“It was never meant to be a big deal. I was just fucking about!” says Garry’s Mod creator Garry Newman. His innovative physics-based mod for Half-Life 2 turned out to be a remarkably big deal, not least by being a forerunner in iterative and community focused design, and a game that’s perennially in Steam’s top twenty game stats. It’s an exercise in giving gamers tools and no direction, one of the few games that makes just messing about a core goal. Its strength is a flexibility that makes it a platform for people to make things like comics, maps, weapons, even gamemodes. It might have grown by enabling sexually suggestive poses of Valve’s stoic game characters, but six years on there’s so more to GMod than just fucking about. Here’s how it got there.
Everyone learned about Half-Life 2’s physics in the same way: the can goes in the bin, and anything else is open rebellion. From that moment, where gamers defiantly whacked the can off the guard’s nose in physics-based insurrection, Garry’s Mod was born. Everyone hunted for more mischief to make in Half-Life 2’s physics engine, bigger cans to throw, uglier guards to mess with. Apart from a game of catch with D0G and a few traps in Ravenholm, there wasn’t a lot of inventive interactivity in the game itself. Gordon’s story never stretched to stacking, grabbing, or fighting, leaving us all to think the same thought – “what if?”. Garry just thought about it a bit harder than most.
Not, however, harder than the people making the JBMod physics sandbox mod, which was something that Garry admits inspired him: “A bunch of guys on some forums had been playing JBMod, which hooked up a bunch of stuff that was seen in the leaked source code (all of the code was in the SDK). Maps were created where you would press buttons on the wall and objects would spawn. You could then weld those things together.”
He continued: “This was great, but I kind of wanted more. I played with the SDK and made things like a rocket launcher that created melons. It was about the best I could do at the time, but there were lots of things in the engine that I wanted to play with more.”
GMod 1 was released on December 24th 2004, with Garry’s typical bluntness evident in the readme file: “Lots of changes I can’t be bothered to type about. I only really made this to get to know my way around the SDK.” It was just a few tweaks to the engine allowing you to spawn Manhacks, but it was a beginning. GMod 2 was where it grew from being an experiment with the SDK to something resembling more what we now know as Garry’s Mod. It had ropes that could connect objects, a physics gun that let you manipulate objects, a camera, and welding. It was the first glimpse of the ad-hoc A-Team aping creative mode – it was just about possible to create a rickety truck from a cargo container and welded tyres. Back then, it felt like magic.
Later, GMod 3 introduced the first version of gm_construct, the official map. The ugly build space was a lumpy rectangle of grass with a spawn station. Here you could magic up HL2 characters, and then and manipulate them with the physics gun. Ragdoll posing, probably the most infamous of GMod’s tools, was born. People with vague ideas about comic strips rejoiced. As did the perverts.
The obvious inspiration created friction, and it wasn’t long before Garry and the JBMod team had a nasty spat, with each attempting to outdo each other’s work. However, Garry had a trick up his sleeve. He could work on his mod all day while living off the proceeds of a dating site he ran: “I got chatting to a guy over the net who turned out to live a street away from me. He had a dating website and was quitting his day job to go full time with it and he hired me as a web designer. I wasn’t the best at web design but I was a pretty good PHP programmer, and ended up doing that a lot more. I became a bit disgruntled after seeing how much money he was making from the site (which my ego felt like it had created) and me being paid in comparison very little, so instead of confronting my boss like I probably should have, I decided to start my own dating site in secret while still working for him.
“This was admittedly a total dick move on my part, and of course lead me to being given the choice of shutting down the site or being fired. By that time I was making more per month with the other site than I was being paid – so I decided to be fired. The site was pretty much completely automated, and apart from support emails I didn’t really have to do anything.”
So Garry was free to provide us with tools to make Mr Vance blush, while JBMod floundered and eventually disappeared. But as exciting as Alyx bending just so was, versions 4 and 5 topped it. Version 4 was the first attempt at multiplayer, initially it was as crude as a posed G-Man, but soon the ability to build together would be one of the defining moments of the GMod’s development. I popped into a server while writing this and found someone building a catapult out of office equipment while someone sat waiting to be fired from it. This sort of mild madness is still the thing that brings most GModders together.
With each iteration, more features were expected, and being so early in development they were all game-changing when they arrived. Version 5’s biggest addition was the spawn menu. Until now, spawning was hooked into the map, but with this adjustment it freed builders to use custom maps. Not to be outdone, Version 6 brought the most iconic Garry’s Mod tool: the Face Poser.
Poor G-Man. His carefully captured features could now be twisted into Joker-like grimaces, or ludicrous gurning. This is what Garry’s Mod is best known for, and remarkably Garry barely remembers doing it: “I seriously can’t really remember creating the Face Poser. I can remember technical programming fears of it. Like ‘networking 128 floats on every entity with a face… will that be ok? Yeah I’m sure it will’. But mostly I think it was one of those common sense things that needed to be done.”
So he did it. It was probably the decision that made him a millionaire: the G-Man’s face, splayed open like an impossible, grinning gargoyle is the most iconic image of the game and the most direct way of showing you the mod’s capabilities. You could grab this famous face’s cheeks and pull them all over the place. A subtler addition, but just as important, landed in that sixth update: the Multitool. The gun that you could reprogram to be a number of handy tools, and the device that’s now the heart of the current builder’s toolkit. It delivers everything from welds and pistons to the community-built custom weapons.
Version 7 was released in February 12th 2005. All this had happened in under than two months. Nowadays there’s a shift towards games being released early and developed in public, but it seemed new when Garry was doing it, nearly seven years ago. And he was progressing astonishingly quickly. Update 7 was mostly a series of tweaks to the template, and would be the last major update until June.
It was around this time that Valve took notice of what was happening down there. Erik Johnson, a long-standing Valve employee, was intrigued by the potential, and started chatting to Garry. Johnson told me: “Right after we released Half-Life 2 we were keeping a close eye on the modding community to see where people would take the Source engine. So while it’s fair to say that we noticed Garry’s Mod right around when it was first released, we really started to pay attention when we saw the way that Garry was interacting with his community over the following few months. He was iterating out in the open, was transparent with his community, and was producing a ton of value with each new release.”
That approach was proven with version 8, which was a major overhaul. It consolidated the tools into one window for ease of use. This was the update that solidified most of what GMod can do out of the box, with depth of field and image effects coming in to give creative types a few more options when it came to generating screenshots. Images of the G-Man ‘snuggling’ with Mossman looked so much classier when the bloom effect was added.
V8 could have been the final release of GMod. There’s not much more you could do with the engine, and if Garry hadn’t found the coding language Lua, this is probably where GMod would peaked. According to Garry, though, Lua changed everything: “Lua made its appearance in GMod 9. I think out of every feature added to GMod it was the most revolutionary. It gave the game to the community. They can mod any part of it. You can join a server and play a completely different game. It made modding the Source Engine a little bit more accessible.”
Without it GMod would have been stuck with the same format and be beholden to Garry for most of its content, but its inclusion turned the game on its head. Mods of mods. Mods within mods. It was like Inception with polygons. Lua was and still is to GMod what Face Poser is to faces. Anyone joining a server would have their game bound by the server’s instruction, which could be anything from a weapon that shoots ASCII characters, to an entirely new gamemode. Server owners and modders could take the initiative, using GMod to flesh out their own games and easily deploy them. And I’ll get to what the community made with GMod – which has been a frankly astounding rainbow of creativity – in another article.
By now, after nearly a year of providing a free platform for game, Garry began negotiations with Valve over a possible retail version of the mod: “I think I was talking to Erik Johnson via email about something else, and the first time the idea was floated I shot it down. Who would buy it? But some time passed and the more I thought about it the more I thought I could do something good with a brand new version, coded from scratch. So when I talked to Erik again (about some terrible idea for a game I had) and he brought it up again I snatched his hand off. I don’t think anything had been sold on Steam when we started talking about it, so nothing was really known about how it would turn out. But I trust Valve – they always have the best intentions, and always think a step ahead.
“It didn’t go completely smoothly. The community was getting antsy because I hadn’t released an update for a while. They thought I’d given up on GMod, when in reality I was secretly starting again on GMod 10. So I decided to announce what was happening. The internet exploded. This was kind of a stupid move: as Erik pointed out in an email the same day, it wasn’t official and we hadn’t signed contracts. At this point I could have died. If it didn’t happen now after I’d just announced it I’m going to look like I’m insane. I guess I could play it off as a prank?”
Garry needed a little help: “Erik took me under his wing and emailed me the contract to sign and fax back. Which I did, except I faxed the back of it. He got 15 pages of blank paper. So I tried again, and did the exact same thing again. This time I’d made note of which way I put the paper in, and after the third attempt it was all good. It was all signed, and not even I could fuck it up now.”
Erik remembers all this as “very entertaining”, but points out the way GMod came together mirrors the way Valve worked, which made it a perfect fit for Steam: “There were a bunch of people at Valve that were fans of Garry’s approach to how he was building GMod iteratively, and how fast he was moving it forward. Combine that with the growing number of people that were downloading it and creating content for other people, and it became obvious to many that this was something special and something he was already doing professionally in every other respect.”
Erik views the time Garry spent working for free as a hugely significant exercise: “As opposed to the constraints that tend to get placed on ‘professional’ game developers, my guess is that it was valuable for Garry to spend a bunch of time figuring out what the interesting problems were to solve, and how to solve them in the best way for the long term. This is a pretty difficult thing to do when you have a large audience that will quickly outstrip the amount of work you can get done day-to-day, and Garry did a great job at figuring out how to navigate those issues.
“To put it simply, I think Garry figured out what he had to do to make a large number of customers happy, and that is the core problem to solve before trying to figure out how to build a business out of it.”
In November 2006, nearly two years after the first mod release, Garry’s Mod 10 was released on Steam. It was a smoother, cleaner, version of the free mod that gave millions of gamers so much fun. And it sold bucketloads. It’s been continually reworked in the same fashion as the mod was, with rolling additions making it easier to find content in-game and download it for free. The heart of it is still the Sandbox, it’s where most people spend their time, just building silly things and showing them off. But if they adventured out of gm_construct, they’d discover amazing, amazing things.
Next: Community contraptions.