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Interview: What Happened To Black Mesa: Source? Part 1

Crowbarring Out The Answers

Featured post Back in Black Mesa.

The universe has a weird fondness for improbable coincidences. Name your franchise Half-Life, and it takes half a lifetime to come out. Create a robust mod based around a game in that franchise, and its development mirrors that of its crowbar-wielding, hazard-suit chic father series nearly one-to-one. The lofty promises, the incredibly lengthy periods of radio silence, the incessant cries of “vaporware” and “it’ll probably be a huge letdown” – all of it.

Maybe, though, that part’s not such a coincidence. To hear project lead Carlos Montero tell it, Black Mesa‘s an obsessively redesigned, rebuilt-from-the-ground-up love letter to Valve’s opus. The goal, then, is to improve on something already considered by many to be perfect. And that, as it’s turned out, has been a lot harder than Montero and his constantly fluctuating team first assumed. So, first up, we’re delving into what exactly has taken so long – especially in light of 2008’s rather stunning trailer that promised a release date of, er, three years ago.

RPS: How did the project get started? At the time, what were you doing career-wise? And, as a result of work on Black Mesa, how many members of your team have gotten “real” jobs in the industry?

Carlos Montero: It’s easy for people to presume we are all professionals and always have been, but it’s simply not the case. When we started out, every single person on our team was either a student, or a hobbyist. Personally I was a student working to support my family and working late nights on Black Mesa as well.

If anything, I would say that working on Black Mesa was one of many things my teammates have done to push themselves as hard as they needed to so that they could break into the industry. That said, it’s really a relatively small number of us. I’d say around 7 or 8 team members who have transitioned into a professional career. Not all of those people have stayed with the team after doing so, either. The team has been and still currently is composed of a majority of dedicated hobbyists who have jobs or careers that have nothing to do with games.

RPS: How large is the team right now? How many people actively work on Black Mesa every day?

Carlos Montero: While we have cumulatively had over 80 people work on the team at some point, it’s more like 14 or so of us who are actually the core, continually active developers. At any given time I think we’ve always been a lot smaller and leaner than people realize.

RPS: Have you had much/any involvement with Valve over the course of the project? Have they contacted you at all? Valve’s been known to hire especially talented teams out of the blue. Were there ever any job offers?

Carlos Montero: There hasn’t been much contact with Valve at all. And if we had gotten job offers, I think we’d be doing that instead of this, haha.

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: I don’t want to bore your readers too much with history. If they really want to know more about our past they can visit the timeline on our wiki.

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.

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. Imagine that!

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.

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: I don’t know if I can answer that without answering why we didn’t make our 2009 deadline in the first place. We’ve talked about it a lot since then, but many people still don’t know the story.

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.

RPS: So is that why you’ve opted to stay largely silent about development details and progress – because expectations are both easily created and utterly destroyed? 

Carlos Montero: If I could go back in time and prevent us from releasing the media and hyping up the public the way that we did, I would. In the end, all of that hurt us more than helped us. It was our naive mistake to get the public that excited from the beginning, and it would have been unfair of us to keep them excited by continuing a long string of media and constant updates.

There was a point where we realized we had a long road ahead, and we weren’t quite sure where the end was. It became clear to us that it would be better to stop whipping the public into a frenzy, stop getting them excited, and more or less allow them to forget about us for a bit while we figured out how to finish the game.

Many people have seen this as a betrayal – as us turning our backs on them – but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. It has helped us focus more on development and get things done faster. It has relieved us from the tremendous social pressures we had on us, and it has allowed us to make clearer decisions. It has also allowed the public to take a breather, and to realize that Black Mesa wasn’t coming any day now, but was going to take a bit longer than that.

If you think about it in terms of a triple-A dev, it isn’t just about “saving things up” for marketing. It’s about not disappointing fans with news you can’t stick to. Just don’t say anything until you are absolutely sure that you can deliver on that. Being completely transparent throughout your entire development process is the opposite of that; it’s an easy way to disappoint your fans, because you won’t do everything right the first time, you won’t make perfect predictions, you will fail and make mistakes, state things you want to do and then not deliver. And every time you do, you will disappoint your fans. If you are a fantastic developer or have a very flexible game design, maybe you can make that work better. But for us, as developers who were learning as we went, stumbling all the way and had this very concrete scope that couldn’t be changed much, I don’t think it would have worked.

Check back tomorrow for part two, wherein we discuss how far along Black Mesa is now and when – admittedly on relative terms – we might finally get to play it.

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