TPG was thrilled to have, Carlos Montero, project lead on the high anticipated PC mod, Black Mesa, to speak about his development experiences. Push through the curtain as Carlos discusses struggles in trying to keep the team together, thoughts on the modding community, how an Alienware PC lead to financial stability and many other topics.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Black Mesa.
Like everyone on the team I joined when I was just a student. The project was already a underway for a year, but while there were many assets there wasn’t much of a game to show for it. I started organizing things and pushing to get the game’s weapons and npc’s functioning, and in the process somehow got elected to be the project leader!
Throughout the project my role was changing all of the time. I liked to fill gaps in our team or our process as much as possible, so I ended up modeling characters and props, doing complex rigging/scripting/animation tasks, designing our UI, working on FX, working on levels, gameplay and lighting directly, lots and lots of art critique, all sorts of stuff.
How did you get started in the modding community?
I got started with Duke Nukem 3D and the BUILD engine when I was in 7th grade. I remember mowing tons of lawns just to get money to buy level design books, and then sharing levels I made with my friends via floppy disks! After that it was Quake 2, where I worked on my first actual mod team (Quake 2 Freeze Tag), then eventually Half-Life, and so on. I just never stopped I guess, haha.
How did you decide on creating Black Mesa?
Black Mesa wasn’t created by the decision of one person, it was born out of the community. I think the dream everyone had for Half-Life Source after experiencing Half-life 2 was the only spark that was needed. The community started working on a Half-Life HD via different forums, and it eventually grew into what Black Mesa is today.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Black Mesa?
Majority of our successes were directly tied to our failures, haha. That is to say our biggest successes were the result of pushing ourselves to try and fail over and over again until we got something very right. Our character system, our weapons, our UI, our level design flow and combat scenarios….all good examples of this. It all took a lot of iteration, and during that iteration we always learned a ton of stuff that we wished we had known from the beginning.
In its current form, how close is Black Mesa to your initial vision?
I would say that Black Mesa has gone well beyond whatever initial vision I had, for sure! I think we accomplished some amazing things that I never even thought possible. Some of the systems and visual aspects of the game were pushed farther than I or anyone else ever imagined, and I think that’s truly a testament to the people on the team that invested so much into those aspects of the game.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Black Mesa and if you faced a similar challenge.
Difficulty level was definitely a huge challenge. Even more so when your project is highly anticipated but you don’t have the money, time or facilities to get lots of player feedback without risking leaks. We definitely got feedback from lots of friends and family, but that can be very biased and we knew that going in.
I think the biggest problem-factor actually was in finding the right balance between the difficulty of the original and the relatively high forgiveness level you find in many modern games. We focused a lot first on removing or fixing things that made things confusing, before we would focus on tweaking balance. If someone thought a particular battle was difficult, we focused a lot on why was this battle difficult? Is there something we can do to the AI to make it read better, or the weapons or UI to help them communicate more clearly to the player what is going on?
We wanted to give the player every chance to overcome a difficult situation, and focus on removing confusion and frustration from the mechanics and situations themselves before we literally went in and made bullets do less damage. That was always a last resort.
That being said I think despite a lot of the feedback we’ve gotten about things being too difficult, most players would be surprised by how well they might do on a second playthrough. In my experience many players don’t initially make full use of the tools in their arsenal or their surroundings, and often after struggling through a first playthrough where they were focused on doing something a certain way, they can breeze through on a second playthrough with a different approach. I really hoped that players would figure this out and find some long-term replayability factor in that.
Even though you were using a very well known engine for Black Mesa, did you encounter any unforeseen issues from various PC configurations?
Absolutely, and mostly through our own fault. We pushed this engine to it’s very limits. We pushed it to do the craziest, maxed out awesome things it could handle without crashing. We ended up pulling back quite a bit in some areas, and we did focus on optimization a lot, but unfortunately we still had some problems in the end.
Please talk about developing the dialogue, level design and music for Black Mesa.
Tricky, tricky, tricky. These three are the trifecta of memory for many players. They remember these things through a very fuzzy nostalgic lens where they perceive them to be perfect and fantastic. How could we possibly improve them?
With dialogue and level design we had a big focus on adding depth, complexity and reason to what was already there, without ever straying too far from the original. The exceptions were things that we deemed to be ‘out of line’ with the rest, content that strayed so far from quality or reason that we felt a need to make a drastic change. This was never a one-person decision, it was always talked (or should I say argued) about at length until we all agreed upon something.
With music it was a holistically different approach. We knew we wanted to do something completely original, with influences from Half-life but also lots of its own personality and presence. We just wanted to make this known to our fans early on and to be consistent about it. I felt like these were the two most important factors there. If we had used two classic Half-life songs mixed in with the rest, or had some remixes mixed with classic tracks, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.
Outside of creating the game itself, what was the toughest aspect of developing Black Mesa?
For me it was definitely keeping the team together, keeping them motivated, figuring out how to empower them and have them enjoy working on the project. That is a lot more difficult than it sounds, and I spent a lot of time working on that.
How did you go about funding Black Mesa and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Early on we won a mod contest that got us a high-end Alienware PC, and rather than keep it we auctioned it off. That money and internal team contributions have been all that has financially kept us afloat, so we were essentially self-funded. Emotionally, of course we have all gotten a lot of support from family and friends.
It appears some PC gaming studios have a love/hate relationship with modders. Do you feel the modding community gets the acknowledgement they deserve?
Not really, no. When you think about it, modders are like the ultimate fans. They love this game so much they are doing real, difficult, skilled work that you usually pay people for, for free! And not only that, but they can add so much value to your game for the rest of your audience! Yet you still see companies look at this as competition, sue and shut-down these projects, ignore or drop support for people to mod their games….it doesn’t make any sense. In my opinion it’s the product of businesses (or lawyers) looking at this too analytically and short-term, without understanding the long-term value it can create for their games.
Do you think the modding community does a good job of being open to helping new users get familiar with the available tools and an overall grasp of modding in general?
The modding community certainly tries to…but overall I don’t think I would agree that this is their responsibility. It’s way more important for the company to do a good job of enabling the mod community by providing good tools and tutorials/wikis/etc.
At any point during development, were you looking to get noticed by Valve or another company in hopes of being hired full time?
Personally I am already a game developer, and I do already have a great job. I’ve always looked at it as focusing on teaching myself and cultivating a highly valuable skill set. If that ends opening doors or opportunities, great! But I’ve never really focused on expecting anything specific, I think that would be foolish.
Have you considered opening a studio or using various crowd funding avenues to create a standalone PC game experience away from the Half Life universe?
I’ve had several people suggest it to me, so I’ve considered it, sure. I happen to have been involved in a growing company, and I have seen first-hand how difficult it can be to run a studio of your own. It’s a risky venture, and I’m a family man who doesn’t have much room for risk. But hey, who knows what the future may bring?
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Black Mesa professionally?
The value I place on any given review, professional or not, is solely reliant on the depth and insight of the review. I think even across the team we’ve all been able to read a review and tell pretty quickly if it’s a superficial look at the experience, or something more. We’ve definitely read some great and terrible reviews from both professional and unprofessional sources.
How do you feel about the many indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology?
It’s great! You know, I think financial barriers are a very real things for some people. I think it’s smart business to lower the barrier for people to experience your game and become valuable fans. Just the fact that you get more fans is very valuable. You can’t just look at the bottom line, crunch the numbers, and see the immediate value of this kind of thing.
For indies, if you make a great game and get it into a bundle later in its lifecycle that could get you a lot of new fans you may not have had otherwise. That’s valuable both for your company and your IP. Those people will appreciate that experience, and they’ll gravitate towards you in the future. They’ll also be your spokesperson and suggest you to others. Treat your fans right, cultivate them, and they will make things happen for you. It’s a much deeper issue than “how much money did we make per person”. Some of the value there is the kind of stuff you can’t calculate clearly.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Overall I actually think the industry is dealing with it very well. I feel like the number of companies using intrusive DRM or actively pursuing pirates is actively going down. Recently we’ve seen big companies like Ubisoft commit to finally dropping DRM after years of pushing it, and I think those are very good signs that the industry is finally coming around to the ideals of rewarding customers rather than trying to punish pirates (and hurting consumers in the process).
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Fundamentally, I think DLC has a good base. You didn’t specify, so I personally would include unpaid DLC into this picture. I think as a whole, DLC is moving towards the idea of extending the lifetime of a game, of turning games into a service, of growing the interaction and involvement of your fans by providing with more of what they want and at the same time, building a more robust and in-depth game than you might normally be able to do. Those are all good things.
However, there are definitely some companies out there that are twisting it around and trying to use it as a tool solely to make more money. Releasing some crappy content just to make a couple extra bucks doesn’t make their customers happier, and is likely a short-term gain for a long-term negative impact on their IP and their company. Once again focusing on making your customers happy and only pursuing things that move you toward that goal, that’s the way you are going to be successful and have the support of your fans.
We would like to thank Carlos and his entire team for providing a fantastic PC gaming experience and participating in this interview. You can download Black Mesa free of charge on the official site.