Auto Assault: The Road Not Taken #4: Imagine a Dam...

| 25 Sep 2007 15:19

Auto Assault former Human lead Ombwah posted today the 4th entry in this weekly feature recalling the difficulties creating Hydroelectric and others:

Back during the pre-release days, when Scott gave interviews, he would describe a scenario where players would blow up a dam, flooding a level. He would go on to describe how the same players could return to the site of the dam later, to see it destroyed and to adventure in the ruins of the destroyed dam.

Strapped with a trunk full of ambition, I decided to theme the second highway as the flooded plain left after a large dam had broken. Only a single large mountain ridge would divide the washout. Then I set out, and hoped I'd be able to flood an instance. I had this idea for an Ark city in a mountain, which would become Apollo. There was also a lot of pressure in the office to try making a staged 'Nintendo' styled boss, so this would make an appearance in the Panacea instance as the Spore Distribution Unit. I had a story to tell about Justice, I wanted the players to get a good look at INC and to be shown the clues they needed to learn that all was not as the propaganda told them, and finally I wanted to set the players up to encounter some Biomeks -- just in passing. A preview of the other faction to set up some hate. All together, these little bits would simmer together into the chunky, disparate soup that was Hydroelectric.

Looking back, I think I should have shaved back my ambitions for this zone and focused on building just a few storylines instead of the sprawling forks that the Human storyline opens into here. I just had lots of things to try to do in a rapidly dwindling space of time. This was made especially true considering that our quest paradigm wasn't completely established and neither were XP scale, Mob AI, item build and balance, economy scale -- heck, we didn't even have final car physics! Thankfully, none of those were within my purview, I had plenty of my own to stress about -- but it should be noted that these things were unknowns when the second highway zones were plotted and their foundations poured. Even still, Hydroelectric has some great concepts, some lovely level work and a few damn fine pieces of lore.

It was also around this point in production that a snafu arose about the leveling speed and XP balance between each faction. A niggle about the number of missions written for one faction vs. another and how that threw off leveling speed started being twittered about in other departments. We designers had been told up to this point that we had a system to rely on for XP and cash payouts. It was, in fact, an open secret among the content designers that all three factions had a fairly disparate number of missions, simply as a consequence of plotlines. Further, none of us had reliably normalized our XP or scrip payouts to that point. Indeed, this was impossible for us to do. As I stated before, XP and cash weren't at all final. These were untested, unproven and basically considered unfinished and untestable by design. See, we were promised that a system had been developed that would 'automagically' rebalance xp payout vs the number of missions written for a given faction, hence if we set our mission payouts a particular way -- all we would have to do was write and the system would autobalance payouts to keep players leveling at a steady pace. I'm not sure that was still the way things worked when the game shipped, but I guess not all great ideas turn out to be all that great, actually.

Anyway around this time much concern began to echo about, from the publisher, from the other departments about schedules and content loads. Our schedule was overhauled, things went sort of sideways and the team went back to the beginning with new pushes for new content, area recharacterizations, refinements and an overall much-needed coat of gloss. We crunched, oh, did we crunch. The second highway was put on a sort of back burner while Militia Base was surgically restructured. In ways I think this whole disruption contributed to a regrettable sort of fragmented feel to this highway. The crushing schedule, the growing pressure on all departments meant that we had less support for our quest designs than before. This meant few cool world tricks and even fewer new assets. I found myself having to write quite a few quest arcs very quickly, and with as few new assets as I could muster. As a result, sometimes I fear my grand designs for this Highway played out as scattered and arcane.

Luckily, I could pull from Snipey's requests (the CBers) and there was an entire enemy faction built for the Biomeks that simply hadn't been used (The B-jects) so I was on my way. Mozak was a character that I had spent a lot of time discussing with Snipey, and he and I had written a fun story to keep him in the world and share him with the Human players. So he was tied into the Thugz story as Benno's brother. The storylines were supposed to end for both the Mutants and the Humans with 2 special chassis; each one of Mozak's two vehicles. The Quest line was still in the shipping game because the feature was never cut - you humans may remember the missions, it was clear what you were supposed to receive as your quest reward. I even saw it in game, driving around once - it got built, (you Humans fought it after all) but it was never implemented as a player item. I don't think there was any good reason for that.

Oh, and before I forget, the quest lines where the player fights for the Thugz and the CBer's, one vs the other? Those were specially triggered up to be exclusive, if you worked for one group, the other group was turned off for you so you couldn't work both sides of the deal. I'm pretty sure that was changed before ship. Also, the Scav town of The Falls was originally named 'The Tubes' - I had to change it because someone apparently thought it was an obtuse drug reference. I'm still not sure I get it. It was actually a reference to the large pipe mouths that were the town's source of water.

I'd like to finish by giving props to Z, who wrote the Dreamtime Zendig arcs based on only my lore notes and hand drawn maps - and to the Law, who spent at least a month painstakingly working the heightfield and tint maps in Hydroelectric to try to approximate a sort of reality, only to have a full quarter of the map cut off because of scheduling concerns. Hydroelectric was a long, hard climb and I felt like it never got the praise it deserved as one of my favorite Human zones.

-by Ombwah

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