had to offer more protection at the same amount of weight. Second, it should be effective without stacking too many layers. Some armor systems only worked properly if they surpassed a minimum amount of thickness. The Octagon's main feature was its agility and putting on too much weight negated that advantage.
His search turned up some intriguing results. First up was the Grayson Inc. Flexiplate Alpha Mark III. He found one experimental armor composite that featured a certain amount of flexibility in its plating. It was as bendable as a thick piece of rubber and excelled in absorbing shocks from kinetic impacts. It sounded perfect for developing better armor around vulnerable joints, and was in fact often employed in such a manner.
To complement the other portions of armor, he looked up the Grayson Inc. SquarePlate Mark I, a modular armor system of the same company. These types of armors were often employed on lighter mechs, but the system he looked at was specifically designed for medium mechs. It was a pain to mold such such an armor system on a mech due to the demands it imposed on the positioning of its plating. However, it gave a significant advantage to a mech if well-designed.
Conventional armor plating used form-fitting plates to cover up a mech's internal frame. If implemented well, they offered close to the maximum theoretical amount of protection to that section for its weight and thickness. However, if a piece of plating suffered damage, it may still be adhered to the mech while turning out to be functionally useless. If a mech suffered moderate damage throughout its entire frame, such deadweight only slowed the mech down while leaving its internals vulnerable.
Modular armor systems aimed to counteract this situation by designing their plating around uniform shapes of squares or hexagons. It made the mech look a little angular or bumpy, but offered a great amount of freedom in shedding its damaged layers. The more damage a mech sustained, the more plates it shed thus the less weight it had to haul everywhere. This provided mechs with modular armor a distinct advantage in the later stages of a battle.
Naturally, such a system came with its own tradeoffs, or else it would have been much more popular today. The fixed shapes of its plating were only partially variable in size. The SquarePlate only featured three different sizes. One big plate for chest armor and the like, one medium plate for arms and limbs, and one smaller plate for tricky angles and fingers. Working with these three shapes made any mech variant lose their most optimal armor scheme. That and other factors caused modular armor systems to be able to absorb less damage than their conventional equivalent.
"It has a pretty good performance anyway despite that point." Ves concluded. He hadn't worked with modular armor before, but was highly intrigued by its possibilities. Modular armor was one of the best solutions out today that attempted to marry together armor with speed. If Ves was serious about developing his specialization in this area, then he couldn't avoid working with this nifty invention.
Adding both the FlexiPlate and the SquarePlate to his shopping list increased his bill by 150,000 credits. Ves had enough for one session now. He wanted to exercise is mind right away and was unwilling to consider replacing other components before he learned more about the Octagon mech.
A total of 800,000 credits disappeared from his bank account by the time Ves acquired the three virtual licenses. The difference in costs compared to 1-star mechs daunted any novice mech designer. He was working in a whole other stage now, and the consequences of screwups rose by a significant fraction. Luckily he already possessed real experience working with the equivalent of a 5-star mech, so Ves maintained his confidence.