Mod is Dead: Beyond the Red Line

Today's interview is part of Mod is Dead, a continuing series featuring an examination of user-created mods and an appraisal of the state of the mod community. Last week's installment highlighted Garry Newman's Half-Life 2-derived sandbox Garry's Mod.

Total conversion: the phrase can mean anything from a couple of swapped models, to a final product indistinguishable from its foundation. Following the creation of a simple 3D spaceship, team leader Napoleon Nicdao's small-time hobby soon blossomed into a vast project, which now involves over 20 contributing team members, a full cast of voice actors, and a devoted community of fans.

Based on the hit Sci Fi TV show Battlestar Galactica, Beyond the Red Line is built on Volition's FreeSpace 2, the 1999 spaceflight masterpiece. Featuring frantic, authentic Battlestar-style combat, breathtaking models, impressive effects work, a redesigned user interface, original music, voice work, storylines, and a multiplayer mode, Red Line's most notable achievement is perhaps its own existence. The history of the endeavor to convert an 8-year-old game into a modern mod proves that slow and steady does pay off--and that security breaches aren't only the worry of retail developers like id and Valve.

Development on Red Line was going relatively smoothly until 2005, when an early alpha version of the mod was leaked by a trusted outsider who was given access to the team's FTP site for promotional purposes. With their unfinished work scattered across the internet, the team of self-professed perfectionists could do nothing but fume in quiet frustration. In spite of this stumbling block, the collective pressed on. Taking advantage of a clause in FreeSpace 2's licensing agreement that allows free distribution of the core game, the team recently shipped a stand-alone demo of Red Line, which now can be found on FileShack. Over 200,000 downloads have ensued, with websites like Apple.com and magazines such as France's Joystick spotlighting the effort.

But with success comes publicity, and that can be a tricky thing when dealing with borrowed property. I spoke with team members Hassan Kazmi and Chris Hager on topics ranging from how to manage a large mod team, the innovative way the small FreeSpace 2 coding community functions, what features to expect in the future of Beyond the Red Line, and whether or not Universal is out there watching.

Shack: How did the Red Line project originally come about?

Hassan Kazmi: The project started when Napoleon decided that he wanted to take a break from converting Star Trek ships and make a Viper after watching the [Battlestar Galactica] miniseries. After making the Viper, he started trying to drum up support for a Battlestar mod. Ironically enough, the guy whose ships he converted is now a member of our team, Scotchy [J. Eldridge Davis]. He's the guy responsible for the work-in-progress Pegasus.

Shack: When did you join the team?

Hassan Kazmi: I had my own mod, and I was team leader on a second one, but both were much smaller affairs than Red Line. I was brought in as a mission designer. I'm not much of a coder, but I help where I can. That's one thing about the team: many of us are talented in quite a few fields of game design. So we generally have one area we're hired for, then we pitch in with others.

Shack: What's it like working with such a large group of people over the internet?

Chris Hager: It's an interesting experience. With so many talented people so passionate about the series and the project, there are often differing opinions on what approaches best suit the atmosphere of the game, or remain most true to the show. It is often difficult to come to a consensus on points such as plot lines, music composition, or the tone of the dialogue. It can also be challenging to get this all-volunteer team to agree to a decision which has been made. It's just the nature of the beast. The fur has flown more than a few times, and tensions have flared, but the result speaks for itself. It's the spread of talent and ideas that we have on board that make this level of authenticity and detail possible.

Shack: Do you ever find it difficult to manage the many contributors?

Hassan Kazmi: Only when something new is introduced in the show and they all want to model it.

Chris Hager: We rely heavily on instant messengers and IRC for quick communication and to hold meetings. It can be difficult to keep everyone on task, but one of the great things about this project is, every member has undergone a trial period to make sure they are a good fit and have something positive to offer; as a result everyone is quite motivated toward the same common goals. There have been some communication issues--and we have paid the price for some of those in time or quality of product--but none so bad that we have had major problems.

Shack: So everyone has their own piece of the puzzle to complete?

Hassan Kazmi: We've had a couple of minor issues with that, but mostly it's been smooth. There are plenty of ships to go around just from the show.

Shack: Mods have traditionally served as one door into the industry. Is this a calculated move by any of the team members to get noticed, or is it mostly just for fun?

Chris Hager: While many of the team members are in--or hope to break into--the gaming industry, for the most part it's a labor of love, a hobby, and a reality escape.

Shack: In terms of the full Red Line campaign, how many missions are you guys aiming for?

Hassan Kazmi: That's a rather tricky question to answer. We have to decide between lots of simple missions or fewer complicated ones, and the question is still up in the air somewhat.

Shack: How concerned are you with being accurate to the show?

Hassan Kazmi: Pretty much everyone on the team is a big Battlestar fan. Accuracy to the show is very important for us. But we never forget that we are a game first, which means that a lot of things that look good on screen simply won't work as a mission.

Shack: Can you think of an example of something in the show that just wouldn't directly translate to the game?

Hassan Kazmi: There's one in the demo. Scar. We spent ages racking our brains trying to figure out how to turn Starbuck and Kat going after Scar into a mission. The show features two Vipers and two Raider the entire fight.

Shack: That could be a pretty short fight in the game.

Hassan Kazmi: Yeah, that mission would take about a minute. What we did instead was make a mission featuring Scar in a way that adds to the show, but doesn't take away from Starbuck and Kat's achievement in killing him.

Shack: I think most players found the voice work to be refreshing, but also a little overbearing at times.

Hassan Kazmi: We figured that Pegasus pilots would chatter. This is soon after Cain died, and she'd been instilling a fighter-jock attitude in her pilots that was rather different from the one Galactica pilots have. Pegasus pilots cared about kills, and being the best. Galactica pilots cared about living to see the next fight. There was also a lot of chatter because off-screen the plot was being moved on. In the final mission that chatter sets up Scar's first appearance. That said, it's a lot of work to have that much voice. I'm not sure if we'll have quite as much in the full game. The demo had 1/4 the number of messages in it as the whole of Freespace 2.

Read more for details on capital ship battles, the FreeSpace 2 coding community, and the fears that go along with Intellectual Property. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What's your opinion of FRED [FreeSpace 2 Editor] as a piece of software?

Hassan Kazmi: Easy to learn, a lifetime to master. Most of the really good designers find that they can put together a mission after only a few hours of first trying to use the program. In fact, when we released the demo we got the first third party mission posted the next day.

Shack: From that Ace guy, right?

Hassan Kazmi: Yep, that's the one. As you get better you find out that as well as being easy, it's also very, very powerful. And it continues to get more powerful as the SCP improve it. I'm still learning, and I've been using it for over 6 years.

Shack: What is the SCP?

Hassan Kazmi: The SCP stands for the Source Code Project. When the FreeSpace 2 source code was released, a bunch of fans formed a team to work on it. The result was FS2_Open, which is a vast improvement on FreeSpace 2. We could never have made this project on FreeSpace 2--not without cutting serious corners. The SCP coders are responsible for making the engine, and then the mod teams use it. For that reason, there isn't a separate Red Line coding team--we make requests of the SCP. That doesn't mean we don't need coders, just that they'd be SCP coders who primarily service Red Line requests.

Shack: So basically it's a shared coding team between all FreeSpace 2 mod projects?

Hassan Kazmi: Yep.

Shack: That's a pretty interesting solution to the general lack of coding talent in the mod community.

Hassan Kazmi: It has nice side effects too. Quite often a request from another team makes something possible that we'd never thought of before. For instance, we'd have never bothered adding a system to make atmospheric missions possible, but the Starfox mod team is adding one. If we like it enough, that makes missions based on [Battlestar Galactica episode] Exodus Part II a possibility.

Shack: How big is the SCP team?

Hassan Kazmi: Rather small unfortunately. About six to seven active coders. We really could use more.

Shack: A lot of people were shocked when the Red Line demo hit, not even realizing that FreeSpace 2 mod work was still ongoing.

Hassan Kazmi: Yeah. The SCP team have done an amazing job.

Shack: How much work is it taking to get capital ships functioning properly?

Hassan Kazmi: They do take a little care and attention. You can't just stick them down and say "Attack ship X." But learning to control capital ships is a fairly basic FRED skill. After a couple of missions you have most of it down. The AI does a lot of the work--choosing targets, etc--but you have to have an idea of what the AI will do.

Shack: You just point them in a direction and let them go?

Hassan Kazmi: Yep. If the battle features two ships that are mostly stationary, you can simply stick them down and leave them to get on with it for the most part. But if you want the ships to move once they've jumped in, you have to script a path for them to follow for the best results.

Shack: So user-created missions with capital ships will be easy enough to produce.

Hassan Kazmi: Yeah. I suspect we'll have a rash of new missions featuring capital ships pounding away at each other only a few days after release of the full game.

Shack: What are the limitations of the engine in terms of the amount of ships you can throw on screen at once? Will there be missions featuring the entire Colonial Fleet?

Hassan Kazmi: There are limits at the moment, but due to the ongoing improvement of the SCP, it's hard to say that they'll continue to be as low. The limit on a capital ship used to be around 1000-2000 polygons. Now that's below the amount we use for a fighter. We used to be limited to 100 ships in a mission, but that limit was removed only this week. However, fleet missions are big and complicated. If we do them, we won't do many.

Shack: So the possibility is there, it's just something to tackle.

Hassan Kazmi: If we don't do it, third party mission designers will. It seems to be the first thing everyone wants to try.

Shack: Fighters gliding through space on all axes are a trademark of the series' battle scenes. Can you briefly explain how the team managed to hack in the gravity drift effects?

Hassan Kazmi: The ability to use thrusters is actually a retail feature, but as only the Shivan ships had it not many people noticed. The only really new effect is glide mode. And I don't think that was a Red Line specific addition, so much as a feature we embraced and used so heavily that most people didn't even notice that Wing Commander Saga managed to beat us to the prize of being the first mod to have glide enabled ships. Of course, they didn't use it anywhere near as heavily as we did, so that's hardly surprising.

Chris Hager: Again, our goal has always been the authentic representation of Viper-Raider combat, and we realized early on that one way to capture that was to simulate the physics of flight in zero gravity. Thanks to some very skilled programmers like Unknown Target [Jordan Pelovitz] who dug through the existing code [originally implemented by WMCoolmon], we now have that balance.

Shack: How long did it take to complete the demo after the assets were locked?

Hassan Kazmi: The demo was announced in May of last year. Mission design commenced in November, and release was in April.

Shack: I'm guessing you guys learned a lot from shipping the demo?

Hassan Kazmi: Yes. We'd be able to work much faster than that now. The team has expanded a little, and the demo release helped us find more efficient ways of working. And getting feedback was very useful, as it helped us see what worked and what didn't.

Continue reading for thoughts on future multiplayer features, free publicity, and Raptors. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: I know this is probably a sore subject, but can you talk about the alpha leak at all? How did that happen, and in what way did it affect the project?

Hassan Kazmi: Well it made me join, so at least one good thing came out of it. But in general the team prefers not to talk about the leak. It happened. We're annoyed about it, but the assets involved are so far behind what we have now as to be a joke.

Shack: One thing I noticed about the leak is a comment from Omniscaper [Napoleon Nicdao], where he said something to the effect of, "Now we're definitely on Universal's radar." Was that a big concern at the time?

Hassan Kazmi: Was and still is. We know that they know about us now. We know that any day we could get a cease and desist letter. We'd get the game out much faster probably if they were to say: "You're a fan made project. As long as you're free, we're not going to bother you."

Chris Hager: The threat of a Cease and Desist from NBC Universal [publisher of Warthog Plc's Battlestar Galactica (PS2, Xbox)] or Vivendi Games [publisher of Auran's Battlestar Galactica Xbox Live Arcade game] has been on the team's mind since the very beginning. There are many examples over the past years of promising indie projects that were shut down because of their infringement upon copyrighted Intellectual Property and/or their threat to lower profits of an upcoming commercial game. We decided early on, however, that if we were to get shut down there would be nothing we could do about it, so we would just keep working until we could not. Copyright infringement is a very thin line, and we have done our best to stay on the legal side of that line as much as possible. We use originally-built models and textures, our own writing, our own music compositions and audio effects; aside from model likenesses, theme, and core plot points, we have taken nothing directly from the show. You may notice that the name of our game is absent the name of the TV Show; this was done for legal reasons, as well as aesthetic.

Shack: Was the demo a product of the leak at all? An effort to get some version of the game out in fear of Universal shutting you down?

Hassan Kazmi: The demo was announced before the leak. The leak actually made things take longer. We had to tighten up security. And we decided that the demo we did release would have to be much better than what came out in the leak.

Shack: Why do you think you haven't been shut down yet?

Chris Hager: I don't know. We are by no means so egotistical to think that NBC Universal or Vivendi are watching us with a magnifying glass just waiting to drop the hammer, but with over 200,000 downloads worldwide it would be be naive to assume that no one from either of these companies is not aware of our work. We simply don't dwell on the subject.

Hassan Kazmi: We hope that they realize that we are free publicity for the show. Quite a few gamers who don't watch Battlestar did play [Beyond the Red Line] after all. The series will probably be finished by the time the full game is out, but we might cause a small spike in their DVD sales.

Shack: Looking back on the development process so far, is there anything that you wish had been done differently?

Hassan Kazmi: In terms of code I wish we had a few of the newer features already done by the time the demo was ready. Multiplayer is probably the area that could have most benefited from that. By the time the full game is done we expect a lot of new improvements.

Shack: Can you tell me about any of these new features?

Hassan Kazmi: Stand-alone servers are coming in a patch for the demo very soon. It's a real pity we didn't have them ready earlier. Again, that's a problem with having a lack of coders.

Shack: Is multiplayer where you want it to be right now?

Hassan Kazmi: I'd like to see multiplayer become a bigger part of the experience. Something like a co-op mode where you can play an entire campaign with friends would be nice. But we'd need more mission designers to do that as part of the main release. Otherwise it will be an add-on, if we ever get time to do it.

Shack: Raptors. Playable?

Hassan Kazmi: Yeah.

Shack: Will they have some kind of weapon? Missiles?

Hassan Kazmi: If you saw it in the show, we'll try to do it in the game.

Shack: FTL jumps?

Hassan Kazmi: If you play Ace's missions you'll see how that can already be done.

Shack: There is a lot of criticism right now of mods with long development cycles. How committed is the team to a full release?

Hassan Kazmi: We want it bad. We started writing Red Line because there wasn't a proper Battlestar game on the market. I'm looking forward to the commercial game that is being worked on, but we're committed now to putting our own spin on the Battlestar universe. The demo showed us that we weren't wasting our time making a game that few people would play. That really helped.

Shack: Has the team ever considered an episodic release?

Hassan Kazmi: We have. We decided against it for several reasons I can't go into now. One reason I can state is that technically it's a nightmare. Until the code catches up, we'd end up having to support people who don't have all the episodes yet. The demo auto-patcher is a step in the right direction but until the engine itself can detect if a mod is up to date we'd have all kinds of problems we'd rather not face for now.

Shack: Are you guys currently seeking more help on the project?

Hassan Kazmi: Yes. The most desperate need is for coders, but we could use mission designers too. We expect them to be very proficient with FRED first though. We've always got work for modelers and texturers of course.

Shack: Best guess on a release date for the full campaign?

Chris Hager: I would like to take this time to thank 3D Realms for teaching us about the problem with release dates!

When it's done. I don't say it to be malicious, but honestly we cannot confidently give a release date at this time. I will say that the end of the series could actually be a good thing for us; up to this point we have constantly been making minor changes to the developing story to keep up with the new information we would get each week during the series. The arrival of Pegasus in Season 2 made a big difference in the early stages of story development. The upcoming movie Razor, said to focus on the Pegasus and the Nuclear Holocaust, promises to provide us more information that could change our current plot course in minor or major ways. Once Ron Moore and David Eick are finished detailing this period, we should be able to move more quickly.

Shack: Anything you'd like to add?

Hassan Kazmi: You'll never forget the first time you fly through the Galactica's flight pods chasing after an enemy.

Shack: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Think the mod you play is under-appreciated? Have some feedback you need to get off your chest? Want to give me some Smash Bros. tips? Nick@Shacknews.com