Ian: "We'll start with a few basics. Name, age, location and the reasons why you apparently didn't start building with the LE until quite recently, even though it's been available for four years now!"
Michael: "Michael Anthony Bender, 49 (but only recently) Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Well, to tell you the truth I'm a 'born again raider'. Up until the spring of 2004 I hadn't played a TR game other than TRI, II, III, since they came out on playstation. Really enjoyed those first games but didn't follow up the series until much later. So in the spring, looking for a game I could play on my Macintosh (we MAC'ers don't have even close to the choices PC users have when it comes to variety of games) I bought Chronicles. So I just didn't know about the editor until then. I've only just recently played TR4, and yes I know it's blasphemy but I have never played the Gold games, they just are not in the stores anymore... missed the boat."
Ian: "So,was Passage to Mu (released Aug 19, 2004) your first level?"
Michael: "Yes, Passage to Mu 1 & 2 was my first level ever after having completed the tutorial. It's a special level for me even though it has several flaws. There will be more Mu levels later this year, on the Mu Homeworld. I've got lots of ideas brewing for that one."
Ian: "Caverns of the Dead (released Sep 27, 2004) ...sell it to all those who haven't yet played it! How long did it take to build?"
Michael: "Sell it to those who haven't played it yet? No. That sounds like too much work. I'd have to hire a publicist for that. I built it, it's there, play it or not. Besides don't the reviewers do that? How long in the making...hmmm, not really sure. A guess might be say 3 to 4 hours a day for almost a month."
Ian: "Isle of the Sun ...beautiful design, especially the outdoor areas. Describe to me the process of building a level. Do you work it out in advance or improvise? Where do you get your custom textures from?"
Michael: "When I begin a new level I definately start with a plan. I'll have a story, an objective, and certainly some idea of the way the level should look... the environment, as well creating the texture set helps set this up. But from there it's almost totally improvised. New ideas often spring up that I hadn't thought of at first, so things are constantly changing. Generally the WAD I make and the texture set change often before I am totally satisfied with them."
Ian: "Hang on a moment! Isn't there a danger with this method that you could quite easily build yourself into a corner?"
Michael: "Almost certainly there is that danger. But this can happen with a well thought out plan too. At least in my experience. But I have always used this approach with any creative endeavour be it level building or otherwise. When I start a painting, for example, I'll think about it for awhile, probably do a few sketches, but after that I just paint, and let it flow from there. I use this same approach to level building, although there are other considerations involved with level building like gameplay. Ooops, hehe forgot about that. I could very easily just build an environment to run around in, and forget about the rest. And I might do that in the future. My version of a joke level would be just a wonderous place to hang out and listen to music. Like have Lara visit a series of jazz clubs or something, with John Coltrane, or Rahshan Roland Kirk playing in the back ground. But to return to the question at hand. I did build myself into a corner with the first level of Isle part 1, Dogtown. I really wanted to get the feel of a real town, with wide open areas, and roofs to climb, and rooms to enter. And except for a few interior rooms, and alleys that whole level is actually a bunch of rooms placed together to make what was in effect one huge room. But this was a trade off as I quickly ran out of allocation for the level and it began to crash and I had not yet reached a place where I wanted to end the level. So I used what was going to be the entrance point of the game, and changed it to the exit for the next level, and let Lara start in the middle of the level instead which as it turned out was very successful I thought. I think in this instance gameplay suffered a bit too because there wasn't that much to do except find the bike, but that didn't bother me too much. Afterall I had my town. Lol. I thought Michael P. described it quite well in his review referring to Dogtown as a prelude to the level."
Ian: "Your latest level is Isle of the Sun Part 2 (released Feb 3, 2005). Was this series planned as an on-going adventure?"
Michael: "When I started Isle of the Sun 1, I had no plan for a part 2 until 1 was almost complete, and Isle 2, while I knew it would be a bit longer I never thought it would grow to 9 levels, the story just kept going... lol. In fact I'm inspired to do a part 3, but that will be much later in the year."
Ian: "You've not answered my question about the Textures yet."
Michael: "The textures. Well they come from many sources. Many I create from scratch, from photos I've taken, like the canyon textures in Isle of the Sun, or I'll work up something in Photoshop, some like the Mu statues are actually scanned photos of wood carvings I did for a lamp project some years ago. I also scan alot of my textures from books, and then adapt them to my needs using Photoshop to adjust colour and size etc. I'll take TR textures and change them too, cut and paste to make different textures out of existing ones."
Ian: "If I asked you to build a level incorporating the worst Gameplay you could think of, what would you include?"
Michael: "Worst gameplay you say! Well first off the very beginning of the level would have you so stumped you would spend a half hour or more just figuring out where to start, a recent level I tried fits that bill perfectly. Secondly, I'd put so many difficult jumps and traps in the level that you would be in the midst of a save/reload orgy. However, in all probability some would find this fun. But then I'd have to test them which would be problematic as my raiding skills aren't up to snuff when compared to some of our friends at TRLE.net, so my levels are only as tough as my skills, otherwise I'd never be able to test them."
Ian: "But isn't there a limit to the amount of originality a builder can devise? Aren't there only so many different types of puzzle and Gameplay elements available to builders? How do you come up with your Gameplay ideas anyway?"
Michael: "The world of Tomb Raider is a finite world. I would argue that in all probability everything that can be employed in a level has been. It's all been done before. But you could say that about many things in life that people become interested in. It's true that people are making new objects, puzzles, enemies, new animations and so on, and these things in themselves might be original and are very interesting, but in the final analysis they all accomplish the same thing. You, or I as the player, (kind of like Sisyphus) do the same thing in every game we play: search for items, solve conumdrums, beat paths, raid tombs, swim, crawl, jump, climb and die. So its up to the builder to try and present the player with a sense of newness, through stories, visuals such as textures, objects (got to love those new object builders) and construction, audio and so on. So this aspect of level building I would say is limitless. Which is why there is still a large international community who enjoys playing custom levels.
How do I come up with my gameplay? What gameplay? Lol. This is probably for me the most difficult part of creating a level. Its very easy to be repetitive without even realizing it. First and foremost I concentrate on the game flow. I want the palyer to have fun, not frustration which I might add is not always easy to discern. What I think might be fun, may really annoy someone esle. I also try to balance difficult tasks with more straight forward things like searching for items or simply hunting for the next path to take. I like to construct the level in such a way that the progression makes sense and is not overly confusing. But there is so much more I need to teach myself, and test out, and questions to ask all of the knowledgeable people at the TRLE forum. So I hope this part of level building will eventually get a bit easier for me. Over the next month or so I plan to experiment quite alot, to expand my repetoire so to speak."
Ian: "Tell me the most frustrating experience to have happened to you in level building."
Michael: "Well, that would be getting a 6 from a certain reviewer in the texture category for Caverns of the Dead."
Michael: "Lol, just kidding. Well I thought the most frustrating thing happened a couple of weeks ago in the 5th level of Isle part 2. When I had to re-texture the whole level... long story. But recently something worse happened. Happily building away and closing in on the final level for Isle of the Sun 2, I discovered I needed to reset the hub in the script! Due to my own inexperience as a builder, I hadn't known about this need to ResetHub after 7 levels. This has really screwed things up as now the players won't have the puzzle items they got from Isle 1 nor will Part 1 & Part 2 be connected script wise... If I had known this at the start I could have made adjustments for it, but now having completed level 8 with only one more to go its just too late to go back in and change things too much. So this has been really disappointing."
Ian: "I'm sure the players won't mind that at all; they're a generally forgiving bunch. But you're reaction to my review, though, raises an interesting dilemma. Why do we build levels, only to submit them to the critique of strangers? After all, if we'd taken up painting as a hobby instead, our efforts would be looked at by friends and family who (in all probability) would say encouraging (if false) words of approval and encouragement. At the end of the day, isn't our chosen creative pastime of level building a rather thankless and infuriating one?"
Michael: "Well, first off I do enjoy reading my reviews and appreciate the effort taken by the reviewer. The reviews are important because they help potential players make a choice between all that is available. 1200+ levels now. Wow! And they also have the potential to help the builder. At first reading some of the reviews it was hard not to be effected by them. Some player/reviewers don't like certain aspects of TR and others like them a lot, so really as a builder I try not to worry too much about those types of remarks in a review, and just go with what I think should be included in my level. But I do stongly feel that these reviews should be constructive and whenever possible, encouraging. For instance one reviewer thought my block puzzle was intersting, this told me I had perhaps created something unusual. On the other hand if he had said, nothing new here with the block puzzle then this too would be positive, as it would get me to think about that aspect more the next time around. But getting remarks like, the block puzzle was tedious just does not help me whatsoever. Pointing out technical problems or suggestions for improvements are also beneficial to the new builder."
Ian: "Isn't there a danger of being put off from level building after receiving a poor review?"
Michael: "I don't think so, unless I was constantly receiving scathing reviews and scoring in the 2's. Or if they simply were not being played then I would be put off. I really enjoy level building too much to be put off by a couple of reviews. At the start of a project the momentum, and creative excitement fills my need to be creative. But once a particular level is complete, it becomes something different. Now it's for the player to enjoy... and the reviewer to review, and I start to get excited about a new project. After all, level building is not a profession. We are not getting paid for all the hours put into making them. The levels are created largely for the enjoyment of others, so I think this should be reflected in the reviews, and most are. I also think reviewers should take into account who they are reviewing, (and I think many do) like the difference between an experienced builder and one who is just starting out. After becoming aquainted with the level editor a new builder can put together a level but there is still so much to learn. I've been at it six months now, and have learned a whole heck of a lot since my first level but its going to be a long winter in June before I catch up to some of the more sophisticated builders. But really I don't have much to complain about, most of my reviews have been encouraging, and in some cases very good indeed. So far anyways... lol. But to answer this second part of your question. Thankless? Not at all. Apart from the enjoyment I get from building it's great fun to see the level downloaded, to read the stuck thread and remarks from the players. I have even on three occassions gotten emails from players and one reviewer thanking me for a great level. This is very gratifying and makes all the hard work worthwhile. I also really like the aspect of the community at Michael's site. Bringing the players, reviewers and builders together like this is terriffic! Infuriating? Definetely! The editor drives me crazy sometimes with all it's quirks, complaints and limitations. Sooo many times I have been just so fed up with it, especially when it throws you an unexpected curve ball. Grr! But it is still a wonderful tool.
Ian: "Has Tomb Raider runs its course?"
Michael: "Well, I think that's a twofold question. Firstly has TR runs its course as far as Eidos creating more games? Maybe. AOD was so far from the original that many fans did'nt enjoy it. So it will be interesting to see what they come up with next. But it's kind of a pity really. I guess with AOD, Edios were trying to catch up to other game producers by updating the engine etc. but I think they lost sight of what made TR so popular. I recently found a Mac edition of TR3 which I havn't played in years and I still find it totally enjoyable. Maybe its not as slick as POP for instance but who cares, not me. On the other hand I think there is alot of life left in TR when it comes to the editor and the custom levels. It just goes to show that if Eidos had kept on making TR games the way they had been doing, the new one would have been more popular than AOD."
Ian: "Do you find level building a somewhat lonely, solitary pastime? Do family/friends offer encouragement? Does it intrude on your social life?"
Michael: "No not lonely. That word just is not in my lexicon. I'm the type of person that could happily go off into the woods, live in a cabin and not see or hear from another human being for a few months. And I do on a fairly regular basis. But you're right it is a solitary pastime simply because it is something you do on your own, unless of course you collaborate with someone. Which is an interesting idea, one I might try sometime. Encouragement from family and friends, no not really. Occasionally my son might say cool, or that's neat dad, but thats about it. Lol. Intrude on my social life? Well no more than it does when I'm in the middle of a painting binge or whatever."
Ian: "Have you played any custom levels yourself? If so,which one's impressed you?"
Michael: "Actually I've played very few custom levels when compared to what's available. Maybe 50 levels so far. But plan to play a few more in the coming weeks as I want to take a break from level building for awhile. Some of the levels that come to mind are, Tower of Sumpta and Lost City of Luma by Sue Wicks. Frosty Mansion by Oxy. The Flying Temple by Kerstin Schlott. Chiclayo Caves by Rogerio Silva... and a few others. I havn't really played any of the so called top levels, but Dick's Underworld series, and Lara at the Movies project are at the top of my list among many others. I've downloaded several hundred levels just waiting to be played. Oh how to decide. Lol."
Ian: "Michael, thank you very much for spending so much time answering these questions. Isle of the Sun, Part 2 is now available for download at TRLE.net. I hope it proves to be your most succsesful yet."
(editor's note: Michael released his Passage to Mu 3 - Arrival in 2005 and Passage to Mu 4 in January 2006, screenshot on the left.)