It seems like everything even remotely Half-Life related is ultimately doomed to spend some time in some manner of development hell, limbo or purgatory. No one knows this better than the modders still hard at work on Black Mesa: Source, a remake/reimagining of the original Half-Life, built on the modern-day Source engine, and in the works since late 2004. It’s a colossal endeavor for a team of maybe two dozen amateur developers. With no actual budget, their only resource is time, and they have had a lot of it.
Now, Rock, Paper, Shotgun have managed to ”crowbar the answers” out of Carlos “cman2k” Montero, project lead of BM:S, in an insightful and well-done two-part interview. Let’s take a look at part 1, after the jump.
In part 1 of “What Happened To Black Mesa: Source?”, RPS’ Nathan Grayson discusses the development of Black Mesa with Carlos. There’s a surprising amout of new information in here – turns out there’s only about 14 active developers on the team, and there’s also a brand new, lovely screenshot from the Surface Tension chapter. Still, let’s take a look at some of the highlights:
RPS: OK, this one’s less of a question and more of a prompt. So the game’s been in development since 2005. Can you give me a year-by-year rundown of the major development landmarks that occurred during each of those years? What major strides did you make? And, perhaps more importantly, what difficulties did you encounter?
Carlos Montero: [...] The number of difficulties we’ve encountered along the way are really numerous. The entirety of development has been a struggle in one area or another. Engine documentation, global development, internal communication, retaining standards and coherence across the game – all big challenges we’ve had to face. One of the bigger difficulties that we face all the time that people don’t really think about are the gray areas of decision-making. It can be very difficult to balance between staying true to the original and making it somewhat palatable to modern gamers. We are constantly trying to find ways to maintain challenge while simultaneously lowering frustration and confusion.
We don’t want to be hand-holding, but at the same time we are very cognizant of the much lower threshold of patience people have with games now a days. Things aren’t how they used to be. There are lots of games they could be playing, and if ours is annoying them enough they’ll just shut it off and never come back. Our team has a great mix of purists and modernists, and we constantly argue about these types of issues. Ultimately, we all agree on the balance we want to hit, and it’s great to have people on the team representing various points of view and helping us maintain that balance.
Interesting. I suspect that much of BM:S’ design will be strongly based off what Valve themselves did in Half-Life 2 and the Episodes, as well as many of their own visions; but that obviously, many of HL1′s design paradigms will remain intact and will be used significantly.
RPS: Following that line of thought, what have been the biggest specific issues you’ve encountered with completing the game? Have any key personnel simply not had time to contribute?
Carlos Montero: The biggest issues have always been related to meeting the very lofty goal we initially set for ourselves. We have always wanted Black Mesa to be Valve-quality. Turns out that is very tough to do from every angle of development. [...] You can take almost any field of game development and think about what it means to do that work to a Valve-standard of quality. Level design, art direction, characters, animation, choreography, lighting, sound and music, combat and AI – all of it. The guys at Valve are experts at so many things, and to think that we as students and hobbyists could have come anywhere near to their quality level was as laughable as it was audacious.
It has taken us many years not only to make this game, but to learn more and more what Valve-quality actually means. To embody those standards is to fully realize what it means to be an expert in any given field of work. It’s an insanely difficult thing to achieve. Socrates said, “The more you learn, the less you know.” This was us. Everyone on this team thought we would be done in a year or two tops, just like all of the fans out there did. The more we have learned about the depth, complexity and attention to detail it takes to do all of our jobs to the standard we have set, the longer it has taken us to achieve that level of quality.
Well, I think too much weight is placed on this arbitrary, and largely subjective standard of “Valve-quality”. Sure, we want BM:S to fit in seamlessly with the Half-Life continnuum, but if we focus too much on that notion of whether or not it’s “Valve-quality”, we risk neglecting all the original work and concepts that the developers have employed in creating the mod. At the end of the day, what is “Valve-quality”? Isn’t it just… “damn good quality”?
Besides, isn’t the customer always right? And what is a die-hard Half-Life fan and modder, if not a customer? Is it so far-fetched to assume that this fan/modder might just have a more objective point of view on Half-Life than Valve themselves, having always been a player, not a creator? What if the fans really are better at making Half-Life than Valve are, and we just don’t know it?
RPS: You got a lot of attention with a stunning trailer in 2008, and I think that made a lot of people assume Black Mesa would be finished shortly after. Obviously, there have been tons of cries of “Why aren’t you finished yet”? What’s it like dealing with that kind of pressure and expectation? Is it warranted?
Carlos Montero: [...] We were very excited with our progress in 2008. We talked a lot about what we had accomplished through the year, really analyzing the volume of work we had “completed.” We seriously thought that if we accomplished half of what we did that [over the course of the] year next year, we could complete the project. So we were audacious enough to tack a “2009″ onto the trailer and get everyone very, very excited. We were determined to make this release date come hell or high water, and we killed ourselves to do it. We were cutting corners everywhere, cutting chunks of maps out, rushing through everything, making rash decisions.
Basically, we ended up going against all of our core values just to hit this deadline we had set for ourselves. It was harrowing, frustrating, and as we came to find out, ultimately futile. While we had something at the end of all of this, it still had huge missing chunks of the game and none of us were proud of it anymore. If anything, we were more disgusted with all of the shortcuts we had taken to get there, and all of the great ideas we had put aside to make it happen. We had a huge internal discussion in which we ultimately decided to break the news to the public and to re-focus and make something we could actually be proud of. If anything, this push was a big part of what made us realize what this game could be. We had parts of the game that were “done” at that time – in that they had recreated Half-Life fairly identically – and we began to realize how that wasn’t enough and how we had a lot longer to go.
So to get back to the question, of course there has been a ton of pressure from the community. We’ve spoken openly with them before about how and why our 2009 date wasn’t met, but it hasn’t done much to alleviate their cries. We made a promise once, we broke a promise once, and we are acutely aware of how much damage that did to our fans – which is precisely why we won’t make the same mistake again.
Fair enough. Let’s just hope it’s not too far away now. It’s been 3 years since than - hell, more time has passed from the beginning of BM:S’ development until now… than the time between HL1′s release and the beginning of BM:S’ development. Doesn’t that put things in perspective? Well, at least we all know that it’ll be as good as it can possibly be, when it finally is released. Who knows, maybe a 2012 release date is not so far-fetched. That’ll surely be one for the history books - Black Mesa: Source ended development before Half-Life 3 was even announced.
Part 2 of the interview will be released tomorrow, and will apparently include discussion on “how far along Black Mesa is now and when – admittedly on relative terms – we might finally get to play it“. We’ll let you know when it comes out – until then, why not browse the Black Mesa Wiki, for a more in-depth look at the mod?