The mindless fun of blowing stuff up in Auto Assault
Also published by NCsoft around the same time, Auto Assault had an even shorter life. It was shut down in August of 2007, after only 16 months. Developed by NetDevil, it took place in a post-apocalyptic setting, reflecting one of its main influences, the Mad Max films. Even more than them, the game focused on vehicular action. As a player, you could choose from three races, human, mutant and biomek, as well as various classes. However, when you were out in the world (i.e. a substantial majority of the time), you were represented by your car, truck, semi or motorcycle rather than by your bipedal avatar.
In a column last year, I named accessible vehicular combat as a non-fantasy MMOG concept possessing unfulfilled potential. I've never been able to put my finger on why Auto Assault fell so far short in this regard. Over the years, I've seen quite a few releases last considerably longer despite being, in my mind anyway, less well designed and/or made. This isn't to say that I thought NetDevil's project was without faults. As just one example, I felt that the entire world was too similar, even after taking into account the post-apocalyptic setting.
That said, I played quite a few hours of Auto Assault when I had no work-related reason to do so, both during beta and after it went live. For the better part of two years, it was my MMOG of choice when I was in the mood for the kind of visceral, unthinking enjoyment that comes from pretty mindlessly blowing stuff up. Most often, this was for an hour or two late at night when my mind wanted to call it a day but my body wasn't yet ready to sleep.
The game's scant popularity meant sparse server populations, so on most nights, there weren't many players to group with. As a result, remember Auto Assault as a primarily solo experience, one in which I'd regularly spend an hour or two happily shooting up both NPC opponents and the game's destructible environments. Sadly, in the years since the title was shut down, I've yet to find another MMOG that fully filled this part of my play preference spectrum.
The unconventional combat system in Tabula Rasa
Coincidentally, a third short-lived entry on this list also came to us from NCsoft around the same time. Developed in-house under the leadership of industry icon Richard Garriott, it went live in late 2007 and was closed down a few days before it would have reached the 16-month mark. A science fiction MMORPG, it pitted humanity in a possible last stand against an invading alien force called The Bane. The action was ground-based. It took place on two distant planets, Arieki and Foreas.
As you may have gathered, I tend to find game elements memorable when they reflect design thinking that is at least a little outside the box. Consequently, Tabula Rasa caught my interest as soon as the first information about it came out. An unknown amount was changed during a revamp of the original design that included chopping some form of system influenced by oriental mysticism. Nonetheless, the revised title continued to hold some promise of not being conventional in every aspect.
At release, Tabula Rasa incorporated an unusual pictographic language element. Dubbed Logos, it involved finding a range of symbols that were added to a player's personal tablet, his or her blank slate. This would allow the use of diverse abilities and powers. The scheme wasn't exactly like magic within a fantasy theme, but neither was such a comparison completely unwarranted.
More memorable for me was the team's choice to employ a combat system that, although not wildly discrepant, was willing to stray away from the middle of the road. It was third-person shooter-like but not twitch-based since it still used hidden dice rolls. Targeting was usually sticky, but not for all weapon types. The enemy AI was supposed to be tuned to take advantage of the terrain, mainly for cover, encouraging players to think tactically. Overall, I wouldn't say the result was meaningfully better or worse. It was, however, different enough to continue to stick in my mind several years later.
The absence of NPCs in Underlight
A tip of the grognard cap to anyone who played Underlight, especially back when it launched. Despite the nature of this site, I suspect a good number of readers are unaware of this MMORPG even though it was in service for longer than the other four combined. The Lyra Studios title entered service before the turn of the century, in 1998. It lasted until the end of 2006. Since then, it has changed hands at least three times. The last I know, it's still operating under the name Underlight: Clash of Dreams.
Frankly, I doubt I spent 30 hours playing this game. It simply wasn't my personal cup of tea. That said, it obviously had very strong appeal for a small core audience. I believe its creators knew it would be a niche offering. Even back in the day, it was impossible to envision an MMOG gaining much popularity without NPCs and with a very unusual advancement scheme based on role-playing and generally interacting with other players.
That said, I still remember Underlight over a decade and a half later because its unconventional elements piqued my professional interest in a way few other titles have. Above all, I was intrigued over how an MMOG could have few or no NPCs. I still don't see how one could attract more than a very narrow niche following. However, I don't regard myself as particularly creative, so I remain curious as to what designers who are much more imaginative might come up with.