The Make Something Unreal contest revealed the winners of phase 1 of its four part contest some time ago. Unfortunately the news was lost in the sea of hubbub all about this holiday season's deluge of AAA releases. For those that were paying attention, you may have noticed a few promising projects setting down roots in order to become the granddaddy of all UT3 mods and take home the big prize. One such project is a mod simply named 'The Ball'.
The Ball is simple core concept that is executed with what seems like razor sharp focus. This should come as no surprise when you look at the person at the helm of the project. Sjoerd De Jong, better known as "Hourences", is a self-published writer of level design and an industry professional. Together with his talented team, they're well into development of a Aztec-themed puzzle-based mod for Unreal Tournament 3. So far, in its second revision, it is an adventure that puts you in the boots of a wayward construction worker making his way through the internal workings of ancient Ziggurats. Your only companion is a giant metal-shelled ball, a mysterious artifact in its own right, that you use to make your way through a series of rooms. The pacing and difficulty level will satisfy most gamers, (especially ones that may have been put off that other mod) rewarding them with breathtaking vistas after they've cleared each temple.
I had the chance to talk with Hourences himself and ask him about the origins, future plans and the development processes he and his team use for the mod:
ModDB: What were your inspirations behind making this mod?
Hourences: Portal for its efficient and simple yet awesome design, Unreal for its style and atmosphere, and Tomb Raider for its atmosphere as well—its mysterious and intriguing locations. The mod as a whole was also inspired by the old style of FPS games, which took place mostly indoors in dark dungeons and castles. We wanted to bring back the feeling you used to get when playing FPS games.
ModDB: Interesting that you mention old FPS games, this mod has no firearms to speak of—will that change by the end of development?
Hourences: We are looking into that at the moment. We want to add some enemies in the next release and for that we need to come up with some kind of mechanism to direct the ball to the enemies. One of the ideas we have right now is to shoot some kind of magnet at an enemy, which in turn will attract the ball and make it follow the enemy until it rolls over it. We are still unsure on how exactly we are going implement that though.
ModDB: How much time has the team put into the development so far?
Hourences: We made Pehua in about a month with three people, worth an estimated 180 man hours. Oztoc was made in three months, about 600 man hours I would say. It is hard to estimate though.
ModDB: The environments in the mod are amazing, who was responsible for bringing those to life?
Hourences: I did all the textures and meshes, put down the visual style and designed about 70 percent of the puzzles. Thomas Browett made the remaining 30 percent. He was responsible for large parts of the second Oztoc level. The levels in part 3 will get a new theme and style to add some variation to the mod. We are planning to use lots of gold, more large open environments, and more green lighting from two large rivers surrounding the levels. The two levels planned for Part 3 are going to be far cooler than any of our current levels if our plans work out.
ModDB: I've noticed some interesting character models in your media section as well as a distinct Aztec tribal theme within the levels. Does all of this hook into a storyline you have planned for the mod?
Hourences: The first level now has a small intro cinematic that details the simple background story to the player. The story is still underdeveloped though and we will try to improve on that for Part 3. The intention is to focus the story almost entirely on the environment. What the place really is, why it was built, what the ball has to do with all of this, by who all of it was constructed, and so on. We are going to leave the player in the dark about who the character is he is playing with, apart from some hints given during the intro, but leave the rest to his own imagination.
We do not aim to ever really implement a very detailed story though. We aim for an approach similar to Unreal and Portal—where there is little information available about who the player is or what the place he ended up in really is. [We want to] build the experience up largely around the atmosphere and gameplay rather than the story.
ModDB: The ball in part 2 is a different one, any significance there?
Hourences: We decided to redo the ball for part 2 because we weren't really happy with how the old one looked. As the ball is pretty much the main character of the mod, we really wanted to make it look a lot cooler and more fitting to the environment than the pretty generic first ball. We also made sure the ball behaves a bit better in part 2 by fixing the bug where the player can get stuck inside the ball and by allowing you to bring the ball to a full stop when keep holding secondary fire.
ModDB: You've also promised part 2 to have more action in addition to the puzzle elements. Are you having troubles is trying to find ways to blend the moments of action with the puzzle aspect?
Hourences: We haven't succeeded in adding enemies to Part 2, like we had intended. Time constraints have temporarily put those plans on hold, but we are most definitely going to add it to part 3. It is a high priority for us. The action in part 2 is pretty limited right now. There are a number of exploding balls, and three hot balls that will try to crush and burn you. Those weren't that difficult to blend in with the puzzle gameplay. For part three we hope to have an action-puzzle ratio similar to the Tomb Raider games.
ModDB: It seems like you're approaching an episodic release model with this mod. Is that because of the MSU contest? How many "parts" or episodes do you plan to release?
Hourences: Yes certainly, but we are also doing it to aid our development process. We intend to have a fully fledged total conversion by the end of the contest, and building up such a large project in several parts like we are doing is just a whole lot easier than trying to tackle the whole project at once. That is also the reason why Epic implemented several phases, to motivate people to start small.
We intend to have at least three parts, but likely we will end up with four or five episodes.
ModDB: Can you briefly explain your development process? I mean, a month is a really condensed development time for a mod. What do you think you've done different when compared to most other mod teams?
Hourences: First of all we simply got a very simple but cool idea. We designed it in such way that we could invest most of our time in polishing what we made, rather than trying to make it work. We also greatly cut down on the number of features for the first release, to make sure that we had a realistic goal that would be easy to meet. We [also] simply have a lot of experience. The programmer and I have both been working with Unreal for years. This is the 9th year that I [have worked on] modding a UT game. We didn't have to spend any time on looking up information, reading tutorials, and so on.
ModDB: So by the end of the fourth phase, what do you expect 'The Ball' mod to be in terms of both content and playtime? What's you ultimate goal with this project?
Hourences: We hope to have at least six hours of singleplayer gameplay by the end of the 4th phase, preferably 8, at least three enemies, and two new kind of environments. We obviously hope to win the engine license and go commercial with this. I think that this kind of game would fit platforms like [the] Xbox Live Arcade and Steam really well, so that is the ultimate goal.
If you haven't tried it yet, the cumulative second release—Oztoc—of The Ball mod is available to download on ModDB. Part 3 can be expected to release sometime around the deadline of phase 3 of the MSU (May 15th).