The Road Not Taken #7 - Things Left Unsaid

Snipehunter's picture

Auto Assault closed its doors in 2007. It's now been over 3 years since the last set of tires ground virtual dirt beneath their tread. 3 years since the last "LFG" and for me, an entire lifetime away. For a long while, I stopped thinking about Auto Assault. Completely. I don't mean that in a bad way. I wasn't angry. I just, I don't know, didn't want to open the box again. I mean, it'd been buried right?

But, you know, it comes up. Especially if you're a game developer that worked on it. In 2007, I was working at Trion World Network as a senior designer on what would become Rift. In that span of time, I took the vision of a video game legend and believed it. I carried its banner, even when he himself lost faith and in the face of literal resistance from even its own developers. Ultimately my faith in that vision, that adherence to what I still think is the direction big-budget MMOs must take if they have any hope of surviving in this post-subscription age, it cost me job. Things seemed pretty bleak, but that's when something funny happened. Funny odd.

I've been a game developer of one sort or another for a very long time. I've worked with my idols and I've watched your idols become the talents you laud them for. That's not a brag (I am at best in awe of my luck); I'm trying to make what I say next clear by illuminating its scope. This isn't odd, it's unheard of. Let me start by telling you a story about something that happened at Blizzard, when I was a lowly assistant producer with pretty much no idea of what the hell I was doing:

When I was there, a relatively large group of people left Blizzard all at once, in a dramatic exit that literally included a cryptic PA message, "The Eagle has landed. Repeat: The Eagle has landed." Sure, it came off as a little silly, but when we all came to realize they were serious, it was a faith shattering event for the people left behind. Blizzard is a great studio and everyone recovered, but the idea that anyone would want to leave shook us all. We began to question what Blizzard was, why were invested and what we were getting out of it. It was a dark time, but we recovered because our games were doing incredibly well and we were beginning to realize that, whatever reasons those guys left for aside, they were the ones missing out. That would be confirmed later when their endeavor crumbled and many came back.

You don't do that, in this industry. I mean you do if you're a big name or if you know the owner, but if you're like these guys were -- with a history of walking out that still stung -- there's just no way that happens. It's like opening up your fridge and finding someone has replaced everything inside with a solid gold replica. Sure, it could happen, but you're not rushing down to your fridge to check, are you?

And that's my point. In my entire career I never saw that happen again. When people gush about Blizzard, I'm a little suspect. I'm not suspect that Blizzard deserves it, mind you. No, I'm suspect that they understand why it does. They deserve it because once, literally last century, I saw something I've later come to realize is considered impossible: A compassionate and ethical response from game industry leadership, despite past history (or perhaps, even because of it?).

It's impossible. Ask any decade plus veteran and they'll laugh at you. They'll say, "Sure, you can go back, but only if you crawl. You bet your ass that if they take you, it'll be at a pay cut." Maybe these guys did crawl, but they crawled right back to their old desks and their old jobs, I'm pretty sure.

I never thought I'd see it again, and I sure as hell didn't expect that I'd ever get to experience it first hand, but here I am.

Let me explain. Something happened all those years ago, when I left NetDevil before Auto Assault shipped. I'm not going to discuss it. It's a shaggy dog at this point and literally moot, as I will explain in a moment. However, let me sum up the course of events:

Something happened that I disagreed with. I initially told my boss and the studio founder that I was OK with it, but I soon realized that I was not. I have some principles that, no matter the rational course, I really can't sacrifice; some ethics I cannot bend. As I began to consider what happened in earnest, I realized some of those principles were involved. Most people wouldn't do what I did next. I'm not the hero of this story, even if I did stand up for what I believe is right.

You see, what I did next was tell the guys that founded the company that they were wrong. That what they were doing was wrong and that they had disappointed me and thus violated the trust I had in them. I told them I couldn't see a course forward if they didn't rectify the issue (something that they didn't think they could do, at the time) and that the only thing that could make me stay was both tawdry and unreasonable. So, end of that week of criticism and hell, I find myself exiting the company, the team I loved and the project I had poured my heart and soul into.

It tore me up. I mean, palpably. My health declined, I lost interest in just about everything. I took up smoking again... Hell, I took a job at another company solely based on the money and the fact that I had fun in my interview. I didn't care what they were working on because I didn't intend to do much. I just wanted a job to keep me going so I could decide what I was going to do. My passion was gone. I felt like I'd spent it all on Auto Assault. It was a bleak time, though ultimately I committed to that project and sort of found my path forward, again. Then I got that job at Trion.

Man, that job was sweet, mostly. During my time at Trion I got to work miracles. Repeatedly. That's sort of what we did, at first. We lost our way for awhile, as people began to lose faith in the original vision, but it was a sweet job and much like Auto Assault, I had fully invested my newly regained passion into the project. The vision for that game was impressive. Perhaps even "Grail shaped". I'd follow that Vision again no matter where it lead me, even if it once again leads to a bitter end. Which, as MC Front A Lot might say, it did. Or does. Obviously.

Just before GDC was ready to hit San Francisco this year, I found myself looking for work. It sort of hurt, but at the same time it felt like it was a good time to go, anyway. So, perhaps because I was more level headed than when I'd left NetDevil, this time I had significantly different priorities in seeking my next job.

I didn't just want a job; I wanted a job that would ensure what just happened to me would never happen again. Just as importantly, I wanted a job that would reunite me with my extended family; my sister and niece that I had left behind in Colorado. That's not really constructive. You see, despite being a tech hub in its own right and things being literally more than 25% cheaper here than in the Bay Area, the games industry really hasn't shown up in force. That basically meant that if I wanted a job in Colorado, I'd have to come back to NetDevil. There are other options, but at the time they weren't hiring.

Hell, NetDevil wasn't hiring, for that matter. At least, that's what the website said. It sort of seemed like fate, at that point, when @mistressmousey tweeted that NetDevil would be having future job openings in about a week, including one for a Design Director position. I thought about it for a bit, then I said, "What the hell? You know damned well you'd love to work there again. Why not just ask Scorch?" (Scott "Scorch" Brown founded the company) Throwing whatever sort of trepidation I had aside, I sent him an e-mail asking about the job. I honestly expected him to laugh. Well, maybe not literally, but I expected him to not take me seriously. I'd left on strange, at best, terms and besides, you don't come back unless you're crawling, right?

There I was, volunteering to take on significantly more responsibility in a position of significantly higher importance than when I left. I wasn't just asking to come back; I was asking to take a position as an equal of my old boss. The one whom I had so vehemently disagreed with, when I left the first time. I thought for sure that I'd get a polite brush off. If I was lucky.

But that's not what happened, and that's why I'm writing this. That's not what happened, at all. Scott didn't just get back to me; he actually told me that he and the executive producer looking for a new design director had both brought up my name on their own, before I'd gotten a hold of him. A few minutes later I was contacted by said producer and an interview at GDC was arranged. By the end of March, my possessions were loaded onto a truck and my intrepid Kia Sportage was loaded with computers, clothes, books, my cat and myself; all ready for our move to Colorado to join NetDevil as its newest Design Director, at the start of that April.

And oh man, the wonders I have seen. I didn't just experience the impossible by coming back. I'm still living it. Call it fate, call it Karma, call it what you want. I call it the best thing to happen to me in years. Somehow, the universe turned in such a way that essentially getting fired became getting everything I hoped for, and more.

I've seen people get to come back to a studio they walked out of twice now, but I have never seen a guy put the kind of faith in me that Scott did, when I came back. That's enough for that guy to go on the list of people that are worth working for; the people that make the industry better. But you what? That's not the end of it.

I wasn't the only person to leave NetDevil when I did. Many of them have returned, too. Among them the people for whom I have the highest respect. People I would literally include on every project I worked on, from here out, if I could. I can't think of another company to show the sort of passion, dedication and freaking grace that NetDevil has shown me. Sure, Scott didn't do all of that, but you know he played a key part in it. Hell, I know for sure.

A couple of weeks ago, a bunch of us from the team went out for drinks. Scott came along and we got a chance to talk about what had happened and how we both felt about it. You know what he said to me? Honestly, it's not my place to reveal what other people said to me, so I apologize for not doing so, but when I walked away from that conversation, I walked away knowing I'd experienced, first hand, the sort of stand up behavior that I strive for, myself.

I'm not Scott Brown and I don't know why he chose to say what he did. I don't know why he chose to take the chance to bring me back after the way we I left, but I do know is this:

Every day I work, I see framed pictures of Auto Assault memorabilia. I now own an Auto Assault poster signed by my team (a gift, the day I got back). I walk past the giant diorama that includes an actual Auto Assault themed dune buggy. People here wear Auto Assault shirts and when I mention that game, I don't see the sneer.

I mentioned earlier that even though I was trying not to think about Auto Assault, it would come up. It's because it was considered a massive failure. We've since seen, in the successes and failures of other games, that the decision to write it off without trying to save it was unwise, but it doesn't matter:

In the minds of the industry it was a failure, and if it failed that must mean you failed, and if you fail, well hell, that means you suck, right? At every interview, at every discussion of past MMOs, at every point you have a suggestion and someone else disagrees, it comes up.

So, imagine how it feels for me, to walk through these halls, over the chiseled NetDevil Logo in the concrete floor and past the awesome Lego Universe display at the door. Imagine how it feels to see the bent and smashed full-sized traffic light (so scarred by the passage of a dune buggy) light up. Imagine how it feels to speak about Auto Assault and not only have folks listen (sans sneer), but to actually see the lesson you have learned take root and be taken to heart because these people know that, failure or not, what we did was accomplish what any mediocre developer would have claimed was impossible and that's worthy of respect, no matter how you look at it.

And you know what? No one here has ever actually said they respect Auto Assault and its team. They don't have to because you can see it, right in their eyes.

Sometimes, it's those things left unsaid that matter most.

It's been three years since Auto Assault died and you know what? I still miss it, but here - in the one place in the world I never thought I'd see again - that doesn't really bother me. Not anymore. Now I know Auto Assault is just one of the incredible things that happened here; one of the incredible things that happen here, every day.

My new project is pretty damned cool and it is, in and of itself, something I thought I'd never see, again. They all told this team it was impossible to do, too. We told them they were wrong and every day we're showing them the truth of that statement. If Auto Assault has taught me anything, the most important is this:
Nothing is impossible, if you have no fear of failure.

The teams at NetDevil consistently do things other teams would call crazy and impossible, and NetDevil consistently pulls it off. Sure, sometimes it comes off poorly and sometimes even though you pull it off you fail, anyway. The folks here know that and they work hard to avoid it, but they also aren't afraid to take the risks that make failure more likely because they know that's the only way to pull off the impossible. It's lightning in a bottle, this combination of passion, grace and fearlessness. I pray to whatever powers there are that nothing changes because I've been doing this long enough to know now; it's not going to get any better than this.

I like to think the lessons learned on Auto Assault, lessons Scott and everyone else have taken to heart, are a big part of why things are the way they are, for me. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying the work isn't hard or that there aren't obstacles every step of the way. In fact, I'm saying the opposite: Things are hard. These folks on this team, they work harder than any other team I've worked with since Blizzard shipped Diablo and my weekly time card contained a triple digit number, for the first time in my life.

I like to think that the possibilities here today, this incredibly tempered shield and sword that is this team; represent the roads not taken in Auto Assault. I like to think they are a direct result of witnessing the end of the roads that we did take. Who knows? Maybe it will all fall apart, as good mixes of team and management are want to do in this shifting industry, but right now? Right here in Colorado? With this team? There's something magical happening and I can't really express how shocked and gratified I am to be a part of it. How weird is it that Auto Assault itself is the reason I get to experience this?

- Snipehunter

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