Back to the Source – Black Mesa and Social Media

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1998’s Half Life saw mute Physicist Gordon Freeman pitted against zombies, the army and the alien forces of the Xen dimension in a game so ahead of its time, that it is sometimes cited as an example of revolutionary gameplay and storytelling even today. In 2004, a sequel (Half Life 2) was released, to similar praise, and famously named (by reviewer Maximum PC) as “the greatest PC game ever made”. Both games also attracted a sizeable ‘modding’ community, with custom maps, weapons and allies. Some modders even utilised Valve’s Source Engine, on which Half Life 2 was built, and which Half Life 1 was ported-onto, to construct entirely original content. Source Mods such as Dear Esther, Nightmare House 2 and Zombie Master, proved an incredibly popular project for would-be game designers.

In 2005, work began on one very particular Source mod. It was to-be made almost from-scratch, with models and textures all custom-drawn, not recycled from Half Life 2 (as many source mods do). A group began to form: well-known community-content-producers were headhunted and work began. The project’s name – Black Mesa: Source. Its goal was a complete re-make of Half Life. Black Mesa: Source later became Black Mesa, after Valve requested they remove the ‘Source’ due to copyright issues.
In the eight years since the project’s beginning, it has been regarded with a certain lighthearted curiosity. Some jokingly compared it to Duke Nukem Forever, long regarded as vapourware until its 2011 release (it had a 15 year development cycle).

One of the most interesting points about Black Mesa’s story is its use of social media to both engage with fans, and promote itself. The Black Mesa website boasts buttons directing to both Facebook and YouTube pages dedicated to the project. The developers are particularly active on YouTube, uploading small ‘teaser-style’ clips of animations and function-tests. In the Black Mesa forums, the ‘Suggestion Box’ subforum, which allows fans to make gameplay suggestions to developers, has seen over 23,000 posts, and there is also an active presence on the ‘Cafeteria’ (Q&A) area.
In my article on the game ‘Overgrowth’, I strongly advocate a proactive model of game development, which utilises social media to its full potential, and engages potential audiences way ahead of time. Black Mesa strongly adheres to this idea, and the results are plain to see: after eight years, a timeframe in which many projects might have lost considerable support, nearly 50,000 people like its Facebook page, 20,000 follow its Twitter, and the official trailer on its YouTube account has racked-up well over a million views.

While it’s no Homer’s Odyssey, the Black Mesa project has seen much over its eight year dev-cycle. In fact, it is worth pointing-out that the world of gaming today is radically different to how it was in 2005. Perhaps it is worth pondering whether or not the long-overdue game will emerge only to be regarded as obsolete by critics. However, the development model of Black Mesa is likely to have worked to its advantage in this respect. Whereas 15-year-development Duke Nukem Forever was a very ‘closed’ project obsessing over ‘re-living’ features of its 1996 predecessor, Black Mesa has been very open from the start. The use of social media has prevented it from being left behind by the industry, and also prevented it from leaving its fans behind.