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Black Mesa: How fans rebuilt a classic from the ground up Exclusive
 Black Mesa : How fans rebuilt a classic from the ground up
October 2, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

October 2, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Production, Exclusive

For a time, the ambitious Black Mesa project seemed like all but vaporware. The fan-made Half-Life remake promised to recreate Valve's debut shooter in the modern Source engine, but after roughly eight years of development and very little word from the dev team, the project's future was uncertain, to say the least.

But that all changed last month, when team came out of hiding and finally launched the highly-anticipated total conversion mod on September 14. With the game now in players' hands, we recently reached out to Black Mesa project lead Carlos Montero to learn more about the project, and how the fledgling mod team took a crash course in game development and managed to recreate one of the most beloved shooters of all time.

While Montero didn't join the Black Mesa team until the game was well into development, he explained that the mod originally wasn't supposed to be such a large undertaking. Back in 2004, it simply began as a hobbyist fan project that snowballed into something much greater.

"It was really pretty different from other mods," Montero said. "This mod wasn't founded by a person or a team -- it was just kind of a community project that came together on a forum. It was just a bunch of fans who wanted to try and upgrade the visual look of Half-Life, but there was no real organization at first."

The team came together shortly after the launch of Half-Life 2 in 2004, and began by creating new assets, updating textures, and generally trying to bring the Half-Life 1 aesthetic in line with the recently-launched sequel. The only problem was that most team members had little to no experience in game development, and none of them realized how difficult it would be to use these assets to make an entire game from scratch.

One year into development, Montero joined the project as an artist, but once the team found out that he already had mod-making experience and was already familiar with the Source engine, he was unanimously promoted to become the project's leader.

"I didn't really ask for it, but the team just ended up voting me into that position (laughs)," Montero said. From there, it was his job to make sure that this complex fan project saw the light of day.


Organization troubles

As the new leader, Montero was tasked with keeping tabs on roughly 20 core team members (and numerous other contributors over the years) to ensure that everyone was working towards a single, unified goal. But given the informal nature of Black Mesa's development, that job was easier said than done.

"At first, I took a very formal approach to leading the game. I tried to organize things, and I tried to put people in charge of schedules... But it was really complicated, and it took a lot of time and energy, and I realized I was slowing the team down rather than helping them, since it just made a lot of bottlenecks for people," Montero said.

"Eventually, I ended up turning them around, and I made small groups of people, and I gave them a lot of short-term goals, and I let them figure out how to do them themselves. Everyone would work over Skype, chat, or in our forum, and that really ended up working well for us. It was about critiquing each other and having a very flat development with no real schedules or managers."

This form of open development was especially important, Montero said, because the team members were working on Black Mesa in their spare time -- everyone had jobs, school, and other responsibilities that made scheduling nearly impossible to control. By giving everyone an equal say in the project, it helped the team feel more unified, even if their lives and calendars were not.

"Instead of trying to tell people what they should be doing, I always tried to have an open dialogue about things, and make sure that everyone understood that we made our decisions as a group, and I wanted to make sure everyone knew why we made those decisions, so we all had a cohesive sense of the vision and the goal."

It took some time to work out the kinks, but Montero said this flat development approach allowed the team to work better as a group, and it helped him keep the game on track and guide the project through some tough development issues. And it's a good thing too, since the Black Mesa team had plenty of challenges to overcome.

Dealing with scope

One of the biggest problems, Montero said, arose because of the nature of the mod itself. Even by today's standards, the original Half-Life is a complex, robust shooter that's longer and more diverse than many top action games. For a small hobbyist team, recreating such a game was quite a tall order.

"When we started, we were all students. We thought we understood what we were getting into, but the more we dug into it and the more we understood it, the more we realized how much work it was," Montero said.

But with the team knee-deep in development, it was too late to back down, and while Black Mesa was originally set to debut in 2009, the team chose to delay its release to make sure that it could create a mod that lived up to its initial vision.

blackmesa2.jpg"And when you're working on a game, there are only a few factors you can mitigate. There's scope, there's quality, and there's time," Montero said. "We couldn't modify the scope, and we refused to modify the quality, so we just had to sacrifice that time. That's just how it goes, right?"

The decision to push back the release added a full three years to the mod's development, but Montero says this extra time went a long way toward helping the mod live up to Valve's original classic.

Recreating, future-proofing a classic

During that additional development time, the Black Mesa team worked to not only iron out the game's technical hiccups, but also ensure that their mod faithfully recreated its source material. From the game's tone and aesthetic to its walk speed and weapon animations, everything had to feel just like it did when players first enjoyed Half-Life 1.

"One real challenge was just getting everything to feel right," Montero said. "It seems straightforward, but we spent so much time trying to get things to feel right and bring back that nostalgic feeling of the original game.

"I mean, just look at the settings in the first Half-Life. They are just so iconic, and people remember them in this extraordinary, perfect way. When you're remaking them, you can't have anything let players down, because they'll immediately turn back to their memory, and even if the reality is that the old environment wasn't as good as this new one, their memory will say that it really was better, and that we made it worse somehow (laughs)."

Of course, the original Half-Life launched in 1998, and the Black Mesa team realized that some design philosophies just don't age well over time. Since it's been more than a decade since Half-Life's debut, Montero's team eventually decided to alter some things to create a new Half-Life for the modern era.

"We actually made some changes to enhance the game. With the Source engine now and all the physics and stuff we definitely changed a lot of puzzles... We also changed some things relating to weapon progression and enemy progression, and I was taking a lot of cues from Half-Life 2. A lot of it came down to looking at Half-Life 2, and trying to figure out what Valve had learned, and we wanted to see if we could bring those lessons back to the original," Montero said.

While the team's primary goal was to make a mod that's faithful to Half-Life's legacy, Montero and his team "also liked the idea of things being a little different from the way [players] remember it."


Moving forward

But as you might expect, this half-retro, half-updated approach really divided Black Mesa's players when the game launched in September. Some immediately took to the game's new take on a classic title, while others had trouble accepting its updated features or decade-old design quirks.

"Reception hasn't been perfect, but there were a number of topics that we knew would get a split reception," Montero said. "The whole concept of crouch jumping, for instance. We knew things like that were really tough issues, because if we removed it from the game, people would be upset, and if we left it in the game, there'd be people who didn't like it because they weren't used to it. It was just a split issue where no matter what decision we made, there'd be some people who were upset."

But regardless of the community's reaction, the Black Mesa team is thrilled to have finally gotten its eight-year pet project out the door. There's still a lot to do, as the team's still hard at work on a 'Xen' expansion as well as a new multiplayer mode, but as far as Montero's concerned, launching Black Mesa is a huge accomplishment, especially considering what a wild ride it's been.

"As a developer, this project has meant so much to me. It's made me a better leader, it's made me a better communicator, and it's helped us all understand so much more about games. It's really been a boon, and I owe everything to my team, really. It's been an awesome time."

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Robert Swift
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It's probably good that they didn't knew what they really get into.
And a bravo for their stamina!

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I'm just a curious idiot. What is the difference between Mod-a-game and creating one from scratch? Does "Mod" just mean that you are only using the resources of a engine without changing much of the code or assets?

Raymond Ortgiesen
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Modding means that you don't have to focus on any of the incredibly core parts of the Engine that make it tick. They didn't have to code light rendering, the physics engine, texture material shaders, etc.

While many modders go into the code and can radically change some functions, most of the time they'll never dig past code that effects the game play (in my experience).

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never mind. question answered.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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As someone who grew up loving the first Half-Life, both the game and the modding community that helped get me into game development, I just want to let you know you have made one Half-Life fan boy completely satisfied. I don't need to have my Lambda tattoo lasered off in shame.

Also: You would not be getting this comment if you had removed crouch jumping, so thanks for not doing that. Two buttons is too hard for modern gamers? Please. ;)

Kenneth Blaney
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100% agree about crouch jumping. In a game that is at least partly about maneuvering a space, more control in doing so is paramount. Could you imagine "Mirror's Edge" without crouch jumping? I think not.

Ryan Lee
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While I haven't played it yet (downloaded but not installed) I was really excited to see it. I missed the first Half-Life, but got really into the sequel. After enjoying HL2 I borrowed the original from a friend, but I couldn't get past the graphics. I've always found it hard to relive those early 3D games due to the low resolution.

Anyway, here's my chance to finally enjoy it, and I won't go in with any preconceived notions about how it should look and feel. So, to the team, thanks for helping me experience a part of my youth that I missed.

Now if someone could just remake The Ocarina of Time, I could die happy.....

k s
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I've never understood what fans see in half-life, I personally found the game very boring and never finished it.

Michael Joseph
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I'm just curious but did you first play it when it came out?

Kenneth Blaney
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Half-life is particularly noteworthy for popularizing a continuous experience as opposed to discrete levels in a FPS. Additionally, it introduced large scripted sequences that don't take focus from the player character and "puzzle bosses" which weren't about putting lead into the enemy while circle strafing but rather using the environment and knowledge of the monster to take down particularly large enemies. (The way a PhD in Physics would in real life if he had to.)

For many here (including myself) having an easy to use but extremely powerful mod support by way of the Hammer editor (then called "Worldcraft") was their first entrance into 3D level design.

k s
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@ Michael: yes.
@ Kennith: The level design and bosses didn't impress me and I could never stand FPS on PC.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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"...and I could never stand FPS on PC. "

What is that supposed to mean? There's a big difference between, "I don't like the game Half-Life", and, "I don't like FPS games on PC". (besides, Half-Life has appeared on quite a few consoles now).

Raymond Ortgiesen
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Kenneth delivered an argument based in sound design arguments, KS says he "wasn't impressed".

Kenneth Wins - Flawless Victory

Joe McGinn
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"Please do not feed the trolls. Thank you!" - the management

Nate Anonymous
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I have not gotten around to trying out this mod, yet, but I am impressed at the reception it has received from the gaming press and community.

I really hope is that some of the team members land a job or get a better job as a result of their work on this mod. What great demonstrations of leadership, skill, and talent that a group of volunteers produced a better remake than the (deservedly beloved) original studio!

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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For completing the project alone, it'd be a great resume point-for having it on Steam and getting millions of downloads...that'd be a clincher.

Kyle Redd
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Montero's a good guy. That this entire project actually managed to not only make it across the finish line after 8 long years, but to actually end up as a seriously awesome game in its own right is a testament to his natural leadership ability. Everyone on that team should be tremendously proud of what they accomplished.

Lance Douglas
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The one thing I'll always remember from Half-Life was the monster that was a giant testicle. Putting that in a game sure took a lot of balls.

Saul Gonzalez
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Some professional managers could learn a few things from this leadership style.

Garret Cashman
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I loved the original, while it wasn't the game that 'started it all' for me, it has had the most major impact on my gaming life (thanks Valve).
I was so glad to see this mod available.

Sorry, just a fan boy comment.
Well done Carlos and team.

PS. the 'product placement' was top! (and the Chuckle Bros. mug!)

Matt Cratty
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Utterly brilliant game.

It wasn't flawless like Half Life, but its so good that its better than every single new game I've played this year.


Robert Casey
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This is a very inspiring article and I absolutely love the original HL series (I played all of the expansions more than once). Kudos to this group for having brought fresh life to the original story. It firmly anchors the entire story arc together under a single game engine for the benefit of all new and old HL fans.

What is the biggest testament of this article is that this team stuck with a dream for 8 long years, going through painstaking detail, setbacks, and uncertainties to reach this incredible milestone. For those aspiring developers who begin to lose hope in their vision, take heed of this example of success through dogged persistence and belief in the end goal.