The Final Highway; The Road Home -- how many more silly cliches can I throw? Choppin' Maul was my last season with Auto Assault, the literal winter of my time on the project.
I had the idea that the third Human highway was going to be a shopping mall for a long time. Really, it was one of the earliest concepts that the team had - it may have even predated my becoming lead. I picked up on it right away at any rate -- I mean, the idea that you could drive a car through a mall? With the smashing and all that? Awesome, right? Right -- guys? Well, until the kick in the nuts rolls around that interiors are sketchy at best, especially when you want to do the drivie-shooty in them, so it would have to be an outdoor 'Giant Mall'. One with no, you know, mall - per se. With a heavy heart, and truncated budget and schedule, I did my best to come up with the sinkhole that had once been the suburban shopping mecca -- a far cry from the satiric send-up of the consumer world I hoped it would be.
Thankfully, an Environmental Ninja with the handle 'Evil Toast' brought the Stalwart concept to the table. INC's own mysterious tower? I was suitably impressed. I couldn't deny the players such an incredibly cool concept so I wrote it in as a landmark, central to the area - wouldn't you know? Making an object show up from far away was yet another technical challenge. Nothing was coming very easy at that stage in the game. I thought it would be awesome to show the players close up how and where INC maintained their fleet, create a high level crafting city in the sky and altogether really push this 'automated manufactory' headtrip. Originally, a player had to do a specific chain of quests to unlock the city in the sky, and even then it took actually opening your map and choosing it as an INC destination after the quest chain had unlocked it. There was no 'ground entrance'. I mean, jeez -- did you ever see an INC ground vehicle?
Ah well, it was pretty cool anyway, wasn't it? I wish I still had the concept art image of the INC version of K-9 -- that alone was worth it to me.
The Choppin Maul highway was also the root-hub that Steel Fields was attached to. That instance was built solely as a demo for E3, a flash piece meant to show off our scripted instances and our new (at the time) Biomek Hazard mode mobs. Getting the Human back-up cars to drive the course and not just leave you in the dust took days, but eventually we turned out a cute little special FX extravaganza. Did anyone catch the E3 trailer way back when with the drive-in theatre bit? That was Steel Fields, you could tell -- couldn't you? The cityscape was awesome though -- props to the maplord Dave Lee for that one.
This was also the last chance I was going to have to show what it might have been like in another Ark, that there were other Arks at all -- and they couldn't all have gone so swimmingly as the Ark 1's success story. Duenna was that example. Now might be a good time to point out that nearly every interior in the game was built out of other objects in game, sort of 'kit-smashed' and scaled to fit. Literally hacked together, as at more than one point, the Design department had been told that interiors were an impossibility with the AA technology. This was in very large part due to a super restrictive asset budget for a project as ambitious in scope as a persistent-world MMO. So when we built Duenna, it was out of parts of the other highways past.
This is relevant because one thing I really wanted to get across with Duenna was a third-world or sub-Hestia high-tech feel. This Ark was built near the time of Ark 1, and with very similar tech, but how was I going to show this lower tech feel without brand new custom assets? We decided to use the orange shader from the Human accents and apply them to the shield assets that Hestia Humans had in blue. Then the Duennan shields would appear 'dimmer'. This was just one of many times to come when I'd just have to bite my tongue and say I hoped it would cut it. That was the mantra, it seemed -- "Hope that'll cut it." Still, the team pushed on, and Duenna was built to tell the story of the Ark That Fell, one that had it's people to blame as much as anything else. The story there was only hinted at in the few theme quests I was allowed to keep there. Did anyone in live get a 'Flimsy Duennan Reciept'? The plan was for an NPC to take those in as trades in sets of 5, 10 or 15 for a special piece of equipment. I put the flimsies in, but left NetDevil before I had a chance to put in the special trade NPC -- and I don't think anyone else remembers that was the plan.
That little detail is so indicative of what I think was the post-mortem takeaway of Auto Assault, at least as far as the teams went. Concordance is so key. Nothing hindered that project more than different teams with different agendas, but the very best elements were unquestionably those that resulted from collaboration.
When we operated as one MMO team, pushing toward one great release, we were shown a potential to do great things. But the extended crush and tension had built to a point where there had developed an insular sort of team culture. By the time the pressure cooker of milestone driven development was fast-tracking Region 3, each group became so worried about their Milestone 'hit-list' that they lost sight of the whole. We had fallen out of step with one another. Milestones would be looming and time budgets unwavering within a day after the last submission was grudgingly accepted it seemed. The Art team resented the Design team and Design was sure Engineering ignored them completely -- nerves were raw and tempers short. It is my opinion that we had simply lost sight of the idea that we were all on the same team.
Which brings me to my one and only regret about the road I took-
I left before I even got to see player models walking around and crafting at the pinnacle of the crafting stations in Stalwart -- Before the game timidly opened it's login server for the first time for real. I saw things in live that I not only knew were broken, (I still have the notes), but knew how to fix. I just wasn't allowed by schedule or budget to fix it then or there, and when I was gone it was too late. I didn't see that world have it's short, triumphant dance. Those windswept roadways filled my dreams for years of my life, I walked there and recorded impressions of what I saw. But for all of that, I wasn't there when that story was heard. I didn't play AA live until the last month, and I regret not returning to the world as one of those we worked so hard to build the world for. In the end, I didn't even get a lot of time to stand by and hear her engine rev while she rolled by.
Still, it was left to Cartoon Hero and Mr Squiggly, Meatsickle and Kedhrin (do you have a handle dude?), Z and Floyd (forgot your handle too, I'm so bad), The Law, Evil Toast, and all those guys that came on after I had gone to run the last yard for all of the Humans and they delivered. Of course all of them had been working on the game for months before, but they likewise took on a lot of bonus responsibility in that end haul.
I really was a fan, I drank the wasteland kool-aid. I genuinely wanted our little world to roll on into the night, but fate apparently did not agree.
Hell, I guess it's just a rough life, better get a helmet.