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TCancer interviews JA2 modmaker the_scorpion.

TCancer interviews JA2 modmaker the_scorpion.

Interview - posted by LCJr. on Sun 7 September 2008, 03:46:15

To begin with for those who may not be familiar with your work could you list the projects you've participated in?

Vengeance, Vengeance NK which is rather similar to JA2 Vengeance, a RPC mini-mod for Wildfire 6, a cancelled group project, Renegade Republic. Currently, I work as an advisor to a WW2 setting 1.13 based mod, I continue to support Renegade Republic (now with NewInventory) and work on Renegade Republic JA2005. However I don’t know if that’s any interesting for whoever your readers are. Plus there is an almost eternal pool of modmaking ideas I hope I can still come around implementing as long as JA2 is still being played.

I confess to having completely missed Renegade Republic JA2005. Could you tell us a little more about it?

RR JA2005 is basically a hybrid of the JA2005 Mod made by bugmonster and Renegade Republic (as an alternative to 1.13). There are no public discussions about that yet so you couldn't have caught it. But at the moment I prefer its gameplay over 1.13 RR's.

You briefly mentioned a cancelled group project. You've shown you are capable of completing projects on your own so in your opinion why was the group project never finished?

Yeah it is a good question. But there are many factors to it. First of all group projects tend to waste an awful amount of time writing up "meta-content". Then they waste an awful amount of time discussing ideas and details, let alone open dissent. You also get competence conflicts, both positive (more than one guy thinks he's gonna do/ decide a certain matter) and negative (nobody wants to decide/ do matter xy).

All of that falls away if you're alone. You have to do everything yourself, and you can't discuss meaningless details. You may outsource basic things like speech recording but be aware that it will mean an awful amount of coordination work and losses because of people simply disappearing.

Add to these factors that if working alone, all the strings end up at the same place and you use synergy effects. I think working that way is easier for me than in a group. I have to admit however, that neither Vengeance nor Renegade were true solo projects where I just do everything on my own. In Vengeance the entire voice acting was organised by crazy cat, sounds were designed by -=Mad=- and in Renegade Republic we've probably had the biggest cast of voice actors ever in a JA2 mod.

We've had people from all over the world voice acting characters for free. So calling it a solo project would really be doing an injustice to the dozens of people from New Zealand, China, Scandinavia, Estonia, Romania, Canada, the UK, US, Germany, etc. that went through a lot of work to provide the speech lines for our characters.

So I guess what works best for me is me doing most of the basic modmaking work and making the decisions (while taking the risk that it fails) and outsourcing these elements like speech recordings where the coordination problems are limited to one specified feature.

You've been modding Jagged Alliance 2 for over 3 years now. Prior to 1.13 this was a game that the developers had not given any consideration into making moddable. So obviously you must have some love for the game to be willing to put in the work required to make a mod. So could you tell us when you first played the game? And what was it about the game that got you hooked?

The first time I played the game I got it from a friend of mine. Many of my friends were already playing it and it must have been a very good game according to their opinions. So I gave it a try.

What got me hooked is hard to say, especially to boil it down to only a few things. There were many aspects that made the game stand out from almost all other games. The atmosphere of the game, the big number of great characters, the gameplay, the community, the possibility of implementing my own ideas into my favourite game via modmaking... and the replayability value of the game. It is probably the only computer game that ever lasted so long with me.

You've given at least a partial answer to my next question. What was it that got you started in modmaking? Is it solely the opportunity to put your own ideas into a game? What other motivations are there?

It is the biggest motivation I think, but not the only one. Another motivation is demand/ interest. If there was no JA2 community, I'd probably never got beyond the point of my early UB campaigns. Plus other mods can be an inspiration too (beyond mere copying of ideas...)
Talking to a different modmaker means a whole world of new angles and ideas popping up.

Could you give us a general feel of how you go about designing a mod? What takes place between deciding on an idea and starting the actual work? For example, do you draw up a detailed design or do you just start with a general idea and let it evolve as you work?

There are elements of both. But I'd say the latter is the more prevalent way I do it when making all the decisions myself. In a group, you're rather working the former way. Alone, it is just your imagination that has to update your ideas in accordance to the (limited) possibilities of your work as it evolves. In a group, you have to update dozens of design documents when making minor adjustments and others might disagree.

Could you try and give a general idea of the work involved in the creation of one of your mods? What kind of new content is required and how much of it do you do yourself?

Difficult question in my opinion. It depends on what your idea of the mod is relative to your skills. At one point I tossed my studies. So I was on it like a madman. During certain times, I worked more on the mods than a full time employee. But then Renegade Republic is a monster of a mod. I have new content of every kind. So for a mod like RR, that comes close to a total conversion of JA2, you need custom graphics for items, faces, tiles. Hundreds or thousands of them, depending on the scale of it. You need to rewrite tons of text in the game, you need to design the new maps and test them thoroughly, you need to change the npc interaction scripts and values etc. For Renegade Republic, as mentioned before, we also held a worldwide voice actor casting. Luckily our 1.13 engine supported .ogg. I have RR's custom characters now ported onto a different engine where I have to use a certain .wav format and it amounts to a gigabyte of custom speech. But again, RR is completely out of the ordinary scale of a ja2 mod, it is like the "Tzar Moda" so to speak. For example I designed a custom bodytype sprite. What sounds like not much work, in JA2 terms it means the redesign of thousands of picture frames. Ja2's sprites are very detailed as the characters walk, run, jump, crawl, swim, climb, fire short, long, dual weapons from 3 different stances... it is not something for sane people to do. Plus, modmakers can also invest a lot of energy into item and especially weapon tweaking. RR only has around 400 different weapons, but one could easily waste a lifetime balancing them.

With 1.13 itself being a mod in active development what additional challenges did that bring? Were there times you found yourself working around an issue only to have it disappear in the next release? Or was there enough communication that those kinds of problems were minimized?

Working on a "moving target" holds several issues. The worst being having to update very large parts of data in order to keep compatibility, even if it's a feature I wouldn't even want to use and even if it's going to cause a lot of problems. In the begnning of the 1.13 project, there was a lot of communication. Muggsy, kaiden and I sometimes shared dozens of emails during a day and also did some strategic planning. Later on it became worse when development was less organised and mostly driven by community hype.

Of course what you mention is an issue as well. I may mention tanks: for a long time, tanks weren't functional in 1.13 so I had to remove all the tanks from my maps. Lately tanks don't cause any CTD's anymore so I could place them again. Or placing mines in a map is still a horrible mess.

As far as communication is concerned, the main problem is that no "conventional" modmaker was left in the 1.13 dev team once I started to mostly focus on RR, which is supposed to be proof of concept of 1.13 as a modmaking base. And the forum communication, as you can imagine, is characterised by a lot of very useless debating with a lot of unqualified sidecomments into it, so you can forget that as well. This is one cause of the very small number of existing 1.13 based mods, they just lost focus on the idea of supporting classical modmaking.

When you're developing one of your mods what do you consider to be the most important design aspects? Challenge level? Balance? Fun vs. frustration? To put it another way what do you focus on in attempting to give the player a good gameplay experience?

That's certainly a question worth writing pages about. Hope you'll bear with me

It depends mainly on the focus of the mod in question, or the specific part you're working on as well as your assumed player audience. The JA2 player base is extremely heterogeneous given JA2 is more or less a genre in itself and doesn't limit itself to a stereotypical gamer type. So you can't please everybody, but you can add elements that will please a certain type of player, and you can balance these elements the way you like it or your assumed audience might like it. Personally, I care most about how much fun I have playing a mod. While I'm not representative for the player community, it is still a fairly acceptable assumption that when I have more fun playing my mod than the base game, there will be a couple of people that agree because I can always compare to the base game. A game designer doesn't have this reference, so for the modmaker this can be a help just as much as it can be a burden.
So the key to a mod is what you as the modmaker want to achieve. There are mods that have a very high focus on making things harder (they usually call it "more realistic" but it often boils down to "more annoying" or "harder" because the implementation of realism into a game is always tricky). There's nothing wrong about that, they'll have a playerbase in some hardcore players that actually want every door to be locked at all times or that are looking for the maximum enemy numbers in almost every map or that want the enemy to have minefields all over the place.

Just the same there will be playerbase for "carnage" like mods. In this type of mod, you get Uber-equipment in big stashes and once you captured these stashes, you can unleash mayhem on everything and everybody.

So in my opinion, it is a matter of the modmaker's concept whether to make a game challenging/ fun for hardcore players by adding difficulty in terms of annoyance/ frustration or to make it easy/ fun for a fast and casual bloodbath while reducing challenge level for hardcore players. My mods don't fit into those classical schemes in my own opinion. There are elements of both, and there is more to them. What I care about is novelty. I try to get new content into my mods. It's not the only focus of course, and it is risky. You can't just add new stuff for the sake of "it hasn't been done before", it must meet standards just as well.
And I also try to have some humour in my mods. It is very tricky to do that in a foreign language, so I must be careful. Cameos, real life references, some sarcasm and irony, that can help IMHO a lot to prevent the player from being bored about your mod/ game.

But I'm straying off the actual question here. I think each of the named design aspects need to be looked at both individually and in terms of how they relate to each other and in the context of what you want to achieve. And then intense playtesting. I probably played more JA2 Vengeance than most JA2 players played JA2 itself. And this is bearing in mind that JA2 does consume a lot of time. So game balance mattered a lot there. In JA2, game balance also always means weapon balance. You can easily lose yourself in that aspect, but it does matter for the gameplay that you don't break weapon balance. It's not a requirement to drastically improve it, JA2 has an acceptable game/ weapon balance to start with, but you mustn't ruin it. So far, I did change the weapon progression tables as well as manually equipping some specific enemy placement in both big mods, because only a combination of both will bring across what i want to achieve. And of course the mapping. I think mapping is a very big key to the gameplay. I think many modders and devs seriously underestimate the impact of the scenery onto the gameplay. The aim here must be to get the "atmosphere" of the game right in the specific map. Gameplay must differ a lot if you're in a jungle map or in an urban environment or in a snow map. The AI must be prepared that they behave according to what the map demands. If there are sandbagged positions, then the AI should defend those positions, not rush up the player at the map edge, etc. etc. That's the AI side of things, important as well is the player side. The player must be given an opportunity to use what the scenery should "rightly" offer as tactical options. A town map must offer enough opprtunity to use houses, cars, benches, walls as cover, to assault the AI from inside the houses, to split up teams and confuse the AI by attacking from different sides. Attacking a town, the player should have various options on each side of the map, not just that one hot spot, otherwise you kill replayability. Landscape on the other hand needs to have a very different kind of combat. Long ranged engagemets, using every bush or tree as concealment.

So here, in order to create the perfect atmosphere of given tactical combat gameplay, a matching map design must fit to the right weapon/ item progressions. There's no point setting up a a sniper-oriented map when most of the soldiers will be using submachineguns due to low progress. If you have a high level elite on top of a watchtower and he tries to shoot you with an SMG missing with all of his bullets then that's very anticlimatic and just not what would "feel" right. For me, that "right" feel is a lot more important than what people usually consider realistic or what people usually consider a challenge. A sleepy town at the edge of the country might pose a bigger challenge if it is crowded with enemies. Yet it feels odd. What are they here for? Defend uncle Lester's empty barn? Putting it more abstract, what matters IMHO is to create good individual puzzle pieces and to set them together nicely. This is challenging. If you one your pieces is off, the puzzle itself won't fit together. And many players are very sensitive to that and might abandon your mod because of something you'd consider an odd detail. Because in their imagination, they can do it better. Everything. They don't get around doing it, but they have very detailed ideas on how it should be.

In order to come back to the initial question, what i probably focus on most is to give the majority of situations in the game a "matching feel". I layed out what I meant by this earlier. I sacrifice realism just as much as difficulty/ challenge or even balance to a certain extent if I need to. However, they usually come a close second. Balancing is important to me. I think balancing based on judgements made through intensive playtesting takes up quite some time on each of the mods that change game balance. Difficulty and challenge are directly related to balancing as well. There I tend to focus on delivering different challenges for different situations. A good example is what I mentioned above about mapmaking. A map like a Sam site or an enemy's defensive position will usually motivate the player through difficulty more than through fun, other maps should deliver a very different type of combat and thus, offer a different source of motivation. For me, when I play, I often think about how I can fool or outsmart the AI. Setting up good fire positions, sneaking up in their backs etc. The player needs to have these options more on certain maps than on others, where the idea is to "persevere". Lately I tend to give a lot of options even on maps that are supposed to be "hard" though. The risk is that my maps are too easy then, but it's just my taste these days.

So frustration, which is often used by modmakers to make their mods "harder" IMHO is only an option where it matches the feeling of the situation. Assaulting a fortress can rightfully cause frustration, but you want to persevere and show how tough you are. But frustration is to be used cum grano salis. It mustn't be the main source of difficulty in the game, this gets boring too fast. It should only be used in certain situations to give the player an extra adrenaline rush.

Of course, this is my opinion, and other modmakers have very distinct concepts of how it all should be. Two modmakers talk to each other, you get three different opinions and this is a huge advantage because as a player, there are new and different things that you can like or that can cause a challenge in every mod, in every map almost.

Also it assures that what you do has a certain degree of individuality and is a nice change compared to the next modmaker's work.

Couple big questions. What keeps you going? And how have you avoided burnout?

Good questions both of them. I think I steadily expanded my ideas throughout the course of development. I pushed the envelope always just as much as I could do it. I didn't shock myself with the idea of creating the largest JA2 mod ever from the beginning. Plus I shouldn't omit that my private life, while suffering a lot, had enough understanding and only caused the kind of problems every male gamer knows when the girlfriend is jealous because of your time spent in front of the computer.

I guess what kept me from burning out is that I tossed my studies back then (I'm studying again now) Creating a meaningful mod and full time studies... that might have burned me. I guess that's bad advice I'm giving here but since I'm nobody's idol, nobody can blame me.

One last question. Which of your mods is your personal favorite and why?

I already wrote an essay on my mods, especially Renegade Republic. You'll have to pardon the redundancies.

Basically I have a very easy time liking my own work:) I guess this is also something that kept me going, but additionally, it means I also liked playing my mods a lot, each of them for different advantages. Vengeance NK and JA2 vengeance featured in my humble opinion the best map designs at the time, especially concerning the tactical combat. Tactical options were much more important than in vanilla JA2, where it basically came down to gear and experience level in most maps.
Wildfire and UC, while made by much more skilled people than myself, felt almost unbalanced and artificial in their tactical gameplay if I have to compare. So at that time, playing Vengeance was great fun. (It also had some more humour than RR. RR was probably slightly too "serious" in its approach)

Renegade Republic then has this approach of being almost a new game. I mean JA2 isn't easy to mod, and even large scale mods like UC or wildfire... are like a new layer of paint over the same old house. I don't want to diss the creators of those mods. It was other times and other circumstances and a different focus, and their achievements is what even allowed us later generation modmakers to do our projects in the first place. Yet RR is the first (English) mod that did away with many things that were previously accepted as not changeable. Female villain --> male villain. Cut scenes. Vehicles. More characters than vanilla JA2, a lot of new quests, a quite different atmosphere to the setting etc. to me it almost felt like "my game" rather than just another incarnation of JA2. But that's a very biased view of things.

At the same time, the size and approach of RR is also its disadvantage. It carries all the leftover stuff from 1.13, it suffers under the load of having to be different than vanilla ja2 and each time it fails to do so, atmosphere suffers. In this respect I like the Wildfire Minimod I made. It doesn't remove any content from the base wildfire game, just adds content and gives that slight twist you know...

The cancelled project had a couple of great unique (at the time or still) features that made gameplay different from JA2. It had that great weapon familiarisation so when Ice Picked up that Klin submachinegun in early game and killed alot of guys with it, he could still use it in the lategame, it had these critical hit and vision features... However, none of which is my work. I guess my work is the poorest part of that project and would today be replaced and redone from scratch.

You see I find unique advantages in every mod. Not even limited to me having been part of developing it. Any mod holds its special gems. It's just a question of finding them.

TCancer would like to thank the_scorpion for taking the time to be interviewed by us.

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