NetDevil on Auto Assault and JumpGate Evolution

By Jim Rossignol on April 9th, 2008 at 11:31 am.


NetDevil have had an interesting journey. They’re a privately owned, Colorado-based company that started out by making a niche space-combat MMO, Jumpgate, in 2001. They then went on to create the disastrous post-apocalyptic vehicle combat MMO Auto Assault in 2006 – a game so unpopular that it was switched off just over a year after release by owners NCSoft. Now NetDevil are back on track and working on two projects: a remake of their original MMO, JumpGate Evolution, and the LEGO Universe MMO. Both are looking extremely promising, but in this interview with executive producer Hermann Peterscheck we focus on lessons learned from the failure of Auto Assault, and what we can expect from this second attempt at Jumpgate.

RPS: How did the team feel in the aftermath of Auto Assault? What was learned from that project?

A lot! Honestly it could fill a book! Obviously after the game didn’t do as well as expected and was eventually turned off, that’s a very difficult thing to get through. As a team you end up spending years of your life working very long hours and when that doesn’t pay off the way you expect, then that’s certainly a painful thing. We ended up spending a lot of time thinking and evaluating why things didn’t go better and learned a lot of lessons from that which we are applying across the board. There’s probably a million things that contribute the success of a product but on a high level there’s a few big lessons which I think are important for MMO development. The first is to polish early, and not at the end. Numerous high profile game failures result directly from breaking this rule. The idea is that at the end of development you will always be in chaos, fire fighting mode – and if performance optimizations are thrown in with that as well, it’s not a very good scenario. The other problem is that if you don’t have a great looking, well running game early, then it’s really hard to evaluate how good the game really is. The “law,” if you will, is there’s no such thing as a good game with a bad frame rate.

The other big lesson we learned is that features don’t save you. This means that development needs to be a progression where you work on a few core features and stay on them until they are done and working. This takes a lot of discipline because developers always want to work on the “next cool thing.” In addition there is always enormous pressure to have all the features that every other game has. Once again you can see a number of high profile failures where games had a ton of features, but that didn’t save them. Conversely, there are example of games with very limited features that did quite well – Portal is the recent example, but there are lots of others.

The third major thing is that for MMOs I feel it’s important to look good and run well on reasonably spec’d hardware. If you look at the larger, more successful MMOs they tend to run on lots of machines. I think the reason for this is two-fold. The first is that you have to get lots of people playing for the game to be fun, which means the higher the system spec, the smaller the initial population. The other reason is that you need to run the game for a long time. This means that if you have super high end ultra realistic graphics, the next evolution in hardware will date your game. World of Warcraft, notably, has kept itself looking really good by being highly stylized, which means that you don’t think of the game as getting graphically behind as quickly as more realistic looking games.

RPS: What’s the motivation behind returning to something you’ve already had one pass at, with Jumpgate?

Honestly there’s lots of reasons, some of them are business related, some of them aren’t. At the end of the day, though, you have to be working on something you really want to do, so that’s the big motivator. There’s no big action space MMO, something Freelancer Online or Wing Commander Online. We want to play that game and since it doesn’t exist we want to make it. We also hope and suspect that there are other people who feel the same way. I think that it is very difficult to “time” the market. You don’t ever really know which game people are going to like, or what they are going to respond to so I think that it’s important to work on stuff that you can be passionate about. The other, less exciting reason, is that we have experience making this kind of game and if you look at the games that are really great they tend to be iterations on an existing game. For example, compare Halo, Halo 2 and Halo 3. Bungie got better and better by iterating on the same game over and over again. Just like everything else in life, you get better with practice so I think it’s logical to assume that if we make another space action MMO it will be better than the first.

RPS: How is Jumpgate different from other MMOs?

I think it’s different in lots of ways, but then also similar; which sounds like a dodgy answer. On the different side we really are a space action MMO. This means that the game plays like Wing Commander, Privateer or X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter. We want to capture the experience of flying a ship through space and doing various activities: fighting, trading, mining, crafting and so on. Thus from a player experience, the game is different than anything else out there in the mainstream. That being said, there are some similar mechanics. For example, you get missions and earn experience. You gain rank (level) and get access to new equipment and ships You can play with other people in groups to accomplish more difficult goals. You can build stuff and sell it to other players, or buy from them. You can earn medals and titles, gain faction rating and so on. All the basic kinds of things that MMOs tend to have are all there. My hope is that people will be comfortable with the mix of mechanics and features and that we can basically capture a kind of “Han Solo” type of experience… if that makes sense.

RPS: Can you tell us something specific about Jumpgate Evolution that really excites you? A “dungeon”, a mission, a particular place or game mechanic?

Hmm… this is a very common question and it’s really difficult to answer. I think the reason why is for me, the value of a game comes in the overall experience. It’s hard to nail down this feature or that content that makes something really awesome – it’s the culmination of everything that makes it work, I think. Having said that an area that I feel is really cool right now is the unpredictable nature of the AI. We have AI that behave like patrols around a spawn point, which is typical of most MMOs. However, our AI system allows us to have AI do many more things like band together, jump through various parts of space, fight each other and so on. Something that happened a few weeks ago during a test was that I jumped into a core station system and there were some Conflux that just jumped in behind me (Conflux are the “bad” alien race in the game). The station AI responded to the threat by sending out a defender patrol who engaged the Conflux ships and took them out. This was not planned, scripted or triggered in any way, it was just a result of a few simple behaviors interacting in unpredictable ways. We want to exploit those kinds of things a lot and hopefully tie them in so that the player can directly take advantage of them.

RPS: Specifically, how will the long-game of Jumpgate play out? (In Eve people end up building empires, in WoW they end up raiding, what will long term Jumpgaters be doing?)

It’s an interesting question and I’m not really sure how it will play out. We plan to have both high end game play, such as really tough boss like opponents who require a number of people to take out. There’s also PvP which was a big part of the original game and more advanced players tend to like that. Then there is the economy which tends to be a long term meta game. People like to keep making more and more complex stuff and sell it for more and more money and you can generally keep adding to that at the top to keep the game going. Adding content is another thing that we have to do on an ongoing basis. In other words I think endgame content is a pretty well known strategy. Again, it’s all in the execution, not in the idea per se. The critical thing is to have a number of options for people. If you only have one thing for people to do at the “end” they are likely to get bored. The other thing is to be responsive to what people want to do. I suspect that as the game grows, we will get a lot of ideas from the players themselves.

RPS: How do you plan to keep player numbers down in PvP battles? I mean, won’t players simply gang up into bigger and bigger groups to defeat their opponents? How does that work?

I am often surprised at how these things tend to work out. I know that EVE has had some reported problems with huge battles causing issues. At some point it’s inevitable that if you have an open world environment with PvP, it will attract a larger number of people as the shard population grows. You may notice that World of Warcraft doesn’t seem to have that problem mainly because they split their world into shards. Now, of course, they don’t have the benefit of really huge battles either – so it’s really a design decision more than anything else. For example, nothing stops the entire shard population of World of Warcraft from going into one central location and messing up the game; so why doesn’t that happen? I think a lot of it is that people don’t deliberately do things to screw up their own game experience. If an area is too full, people tend to go somewhere else. People behave in predictable ways when it comes to social environments. For example, I may really want to go to a certain restaurant. If the wait is 20 minutes I may wait, if the wait is 3 hours, I won’t wait. So by virtue of the frustration being high enough I will go somewhere else to enhance my enjoyment. Thus, I think that as developers we shouldn’t be so quick to control the player experience. I know that you have to take into account things like high populations, but at some point you have to let go and watch what people do. So, if in Jumpgate all 2000 people are in one area fighting and they hate it because it’s crowded but don’t have anything else to do, is the problem that the game can’t handle 2000 people in one area or is the problem that the game doesn’t give people options so that it doesn’t have to handle 2000 people in one area? Is the solution forcing people to separate or is the solution giving people reasons to separate? I like to try and think of ways to make people choose in ways that are both fun and work well in the game instead of forcing people to play the game the way we want them too. Besides, players are smart… they are not going to play the game the way you intend them to in most cases anyway.

RPS: NetDevil is in an interesting position now, with two MMOs in the works. Is the ability to work on multiple projects something that is important to the direction the company is now taking? What is the future for NetDevil?

I think the future of the company is to keep making MMOs. It’s something we have been doing since the birth of the genre, and it’s the kinds of games we really enjoy working on. We might do other things as well, but I can’t imagine that NetDevil will ever stop making MMOs; assuming MMOs themselves don’t cease to exist, which I doubt will happen. As far as multiple projects, it’s really not an uncommon thing. Most 3rd party developers work on at least 2 things at a time if for no other reason to mitigate risk. You never really know what is going to happen when you release a game; even if you release a great game. By doing a few things at the same time you have a better chance at success which is what you need to keep making games. It’s a very competitive industry with rising development costs and a tiny percentage of titles dominating most of the market share. This is in-line with every other entertainment segment, so it’s not really surprising, not will it change. Making MMOs is really hard. Making two MMOs is even harder. Honestly, the biggest limit to growth is talent. It’s difficult to find people who can work on these kinds of games, and it’s also hard to hold onto them because the demand is so high. Our strategy is to make a company that has an environment that produces quality products. Then you use that to help attract and keep the talent that ensures you can keep doing it. If you do that I think eventually you will be financially successful as well. It sounds really simple, but it’s incredibly hard to make games that are worth people’s time and money. I hope that we can achieve that.

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28 Comments »

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  1. Nallen says:

    While I think the problems in Eve with laggy systems and fleet battles is something intrinsic to the design of the game (single shard, serial end game objectives) and may not be applicable directly to Jumpgate I’m not sure if ‘wait and see’ is the best, or most responsible solution to the possible problems.

    For instance they cite PvP as a major end game component, if the PvP is objective based then escalation of numbers is all but inevitable. They also talk about trading, again a huge amount of thought has to put in to preventing a core system becoming a hub for most of the trading. The wait and see approach means they wont even recognise the problem before they have a Jita on their hands and then it’s vastly harder to remove it without doing something very drastic.

    Of course many of these problems are mitigated to some degree by using a sharded approach, which limits both the maximum number of players they need to worry about in one area and the level of competitiveness likely to occur in PvP, both combat and trading wise.

    All in all I’m looking forward to giving it a go, if it provides Freespace like action in an MMO environment it will probably be huge fun. Just don’t make it too simple and forgiving (read boring)!

  2. Iain says:

    I had some fun with Auto Assault when it came out, but it’s biggest flaw was that the game mechanics seemed much more suited to being played offline, rather than as an MMO. There wasn’t really any compelling reason for Auto Assault to have been an online game as opposed to a singleplayer game, other than NetDevil seemed determined to make it an MMO.

    You didn’t need to group up to do quests, the PvP wasn’t any great shakes and the game world could have been much more detailed if they hadn’t had to worry about bandwidth or knocking down the textures to minimise lag. And the less said about the completely unintelligible crafting system, the better…

    If NetDevil don’t want Jumpgate to fall into the same hole as Auto Assault, then they need to make sure that they do something to justify the MMO tag and that it’s not simply an online singleplayer game.

  3. Myros says:

    Tbh the message I got from this article seemed to be ‘dont inovate, just stick with what works for others’. My interest in this product went down quite a few notches reading each point he made.

    Maybe I’m just to jaded but I’ve done the grind thing to death and the thought of just another eq clone except in space doesnt do it for me. Will likely wait till I see some honest game reviews of the final product before jumping through this gate ;p

  4. Jim Rossignol says:

    I think NetDevil’s intention is to try and make some of what works offline (vehicle action, space-shooter) work online. That might not be the right route, of course, but I don’t think it’s just another EQ clone, even with levelling etc.

    That said: “human interaction” needs to be the rule of thumb for online games, and little else.

  5. Dinger says:

    There’s a hugely successful MMO formula out there that’s not UO-EQ-WoW, but it hasn’t been found.
    Those games are relatively easy to build and maintain.

    Space Action is _hard_: to get anything interesting in terms of combat, you have to pull some BS somewhere, and then you have to hide it from the user. (Gee, all those Xwing games, what speed did those things reach? And why did they always seem to need thrust to keep moving?)
    Then you need to give each player the feeling they can, in their own way, be a ninja at some aspect of handling the craft.
    It’s really hard. And if you make a MMO action game, trust me, the attraction is in having really _big_ battles. He may be right that the “three-hour wait” will keep people out of the worst, but that means much of the action will be of the “twenty-minute wait” sort: marginally playable, and not where the engine shines.
    But again, these are nuts and bolts. And that’s not what he’s talking about. The way he’s talking about how the players will view things suggest that there’s still a lot of testing to do. So we’ll see.

  6. Daran says:

    EVE has the massive battles because of the high stakes. You can build an empire, but you will have to fight for it. In WoW you can raid a city and a little time later that city will be back to normal and it will be as if you were never there.
    EVE players know they will have lag in major fleet operations, but the fruits of their labor are worth it. It will be interesting to see how Conan develops, although I personally dislike twitch games.

  7. Puck says:

    I’ve always felt a space MMORG needs to address Guild-play in a genre appropriate manner. For example, a “guild house” in a fantasy game should become a “Capital Ship” in space MMORG.

    Imagine for a moment, a guild controlled Capital ( or Mother) Ship…
    PvP types could be Fighter Pilots that depart in their own fighters
    Crafters types could be engineers fixing and modifying the Capital Ship. Or navigate the ship between locations
    Casual types could be doing mini-games that regenerate the ships shields or unlock jump points

  8. Nuyan says:

    I think this could have some easy and fun real-time combat, which is what EVE and pretty much all MMO’s so far lack, but I can’t see yet how they’ll keep it fun in the long-term. MMO’s usually aren’t “just fun”, after a while the addictive item-hunting thing will take over (with only a few exceptions, like a sandbox world as EVE). I also can’t see this game replacing something like EVE.

    Oh, and nice write-up about EVE in PCGamer UK, Jim!

  9. yutt says:

    For example, nothing stops the entire shard population of World of Warcraft from going into one central location and messing up the game; so why doesn’t that happen?

    We used to do this. It would make the game unplayable, then crash the server. After a couple years of this, it became common knowledge. Trying to have large PvP battles crashes the realm server.

    It still happens occasionally, but Blizzard provides no incentives, the odds against you are infinitely unfair, the game is unplayable, and the server crashes.

  10. araczynski says:

    loved wing commander, the memories. that being said, what’s more important to me is how solo friendly the game is. if its just another forced group/grind fest i’m not wasting my time even if the game is for free.

  11. elias says:

    The way he talks about it, I’m kind of less interested in Jumpgate Evolution than I was before reading the interview. Seems like they need a Sam Cordier.

  12. Acosta says:

    I played Jumpgate in Birmingham, in a event, and I enjoyed the half an hour available with the beginning of the game. More than Wing Commander, I found it really close to Freelancer, which is a good thing in my book and fairly different to any other thing around, which in the actual scenario, I find it a great thing to be.

    Actually, the idea of taking something that work offline and bringing it to MMO space is not inherently bad in my opinion. I loved the online, history less, aspect of Freelancer and I thought it was a better in that semi-MMO state, so I consider this a game that works better online than offline.

  13. Froglegs says:

    I loved the original Jumpgate. had a great time with it.
    Graphics are ultra dated though.
    Can’t wait for the new one. just hope theres the option to have wicked graphs. don’t want my 8800gts 512 to laugh at me.
    but having clans that were a transport company then another clan of fighters to escort them was just wayyy awsome. 3 factions , well designed. I loved asteroid mining, upgrading my ships and ultimatly buying new ships.

  14. Rocktart says:

    I played a bit of Autoassault, and I’d definately agree that it was a half decent single player game stuck in a MMO body.

  15. malkav11 says:

    That was it, for sure. They seriously need to rerelease it (maybe on Steam) with all the content localized.

  16. Chaz says:

    Does anyone still play Jumpgate? That one seems to have passed me by. Which is a shame as it was the kind of game I was crying out for after playing Freelancer online.

  17. yxxxx says:

    I loved auto assault and still mourn its loss. It was very different to anything else out there and i fear it was partly that, that led to its demise. That and some poor decisions by net devil and play nc

  18. Jim Rossignol says:

    If I could have a game made for me, it would almost certainly be a vehicular combat MMO. Sadly Auto Assault wasn’t it.

  19. Dinger says:

    Car Wars done right would be a huge hit. Okay, not everyone wants to roll into a sleepy town as part of a biker gang, and raise chaos by shooting people, blowing things up and setting stuff on fire with a post-apocalyptic array of automatic weapons and explosives. Some people want to try to stop them.

    Personally, I’d like to relive my college years from the other side, in a mid-sized cop car with a brushcutter, some blades on the side, about six forward-firing MGs, ringed with an AP proximity defense system, a turret that mounts a GL (with CS, smoke and AP grenades), and a bullhorn that blasts “PLEASE DISPERSE” repeatedly as the car dives into the center of mass of an anti-government protest.

    And I’m sure some off-duty cop would just love to be one of the demonstrators with a RPG.

    See, auto combat can have something for everyone. Ideas are cheap. Implementation ain’t.

  20. Biggles says:

    Yeah, getting less and less interested in this. Tbh, I could do with just a good single player space game ala Privateer (screw freelancer and its levelling mechanisms, so much lost oportunity there) but if someone were able to pull off *massive* fleet battles with decent twitch combat (which made me feel like a ninja as dinger says), I would buy it in a flash.

  21. Binky says:

    I am seriously looking forward to this game. Netdevil certainly arent fools or noobs when it comes to making a game in the space MMO genre and their original game Jumpgate Classic is running still (www.jossh.com) and has just had its billing system updated to make things easier for the new blood flooding in while they wait for Jumpgate Evolution.

    As for the look of the new game;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWCVT77wX6Q
    This was shot at the Codemasters Connect08 event in Birmigham UK.

    Looks amazing, cant wait. Ive signed up for the Beta testing at their site and as far as I am concerned, Bring on the Beta I want to fly!

  22. Viper2c says:

    Don’t take every interview as the said-all, be-all of what is going to happen. As with every MMO, things change during gameplay, as does in development. People losing interest in this game because of this interview are knee-jerking.

    I would stay away from all interviews and just get into beta if possible, play it, play it hard, then tell people what you think.

    Even the most skeptical of veteran pilots from the original Jumgate, like Karash who joined EVE for the last few years, had a chance to talk to Scorch personally, and see the game for real in front of him. After seeing what was available even at this Alpha stage, he was overly impressed at not only how it looked, but how it was appealing. Instead of being more skeptical, he’s excited and can’t wait to play it, as am I.

    Oh yeah, I liked Auto Assault, but NC Soft did have a great deal of say so in how it was being developed, and ultimately in how it got shut down. They can’t release it on Steam, because NC Soft owns the storyline, the graphics, etc. NetDevil retained only the source code for the game, and if anyone wants to get together and make an Auto-combat-MMO, they are ready to talk.

    As for Jumpgate:Evolution…my joystick is waiting…

  23. Chili says:

    This title has a chance to fill a void in the gaming industry. I would like to see it accomplish three things.

    The first is to provide in depth combat and rewards system while keeping it accesible and fun, without any sacrifice to direct control over your ship.

    The second is to provide an open game world while keeping enough content and objective based gameplay to keep players interested.

    The third is to make sure they make something about the game truly stunning. If they try and cover too many area’s I think it is bound to fail.

    I believe they should concentrate on one aspect or the other and make that aspect brilliant, rather than trying to make all aspects just as good. e.g make pvp very exciting and rewarding, or make trading and missions really in depth and fun.

    This has potential to be good, but will it be?

    We won’t know till it’s released. :P

  24. Dim says:

    I have not played any other Netdevil Game.

    The feeling I got from the above interview is that Netdevil does not want to answer any questions directly. Leaving it vague gives no competitor any ideas on how the game is being made, content, or leverage on facets on game play. He’s being political. What I do gain is the sense that they are actually learning from their mistakes, as anyone who takes their job seriously would do.

    Unfortunately, prior to the interview I do not believe that Netdevil has given much thought to high level content. Which is unfortunate because it a lack of high level content that is killing many newer MMO’s like DDO. What they should do is design the game from its end to its beginning. This would give them a much better idea of how many hours a player would want to play before becoming bored and looking elsewhere to play.

    Also, in RL we always have PvP don’t we? but it’s because of rules and regulations that most people do not go around hurting each other on a daily basis. Would’nt it make sense to have a game world that is always PvP, but to let some players be the “police”. Or to have zones within your PvE server that are PvP which can be crossed into easily. These zones could have very rewarding quests or other incentives to be crossed in to.

  25. Kanakotka says:

    I’ve been a gamer/semi-active game developer/betatester for 12 years, and personally, the only thing that went wrong with AutoAssault was NCsoft screwing them over badly with their deadlines. I was one of the beta-testers of autoassault, it was nearing it’s release back then, and it feeled like early stages of beta. Of course, as we all know, it was released as buggy, unbalanced and all that. 2 things that went wrong in Auto Assault besides NCsoft forcing them to release too soon, were:

    1. The developerteam was lazy on coding CRITICAL patches to it. By CRITICAL you will know what i mean by looking at the bugs it had when it was released. The beta, except for some weird ”gold beta member” people, was only avaible for weekends, with the excuse of ”leaving more patching time for the developers”( 5 days a week of coding patches before new beta was the public message.). Which was found to be total bullshit upon reading the forums on this ”gold beta membership (aka 24/7 beta). Which was issued to pretty much ”anyone related to the development team, anyone licking enough ass, and anyone who didn’t complain enough of the bugs.” Of course, i cannot talk much of it, it would break the NDA agreement of a betatester, but that was basically it.

    2. The developer team didn’t listen one little bit on reported bugs, which were either reported by forum (a ”support” part of the forum, with description being ”report bugs here” ), from which they were quickly removed, or locked by developers/moderators, claiming the game’s reporting tool would have to be used for this. Which incidentally often didn’t work, at all. And had some sort of time limit of around 10 minutes between reporting 2 bugs. Yep.

    Well, the post turned out to be quite a rant, but… the beta itself was a bad failure, to be fair, Auto Assault, besides of it’s failures on being terribly imbalanced experience on all classes and races, it is a good game. If you do not mind the bugs and imbalances that still tease the gameplay experience, it’s a different, innovate and fun game. So long as you do pick the right class and race.

  26. Fraser says:

    I don’t know… he doesn’t seem to have a lot of enthusiasm for his own game.

  27. Thomas says:

    Does anyone know if there are Auto Assault free shards anywhere or if the server code is available somewhere?

    Speaking of errors that NetDevil made during Auto Assault’s development: I think the greatest error was to ignore comments made on the beta board. It was almost as if none of the devs ever read the complaints. Another bad thing was the decision to some day segregate the beta players based on their continent. I.e. all of a sudden they removed Europeans and Aussies from the beta and put them into a EU beta. Really great! That was the day I stopped playing the beta and giving feedback. And I know I wasn’t the only one.

  28. evildevil says:

    NetDevil games are made for profit. Profit from selling initial boxes. Then it’s a 6 month “online” life, after which it’s scraped and the “new” project is out there in the works.
    Long story short – don’t waste your cash on them