Auto Assault: Behind The Wheel 3: Former Lead Designer Hal Hanlin 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 Biomek actual himself, former Lead Content Designer Hal “maRaider” Hanlin, who shaped the Biomek history, their draconian Doctrine and the biomechanical concept:


Behind The Wheel: Former Lead Designer Hal Hanlin Interview
Questions by Max “Sigoya” Taha

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

maRaider: I was told about the company and project by two friends from my previous job who were joining NetDevil. When I met with the owners and learned about the details of Auto Assault, I was hooked. I was sick to death of fantasy already (this was before the mighty WoW, imagine where I am now) and really wanted some gritty subject matter to chew on. Biomeks suited my mindset: Do what must be done. Do it well. Do not let anything get in your way. The Order uses slightly more draconian methods than I do, but we understand one another.

WarCry: What was the inspiration for the colors, design, vehicles and the lore of the Biomek faction? How the name did came up?


maRaider: Last part first: The name “Biomek Order” was established long before I joined the team and the name stuck. I looked into history books and started finding the toughest figures in recent history to tie the Biomek legacy to. I had met a former Marine Raider (America’s first bona fide special forces units) and after reading their true-life war stories, realized that these guys were TOUGH. I linked them with the Order fictionally by making Alexander Billings a descendant of one of these men.

As to the look, Biomeks are the most practical of the races. We had already long since realized that glitz and glamor were not consistent with the Biomek psyche, so we had to wade through many concept iterations on almost every aspect of the Order to find a balance between functionality to suit the fiction and beauty to suit the… well… the suits. The first concept drawing of Col. Jack “Dutch” Dunlap was… not good. He had dark, wavy hair and a face that could only have been modeled after a certain Scientology-obsessed actor. I popped a tube and actually coined one of my favorite cuss phrases that night. Fortunately, Ryan “[/b]SamPenguin[b]” Seabury knew me well enough to filter out the bombast and extract the kernel of my concern. He relayed it to corporate and we finally agreed on the version of Dutch we know now. I wanted a flat-top, but, well, anything was better than the glamor-boy version.

Everything else needed to look run-down and patched together. Fictionally (and I will try to avoid spoiling, here), the Order has been in decline. A significant portion of the Biomek fighting force was destroyed during the battler of Western Front and the Order never recovered. Every aspect of the Order needed to look like that: patched, functional and as efficient as Bio-mechanically possible.

WarCry: As a Faction Lead Designer what were your duties and what aspects of the creative development did you direct? How involved were you in designing the cities and the areas surrounding them in the Biomek Protectorate?


maRaider: The owners of NetDevil gave us some rigid guidelines within which to work. Within those guidelines, however, they turned us loose. They specifically wanted three completely distinct play experiences and were willing to ride herd on three zealous, creative and possibly slightly insane Leads in order to reach that goal.

As to specific duties, I spent a LOT of my workday collaborating with the other leads to make certain that our stories and areas meshed. Once we had haggled the history to our mutual satisfaction I’d write the design documentation for the next zone. This was where I got to run in whatever direction the fiction and I took each other. In Malachite, for instance, I knew that I wanted a massive strip mine to underscore how pressed for resources the Order is. They’ve tapped every source. I also knew that we wanted a lot more color in the landscape if possible. Copper ore, vibrant blue and green, seemed the perfect ticket, so I started searching for real strip mines. The real mine inspired a map shape for which I wrote spawn-plans, AI requests, feature requests, etc. to populate. That doc went to a Map Designer… Brian “Meatsickle” Kidd did that one, I think… who was responsible for bringing it to a visual bar. We then tag-teamed development of the visuals, triggering, spawning, iterative testing, and so forth…

Once the map was built I wrote the mission sequence and worked with Chris “Sludge Riprock” Floyd to flesh them out. I wrote a chunk of them, but by the end Chris had it in-hand and was taking the fiction in directions I thought were fantastic, so I let him go nuts.

At night, I’d do the schedule iteration for my team to make sure that we were on-track for our milestones, and wrote whatever missions I’d slated for myself.

Man, I have a headache remembering that last few months…

WarCry: We know the three main factions were developed by independent Lead Designers including yourself; how did the concept of Ground Zero came about and what was your part in its development?

maRaider: To be candid, I can take almost no credit for Ground Zero. That area was Dan Russett’s brain-baby. Adam {Maxwell} and Chris {Holtorf) had collaboratively conceived of a zone where you gain status and power for your faction by controlling the Outposts. The sum of my contribution was saying things like “Wow, nice map, Dan,” and “Which entry points are mine? Oh, cool, thanks.”

Yeah… that pretty much summed it up.

It was actually a great idea to have an objective pair of hands guiding the creation of that map… I cannot swear that Biomeks would not have had just a teensy benefit somehow if I’d been at the helm. I like to think not, but.. well…

WarCry: Tell us about the TemperNet: how did they acquire the avionic technology and what was SkyNet’s purpose in Scrap Valley? Is INC connected with the TemperNet, and why are they the only factions able to fly?


maRaider: As to why Biomeks do not fly, we do not have the technology. We are ground-pounders. It was our primary function. When the Betrayal came, we were abandoned. We had to know how to use Nanites to repair ourselves – basic training for all Biomechanized Raiders – but jet-powered aerodynamics? Not our style. Still, The Order knows and has always dreaded the reality that Humans or Mutants might establish air superiority. That was one of the reasons that Billings ordered his attack column to move through Tocado on the way to the Ark: Gerzy had given him detailed evidence that the greenbacks were in prototype testing of an aerial unit.

Not sure why the Pinkies didn’t get an air force up. I suspect that the air corps had been housed in one of the Arks that failed. You’d have to ask Chris, though.

So, yes, TemperNet is preparing to control the sky. They are not very sophisticated about it, though. They see what INC can do, and have access to military schematics which enable them to build some pretty dandy aircraft, but they have very little intel on how to make use of that power… Like so many inept world powers, they are using a profoundly powerful military power the way a baby waves a banana. If Radian ever gets its act together, the Order may not see the end of the battle.

WarCry: There is a misconception about the Biomeks being soulless “borg” machines. Can you shed some light on the nature of Biomeks? Are they enhanced Human beings with emotions and feelings? Can Biomeks reproduce and/or procreate?

maRaider: Meks do not have feelings in the same way you or I do, but they are not emotionless, either. They operate at a different level. Imagine having a second brain, a computerized one, which could do all of the myriad calculations that occupy our common meaty brains all the time. It would handle things like when to swerve to avoid the idiot who’s apparently driving with his knees. Well, now you’d have a lot more time to think about how pissed off you are that the Humans dropped you and your kind in the middle of a squalid, burned-out husk of a planet. You’d be able to easily remember how bad it hurt when that Mutie shot your eye out. Oh yes… plenty of time to consider all of the ways you will rain agony on your enemies…

Besides, drone-like creatures are a bore to talk to over several hundred missions and not many RP players would want to carry on that way for long.

Biomeks generally opt to reproduce asexually because it lets them fight more. Female Meks do not want to be out of action long enough to bear a child. There is a strong taboo against genetic manipulation. It’s a strange fixation, but eugenics is the province of the Betrayers. We prefer survival of the fittest.

WarCry: Following the Biomek storyline, it feels like there was more to it. Tell us about the interlocking stories of General Dunlap, Spike, Jasmine Jade, Billings & Gerzy. Were we supposed to enter Fort Billings?


maRaider: The plan was that you would enter Fort Billings to discover that it had been, in fact, captured by the TemperNet. The expansion was going to include capturing an intact Radian chassis and rampaging through the TemperNet-infected city. Then you’d run a series of quests to rebuild it. After that, you’d be able to use Fort Billings as a jumping-off point to learn about the real threat to the Order: the Evomeks.

I wrote many pages of back-story-notes in preparation for writing the quests that would shape the main story-lines. Here’s the top-down:

~30 years ago, Gerzy set up fraudulent information that convinced Billings that the Mutants had begun implementing an air-corps. There were anecdotal accounts of a new Tribe known as the Tribe of the Condor. It was a complete sham. Billings might have seen through the fraud if he had not been distracted by a transmission from a nearby Ark. At the time, he believed that he had failed to report to his billet with his units, resulting in their being stranded. He’d fought the Mutants for two centuries certain that someday he’d have to face courts martial.

He reported to the location of the signal and was apprehended. Not because he was, as he supposed, guilty of failing his orders, but because he was a fascinating abomination in the young, genetically perfect eyes that viewed this 246 year old man-machine. They wanted to know what had kept him alive! He was obviously not human, so he was chattel… and they took him apart. Enduring the agony of living vivisection, Billings reprogrammed the Nanites to stop all motor and neurological functions for a period, emulating death. He then re-activated, patched himself partially together and fought his way to the control center.

The Hestia Corporation had not thought to change its security protocols in the intervening years since they entered the Ark. Why should they? What did they have to fear? Enraged by betrayal and pain, Billings accessed the containment protocols for the fusion core and set it to melt down on his signal. He escaped with the unlikely help of a Mutant named Squentin. As they reached a safe distance, he activated the meltdown, rendering the site sterile. He never got over the guilt of slaughtering tens of thousands. It pushed him a little over the edge.

He returned to Fort Billings and renamed the Biomechanized Raiders the Biomek Order. He revealed to his people the Betrayal and began to mobilize for a strike against the Betrayers’ main Ark. Gerzy seized the moment to direct Billings’ Wrath against the Mutants first, “to avoid a two front war.” As many readers have learned, Billings and his forces never reached the Ark.

Dunlap and Jade learned of Gerzy’s hand in the debacle. Gerzy had assumed power and the fragments of their forces could not win a civil war… so they feigned ignorance… and waited.

WarCry: Anyone who played as a Biomek considers New Tocado the most twisted and memorable area in the game. What was the inspiration behind the Biomutes and their pendulous swings between pleasure and pain? Who is Lujuri based upon?


maRaider: Lujuri is… oh, my… what twisted part of my psyche walked down that road? I wanted her to be a creature of extreme sensualism, yet not slide into BDSM. New Tocado is not a place of Chips, Dips, Chains and Whips. It’s a really f’d up recovery clinic for a group of people who have been *massively* exploited by an uncaring force. It is a refuge for a people who cannot go home; no Mutant would accept them ever again. So it’s a story of hope, really… <tongue firmly in cheek>

It started with Nanites. The other Leads and I had had long conversations about the differences between Goo-nanites and carbon nanites. We went way overboard, maybe, but I was convinced that there was no way these two things could exist together. I then decided that, since Biomeks try to mechanize everything else, they would certainly have tried to wire up a Mutie. They would go berserk, of course. Well, I like berserkers, but they are one-dimensional. So something needed to bring them back into lucidity…

I have discovered a lot of sick compost in my subconscious. I am morbidly fascinated by people who torture themselves. I like strong, sexy, dangerous female characters (don’t judge me, I know you all liked Xena and Trinity in the first Matrix, too). I have been a fan of Stephen King and Clive Barker for decades. So, if you add the need for a unique culture into that mix… well: Biomutes.

Oh, and Lujuri… She’s a creature of innocent malevolence. She would rip you apart slowly while whispering gently in your ear. She views those who bring her pleasure or pain as soul mates, yet is not a sex partner for anyone. She evokes strong sensual images in every sentence, but is also eternally virginal in a way… Yeah, I actually think of her that way.

WarCry: The Canal is a contaminated swamp area in Moat where half the map is locked out. Was this area connected to Lujuri and the Biomute mission line?


maRaider: It would have been in the expansion. The idea was originally to have one corner of this be Lujuri’s dungeon away from home, but that started to feel too much like Dunlap’s island, so I nixed that. Eventually, this was going to become a passage into the guts of a crashed pod.

WarCry: The Biomeks are designed to be most efficient in convoys, especially for PvP purposes; did you influence this direction when the Biomek skills where put in place? If so, did you worry about this affecting the solo aspect of the game?

maRaider: With a project of this complexity, we had a dedicated designer, Brian “Storm” Booker, who designed this. We had meetings with him, but I’m not going to take credit for his work. Systems were really his show.

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

maRaider: The Day One plan was to make a twisted version of the continental US. That stopped being the case in 2004 some time, I think. It became more important to have the maps flow and be contiguous to themselves than to force the conceit of real-world on the players. In other cases, reworking the maps resulted in some dramatic shifts. Winston, for instance rotated 90 decrees and moved substantially farther east… had we been a slave to the map, we might have had to cut it or completely rebuild it.

WarCry: The map in Scrap Valley & Moat show several gates to unnamed areas. Which storylines were left out of the final release and why?

maRaider: Some of the gates never went anywhere; they were stubs for expansion content. The one south of Winston, for instance, was one of four on that canyon wall at one time. I have touched on some of the storylines above. Scrap Valley was going to be the hub of departure for expansions so new players could see the hotness that advanced players get to use.

WarCry: Can you tell us the story behind Raider & Ma-Mary? Did you intend it to be an Easter-egg of sorts?


maRaider: One of the other designers, Dennis “EvilToast” Dryden, commented that I was the King of Self Reference or something like that. I think he meant Raider among other things. (My player name is maRaider.) As to the story; at the time I wrote those missions, it was 4:30am on my third or sixth or something week of crunch and I got a little giddy.

As to the Easter egg, that’s exactly what it began as. It started with the desire to do a Noober. There was a character in a game I loved named Noober, who would follow you around and bother you every 5 seconds, interrupting you and forcing you into a conversation menu. If you managed to not kill him out of frustration, you got a really cool reward after about five minutes of this.

The Raider and Ma-Mary missions were written and implemented before we had NEXT MISSION guides and pips on the mini-map for NPCs. Smash his house, then bully him for money. Later, realize that he’s just a poor, stupid sap who is trying to keep his sh*t together, so you help him out. Eventually it pays off.

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?

maRaider: I would move the secretive missions for Dunlap into Cinderfall and let the player spend a lot more time learning the core story. That’s what I would have made clearer

Also, I would have probably cut the Scav side stories entirely and refocused the work on some deeper exploration of the Evomeks. They are, you would learn at the end of the expansion, pulling Gerzy’s strings with promises of complete mental transference into a mechanical body.

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?

maRaider: It makes me sad that it was stillborn. For the first few months after I left NetDevil, I found myself apologizing for it. That’s wrong. It broke new ground. While it may be a footnote, I think that we blazed some very solid trails, enabling (hopefully) someone else to do better. I still love the game. I still ache for my beautiful Lujuri. I still get outraged when someone baits me with Mutant propaganda… Ah, well. Such good scar tissue.

Auto Assault should have been made for a 40,000 peak target audience, with a budget to match. There’s profit in that model, if you have the stones to pursue it, but everyone wants to swing for the fences. I think that if the people at the very top of the funding ladder had not tried to force it to be something it was not, we might have made a cult classic with massive expansion and sequel appeal.

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

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