The Game Archaeologist: The short ride of Auto Assault


When you think of post-apocalyptic video games, what comes to mind? Most likely it’s a crawl through a bombed-out or zombiefied landscape as you might find in The Last of Us or Fallout 4. However, there’s a side branch of the post-apoc genre that I like to call the “Mad Max strain.” This is where up-armored cars become kings of the world and where all conflict is resolved with a lethal game of chicken at 75 miles per hour.

This niche-within-a-niche is where NCsoft’s Auto Assault looked to make a name for itself in the mid-2000s. It certainly was an intriguing idea for an MMO, to offer players two gameplay modes in one package: vehicular combat and exploration on foot. But the whole project unraveled and braked to a halt all too soon, leaving us with faint memories of a wasteland blurring by.

So what was Auto Assault and why did it die so quickly? Let’s look at this MMO today and find out!

From the mind of devils

Founded in 1997 by a group of technology firm coworkers, NetDevil had its mind on MMOs from the very beginning. Its small team began working on an online space title called Jumpgate, which turned into a minor success and a story for another day. For a follow-up game, the team decided to explore a different area of science fiction: the post-apocalyptic world where a nasty alien drop pods scoured the planet and turned a good portion of the survivors into mutants.

“When we started NetDevil we had several game ideas we wanted to develop that seemed to be ignored in the MMO space,” the team said in a 2005 interview. “A car combat game was one of our favorites and NCsoft believed in the idea and so production began.”

The idea of vehicle combat for an MMORPG wasn’t completely foreign — games like Earth & Beyond and EVE Online had pulled it off — but it certainly wasn’t the norm for the genre. Players had a harder time connecting and identifying with cars as avatars, so NetDevil decided that it would include human (and mutant and cyborg) avatars for hubs and other limited foot portions to help with that.

However, the real meat of Auto Assault came with the game’s vehicle combat — and there was a lot of it. Players could jump into customized cars, trucks, motorbikes, and tanks, driving out to do battle against the denizens of the wasteland and other players. Additionally, buildings and other structures could be destroyed for fun and resources.

Design Director Ryan Seabury said in 2005 that this was a major draw for the game: “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.”

Muddling through a mess

NetDevil decided to break with the MMORPG industry in another regard, which was to completely eliminate the then-standard “death penalty” when a player would crash or get blown up. This made combat more of a worry-free and enjoyable experience where players felt more justified in taking risks and causing as much mayhem as possible.

In pre-launch interviews, NetDevil jumped all over the place in regards to what audience would find Auto Assault appealing. It was for the casuals… but also the hardcores. It was “less about skill and more about player attributes,” whatever that means. It was for action gamers who had been neglected by tab-targeting MMOs.

The team now admits that Auto Assault went into beta too early, a move that ended up hurting the game’s reputation as testers came away unimpressed with what was essentially still an alpha build. “Like it or not, beta is marketing,” said Scott Brown later. “It’s when the public is playing your game and you want to put your best foot forward.”

Auto Assault was picked up by MMO mega-publisher NCsoft, which was a major coup for little NetDevil, and launched in April 2006. Despite its vehicular hook and post-apoc setting, the game only received so-so reviews and had a hard time pulling in players. Reviewers pointed to the game’s “steep learning curve” and poor controls as a major detractor. It also didn’t help that the terms and details of this unfamiliar world meant nothing to players who were trying to figure out if things like “nanoplasteel” or “xenoalloy” armor was better for their cars.

By NetDevil’s own admission, Auto Assault was riddled with core problems that held it back. The game suffered from performance issues, lacked polish, had too complex of a design, and wasn’t nearly as accessible to the general gaming public as it needed to be.

Out of gas

It was quickly apparent to NCsoft that Auto Assault wouldn’t be a Guild Wars-type success as the MMO struggled to gain any substantial playerbase. North American and European servers merged in June 2006. Rumors were that the game’s daily population was as low as a hundred or so players by 2007. NetDevil said that it operated under a constant dread of cancellation, fearing that if Auto Assault was taken down, the studio itself would fold.

Finally, about a year after Auto Assault’s launch, the publisher announced that the game would be closing its doors. NetDevil did try to buy back the rights to the MMO, but no deal was ever reached, and Auto Assault died for good on August 31st, 2007, just 16 months after its launch. At the time, it was one of the shortest-lived MMOs in existence.

On that last day, NetDeviil President Scott Brown wrote, “Thanks everyone who stayed through it all. Auto Assault was 4+ years of working our tails off to get this product out. It was something we all loved and I’m glad that some people could find the same joy from the game as we did. Hopefully our paths will cross again soon.”

Auto Assault was an interesting idea but didn’t work hard enough to make its game as user friendly or enjoyable as it could have been. Couple that with an already niche genre, and this MMO was doomed to have a short ride.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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