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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 (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.

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