Rise Up: Andrew Spearin on Insurgency’s victory


Since Insurgency recently took the first place in the ModDB 2007 awards and we found ourselves bouncing e-mails with this total-conversion of Half-life 2’s Founder and now Senior Advisor, photojournalist Andrew Spearin. We figured it was an opportune time to talk about his feelings of the long route from its conception in 2002 to its triumph five years later. We talk about how how he was inspired when he was serving in the Canadian Army, comparing the games he played to the training he experienced, what’s actually interesting about the concept of realism, what it’d take for him to consider becoming a professional designer and – of course – the actual ModDB competition itself…

RPS: The idea for Insurgency came to you in 2002, when you were training in Canadian Army basic training – an experience which, as the Insurgency site puts it, made you “think about why first-person-shooter war games seemed to get things all wrong”. Could you talk a little about that? Was there a moment where the vision appeared, or was it something which slowly crept up on you?

Andrew Spearin: There were a few visions that I had during my time in the Army, but unfortunately most were hallucinations from sleep deprivation or Aurora Borealis. Usually when I put my mind to it, I could be huddled inside my sleeping bag after lights-out, with a red filtered angle-head flashlight, sketching out a HUD idea for this mod-vision I had started to develop.

At the time, I was a tester for the Tour of Duty mod for Half-Life based on the Vietnam war. My little brother even printed out news updates from their website and mailed them to me while I was in basic. Being part of the testing team, I was exposed to how the mod team operated. I also developed more of an understanding of how the game engine worked.

So during the downtime, which there is a lot of in the Army, I would start thinking about how video games portrayed how a weapon fired or what players were supposed to do in the game compared to real life. Were they capturing a flag? Were they rescuing hostages? I haven’t learned to do either of those things in my training. Most of the war games would not be as accurate as they could be, and at the same time remain fun!

I spent five years as an infantry soldier in the Army, with the reserves. I experienced many different things, from firing various weapons all the way up to a rocket launcher, conducting raids from boats or helicopters, learning urban tactics – my mind was able to translate those into game design concepts.


RPS: Connect to that, what was the moment where the ideas for the mod actually moved from “You know – this is what I’d like to see in a game” to “You know – this is a game I’m going to make”? How did you feel then? Confident? Apprehensive?

Andrew: I started looking around for other mods that I could suggest changes to in order to make it more ‘realistic’ (a term that I now understand differently). I was playing Day of Defeat and managed to completely change my American models to appear to be British made by custom developers. Even the sounds were different; it was like I was playing a new mod within the mod. This sparked something else in my mind – one that is a concept I am continuing to develop and hope Insurgency will one day play host to it.

I made a few suggestions on the Firearms Mod forums on how they should change things around so that the mod would be more than just Red vs. Blue teams. I liked how their weapons worked, but I wanted a real environment. I kept craving a real environment that wasn’t Europe in 1944. People mostly told me off and said to ‘go make your own mod.’ I decided to do just that.

I had a concept, but not the personal skills to handle everything: models, textures, levels, code, sound, animations, and anything else. It was a big concept and needed a lot of resources. We would not be talking about Insurgency if it weren’t for the first team member to produce work, Spydr. He created some nice looking weapon models for a mod team based on the Black Hawk Down movie. I kind of thought they were a lost cause (and was right), so I e-mailed Spydr and he agreed to come on board.

With the renders that he produced, it attracted more attention from potential developers. It just snowballed from there.

I felt confident the whole time. I had a vision, I knew what I wanted and why. I just wanted to have a fun game to play. I wasn’t doing it for fame or fortune. And I knew that more people out there could share my vision or at least see its potential. Fortunately, this was true.

RPS: And, back then, what was the vision? How much did the vision change?

Andrew: At first, I wanted to make a mod focused on the modern Canadian Army, but figured that it would go nowhere because that wasn’t very interesting to a lot of people. The main vision was to provide a custom-made ‘realistic’ infantry combat experience (there was a lot of buzz about vehicles in multiplayer) on modern battlefields.

The custom-made part is what is currently missing from Insurgency and I would like to pursue further. Basically, I want to be able to play a level and view my team as the Canadian Army. Someone else playing in the US might want to view their team as US Marines, and another player in the US wants to be the US Army. Well, Canada and the US are both involved in combat in Afghanistan and use similar weaponry. Set the level in Afghanistan, make the enemy players look like the Taliban. If the base weapons (i.e. automatic, 30 round mag, with a scope) match in each other’s arsenal, all that is required is the client to be using whatever player and weapon models that they want. I already am doing this myself in Insurgency. A bloke in Canada made some custom desert Canadian skins for the players and I use them. All I need now are custom weapon models and I’m closer to being a Canadian soldier in the game.

I want to expand this idea to be available to everyone through the mod, whether you’re Canadian, British, American, French, German, Australian, or elsewhere, you can hopefully play as your own country. I just read about Steamworks and territorial control, so this idea reignites in my mind once again.


RPS: Perhaps more generally, why are you so interested in the concept of realism?

Andrew: I’m glad you asked that one. ‘Realism’ is a topic that continues to evolve in my mind.

First, I think that there is a natural tendency for gamers and developers to head more towards reality. Next-generation technology is continually changing to be more like real-world environments, light, or physics. There definitely are exceptions, which have fantastic results such as Team Fortress 2 (which ironically in its earlier conception, likely wasn’t dissimilar to the concept of Insurgency).

Many gamers, including myself at first, think of ‘realism’ as weapons behaving like real, environments looking real, and the player interacting with the level like real. Basically, the environment reacts in a manner like the real world when you attempt to interact with it.

To me, a ‘realistic’ gaming experience goes beyond that. If a game is attempting to simulate a real-world combat experience, the players must be in the same mindset. Thus, I don’t think you will ever have a ‘realistic’ gaming experience in an online environment (unless every player is currently enlisted in the infantry and the whole platoon is playing as they would in real life, or there’s really good AI).

In order to get to the closest experience of ‘realism,’ the game needs to react to the player in such a way to evoke the same emotions that soldiers in combat would feel: mainly, fear. I have never experienced combat, but I have been through live fire training, and one method called ‘simunition’ where we use our service rifles to shoot plastic bullets at each other in urban areas. It is a rush. That is the same kind of feeling that I want to evoke in Insurgency, which already has its ‘holy f*ck’ moments.

I’m trying to find the right formula using technology to simulate real world environments, physics, sound, lighting, player movement, and weapon behaviours. Throw in effects that evoke fear in the player. Make it intense. Design gameplay to place the emphasis on the player’s game life and using teamwork. That will get the player close to a ‘realistic’ gaming experience. I think games are moving more towards a cinematic experience, rather than a real one. I find the real one to be much more addicting.

At the bottom line, it must still be fun as a game.

RPS: From conception in 2002 to announcement in 2004 is a considerable period – what were you up to then. What was it like in those fledgling months? What about the move from HL to HL2? Was it just a logical decision for you, or was it something you worried about?

Andrew: It was a logical move to Half-Life 2. Source offers everything that we need, bare minimum. At the time, information about making mods for HL2 was limited, so many mod teams sprung up with huge ambitions and got nowhere. My philosophy while designing always was ‘if you can do it with Half-Life, you’ll be able to do it, and more, with Half-Life 2.’

We hadn’t really gone beyond concepts during the time before Half-Life 2 was announced, so we didn’t have any work to lose.

Also, in those days, we were called ‘Modern Warfare’ while on Half-Life, then changed the name to Operation: CO-IN (meaning Counter-Insurgency), then that name sucked so we just used Insurgency. I preferred ‘The Sharp End’ as a name… still like that name.


RPS: You’ve said that you’ve had no interest whatsoever in seeking an industry job. Why is this?

Andrew: My motivations to start and develop this mod have always come from wanting to play the thing! There are many mod developers who have aspirations to be in the gaming industry one day, and that’s what motivates them to make a mod. That has never been the same for me.

RPS: Okay: have you REALLY got no interest? What would it take for a developer to hire you? Is there any offer whatsoever? And if – really you have complete antipathy to the industry – why not?

Andrew: That said, as I’ve spent so much time in the mod scene, and seen the prospects of industry design, I’m not completely ruling it out. I keep having ideas of games popping up in my head from time to time. I have the urge to just start writing them all down so that they don’t go to waste. Insurgency right now is the game that I played in my head a few years ago. It’s an amazing feeling to experience. I wouldn’t mind to keep on doing it.

I don’t really know the right path into the industry, if I were to take one. I think if Valve came along with an offer, that would be the best thing for the mod. I see a lot of prospects with Steam, and actually getting in touch with them about it. Honestly, I would love it if Valve were to e-mail me one day and invite me there for a month to work on convincing them to pick up Insurgency.

I would ideally like to bring Insurgency to its full potential before moving on to a different project, either my own or assisting on another. Game design and writing I find to be very fascinating. I’m open to prospects.

RPS: How do you see the mod-scene right now? What excites you? What saddens you? What do you think is coming next?

Andrew: I’m not sure if the Half-Life 2 mod scene is as healthy as it could have been. The Half-Life mod scene was much different, and more active it seems. I think mod developers made the mistake of being ambitious beyond their means, and so many didn’t get off the ground.

On the other hand, Half-Life 2 is a very specific game in itself. It’s not like Battlefield 2, where you can modify it so many different ways for different combat zones. Total conversions for Source are a much bigger beast to pursue; it’s exciting to see one work succesfully because of the amount of time and resources put into it.

I’m interested to see Resistance & Liberation’s perspective of ‘realism.’ I love their environments, as open areas can sometimes be great for combat.


RPS: And the Obvious one: What was it like winning the MoDB? What do you think about the competition generally?

Andrew: It’s great! I remember our first award was ‘Most Anticipated Multiplayer Mod’ from the City-17.net (long gone) website. That was even before HL2 was even out I think. It feels the same as that. All along the way, we have come away from the modDB awards every year with something. It was just awesome that we came on top for the year we release. So much went into the mod, so knowing that it was voted by players gives it the extra benefit.

Congrats to all to the other mods as well, as I know the recognition is great in general to receive.

RPS: Spinning off that, I was wondering about inter-mod rivalry, especially from the gamers. How much do you see of players of one mod being dismissive of players of another. I suppose that ModDB could bring that to the fore, being that straight vote…

Andrew: Surprisingly, some people can be so bitter and possessive of a mod that they are a fan of. It was a popularity contest voted by fans, and if you look at the numbers, Insurgency is one of the most played Source mods. We luckily also have a large community. But, I also think we have a great mod at the moment. That isn’t to say that other mods don’t deserve the top spot, but we also deserve it. Their time will come, I’m sure. If it is good enough to make number two or three, then it can easily be number one.

Time is best spent gaming, rather than worrying about a bunch of e-drama.

RPS: Finally, what about you. What’s next for you? Some well deserved resting on your laurels or looking for the next challenge?

Andrew: There are so many things that I wanted to do with Insurgency that haven’t been done, yet. If I am looking elsewhere, it will be with Insurgency to get it ever closer to the vision.

I will also keep up my career as a photojournalist!

RPS: Thanks for your time, sir.

The latest version of Insurgency can be downloaded from its site. RPS also notes, due to some perennial communication difficulties, several versions of this article have appeared on the site, with a couple of accidental factual errors and accusations that have happily proved to be untrue. These have been excised. I’d like to apologise for any distress caused.


  1. Ben Abraham says:

    I didn’t really get much of a sense for what the difference is between ‘his’ idea of realism and other peoples ideas. Guess i’ll just have to play it and see for myself.

  2. davidAlpha says:

    I really like his defenition of realism. In a way, the more immersed you become in a game the more “realistic”it becomes. Even if the scene/style of the game is really not realistic at all. I think many very realistic new games (mostly shooters) get this wrong. they dont spend enough time trying to get you immersed in the game. They just throw meaningless visual goodies at your face.

  3. Ging says:

    I’ve only played the first release of INS – I’ve got the new version installed, just haven’t found the time. While it was different, I think it went too far in the realism stakes and entered a point where it stopped being fun, a fair amount of the guys I’ve spoken with at Uni about it have agreed – others have told me that the new version does a lot to resolve some of the issues from the first release (as it should be!)

    RE: Inter mod rivalries – I think the mod space is too full now for them to really factor in, I know that when there were only a handful of mods out that stuff between fans (and sometimes devs) got a little heated.

  4. Turin Turambar says:

    I tried it. Not enough realistic.
    And they even worsened in the last version of the game, catering the mainstream and ignoring their initial vision.

  5. TychoCelchuuu says:

    I really enjoy Insurgency. I think I still prefer Red Orchestra for my realism fix, because there’s not much that compares to hiding behind some cover with a panzerfaust waiting for a tank to roll by (and Insurgency has no tanks), but it’s definitely a lot of fun.

  6. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    I like this guy’s style.

    I never played much Insurgency, ‘cuz I always sucked at it. I was more of a Dystopia man myshelf.

  7. Cian says:

    Of the same opinion as Turin, played too much like Counterstrike for my liking. The art was great, but that didn’t help immerse me since the gamepl-sorry, mechanics were so generic.
    Probably unfair, as I -like others- came expecting something more akin to Red Orchestra than Day of Defeat.

  8. POD! says:

    I’m surprised INS won that contest. Not only did they not make a big deal out of voting for it on the forums (compared to some mods: eg empires) but the 2.0 series of patches “angered” a lot of their main fans and caused them to flee, vowing never to return again on the grounds that they were betrayed: see the comments in this thread for a dullened example.

    Also, Ging. I’m of the opinion that the mod scene for HL2 is much, much smaller than HL1’s. It just doesn’t seem to be as active. I remember a time when a new, “polished” hl mod would ship out every week. Lots of new mods to play every single day. Yum yum yum. These days it seems all the creative talent is spread thingly across all the other decently moddable games.

    edit: Maybe I’m obtuse, but I really can’t see how it’s more like CS than RO. It most definitely feels like the latter.

  9. Ging says:

    Oh, don’t get me wrong – the HL2 mod scene is tiny compared to HL1. But I’m talking about 3 years ago, when there were four mods out and millions showing up on Moddb with clay renders.

    I suspect over the next year the HL2 mod scene will bloom somewhat, with all the 10 year projects suddenly coming to fruition. I also think however that mods not out in the next 12 / 18 months will have to be truly, truly spectacular to make an impact on the available audience.

  10. Dinger says:

    Congrats to the Insurgency team for winning. Those of you complaining: was there a more realistic contender out there?

    As for the “mod scene” getting smaller, I suspect it’s the same problem the industry is seeing itself. Way the heck back when, any amateur with motivation could put out a professional game for the time. Then, one needed motivation and talent. Then motivation, talent and a team. And it stayed like that from about 1985 to 1995. Then computer games got sophisticated enough that there weren’t very many games of “pickup” out there. But increasingly sophisticated games allowed for mods to be made, and the internet allowed modmakers to form teams of talented people.

    Ten years after that, the problem is the assets needed to be modded (primarily artwork) have gotten complex enough that fewer mods get made. (You see this in the game world too. Think of Rainbow Six and Deus Ex: both had the same series of cliched locations, with slight variations. Both had a 747 in there somewhere, and half the other places were standard reference points. Now look at releases in the past year or two, and they have to recycle the same artwork).

    Anyway, so it takes more of an investment, and the payoff is less (see dropoff in PC gaming)

  11. Turin Turambar says:

    Expanding my last comments:

    The truth is, i am a man of extremes. If a game doesn’t try really to be realistic, like Quake, or CS or HL2, ok. I like both arcades and realistic shooters, but nothing in the middle. So if a game try to enter in “realistic shooter” sub-genre, i don’t like half-assed attemps. I want fully realistic weapons, squads, game modes, movement, recoil, weapon ballistics, hud, etc etc

    One of my favorites games is Infiltration 2.9 (the old mod for UT) + DTAS + some other mutators. Pure Gaming Goodness.

  12. caesarbear says:

    Certainly RO captures more of that deadly fear and instinct to keep your head down and INS still has a few vestiges of CS, but I still enjoy it. It’s visual style is what helps it the most I think. It actually does remind me a bit of Tour of Duty.

  13. Mustache says:

    I’ll give it another try, i was displeased with the previous version.

  14. Crispy says:

    @Asphodel: A lot of what? Taking INS commercial? (Edit: Oh that)

    I’m not entirely sure what the worst offenders were in terms of spoiling the realism angle in INS’ 2.0 release, since I stopped playing around 1.1, but it looks to be something to do with making the guns less realistic in terms of accuracy and damage. I am surprised they did this, since the ‘realism’ aspect is INS’ USP (unique selling point). Without the realism aspect, INS isn’t radically different to DoD or CS.

    I think there were some essential fixes that had to be made (and were), like the spawn protection issues, FPS issues and the fact there was no UI map and no visual indicators in the world to tell you how to get to the invisible control zones

    I’m pleased to see how INS is growing. They’re not the only mod team to be putting out regular releases, but they’ve probably gone the furthest in implementing fixes and even big additions in the time since they’ve been out. That, plus their topical setting coupled with their ‘realistic’ game mechanic (that is to say: a lot of American men would have liked to have gone to Iraq to ‘defend their country’, and a lot of males in general get a thrill out of the heat of battle) give an indication of why, despite not having a massive PR drive, INS did so well at the player-voted MOTY awards.

  15. Ging says:

    Just had a look at the INS team page – I’m genuinely terrified. There’s literally thousands of people listed on there and that’s before you get to the past contributors and random thanks!

    Side note: you really need a dedicated guy to compile things?

  16. dishwasherlove says:

    In response to Dinger, Hostile Intent is more realistic than INS. Not that they are in competition, but there are plenty of ‘realism’ mods.

  17. Mark says:

    Man, those are some of the brownest screenshots I’ve ever seen.

  18. Theory says:

    I disliked the first release immensely, unfortunately. The good news is that 2.0 makes things far less frustrating – but the bad news is that it still doesn’t make it fun. I’m moving through the map, using cover, sticking with team mates and taking down hostiles, but I just don’t give a damn about it. :-(

    Compare with Red Orchestra, which I found engaging and entertaining from the moment I first launched it! I can’t think why the two games should be so different when, really, with the exception of vehicles, they’re covering pretty similar ground.

  19. Stromko says:

    I would’ve rather seen a more unique mod like Zombie Master or Source: Empires win, but I guess the people have spoken. They’d rather have what I see as a new Counter Strike than a mod that reinvents things from the ground up.

    I too have only tried the first release of INS so maybe 2.0 is a lot better, but frankly I don’t think it’s for me. I’m sick of “realistic” games that try to be “real” by convincing you that, yes, war is hell and so’s playing this game. I think “authentic” games have a definite place though, games that capture the feel, the theme, the atmosphere and just let you loose to have fun.

    But I guess INS just has more of a hook that keeps people playing and voting for it. Or maybe the dev team is just more involved with the community and gives them something to look forward to, thus keeping them involved. It could also just be that the huge CS fanbase finally found a proper heir to the throne and made it a success by default.

    I can think of a mod that did the opposite and crashed and burned. Iron Grip: The Oppression, very similar to Zombie Master in that you had one team of FPS players and the other team controlled by a single RTS player. The devs were too busy sticking their own pseudo-Steam down their fanbase’s throats to polish up their mod and give folks something to look forward to. Thusly a nagging exploit there, a tired game mechanic there, sees the server list now shrink down to five, empty servers. I remembered multiple occasions where some bratty 14-year-old would keep a whole server hostage by burying his commander (the thing the FPS players needed to kill) under the map, which would be a minor polish issue if the devs weren’t too busy with silly things.

  20. Crispy says:

    @Stromko, Re: Iron Grip

    They are busy making retail game Iron Grip: Warlord, actually.