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