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Black Mesa
Lewis Denby
dons his HEV suit and sits down with Carlos Montero...

What do you do in your spare time?  You play games – that’s pretty much a given.  Maybe you write about them, or even dabble in creating small user mods for your favourite titles on the occasional day off.  But for Carlos Montero and his 70-strong team of amateur developers, it’s a completely different story.  For the past few years, their downtime has been eaten up by a mammoth of a mission.

In 1998, Valve released a thirty-hour epic of an FPS, a genre-defining statement of storytelling possibilities, and a feast of wonderful design.  Half-Life was, undoubtedly, one of the finest videogames ever made.  For Carlos and co, however, the limitations of its dated graphics engine don’t cut the mustard any more.  So, naturally, they’re making the whole game again from scratch.

It’s important not to understate the enormity of this undertaking.  The development team includes a whole host of industry artists, designers, voice actors and programmers, but Black Mesa is their side-project: a hobbyist, unpaid body of work that far exceeds the scope of most professional projects.  As such, it’s been in the making since the public release of the Source Engine with Half-Life 2 in 2004 – but now, finally, they’ve put a date on it.  By the end of 2009, Black Mesa will be unleashed upon the world.

Black Mesa is a Source Engine ‘mod’, built in the public version of Valve’s code, meaning players will be able to download and play the game for free, providing they own another Source Engine game already.  Black Mesa will then use the engine code of this existing game, alongside the new tweaks, to bring the world of Gordon Freeman back in all its glory.  Valve has become renowned for this community development support, and Black Mesa is an astonishing example of what can become of it.  “Valve have said themselves that they’re excited to see the finished product,” Carlos tells us, “but we’re not really in contact with them.”  Black Mesa is very much an independent project, but how many other major development houses would allow people to remake their games without kicking up a fuss?  How many would actively encourage it?

"...Slow and steady wins the race..."
Carlos Montero, Project Lead,
Black Mesa

Carlos is one of the many professional games developers involved in the Black Mesa project, and is currently working on upcoming XBox360 and PC title Champions Online.  “In a professional, funded team,” Carlos explains, “you can see a ton of work done in a very short time, by a team who can dedicate all of their time to something.  On a mod team, that’s just not how it works.”  It’s understandable.  The team all have day jobs as well, which - as expected - take priority.  “Slow and steady wins the race,” Carlos muses.  “While sometimes we can pull together and do something quickly, we have to depend on our steady progress over time, and take note of and rejoice smaller milestones.”

But Carlos is keen to also point out the advantages of working in such a way.  “I know for a fact that the team is full of people who are extremely passionate about the project they are working on.  That's a luxury that’s not always afforded on professional projects, but it’s the kind of thing that makes working with others really great.  Everyone is really enthusiastic and excited about our day to day progress, and eager to do whatever it takes to make things go smoothly.”

Carlos also believes that the key to smooth development is a careful management of tasks and responsibilities between different team members.  In the case of Black Mesa, these team members are based in bedrooms and studies all over, instead of under one roof.  “One person can't be in charge of everything, because they quickly become the bottleneck,” Carlos explains.  “Our team has leads for each department, who then keep track of their mini-teams.  I work at a higher level and lower level.  At a high level I keep track of mod business such as PR, finances and game planning, and assist the leads in making sure everything is running smoothly.  At a lower level, I help out in each of the departments where needed - solving tough problems, encouraging communication, teaching people how to do things, actual asset creation, etc.

“I make a distinct point in not managing against the leads.  They have their responsibilities and roles and I let them handle those.  If I have a problem I go to the leads, not the individuals on the team.  In many ways, these guys keep their teams running, I keep them running, and together we keep the entire team running.”

"...We've tried to learn from Valve..."
Carlos Montero, Project Lead,
Black Mesa

So far, the result of all this effort is looking utterly mindblowing.  The Black Mesa team recently released a theatrical trailer that appears to showcase a product more flashy and cinematic than almost any mainstream videogame that springs to mind.  It looks like Hollywood.

Carlos discusses this aspect of Black Mesa.  “We definitely want action and excitement, and we've taken our notes about how Valve used cinematic physics to really enhance specific scenes and moments in Half-Life 2: Episode 2.  It's really taking those key points of the story, the ones they want to stand out in your memory when you think back about the game, and amping them up even more.”  It certainly helps that there’s clearly been a fair bit of graphical advancement going on.  The Source Engine is four years old now.  Black Mesa looks about as next-generation as you can get.

It’s clear that Black Mesa is a real labour of love for its team, founded on the principle that Half-Life was a wonderful game that still deserves the utmost attention today.  Carlos reminisces: “It’s all the things Valve did to keep the player entertained.  Even the best story in the world will suck if it’s read to you in a monotone voice over the course of twelve hours.  Valve knows how to keep immersion at an incredibly high level, and how to keep the player engrossed in their world.  We’ve tried to study and learn from all of that, and definitely aim to keep that tradition true in Black Mesa.

Black Mesa seems like a game for all those disappointed with Valve's straight engine port, Half-Life: Source, and certain things have been tweaked from the original game.  “It is ‘merely heavily based on the original’ rather than a completely faithful reconstruction,” Carlos says, “but that feels like an understatement.  We’ve made plenty of alterations, but it’s all with the goal of keeping it fun, exciting and challenging, but still nostalgic.”  It’s certainly true that the FPS genre has moved on a long way in the past decade, and the Black Mesa team clearly understand this.  “There are elements of Half-Life that still work, and elements that don’t,” admits Carlos.  “Even Valve themselves don’t make games in the same way as they used to.  Things have evolved exponentially over generations of games.  We’re doing everything we can to keep the core of Half-Life, which we feel is still awesome, and bring to it new innovations and gameplay that will keep it fresh and exciting for modern gamers.”

I don’t think anyone could ask for more than that.

DEVELOPER: Black Mesa Team
PUBLISHER: Black Mesa Team

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