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Black Mesa: How fans rebuilt a classic from the ground up

The project lead behind the fan-made Half-Life remake Black Mesa explains how he and his fledgling mod team took a crash course in development and managed to recreate one of the most beloved shooters of all time.

Tom Curtis, Blogger

October 2, 2012

8 Min Read

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. blackmesa1.jpg

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." blackmesa3.jpg

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."

About the Author(s)

Tom Curtis


Tom Curtis is Associate Content Manager for Gamasutra and the UBM TechWeb Game Network. Prior to joining Gamasutra full-time, he served as the site's editorial intern while earning a degree in Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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