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What Happened To Black Mesa: Source? Part Two

Polishing the polish?

The rumors of Black Mesa's death have been greatly exaggerated. It has, however, been over three years since Gordon Freeman went for an all-too-brief jog in his shiny new hazard suit. No, gaming's favorite man of zero words and 1000 crowbar swings per minute hasn't suddenly affixed a chainsaw to his gun or moved his adventures to an unnamed wartorn Middle Eastern setting, but a lot's changed.

Once upon a time, this was Valve's firstborn with a fresh coat of paint. Now, though, the Black Mesa team's pouring its own blood, sweat, and tears into one of gaming's most sacred holy grails - for better or worse. Only time will tell. But how much time? One more year? Two? Half-Life 2: Episode 3 (aka, a billion)? And what state is the remake in now? I spoke with project lead Carlos Montero about all of that and more.

RPS: What stage of development are you on at this point? Are you still designing content, or is it mostly polish now? And, if the latter, is it tempting to over-polish - to tweak every last thing relentlessly because you've already put so much work into the project, and anything less than perfection could be viewed as a failure?

Carlos Montero: There's been a lot of speculation that we have been doing nothing but polish for the last year or longer. This is simply not true. There were and are still parts of the game that we are actively developing, because the game isn't done yet. It is true that over the last year we have put a ton of polish into the game, but this has largely been because some members of the team are less needed on the forefront of development and have taken to polishing old things and trying to achieve quality and consistency across the board.

There is also work that some may casually classify as "polish" that is really more about making sure we are hitting the quality bar we want. If we are examining level flow, pacing, weapon progression, puzzle challenges, player intuition, where people get lost, or stuck, or confused, is that polish? Perhaps it is, but often I think many people are specifically thinking we are sitting around remaking the same assets over and over a little better each time, or trying to find and fix every bug so our game can be "perfect". This couldn't be farther from the truth.

This hasn't been about polish for polish's sake; it's been about learning all there is to know about how to make great games, and using it to make a great game. There aren't any shortcuts there. We just had to learn by doing, by making mistakes, by screwing things up and starting them over again. Sometimes along the way we have learned things that fundamentally changed our way of thinking, and sometimes we have gone back and fundamentally changed parts of the game to reflect that.

So no, I don't think it is tempting to over-polish at all. We are all eager to get the game out. We are dying to get this game out and show everyone what we've been working on, but we aren't so eager that we would sacrifice our values and what we believe will make this game great. We aren't going to put out something that isn't good enough for us.

RPS: OK, so Black Mesa's no longer just a Source port of Half-Life, but what exactly are you changing? What, specifically, have you redesigned? Which systems, levels, weapons, etc?

Carlos Montero: First off - Black Mesa is a not a port. It is literally illegal for us to port anything. Black Mesa is mostly made from scratch, excepting a few assets from the SDK. Pretty much every sound effect, every texture, every voice-over - all of it. We didn't have the luxury of porting a single thing from HL1. Not AI, not level design, none of it. So let's talk about some of Black Mesa's big bullet-point features:

  • Play for free. You need not own anything!
  • Feast your eyes on over 2,000 custom Models and 5,000 custom textures - more than HL2.
  • Experience over 2,000 choreographed scenes and over 6,500 lines of dialogue from all new voice acting.
  • Immerse yourself in an all new soundtrack and over 2,300 custom sound effects.
  • Feel the impact of custom systems such as the Face Creation System, Custom Gib System, Deathcam and more.

These features are just the tip of the iceberg, really. We've put a lot of love into making this game an amazing experience. When it comes to systems, levels, and weapons, we've touched everything, because we made it all from scratch. We tried to keep what we felt was evocative of the original Half-life, but when recreating these things we have inherently re-designed them. The combat, the puzzles, the mechanics and pacing of every level have been re-designed. The weapon strengths, animations, balance aspects - all re-designed. The systems, aside from being completely coded from scratch, have all been re-designed to some degree. There is nothing we haven't touched, honestly.

RPS: Black Mesa's evolved from a Source port of Half-Life into a full-blown remake/modern redesign, but how do you keep that from devolving into a directionless fan tribute -- especially while keeping the development process so insular? What are your main sources of inspiration design-wise? What keeps the whole process grounded? 

Carlos Montero: I don't think we've ever had any trouble keeping a direction. Our shared vision is very strong, and if we are straying from that too much it usually becomes apparent immediately. Everyone on our team is accustomed to being a part of the process, to speaking their mind and helping shape the game. If something isn't jiving with the group, it gets exposed pretty quick and we have always made a point to do what is best for the game, even if it means sacrificing personal ideas or work.

What we have consistently looked to for inspiration and guidance are Half-Life 2, the episodes, and Valve's work in general. Most everything we've changed from a design perspective has come from that. From playing, learning, observing, and from internalizing that knowledge to resolve what is best for our project. I'm sure many may jump to conclusions here but we aren't making any major departures from the series. We are just looking for inspiration from our modern counterparts.

RPS: Have there been any major internal struggles over the course of Black Mesa's development? Moreover, what's it like working with a team that's so large and yet not confined to a single geographic location? How does one organize something like that?

Carlos Montero: Simple answer: You don’t.

When I first joined the project, I was just an artist. I became the project leader after only 3 months or so, by unanimous vote. The very first thing I did was try to understand why things weren't working very well. I saw that when the project started there were people in charge - and those people became bottlenecks. It became more and more clear to me that those bottlenecks needed to be removed.

In a manager-centric team, every layer of management is technically a bottleneck, a pipe that all work must get through. In a global multi-time-zone environment, this effect is magnified many times over. It really didn't take much to realize that having people in global locations struggling in vain to get in contact with someone because of timezone differences was a bad thing. Trying to organize who did what, what people were supposed to be doing... it was a logistical nightmare. If you are waiting on someone to tell you what to do or approve something, and they are never available when you need them, everything slows down drastically.

Only by removing bottlenecks and moving to more of a peer-review hierarchy where everyone chose what they worked on and everyone was able to give feedback to each other, did we finally begin to progress as a team. We had to focus on communicating to each other what work there was to do and what had already been done. But aside from that, everyone just did their own thing.

Before this, it was a nightmare of trying to manage everything and communicate across timezones...and it was hurting more than helping development. By allowing people to self-organize on the team, they naturally formed groups that were timezone-centric, and we gained a ton of efficiency and really started to make progress as a team.

As the project leader, I have really only helped solve problems when they arise and protect the developers from as much hassle as possible. Aside from that, I work beside them as a regular developer, where my critique and work is at the same level as theirs. Anyone can critique my work, or reject my critiques of their work. All voices are equal internally.

The only other big thing that I feel I brought to development was a sense of humor. A fun approach. I feel that in this team or any professional team, people should be enjoying their work and having some fun. This is a big part of what fuels creativity and makes working together a great experience. I have always made a point of keeping things upbeat and having a good time while we work.

RPS: Obviously, the Source engine's evolved a lot since you started working on Black Mesa, and game graphics in general have come a long, long way since 2005. Are you afraid, at all, of looking outdated when you finally launch? What have you done to avoid that?

Carlos Montero: We aren't afraid of looking dated at all. For one thing, we've gone through one engine change during development, which means we aren't using the same version of the source engine we started with back in 2005. For another thing, throughout development we've pushed this version of the engine to its limits, often creating maps that just skirted the limits of the engine due to their complexity and visual fidelity.

I definitely believe we have visually made the best game possible with this engine, and recent Source engine games have certainly proven to me that art direction and gameplay provide a more important core element to any game than fidelity or resolution. Having an aesthetic that you stick to and wowing people within the confines of that aesthetic - that's what I personally believe is important from any game, regardless of engine or platform.

RPS: What's been your biggest take-away from this project? In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently - any specific thing that you can look back on and think "Oh, if we'd just done it that way to begin with, it would've completely changed how everything's turned out"?

Carlos Montero: This project started as a "Half-life HD" of sorts, but it's really grown into more of a re-imagining of Half-life with an emphasis on using what we as an industry have learned in the last decade. I feel that there could potentially have been a much more robust and fun experience if, from the very beginning, we had put more of a focus on "New, fun experience that is evocative of Half-Life" and less "Half-life HD". It has confused our design approach and structure over the years, I think. There are probably people on the team who would wholeheartedly disagree with those sentiments though.

RPS: You've just spent an entire interview telling me why making promises and circling dates on calendars is a terrible, terrible idea. I am, however, a bit thick, so can you - in any way, shape, or form - narrow down some sort of release window? If not, do you have a release window for any sort of playable demo? Basically, when will people be able to get their hands on the game in some form? Soon? Soon-ish?

Carlos Montero: We're working very hard to get something out to our fans in the soon-ish timeframe. I really won't say anything more than that.

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