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Road To The IGF: Eternal Silence's Dan Menard and Rex Riepe

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview tackles the IGF Modding Comp
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview tackles the IGF Modding Competition, as we talk with Dan Menard and Rex Riepe of ES Team, developers of Half-Life 2 space combat/FPS mod Eternal Silence. Menard, the mod’s project leader, notes that the concept for Eternal Silence has been around for around three years now, though work on the game in its current form didn’t begin until two years ago. ES Team has seen 16 people of various ages and experience work on the mod over that time – Riepe, the game’s mapping lead, notes that the project’s beginnings represented his first experience with modding, while Eternal Silence is the third such project for Menard. The team describe the mod as “a science fiction mod that pits two capital ships against each other in a seamless blend of space warfare and tactical infantry combat”. Players are able to “coordinate strikes with invading infantry in order to take down the behemoth capital ships from both the inside and out” in a “battlefield as large as 32768 cubic kilometres”. We spoke to Menard and Riepe about Eternal Silence, its entry into the IGF, and modding in general. What is your background in the games industry? Menard: I really don't have much. I taught myself just about everything I know about programming through books and raw experience. I started programming when I was 12, and have never looked back. I've always been a hands-on person, and mods seemed like an easy way to prototype gameplay ideas. Eternal Silence is my third time around leading a mod. It is actually my second attempt at this concept; the first time was on Battlefield 1942. Riepe: The first Eternal Silence project Dan is talking about was actually my first modding project. I've come a really long way since then, and so has the project. I believe I was originally brought on to the team to do beta testing and texture art, but I've now ended up doing a bit of everything - except programming, for which I have zilch talent. At some point I decided to learn Hammer, and it's become something of an addiction. What fostered your interest in the mod scene? Menard: The mod scene is a great place to fool around and try new ideas. There is just so much talent out there that is willing to help you out if you present them with a game concept. Everybody is really focused on making their game, and the risks are much smaller. There is no publisher to push you in the back either. I think the greatest thing about the mod scene is that there's always a second chance. That means you can try really radical concepts that may very well flop the first time around, but with the free nature of modding, you can easily iterate the game over time and make improvement that way. The people behind modding are the innovators, and I think that's something to celebrate. Riepe: Creativity and imagination are, in my opinion, what drive every single mod out there, and also what hooks so much of the talent. I'm no exception. When was ES Team formed, and what brought you together? Menard: The team has been around for a while. After the Battlefield 1942 version of the mod flopped due to the limited programmability of the engine, I went ahead and completely reworked the concept. The first person to join up was actually Dete, our flagship artist. At the time we were working on concept art. This was in 2003, a long time before Half-Life 2 was released. From there we hired on a few more artists and started hammering out models. Along the way, we picked up some old acquaintances from the BF1942 days, Rex being one of our old beta testers. Today the team has a total of 16 people on it. Dete is actually an artist at DICE now, and the art he made for us landed him a job working on Battlefield 2142. I think what brought us together was the common goal to make a great game and actually get it released. Very few mods make it off paper these days, and we definitely didn't want that for Eternal Silence. What inspired Eternal Silence, and why did you decide to make it? Menard: The inspiration for the original idea behind Eternal Silence is not what you would expect. I think it was the movie Pirates of the Caribbean that spawned a huge part of it, at least the concept of those sea battles. I had always wanted to build a game around a cinematic battle on different levels. Battles at sea would have been the perfect candidate, the trouble is melee weapons in an FPS have never been that great. Instead of sea battles, I settled on space battles instead. The rest, as they say, is history. Now Eternal Silence is a space simulator crossed with an FPS in which players fight in a battle between behemoth capital ships in deep space. That comes with everything you would expect in that sort of scenario: large capital ship cannons firing at the enemy, small ships dog fighting in the void, and space marines boarding and capturing the enemy ship. Riepe: Of course we also have other inspirations at every turn in the development process. Just to name a few: Battlestar Galactica, Freespace, Freelancer, Wulfram II, and naturally Battlefield 1942. What attracted you to make the mod for Half-Life 2? Menard: Well as I said, the mod was originally planned for Battlefield 1942. The trouble is that Battlefield is pretty limiting to modders. You are pretty much doomed to making a battlefield clone with different units. We wanted a bit more flexibility, and just around the time Half-Life 2 came out, we decided we would swap engines. I knew valve had a great track record with mods, and it was just a natural choice. HL2 had modding information out there an entire year before the game was out, so we knew it could handle the concept, and we knew we would have source code access with the SDK. Riepe: The community was also there, and plenty enthusiastic about modding. We knew there would never be a shortage of fans or talent interested in the mod. What were your expectations from your mod, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? Menard: That's a pretty tough question. We really wanted to create a deep multiplayer game that really gave the sense of a large battle. There is also a synergy concept we wanted to create between the exterior space combat and the indoors fighting so that both would have an impact on victory. Right now, we are in the middle of beta, so some of the things we tried didn't hit the mark, but we are confident we will strike the right balance. One of the things I have learned designing games is that it’s really hard to have concrete expectations in the design phase. A lot of our original plans changed, because they just weren't fun, and that’s an important thing to notice early on. Our concept isn't set in stone, so we have some wiggle room which will allow us to make a more polished and fun game. In that respect, I think we will achieve our expectations of making Eternal Silence all it can be. Riepe: The words "end product" are tough for any mod to swallow. Eternal Silence is continually progressing, with new features and new gameplay. I'm happy with it now; I'll be happier when we've put in everything that we want to put in. What do you think the most interesting thing about your mod is? Menard: That's easy, space combat takes the cake. We are one of the few Half-Life 2 mods even attempting to handle flying vehicles, and we are currently the only released one that has them. Our flight system blends real space physics with an arcade system to give players easy to use but deep flight modes. We have all 6 degrees of freedom like you would in deep space and flying around is just a thrill. The dogfights that evolve in space are huge and free-form, not to mention very intense. I think once we have fully implemented the gameplay, people will fall in love with the concept and synergy between the infantry and space also. That is being worked on as we speak. Riepe: One thing I can't get over is the scale. Travelling and boarding a ship that's a full four or five kilometres from where I spawned still amazes me. How long did development take? Menard: Development has been going on from an art and design standpoint for a good three years. We only got the SDK two years ago, and that is when the real mod making started. What was the development process like? Menard: Our approach was to tackle each part of the game separately, starting with the infantry. By August 2005 we had completed the infantry gameplay and the weapon line-up. Space combat took considerably longer, in fact we are still working on that part. We've also adopted the "release early, release often" philosophy, which I encourage a lot. We plan on iterating the mod frequently to keep it fresh and bug free. The process has had its ups and downs. It's sometimes tempting to just give up and move on, especially during crunch time for releasing a beta. The kind of gamers who play mods aren't afraid to voice their opinions either, and the criticism can be hard to take sometimes. Our approach has left everything pretty open though, and we have changed our original game plan numerous times. We may not get it right the first time, but we will get it right eventually. What do you think of the state of mod development, and how do you think mods fit into the industry? Menard: Mod development has gone pro in recent years. Mod teams are becoming power houses of talent. Many people don't realize it, but most of what we consider mods are actually full blown titles. The days of small tweaks and mini-mods are long gone, and people seem to be thinking of bigger and better projects, and pulling them off. I think mods are a vital part of the industry. They bring fresh new ideas without all the strings that commercial games have. The trouble is some mods make a point out of acting like a real game studio. I think that's unfortunate, because it really cuts off half of the benefits of being a mod in the first place. Riepe: In some ways, it's taken a turn for the worse, and in some ways it's better than ever. I think there's more talent in the modding community now than in the past, but I think it's spread thinner. Most mods seem to have one or two extremely talented team members, and then inevitably croak when that team member has other obligations to fill. I've had the pleasure of working with several talented individuals here at Eternal Silence, and I believe that's why we're still around. As far as fitting into the industry, modding drives innovation and works as a sort of training grounds for fresh talent. What do you think of the state of independent development? Menard: It seems to be an expanding field. I think technologies like Steam really make it possible for independent developers to get out there and get the publicity they deserved. On top of it, the middle man is slowly disappearing, and independent developers get a much bigger cut of the sales. That definitely promotes indie games. Riepe: I like the way games in general are going, and I think it's a friendly environment for independent development. Innovation and story are going to be bigger players now that graphics are weighing down budgets. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games or mods? Menard: You've got me there, I haven't taken the time to really look at the other entries yet. I know of a few other Half-Life 2 mods who entered, like Iron Grip and Empires. Riepe: Like Dan, I know of the other HL2 mods and that's pretty much it. Unfortunately, most of my gaming time is eaten up by my other obligations, including ES. I'm sure we'll be checking all of the games out more as the competition heats up. Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? Menard: I haven't played Iron Grip, but I know Empires has a solid team and a good premise behind it. I am totally blown away by the amount of interface work in that mod. The team played a few pickup games when it first came out and it was quite fun. I find it surprising that the RTS/FPS mods are coming out so early with Half-Life 2. Riepe: We actually hosted an Empires server after its release. Like us, they started out with Battlefield 1942. The stuff they accomplished back then was impressive, and they're doing even better on Source. Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? Menard: The last indie games I played were Darwinia and Narbacular Drop. Both of them were quite innovative, and that’s what I tend to look for in an indie game. In the mainstream category, it’s really tough, because I go through my games in cycles. Right now I'm in the middle of a Civilization 4 addiction that just won't let go. I'm definitely quite fond of games that break the mold. I'm very excited about the Wii, just because of all the possibilities that come to mind with that fancy controller. There are also some very classic games that have their balancing and gameplay down to a precise art form. Games like Company of Heroes and Civilization 4 come to mind in that category. I am very excited about Spore... I hope that comes out soon. Riepe: I'm also excited for the Wii. To be honest, my gaming budget has gone into saving up for one. I think the last game I bought was Half-Life 2: Episode 1, which I was quite happy with. As a writer, I'm really excited about Valve's progress in pushing not just a game, but an interesting and engaging story too, something that has always been sorely neglected in first-person shooters. Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? Menard: Good luck to all the mods who entered, we're all in this together. I also hope the fans have a good time playing our games. Riepe: Feel free to check by our site and say hi.

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