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  • Adam Engels On Black Mesa, Remote Work, And Game Design

    - Oleg Nesterenko
  • This interview was originally published on Game World Observer on April 22, 2020.

    Black Mesa 1.0 came out on March 6 bringing closure to 16 years of arguably the most ambitious modding effort ever. The nuances of Gordon Freeman's inaugural adventure cleverly rewritten, multiple environments and AI overhauled, Xen completely reimagined. The game itself, once a fan mod, is now a commercial stand-alone title. All good things to those who wait.

    As Crowbar Collective, the team behind the project, is recovering from the shock of the release, we catch up with Black Mesa project lead Adam Engels.

    Adam Engels

    Adam Engels, Black Mesa Project Lead

    Oleg Nesterenko, managing editor at GWO: Adam, all these years, you've been a virtual distributed studio with lots of people on board from every part of the world. How do you manage such a team?

    We are currently at about 20 part time and per contract developers. Over the years we had about 50 volunteer developers. For most of development we relied on a dev forum where we communicated, organized tasks, and posted works in progress for feedback. Forums were a bit dated, even back when we released the Earthbound chapters in 2012, but they gave us a good way to pool our information and work across the world in multiple different time zones.

    Our communication is one of the big successes of the team. The feeling of isolation is real. It makes it really important to talk to other developers and post your work. Knowing other people are in the trenches with you is one of the keys to staying motivated on a decentralized project.

    As we progressed, we got more and more organized, and now are using a three part system of Discord, Google Docs, and Trello.

    How did you go about acquiring new talent?

    We were really lucky and had enough reach to get new people fairly easily. Coders were hard to get as the engine became more and more dated, and we did put out a couple of job ads later in the project, but for the most part we were able to get people by them coming to us, or by word of mouth.

    When Valve allowed you to start selling the game in 2013, did they make any expertise available to you?

    With the Source licence, you get access to source files so that you can build code (or things like animation libraries). We worked with Valve to set up the company and the game on Steam, but other than that we have not utilized their expertise at all. Our insights into the original intent is only what we can glean from articles, and books like Raising the Bar.


    Crowbar Collective visiting Valve headquarters in 2015

    Speaking of Source, what was your experience with the tech?

    Source is a great engine. If you want to build a shooter in an urban or interior environment, it is perfect. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but just look at the projects that have come out of Source. It really lets people focus on their ideas and designs rather than having to block out the base engine first.

    It is definitely a house of cards though after years of updates and improvements. Things that take months to implement in the Source engine, only take weeks (or less) in a modern engine. Getting art assets into the game is a nightmare, and if you want to see ANY lighting change, it takes a multi hour compile of the level. We are also running into some real issues with being on DirectX 9. We could get a lot more features and performance, but we are locked to a very old version of DirectX, and porting would be a huge amount of work.

    What about the work with the community? Was there more pressure or more inspiration in it?

    I wouldn't really say there was more of one than the other. The pressure can inspire you, and with inspiration came the pressure to make the game live up to the series. We knew we could not charge money for something, then not finish it, and we really wanted to finish the game regardless. A lot of the comments we received were along the lines of: "Take your time, make it right," which is what converted the pressure into motivation.  It's pretty easy to look at the mountain of work it takes to complete any project and get overwhelming anxiety, but comments like that really help quell that fear. The positive comments really helped us put the metaphorical pen to paper.


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