The Ball : Pehua Q&A

Hourences is well known for his many outstanding custom and retail levels, but modmaking is something of a new territory and The Ball : Pehua is quite a unique and very entertaining modification for Unreal Tournament 3. In his own words:

The Ball: Pehua is a first person singleplayer puzzle mod with an Aztec theme to it. The mod takes place in a mysterious Aztec temple which has only been discovered recently, at the top of a volcano. The player has to use the Impact Gun to move a large steel ball around and utilize that ball to solve puzzles and get around obstacles. Impact Gun aside, the mod uses all new custom art to establish a unique, stylish, and atmospheric experience.

We wanted to know a bit more about the mod and how it came about and Hourences was kind enough to answer our questions.

BU: Tell us about the contributions of DGUnreal, SolidSnake, and RenderMonkey.

Hourences: DGUnreal programmed the gametype and weapon, with some help of SolidSnake, and RenderMonkey scripted the level gameplay together using Kismet. A small core team to keep things focused. I wish to expand for part two though, with a 3D artist.

BU: With your level design experience, it'd be pretty easy to bang out an impressive level to enter into the Make Something Unreal Contest. What drove you to make a modification?

Hourences: Levels are over represented in the contest. For every mod there are ten levels entered. The relatively short notice also meant that few teams were going to have their mods ready in time, so I saw a hole. Besides the strategic reason, I also just wanted to do a project like this. I looked into doing this as a small standalone game first, Xbox Arcade style, or getting a developer interested, but in the end it was just much easier building this as a mod for Unreal. You have a solid foundation and engine readily available like this, and of course my own experience with Unreal also meant I didn't had to do any research or master new skills.

BU: What games inspired you during the planning phases of The Ball?

Hourences: Like with all my work, no game inspired me directly. I never go "oh, I wonder how they solved this, lets have a look at that game and copy it". I just create what I have in mind. I am sure my ideas are influenced by all kinds of games though. I always liked the atmosphere Tomb Raider has, and I loved the simplicity and efficiency of Portal. And of course the original Unreal. Dark and scary interiors, yet colorful and mysterious. I really designed the mod with efficiency in mind. How can I make a mod that doesn't require 3 years of work to create yet still has great potential? The mod has a very focused core concept. It only requires a ball, a weapon, and basic player movement. It doesn't even need a player character. Everything else is just extra.

BU: How do you go about planning the flow of a puzzle oriented level?

Hourences: I just go with the flow like I usually do. I create room per room on the fly, taking the difficulty and style of the previous room into account. I try to order the rooms on type and complexity while I work on the level. I never use concept art because I perfectly know what I want. Concept art would just slow me down because I would need wait for it all the time. The whole mod as it stands was built in just 1.5 month part time work. The level took two weeks part time work.

BU: Did anything absolutely drive you nuts either during construction or playtesting?

Hourences: Nothing drove me really nuts, but the stupid My Documents setup gave me some trouble, as I had some files mixed up a few times because of the large number of different locations to put your files in. And the physics in UT3 seem to have some bugs and limitations. Jump on a moving ball and you are bumped off. You occasionally get stuck in your own ball, and so on. I also found it ridiculous that there is a simplified collision mesh triangle limit...

BU: How much easier or more difficult is it to make a modification like this with the new editor versus previous versions?

Hourences: It's a little easier. Especially the better integration of physics and Kismet make gameplay integration a whole lot easier. Kismet really helped us do a few things that would have been done through code in the previous engines, like the ball collision toggle feature. It is really nice that you can adjust these kind of things on the fly as a level designer or scripter, gives you much greater autonomy as you don't need a programmer for everything.

BU: You've hinted at including a few enemies in possible future versions. Will you incorporate them as a part of each puzzle or are you looking to change The Ball into more of an action-combat modification?

Hourences: As it is planned right now, and this can change of course, they will be both part of some puzzles, as just there for some action. It is my intention to go for a more action combat approach later on, though the puzzling will remain a very important element. Basically like Tomb Raider has always done it. Most of its levels are movement puzzles, but there are a few enemies around to keep the speed and the tension in the gameplay. That's the direction I want to go into.

And by the way, we are still looking for a skilled and dedicated character artist who can help us out with part 2!

Thanks, Hourences!