Auto Assault Interview
Written by John Yan
on 7/1/2004 for
If you're looking for something new in thw MMORPG realm, then look further than NCSoft and their array of games. Auto Assault lets you live out your Mad Max fanatasies as you take on other players in a Havoks physics engine enhanced world. Today, John gets to talk to Ryan Seabury, senior developer at NetDevil.
GamingNexus: To start off, I always like to ask a little bit about the interviewee so tell our audience a little bit about yourself, how you got started, and your role in the game.
Ryan Seabury: My name is Ryan Seabury, and my official title is Senior Developer at NetDevil. I’m pretty sure I was born as a tiny mushroom, which my parents created by jumping headfirst together into a giant brick painted with a question mark… at least you’d think so by my hopeless lifelong addiction to video games. I worked with Scott Brown (President) and Peter Grundy (VP & Art Director) at a former web software company in Boulder. Our shared passion for gaming became apparent during the daily Quake 2 CTF matches after work, and later StarCraft. The opportunity to join NetDevil presented itself in the late 90’s, which I took in a heartbeat. I helped get our first title, Jumpgate, out the door (our entire staff was only five including myself!), and then we moved on to our next project, Auto Assault.
I’ve been involved in many areas over the course of development for Auto Assault; I’ve done some programming, some business-related stuff, some design. Right now, I’m transitioning to more of a lead design role, making sure that all the cool missions and content our design team is coming up with is consistent with the original vision of the Auto Assault universe.
GamingNexus: Your first game was Jumpgate, which I actually did some beta testing on. What are some of the lessons you learned from developing Jumpgate when moving to Auto Assault?
Ryan Seabury: We learned an enormous amount from developing Jumpgate – firstly, how incredibly difficult it actually is to get a massively multiplayer game “finished” and on the shelf. And then there’s the whole making-people-aware-of-it thing! So, from a business perspective with Auto Assault, we made sure we found a publisher who takes the MMO business seriously. I don’t think you’re going to find many publishers as serious about online gaming as NCsoft is, and so far it’s been a wonderful working relationship.
As for gameplay, I think our two biggest lessons from Jumpgate were 1- how important character identity is (Jumpgate had no avatars beyond your current space ship), and 2- there is such a thing as “too open ended”.
To learn from our mistakes, first we are developing a much stronger sense of character identity and progression into Auto Assault. You have an avatar with some customization options, you can see heads and shoulders of your convoy mates and other players, and the character skills and attributes are being advanced in the RPG aspect of the game (aside from equipment load-outs on vehicles).
Second, we have a very content-heavy world design this time around. There will be a heavily scripted campaign for each of the three factions to play through for starters, in addition to blueprint crafting, arena battles, and faction-based PvP outpost battles. We also have a really in-depth map layering system we’ve been jokingly calling “rand-crafted” missions… short for random-handcrafted missions. This means that instead of randomly generating a few variables for non-story missions, we are actually going to be designing a huge pool of handcrafted missions which can be randomly selected from. In this way, we can still put some cool fiction around our random missions, and they can be a lot more interesting in mechanics.
GamingNexus: Auto Assault’s certainly a unique MMO. Like another NCSoft product, City of Heroes, there’s really nothing out there right now that compares to what you are doing. What made you decide to go with an auto combat themed MMO game?
Ryan Seabury: Well like you said, there’s really nothing like it out there. That’s sort of NetDevil’s evil plan to take over the world… we focus on areas of massively multiplayer that everyone else is ignoring, but areas that we feel have lots of fun potential. The truth of the matter is that it’s very hard for a company like NetDevil to compete in the fantasy genre right now, since fantasy has been explored for several years by many different developers. Superhero was an obvious genre that hadn’t been explored and I think the guys at Cryptic have done an excellent job with City of Heroes (most of our office is addicted). NetDevil believes that post-apocalyptic vehicular combat is a different and very cool MMO genre – one that can be fast-paced and fun with lots of BOOM BOOM, which I personally crave in an online world.
GamingNexus: Besides the different genre, what makes Auto Assault different from the other MMO’s out there?
Ryan Seabury: Easy: Fully destructible environments with Havok 2 physics. Fast (and I mean *FAST*) action gameplay. Heavily scripted mission campaigns unique to each of the three races. Scenario-based outpost PvP battles. Arena combat and rankings. No forced experience point death penalties. Minimized travel time through unlocked world map waypoints, with any travel time actually being fun because driving and knocking stuff over is fun! DirectX 9 graphics (shaders and eye candy). I could go on and on…
We’re really proud of what we’re going to be offering at release in Auto Assault, let alone our continuing upgrades for subscribers afterwards.
GamingNexus: Can you talk about some of the influences you had on this game? I’m guessing Mad Max would be one and maybe Autoduel?
Ryan Seabury: Generally speaking, if it’s post-apocalyptic or involves some kind of death-on-wheels concept, it’s had an influence on us. That goes for movies, books, video games, paper games… everything. The delights of “Two men enter… one man leaves!” the ever lovable Gold Cross, and perhaps the scoring of points for pedestrians in a nationally televised race are not lost on us. I’ve said it before, Carradine & Stallone are like peanut butter and chocolate. ;)
Some other things you might not expect would be Aliens, the latest Dune prequel books, Marvel comics, and various anime selections. So it’s probably more accurate to describe the influences on Auto Assault as “dirty-cyber-punk” than just “dirt-punk”.
GamingNexus: How much influence has Richard Garriott had on the game?
Ryan Seabury: Who’s Richard Garriott? *ducks laser darts of disbelief from reader eyes* Just kidding! Actually, Richard has been very gracious and generous in giving us objective design feedback on our ideas in Auto Assault. Perhaps the biggest thing he’s helped us with is making sure that there is fiction behind the gameplay and visual design, which has really helped us focus our world on the post-apocalyptic feel. Since we are friendly competitors in a way with Tabula Rasa, we certainly appreciate his willingness to contribute to our project.
There are also countless other industry veterans at NCsoft who have helped to guide us in the right direction, and it really is a pleasure working with such an awesome talent pool as they have growing in Austin right now.
GamingNexus: Can you give us some detail on the background/plot of the game?
Ryan Seabury: The gist of the story goes like this: About present day, some kind of alien crafts started apparently crash landing around the planet. This created chaos worldwide, as weird mutations and toxic contaminations started to occur in all life on the planet, seemingly caused by the alien crashes. Many decades later, three factions managed to survive the disaster, which are now called the Humans, Mutants and Biomeks.
The survivors called Humans are a group who are just now reemerging from deep subterranean hiding places called Arks. Why were they hiding? Because they decided the best survival solution was to “Nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” They gathered the important people (i.e. rich, powerful, scientists, etc.), built underground shelters, then proceeded to launch every weapon of mass destruction mankind possessed on the entire planet’s surface. While this cleared out a considerable number of “unwanteds,” it left the remnants of what became the other two factions none too happy.
The Mutants are the group of people who naturally adapted to the contamination spread by the alien crashes. They have evolved through a number of generations to be something not quite human anymore, but human-like in appearance. They consider themselves a chosen people, believing that divine selection is responsible for their survival, as evidenced by their bizarre mutant powers. They actually have bonded with the contaminated bio-goo that spreads from the alien crashes and can use it in very interesting ways. And naturally, their divine mission is to rid the world of the unsaved (Humans and Biomeks).
Finally, the Biomeks (short for bio-mechanicals) are the practical lot of survivors. When they got a contaminated body part, rather than chance death, they just cut it off and replace it with a cybernetic core. This tends to make them look very much like cyborgs. They no longer care for aesthetics, the environment, or sunshine for that matter. In the Biomek mind, everything should be bio-mechanized as it’s much more efficient and practical. They also represent the side of humanity that the Humans completely betrayed when they went underground, and harbor a special resentment as a result. And since the Mutants are always trying to kill them for interfering with the planet’s ascension, well, they don’t like them much either.
The aliens turned out to be some sort of autonomous terraforming devices which are still ever-present in the wastelands of the world, along with a few species of bizarre mutated wildlife. But the more common threat to the player is going to be the splintered chaotic societies of the post-apocalypse, which consists of everything from common street gangs to military sub factions to power-hungry AI robots to escaped insane asylum prisoners.
GamingNexus: In the old classic Interstate 76, you had the ability to damage certain parts of the car and focus on areas to wear it down. It was dumbed down in Interstate 82 where the car just had one damage meter. How is damage calculated in Auto Assault? Is it like I76, I82, or a combination of the two?
Ryan Seabury: We actually started out with a very complex hit system, where individual pieces of equipment could be disabled and replaced. After play testing, it quickly became obvious this was way too close to creating a simulator, rather than the fast-paced action game we were shooting for. I never got to play I-82, but I don’t like to think of the process as “dumbing down” in our case. We had a very specific idea in mind for how the pace of the gameplay would be, and having to manage 10 different health bars while you’ve got rockets, bullets, acid spray and nukes dropping on you from every direction just wasn’t fun. So you generally have one health bar to worry about, as well as heat management and power supply.
GamingNexus: Can you disable vehicles or is the user locked in the vehicle?
Ryan Seabury: Currently, the user is locked in the vehicle while outside of towns, for safety reasons. This does not mean you cannot disable vehicles, however. There are currently a few variations of status effects, skills, and traps that can temporarily disable weapons, disable movement, or both depending. I won’t comment on specifics because there’s a lot of play testing to be done before those are final.GamingNexus: How does PvP work in this game?
Ryan Seabury: The default server ruleset allows for two major types of PvP: team-based outpost wars, and arena competitions. Outpost wars take place in a number of areas, mostly centered in the world map’s frontier region. The frontier regions are dangerous because you can encounter players of other factions on the highways here, and you are free to engage opposing factions to the death. The big take will of course be the outposts, which will offer bonuses to the faction who captures it. We also intend for every outpost to be its own mini-game with directed objectives, and not just a death match.
Arena competitions include a variety of PvP scenarios with rankings, both solo and cooperative. You can compete against your own faction members here for prestige, and there may also be some cross factional scenarios to master.
GamingNexus: What are some of the mission types available in the game?
Ryan Seabury: We have a very flexible back end that allows us to do some pretty cool scripted scenarios. We want to make sure all missions involve some rough-and-tumble combat. For example, if you’re delivering an item to some NPC off a highway, you can bet you’re not going to make it to them without something happening to stop you. That could mean a simple ambush, or something as insane as a meteor striking a cliff, causing an avalanche of rock, which can only be cleared by an ion cannon strike, which you need certification from another NPC to call in, who has been kidnapped by Pike bandits… and so on, you get the idea. The story missions will be very involving and directed, with lots of “rand-crafted” missions to do in the highway exits after you complete them.
To illustrate the “rand-crafted” idea, imagine now another player has also cleared the mine and has received a random mission to come and check on the status of the new base. Instead of TemperNet invasions, they might talk to the NPC, and be sent to retrieve a component needed for construction elsewhere, where some other kind of event will occur. It’s very exciting to both watch and play, and I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve never seen another MMO do this kind of thing before.
GamingNexus: How many different vehicles will be in the game?
Ryan Seabury: I assume you mean player vehicles, because of course there will be a large variety of enemy AI vehicles to fight. I don’t have a definite answer on that right now. We have 4 character classes per faction, so 12 character classes total. Most of the vehicles you can acquire will be specific to the character class, so the tank-type classes will drive beefy military equipment, special ops classes will drive armored bikes and buggies, and so on. Our loot system is dynamically generated, and so two chassis types might be identical visually, but have different abilities and stats. So in that regard, we’ll have a nearly infinite number of vehicles for gameplay purposes. Visually, there should be enough choices for each character class to play a little more agile or a little more brute force as the day calls for.
A few more things that will provide variety are “Tricks & Trims” and melee kits. Tricks & Trims refers to a system for customizing the appearance of your current chassis. This consists of little 3D accessories, paint jobs, and effects kits that you can use to trick out your own custom look. Melee kits include things like spikes and blade bits that can actually add melee damage to collisions. We did a test with both of these systems and just iterated through random choices and colors, and on the same base chassis we got literally hundreds of unique and different looks.
GamingNexus: Physics was an important part of the demonstration at E3. What are some of the things you’ve done with the inclusion of the Havok physics engine that makes you go… Wow! That’s cool!
Ryan Seabury: The coolest thing about realistic physics is you never get that “I’ve seen this before” feeling when things explode and destroy. It’s always different. It’s the subtleties that are the coolest… like when you hit a barrel with a machine gun and it starts to roll back a little bit. It is so cool, we all find ourselves just driving around running into stuff when we’re supposed to be testing other things!
Actually, what really makes me realize how cool the physics engine is is when I play most other games now. I’ll see a crate or some innocent object on the ground, and instinctively head straight for it to crush it… only to be stopped in place. And then I realize how interactive our environments are and how fun it is to destroy everything!
Right now we’re messing around with other ways to utilize the physics engine, so you may see even more cool stuff in our world in the future.
GamingNexus: What’s your favorite race to play with and why?
Ryan Seabury: Ah, the most dangerous question to ask a dev. ;) all of the races are my favorite, they are all equally fun..
Right now I’m digging on the Biomeks, but mostly because that race has more content at the moment. And because their vehicles can transform into Giant Robots of Destruction! This is also known as “Hazard Mode.” So we’re actually working on some cool hazard modes for the other two races right now, because the Biomeks showed us how fun it can be.
GamingNexus: Do you think this game will satisfy those craving an Auto Duel adaptation?
Ryan Seabury: I don’t want to make any bold claims; I think it’s up to the gaming public to decide that, but I hope so! All I can say is that we have a lot of fun playing it so far, and we’re just getting started with the content population!
GamingNexus: One of the great things about City of Heroes was how easy it was to get into; do you think Auto Assault will carry on this trend?
Ryan Seabury: We sure hope so! That’s another great lesson we learned from Jumpgate, actually. There is an unbelievable amount of depth and features in our first title, which probably 80% of people who tried it never got to experience because it was too inaccessible. This time around, we’re taking great pains to make sure the interface is intuitive and offers redundant controls. We’re making a non-obtrusive but informative tutorial system, and generally focusing the initial gameplay to make the new player comfortable with the basics before throwing all the game’s features at them.
Maybe the best way I can indicate our accessibility efforts is that at E3, we had many marketing and PR people from lots of publishers, retailers, and other developers check out our game. If you know anything about marketing and PR folks, many tend to be casual gamers at best (no offense to marketing/PR people reading this!). We got a lot of comments from this demographic, saying that they never play games, but that they actually enjoyed playing our game and might even subscribe some day! So that was very exciting for us, because no one found the controls frustrating or hard to understand and everyone had a blast just driving around and shooting right from the get-go.
And then we had a few hardcore MMO vets sitting there analyzing every stat on every weapon they picked up right away, playing literally for hours at E3. But pretty much everyone who played had a smile on their face while playing, and that’s what games are supposed to do, right?
I think we’re on target for a really fun game with lots of broad appeal… of course everyone says that, so we’ll see if I can predict the future or not. ;^)
I'd like to thank Ryan Seabury and the folks at NCSoft for helping us out with the interview. Ryan's a really great guy to talk to, even taking time out of his busy schedule just to talk about some of the processes on how NetDevil develops. Auto Assault sounds like it's going to be a blast to play and we at GamingNexus wish them luck.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been reviewing products since 1997 and started out at Gaming Nexus. After writing for a few different sites that went under, it's nice to bring back a site that's not dependent on revenue and just wants to deliver news and reviews of products.
I'm married, and enjoy first person shooters, sports games, and real time strategy games.