Mod is Dead: Garry's Mod Interview

By Nick Breckon, Jul 24, 2007 2:10pm PDT Before Garry's Mod, online gaming just wasn't the same. By allowing players to exploit the physics-based Source engine of Half-Life 2 with ordinary objects and custom tools, GMod brought out the best and worst of a creative community of gamers. Spawning everything from comic books to hilarious videos, mod creator Garry Newman has helped to redefine the boundaries of what an online game can be.

Above all else, the game engenders a sense of teamwork and cooperation that is wholly unique and refreshing. While that idea is being expounded on by games like LittleBigPlanet (PS3), Garry's Mod continues to grow and expand. Last year Newman announced a deal with Valve Software which saw GMod version 10 being made available on the Steam network of downloadable games. For a price of $9.95, players have received regular updates and support, further cementing GMod's position as anything but a passing fad.

In the first of a series of talks with mod developers and industry experts, I take a look behind the mustache of this elusive, influential mod scene figure. We discuss the early days of the mod, how it has evolved in the years since, Garry's views on the community, and his future plans for GMod.

Shack: Thanks for taking the time, Garry. So, what was life before GMod like for Garry Newman?

Garry Newman: I was a php programmer on a dating website. It was pretty basic work, for pretty basic pay. I got fired from that because I had set my own dating website up in my spare time. He gave me the choice of shutting it down or walking. I decided I couldn't work with him after that shit, so told him I wouldn't be coming back.

Shack: When did you start work on Facewound?

Garry Newman: I had been working on Facewound while I was at the dating website. The idea was that I loved 2D games and wanted to make one using all the 3D accelerated features that 3D games benefit from.

My plan at the time was to build up a library of shareware games to sell over the internet. I figured that if I could scrape together a living from doing something that I love, it'd be much better than working my balls off in an office making other people rich.

Shack: Do you plan to finish Facewound at some point?

Garry Newman: The problem with Facewound right now is that the coding is awful. It really makes me cringe. When I started coding Facewound I didn't really know what I was doing. I was learning as I went on, which meant that a lot of the times I came up with really, really stupid solutions. For example, instead of raycasting, it checks each pixel along a line.

This was one of the good things about GMod. I could see the right way to do stuff because a lot of the time Valve had already done it somewhere else in the code. So their code would teach me. I'm not the kind of person that can learn from books, I really need working examples.

Shack: You've said the JBMod inspired you to work on Garry's Mod. At the time, did you know how far you wanted to take it, or was it more of an experiment?

Garry Newman: Yeah it was a total experiment. I was really out of my depth in the Source engine at that point. I had no idea how anything worked, but managed to throw version one together by thinking back into Half-Life 2--to work out where I'd seen the feature before. For example, the rope gun. I didn't know how to make rope so I thought back and realized that the Barnacle's tongue was rope. So I just pretty much copied that code into a simple weapon and it worked. Well, kind of worked.

Shack: What did the first version of Garry's Mod look like?

Garry Newman: The first version added a crossbow that allowed you to rope objects together. That was pretty much it. I don't think the physics gun was even in the first version.

Shack: How did you motivate yourself in the early days of development?

Garry Newman: There were probably a couple of things. First off, the people playing were really easily impressed. So when I added something new it was like adding a ghost house in Theme Park, they'd all go "Oooohh."

The other thing was JBMod. Throughout the entire development of GMod, [the team at] JBMod were constantly warning of their impending release, which was totally going to destroy GMod and take its community. So I coded my balls off to make sure that whatever they released wasn't better. I guess a little bit of competitiveness never hurts.

Shack: What was your relationship with Valve like as a modder?

Garry Newman: Valve has mailing lists for coders and mappers. They'd usually reply there if you asked a question, but they're pretty approachable if you email them with a question. I never got a "fuck off" reply anyway.

Shack: Is there a feature in Garry's Mod that you knew as you were coding it that it would be great?

Garry Newman: Ragdoll posing immediately springs to mind, mainly because I couldn't ever remember any game allowing you to do that stuff. I implemented it on accident and immediately made some crude poses--then ran off to the forums to blow their minds.

Shack: Did you involve the Something Awful community from the beginning?

Garry Newman: Yeah, SA is the only place the first five or so versions were released. I didn't really expect (or want) it to be a really big thing, so I didn't see the point of releasing anywhere else.

Shack: How important was community feedback at that stage?

Garry Newman: It was totally important. I'm only one guy, so I'm only going to play it one way. GMod has a bunch of subcultures that play differently. I need people from each of those subcultures to tell me why it's rubbish for them, so I can make it not so rubbish.

Shack: How close is GMod to what you envisioned?

Garry Newman: Right now, GMod 10 is pretty close to what I was aiming for when I started recoding it. But to be fair I never wrote a game design down so it was always just a plan in my head that was constantly changing.

I don't think I ever abandoned features, I just put them on the back-burner. There were a few of these. I had an in-game camcorder almost working, but I need to hold that until Valve does some stuff to let me do some stuff.

Shack: Are you ever surprised by the stuff people create in GMod?

Garry Newman: Constantly. I regularly jump from server to server to see what people are building, what they're moaning about. I jumped in some guy's server and he had a robot that you could get inside and control. It actually walked around.

The people at SA are pretty crazy too. I remember Sun_Dog and some other people made a huge, huge robot. Each person controlled a limb. They had a robotic hand that could pick stuff up. Each person controlled a different part of the hand--wrist, fingers, thumb--so they had to coordinate to do stuff.

Turn the page to learn about Garry's deal with Valve, his thoughts on the state of the mod community, and his future plans for GMod.

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Shack: Tell me about Team Garry. When did you start bringing them on, and what have they contributed to the mod?

Garry Newman: Most of Team Garry was originally bought on to test the new Lua implementation. Their main jobs were to write game modes for release, but somehow that got sidetracked and everyone worked on the main sandbox game mode. This turned out to be a good thing really, because they added quite a few things that I wouldn't have managed to do on my own.

Shack: Have you always liked sandbox-style games? If so, any favorites?

Garry Newman: Sure. Sim Ant, Sim City, The Sims, Theme Park, Rollercoaster Tycoon. I've probably clocked up more hours in RollerCoaster Tycoon than any other game.

Shack: Do you think enough games allow for that kind of constructive teamwork?

Garry Newman: It'd be nice to see more games based on creating rather than destroying. I get a couple of emails a month from happy parents.

Shack: So how did the Steam deal come about?

Garry Newman: I was emailing Erik J [Erik Johnson, project manager] from Valve about something and it came up. I turned it down because I figured no one would buy it. Then a couple of weeks later it came up again, and I said yes, because the nerd in me wanted to totally re-write it from scratch again. It was all a lot more informal than I expected these things would be.

Shack: From your perspective, what's the state of the mod community like right now?

Garry Newman: I don't know what's going on. You've got these big-ass mods like Black Mesa that have awesome graphics, but they've been in development for three years and all they've given us is 64 highly sharpened screenshots.

But on the other hand you've got these great mods that are released, like Insect Infestation, and hardly anyone's playing. It kind of pains me to see that Insect Infestation isn't making much of a splash. It's doing everything right. It's different, it's releasing regular updates, but no one's paying attention.

Shack: Do you think the reason for this is that mods are being held to a higher standard of presentation now? Has the industry gotten so big that mods now have to compete with retail titles?

Garry Newman: I think so. I also think the motives behind making mods have changed slightly. Making a mod is now a well established path into the industry, so they're making the mod as the portfolio piece. Where as before it was just a couple of guys slapping code about to extend the life of their favorite game.

Shack: Then what would you suggest to mod teams to help them avoid getting held up on the details? Start with a simple idea and build on it?

Garry Newman: I would recommend the iterative method to anyone.

The main argument about this is that they don't want to release a shit version of their idea and turn everyone off. Fair enough, but it's going to be so much worse if you work your balls off on it for 2 years then release, and your idea is still rubbish. Iterating would have let you know that this idea isn't working out, so you could adjust it. In every update you're picking up more people playing your mod. You build a community.

Shack: Do you think online distribution methods like Steam are changing the modding community for the better or worse?

Garry Newman: I think it's a great thing, but I might be a bit biased. It'll attract people to make mods.

The arguments against it really don't stand up to reason. People say, "Oh great we'll have to pay for every shitty mod now." First of all, why do you want to play a shitty mod? Second of all, why would you pay for a shitty mod? No one's going to be charging for mods that no one's going to buy. It's a waste of time.

It's a natural progression for modding and I think it'll attract more people to it. More modders mean more mods, even if you do have to pay for some of them.

Shack: Can you give me an example of a specific feature that was coded into GMod, and briefly take me through the process of its implementation?

Garry Newman: The Inflator, like most things in GMod, was born out of experimentation. I wanted a way to resize models, and accidentally found that I could blow up different body parts. So I added a few Engine binds, which are functions Lua can use to call functions in the Engine, and made the STool [scripted tool]. Obviously, getting Lua all bound up and working is a lot of work, since you're telling Lua how to talk to C++, so you have to create functions and classes for everything you want it to talk to. But once it's all done it makes development so much quicker and easier.

It gives the community a lot to play with, and it's already spawned some amazing mods that I would never have thought of. Like Wire Mod, which adds wires and chips and stuff, and SpaceBuild, where you build a working spaceship and colonize planets.

Shack: What are your future plans for GMod? Will there be an update when Half-Life 2: Episode Two is released?

Garry Newman: Yeah it's following the Source engine. When the engine updates, GMod will exploit all those features.

Shack: Tell me about Garry's Mod Deathmatch (GMDM). What are you aiming for in terms of bringing something new to deathmatch gameplay?

Garry Newman: The aim of GMDM is to act as an example of how to make game modes for GMod. The whole of GMod, apart from the spawn menu, is scripted in Lua, but right now people aren't really experimenting with game modes as much as I'd like. So the aim is to make a game mode to draw attention to the fact that you can make awesome new games in GMod.

The idea behind GMDM itself is just to make a deathmatch game that makes people say, "Fucking awesome."

Shack: Now that GMod is a success, is game development something you want to pursue as a career?

Garry Newman: Game development was something I wanted to pursue as a career ever since I read about the Oliver Twins in Sinclair User when I was about 8 years old.

Right now though, I have no idea what I want to do specifically. I'm pretty sure I want to keep stuff low-budget and indie. I don't really want to work on generic "Halo 12" no-brainer, shoot stuff, seen-it-all-before games.

Shack: Pitch me your fantasy game project.

Garry Newman: Dead Rising co-op.

Shack: So I noticed your webpage today. You realize I have to use one of those crazy webcam photos in the article now, right?

Garry Newman: Haha, balls.

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