A Springheel Interview
With the release of his acclaimed mission "A Score to Settle", Springheel now adds "Mission Author" to his list of Dark Mod contributions. Though you won't be short of Springheel's thoughts if you regularly browse The Dark Mod or TTLG forums, I have taken this opportunity to broach topics that are a little off the beaten path...
* For new players, please introduce yourself and explain your role in The Dark Mod team.
I'm the Artistic Lead for The Dark Mod, and the only active "Dept. Lead" developer who has been with the mod from the very beginning. Most of my time these days is spent working on adding new character models and animations to the game.
* Before The Dark Mod, did you ever attempt to create a 3D game level?
The closest thing I had done to modding before TDM was make a couple new skins for Sims 2. When I first joined the Mod, it was simply to do concept art for the characters. I never expected to learn how to do things like modeling or mapping, but I've found that they satisfy the same creative urges for me that drawing and painting did. The rewards of being able to walk around in an environment that you created yourself are pretty high--I remember getting quite a rush when I first walked around the first simple room I made in Dark Radiant.
* As a concept artist, did you story-board your mission before you built it?
My original intent was just to learn how the editor worked, and I thought it would help me as a developer to see things from a mapper's perspective if I created my own map.
I made a few rough plans in an old sketchbook from time to time, but the actual mission developed pretty organically. I started out wanting to make a very simple, very small map like the training mission of TDS. It's actually hard to keep maps small, though. They tend to quickly get larger and more complicated than you intended.
Looking back, it was actually a terrible way to start a map...I wasn't thinking of visportals or even gameplay when I was building the majority of it. I was just trying to create environments that looked relatively authentic. I had a very rough outline of the plot in my head, but didn't think much about how it would play out until later.
* You have stated that the Inventor's Guild is one of the most distinctive of TDM factions (as compared to Thief), what is your overall vision for them ?
There is nothing quite like the Inventor's Guild in Thief. They're a secretive group of steampunk inventors and scientists who create crazy things, only half of which are useful. Imagine Leonardo Da Vinci or Archimedes with access to steampunk technology. There's also a sinister undertone to them, with rumours of necromancy and dark magic at the heart of some of their machines.
* Do missions like "The Caduceus of St Alban", "Patently Dangerous", and "Glenham Tower" with their allusions to the inventor aspect give you hope that the community is fulfilling your vision or do you plan on demonstrating this in a more concrete fashion in a future mission?
To be honest, I don't think the Inventors have been successfully used yet, although that's not the fault of mappers. We just don't have very many steampunk resources, so mappers don't have a lot to work with. I'm sure that will change eventually. The new engineer and scientist characters in 1.06 should help.
* It seems you've become the defacto character artist in all respects. Would you be happier if (for example) the character animation duties were resumed by the folks listed in the Animation Division roster? What is your preferred mode of contribution? (Note: I do see that Noiseycricket's combat animations are pending v1.07).
Yes, it would certainly be nice to have more help. I never really wanted to take on rigging and animating our characters, and I don't claim to be particularly good at it, but people with the necessary skill set seem to be rare. We get animators once in a while, but they usually disappear after a few months.
I'm not sure what my preferred method of contributing is; that's a good question. I know my _least_ favourite is rigging character models. Making them is rewarding, but tracing down stray verts, fixing clipping issues and weighting shoulders so they move properly is all tremendously tedious.
I go back and forth on whether it's worth it or not. I enjoy creating things that I know people are enjoying, but when I look at the sheer number of hours I put into TDM, I can't help but think of all the other things I could be doing.
* You wrote the readables and created props for "A Builders Influence", was the story expansion from "A Score to Settle" already in mind before you worked on that mission?
I had the basic plot in mind for AStS for a while (it was inspired by a Rome HBO episode) but I wasn't really thinking about it when working on BI. I did create the protagonist, Corbin, with the intention of using him in the future, though.
* The new AI "relighting behaviors" in v1.06 seem to be a fulfillment of an old desire for more realism in a Thief style game. How much revision did you need to do to accommodate this change for your mission release?
I'm very excited about that feature. I like a challenge, and the more believable the AI are, the happier I am. As for how much it changed the map, not very much. The entire feature was actually spurred on a bit by the AI standing by the bonfire. I didn't want players putting it out and have the AI stand there warming their hands like nothing happened, but I couldn't get the relighting to work properly at the time. I think it was that bug report that got Grayman interested in the problem. By the time he had everything working the map was pretty close to completion, so I didn't want to change very much. I did add the footstool so AI could reach the one torch in the main hall, and adjusted a few other lights so they could be reached. I do think that feature is going to have a huge impact in later missions.
* You seem to have the largest number of Bug Tracker reports for observed AI behavior anomalies. Were most of these observed in your own mission while in development or are these observations part of your overall bug tracking for new TDM builds (eg various missions tested near a TDM release)?
I think the AI are the most important part of a stealth game. I keep a notepad beside my keyboard, and whenever I'm testing something or playing a mission, I jot down things that I notice which need to be fixed. Unlike shooters, players spend a lot of time just sitting and watching AI go about their business. If they AI aren't believable and effective, the overall experience will suffer, regardless of how good the map is. I'm always keeping my eye open for ways to make AI better, or to make them more lifelike with behaviours like card-playing.
* Do you have any mission concepts that you would like to see made but would rather not have to build?
There are lots of places in the TDM setting that I would like to visit--the plague ward, the great bridges, the flood district, etc. But to me, an engaging story and challenging gameplay are the most important things.
* Do you have TDM member photos? When can we expect you to create effigies of them as new AI\NPC character assets?
The Dark Mod has a Facebook page, so I know what a few team-members look like from there, but that's it. Interesting that you mention an effigy...there actually is one team-member already represented as an NPC in the game, but I'll leave a bit of mystery about which character it is.
* Thank you Springheel
(for the answers... and continued mod development!)