DIY Developing: The 'Black Mesa' Project
Published Jan 25 2009, 08:00 GMT | By Andrew Laughlin
When Seattle-based developer Valve Software released Half-Life
for the PC in 1998, it immediately felt like something special. The game's incredible story, breathtaking action and unparalleled level of immersive detail sent ripples through the gaming world. Six years on and a group of dedicated developers decided to breathe new life into this iconic first-person shooter. Without the benefit of a bottomless studio budget or even being based in the same time zone, they set out in true A-Team style to modify the original Half-Life
and bring the title into the 21st Century. The Black Mesa project was born.
In the original game, players took the role of heroic physicist Dr Gordon Freeman, who must escape from the mysterious Black Mesa Research Facility after a teleportation experiment goes disastrously awry. The so-called 'Black Mesa incident' triggers a trans-dimensional tear thanks to which aliens known as Xen infiltrate the facility. Freeman then finds himself stuck in a battle for survival between the alien hordes and the pumped-up US Special Forces Unit which has been sent in to cover up the incident.Half-Life
, alongside its equally lauded sequel Half-Life 2
(plus the subsequently released Episode One
and Episode Two
in The Orange Box
), has since ranked among the most celebrated video games ever made. Aside the creative achievement, praise has been particularly lavished on the breathtaking attention to detail in the series. This served to truly immerse the player in the experience, but also surely placed a serious sweat on the developers' collective brow. In that regard, a reworking of this classic title by what is essentially a group of fans (albeit talented ones) seems like a brave undertaking to say the least.
The Black Mesa project first originated in 2004 after a group of hardcore gamers, gorged on the lush Source Engine-powered world of Half-Life 2
, felt a tad disappointed with Valve's Half-Life: Source (HL:S)
. Ben Truman, writer and designer on the Black Mesa team, explains that this direct port of the game didn't feel like it warranted the 'Source' stamp (referring to the celebrated 3D game engine developed by the studio). However, the team also responded to a challenge issued by Valve's co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell for fans to create a "proper remake" of the original Half-Life
"As the engine offers so much more than pretty water and ragdoll physics, people felt like they had been sold short by HL:S
, including the two mod groups that eventually merged into the Black Mesa development team," he explains. "Since Black Mesa started we haven't heard too much from Valve, but we are confident that they've been watching our development. One of the only times we've heard from them was when they asked us to drop 'Source' from our title in the hope that people would stop thinking our mod was a product of theirs."
Currently under the working title Black Mesa
, the reworked game will be a "total conversion, using entirely custom content". The team has also taken great pride in not simply "recycling Valve's models or textures". Aside from rising to Newell's challenge, this project is also about fans creating a quality gaming experience for other fans.
"We've got such a strong and supportive community, but we really hope to capture attention from gamers all across the board," remarks Truman. "When I hear people say they've never played the original Half-Life
, it makes me feel like an old fart. I personally feel that Half-Life
is a benchmark in video games history, so hopefully this generation of gamers will have an interest in the classics, just like fans of film or music."
Without the infrastructure or financial support of a major developer, the challenge of re-creating a 12-hour game of such high regard seems vast. So far, the only funding secured for the project has been from winning ModDB's Mod of the Year Award for two years in a row. Truman says the team is "spread across the seven seas" but are ably co-ordinated by project leader Carlos Montero, who runs a tight ship and apparently "insists on pirate metaphors".
"It's a great crew, and there haven't been any mutinies since I came aboard," says Truman. "We've seen our share of choppy waters, but we've found our sea legs now and it's been smooth sailing ever since."
Aside Montero, the rest of the group includes programmer Paul Peloski (who could "code his way out of a prison riot"), modeller Adam Engels, animator Nathan Ayres and level designer Daniel Junek. As lead writer, Truman ensures that Mark Laidlaw's original story-work fits with the Source Engine's new capabilities. He also creates fresh scripted sequences and helps implement and choreograph these with the technical teams. Truman points out that Half-Life
is "intentionally ambiguous and open-ended for interpretation" which has required him to spend a long time studying the narrative techniques used by the original team.
"I've had to play through Half-Life
so many times that every waking moment is haunted by their voices," he jokes. "We're always examining Valve's design theory and their fun formula, so we hope that players familiar with the original will recognise Valve's masterpiece and appreciate the material we've added; whether it's new scripted sequences, models or monster behaviour. We also hope that gamers who are new to the Half-Life
universe will be engaged with what we've built upon and created as well."
Aside from the single-player and multiplayer options, the game will also feature co-operative play for the main campaign. In this, additional players can take up the mantle of a "bearded scientist" to help Freeman in the "no-holds-barred Battle Royale between the military's top homicidal tactical unit and an inter-dimensional alien race hell-bent on enslaving the Earth's population". This is all supported by Valve's critically-acclaimed game engine.
"We started off with the Half-Life 2
SDK engine, but Valve gets better and better with every instalment and their tools become even more fun to use. Our programmers created a particle editor before Valve released theirs, though, because we simply couldn't wait any longer. And we've got our own method of creating cinematic physics too. You've no idea what carnage awaits."
Launched last November, a teaser trailer for the game became the sixth most watched video on YouTube on its day of release. The video was also featured on the BBC and Kotaku websites, was listed among the top articles on Digg and generated "piles of congratulatory fan-mail from rabid fan-boys and industry pros". All this hints at a great deal of interest when the game escapes from the Black Mesa team's hard drive at some point this year.
"We plan to release the game in 2009; come hell, high-water or Hadron Collider," says Truman. "We also plan on releasing it for free to anybody who has a single Source game installed on their computer, whether that may be Half-Life 2
or Left 4 Dead
. As for physical products and console releases, we are but mere mortals. Look to the gods in Seattle for those answers."
For more information, please see www.blackmesasource.com