Eight years deep, the Black Mesa project perseveres

Eight years deep, the Black Mesa project preservers with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers.

The Black Mesa project began in 2004 with disappointment. Fans of Valve's seminal first-person shooter, Half-Life, had played an official remake, Half-Life: Source, but it hadn't lived up to their expectations. They wanted a remake, not a port, so they set out to fulfill their own expectations by rebuilding the game from the ground up in Valve's Source Engine.

It seemed rather straightforward, and the group's original plan was to release in 2009. That estimation proved unrealistic. As of this writing, the game still hasn't seen release, but the project remains in active development by a group of volunteers at the Black Mesa Project who haven't lost sight of the original vision.

"When we planned our 2009 release, we really believed we were going to be able to make that a reality," Carlos Montero, Black Mesa's project leader told Polygon. "We ended up busting our asses to make that a reality, and we went against a lot of our core values in the process. We found ourselves rushing things, cutting things, making quality sacrifices we did not want to make. And more than ever we found ourselves realizing that we could do a lot of things so much better."

That required reassessment is a theme that has defined the project since the delay. Montero says they've learned from their mistakes, and the final product will be better for it.

"I didn't think we'd need to figure out so many things."

"I didn't think we'd need to figure out so many things," he said. "In many ways it seemed like all the big problems were solved, because I didn't understand the problems."

After the delay, the team decided that the final product would include any corners they'd previously considered cutting. They just didn't know how long that would take, and they decided to make their peace with that.

"After the 2009 debacle we sort of doubled-down with production," Montero said. "We had a new bar of quality we had set, and we weren’t sure how long it was going to take us to get there. We realized what a huge mistake we had made of leading the public on, so we decided not to do that anymore. We left the spotlight to focus on our work and come back when we had felt more confident about everything again."

Montero sees that doubling down in his management style, which has a greater focus on cohesion and keeping the team interested than it does on micromanaging.

"'Managing' is not my job," he said. "Teaching, advising, guiding, helping people open their eyes and pay attention where it counts, that's my job. The better of a job I'm doing, the less I'm needed and the more I can get out of the way. Empower people to do great work, then get out of the way and let them do great work. This is a strategy that lets you have the freedom to focus on the big picture, while your team is doing great work at the nitty-gritty level. It's a philosophy that I've strayed from and always come back to."

The team is spread far and wide. It's made up of students, professionals, and many hobbyists. Diverse people, diverse tastes, all passionate about the game. There's a running joke about their relentless productivity because someone's always working on the project, no matter what time of day it is.

The team chooses their focus through collaboration and discussion, though it's focused because one of their early mistakes was allowing everyone to do everything all at once. Montero sees democracy as the best way to motivate the volunteers. The focus also keeps them interested in the monumental task in front of them.

"This isn't a job," Montero said. "No one wants to login at the end of their regular school or work day and have a big list of work to do. That's not the kind of team member we want anyway. We want people who are going to be involved in solving issues and interested in creating or fixing things to fill a need. You don’t get people involved by taking out the involved part of the equation and just delivering them the hard work. Hard work needs to be a means to an end, and it’s the end that they need to care about and feel responsible for."

"Empower people to do great work, then get out of the way and let them do great work."

In June, the Project released screenshots showing their progress, and earlier this month, gameplay footage appeared online. Although he doesn't provide a release date, he implies that the group is closing in on that stage.

"I'd hope it's pretty clear to everyone that we are planning multiple stages of release for everything we have planned," he said. "I'd characterize our first release as being pretty close to completion."

And until then, it's about perseverance.

"How do you persevere at anything in life? You gotta believe in it, you know? I think by now we all believe in what we’ve accomplished, we believe it really will be something special when we get it in people’s hands. So even when it does get overwhelming or frustrating, you can’t forget that faith you still have in the project, and it always brings you back to it. Sure it gets tough sometimes but it always brings us back."

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