Interview: Mister Minerva

By Alec Meer on October 19th, 2007 at 4:31 pm.

If you haven’t played awesome Half-Life 2 mod Minerva: Metastasis yet (especially if you’re looking for more highly-polished Combine harvest post-Episode 2), you should do so now. I wrote why here.

I’ve since fired a few questions at the enviably talented Adam Foster, the wizard behind this acclaimed Oz (and who you may know better as Cargo Cult, a frequent visitor to RPS comments threads) about the whys and wherefores of Minerva, how Valve themselves have contributed to it, his thoughts on the nature of modding, and what’s next for this exciting episodic endeavour (or EEE, as no-one is calling it).

Sincer still (sorry grammar police, but I like making up words), he has answered… [Edit - now with the three paragraphs I accidentally deleted when posting it up restored.]

RPS: Start with the hard-sell – a one-line summation of why anyone reading this should play Metastasis right now.
AF: It’s a modern game modification which has actually released something playable. For a change.

RPS: Is your primary purpose with Minerva to pay tribute to Half-Life 2, to tell your own tale or something else entirely?
AF: Well, the first MINERVA map was mainly an excuse to build a nice big island – something I’d been wanting to do for years after seeing the first demonstrations of a certain ‘Halo’ on the Xbox. A map which would later be known as the Silent Cartographer.

I’m a bit ashamed how similar my efforts ended up. I started with my sea-arch, and worked my way around the island, ending with the short tunnel next to the harbour – then decided to start implementing some actual gameplay. At that point it was still called the Flatulent Geographer…

The next lot of maps are going to be set in a coastal city, dusted with snow – primarily because I want to build some city stuff, and because I really like snow in computer games. So essentially, the primary purpose of the project is to have fun building things! Using Hammer to build maps is much cheaper than buying more Lego.

RPS: What’s changed in terms of your vision for the mod during its two and half years of development?
AF: Originally it was just going to be something built to my liking, and sod anyone who disagreed – but I seem to be moving towards making a proper *game* that more people can enjoy. Puzzles are actually playtested, and advice listened to – and I’m also paying attention to what the general public says about it. Heaven forbid…

RPS: Presumably you’ve been bombarded with fan theories as to who or what Minerva really is. Do people tend to be close to the mark, or is almost everyone way off the truth?
AF: I’ve seen random, badly-spelled forum postings which have pretty much nailed who she is – but then you get the massive over-analysis which seems to assume a huge knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. Far beyond the brief smatterings I’ve acquired from Wikipedia…

Her messages in the last instalment do say who, and what, she is. Except fans have located apparent ambiguities in those exact statements, and seem to reckon I’m trying to say the complete opposite. Help!

RPS: Her nature seems to have shifted a little during the course of the mod, from an oblique, colder creature to a more direct and hot-tempered one. Can you say why this is, or does it risk future-spoilers?
AF: What, you mean she may *not* be an omnipotent, omniscient deity in the guise of a Roman goddess? You do surprise me.
I’ve seen people complain about apparent inconsistencies in tone in the writing. It’s deliberate. Alleged goddesses can indeed lose their cool – and switch from paraphrasing Latin to spewing foul expletives…

RPS: How much of your average day did you spend on making Metastasis? Did it ever interfere with work or social life?
I’m really lucky in that I’m self-employed, and that I’m doing web programming and design stuff for projects funded by the European Commission – like anything related to Europe in Brussels, it’s pretty much dead over the summer. So instead of being sat in an office, bored silly while waiting in vain for confused academics to forget their usernames and passwords again, I can sit in an office working on a computer game mod. Hooray?

FP7‘s starting up now, so I’m a lot busier with actual work again – MINERVA kept me sane over the summer.

RPS: Why is Minerva a one-man show? Would you change that if you could?
AF: Between about 2002 and 2006 I was working on a gigantic single-player mod for the original Half-Life, that being Nightwatch, a near-total conversion set around important events in a certain Black Mesa.

We had a huge team of some incredibly talented people, many of whom are now working on some seriously big-name games – but despite all that, it still managed to flounder and collapse under its own weight. The plans were too big, the scale too ambitious – and while we got some great screenshots and character renders out there, and some major maps fully playable internally, it never really came together. (I’m slightly concerned to see many similarities with the fantastic- looking Black Mesa: Source – I’m really, really hoping that doesn’t suffer a similar fate.)

MINERVA’s pretty much been my reaction against the trend towards huge modding teams. Instead of there being a long chain of links required for the project to be feasible, with every single one being a potential project-killer if it fails – I’m the weakest, and strongest, link throughout. If I can do it myself, it goes in, if I can’t, I design around it. Music was an unexpected, glorious bonus I simply had to put in, but its absence won’t make the project fail completely.

For example, Minerva herself doesn’t need a character model – which doesn’t need skinning, rigging, animating, AI programming, scene choreography, voice acting or a myriad other complex tasks which modders overlook when drawing their initial concept art. She’s just the chapter titles system, repurposed and with a modem screech to indicate her presence. In terms of workload, she’s an absolute bargain.

I’d love to have a great big team of talented modders pandering to my every whim, but I’ve seen how easily it can go wrong – plus, I’m an absolutely atrocious manager. I’m too nice?

RPS: What’s the grand design for it ?
AF: The overall plan is to have three ‘chapters’ – Metastasis, Out of Time and an as-yet unnamed third part. Possibly each of those also divided into three sub-parts (yes, the number three is important in MINERVA, for rather secretive reasons)…

The next chapter will definitely require new code (I’m already pushing the basic Episode One stuff to its limits), and I’m toying with the idea of making some of it *properly* non-linear. As in, start at A, have a compass pointing to B and have to cross a large segment of city to get there, with no pre-defined route. This requires experimentation – if it doesn’t work, I’ll just seal up some main routes and make the player meander through something more conventional. (Sudden thought – a basic radar system pointing out major Combine patrols? Hmm…)
I’ve got the physics of my particular Half-Lifey universe all planned out, and a vague story arc in development – it’s more a slow voyage of discovery than a double-crossing mess of intrigue, but it should work out well.

RPS: What sort of assistance/input have Valve given on the most recent chapters?
AF: I went out to Bellevue again in June – for an unfortunately cancelled mod developer’s conference. I’d already booked my travel, and it was a shame to waste it… So I got a few days of nattering to Valve personages, playing their games (I can point out absences of bugs in Episode Two and Portal which were my fault!), and best of all – I got to see Robin Walker and Marc Laidlaw play through the in-development MINERVA.

Which was a bit of an eye-opening experience. The former played it almost through FPS shorthand, effortlessly pointing out potential pitfalls and problems for unwary players, and then broke the scripting in the let’s-destroy-the-facility underground blast by demonstrating that bored players could jump down the shaft to his or her death. He knew what players might think, so he knew what to test.

The latter? Well, he truthfully demonstrated how someone could run entirely the wrong way down corridors, and get utterly and completely lost in a seemingly linear map.
It was great. ;-)

RPS: What d’you think Depth Charge and Pegasus have been like if Valve weren’t involved in any way?
AF: Seriously horrible puzzles, and nobody would have noticed the whole off-world thing. Despite the grand portal thing…

RPS: Conversely, do you think any of your own methodology of level architecture (or indeed any other aspect of Minerva) has affected how Valve use (or will use) the Source engine?
AF: I’m not sure if it’ll affect Valve’s design strategy too much – they seem to design gameplay, then wrap story and places around it, whereas I design the story and places, then wrap the gameplay around those.

RPS: Why are singleplayer FPS mods (decent ones, at least) relatively rare?
AF: Everyone thinks far too big, and assumes that just because it *can* be done means that it *should* be done. Someone’s first modding project should *not* be a massive total conversion, with a team spanning thousands of people – it should be small, self-contained and with limits applied so that it doesn’t bloat out of control. It *will* take longer than expected, and you *will* run into problems. I should know. In nearly ten years of mapping, I’ve released just eleven maps. Five of which were for Doom 2, back in 1999…

I’ve tried persuading other modders to go the MINERVA route, to think small, to release episodically – but I’ve seen far too many projects fail. It’s a bit depressing…

RPS: And what, to your mind, makes a good singleplayer FPS?
AF: Interesting places to explore, in interesting worlds. I’m not so fussed about conventional ‘story’, as such – I’d far rather be set free in a carefully imagined City 17 than sit through the usual, badly-written intrigue and exposition thrown at me through drama- laden cutscenes.

RPS: Choose: Episode 2, Portal or Team Fortress 2?
Possibly Portal – GLaDOS is my favourite computer game villain since SHODAN.

I really liked Episode Two, but still wonder if the Outlands are just a bit too welcoming – if I was a resident of City 17, I’d be far too eager to borrow a shotgun and wander off into the wilderness for a bit. Compared with the dying, desolate coastline, it’s a glorious, mountainous, forested wonderland. Which bears more than a passing resemblance to the area surrounding Seattle.

Team Fortress? Best multiplayer game in years, except I’ve already just about exhausted it. Wake me up when some new, official maps are released…

Many thanks to Adam for his answers, for making the mod and, most of all, for being really good at spelling so I didn’t have to spend hours proofing this.

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44 Comments »

  1. Kast says:

    Woohoo! Yeah! *Claps and whistles* :P

    Interesting little tid-bits there. Plenty of details about Out of Time (we acolytes savour every morsel of information we get) and it always makes me chuckle to imagine Robin Walker’s now infamous blunder.

  2. drunkymonkey says:

    Nice interview, and one of the most revealing so far. I particularly found interesting the bit about mod teams and projects and how they’re sometimes too ambitious.

  3. Nesretep says:

    WOOT! The Avatar of Minerva has spoken some mighty words here. Definately something we’ll be discussing properly in the MINERVA forum. To restate what Kast already said: We’ll take evry little bit of info Adam will give us. And he doesn’t often show his hand…

  4. Crispy says:

    Overambition has killed countless Half-Life 2 projects or put them on extended hiatus. But working within a largish mod I can say the hardest thing is managing it. Everyone can do their own jobs when they know where they need to be, but getting it all to work together in a streamlined fashion is hard stuff. E.g. assets such as sounds and animations need to be programmed into the code before they can be tested to satisfaction in-game. If there is a delay with the code the artist might not automatically move on to a different task or find something new to do. It’s the periods of inactivity for one reason or another and the loss of momentum that make larger teams so hard to co-ordinate. That’s why for someone with AF’s imagination and ability it’s best to work alone.

    Anyway, a good interview, although I would have liked to know what AF’s opinions on episodic content are, both with reference to his own work and its reception and to commercial examples like the episodes for Half-Life and SIN.

  5. Alec Meer says:

    Gah. Accidentally lost a couple of hundred (fairly important) words when posting due to the ol’ cut’n'pasteroo. They’re back in now. Sorry!

  6. Andrew says:

    Excellent interview. Very interesting take on things and the extra info about the next Minerva chapter is indeed very welcome.

  7. Robert Yang says:

    As a former level designer for both the rather unfortunate Nightwatch (of which Adam’s maps should be re-packaged and released, hint hint) and the hopeful Black Mesa Source, I must concede that Adam is right. In fact, I’m trying to follow his example right now, though it’s not really working out… But anyway:

    Big monolithic mod projects = evil.
    Relying on a mod team spread across 10 timezones = not fun.
    Managing them = even more not funner.

  8. KindredPhantom says:

    Interesting interview.
    The comments are nearly as interesting as the interview itself.

  9. essell says:

    Aye, Robert – I was accepted as a level designer on the BMS mod too, only to bow out a few weeks later, when I realised it’ll never get finished because they’re aiming too wide and too high.

  10. Anon says:

    I worked on another big mod (not BMS) for years.

    The worst part about modding in large(ish) teams is simply the fact that your interactions with people take place via the Internet. There’s no guaranteed way to know whether someone is the real deal or a lazy git. You can have someone ask to join your mod and scrutinise them. After evaluating the person, you decide that the email is well written and the person seems to be humble, talented, enthusiastic and realistic. The perfect fit!

    The person then joins the mod and it turns out that they’re a lazy, egotistical moron who leads you a merry dance. They spend three months telling you that they are making good progress and will show you something soon (when in reality they have spent three months playing the bongos). It always bemuses me when people take this tact with me; I’ve seen it all before — I know when people are working or bullshitting. I have no problem with people being busy in life and telling me the truth. What I hate is when people bullshit me and it makes it hard to keep track of the real state of the mod. I’ve also had people join who get acquainted with all of our systems (forums, source control, design documentation etc.) and then we have a chat on our voice server / the forums about all the great ideas they’ve got and the BOUNDLESS ENTHUSIASM they have for the project. Then that’s the last I ever see of them. It really is astonishing. If they don’t like what they see or they have a change of circumstance and no longer want to work on the mod, you’d think they could at least tell the mod leader(s).

    Or, even worse, the person is sort of useful and hangs around, but causes ructions with other (infinitely more useful and reasonable) people. It always amazes me that some people can be utter cretins when it suits them; I’ve known certain people on mods for years and think I have a pretty good measure of their character. I know the person isn’t exactly a key part of the team and that they, while having their good points, can be petty. However, they go and do something so spiteful and counter-productive that it is flabbergasting.

    Anyway the point of this post is that you cannot take anybody at face value over the Internet. I’ve had people of all skills and personalities working on the mod and I still find it very difficult to predict whether someone will be a great asset or an unmitigated (and unfriendly) failure. That’s the main problem, really. In the early days, the mod was comprised of a core group of maybe 8 or so people. All of these people were dedicated, friendly, reasonable and reliable. Later on, the team ballooned to scores of people. It became an effort to just to keep track of who was around and who was awol, manage accounts & stuff like that.

    Years later all I can say is that I largely agree with what this interview is saying. The trouble with this is that you need a lot of time and skill to do everything yourself. Modding is getting ever more complicated. IMO if you are to make a mod and you need more people to make it happen:

    * Go with people you know if at all possible. This could mean university friends, regular friends who also mod stuff and so forth. If you have to try and recruit from the Internet, then good luck. The best you can do in this situation is post content of your own to prove you’re serious and also look for people who have finished stuff in the past. If someone you recruit is hard to get along with and makes for an uncomfortable atmosphere, JETTISON THEM IMMEDIATELY. I can’t stress this enough. Is one asshole who occasionally contributes worth keeping around if he makes everyone else uncomfortable and potentially turns away people who are more talented & reasonable? No. I’ve had one particular person send a legal notice to others to say they couldn’t use any of their ideas/stuff after the person had a huge childish strop over the fact that he had no technical knowledge and his design had to be changed as a result. The more people you recruit, the more chance there is of running into a total fuckwit. Bin them immediately.

    * Rein in the design. Think small building blocks. Do you have the personnel to do a given feature? Do you have the time, resources and cooperation required to make it happen? The general rule of thumb in programming is “take your first guess then double it”. Then when you have to rely on others via Internet, it’s more like “take your first guess and then multiply it by a random number”. The random number will have a smaller range if you have talented & dedicated people, but you can’t guarantee anything, really. You’re a modding team, not a professional dev studio. We’ve had countless ideas that have been put down as viable, but even fairly simple-looking things have hidden depths. Game dev ideas are like icebergs…

    * Build often so people can see progress. Progress is the key to more progress. If the mod looks to be static, then other people won’t contribute. Why would I spent 3 hours a night programming if the level designer couldn’t even be bothered to upload an orange layout map? In a small team particularly, people generally put in an amount of effort that matches the other contributors. They don’t want to let down the team.

    * Keep the team very small. Work on a proof of concept or small features to start with. Get confidence going. If you can complete several smaller goals in a month compared to a fraction of one big goal, it is more gratifying (see above).

    * Once you star to get momentum going and more people show an interest in your mod, resist the temptation to just add people willy-nilly. Recruit when you have to, not ‘just because’. If you have 10 people and three of them are active and the rest are semi-active or inactive, I bet you get less done than a team with three out of three active as the three will be pushing each other on and more sure of who is around & dependable etc.

    I’m sure you get the point. Our mod shipped, but it took something like three+ years. If I had to do it all again, those are the main things I’d do. Mod-making is a tremendous experience, but I’m kinda bitter and sick of it now and most of that is to do with trying to manage big complexities via the Internet. People beware!

    Keep going, Mr. Foster. It’s great to see what one person can achieve.

  11. Theory says:

    Dear old iterative design, ever a flashpoint with “pro” modders and their (or should I say our?) scheduling. I’ve had my fingers burned before now…:-)

  12. Anon says:

    I’m still not sold on releasing early. In this day and age of zillions of games being released every month, you really need to grab people’s attention because they probably won’t come back if your first release is an ugly, boring pig. In fact, they probably won’t come back unless you have some really cool ideas that are shining through (see Garry’s mod). If you’re making a mod that has a lot of depth and has been done before (WW2 shooters, for example) then why would you expect anyone to play a half-finished mod when other games/mods have done it before and done it better?

    Game developers like Valve quite rightly bang on about how mod teams have an advantage in terms of a lack of constraints (at least in terms of what the money men in the games industry will give the thumbs-up to). However, there is a flip-side. Games are an investment of sorts; mods are utterly disposable. If someone pays £25 for a game and they don’t ‘get’ it on first play, then they will usually keep playing it. If the learning curve is a little steep or the hook doesn’t arrive for a while, that’s fine because the player will usually muddle through to get their money’s worth. Then, if the game is good, they’ll have an epiphany of sorts. Then they’re hooked. However, if it’s a mod, then it’s more than likely that it won’t get repeated plays unless the player immediately finds it fun and easy to get into. It’ll mentally be labelled “shit/hard/confusing” and then the player will uninstall/delete it and tell of his/her friends who are thinking about installing it to not bother. I.e. mods have to fight harder to grab and maintain the player’s attention.

    To give an analogy:
    I’m sure everyone has an album they own that they initially were indifferent towards or hated, but it grew on them on repeated listens. I bet if you paid the princely sum of zero pounds/dollars for it, you’d be less likely to give it the time it needs to grow on you. I’ve noticed the same thing happens to me when I download music from the Internet these days. I have made no investment in it (other than putting in the very slight effort of tracking it down) so I tend to give something a few listens at most and regardless of the hype, if I’m not liking it, I move on. It’s obviously different if I’m a fan of the group, but for new music it tends to be in one ear and out the other. Back when I bought a lot of CDs (before industry morons started putting anti-CD-ROM spinup shit and root kits on CDs), I made a much bigger effort to actually like the music I’d bought because it was a waste of money otherwise. I’m sure there’s quite a few albums in my collection that I would never have listened to if I had paid nothing for them. There’s also the reverse where I own and listen to music that I never would’ve spent money on in the first place. I just gave it a try (mainly because it was free) and happened to like it.

    Do you see? Stevie Wonder bloody doesn’t. He can play the drums, though. Oh, he can play the drums.

  13. Cargo Cult says:

    Good news – I appear to have made a copy of my Nightwatch maps when I was back in Britain at the weekend. I’d got a long way into converting them to base Half-Life 1 last year, before I was so rudely interrupted by the need to finish part of that ‘MINERVA’ thing.

    Bad news – another, promising-looking single-player Half-Life 2 mod has died. NightFall, which looked positively arty in places. They tried switching to an episodic development model, but perhaps a bit too late…

    Shame.