I’ve been trying to get both Jose and Chris online to record an audio interview for weeks. It was impossible, so we agreed on a text one instead. The questions were sent by email, so it may read a little strangely. Enjoy the read – there’s some interesting answers in there.
Hi guys, thanks for agreeing to chat with me.
Jose:Thank you for giving us the opportunity to do so and having a website which benefits both players and mappers alike!
So, can you tell the readers a little about yourselves?
Jose:I’m 26 years old and live in Spain. I’ve been a gamer for 16 years, a mapper for 10 years and an architecture student (yes, still…) for 8 years. The career path I chose was actually determined by my passion for level design!
Chris:I’m 31 years old and I work in IT. I’ve been a gamer since early childhood and I’ve been modding games since Doom. However the only games I’ve ever actually released mods for are HL2 and C&C Red Alert 2.
Okay, thanks. Now, almost two months ago you released The Citizen 2 As most readers probably know the original idea for TC2 was much longer but you cut part 2 into two parts. What was the thinking and considerations behind that?
Jose:Considering we released TC1 back in November 2007, we really felt that yet another year should not go by without us actually releasing anything. We took 7 months for TC1 but more than 3 years to release the first 9 maps of TC2…It’s something which even we don’t understand fully. But we didn’t want to become an eternal promise. There is really no guarantee that by the time we’re close to releasing TC3, some new engine update ruins it all again, is there? That also went into our final decision.
Chris:Well it’s quite a long story. By the time we missed the original release date (Dec 2009!) by a mile, we had already been working on it part-time for over a year and things had become a bit stagnant. We had (and still have) a large amount of work done on the whole episode. For example – most of the maps are architecturally complete for the entire original mod layout. But all the excitement of making a new mod at that point had gone for me, it was at times just a chore that I felt semi-obliged to get out of the way. I didn’t have much inspiration and I won’t work on a mod if I am not enjoying it. So there were big stretches of time where I got absolutely nothing done, or I worked on some other unconnected mod which pleased me more at the time.
Splitting the mod came up in conversation several times toward the end of this period, but initially we were very resistant to it. We decided several times that we would soldier onwards with the whole package.
But then, Valve released that big engine update which promptly placed several new large problems in front of us, and forced us to realise that we didn’t have a hope of reaching our second deadline either. We weren’t going to be putting anything out for nearly three years. We had to do something.
At this point, we began to take the splitting-the-mod idea more seriously in our conversations, and ultimately we decided we had to do it even though it caused almost as many problems than it solved, in the long run.
Based on the feedback and how you felt it turned out, did you make the right decision?
Jose:If the other available decision was to hold everything back until another (yet unknown) release date, then I’d say we did make the right choice. People have been able to enjoy (with different degrees of satisfaction, of course) an important part of our mod this Christmas and I hope I’m right by saying the majority of those people are satisfied they did.
Chris:I don’t know. I guess it depends on how you look at it. From a logistical point of view, no, it certainly wasn’t a good idea. Things got broken and disjointed a bit, and we’ve created more issues for ourselves down the line. From my point of view, I am glad I no longer have to struggle with feeling guilty about promising to release content and then not doing so. This bugs me when I’m working on new mods which I’m actually enjoying making. From the players point of view – well I can understand how it’s possible that this release could harm the impact of the final article on a player. On the other hand, we already have a lot of valuable feedback which will allow us to make improvements in the final product which otherwise might not have been made. This could improve the experience for new players to higher levels than would otherwise have been obtained. So maybe it could have been a good idea, after all.
I’ve read that Random Quest 2 is going to be be your next project. Does that mean TC2B or TC3, or whatever you choose to call it, will be finished after that?
Chris:If I learned one thing from making The Citizen, it’s “don’t commit to even a general timescale”. This might just be a personal thing, some people love deadlines. But they don’t work for me. I have regretted every deadline I’ve ever given myself by announcing. Even the last one for Citizen 2. We made it, but that last week before Christmas was awful. I have been working on a mod lately, a mod I’ve been planning for a long, long time. It brings together several gameplay aspects which I’ve worked out individually in different mods and it’s turning out really well so far. I’m really, really enjoying it. So, there’s a good chance that this new project will get done before Random Quest 2. Jose hasn’t even seen this mod yet, I’m looking forward to showing him.
Random Quest 2 is very likely to actually get done, because the open nature of the storytelling allows us to be very creative and keep things interesting. Citizen no longer offers me this – and so it’s not really even on my mind right now. I wouldn’t like to comment on when the whole thing will be done. I know that Jose feels a bit more strongly about getting Citizen completed. I’m sure his answer will be different…
Jose:At this precise moment, there is no “next project” going on. I’m in a delicate situation regarding a few subjects at University this year and I haven’t done any mapping work since the middle of January. Since the release of TC2 and up until the middle of January, I had been fixing issues with the current TC2 maps and some of the TC3 ones.
Why not just finish The Citizen series and be done with it?
Jose:In order for us to finish The Citizen, we would need to lip synch a very large amount of dialogue files. Since our move to versions of Windows newer than Windows XP, this has become impossible to do, even if people claim there are ways to get around that problem. They just don’t work for us. One of us would need to get a machine with Windows XP and install Steam in order to finish that. For the time being, I’m unable to do that. A new episode of Random Quest wouldn’t not have that problem, as most (if not all) of the dialogue would be narration this time around.
Chris:Good Question. It is always disappointing to leave a good plan un-finished, and it would mean dumping many hours of work. In a sense though, right at this moment Citizen is pretty dead because I don’t feel any desire to continue it right now. But I’ve been here before. The desire comes back. We will probably pick it up again at some point.
What things were compromised in TC2? I know you can’t give too much away but what’s with the post boxes?
Jose:The easter-egg hunt in TC1 was appreciated by some people and we wanted to take it one step further. Having a side story which fit naturally into the HL2 world was an idea we were keen on developing. And having this actual side-quest have an effect in how the mod really ends is also one of the objectives we had/have in mind. Mailboxes are part of it, yes.
Chris:Like in Citizen 1, we had a whole easter egg system planned, but it is unworkable if the mod is not complete as one package. Therefore we had to remove it from this release. The mailboxes are a small part which got left behind. Another one is the metrocop in the apartments map. You can kill him, or watch another rebel kill him, or you can rescue him. But the scene is not very good at explaining itself and ultimately seems pointless (which it is, in the current release). This is going to be a really big side-story in the whole mod but unfortunately it was directly in the firing line for the big mod knife when it came to cutting time. It’s probably my least favourite thing about the release.
You focused on a lot of new content. Do you still think it’s important? For example, the casino. I know that must have been a lot of work and it did look beautiful but personally I didn’t like it that much. Did you get good feedback on that?
Jose:I think new content is important because for a game I’ve been playing for 6 years, the old content by itself won’t cut it for me anymore, no matter how polished and well designed it is. Since coding new enemies and weapons is something out of our reach, adding custom areas, characters and a story are our way to add to the HL2 universe. I guess I play a mod with the mindset that it must offer something the original game didn’t have and I’d like to experience, within that established universe. As for the casino, I think the feedback was overall good. I recall William from Podcast 17 saying that areas like the casino make the mod more memorable and distinct than its predecessor. We were aiming for that sort of objective when deciding the different areas. And of course, an architect can’t run away from that!
Chris:Erm, I think it’s just a matter of taste really. Some appreciate it, some don’t. For us it’s fun because the more custom a map is, the more it’s really your place. At least, that’s how I see it. If you’re talking about custom voice acting, well it’s because voice acting is an enabler. When you’re thinking about making a scenario, your creative options expand greatly if you can have an NPC verbally explain anything you want.
In fact, while we are talking about the casino, what was with those zombies and ghosts (Which I didn’t see myself)?
Jose:It was an attempt at keeping the strangeness of the enemies in sync with the strangeness of the place. Without being able to model new NPCs, those were the results. As for the ghosts in particular, I like to think of them as after-effects of the player getting knocked out repeatedly over the course of both mods.
Chris:Um, mostly that was me grasping at straws. We needed something to put in the casino. We wanted something a bit different to add a little variety to the mod, but we were very limited by our lack of expertise in modelling or coding. The casino area is pretty shader-tastic and so we didn’t want a lot of soldiers running around, we needed an opponent which was formidable but slow and forced you to hunt for the way out to stay out of his way. With this in mind, I sat down with a bottle of wine and a test map and made the monk-based-ghost we now have. He’s a bit cheesey I know. But, secretly, I’m quite pleased with him.
You know I love your work, and feel that one of the best things you ever did was the choice system at the end of TC2. I’d like to congratulate you on that – fantastic. Can you tell us how that came about?
Jose:Even if that map wasn’t meant as a finale, it was still an important point in the story and as such needed to be significant in size and scope. But a big map is only as good as what you can do in it… That was how the idea of using the layout in different ways came about. We knew the stealth parts of TC1 were enjoyed by some people, so we decided to have an optional one this time. The map is also very sniper-oriented, so having the player be able to use the crossbow was a given. The explosives approach was also something we had planned for another map but ended up using here. The initial idea was having some sort of replayability to the map. After reading some comments, it seems most people used a saved game before the choice to try all three ways. I don’t know if that means we succeeded or failed! 🙂
Chris:Yeah. I made that. It wasn’t all my idea – it was a planned part of the story from the start, and Jose probably came up with it. I don’t remember. Jose made the map too … I didn’t build any of the location or do any of the lighting. But I designed and implemented the whole choice system. It took a week I think, but it was a week where I was feeling especially motivated and I worked on it for at least several hours every weekday, and solidly for an entire weekend. Oh, and I did the voice acting for the commander in that map too. It took a few days to lip sync it all.
You and probably all the readers know I talk about beta testing a lot. How many beta testers did you use and what sort of system was in place. Looking back, was it enough?
Jose:I don’t know the exact number right now. When not present in the same room, our testers would send us recorded demos so we could see exactly what they were doing. This was really an eye-opener and forced a lot of tweaking, of which player-clipping was probably the most abundant. It is obvious by a lot of comments that several key areas should have needed more testing, or at least different kind of players testing them (people with a more direct and less exploratory approach to the maps, for example). Since we really committed ourselves to releasing on December the 24th, we weren’t able to test a few of the maps in their final state. It’s obvious that they were easier to navigate earlier on than in their current versions.
Chris:Ha ha. Honestly, no. Testing was … limited. I’m amazed the mod has held up as well as it has with bugs. 95% of the testing was just me and Jose. A few other people we trust played it before release, and we got some very good feedback from them, but it was not an ongoing thing. There was no system governing it all, really. If it worked for me at least 99 out of 100 times on both of my test computers, I was happy. That was about as thorough as it got.
Tell us about all the trouble the engine update caused.
Jose:The engine update made several important changes we had to solve. -The default version of the HL2 engine, AppID 220, was updated to include Orange Box features. Sadly, it meant a lot of NPC animations not working, custom textures looking strange and required us to include default HL2 scenes with the mod in order for them to work. We were also required to compile our subtitle files, something which had previously worked with a simple txt file. The absurdity of the changes were one of the things that bothered us most. You’d think changes would be made to make things simpler, more direct and more compatible… While the new graphical features were nice, we couldn’t solve the other problems. -We decided to move to the Source SDK Base engine (AppID 215), which seemed to work like the previous version of HL2 did. The only significant problem besides having to include existing game content for scenes was the absence of a caption-compiler for that particular engine version. This was actually a big problem because we spent a lot of work on the subtitles and were pretty sure they would’ve been a very welcome feature given the accents of some of the characters.
Chris:We’ve worked around all the problems now bar one, but the update changed a couple of fundamental things about how the voice acting is implemented in the engine. Valve did explain how to make the new file which you need, but for some reason didn’t include the tool to make them for the 2006 version of the engine – which is what we were using. However, the community did also have a patch which allowed us to continue as before. The only thing which remains broken in the 2006 engine is the subtitles. If you move to any of the later engine versions, everything seems fixed now. I’ve been making my latest creation in the 2009 engine. Perhaps ironically, I don’t plan a tonne of voice acting for it.
If you had to start again, from nothing and build TC1 and TC2, what would you do differently?
Jose:Less dialogue in TC2, for sure. TC1 had less, but the story still came across. I think we really went over the top with that, and some of our biggest stretches of not being able to advance was waiting to receive the samples and having to actually sync them and choreograph each scene. We also know that the actual scenes make for much more careful and difficult level design. Worrying about where the player is when this or that is said, having this or that happen if the NPC is here or there…Coming from a background of deathmatch mapping, I can confidently say that singleplayer mapping with scenes requires easily five times the amount of work. As for the maps themselves, I think we would really squeeze more gameplay out of the ones in TC1.
Chris:Wow, erm, a great deal. I can think of so many things. Like the method we used in the very first room of Citizen 1 to make the player teleport out of his room after he gets whacked by the metrocop. That is done in a laughable, roundabout way because back then, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I actually made the floor disappear and have a room underneath it with a teleporter for the player to fall into while the screen is blacked out. *facepalm* That is so wrong. It would be set up utterly differently now. In turn, this would allow us to open up the room directly below instead of having it inaccessible. As a result, that map could end up significantly different. And that’s just changing the first thing in the first room. I could go on forever.
What are your favourite parts of the mod, both as a modder and player?
Jose:As a player I find it hard to think of the mod! I actually had a feeling for the areas and gameplay BEFORE they even existed, so in a way I wish I could erase the mod from my memory and experience it for the first time it as anyone else would. That would surely give me a whole new perspective on things…From a modders perspective, I like how the casino ended up looking, and I think our modelers deserve a lot of thanks for that.
Chris:As a modder I’m most proud of the areas where you can make real choices. Most obviously this is the last map where you literally choose what the plan will be. But there are other places, for example the first large street battle. There are a lot of talking scenes there and we knew that players might not be interested and run off. A lot of work was required to make the map still function acceptably while allowing the player to run off into the distance at any time. Things like that. As a player, I’m not really sure, because I really don’t end up seeing my mods through a players eyes. If pushed, I would probably say the areas of the mod where combat ebbs away and exploration is possible. I like to hang around awhile in quiet areas and observe, maybe trying to work out what happened there recently. I didn’t construct many of the locations in Citizen 2 per se, but I did add quite a few little visual or audio distractions which were inspired by this kind of playing.
What are your least favourite parts of the mod, both as a modder and player?
Jose:My least favourite part of the mod in terms of gameplay is probably the luxury apartment building. I could easily blame the lack of action, but it’s more the lack of things which were planned for it in terms of scenes that make me a bit disappointed about it in its current state.
From a pure modding perspective, I have to admit I really don’t like the last map, Cathedral Square. I still don’t like how the church ended up looking, and even though the sunlight corresponds with the time of day, I think it gives the map a very bland and overbright look compared to the the earlier ones.
Chris:The apartments map, because it’s the part that suffered the most from the mod-slice and so is essentially unfinished. As a player, fighting combine. It’s just so boring now, I don’t really dig them as enemies, but they’re pretty much all we’ve got inside the HL2 setting while trying to achieve some variety in the gameplay.
Was there any criticism that you receieved that you felt was justified?
Jose:Absolutely. When you see more than one comment regarding a certain gameplay issue, that means you didn’t take into account all avenues of approach to the maps. The easy thing would be to say ”This guy and that guy didn’t have the problem you did when they played”, but with big games like HL2 and its Episodes being the inspiration, you have to stay true to some gameplay conventions. In TC2, for example, every openable door has a 3D handle! That kind of detail is important if your mod is not a total conversion.
Chris:Yeah, some people pointed out some gameplay-flow issues which we’ve taken onboard, because they’re absolutely right. They’re on the list to get fixed for the full version.
Do you think you will eventually release a TC1, 2 and 3 combined into one seamless mod? Perhaps on the engine version they use for EP3?
Jose:It’s not entirely farfetched, although some models are re-skinned differently in both mods. That kind of thing would have to be sorted out. On another note, we feel our earlier maps look dated compared the new ones, and wouldn’t be 100% pleased releasing them the same way. Remaking them or even updating them doesn’t seem like an enticing idea at this moment. When we have time for level design (I wonder when that’s going to be for me…), we will probably want to dedicate it to something new and motivating.
Chris:Probably not. There are content issues, for example in C1 we use Monk in his default attire, but in C2 he is reskinned. Combining the mods makes this a problem. Also, there are some technical problems involved with moving these particular two mods to a newer version of the engine, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get motivated enough to do that work.
During the time you were making Tc2, did you play many other mods? If so, were there any that you particularly liked or enjoyed?
Jose:Since I started TC2 basically the day TC1 was released I guess I’ve played quite a few. My absolute favourite of them would have to be Eye of The Storm Ep1, and it’s the only HL2 mod I’ve ever replayed. If I had to pick two other mods to complete the podium of that time span, I’d say Union and Sebastian could be the ones.
Chris:Research and Development is hands down the most impressive single mod I’ve seen. I think I played that during the C2 development period … I’m not completely sure though. I heard that one guy made that whole thing in six months. If that’s true, he’s one seriously talented dude. I’d like a chance to pick his brains.
Random Quest, whilst being outside the HL universe, still uses a lot of its content. Have you ever considered starting a team to make a total conversion?
Jose:We have never really thought about it. Having new enemy models and more NPCs is probably the only thing we could get out of that, but we ourselves don’t have much of a problem with using the existing HL2 ones with custom skins. In a way, having recognizeable NPCs such as Rebels or Vortigaunts acting differently, is part of what makes it eerie. You feel you know the elements but their behaviour isn’t normal…
Chris:Nah, more people means more delays. We’re slow enough as it is.
What part of any map or mod that you have made stands out as being your best work. I mean if you have to show me one screenshot and this “This is the best I’ve ever done”, what would it be?
Jose:That’s a tough question in terms of my own work coming from my own imagination, but if we are strictly speaking of maps, my version of the Fallingwater House by Frank Lloyd Wright is the one I’d chose, both the exteriors and living room.
Chris:Well, the majority of the good looks in the mod are down to Jose, so my screenshot would be of a big flowchart detailing the logic parts of maps which decide what npcs should do, depending on what the player does.
Do you have ambitions to move into the gaming industry?
Jose:I do, but I’d really like to have a position of’ ‘Art Director” or something along those lines. Being able to decide layouts, themes etc from a conceptual point of view instead of merely translating what someone else has come up with. I thinking being an architect can get me close to that goal, but my future is uncertain.
Chris:No. For me, the joy fades when I don’t have a large amount of creative control and an ability to slack off at will.
What other skills have you picked up since you started modding?
Jose:I think I’ve gotten the hang of making custom materials, even though I once dreaded making the move from HL1 textures to the bigger ones Source requires. After all these years, I am also able to lip-sync and choreograph scenes (even if I’m unable at the moment because of the problems I mentioned before).
Chris:Well, I work a lot with databases, and mapping has actually helped my understanding of that subject in some ways. I’ve tried to dabble in modelling and coding but I find both very difficult and I haven’t had enough well-motivated time to progress far in either. And about six months ago I discovered Dwarf Fortress, which alas now occupies a significant portion of my brain.
What new skill would you like to learn?
Jose:I’d really like to be able to model because a lot of custom themes require custom models. But don’t actually want to take the steps to learn at this exact point in my life, so that’s a bit of a handicap!
Chris:Coding. I’m not confident I will ever be a ‘good coder’ though. I would have had to have started at a much younger age, and not enjoy drinking wine quite so much as I do.
I’ve noticed that you both rarely post reviews on other mods. It’s true of a lot of other modders on PP. Do you think it has anything to do with you modding?
Jose:Yes, absolutely. To be very honest, I’m actually a much bigger fan of ”mapping for Half-life” than ”playing Half-life”. Since HL2 game was released, I’ve always had some mapping project going on. DM maps, The Citizen, Random Quest, competitions at TWHL, HL1sp maps, The Citizen 2 & 3…
When I have the free time to sit in front of the computer, the temptation of mapping is much bigger than that of playing, especially if the basic gameplay involved has been the same for more than six years. I will defend myself by saying that every mod or map that I have played, means I left a comment in PP. That goes for the ones I really enjoyed or others in which something clashed with my gameplay tastes or expectations (R&D, Strider Mountain etc). In other words, my input seems low because the amount of maps and mods I play is low. My will to contribute is still there!
Chris:Yes, I’m sure it does. But I think the main reasons for me personally are that I’m lazy and writing a review with which I am happy can take a long time, so I don’t end up doing it so often.
Well, that’s about it, anything you’d like to add?
Jose:Thank you again for giving us this opportunity to express our feelings on these mapping matters. I hope it’s a good read and possibly an interesting insight on how some modders view their own hobby.
Chris:I’m really looking forward to showing everyone the mod I’m working on now, but I can’t say when that will be yet. What I can tell you, is that the name of the mod is almost certainly going to be “Obediance”. Jose hasn’t even seen it yet, and it will most likely need some of his visual loving before any kind of release. It’s already the most complex thing I’ve ever made, dwarfing the gameplay choices you saw at the end of C2, and I’d only peg the current complete-ness at about 10%. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste as the gameplay is rather non-standard. But I am quietly confident that people like me will eat it up.