So, Matt, this chat is long over due. I’ve been meaning to contact you for a while to discuss Union and your next project. First things first. Who are you? I mean until Union was released I’d never heard of you.
I’ve kept a relatively low profile till now. Usually I go by the nickname CrowbarSka and previously it was Kamau. I’m 23 and I’m currently studying ‘Computer Game Design (Story Development)’ in London.
What other mapping have you done?
I’ve been using Hammer/Worldcraft since the days of the first Half-Life but Union is actually the first FPS project I’ve ever finished. I used to use a piece of software called RPG Maker 2000 to create 2D RPGs (obviously) and also made quite a few single-player maps for StarCraft too. I did have a semi-finished mod for Half-Life 2 called Last Resort but I have since abandoned it.
What made you decide to make Union?
I was getting pretty stressed at the fact that I could never seem to bring myself to finish any of my maps or mods. I think it was because I was setting my sights too high. So with Union I decided to aim low and create something short and polished that I could realistically finish and release. In the end it proved to be a winning strategy.
Did you have any particular objectives in mind when you started?
I had two main goals really. Firstly was the aim of actually finishing it, as I stated above. For this reason it needed to be short and compact, much like Valve’s own episodic content. Secondly, I wanted to focus on the relationship between the player and an AI companion. This really is the core focus behind both the gameplay and the story in Union and hopefully it helps to set it apart from the other maps out there.
It’s an incredible first release. How long did it actually take you to make?
Thank you! Altogether it took around 4 months, although about a month of this was when I was away from university so I had a lot of free time to work on it. There was a period when I was working on it for about 10 hours a day, every day.
You managed to weave a story with no voice acting or screen text, was that one of your starting objectives?
Not entirely. I hadn’t decided for a while whether to use new voice acting or not as it’s quite a large task and can easily end up sounding awful and ruining the atmosphere. In the end I settled on Episode Two’s new vortigaunt dialogue as a lot of it seemed appropriate for the situations the duo got themselves into. If this dialogue had not been available I probably would have had to use new voice actors. The story itself, however, was always something I wanted to include.
It is often said that it’s not what you include but what you leave out that makes a release successful. Did you build and discard much? Are there sections that you finished but didn’t include?
Surprisingly, most of what you see follows the same structure as the original versions. The main changes were textures, enemy positioning and timing of events. Having said that, it does differ quite a lot from how I originally envisioned it to be set out. But I think it works better this way.
The feedback via PlanetPhillip has been pretty good. Is that the same for the rest of the community?
I’ve been extremely pleased with the feedback on PlanetPhillip and would like to thank everyone who left comments, whether good or bad. Other sites haven’t been quite so good but still really impressive. Average ratings are around 8/10.
Looking back, what would you change if you could?
I don’t know… There are several small things that irritate me but generally aren’t a major problem. To be honest most of it was refined a lot so I’m pleased with it. The laundry room battle is possibly a bit too difficult and long. Actually I think if I could change only one thing it would be to add new voice acting, which is actually something I am considering for future revisions.
That sniper section was pretty hard for me and not least a little frustrating. Did it take much tweaking? In fact what made you decide on that as the final “boss”.
Yes, that section and the laundry room battle took the most tweaking. The path you have to take through the yard at the end was very carefully crafted to ensure that the player was always clear about where to go. One example of this is right after you climb over the broken train and run behind the blue dumpsters. Lots of play testers didn’t see the tin shed to the left, tried to sprint across the open ground and were, of course, killed pretty quickly and repeatedly. So I repositioned the dumpsters to lead the player into a direction that faced the shed and after this most people were able to find their way more easily.
The sniper was used as the “boss” really to give a different twist on a familiar enemy. I admire the way Valve are able to re-use their ‘mini-boss’ enemies like Striders and Gunships with such variety in gameplay and it goes to show that you don’t need to create an entirely new boss monster (e.g. the Gargantua in HL1) to have a dramatic one-on-one fight. The sniper section takes a while to finish and the part when you finally take him out is hopefully rewarding as a result.
I only ever encountered one problem and that was leaving the Vortiguant behind. Was I the only one or did others do the same?
Several people had this problem. For anyone who doesn’t know, if you don’t hold the gates open the vortigaunt can’t come through. So if you carry on alone you will reach a point where you need him and the game will crash. This is something I’d like to revise and I think voice acting would definitely help to solve this problem. A simple utterance of “Release the gate so I can follow” or something would help a lot.
Were there many bugs or issues that players reported?
Not in the final release, but in beta testing yeah, there were at least a dozen or two dozen issues that needed fixing, some more important than others. A lot of these were really to do with players not noticing important things like switches or doors.
How much beta testing did you do?
As much as possible. Basically, as soon as I finished the levels and gameplay I started testing and kept revising and updating until people were playing it the way I intended and not getting lost or stuck too much. I can’t stress enough how important testing was, and I would recommend it to every mapper out there. Watch people play your maps or record demo files in-game so you can see how they tackle your obstacles. You will learn a lot about why people are getting frustrated and, believe me, they WILL get frustrated.
The ending was very well done, what other scenarios did you consider or was that ending the one you always envisaged?
Actually I had several ideas for the ending. One possibility was that the player would also be able to open gates just like the vortigaunt can. So at the end you would have to decide whether to sacrifice yourself so he could survive, or go on without him. Another idea was that the player would find their wife or friend inside Nova Prospekt and at the end would have to decide between her and the vortigaunt. In the end I chose to keep things simple and just had the one support character.
What have you learnt from making and releasing Union?
Aim small and polish your maps till they shine. Don’t overestimate your abilities as it can be pretty demotivating when you realise you can’t achieve your goals. I’m not saying there isn’t talent out there, but a lot of people don’t realise how much hard work it takes to create something decent.
I suppose you received plenty of offers from other mods to join them. Did you receive any unusual or interesting offers you can tell us about?
Actually I had 2 offers! Nothing particularly crazy really, but one of them looks very interesting. I declined them both (for now) so I could focus on my university work and my own projects.
So, tell us about your next project. I truly hope it’s going to be another SP project.
Yes, I’m really interested in SP gaming and storytelling so that’s what I will focus on. I have a few ideas knocking around, one of which is a continuation of the Union story which takes the player character out of Nova Prospekt and sets them searching for their lost wife. There is actually more to the story than I revealed in Union but I left it out in case I didn’t continue it. If I do, I will add it back in. My other idea is a new story, probably still set in the Half-Life universe, but quite different to what you saw in Union. It would be much more focused on atmosphere and story and would probably have less action for the most part. I’d be interested to know what people think and I’m happy to discuss it all!
Well, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m sure I speak for all PP readers when I say congratulations on a great release and keep up the good work.
Thank you very much! – Matt