EssGee is another well known name in the Tomb Raider Custom Level Editing Community, and now I had the chance to make an interview with him. We have a lot of different level projects from EssGee already, even very special ones, where we can see about the big talent of him in level building. But this is not the end of his way in the TR community, not at all. These days EssGee is working at another very big project, and here I have the newest information for you. But this won't be all of course, and with this great chance of interviewing I wanted to learn so much more about EssGee and his work for the community. So, here is what EssGee answered me. But you'll even get more than information: new screenshots from this current project and also a brand-new trailer…
Lara for ever: You started with the Tomb Raider level editor in 2003, releasing your debut level Burn the Midnight Oil. Can you tell us about the beginning time, how you did get in contact with the editor, and why you did decide to build levels on your own?
EssGee: Well it's funny, at the time of Tomb Raider Chronicles release, I'd heard the publicity that there was an editor included with it, but my son bought the Playstation version, and of course there is no editor included with that package. So I had to wait until some time later to buy a PC version of the game. The thing that really got me into playing Tomb Raider was the exotic 3D environments that were able to be explored, and I am fascinated by the whole 3D game creation process. Naturally the idea of being able to create your own environments and scenarios of my favourite game was a very exciting proposition. In December 2002 I finished my Science Degree and finally got a chance to noodle with the editor over the holiday period. At the same time I discovered MichaelP's TRLE site and discovered that there was already about 600 custom levels available to download and play, and that was really exciting as some of them looked so impressive. Three months of learning the editor manual basics resulted in Burn the Midnight Oil, which was very much a 'test the water' level to see whether I had any skills at level building. The encouraging feedback I received spurred me on to continue building.
Lara for ever: Your next level, Alternative Pyramid Hypothesis, was a sequel to your debut level then. As told in the story of the first episode, you wanted to create a series of levels then. But APH was the start and the end. Did you first think about still further levels for this series, and if so, what changed your mind?
EssGee: Yes, you are absolutely right, there is an unfinished story there, which I sometimes think I should finish off. In fact there is a custom alien type enemy sitting in my archives which was intended for that purpose. Probably the main reason I've never got around to a final instalment is that there's always been a more immediate project in progress, that's occupying all my time. Perhaps it's one of those things I will get around to, when I've run out of other ideas and can take the time to complete the story properly.
Lara for ever: Level building was not so easy these days with all the limitations of the old editor and not yet such great helping tools as we know them today. How difficult was it for you then to bring your first levels to 'life'? Could you make it possible, what you really wanted, or have you not been satisfied with the results?
EssGee: For the first two levels I was really just using pre-existing standard wads, but in APH did make my first attempts at customisation, with retexturing various items. At the time I entered the building scene, some of the well known add-on tools were already available, so it was more about me having to learn their uses. The early levels reflect my abilities at the time and I'm satisfied with that. Nowadays all the fantastic tools that have been programmed by community members are my tools of trade. Creating objects, making enemies work properly and sound customisation are the favourite things for me to do. The thing that gives me the biggest buzz in level editing is doing what others say can't be done - I live for the WOW factor in a level. So I've pretty much always been able to pull off the ideas I've had for levels.
Lara for ever: Your next level was an unusual one. bERT's World is classified as a joke level. It was also my first one which I played from your levels, and it really was much fun. How did you get this unusual idea?
EssGee: I had been experimenting with my new-found object making skills and vehicles and I had figured out how to convert the rusty TRC bicycle into a working vehicle. At the same time, bERT a well known TR community member had the misfortune of having his bicycle stolen in real life. In August 2003 we had the first TR Meeting Down-Under in Melbourne Australia and for a laugh I put together a showcase of short demo levels. One of these was the prelude to bERT's World, which was just driving the bicycle around a plaza area. It got such a good response that I decided to develop the idea into a full playable slap-stick comedy level, in which Lara searches for bERT's house and ends up being the thief who steals his bicycle. I was really happy how the TR community embraced this level, as it was fun for me to build, fun for people to play and it made a lot of people laugh.
Lara for ever: Your next project, Legend of the Golden Scorpion, was a very big one, a level series with a long playing time and until then your biggest success. As we know you have not built this one on your own, but with your son, MiniGee. Can you tell us about those experiences, and if you could make all your imaginations come true for this project? And was it the only Level your son did help you with? For we could not hear anything further from him as a level builder.
EssGee: Legend of the Golden Scorpion holds many great memories for me, because of the collaboration with my son Minigee, who amazingly was only 12-13 during the building of this game. We really did create this game together. It began with Minigee's own level - Secret Temple Path. The ideas in the final battle Tournament were largely Mini's imagination, but with me turning those creative ideas into reality in the editor. The middle Temple levels were mostly my ideas. But always we worked together with a common goal. The opening bike level was added on as an after thought to bring the player to the pyramid site. We were also privileged to secure Bex's services to help with the story book and perform as a voice actress for Lara, as her voice sounds so much like Lara Croft. LOTGS is the only game we have built together, but Minigee usually tests my levels and offers suggestions. Minigee has a level that is about 70% complete, but he hasn't had time to complete it due to the varied interests of being a teenager. He wants to finish it and it looks pretty good, but I think he's wanting Dad to build some new objects and enemies to include in it.
No name so far, but a new level by Minigee. We can hope for this level to be finished some day…
Lara for ever: In 2004 you joined the first team project, with Lara at the Movies. Your level for this project was the Star Wars one, Star Wars Episode 1. I can also remember this level, for I could not succeed there with the timed-runs. Obviously the degree of difficulty was not easy, as for a lot of levels in this whole project. Two years later there was another release of this level, Star Wars Episode 1 - Director's Cut. So, first of all, how did you get the idea for this ambitious project, and how difficult was it to bring Star Wars to life for Tomb Raider? And can you tell us about the reason for the decision of recreating it? Have you not been satisfied with the first version, and what was it you wanted to change?
EssGee: Curiously it all stems back again to the Tombfest Downunder. I'd made another showcase demo of the podracer I'd created and all that happened was it flew around a simple wide open track that was very roughly textured. When the LATM project came up, it was a simple case of 'oh I've got this podracer, so I'd better make the Star Wars movie level'. But as a race concept, that demo didn't really simulate the feeling of speed that I wanted for a podrace. That's why I opted for the more closed-in track that you see in game, as everything seems to travel faster. The map for that demo was actually the earliest project file of what became Jundland Wastes in the Director's Cut. When I decided to turn that demo map into Jundland Wastes as a full exploration level it didn't quite make sense to release it as a bonus level to follow the original three Star Wars levels. But it was perfect as a prelude to Tatooine. So it was not a case of being unhappy with the original version. Rather than release a level which wouldn't make a lot of sense by itself I decided to give the players 'value for money' and add some polish to the original LATM levels and include them too. I was also aware of the struggle that some players had encountered in the LATM version, particularly with two timed runs and the podrace. So I relaxed the timing settings on these in the DC version. I honestly believe that the timed runs are tight but not as hard as some people have made out, and they have suffered from gaining a bit of a reputation as being hard. The podrace is a different story. This concept of a real race was definitely very new and different from traditional TR……. so much for pushing boundaries of the TRLE and trying to be innovative. It is a mini-game within a game. I now recognise that many TR players are rather vehicle-challenged and obviously don't play games like Need For Speed. As a consequence, some players have found the podrace very hard. All I can say in its defence is that its design was intentionally like a car racing game, where you cannot expect to just do the course slowly or immediately. You must learn the course and practice it to perform a good enough lap to reach a check point in time. There's no doubt this was an ambitious project but I'm pleased with the outcome. The Tatooine level was the hardest to create because of its desolate landscape, but what makes these levels believable is the cast of characters and I had great fun creating all these opponents.
Lara for ever: Unfortunately I have to add a personal fact. I also could not make it through the second version, for your timeruns somehow still seem beyond my abilities. I even could not make it until the big one with the Podracer, but failed at the one with getting the money. With the old version I used savegames of other players to get through your level (and finally the whole LatM project), today I have hard rules for playing myself because of my levelreports. I do not use any cheats or savegames, and so I failed with the new version of your level. I even had problems to succeed the former timerun through the cages, because all of it seems to be a matter of less than moments. And so those timeruns are the reasons for a lot of players not to even try the level, as I could hear, but on the other hand it is difficult for level builders to keep their projects challenging also for the expert players. So, another question about the Star Wars theme, for me and other not expert players. Why did you decide to keep the degree of difficulty this high, and what would your opinion be about the difficulty of your levels? The difficulty of levels is always a big discussion theme in the Community. Can you also tell us your opinion here?
EssGee: For the Star Wars levels I think I've pretty much covered the high difficulty issues in the previous answer. It seems a bit of a pity if the only thing these levels will be remembered for by some folk, is the tight timed runs. I'd rather focus on the positives like the suite of custom characters and objects that were created to make these levels believable, or the cutscenes with the Sith Lord and with Yoda at the end of the Director's Cut. Certainly these levels polarized the community's opinion like no other - players either loved it or hated it and there was nothing in between those emotions. I am very thankful that many people really enjoyed these levels, and I hope those like yourself that really like Star Wars, and have stumbled with it can find the confidence to finish it. And for those that really can't…. well you can always contact me to do it for you if needed.
In general terms, I think some of my levels could be categorised as 'challenging', but others like the comedy levels are intentionally 'easy' so the levels flow freely and the player can enjoy the jokes. You are right that level difficulty is often a discussion point in the community. It's interesting how times change. When TRLE Gold - Lara At The Movies was released, players were complaining that the original games were too easy and were craving more challenging levels. They certainly got that with TRLE Gold. Now we seem to have gone full circle and players often seem to want a more leisurely journey so they can take in the scenery and take time to smell the roses. And of course there is a range of skills amongst players, ranging from novices to the hard-core experts. So for the builder it's always a juggle to strike just the right composition of gameplay difficulty. From my stand-point, I want players to be challenged but able to play, enjoy and complete my games. It's no reward to me if players can't finish a game that I built. Hey, I want them to call me rude names while they are playing hard bits but at the end I want them to feel rewarded and satisfied by completing their raid.
Lara for ever: For the section of team projects, was this your only one to join, or did you also work in other projects, not listed at the trle main page? And if so, how were your experiences, also for the Lara on the Movies project?
EssGee: Yes, this is a minor limitation of the Search function of TRLE.net and is something I would like to see improved if it is at all possible. It doesn't seem right to me that group projects can only be searched by the primary author or in the case of where there is a project team name, that you can't search an individual builder and return them as part of a team project. Lara at the Movies was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I'm very proud of how the team spirit guided by Michael's drive to always steer the project in the right direction, pulled it all together into the final package. There are two other team projects that I have participated in. Firstly, Jungle Ruins 3 with George Maciver and Todd Shurtz (RaiderX). I came on board with the third instalment of this series primarily as object and enemy builder. Although I was invited to contribute to the level building, I felt that Todd and George had built a good working relationship with the JR series and I didn't want to upset that balance. I guess what I was able to bring to JR3 was some icing for a cake that already had a good recipe, with novel puzzle items and artefacts, and dinosaurs that would just not say 'die'. My only level building for this game was the final credits.
The other group project was Coyote Creek as part of The Team, featuring Michael Allen (Cowboy), George, Todd, Terry Barrett (Dhama) and myself as builders with Titak and Bojrkraider contributing with objects and animations. The time frame for building this project was intense, but realised a very good and long game with a great story line in a relatively short space of time. I really love the atmosphere that was created in this game and it was truly a team effort with builders co-building levels and helping each other to achieve a solid game with continuity. The best thing about team projects is the camaraderie that you build up with other builders during the building process. I have also made some cameo performances in other levels as a voice over artist - the most recent being the voice of Zip in Bojrkraider's Experiment series.
Lara for ever: Between the two Star Wars level versions there was another project, Evil knows no Boundaries. This was the first one of your levels I could really finish on my own, except the fun levels of course, and it was also very special - as most of your projects. As with science fiction, also horror levels are not so easy to realise, but the atmosphere here was outstanding. How did you get the idea for this level, and could you make all your imaginations come true here?
EssGee: As do most of my levels these days, 'Evil' started out as me just noodling with gothic architecture, but with no game plan in mind. Then I came up with the 'evil face' façade of the big cathedral, and it felt like the cathedral had a persona to it - a very dark one at that. I had just played an obscure game called Shade - Wrath of Angels and that was certainly a source of inspiration for some objects and the dark brooding atmosphere of the level. And so I eventually decided that the cathedral was in some way possessed by an evil force and placed that against the vulnerability of an angel who had been sort of kidnapped into the dark side by this evil force. It would be Lara's job to set the angel free and exorcise the demons from the cathedral. I was really pleased with how this level turned out and felt that it really portrayed a gripping and scary atmosphere within its dank walls. I was pleased with features like the round rooms and spiral staircase that I was able to incorporate in this level.
Lara for ever: Meanwhile we have the new tools for level building, TREP and the NGLE, and as I know this will still not be the end of possibilities. Further programs and modifications are on the way, and we live in an exciting time of change for the Customlevels. Things beyond all former imaginations can come true now. What is your opinion about the new tools? I guess you use them for your projects now, can you tell us about your experiences?
EssGee: I absolutely love the new tools and am looking forward to what is planned for the future. NGLE is great because it is reliable, allows large textures and has features that just making editing more efficient. A combination of improvements to Wadmerger and the development of TREP means more objects, more complex objects, ways of creating new special effects and being able to manipulate other in-game effects and properties, as well as eliminating some of the residual bugs of the original TR 4 engine. I certainly am using them in my current projects, and it allows lots more scope to provide new and interesting gameplay. My only fear is for the poor Mac users who may miss out on some levels created this way. Although it seems that in many cases the new games are still working OK on these systems.
Lara for ever: The last level you released was an unusual one again, and the second fun level after your bERT's World. It is called TR Rude and Crude, and it has a very special theme, a funny look at your home forum Lara's Home. Can you tell us about how this interesting idea was born, and how you could realize this special level?
EssGee: The Pleasure Palace which is the main playable level in this set was originally built in a month in September 2005. It was built as a tribute to the Lara's Home forum mods/admin and colourful members because it looked like the forum was going to close due to lack of funding. But if you can believe it, the original version was even ruder than the released version, and whilst it was a good laugh for adults, I didn't feel it was suitable for public release. I'd done a couple of the short level sketches, but really wanted the whole package to contain around 10-15 short visual gags. It took me another year and a half to come up with enough of these short levels that I actually thought were funny, to fill the quota and to bring Pleasure Palace up to a standard that was releasable. The theme that I wanted to be throughout the game was that it's funny to laugh at ourselves and our hobbies. I was somewhat concerned about releasing this publicly because much of the humour relates only to LH members, and was worried that non-forum members just wouldn't 'get the joke'. Generally speaking that hasn't been the case and people have enjoyed the wacky, zany nature of the game.
Lara for ever: The last information for a current level project was about Incan Secrets, where we could see fantastic screenshots already. But now I know this level is only part of a much bigger one, as you are working on a big new project. The working title is Beyond the Scion. Now, we are very curious to learn more about this project, so, what can you tell us yet about it? What do you add there beyond Incan Secrets, what kind of adventures and areas can we expect?
EssGee: Indeed plans change…. Incan Secrets was inspired by TR Legend, and I wanted to see if I could reproduce some of the atmosphere of that game using the TRLE. It was about 60-70% complete but had no clear plan or story. Then along came TR Anniversary and in the process of making texture sets from this game I started noodling with the Atlantis textures. I was also intrigued by the unique architecture of the TRA Atlantis levels, and decided to try and reproduce some of the objects. Again trying to push the boundaries of the level editor is the thrill for me. Things came together surprisingly quickly and I'm very excited about what's been created so far. Travelling through this level will be a bit of deja-vu for the player but with some new twists.
Lara for ever: About the working title, can you tell us something about the story yet? Beyond the Scion, somehow this reminds of TR Anniversary and the original first TR game ever, where Lara had to search for the Scion. Will your game somehow be a sequel to those adventures?
EssGee: Yes, the situation was, I had two well advanced levels architecturally but no story and no connection. But now there is a story developing. Nothing set in stone yet (and it probably won't be until it's built) but the intent is that the story will provide a 'what if' scenario to the ending of TR1/TRA. Whilst I don't want to give the story away in detail, I can say that Lara's mission will be to right the wrongs of certain individuals. She will be contacted by a mystery person who is unaccounted for in the original storyline, which will set her off on a journey to some distant locations, not to plunder tombs but to hide artefacts, because you know … some things are better left unfound. Beyond the Scion obviously revisits an Atlantean setting and whilst it is not strictly a remake, it is my own interpretation of the TR Anniversary Atlantis with varied gameplay. Incan Secrets will provide a new Peruvian location. The other locations I'm considering are the Congo in a cloud forest amongst the big apes, an Australian outback gorge where Lara will be pitted against big crocs, dingoes, and very poisonous snakes and spiders, and perhaps a jungle-style level based on an island country like Sri Lanka (hmm wonder how I'm going to get elephants into the game LOL.).
Lara for ever: Can we also get some further details? Such as if your project will also include new content, as for example new objects, enemies or moves for Lara? And will there also be cut scenes or FMVs?
EssGee: At this stage I have not looked into FMV's at all and probably won't do so. There will certainly be animated cutscenes planned to tell the story. Pretty much every object in the two levels built so far is new, or bears resemblance to something old. The modified exe has really allowed me to be more creative and adventurous in the objects department. Textures so far are largely from TR Legend and TR Anniversary or are ones I've created myself. I'm yet to create the majority of enemies but you can be sure that from me, there will be some new surprises in this department. And yes, Lara will be flexing some new or modified moves which should make for a good blend between traditional and TR Legend/TRA style raiding.
Lara for ever: Have you any idea yet how many levels this project could contain in the end? I guess it will become a big level series. And I also guess there is no release date yet?
EssGee: No, it would be foolish to estimate a release date at this stage, although I'd like to think it would before the end of 2008, otherwise it will be dragging out too long for me. But this all depends on how fast the ideas come to me and how long it takes to construct custom objects. Building time really varies a great deal with me. Incan Secrets has been eight months in the making and is still not complete. The Atlantis level is only about a month old and is well advanced. It looks like 5-6 levels might be the scope of the project, but there could be a couple of short interludes between the main game play levels.
Lara for ever: And my last question, what about your future plans? Can we hope you will stay within the community for level building? Are there still enough ideas and motivation to keep working at Customlevels? And what do you think for the future of the Customlevels in general? Will they survive?
EssGee: I've got no intention of leaving the TR community. Tomb Raider is my favourite game. I've probably got enough project work to keep me busy for the next twelve months, but after that I think I will keep building until I don't enjoy it anymore or run out of ideas. I'd also like to make sure my son's level gets completed. I think the custom level scene will survive for some time yet, as long as there are players eager to play the games, experienced builders around to continue building and to pass on knowledge to a new generation of builders, and new builders who are willing to learn building skills properly.
Lara for ever: Thank you for the interview, EssGee!
EssGee: You are more than welcome, Jürgen.
During the course of conducting this interview, a beta version of a new level compiler tool has been released by Monty TRC. EssGee has told me that he has been experimenting with this and is very excited about using it, as it allows you to build TR 2, TR 3 and TR 5 levels using winroomedit level editor. Here is the result of his first trials with it for the TR 3 game engine: