The Road Not Taken #1 - Tocado and Western Front

Snipehunter's picture

When the time came to build the world, I was given the task of creating the mutant section of the content. In a series of meetings and discussions amongst the designers, we'd decided that the mutant territory would be somewhere in the south. Originally, the scope of the game was a LOT larger than it turned out to be - the Citadel was meant to be somewhere in the jungles of South America, in fact. I'd decided, right around that same time, that I didn't want players to start at the Citadel.

I had something special in mind - I wanted players to look forward to seeing the place, to make arriving there something like a reward and something like a right of passage... and something of an eye opening epiphany as to the realities of the world.

Rights of passage played a big part in the mutant story - they were the cornerstone of the central theme and a sort of metaphor for what mutants were, to the human species. The mutants as a whole are something like Humanity's right of passage - if we'd weathered the Right well, I imagine the world would be a brighter place, but of course, in that future, humanity sorta flubbed that little test, didn't we?

Anyway, to get back to the point, I wanted the Citadel to be something special, something sort of symbolic, and I was worried that if players started there, that I couldn't do that. So, like I said, I decided pretty early that players wouldn't start at the Citadel. That lead to a whole series of questions, the most important and obvious one being, "Where do they start, then?"

I thought about it a lot, back then. It sorta haunted me, at first. It was going to be the first zone I'd designed in the game, and the first serious chance to show the folks at ND that I could do the job. I put a lot of stake in my abilities, not just a writer, but as an implementer - and the only stuff we'd done up to that point had been small little test levels, nothing meant for release. So, between you, me and the Internet... I was nervous. Eye-wink

I knew it had to be something special, something that would instantly put players into the mindset I was looking for. For mutant fans, it might be amusing to know that the rights and rituals of western front and the proving grounds came after I'd finally settled on a location. When I finally did settle on a location, the last town on the mutant frontier, I actually did so for reasons that had nothing to do with religion - I wanted to get some of that mad max feel across. I knew that the story that was starting to form in my mind and in discussions with folks like Ombwah, Death Pig, Benefice, MaRaider and the rest was a story that didn't have a lot of mad max in it and I knew that was going to be problematic. My hope was that if I could deliver the frontier Mad Max feel early, I could return to it later in the story, rather than have to worry about selling it all the time. Heh, I suppose that didn't work out as well as I'd hoped, but none the less, it was that thinking that set the mutant starting zone in the "wasteland."

Interestingly enough, we had a world map before I knew exactly where the mutant wasteland actually was going to be. I mean I knew logical, but not geographical, details. I knew it was on the frontier, on the border between the "civilized" mutant territory and the rest of the world, but I didn't know where on the border, or even the name of the place, at first.

All of that came together in a series of discussions with the design team about the types of environments we thought would be fun to drive in. I sorta played a little conservative, in that regard - I tended to stick to locales that were either interesting independent of "driving fun" or that people literally went to specifically to drive on in the real world. So, I knew I was going to do a desert level. I wasn't sure if it was going to be like Moab or the painted dessert or if it was going to be dunes and sand, but I knew I was going to do one. So I looked at the map, saw where my territory was in relation to the real world and realized that the only dessert area on my map was the southwestern border of my territory, right smack in the middle of New Mexico.

As an aside, I should probably mention that any correlation between the real world and the world of Auto Assault exists for no real purpose other than we thought it was sorta neat. We hid a lot of real world locations into the world and - for the mutant levels at least - every level corresponds to a place in the real world (though in the case of fetid bayou it's been seriously transformed), but not for any real purpose. It was a sorta funny joke. A lot of the impact sites in the world were places that were picked for humor's sake more than anything profound... though some were not, and that's sorta neat, too.

Anyway, knowing I wanted to do a wastelandy place first, knowing that I also wanted to do a dessert and knowing that the only interesting dessert terrain in my territory was New Mexico, I firmly affixed the mutant starting zone, there. There'd be a town - a new mutant colony - there, one that was young and thriving and progressive. One that made being a mutant feel like something great, something amazing and something mysterious. At the same time, I had to somehow figure out how to use this zone to teach players what being a mutant was - what was important to a mutant and the reasons for their fight.

So, the region was born. I was calling it western front (because of where it was) as a sort of internal joke for a week or two before I finally decided that that was its real name. I was thinking I'd make the name a reference to a past battle, as a way to teaching players both to love their fellow mutants and to hate the biomeks. In a discussion with MaRaider we hashed out the battle itself and I told the story as the Battlefront Tour missions in Western Front. It was one of the few terminal missions we had, before we put the INC missions into the game. At the time there was something of a stink over the idea that mutants had computers, you see.

It was a sign that I needed to rethink the way I was telling the story, to be honest. Piza and a few artists were taking away the idea that the mutants were primitive, not just tribal. The mutants in my world were meant to be anything but primitive. They were supposed to be sophisticated, intelligent and above all else, they were supposed to be the folks that lived their lives by embracing what was new. In short, there was no way the mutants in my world wouldn't have computers. The fact that the artists weren't getting this was an indication that I needed to stress that more. So I created a character, Shaman Montaine, who was like, the world's best engineer, ever. I built an entire town around him, a town of engineers, crafters and artisans and then placed it smack in the middle of the region. It wasn't the big city of the region, but it was placed to be important. I even rewrote the first shaman, originally a sort of hippie spiritualist, into Jared the Maker, an engineer who helped build the Citadel and make it impervious to attack. This in turn forced me to rethink the rights of passage a little, as visiting Jared's Temple was meant to be the last right. In the end, I kept that aspect of it, but at the time I was worried that it wouldn't feel right now that he was an engineer turned hermit rather than a spiritualist.

I think my favorite aspects of Tocado and Western Front were the things that got added later, though. The Proving Grounds, for example, were added after the 1st pass of the region had been done. We had finally decided we needed a tutorial zone (as much so that players would start in cars as to teach) and I wanted to make mine something special. Since the Proving Grounds was an instance, I wanted to script in a bunch of neat events, including a race, so that players would have fun driving around their first time. I totally deemphasized combat in the region to make it more a play ground than anything else, and then I made every mission players went through in the instance something scripted... at least at first...

Until one of my high school buddies had to go and blow the whole damned thing. I'm talking, of course, about Walker Wind. Windwalker was the high school nickname of one of my crew, a guy named Mark and I'd included him in the tutorial zone. He was the best one of the bunch, in fact. He was the racer. OCD, which actually had a few names before OCD, was meant to be a sort of "underground racing" thing - racing was supposed to be huge in the game. Walker Wind was meant to be my "introduction to racing" character. He was obsessed with tuning his bike and on the path (as far as he was concerned) to racing greatness. Walker was so confident in his abilities, in fact, that he'd bet you that you couldn't beat him in a race. If you won, he'd give you some money and some advice, and if you lost.. well, let's just say he's a nicer guy than that and wouldn't have taken your money anyway... but he'd have told you that's what he was doing - being nice to a noobie. Anyway, I painstakingly scripted that guy for days and then tested the heck out of that race... only to find it completely fall apart and flat out not work, in the wild. It was partly the vehicle physics, partly the triggers I used to make him race and partly the fact that I tended to drive a certain way. On my machine, with my performance specs, driving the way I did, he was a work of art... under any other circumstances, he was like a carnival clown on crack cocaine. *sigh* In the end, I never did get him to work, and ask any beta tester, I tried. Oh sweet lord, did I try. I still loved the character though, and he showed up again in Fetid Bayou as a sort of way to make up for his scene being cut, earlier.

I take some consolation in the fact that no one else ever got racing to work well enough to ship, either. I don't mean that to be spiteful, but rather as a confirmation that it was a little too ambitious with the tools and physics engine we had to work with. In truth, were I a better designer, I probably would have given up on it a lot earlier, but I just felt that racing in the game was too important to let it die. Hell, when it came time to ship, I even included a race track in the proving grounds. There's a "layer" on that map (an instance of that map) with about 50% of the scripting needed for races to work on it. I was trying up until literally the very last week I spent at ND. I could have spent that time more constructively, I suppose. It didn't feel that way at the time.

Another addition that I particularly liked was the VLA. The VLA got added during the much vaunted "refocus" pass - where we went over each and every zone and repolished everything while doubling the total content at the same time. It was the perfect "this is new mexico" hint and it's so damned cool looking. I thought it was a great testament to the past, too. All run down and still out there, silently, listening. I always pictured some poor dead SETI researcher, entombed in one of the buildings there, dead without ever realizing the answer to his question was all around him.

The VLA also made a sort of compelling backdrop for the INC stuff out there, which was nice. The INC stuff wasn't specifically added during the second pass, but it was greatly enhanced at that time. The INC story is by far one of my favorites, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to save the reveal on what INC really was for the story of Grand junction, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time on the INC stuff. INC was sort of the adopted child of me and Ombwah. We didn't create the name or even the existence of INC, but it was ultimately us that decided what INC was, how that organization could end up being the service provider it was, and the like. The first quests mutant players see from INC are rife with hints, but they're meant to be obscure enough that you won't realize they were hints until after the big reveal later (which, sadly I don't think ever came). I think the comments of Trader Crow are the most obvious, but I think that actually worked well - it seeded the idea that INC is a mystery, I think.

Well, I suppose that's it for this week, I've rambled on a bit, haven't I? I'll leave off this week with a list of few bits of trivia and easter eggs from the region:

  • Walker Wind is a reference to a high school friend of mine and Ombwah's
  • Auryn of Avenger Auryn form is a double reference, both pointing to Ombwah's newly born daughter at the time, and the Never Ending Story.
  • Squentin was MaRaider's creation. The story of Squentin's time in captivity and his escape was one of my favorite mech stories. I'd hoped that Squentin could tell the story himself - MaRaider and I even set aside a space in Western Front where he lived, to do that - but unfortunately I never did have the time. Thankfully MaRaider managed to tell the story on the Mek side, so it wasn't last forever.
  • Sanctuary and the Barrancas Del Corazon were meant to be in Western Front, hence their dessert theme in comparison to the swap. We had to push them off to the Fetid Bayou when our redesign of the region removed a huge chunk terrain out of Western Front.
  • Mozak, the main enemy in Western Front, is a Quantar - a faction from Jumpgate. All Pikes are Quantars. It's something of a joke - Ombwah and I came to work on AA because of how awesome Jumpgate was, but we played Octs, so Quants were the enemy. Eye-wink
  • Mozak's asking for money the first time you see him is another jumpgate reference. It was common practice at one point for pirates to PoD (Pay or Die) people in the frontier, unregulated, space as a way to make money.
  • Squentin's Mini-mart was the first interior location in the entire game. We'd originally been told that, due to a number of factors, wouldn't be possible to do interior content... Squentin's was a proof of concept of way to do them that would bypass the constraints we were under.
  • In one of the Shaman Montaine missions, you're supposed to get a copy of CW Quarterly signed. CW Quarterly is a joke title (Craft-whore Quarterly).
  • There are several missions scattered through the region that are only available to lower lever players, in insanely (for them) difficult parts of the zone. Mostly, these missions were rewards for exploring "ahead of the curve" and ways to get the player back on track. Their impact on leveling was meant to be minuscule, which is why they gave items rather than XP at first, but the items they gave you were meant (for a new player) to be over-level'd powerful, so that you still had a tangible reward.
  • the first of three in-game locations to acquire ATM receipts exists in this region, in Old Town. The plan here was that having all three would get you something epic in Ground Zero, as a trade in to some crazy collector, but it depended on our idea of allowing players to switch factions (the original idea being that you would have to play all three factions to get all three receipts) to be included in the game, which it wasn't. So instead of being the secret "tri-optimus reward" (another jumpgate reference) that we had planned, it became a strange and quirky easter egg. Like the parking meter in Grand Junction.
  • I suppose it's in poor taste, but Boss Granby was a reference to a real incident.

Well so long for now, readers. We'll return next week with an installment from Ombwah, the former Human Content Lead.


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Ombwah's picture

The Walker Wind run was cool

The Walker Wind run was cool in a few of it's incarnations. When it worked, anyway. I remember a few times when his motorcycle physics were such that he did the whole race circuit in a wheelie. Good times. Which reminds me, I liked how you included a higher level chassis (the motorcycle) for the newbs to see so early in the game. I liked the idea so much, in fact, that I copped some static models of Humie vehicles to place parked in the Human newb zones.

I have fond memories of building one of the first revisions of the Bloodsteel Mines, I built a little bowling alley up behind these half flooded vaults. The bowling ball was a tireball, I loved hiding those here and there in the world (wonder how many survived to ship? I saw one in the Humie newb zone) and the pins were explodey barrels. There were Bloodsteel Crushers there back then, and a lot of half pipe terrain. Ah, but anyway, I got my own piece of the world shortly thereafter, and that's all for next week.

Wrekriem's picture

Great Stuff, thank you for

Great Stuff, thank you for taking the time to share all this. Only problem is the great bout of nostalgia it brings upon me, if only the game could have grown to be more.
Are you planning on covering the Biomek side of the story? Or is that someone else’s brain child? As my primary faction I’d love to hear the story behind and beyond the toasters.

Snipehunter's picture

Mek love...

Maybe I should edit that title later, that's more than a little scary... *shudder*


The Meks are the brainchildren of two folks, Benefice (the original Biomek faction lead) and MaRaider, who did the bulk of the story work. Sadly I haven't personally spoken to MaRaider much recently, but I'll see if I can drop him a line and invite his participation. It would be awesome to have all three factions represented.

- Snipehunter

Sir_Gareth's picture


Snipehunter wrote:
Maybe I should edit that title later, that's more than a little scary... *shudder*


The Meks are the brainchildren of two folks, Benefice (the original Biomek faction lead) and MaRaider, who did the bulk of the story work. Sadly I haven't personally spoken to MaRaider much recently, but I'll see if I can drop him a line and invite his participation. It would be awesome to have all three factions represented.

- Snipehunter

"Still alive...old friend..."

Indeed the original intent of the Mek design and the reality in which it was steered were very different. Instead of a Borg like, data driven society, it was my intention that the Meks were a society born of the rements of the hardcore military. A society who believe that "parts are parts", be those parts mechanical or biological. From this grew a constant desire to improve for the sake of survival.

MaRaider took the helm of the deisgn and did very well with the metric tons of lemons he was instructed to work with. MaRaider is still around, I'll see if I can get him engaged here.

I will dredge my mind and post more in a bit...

Knighted "Sir Gareth"

Fascinating. I always

Fascinating. I always wondered why you chose the VLA area for the starting zone [well sort of, not counting the tutorial].

How about the story of the roaming boss on the highway to old town? Darnit forgot his name. but he spawns at the small rock outcropping near old town entrance/exit. Spawns with two firetrucks.

I remember the problems you had with the original beta version of Walker. But you know what? I still thought the guided tour aspect of it was some wonderful work.

When you guys do Fetid, Can you tell us about the haunted/ghost house?

"Watch out for falling coconuts!"

Snipehunter's picture

Oh you mean the scav dude?

Oh! You mean the scav vehicle boss out there? Honestly, there's no incredible story there, I'm sad to say. Eye-wink He's just a scavie scav. For the version in the shipping game, I'd wanted him to cross paths with the highway mozak and his party and fight it out, but it honestly never worked out that way.

I suppose there is a bit of a story in terms of what I really wanted to do there... One of the things we really wanted to do, but couldn't, was have various maps "speak" to each other. So that, for example, if you were fighting on the highway near the entrance to an instance, you might see a mass exodus of Pikes as someone inside finished the instance successfully.

Way back when we thought we were going to do that, the bit with the scavs there was meant to be an instance like that - there was supposed to be a layer on Old Town where you cleaned out the scavs, but the leader got away - forcing you to chase him down out on the open road (Well anyone actually, you were meant to get credit for the mission either way; hunting him on the highway was a bonus anyone could participate in) to ensure he wouldn't come back. The tech never came and I put the idea aside completely until we came to the re-focus pass, at which point we threw the scav in as a sort of cool bonus encounter to spice things up... and to make up for the Mozak highway thing never quite working right.

Did anyone ever turn in the Mozak Bounty in the live world? Technically, that mission was still around, but I'm fairly certain I'm the only guy to have ever seen that mission conclude successfully. That's actually kind of interesting, as that mission is the only reason we could dynamically add and remove missions from players outside of the standard questing, at all. There were so many things I wanted to do with that tech. Ah well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as some might say.

- Snipehunter

I think a few people managed

I think a few people managed to surprise Mozak at a high level when passing through, but his path always strayed a bit too close to the turrets and BAM...well. Let's say he really needed a new car afterwards. Sticking out tongue

"Watch out for falling coconuts!"

Ombwah's picture

Oh hey, since you didn't spill...

A Tocado is a ceremonial Headdress -- you know, like a tribal sort of Shaman might wear, or something. Eye-wink

It's a spanish word.

At one point I was looking at the Mutant town map from the top-down and it looked like a big wheel, like the Aztec calendar that Snipey used to have hanging in his hall. I made a few leaps from there, and iirc the name came from that whole head-trip.

Omphala was another of my favorite mutant-city names, but I can't claim to have helped inspire that one. Amusingly I used to always think of that silly pop song - I can't remember who sang it, Fallout Boy maybe? But I wanted to sing "Omphala! It is the Shaman's place; Omphala! Where Shaman Monty waits... Omphala! (an ever anon).

Ok, yeah -- it's only funny to me.

Sigoya's picture

Late to the party!

Wow! just wow!

So many nuggets to munch on here. I wish I could revisit all the spots and NPCs mentioned here armed with this knowledge. *sigh*
We want more!

Pax Bionicus

Better Late than Never

Thanks gents for taking the time and effort to feed the hungry. I think you'd be surprised to know just how many people still care deeply about AA "beyond the fire button" and between your post-post-mortem (uh, does that make them pre-mortem?) interviews and this, the largest human clan in AA has certainly come to appreciate the game more. It's a terrible shame in our eyes that the potential (of the story) was left unfinished, but it's nice to know the full potential we missed out on... I think. Nice in a painful way. Eye-wink