Pro-G sat down with NetDevil's Design Director Ryan Seabury to chat about the game. In the last part of our interview, we talk about the final stages of development, casual gamers, Blizzard and destructible environments. If you haven't read part one yet, go and check it out.
Pro-G: Now we're in August 2005, how close are you to finishing Auto Assault?
Ryan Seabury: Officially I can say that we are content complete at this point. We've been in beta for a month now. We've been in closed beta since September last year. So we've had live servers up and running for quite some time. At this point it's really balance issues. We're happy with all the core systems, functionally. It's really number adjustments and stabilisation on the server side especially, and optimisation.
Pro-G: So you must really be itching to get this game out?
Ryan: Yeah! It's been four years and we want to see what people really think. We're pretty excited about it so far because anytime anybody sits down for a hands-on, they have fun. At both of our E3s when people sat down and played it they laughed, which to me was a really good sign. With how many MMOs do you actually giggle when you play? Especially during that early learning curve when you're feeling like 'oh my God, I don't know about any of this stuff!' When people get into our game, after five minutes they're making audible noises. For me that's a pretty good measurement of where the game needs to be.
Pro-G: Can you tie down any period when we might see Auto Assault's release?
Ryan: We are working towards Q4.
Pro-G: Auto Assault makes no bones about targeting a more casual market than most MMOs. Do you see the game attracting hardcore MMO players as well as casual gamers?
Ryan: We obviously hope for both. There's definitely stuff for hardcore gamers. What we've been trying to do when we go out to events is to show people how much depth there is behind the fastest most destructive MMO that's out there. The combat you can show somebody in five minutes because it's so fast paced. But nobody was really getting the MMO aspects of it. We forgot to point that out in our rush to show everyone how different we are to everyone else. Then everyone came away thinking it might be shallow. That was the general take of the five minute presentation.
So now we're saying there's all that stuff but look at all this other stuff you'll be able to do too. We can back it up with this crafting system and arena PVP combat and housing and all of the things people are coming to expect as major features in MMOs. So I think that hardcore players will certainly find plenty to do.
There's always going to be complainer types - a very vocal minority community. Whoever hits the level cap within the first week will say 'ah this game sucks there's not enough content'. But that happened in WoW too, that happens in every game actually. So I'm not really too worried about that. I do think the hardcore gamers will find a lot to like and a lot to get into besides deep misogynous level capping. That's just one aspect of creating a character in our game.
Certainly the casual gamer is going to have a much more inviting time. I think the best demonstration of that was at E3 where we had several of the marketing and PR people come in and play the game. Usually the marketing and sales people never actually play the game. So there were a tonne of distributor people coming in and playing it and having a good time, and marketing people who never play anything normally. So they were getting it and having a great time with it.
We also had hardcore guys come and sit down and play for two hours at E3 and they were looking at every single stat and all the items, and equipping things and getting totally engrossed with it, and then get up with a smile on their face. And they're laughing just as much as the marketing and sales guys are. So, it's the clichè answer, but I think it's for both.
Pro-G: Of all the original features in Auto Assault, what are you most proud of?
Ryan: The easiest and most obvious is fully destructible environments, at least in a massively multiplayer space.
Pro-G: Is that a first?
Ryan: In an MMO it is certainly. There's been a few games we've seen recently that have had some degree of destructible environments. Mercenaries - when we saw the commercial for that that we were like 'oh that's like our game'. So we all got it at the office and you could blow stuff up, but they weren't fully destructible environments. I don't know if I've seen any game that does it, but I'm not willing to make the broad reaching statement that we're the first game ever to do it because I'm sure there's somebody out there that's done it that just didn't find commercial success or something. But in an MMO, yeah, most definitely.
And that was a feature that wasn't even in our original vision for the game either. The original vision was post-apocalyptic vehicular combat in a persistent world. We wanted to use full physics for the vehicular interaction mostly to make it fun and bouncy. As a side effect the fully destructible environments came out of that. We started blowing up things and we could use the physics as a free add-on to do cooler effects with them. And then we started adding it to buildings, and then we started adding depth states and multiple levels of destruction in buildings, and then it took on a life of its own.
But it's a sh*t load of work. The amount of art time that has to go into the environment - think about it. Every object in the game, of which there are over 10,000 now, has to have multiple states and effects, and all this extra crap defined for it, just to make it destructible in the world, just so you can blow it up in five seconds. It's a lot of work.
Pro-G: How do you make it work in an MMO?
Ryan: This was a problem, even as recently as GDC. On a certain panel of certain MMO developers where several of them said destructible environments in MMOs just won't happen, it's not possible. We were sitting in the panel thinking, 'well we actually got it working'. I think the misconception with a lot of people is that destructible environments means permanently destructible environments and I don't think it has to be that way.
You can think of it as mobs. Mobs respawn because if they didn't everything would be dead in an hour, and it's the same thing with the ruins and the buildings. The exception is instances which can save their state based on your storyline, so it's a little bit of both.
Pro-G: What features have you seen in other MMOs that you've thought 'that's great I'll implement that'?
Ryan: Being a Blizzard fanboy and obviously with the success of WoW - I think they've done something right. I think what Blizzard has always excelled at, and not just with WoW but all their games, is accessibility through user interface. They make the game understandable within the first ten minutes. You can play all their games without reading the manual. All the information comes from mouse interaction and well designed tool tips and things like that.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how you just read information. Right now, for example, we keep doing iterations on our item rollovers. There's quite a few steps that you can customise about them, but it's all sort of a gibberish of bunches of text. There's a certain limit at which you see too much text on the screen and you get intimidated and you don't want to read it any more.
So it's limiting your exposure to the things that matter and presenting them in layout so that you can easily scan it. It's subtle things like that. That subtle difference in how you interpret the information is basically the tipping point where you become accessible and easy to use.
It's that extra ten per cent of polish that I think Blizzard does so well that a lot of other companies don't do well that is what separates them and why they always have triple A titles.
I think that's the biggest inspiration generally speaking. Obviously there's a lot of great ideas that a lot of different games have, but overall I really like games that spend time on their UI and think about how the users actually interact with their game. Especially the initial experience - your first hour in the game. You need to understand what's happening. You have to actually hold back exposure to all these cool features.
In Auto Assault for example, if your first weapon overheats on you, you're gonna be like 'what the hell, why isn't my weapon firing?!' because you don't understand the heat system. But if it comes in later after you're comfortable with the rest of the core mechanics, then you're like 'oh there's heat'. Then you're being introduced to these things one at a time. It's the subtlety of how you structure exposure to all these features.
Pro-G: What type of character are you currently using in Auto Assault?
Ryan: The first character I play is always the ninja. Whoever I can be to be as close to a sneaky death dealing ninja - that's the guy I'm gonna be. So I tend to, as a player, prefer the special ops classes. Anything I can hide with - that's what I love. Surprise attacks, because ninjas are better than pirates in every way - and you can quote me on that.
Auto Assault is scheduled for release on the PC in Q4 2005. Look for more updates on the game as the release date approaches.