A talk with the guys behind “I Hate Mountains”

Modding has been a rich and influential part of PC gaming for ages, and has (at least in the past) often acted as a crucial first-step for aspiring game designers and developers.

Recently, the boys behind Portal: Prelude released a new mod for Valve’s Left 4 Dead entitled “I Hate Mountains” (www.ihatemountains.com). It’s been exceptionally well received by the community (minus the usual detractors, but more on that later). Over all, the work the team put in is nothing short of remarkable. “I Hate Mountains” is clearly a labor of love, being a complete campaign with five custom levels full of huge, labyrinthine mansions, under-ground caverns and bay-side communities; custom sounds and game effects; and much, more.

Recently we had a chance to sit down with Nicolas “Nyk018″ Grevet and the rest of his team to talk over “I Hate Mountains,” the modding process and the ins-and-outs of the shambling dead.

1.) How did you get into modding? How has your experience with working on Valve’s products compared with doing mods for other companies’ products?

We got into modding long ago, in the Half-Life 1 era, when Valve released the Worldcraft editor on the CD-ROM. You know, we were just messing around with the game, doing little things here and there by ourselves. When Half-Life 2 came out in 2004, we switched over and discovered it was working in a very similar way than the Half-Life 1 engine. We meet later on online forums where we were comparing our works and criticizing each others. It’s only years later that we decided we were strong and qualified enough to launch a project of our own and stop messing alone.

To be honest, Nicolas never worked with anything else than Valve’s engines so he can’t really compare. On the other hand, Marc and Geoffroy tried various things like the Unreal Engine, various console engines and stuff (since Marc now works at Ubisoft). We don’t think it’s a good idea to start comparing Valve’s products with other companies’, but as much as we love Valve, their products are… well… let’s say they served their time.

There’s too much overhead when you work with them, too much work to do to get something great and too much time lost on unessential things. Plus, the engine is really dusty now. The only thing that’s really great is the large community, because you can always find someone who knows something you don’t know and can help you. Also, it’s really easy to get going with the basics and produce something average. Problem is, when the quality level increases linearly, the complexity increases exponentially so it becomes harder quite fast. I suspect this is why it takes Valve longer to release each new game.

With TF2, they proved everyone that games could be made in cooperation with a devoted community of modders and that the more respect you gave them, the more awesome content you got in return. That’s the way it works with TF2, but I’m afraid the Left 4 Dead team didn’t quite understand it that way or didn’t want to bother. After all, Valve has a flat/horizontal organization, different teams doesn’t necessarily share the same goals or visions. For us, it’s just sad that they claimed they were going to copy the TF2 support with L4D and finally changed their mind later. We would never have launched this project for Left 4 Dead if they didn’t say it.

I Hate Mountains Trailer from NykO18 on Vimeo.

2.) Your team did a great job of capturing the spirit of both Portal (in “Portal: Prelude”) and the original L4D characters (in “I Hate Mountains”). What in particular drew you to those games? And how much original work did you have to put into them to carry out the stories you were trying to tell?

This part was entirely written by Nicolas ‘NykO18′ Grevet.

The “famous” Portal: Prelude is one of the strangest things that happened to me in the last years. I’m convinced it was a huge success with more than one million downloads and the huge number of positive feedback we received, and yet I never quite understood why they were only extreme ratings. Some people would have sold their parents to see the mod quickly die and never hear about it again while some others assured me that they found it far better than the original Portal. Both cases always seemed a bit extreme, but it was generally the feedback I had.

The reason why I chose Portal as the platform of my first serious project is really simple: I loved the game. Valve’s idea was so clever, they jumped on a student’s concept and made it a full IP, you’ve got to have balls to do something like that and it paid off! But as far as I’m concerned, even if the game was really great, it was also really easy. There was room for so much more, but releasing simultaneously on PC and console and targeting a large range of gamers wasn’t really suited for a more difficult version. That’s when I realized I wouldn’t have this kind of issue so I decided to start working on a few hard test chambers.

By now, I think everyone knows about what happened next. I finally released it, got much more praise and much more visibility I thought I could ever get and ultimately, I suffered the same problem Valve would have suffered from if they had made Portal more difficult. Lots of people that were not in the target audience started to get pissed off for no particular reason and made my life a mess for months… end of the story.

I Hate Mountains was different, officially, it started in August 2008, the date on which we launched the prototype project (without Geoffroy at the beginning) which was then nicknamed the Spooky Mapping Project. The idea was to produce a survival-horror single-player mod based on the Half-Life 2: Episode 2 engine. I teamed up with Marc because we knew we had the same skills, devotion and motivation to seriously work together on this project. The project began around a virtual blackboard where we sketched multiple little plans and ideas on how the story was going to evolve and how it would play. It was a very large environment made of several key locations.

Then, in November 2008, Left 4 Dead was released and we couldn’t resist the idea to port the project under this new game and engine. We already had all the ideas, the prototypes and the ambient to build a spooky environment, it was only missing a few zombies to make it perfect. We played Left 4 Dead hundreds of hours until January 2009 came and from this month, we launched the project known as I Hate Mountains on this already strong base.

The amount of work behind both projects is quite equivalent but not for the same reasons. In Portal: Prelude, half of the time was used to tell the story and make concrete materials for this purpose (voices, scenes, scripts, animations, and such.). Building the test chambers was not the most difficult part of it thanks to their barren look. It was quite easy to make once you had found the ideas. For I Hate Mountains, half of the time was used to build the levels and tell a story through the environment. We didn’t want and couldn’t do any kind of classic story telling (we couldn’t record voices), so the goal was to tell the story through what the survivors would be able to see and deduce from their surroundings. That’s what took us the most time.

3.) What are the benefits of modding a game as compared to working on a new one? What are the draw backs?

Oh this question is quite easy.

The major benefits are numerous:

  • There’s no need to build/buy an engine and learn how to use it. Hopefully, that’s the major reason, that’s not our field of expertise at all and that didn’t really interest us.
  • Often, there’s already a strong player base and you know they’re always looking for more content for free. Especially when we’re talking about a heavily modded engine such as the Source engine because I believe a lot of players buy these games secretly hoping for more later.
  • There’s also a lot of materials available to start working immediately, like textures, models, sounds, and such. When you’re a really small team devoting a few hours a day on a project, you can’t afford making all these assets yourself.
  • Finally, in our case, there was also the fact that we knew pretty well how the engine worked since we were working with it for years. Which meant almost no learning process and we could start working immediately.

The drawbacks are quite logical:

  • First, you have to stay in the game’s boundaries. Which means, if you want to add something completely new and unexpected, it’s probably going to take you a really long time to build. We tried to add infinite hordes to the manor level of I Hate Mountains just like Valve did in Left 4 Dead 2, but that kind of concept is hard-coded in the engine and there’s nothing you can add or remove in there. We had to take advantage of what could be done and hijack it into something else. Modding is all about taking advantage of an existing system and bending the rules to build something different on top, but some things are easier than others and sometime, there’s just no way to do it, especially when you have no access to the game’s code.
  • Second, you have to deal with the engine limitations. Just so we are clear about this, the Source Engine’s public documentation is really good as long as you don’t try to dig too deep. As soon as you try to use undocumented features or as soon as you encounter strange issues, there’s nothing left to help you. We probably hit a dozen limitations of the engine we never heard of and that no one on the Internet ever talked about. That’s a terrible situation where all that’s left is trial and error. Sometimes, it took us several weeks to work around a single limitation just because we didn’t knew what the limitation was! The Source Engine’s error messages are quite cryptic (when there’s a message, because it’s not always the case).
  • Third, you must rely on another company. In our case Valve. When you start a modding project, all that’s left to do is work AND pray hard. Because if you start to work on your project and 6 months later, the company releases a new game-breaking/game-changing feature that breaks or make fool of your own work, there will be nothing else to do than start over. Our main problem wasn’t really with the release of the Survival mode, the Crash Course DLC or the release of Left 4 Dead 2, it was more with the features they never shipped although they promised it. We launched this project with a few known unknowns because we knew Valve was aware of it and promised us to fix it. Unfortunately, most of it was never really fixed and we had to deal with it..or more precisely, without it.

There’s a post on our forum where a guy says : “One of the things you kept coming back to was that the problems were out of your hands. That, however, is just a part of understanding your limitations. If, for instance, you start a 30ft high mural and then realise that your ladder is only 15ft tall, you can’t just paint half the picture and blame the ladder.”

While I think he’s perfectly true, I also don’t think he has all the picture either. I could take the same metaphor and reword it this way: “You start a 30ft high mural and then half-way through the construction your ladder break and all that’s left is a 15ft tall segment.” In this kind of situation, I wonder how you could have known about it beforehand. That the exact same thing with modding, you can’t draw the whole picture in advance because you don’t know everything about the engine’s limitations and the company’s moves. One can only work around limitations when he knows about it and when they don’t pop up right in the middle of a project.


4.)
When the zombie apocalypse finally comes, what’s your plan on surviving the outbreak? How do you plan on spending your final days?

Our plan would be to steal some kind of heavy and resistant vehicle like a truck or an armored car and enough gas and food in the back to drive for thousands of kilometers on secondary roads (don’t forget the GPS, we don’t think the satellites would be affected).

Unlike what Valve is teaching us with Left 4 Dead, we believe there would always be some place that held out or at least some place where there would be no one willing to eat you. Just drive to some extremely remote location and wait for every infected to die of starvation, just like in 28 weeks later! Might be easier said than done though.

But to be really honest, living in France we would probably have no chance from the start, since we don’t even know where we could start looking for a weapon! :D

5.) Do you see community modding as it’s own sustainable venture? Or as a stepping-stone towards producing unique releases and games (ie: Not tied to other companies games)?

This part was entirely written by Nicolas ‘NykO18′ Grevet.

Well, it depends. I don’t see community modding as anything else than a past-time and a way to gain a bit of leadership experience while still having fun. For me, the most important part was to have fun with friends/colleagues during the numerous playtests we did, at the point that my motivation plummeted when playtests were too sparse. The second important thing for me was to practice my spoken and written english in a real international context. The third important thing was to add a big successful international experience to my resume because I’m also looking for work abroad. I think it’s also a good thing for Geoffroy who’s studying video-games right now and might need that kind of thing on his resume.

I don’t think modding should be seen as anything else than a past-time in the first place but it highly depends on the context. If it’s your own project and there’s no one helping you, you can of course make it a semi-professional project, brand it as a freelance work and use it as a stepping-stone towards producing unique releases and games, but if there’s other guys/gals helping you, they might not share the same vision. If you begin to transform their hobby into a second job, they might not agree with you at all. The most important task is to have a strongly tied team and share the same vision but I guess it’s no secret.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that it’s entirely up to you. We all heard about a few guys who started with modding and got hired by famous companies looking for talents. Of course, modding can and will help you gain a lot of technical and organizational skills that will always be of some help in real life. But right now it seems like a whole new trend to make your modding project a commercial title… to be honest, I’m not sure this is a good idea.

I don’t have any experience in that field but… I personally wouldn’t buy a mod, as polished as it could be. There’s a few exceptions of course, but I see more and more personal projects aimed for a commercial release and I’m pretty sure most of them will never sell. That might not be the main goal, but if it isn’t, I don’t see why they would make it a commercial project. I personally feel that some people clearly lack common sense about that kind of thing, but I might be entirely wrong and missing the point.

6.) With much of today’s gaming economy (both in terms of gamers and game producers) focusing on platforms such as dedicated systems and mobile phones which aren’t as open to the modding community as the PC gaming market has been, what impact do you see this as having on game development in both short and long-term capacities?

This part was entirely written by Nicolas ‘NykO18′ Grevet.

I’ll be really honest with you, I’m *really* pessimistic about the video-game industry’s future. Not for them, but for me. Whatever the platform and whatever the game, the video-game industry is following the exact same path than the music and the movie industries.

Targeting massive markets and rounding every possible edge to please the most possible people, that’s a good way to make money, definitely not a good way to gain customer loyalty since you can’t really relate to video-games anymore… Again, it’s not my field of expertise but as a consumer, I know there’s almost nothing left to excite my curiosity nowadays. There might be only one or two games a year to which I can fully relate and find a real interest for more than half a dozen hours. Everything is so insipid and smooth that there’s almost no room for originality anymore. It might just be me, but this doesn’t really encourage me to buy video-games often.

The focus on platforms such as dedicated console systems and mobile phones is just a sub-part of this mess to me. To target an even bigger market, just spread across every possible platform even if it means you have to sacrifice everything for the sake of the lowest common denominator. This only adds to the whole situation to me, just like so-called DLC are trying to replace user-made content. Now what could be the impact on the modding community? Well it’s pretty simple, there’s no more modding community. I’m no soothsayer, but I’m pretty sure the modding scene will almost cease to exists in a few years. If you look at the current market, I can’t really see any recently released game that have a full editor anymore (I mean an editor that allows to create the same kind of content the devs do). If you take into account the fact that it becomes more and more difficult to produce quality content with newer engines, I guess that’s not helping either.

On the other hand, I’m also pretty sure modding is probably just going to be replaced with indie productions, it has already started with the UDK and I guess it can only increase in the future. It’s the logic evolution of the market if you look carefully at what happened to the music and movie industries.

7.) Have you or any members of your team thought about partaking of human flesh early? So that you’re prepared for your eventual life as a member of the shambling, blood-thirsty dead?

The release of a project like I Hate Mountains is always a good time to start partaking of human flesh. Especially if this flesh is coming from the people who can’t see anything else than the little insignificant flaws! We’re always happy to read feedback, be it positive or negative, but it really gets on our nerves when people can’t think of anything else than the flaws no one cares about and blaming us for “making a few mistakes no professional would ever do”.

Thus, there’s a few heated debates on our forums about important matters such as “graphics tablet written graffiti vs. using hand-written fonts” or the color of the smoke flare or just people who know better than anyone and can’t stand when we don’t agree with them and finally call us stubborn when they can’t hear anything else than their own opinions… I guess this is the unpleasant part of every project, but it’s hard to try to explain them!

Sure not everything is perfect, but blaming us for making mistakes no professional would ever do is like blaming your friend because he made a mistake fixing your computer for free, it’s not fair =) But that’s okay, even if it’s getting on our nerves a bit, it also means people have nothing more important to report. Which means we succeeded. So yes, members of the team thought about partaking of human flesh early, but so far, we managed to keep calm :D

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