Speed Building in The Dark Mod
Taking a small break from his large WIP Dark Mod mission, Melan set about to create a quickly constructed small mission to act as an example build for novice mappers. He documented the entire process, diary style at The Dark Mod forums and included editor shots of his progress. While not everyone can be as skilled an artist as Melan, the insights from his build process can help not only newcomers but veterans alike. The resulting mission release is of exceptional quality easily matching or exceeding just about any of the small contest releases in The Dark Mod's mission roster.
What inspired you to take up mapping, did you dabble in any other game design before Thief? Other than Thief, are there any games that you cite as examples of excellent game-play design and influences for your designs?
It is all rather simple: my inspiration came specifically from some of my favourite Thief maps, Trial by Night, Lord Edmund Entertains, Walking the Edge and Calendra’s Cistern. I started editing because there were not many new missions in that style anymore in 2007. People then tended to prefer plot-based to exploration-based game-play, mansions to cities, a more Victorian to a Gothic-meets-technology look, the affairs of nobles to crime and sinister conspiracies and so on.
It was a yearning for a specific experience that made me get involved in editing, something I had never done before, and something for which I had no qualifications whatsoever. My brother, who is five years my younger, had actually experimented with Dromed way before me, although he never got far with his mission. For me, it was an out of the blue idea on a bored night in Katowice, and a very specific idea at that. By the time I was finished with my concept map, I knew exactly how the mission would look, how it would sound and how it would play, I would just have to learn game editing to put it into practice. It was almost like a voice from the heavens exclaiming, “Thou shalt go forth and build!”
My influences, aside from Thief missions, are generally from outside computer games. Some ideas come from my other hobby, roleplaying games (and vice versa), some from my job (I am a regional scientist at a public research institute) and a lot more from an active interest in urbanism. Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which I checked out after a recommendation on an editing forum, has been a tremendous influence. He distils cities and buildings into interconnected, hierarchic patterns to try and understand why older, organically developed cities function well and why many modern ones don’t. It is a very smart look into designing environments of any kind, and it is also organized in a hypertext-before-there-was-hypertext way. You cannot go wrong with that book.
Your Thief 2 missions like "Bad Debts" seem to have a cooler color palette as is characteristic of your Dark Mod missions. Did Doom 3's native cool color scheme affect your perception of how well the game matched your art style?
Colour is very important to establish atmosphere. Some people do it with coloured lights, while I prefer to rely on natural texture colour. One of the signatures of the original Thief’s art direction was heavy contrast between cold stonework and colourful, vivid interiors. Some of that came from the technological limitations posed by the 256-colour palette and uniform white light, but it worked and allowed for interesting transitions within levels like coming in from the cold, bluish streets of the City to the warm, green-meets-red-meets-brown interior of Ramirez’s mansion or the gold-brown theme of Bafford’s. The Dark Mod offers a lot more possible solutions to the same dilemma, but I have also been very impressed with how effectively simple lights bring out detail on the architecture with bumpy normalmaps and specularity.
(Note the cool color scheme of the city area in "Bad Debts")
(Here a parallel color usage in Melan's "Return to the City")
(Contrasting warm interior in Melan's "Disorientation")
(Again, note the similar contrast in "Return to the City")
I have noticed in both of your TDM missions that guard patrols are such that there is a kind of "take turns guarding this area" cycle rather than having stationed guards that are assigned patrol specific areas of their own. Indeed, we often the see the guards pass each other on patrol to exchange places. Is there a logical reason for these cycles or is it a pure game-play mechanic enhancer?
Overlapping patrol routes are interesting since they add a dynamism to the environment that is missing when you only have stationary guards. There is a constant change in threat levels at a specific point, since an area could have one guard passing by with his field of vision, or it could have multiple guards watching each others’ backs. That’s great since it reinforces Thief/TDM as a game about careful observation, patience and sudden, daring action.
The other reason I sometimes assign multiple guards to the same long route is simple laziness; patrol routes can be a chore to set up (although a lot less than in Dromed) and I suppose it is also a leftover habit from Dromed editing where patrol points can really eat up your object count if you are not careful. Even in Fiasco at Fauchard Street, there are something like 80 path_corner entities, and in a larger mission, you could have hundreds and hundreds of them.
I consider Return to the City to be a candidate for the best released Dark Mod (single) mission to date. I know that the processes to both bring it to life and revise it were quite tortured for you. Would you like to share any of your thoughts about your first Dark Mod mission?
RttC started out as an experiment in “can I do the things I was doing in this new editor?” It was originally to be called Mean Street, set in a nasty slum area inspired by jdude’s Tears of St. Lucia, and would have involved you robbing the store of a dog oil merchant at the behest of his rival to ruin his business. Not the nice guy stuff. That did not work out so well, partly because of the constraints imposed by the resource base (there were not enough slummy textures and objects in TDM 1.0) and partly because I actually ended up inadvertently sabotaging my design. I failed to make architecture look sufficiently poor, unpleasant and decrepit, and had to develop a new backstory as I went – turning Mean Street into the sequel for Prowler of the Dark, except set in the neighbouring street section.
There were also important technical failures. You can build very easily in DarkRadiant, and I cannot praise its creators enough, because they have made it such a powerful yet streamlined tool in their free time that professional programmers should take note. But you cannot build really open architecture with the engine because it will all end up being rendered simultaneously. In both Thief and TDM, you have to restrict sight lines, but there is a crucial difference: in the former, you have to watch for polygon count; in the latter, you have to watch for compartmentalization, and they are actually different things. So learn from me and don’t build another RttC.
The revision was a hard deal as well. I got a lot of suggestions and outright help from people on the forums, but I never acted on their advice; it was just impossible for me to go back and revise my work out of crushing boredom and disinterest. So I moved on to texture work, then a new level. It was Bikerdude’s offer and insistent persuasion to help revise the level that motivated me to, uh, Return to the Return to the City. And that project also grew with new areas we built jointly, but I slowly started to feel along the way it was a good mission, but no longer a good RttC. So, eventually, right before going to beta, the opportunity for a fork came up and it was split into RttC-revised where most of the new stuff you see is Bikerdude’s doing (including the gorgeous house interior) and an entirely new level that’s a Frankenstein monster using pieces of RttC, abandoned architecture by Tels and Fidcal, and more new stuff. I think people will understand our reasons when they see where it is all going.
Bikerdude, through collaboration with you, seems to have acquired a taste for some of your color and lighting methods. Are you happy when you see another mapper leaning towards your visual style?
(For the record, I hope to see another Biker mission with the warm look of Caduceus of St Alban...)
I am happy when there are missions that build on my work, since that means more levels I will be sure to enjoy. But it is also important for people to develop their own style; like how I started by imitating others (and going through levels in Dromed to see how they did this tower or that balcony) and developed something that could be called a personal mark, a signature, and my own ideas about the setting and its inhabitants. Bikerdude has certainly become an accomplished builder in his own right in a short amount of time, starting with no previous editing experience. This all shows it is not really deviltry that does it, just an active interest, a bit of dedication, and a great toolset. And TDM is a great toolset.
Something I am also looking forward to is Merrick’s Cellar by vexd, a Thief 2 project that has a stylistic similarity to my levels and seems to be a Constantine-style screwed up madhouse. I have always wanted to do something like that!
You seem to be encyclopedic about all things Thief and The Dark Mod. Please feel free to recommend at least a couple of either favorite or lesser known fan missions and any commentary about them.
I would rather recommend people than missions, since it is personal visions that make the best FMs so special. First things first, Purah (Anthony Huso) is obviously my number one inspiration. He did really immense and impressive work, and did it before all the others. He was really inspired, and you can see in Calendra’s Cistern or Autumn in Lampfire Hills how he had his own vision that was nevertheless compatible with the LGS one, and the technical mastery to translate it into a game. And Calendra’s Legacy is what Thief 2 should have been from the start.
My second recommendation, for an often overlooked builder, is Sperry. His missions, particularly in the Shadow of Doubt campaign (Walking the Edge, Tears of Blood, Al Astir and The Broadsword of Sheol) but also the utterly strange Brainchild, are notable for a desperate and oppressive atmosphere. Purah’s thief is a master of his environment, someone to be feared when in the shadows; Sperry’s is the kind of person who has to pick the locks on his cell door with a wooden splinter and hide in the shadows because they are the only place where he can be safe. These are very different ideas about thieves.
Two authors who have developed very interesting personal styles more recently are Lady Rowena, a reclusive perfectionist with flawless 10/10 missions, and DrK, who is a visionary with a unique take on the Thief setting and its visuals. I would love to see either or both of them create missions for The Dark Mod one day. In TDM, my favourite epic FM so far is Fidcal’s Heart of Lone Salvation (it shows beautifully how TDM’s new features can be turned into gameplay), my favourite small one is Silencium18’s Special Delivery (it is short, sweet and very replayable) and in between, there is a lot of good stuff.
If you didn't openly document the fact on your profile, I would never guess your Hungarian nationality. You have an exceedingly brilliant grasp of American linguistic colloquialisms. In fact, you often bring to the fore political happenings and world events outside either nationality. How many languages do you speak? How many have you mastered to the same degree as English? Does your multi-national awareness and reservoir of historical knowledge influence story or universe building for your missions?
It is simply a matter of practice: I read and write English daily (due in part to an interest in politics), while my German and Russian are a lot less developed because I don’t use them regularly. I wish I spoke more, since every language opens up a whole world of ideas and thinking; there are even concepts that are easy to formulate in one language but very hard or circuitous in others. My grandpa, who grew up in Transylvania, could speak Hungarian, German and Romanian fluently from a young age; he was then taught a little bit of Latin in school, picked up some Russian in Siberia, and later in life, learned English and even basic Spanish. In a sense, he was a very rich man, although he had always held a blue-collar job.
The lesson also applies elsewhere. Building missions and thinking in terms of architectural elements has changed the way I look at the built environment – I notice details and structure where I only used to have a general impression. The more you know about the world, not necessarily in the academic sense, the broader the knowledge base you can rely on, and the more easily you can apply the lessons of one area in another. This is the benefit a classical education gives you. I sadly don’t have one, and it has been sidelined in our time in favour of overspecialisation and a focus on “efficiency” that, in the end, does not make people any more efficient but ends up limiting them. It may be controversial to say it on a computer game site, but if the only things you know are computer games, you will never be able to think outside that box, while, for instance, if you look at the Thief games after you get to know The Third Man, Fritz Leiber’s Ill Met in Lankhmar, and some of Fritz Lang’s paranoid fantasies like Dr. Mabuse, Metropolis and M (I picked up some of them because of Thief), you will still enjoy the games but also understand where LGS was really coming from. That’s extra perspective.
You are a big contributor of texture packs to The Dark Mod. Often these are to accommodate the needs of your missions. Have you submitted any textures that you have yet to "devise a use for" or are all your textures made to fit your builds?
The textures come first. In fact, textures and resources in general establish the possibilities of a mission. Just like you would have to build a different-looking house from a pile of bricks than a pile of logs, the look and feel of a level are dependent on what you have at your disposal. Of course, you can build a lot of different houses from bricks, but there are both physical and aesthetic limits.
The textures I have created for TDM have filled a need for darker, grittier than default textures which were missing in 1.0, but ultimately, they are based on the photo-sources I have used. For example, Fauchard Street has a factory area and a Victorian-looking office complex because I finally had enough good textures to create them. And much of the Victorian set comes from one single photo on CGTextures I cut up into three kinds of metal girders and a row of windows. If they didn’t turn up there a little before I started working on the mission, that whole area would look very different. As mission builders, we are utterly dependent on both our tools and our materials.
The origins of speed-building.
Your latest map was an outgrowth of a discussion about the merits of pre-fab based building techniques and the possibility of a lite version of Dark Radiant editing that was perhaps more akin to in-game map editing seen in "God Games" like Populous or console phenomenon like "Little Big Planet". You set out to prove that a conservative map design can be built at break-neck speed without painstaking detail work and without any new tools or work-flow. While it's a little dubious that such a master as yourself can illustrate how a novice will fare with these tools, your illustration is a tremendous boon for any Dark Mod mapper and the resultant mission is quite exceptional. Please elaborate your objective with this project and your thoughts about the best practices for novice mission authors.
As written in the original thread, I wanted to show people how easy and inviting it is to work with DarkRadiant to produce a mission. There are a lot of helpful tools and a growing library of assets that make the process painless for beginners. You could say I knew already how and where to apply them, and there is no denying that. But I am absolutely convinced a total beginner can build a reasonably good-looking map in a few weeks. It may be a small one, like a townhouse, a little street with a few apartments or a crypt, anything like that. There is always work and effort involved, but you can get there and it is a great experience to see it come together at the end. I have discussed a lot of easy techniques in the thread itself, so the best way to learn them may be to play the mission (or other, preferably simpler ones), open it with DarkRadiant afterwards to see how it looks in the editor, then simply start building.
And unquestionably, we need more people building for the mod to gather momentum. The Dark Mod is a very rare, probably unique effort in trying to create a very complex total conversion and actually succeeding where most mods die after a few models and early map builds. I think it needs more attention and recognition, both from people who have been playing Thief since the first Bafford demo and people who have come to it only recently. A lot of us active builders are tied up in large, ambitious projects, so if you surprise us with a small mission, it is going to get played a lot and get you recognition. Join us!
Will we ever see an ugly Melan mission? Maybe a Melan remake in Minecraft? Maybe a "stretch the textures" contest where no texture can be properly sized? When can we expect to see some visual disappointment from you?
Just shoot me if you do! :)
Thank you for your time Melan!
Please visit The Dark Mod forums to discuss this release or the process for the build.