Auto Assault: Behind The Wheel 2: Former Lead Designer Chris Holtorf Interview

We continue this week our look into Auto Assault’s development days and go deep into the blue neon faction! We talk to the alpha-Human himself, former Lead Content Designer Chris “Homie” Holtorf, also known as Ombwah, who molded the treacherous Human faction with all it’s shiny colors, idols and nukes!

Behind The Wheel: Former Lead Designer Chris Holtorf Interview
Questions by Max “Sigoya” Taha


WarCry: More than a year passed on Auto Assault, and it is still a unique game in the MMO playground. Can you tell us how you got involved in this project and what lured you to join the AA team?

Ombwah: Hey, no fair – more than one question there. =) Anyway, I guess it goes like this. My father, knowing I was into games, referred me to an MMO he had heard of from a friend of his at work. Turns out this guy had recently been working at NetDevil finishing up Jumpgate. I gave it a run, told Snipe (Adam Maxwell, Mutant Lead) about it, and the two of us got hooked pretty quickly. We soon had a lot of ideas for Jumpgate content, and talked about it often. See, we were of the opinion that the company handling content for ND at the time wasn’t doing a great job. We wanted to do better things, so we put together a proposal for NetDevil that we do some content work for them, maybe starting with Jumpgate. So, imagine our surprise when ND got back to us, not to work on Jumpgate, nor on contract — but to hire us on a new project. This new project was, of course, Auto Assault. It was an easy choice.

WarCry: What was the inspiration for the colors, design, vehicles and the story of the Human faction?

Ombwah: Again with the 4+ nested question bonus! Well, as for the blue-neon color scheme, that came with the package. The concepts for the Humans had them when I arrived. The story bits I had to work with were basically:

Humans wear blue neon-like tubes and environment suits; Humans lived in a vault until now; Humans blew up the world; Humans adore a heroine named ‘Jen Kierce’ (also AA’s poster girl for a while); oh yeah, and Humans’ ‘pure Human genetics’ gives them ‘psychic powers’. To be honest I played the last one there down a bit. My opinion was that any Human that displayed truly extraordinary powers would be killed or taken apart by science. I mean, after all – strange powers were a sign of the mutations the Humans were fleeing in the first place. So, when I had to skirt the issue, I played like Humans were so clone-perfect that they had perfected the human form, and all Ark-born citizens were at the peak of their abilities, hearing and eyesight, or something like that.


But first things first, I wanted very much to distance the Humans of our time from the human beings that made up the government responsible for nuking the planet. I invented the Hestia Corporation, decided that they had been a private holding company and that they governed the Ark. I thought that the player could be working for them, Hestia is the Greek goddess of the hearth and of the family – I chose that name after a lot of deliberation. Only I really didn’t think I could tell the kind of story I wanted to if I was putting the player in a position to get fired from ‘The Corporation’ – It’d take the spice out of any ‘shady deals’ that might crop up out in the wasteland. The solution was the Freelancer Protocol, the company got their ‘tribe’ analogs – The LOA, the FLC, the HARP, and they would train you. Otherwise, though, you’d get to be a free agent. That brings me to my last initial inspiration, I think totalitarian regimes are bad news, but I wanted the player to come to that conclusion themselves. I wanted to throw a lot of doubt in to the equation over time, through stories about the Scavs (who, are more or less human beings), and the Zendig (also, just human beings – that grew up out there instead of in a purified environment).

Finally, the leads of each faction came together in an effort to ‘build in’ an enmity between the races in Auto Assault; there was a very deliberate movement to train a player with the Lore to dislike the other two races on principle. We called it ‘building in the hate’.

I hoped that a Freelancer would end the level arc feeling like a wasteland cowboy, needing the Company outposts, but doubting Company principle.

WarCry: As a Faction Lead Designer what were your duties and what aspects of the creative development did you direct? Did you supervise the look & aesthetics of your faction?

Ombwah: The primary characteristics of the Human ‘blue neon and chrome’ were decided long before I showed up at ND, I did get to describe many of the locations and features that got built, but the car design and Human model choices weren’t really my decision.

WarCry: We know the three main factions were developed by independent Lead Designers including yourself; Who designed the enemy factions and their placement in between the three main territories & storylines?

Ombwah: The enemy factions were a very collaborative piece of content. When any of the Leads were writing up a new Region, we’d choose ideas from a big bank of faction ideas we had written up in the beginning, adding new ideas to the list when we had them. Then the enemy factions would be sort of fleshed out in relationship to the storylines that incorporated them. The Pikes, Tempernet and The Corps were three original enemy groups that existed when we started on the project, but the Lore for each was written out as the Biomek. Mutant and Human lore took shape, and their respective places in the world became clear.

WarCry: The lore reflects a very mature concept of the Human treachery and betrayal towards the Mutants & Biomeks alike. How hard was it to put together a faction that views itself as morally infallible facing the failed Final Solution and survival of their enemies?


Ombwah: Well, I really tried hard to get the player to feel justified in their own actions, but I had no intention of writing a genocidal race. I thought a lot about this until I hit on the idea (maybe it was Snipe, we did a lot of brainstorming together) that Hestia had staged a ‘natural coup’ when the bombs fell. It was simple really, at that point the government was an authority in name only and Hestia controlled the air, the water, the horizontal, the vertical. I didn’t want the player to automatically be a ‘bad guy’. It genuinely isn’t any Freelancer’s fault that the bombs fell, and the gang that made the fateful decision hasn’t been in power in generations. I worked very hard with the other leads on the issue of the other races as well, it was imperative to me that I created a justifiable disdain for the other races in Auto Assault, and not cast the Humans as stormtroopers of the pure gene. This is where the idea that mutations could come upon someone as a disease, and hence might be spread came from. Mutants weren’t just the enemy because they were green, Mutants are the result of a ‘disease’ of myriad misunderstood vectors, and this disease kills a large percentage of those that suffer through it. The Biomeks were somewhat easier, as their very doctrine included destroying the ‘Betrayers’, but as I pointed out earlier, that governance is long passed. The first Hestia explorers to encounter Biomek’s didn’t even know what they were, as any thought of them in the histories described them as destroyed when the bombs fell. So, it was involved, I hesitate to say hard though — I enjoyed it a great deal.

WarCry: Reading the lore, we notice many obscure and gray time patches. What happened to the US government in following the Apocalypse? And how did the rest of the world cope with the disaster?

Ombwah: It is my impression that the rest of the world is likely just as fubar as the locations present in the game. This is to say that there are areas more affected and areas less so, but anywhere you’d go, I think you’d see people do what they always do, they get on with it. The US Government, as I explained earlier, ceased to play an active part in history shortly after the retreat into the Arks.


WarCry: Tell us more about the Hestia Corporation: its name, purpose, and the mythological references. How many Arks were built by Hestia, and what happened at Duenna?

Ombwah: Well, Hestia is the Greek goddess of the Hearth; when someone ‘kept the home fires burning’ the fire was at Hestia’s altar. This had significance for me in that the Company kept the Humans all alive through the destruction of the Earth. She is also goddess of Family, and the Humans had come to believe that they were among a much smaller world community than they had been before; hence family was also an appropriate theme. I carried the theme through in small ways wherever I could, with the most obvious example being the majority of the vehicles that I was allowed to name. I even tried to make the names fit the vehicle to some extent, matching qualities in the vehicles to the icons from the myths. I wanted to cast the Hestia company in the light of a scientific community as well, and felt that the ancient Greek theme fit that as well.

Hestia built at least 5 Arks – Ark 1 was the showcase and the largest. There were at least 4 built at different scale and with changes to the model based on the necessity and intended function of the installation. Duenna was one of these. While the records aren’t entirely clear, the first steps in Duenna’s fall were undoubtedly neglect and poor maintenance. At one time, Duenna had long stretches of underground, miles of conduit reaching beneath the plains. These fell into disrepair and the contamination that permeated the region eventually seeped in through the shoddy seals. Poor breeding rates and bad resource management had already driven Duenna’s population far below levels that their computer models showed sustainable. When the poorly funded maintenance crews discovered what was happening, they didn’t even know how to deal with the mess that they found. Eventually they gave up and sealed the lower tunnels. Later, the workers that had sealed the breaches and attempting to contain the contamination all fell to the same illnesses and the panic began. The beleaguered population was already falling rapidly apart, and this new specter pushed things to a breaking point. People retreated into their wards, controlling access to family areas very closely. A witch hunt atmosphere hung heavy in Duenna’s halls. One of the first outbreaks was in a deep residential ward. Almost a hundred Duennans were sealed in and left to die, the power and life support shut down. No official order had been made to do it, but it was made to happen by those that understood how to do it. Shortly thereafter, those that knew how to do things like run the power, the water, and the farms became insular, guarding the secrets of their systems and holding this power over others, rationing wards and families. Clear classes emerged in the small society, some families began pledging their children to the power guild or the hydrofarms, just to earn extra food or power. This was the state that Hestia found Duenna in. The Ark 1 group quickly offered ‘aid’ are attempting to use their superior technology to recreate Duenna in a new light, and try not to talk about her past.


WarCry: Who and what inspired the names and stories of the Human characters, like the idol Jen Kierce, the happy fool Whiplash Todd and the delusional Clyde Juneau?

Ombwah: Well, I can’t speak to Jen ‘Vinediction’ Kierce – that girl was named by SamPenguin (Ryan Seabury, Design Director), I think. At any rate, she existed when I arrived. I did plan to tell her story in Ground Zero. In fact, I had the arc planned up already – the player meets her and a film crew out in the wasteland, and learns that she is the fifth Jen Kierce so far, that Jen was an actress for the Hestia Entertainment Agenda Department (Propaganda wing). But I digress =)

Whiplash Todd was so named because I wanted him to be a little shaken in the head – he ended up a lot shaken in the head I guess, but still — a little piece of the crypt that is INC, isn’t he?

Clyde Juneau, hmm his entire arc was inspired by the little novella that came with a game from my childhood called “In Search of the Most Amazing Thing”. His name does not derive from that tale, nor the game it accompanied but his contact Uncle Smoke’s is. Clyde’s name is derived from ‘Right Turn Klyde’ because he seems a bit led astray, and Juneau, Alaska – because he’s in fact far, far astray.

I choose names based on many inspirations though, the Humans were often named after states and cities – names from a dim memory of spoken tales. Some names are private jokes, some family and friends, some references to bands or songs. Incidentally, mission titles were often puns and music or movie references too.


WarCry: Tell us about INC’s relationship with Hestia Corp. Plus, how did INC manage to build Stalwart and for what purposes?

Ombwah: Well, the Hestia Company maintains a contract with the business arm of INC via a secure datalink. Hestia announced contact and negotiations with INC very early on in the Emergence program, and the first Humans to explore the surface report making their planned rendezvous with INC carrier craft. AS far as anyone can tell the deal is a simple mutual-benefit situation, Hestia lends protective services and clink for the services that Freelancers enjoy. Strangely enough, Freelancers seem to report very little of their dealings with INC, at best reporting their wildest or strangest pickups over a bar somewhere.

Stalwart is a mystery. Sure are a lot of carrier planes up there, and man, does the radio go to sh*t when you drive near that thing. The guys from Hestia’s LOA saw it first, and boy – stunning. There is undoubtedly someone somewhere deep in Ark 1 that has an idea what’s up over at INC. But I don’t know ’em.

WarCry: Did you model the Human locations on real world areas? If so, can you draw us an approximation of the game zones and their corresponding location on the map?

Ombwah: Well, not exactly. There was a map, and we did sort of line up a few geographical points on the map, but my highway areas were more or less built to fit their themes. No, Hydro isn’t Hoover Dam, sorry guys. The Choppin’ Maul is kind of the Mall of America, inspired by, sorta.

WarCry: Who came up with the Army of Justice faction and Unity drug concept? How do you weigh their involvement with the main factions? Do they pose more danger than the Xenos?


Ombwah: Justice came out of a discussion that Snipe and I were having over a burger one day at lunch. I had been thinking about an enemy that would work for all of the factions, and wanted a faction that would feel like it just might be able to bring an order of sorts to the wastes, to bring all of the peoples together and become the new rule. Snipe was having similar feelings, and I think it was he that named them Justice, after their leader. I created the Unity concept to work into some Human missions, and together Snipey and I thought out the way that Justice and his army worked.

WarCry: Tell us about the Zendigs, their philosophy and attitude towards the world. And why are they preferred by the Humans more than others?

Ombwah: The history of the Zendigs, was actually inspired by, and based in part on, the history of the Rastafarians. We mixed some Native American-ish lore into them as well for a sort of Wasteland Creole. The story behind their name is an in-joke between Snipe and I. But it’s a “Real World” reference too.

The Zendigs were always meant to be ‘in touch’ with things in a way. They were a trader group, their culture a product of an escape from slavery (under the Pikes, who knew?). They are a faction I was very proud of, Snipehunter and I worked very hard to create their history and their theme. We wanted for a long time to sell specific Zendig Dyes (paints) and special Tricks or Trims that you could only get there from the Zendig craftsmen. That never panned out, but we did get burgers in as buffs. That was sweet.

As to them being preferred by Humans? I don’t know, maybe it was just coincidental – but I liked them and so used them often. I also wanted them to be available for the players to stop by and stock up on burgers and special toys only available from the Zendigs, so there you’ve got it. There was actually a Zendig town cut from Choppin Maul, instead I “integrated” the factions at Fasthold, and built a shantytown outside the shield wall.

WarCry: How much effort was put into developing the mission lines? Was the amount of missions preset for each faction?

Ombwah: Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t =). Actually, we all spent a great deal of time planning how our mission arcs went. Where each mission was picked up and where it would drop you – the stories were told with location and reward all in mind… mostly. There was a time when all three factions were made to have the exact same number of missions, but, for various reasons that needed to change later. So, I think the answer is “a lot of effort”, I often felt as though I had written more than a novel’s worth of fiction by myself — but there have been a lot of hands on our canon since it was left behind.

WarCry: If you had the chance to go back and do it again, what one element of the story would you like to remove, and which one would you made clearer?

Ombwah: I think the E.I.L.M. were poorly developed, high school kids gone bad? I wrote them as a favor and I guess my heart wasn’t in it. The LAW looked cool, and gave us a great excuse to have flashing lights on the cars, but could have had more development in their storylines too. I’d have replaced them with more Justice stories. Justice was sadly underdeveloped in game for the amount of Lore that the Leads thought out.

As far as what to clarify? I honestly wish I’d been able to tell the Jen Kierce: Wasteland Spokesmodel story. I wanted the player to do a series of stunts and kills for the cameras, all as missions for Jen Kierce. I wanted the players to learn that she was an actress (and more importantly, a fictional character) that the Company used to entice the Ark-bred to go Freelancer and fight the good fight. Oh well.


WarCry: Looking back at all the sweat and blood put into this unique project, how do you feel about it now? Would you do it all over again? Any recommendations for a better Auto Assault?

Ombwah: I would definitely do it again. Working on Auto Assault was an awesome experience; I wish I could have done more. There is really no greater reward than seeing that it’s still on and still being loved by the players.

I put a lot of heart into AA, I’d like to see it do well, or at least continue to fill its niche, as AA’s sibling Jumpgate has done for so long. The only recommendation I would have is to make to the guys on AA now is to talk to their community, get involved – it can only make the game better.

WarCry: Thanks for giving us the opportunity to talk and answer Auto Assault fans’ questions.

Following this second part of Behind The Wheel retrospect, we’ll conclude this Friday with former Lead Designer Hal “maRaider” Hanlin and deep probe the Biomek faction! Stay tuned.

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