When the news of
Rasa’s imminent demise hit the
social gamers of our MMO industry lit up like they had just sat on a
massive mound of fire ants. People were scrambling to figure out why
NCsoft suddenly opted to pull the plug after they had been declaring to
numerous press establishments – including Ten Ton Hammer
– that the game was safe and secure and would be enjoyed for
months, if not years, to come. However, that proved not to be the case.
Only a few other development companies have had to face the closure of
their games and even fewer have had the game operate for such a short
amount of time. Out of that selection, Ten Ton Hammer got in touch with
NetDevil’s Scott Brown, a man that has been fairly outspoken
about his experiences with
target="_blank">Auto Assault href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/31"
target="_blank">'s closure in 2007, and asked him
a number of
questions regarding Tabula
Rasa’s impending shut down. In part one of this
two part interview, we ask Scott about the future of the developers at
Destination Games, his thoughts on MMOG closures in general, and how
NetDevil bounced back from the end of style="font-style: italic;"> Auto Assault.
Auto Assault faced closure in mid-2007.
Ten Ton Hammer:
What’s the attitude in a studio like when you know that your
game is going to be cancelled and things are wrapping up? What kind of
processes will the Tabula Rasa team go through mentally to close down
So basically what happens is the game doesn’t meet
expectations and people start trying to figure out how the game is
going to make a profit. In the case of Auto Assault, NCsoft opted to
just close the game versus running it with a smaller team. I
don’t have any insight into the situation, but it looks like
they did the same sort of thing with Tabula Rasa.
On the other hand, with the original Jumpgate we just scaled our team
back until it was profitable. I really don’t understand why
you’d ever shut off a game, in my opinion.
Ten Ton Hammer: Why would
a company turn off a game rather than just scaling back the team?
don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you that it was
certainly a disagreement between us and them.
I would never turn off a game. I would do what I would need to do to
make the game support itself, but why turn it off? Especially when
there are people that love your game?
There’s a site – and I don’t know how
many people have seen it – it’s called biomek.org,
and it’s an old Auto Assault site/forum. There are a bunch of
people that go on there and post about how they liked Auto Assault and
enjoyed playing it. There aren’t a ton of people, but the
point is that there is a community out there that enjoyed playing the
game. I still get emails from people asking me to turn the game back
on. And I wish I could, but it’s not my IP.
I think communities form, but they don’t necessarily have to
be the size of the World of Warcraft to be a success. Really, I would
never turn this stuff off.
Ten Ton Hammer: What
happened internally when the decision to shut off Auto Assault was
made? What does that do to the development team? Where do the guys go
from there? Do people start looking for jobs? Is it a relief knowing
that there won’t be any more churning to try to keep the game
Here’s what we did. NCsoft certainly knows how to make a
game, and they committed to a long amount of support for the group to
stay on the game for a while after launch. So some of the first stuff
that we did was we went up to the Auto Assault team and said,
“Look, the game’s obviously not performing well
enough to cover its costs. We don’t know what’s
going to happen.”
That was the first thing we did, and we tried to be really honest with
everyone. We were straight with them. We thought we were going to get
more work, but we weren’t sure. We supported people, and the
situation was just too unstable for some of our crew. We helped them
find new places in the industry, and they were free to use us as
references. At that point in time, the president of Gas Powered Games
was actually talking to us and reached out and hired a few people that
were nervous about being in that situation.
While some people have that sort of entrepreneurial spirit and the
“Let’s just keep going!” attitude; some
people have families and kids in college and just decided to move on.
As a whole, we just wanted to support everyone in the best ways that we
could. We didn’t want to shock everyone and just say that
we’re out of money and can’t pay them.
Ten Ton Hammer:
Didn’t want to take ‘em out to the parking lot?
I’ve never understood that approach at all.
So that’s the way we did it. We just let everyone know what
was going on. So then we scrambled and tried to find work. We decided
that we needed to diversify as a company. Games are so hit and miss and
we can’t have our company survive or fail off of the success
of one game.
That’s when we signed LEGO, and a group of people
transitioned from Auto Assault over there. After that we signed
Warmonger more as a tech demo because we had done all this work on Auto
Assault on physics and had worked with Aegia on creating an
Aegia-supported mode on Auto Assault. Everyone was getting a kick out
of it, and we wondered what we could do if we took that destruction to
an even higher level. A group of the Auto Assault guys that worked on
the physics and destruction in the game split off and worked on the
With the rest of the team, we took a step back and looked at Jumpgate.
We still had fans in that game and people that love the game. What if
we took what we had learned from Auto Assault and see how great we
could make it.
At the same time, we wanted to try to get into the web games business
too, because there are a bunch of games – like Club Penguin
and Webkinz – that are just rocking and kicking our ass.
didn't take the closure of their studio lying down; they actively
fought to find jobs for their employees
Ten Ton Hammer:
They’re making SO much money!
with such a small team! Shouldn’t we be looking at that too?
So we diverted a different group onto that project, which still
hasn’t been announced yet. We really took some of the
web-based code from another development team that’s been
working with web tools and combined that with some of our tech that we
developed for our MMOs and combined them. That group is about to go
public with some of their stuff, and it’s really freaking
So now we’ve got those three big groups: LEGO, Jumpgate, and
the web game. It’s all pretty neat.
The other thing that’s been cool for us is that when you do
an internal post-mortem on a game, you really beat yourself up over it.
Why did the game fail? What did we do wrong? What lessons did we learn?
A lot of people have heard the talk from us, but that’s when
we made our decisions about the first fifteen minutes of the game,
vertical slice, etc.
That’s when we determined that we needed to commit to this,
because if we’re not going to do it great, it’s not
worth doing. It worked out well for us.
We talked with a variety of companies – I’m a big
ArenaNet fan, and I think those guys are some of the best and smartest
people I’ll meet in my life – and we discussed a
bunch of ideas with them and the direction they took with Guild Wars.
Ten Ton Hammer: It seems
like you bounced back pretty well from the closure of Auto Assault. How
did you – and perhaps eventually the team at NCsoft
– bounce back from the closure of a game?
It’s hard. When you pour your life into something for four
years, it’s hard when it fails. We sat down –
Peter, Ryan and I – and asked if we wanted to do this
anymore. We really asked ourselves if we wanted to make games or not.
Are we going to go fight for this, or not?
Before, when someone said something to us or thought we were doing
something the wrong way, we were too scared to say no. We
didn’t want to get put out of business. It’s not
that I think we’re right all the time, but sometimes
– as a developer – there are times when you just
need to put your foot down.
We were scared. We were more concerned about staying in business, and I
think what that experience taught us was that we’d rather
lose our jobs or rather go out of business than make a bad decision.
Even after we did that, we were still scared about the first time we
had to say no to someone.
And in reality, it’s been a very positive experience. It
hasn’t been an adversarial thing. If LEGO or Codemasters
wanted us to do something a particular way, and we said, “We
need to do it this way, and here’s why.”
It’s usually worked out okay.
It turns out that everyone wants the same thing, right?
Ten Ton Hammer: They want
It made a big difference, and it changed our philosophy to one of
rather than working in fear to one of believing that we know what
we’re talking about.
Rob Pardo’s talk at AGC a couple years ago was a huge
inspiration to me. I was sitting there listening to his talk and
thinking, “Wow. We knew all this stuff. We just
didn’t do it.” You always rationalize it. I hear so
many people that say, “But they’re
And I just want to tell them that if they want to do something great,
you have to do it that way. At least that’s what I believe.
Ten Ton Hammer: There are
definitely ways to make games and ways not to make games. Blizzard just
did it right the first time, and I don’t know if they got
lucky or if they got good.
Scott: To be
honest, I think the thing that no one talks about is that they learned.
They made a bunch of games before they ever had the huge mega hit. They
learned that process and it became the studio culture. Now that culture
has become very addictive and it works and no one argues with them.
Ten Ton Hammer:
It’s interesting that they did so well on their first shot
with an MMO though.
Certainly, but it’s not like they didn’t make tons
of mistakes and spends lots and lots of money working through those
mistakes. They just had someone that believed in them enough to let
them work through those mistakes.
But they also earned that right. They had made several very successful
games before that so they really earned a little bit of time.
Ten Ton Hammer: How much
pressure is there on a developer? When you get that first set of
numbers back and it’s not looking too great; how much
pressure does that put on a development team to get your product in the
It’s all on the publisher. As much as developers like to cry
about publishers, it’s the publishers that are taking the
risk. It’s publishers that are spending the money. At that
point that’s where the rubber hits the road, and they have to
figure out the way to make the money.
Everyone that we’ve ever worked with have been good people.
It’s never been the evil publisher, and it’s never
actually been that way. They have a responsibility to the people that
gave them the money, and some of them stick their head out to you to
make this game and know they’ve got to make it profitable.
Most of the
time, you'll know if a game will succeed before it is even launched.
Basically, the pressure is almost all in beta. I mean,
there’s some pressure at launch, but most gamers know if a
game is going to be successful way before the actual launch. Right? You
If there’s a beta that you go and play then you never play
the game again, you know it’s probably not going to do so
well. But if you play a beta and wish that the game was already
launched because you don’t want to lose your character, you
know that the game is going to be a hit.
It comes down to really simple stuff.
Ten Ton Hammer: Where in
the development process can you look at the game and know that
it’s going to be profitable or not? Alpha? Beta?
It’s the moment when you go home at night and play your game
instead of something else.
Ten Ton Hammer: What if
there’s a game out there that’s just amazing? I
know a lot of the NetDevil crew are fans of WoW…
That’s the problem; there isn’t really a single
point where you know the game is ready. It’s a very soft
thing. In reality, everyone talks about these numbers called
“conversions” right? There’s some
percentage of people where your game is a success or a failure.
You’re never going to convert everyone. There’s
never a game out there that everyone likes. It’s basically
how good you can get that percentage to be.
For something like Jumpgate Evolution, it doesn’t have to
have the same sort of numbers that LEGO has to have in order to be a
success. But maybe you have to have a higher percentage because the
amount of people that try the game is smaller, or something like that.
I don’t pretend to be marketing and know how to explain this
sort of thing or not, but to me it’s simple.
Do you like to play it or not?
When you’re at work, are you thinking about it? Do you dream
about getting back into the game and finish building the project you
were working on. Or you can’t wait to try that mission again.
Or you need to get back into the PvP so you can kill those guys.
That’s how you know.
We'd like to thank Scott
for his time and we encourage all of you to check out the conclusion of our "The End of Tabula Rasa" interview!
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Auto Assault Game Page.