Phil: "Tell us a little about the genesis of this site. Was it your brain child, or were others involved as well? What were some of the factors that motivated you to launch trle.net and the forum?
Michael: "Once upon a time... during a stormy winter night... well, ok... maybe it was not quite THAT dramatic. Or maybe it was actually... I still recall that one Saturday morning, back in late February 2001. I was on a business trip in Cincinnati, Ohio and had to stay in town over the weekend. Let's just say it is not quite the town to do lots of exciting things in on a weekend (if you are not a well settled local family), so I ended up browsing the net in my hotel room and ran into a post at tombraiders.com (Teresa's site - which is sadly no longer operating today). This particular post described how somebody was stuck in a custom level and looking for a way forward. When reading it, I thought: Wow - this sounds almost as if he is playing my level (Escape with the Amulet of Horus - which just for the fun of it I had uploaded to my personal homepage a few days earlier). It took a while to sink in that this WAS indeed about my level. Somebody had found it on the net, downloaded and was playing. I was thrilled by this rather unexpected event, as I had really built it for myself and never thought about others possibly being interested in it.
This for me was the beginning of being engaged in an online community. Fast forward a few weeks... custom levels kept appearing all over the place and a few sites emerged that started putting download link listings together, like Michael J. Jelarcic (the creator of TRWest) and Colin Grigson who later also released one level himself and invented the small batch tool that would help people converting scripts (sadly, also his site is no longer active). Back then, there were two things that bothered me about these listings: For one, they were all sorted by level name and not by level builder's name and secondly, with by then more than 100 levels available, how would I know which ones to play first, ie which ones would interest me more than others?
And then, one day in March 2001, I got this email from the other side of the world. A young lady named Sash was complimenting me on my second level (Seven Islands) and describing a few of the things she liked in it (and also some she did not like so much). We kept exchanging a few emails back and forth and began playing with the idea of evaluating/scoring levels and providing some short commentary on the playing experience and only a few more days later, Sash sent me an email including something like 30+ first reviews of levels, scored against four categories that we had been discussing before. The rest, as they say, is history... Obviously I could not step away from the discussion then and began creating the very first listing (in Excel!) of the 100+ levels known at the time, added the reviews by Sash and the first ones of my own, sorted the listing by Level builder and put it up on my personal site.
It took quite a few more months before mprager.de then got converted into trle.net, mainly because it did not feel right to have all this run 'under my name' and in August 2001 the forum was created. As I have already explained in the interview with Cheryl back in August 2002, the forum idea was not mine. It was Webknight who offered to create and host a forum for the site, as I was rather clueless about all these things technically. Without him, there probably would not have been a forum for years. Webknight himself stepped away from the community a few years later for personal reasons and he is still greatly missed."
Phil: "Give us some details about your background and your normal life. Age, education, first and all other languages, where you've lived, what you now do for a living, marital status, interests other than Tomb Raider."
Michael: "Most of those details can be picked up from mprager.de where you can see my whole CV. I am almost 44, native German, but as I have now been working for more than 18 years in an American company, I probably spend more time writing and speaking English than German. I work as a Manager in the IT department of Procter & Gamble, a consumer goods company producing and selling many of the products you likely all use at home. For the past 10+ years I have had global responsibility for a subset of the company's Planning Systems, ie software solutions that help us to predict what to produce when in the plants in order to meet the demand of our trade customers.
I have always been based in Germany, but had and have my fair share of travel around the world - both business and pleasure, as I really enjoy seeing other places and getting in touch with the wide variety of cultures this planet has to offer. A few years ago, I divorced my wife after 15 years of marriage and today I am lucky to live together with Regina aka Gandalf, a fellow Tomb Raider - certainly not the least of the benefits that this Tomb Raider endeavor has had in stall for me over all these years... ;)
Aside from work, trle.net and travel, I do enjoy watching good movies, try to stay fit by running at least fairly regularly and have started geocaching back in 2008, as it goes together well with travelling (If you do not know what that is, check out geocaching.com)."
Phil: "How much time do you typically spend on this site on a weekly basis, monitoring it, tweaking it as necessary, posting reviews, etc.? Do you have anyone to help with this? Do you need anyone to help with this?"
Michael: "Not easy to say. It has obviously become quite a routine and is so automatic by now that it almost does not register. If I am actually around, I usually get to the site every day and then it is only a few minutes here and there, checking for updates, new levels, approving reviews, new walkthroughs, new level screenshots, changes to author or reviewer profiles and the like. Only when I cannot do updates for a week or so, I end up spending maybe 3-4 hours on a weekend to catch everything up and putting the monthly report together usually also takes 2-3 hours, depending on how many new Hall of Fame levels need to be added. Over the years there was always help of some sort, but today I actually do most of the site related things myself, as it is quite manageable and because the forum is totally out of my hands and so wonderfully run by the admins - mugs, Tinka and QRS - and the Mod team. I also really appreciate all the people who do find small mistakes or errors and point them out to me, like Mytly or manarch2 have done a lot in the past months."
Phil: "Had you dabbled in building before starting trle.net, or did that come later? What prompted you to step in and get your feet wet?"
Michael: "As already explained above: yes, it was the other way round: Building first, trle.net later. And the building was prompted by being through so quickly with the rather short TR:Chronicles game and being curious about the ability to create a game all by myself."
Phil: "What do you envision for the future? Are you starting to get tired of all this? Are you grooming someone to take over eventually? How long is it your intention to continue an active trle.net and forum?"
Michael: "There have always been (usually short) periods of time during which I was indeed quite tired of all this. Mostly that was related to some kind of meaningless quarrel with either individuals or other related communities - things you would laugh about in hindsight, but that at the respective times seemed like a big deal. Like when we had a few 'fake reviews' and several people trying to 'break the system' or pointless long discussions about competitions between some of the TR sites, or generally people demonstrating in public a severe lack of respect for others. But each time there was something else to more than make up for it. Like some great team spirit to bring back the energy. Or something that happened in real life that put it all in perspective. And also, in recent years everything has indeed become a little calmer, flowing more smoothly, as we have all gotten to know each other so well - even if only virtually for many of us. So, at this time, I am really not wasting any time thinking about if, when and how it might all come to an end. Here's to the next 10 years of trle.net - may it live long and prosper =)
Phil: "What does it cost on a regular basis to maintain this site? Are members contributing at a satisfactory level? How much do you have to cover out of your own pocket?"
Michael: "In pure monetary value, I pay 59 Euro (ca. 80+ US$) each month to run the dedicated server that trle.net and the forum is hosted on and I find that rather cheap considering the whole content it offers. As many will recall, we have been running small donation campaigns every year or every other year, so quite a lot of the money has indeed been paid by the community, which I am very grateful for, as it shows interest and engagement and that the site is 'worth considering a small monetary contribution' to quite some people out there. Secondly, I have been lucky enough to earn some money via placing small text ads on the main page, so this also helps to cover the cost and allows for some investment into things like BtB CDs or trle.net USB sticks that get awarded as prizes in competitions. At this time, the overall cost has indeed exceeded the donations though, so if you read this, feel free to consider clicking on that PayPal button on the main trle.net page... ;) Still - even if there were zero donations, I would continue running the site and as long as I keep my job, I am also in a position to afford that, so I actually appreciate the gesture of any donation more than the actual amount it may entail."
EssGee: "You've played nearly every one of the 2000+ released levels. Do you still get the same excitement today, as you did when playing the very early releases when the community was in its infancy?"
Michael: "Yes, indeed I have and I continue to work towards the goal of reviewing each and every one of them. This goal emerged very early in the trle.net lifespan for me, as I thought that in order to be able to assess whether a review that comes in is a fair assessment of a level, I had to play it myself. So, there is some odd moral obligation deeply hidden in me somewhere, I guess. As for the excitement... honestly... no. The levels that create such a powerful emotion as excitement in me are few and far between these days, but that does not mean I do not enjoy playing a decent level. I find most levels entertaining in some way (some more than others) and it relaxes my mind to play through them and to see what others have come up with. I have only twice awarded a 4x 10 score for individual levels and only a few more times for levels within a series, so I m trying to be conscious of what in my personal opinion is perfection, but on the other hand I consider levels that score 5-6 on average to be playable and fun as well. Maybe not all of them, but certainly many..."
EssGee: "How did the review ratings system come about?"
Michael: "Quite honestly, I don't remember exactly, but it was indeed born during the email interactions with Sash in March 2001 that I mentioned above. I believe the four categories we have today are still exactly the ones we created back then. Despite many, many long discussions about the 'review system' they were in the end never changed, as I never got convinced that a change would actually lead to something 'better' - all it was, was just different. What has been changed over the years was some of the calculations for the scores, like when we introduced that the highest and lowest score get eliminated for the average calculation or that a reviewer needs 10 reviews before her/his scores count for the average calculation."
EssGee: "You seem to be a well-organised person and from what I've seen, you are an expert player - do you have a game-playing strategy e.g. make notes, maps etc.?"
Michael: "Yes, I would agree that I am rather organized, but expert player? Whatever that may mean... I would maybe rather say that practice increases expertise over time. My main gameplay strategy is to have fun while I play. I am not shy about looking at walkthroughs, if I do not find my way forward within a reasonable amount of time (where 'reasonable' varies with the mood of the day =) ), but I do enjoy agility passages and clever puzzles much more than pure exploration. So yes, for a tricky puzzle I may well resort to drawing up a map. And yes, I usually take notes of things I like or don't like so much in a level, so that I can include these when I write my review later on."
EssGee: "Members who have only recently joined the community would not be familiar with the review jury that used to exist to deal with problematic reviews. Can you enlighten us about that process, why it was retired and how you deal with it these days?"
Michael: "The overall Jury concept is fairly simple: Get a group of vounteers together who are trusted and respected community members and then that group will look at each submitted review first and formally 'approve' it to be acceptable, or reject it and work back with the reviewer to possibly make adjustments. This process is actually still in place at the Levelbase today, which is why at times it can take a few days before submitted reviews actually show up as visible for everybody. At trle.net I had approached this slightly differently and did a personal 'pre-selection', ie I only submitted reviews to the Jury which I thought require a discussion. Thankfully there were never really that many and over time there were less and less, which is why quite a while ago I 'released the Jury from its duty' entirely. Thus, today, the approval of submitted reviews is handled simply through me and my personal and subjective judgment. Obviously I am only human and miss things along the way, so that is why not too long ago the Review Forum got created as a place to bring up questionable reviews for public discussion. While this is a good approach, I keep saying that the very best approach to handle a 'questionable review' is to have the impacted builder contact the respective reviewer personally via email/PM. In 90% of the cases this yields a very satisfactory result for both parties, while a public discussion can easily go through pages and pages of threads without changing anything - but these can be fun to follow too... ;)"
EssGee: "Reviews are a big part of trle.net. I'm sure that the stats would prove that in the large part 95% or more of reviews published are fair and reasonable. Perhaps the biggest source of conflict in the community over the years has been disputes over reviews between builders and reviewers. The source of the conflict is generally a mixture of builders being over-sensitive to criticism, or over-critical, vindictive or inept player reviews depending on which perspective you are coming from. Ultimately critique can be tough without needing to be nasty and that is the most basic level of respect that I would expect most builders would wish for. Level building techniques have developed over the years. Do you think the art of reviewing has grown with it?"
Michael: "I agree - we have always had our fair share of disputes around reviews and when you think about it that is not so surprising and actually a sign that people care about the comments that are being submitted. I also agree that reasons for the disputes cover the full scale - ie touchy builders just as much as disrespectful reviewers and each 'case' we have had was a little different to the previous ones. I would argue that the 'art of reviewing' - and a bit of an art it is indeed - HAS evolved and grown over the years with many very respectful reviewers out there. But, just as many builders have not been keeping up with all the new building capabilities and possibilities, some reviewers are still a little stuck in their way of reviewing... ;)"
EssGee: "On a personal level, largely thanks to the existence of trle.net, over the last eight years I've spent an inordinately large amount of my leisure time either building, testing, playing or reviewing Tomb Raider levels. I'm not sure whether to thank you or blame you for providing the vehicle for such a pleasurable distraction (just kidding ;) ). Realistically ten years on, the TR custom level scene still has a healthy turnover of levels being produced and players (new and old) enjoying these levels. When you started the trle.net site, did you ever imagine the custom level scene would have such a great longevity?"
Michael: "Short answer: No. =) Right answer: I probably did not ever really think about how long it would last and I still don't today. I have always really engaged and run the site for my own benefit. The fact that it ended up being a vehicle for so many people out there is just a nice bonus. It has certainly been a little 'quieter' over the past few years, but I still feel it is the best community one could possibly think of and I do particularly enjoy the moments when new and fresh people come on board and stay along for the ride! :)
interviewed by Cheryl Kinkoph aka Momster in August 2002
(additional questions by Nefertari and Bex) - subtitled "Or How to Drive Magnus Crazy"
Originally Hans-Willi Brüggen (aka Palopique) started Michael's interview and as personal issues became more pressing, Michael asked me to take up the cause. Following is some information gathered by Palo:
"Michael started with the Level Editor directly after playing TR5 and began building, looking at the manual with the standard tut1 wad. He was fascinated and his first level came out in January, 2001. Feedback was not all that good so he started his next one – 'Seven Islands', an outside level and he initially looked to the TombRaiders.com Forum. Michael likes logical levels, gameplay and puzzles are important and through contact with Sash, began reviewing. An international meeting is Michael's big aim. Michael lives south of a town called Heilbronn, loves to travel but would like to do more traveling that's not connected with his job. He especially would like to visit Mexico again and loves London. He likes reading English literature and novels and in life is normally quiet and always thinking."
Cher: "Tell us how your involvement with Tomb Raider began?"
Michael: "Wow - that starts out highly original and surprising. I am almost caught off guard right away."
Cher: "If I were speaking with DougE, I would say something rude."
Michael: "ts ts - I think you need to relax."
Cher: "Well, we must start at the beginning mustn't we?"
Michael: "What was the question again - ah, right... Yes, the beginning... 1996 then... Can't believe that's almost 6 years ago and I actually have no recollection of why exactly I bought TR1, but I did back then and simply loved it from the very first moments in the caves. I missed that very first switch right next to the door for a very long time, but the frustration was not that big so I carried on... Finished TR1 pretty quickly and I think even back then got some help from Theresa's tombraiders.com site And ever since bought the sequel games on their day of release in Germany and played them over the Christmas period."
Bex: "What do you find so appealing about Lara Croft, and what do you dislike about her?"
Michael: "Lara as a person? Funnily enough her rather 'outstanding' female attributes never appealed much to me. I like how she quickly became a character with a story in the background etc. as this made it so much easier to fully identify with the game and all those moves were so cool and such, but I guess they would have been cool if it had been a guy as well (will see if that statement holds when I get to play Kurtis in AOD - LOL)."
Cher: "How long did you play around with the Level Editor before actually building a level?"
Michael: "A week or two - that's how long it took me to rebuild the tutorial level and wading through the manual. Like many other builders I had completed TR5 quickly and then replayed it for speed in 4:10 hours and as of that moment turned my attention to that second green CD ROM in the package."
Cher: "You've authored 3 levels, Escape With the Amulet of Horus, Seven Islands and Blue Sphere. Which is your personal favorite."
Michael: "I really could not pick one."
Bex: "Do you think that the Level Building scene will die off with the release of TR:AOD?"
Michael: "No - I do not think AOD will have anything to do with that. Many builders have disappeared from the scene already others, are still going strong rumours have it that AOD will be rather short so, the attention might be shifting for a moment but I think new custom levels will be coming still for a while - more slowly of course but they will."
Cher: "Any plans for another Michael Prager level?"
Michael: "Yes and No - I am proud to be part of the Eidos Project managed by Lucas (Treeble) which just completed the architecture of the final room and is now in texturing stage, and I have a few papers with ideas in my drawer, but I have not seriously touched the editor in more than a year and would have to learn lots of stuff again from scratch plus all the new tools you need to build something decent. And then there is the issue of time - with the website to run and still lots of levels to play and review..."
Cher: "Would you even have the time to author another level with the time spent moderating and maintaining forum, work and your personal life?"
Michael: "Well, the answer would be - I don't even have the time to maintain site and forum, play levels and work and personal life but I am doing it anyway somehow - so from that perspective I could as well build a level - but I guess it's been too long since I did."
Bex: How do you find the time to work, maintain a forum, update an ever-changing web site, write reviews and spend time with your wife - in other words, do you ever sleep"?"
Michael: "Yes, I do sleep - though definitely not enough...and no, I do not spend enough time with my wife - but as she is going through a phase of exploring new hobbies (painting, reading, playing guitar) she needs a lot of time for herself too, so we manage..."
Cher: "Do you aspire to have a level in the top 50? Or are you happy with what you've done and moderating this site?"
Michael: "No, I do not aspire to have a level in the Top50 and in fact I think nobody should. This is not what it's about. I am very happy with the ratings for my three levels and realize they are a little higher than they would be if the author wouldn't be me."
Cher: "You think so?"
Michael: "Yes - also many of those ratings are from long ago and would be lower today - so I am not complaining."
Cher: "Do you have a favorite custom level? A favorite level author?"
Michael: "I easily have a 100 favourite levels, but as known by many, Tomb of Cleopatra's Handmaiden somehow is my special, classic, nostalgia level. As for authors I could only name the usual suspects and rather than omitting somebody, I won't do that."
Bex: "Is there anything you really don't like in custom levels?"
Michael: "Lots - LOL! Mazes, dark mazes, dark underwater mazes, unmarked climbing or monkey passages, unmarked spike traps - did I mention mazes."
Bex: "Have you ever played a custom level and, during a really good bit, thought "Ooh, I wish I'd created that!" If so, what bit was it?"
Michael: "Not quite like that. I often asked myself 'How did she or he do that'? when I was intrigued by something I had not thought of being possible with the editor. Of course, with all the new tools lots of things became possible and I have long since stopped wondering about anything."
Cher: "You recently went on a holiday, to Austria, I believe, did you think about the forum and wonder how it was getting on?"
Michael: "Yes, couldn't help myself - and guess what they had an Internet terminal in the hotel and read the forum every night. Managed to stay away from posting though but I read."
Cher: "I'm sure some of the original forum members know this, but why the Forum? Where did the idea come from, why YOU?"
Michael: "The idea was not mine. There was already a pretty good community of reviewers and it was Webknight who offered to create and host a forum for the site and of course I gladly accepted and see where we are today with 250+ members and close to our first anniversary. I owe Dirk a lot here and it's sad that he has some private reasons to step out of the community, as without him it really wouldn't exist in the way it does today."
Cher: "How has the Forum evolved since it's inception?"
Michael: "Actually the structure has never changed - with the exception of the addition of the Jury forum. We did not know what would happen and it turned out to be a players forum rather than a builders forum, which was fine by me as I had turned into being a player - There are other and better forums out there for level builders to share tips and tricks but I dare say, there are few if any better forums out there to help you when you are stuck in a custom level."
Nef: "What were your expectations when you and Dirk set up the website and forum and how wildly different is reality."
Michael: "We actually did not have any expectations - well, can't speak for Dirk really but we just thought we would give it a go and see what happens. I think it turned out great because it has become such a friendly and virtual home like place. We have had so few real fights and troubles in the forum it's amazing I think I deleted maybe 5 posts in my moderator role in the whole last year."
Cher: "Yes, and one was mine."
Michael: "No comment."
Cher: "I am sure members come and members go, and then there are some that have been around as long as the forum. Are there any members who are no longer active, that stick out in your mind? And if so why?"
Michael: "Another tricky question to answer, because as you pick one you miss out others, but actually I miss every single person who was a regular forum member and then for known or unknown reasons disappears."
Cher: "In your circle of friends, are there other "raiders" And do your friends know about your Tomb Raider "fetish":"
Michael: "In the old days I had a colleague who also played the regular series but by now he is married, has two kids and other priorities. Of course, I have just met a fantastic circle of 'new' friends at the German TR meeting in July who are just as addicted as I am. Other friends know that I spend a lot of time with my site and are actually in awe about the monthly hit rate of more then half a million and the fabulous Review Staff page with those diverse people."
Cher: "There has been a recent influx of "newbies" lately. To what do you attribute that to?"
Michael: "Actually that was always the case and some then stayed and became regulars and others didn't. The bigger the community gets the higher the likelihood of sharing with friends that there is a site they might want to try out. In the early days I roamed many forums and advertised my site - I have totally stopped that as it is no longer needed."
Cher: "How much time do you spend moderating and maintaining the forum? It's got to be a HUGE amount of work."
Michael: "Actually not - you all are such a friendly bunch - LOL. I am basically online most of my daily work time and can check quickly every hour or so for new posts and the time doesn't even register as spent. And admittedly I have stopped reading everything in the Stuck in a level forum and trust people will notify me when things get out of hand. Keeping the reviews up to date is much more work."
Nef: "Exactly what do you do for a living? I know you work in IT but that covers a multitude of sins?"
Michael: "All the filthy details can actually be found in the CV section on the website. In short I am currently what we call the Global Product Owner for the SAP Demand Planning software that Procter & Gamble uses world wide to forecast which products our customers will buy from us in what quantities. The role involves lots of international contacts with the US, Asia, Latin America and Europe and is great fun."
Cher: "How tall are you?"
Michael: "ROTFL - you DO mean body height, right?"
Cher: "What'd you think I meant? lol?"
Michael: "nevermind - about 1.80 meters, you'd have to convert that into feet & inches yourself (5 ft. 11 inches)."
Cher: "What color are your eyes?"
Michael: "brown - don't you see that on the pic on the review staff page?"
Cher: "like we can tell what color your eyes are, lol. What is your wife's name and how did you meet?"
Michael: "I could tell you my wife's name but then I would have to kill you afterwards or she would kill me - does not want to share anything about herself on the net and I respect that. We have met in 1984 in Brighton, UK during a summer school vacation - very romantic."
Cher: "Does she resemble "Lara" at all?"
Cher: "How long have you been married?"
Michael: "9 years."
Cher: "Does your wife play Tomb Raider at all? Or any games?"
Michael: "Only occasionally. When TR4 came out we had a bit more time and she actually took a few steps and liked the idea of the game, but her priorities are elsewhere."
Cher: "Hopefully she is understanding about the time you put into the forum?"
Michael: "See somewhere above - we are mature enough to get our priorities managed."
Cher: "Do you have children? And if not, any plans to start a family? *though Cheryl thinks he could hardly have time* lol"
Michael: "How much time do you need as a man if you want children? Shouldn't 30 seconds be enough - seriously - answer is no and no current plans - we both work and enjoy working, so it might happen or it might not - time will tell..."
Cher's comment: I'd like to thank Michael for asking me to do this as it was great fun. And many thanks to Bex, Nefertari and of course, Palo for all their assistance.