Anything but Silent – An Interview With Dan Menard

Anything but Silent – An Interview With Dan Menard

It’s been an admittedly quiet weekend, mostly thanks to Plato and girlfriends, but we’ve got an excellent interview for your viewing pleasure today, following on from last weeks event (we’ll certainly be having another next week. But we’ll probably be online on the Steam group tonight anyway if someone wants to play something!) We’ve got Dan Menard, Project Lead of the Eternal Silence team on the horn today, on the development of the mod, and some reflections now it’s part of the growing number of mods available on Steam.


TR: First off, give us a little background to how ES got started

Dan: Eternal Silence has always been a small pet project of mine. I had the
original idea something like 6 years ago. I started it off as a
Battlefield mod, but I was young and quickly discovered it would take
more work to get this thing the way I wanted it. I started the whole
thing over for Half-Life 2, forming the team 5 years ago. The goal was
never to sell out, but just to make a really awesome game that I could
enjoy with others.

I’ve come to relate to the game really well. It’s a game about
coordination and planning. The team which has a decent leader to
coordinate strikes and set objectives is the team that wins. This is
exactly my role on the team, and I just noticed this weird connection
recently. If I was a game, it would be Eternal Silence.

The team itself is really small, and has actually gotten smaller with
time. We are all very close knit at this point, and we bounce ideas
off each other all the time. Everyone makes time for the mod in their
schedule and helps out anyway they can. It’s gotten to the point where
some of our mappers and artists will go out and create the most
amazing things without any direction from me at all. It’s really great
to be around so many talented people that are so passionate about
their work. Everyone on the team owns a bit of Eternal Silence, and it
really shows when you see the inspiration and effort these people
bring to their work. Eternal Silence would be nothing without its

TR: Have things changed at all throughout the development?

The only constant in life is change. This is even more true with a mod
team. We’ve had developers leave for all sorts of reasons. The game
itself has changed immensely over time. Everybody that touched the mod
left his or her mark, and that’s one of the great things about working
on a mod. Thing are flexible. We reinvented the gameplay of Eternal
Silence three times, once with each major version, and each time we
look back at the last version we think “How on earth did people play
this junk?”. That just tells you how much we’ve evolved and how we
will continue to evolve.

TR:We’ve already seen a very rapid turn over for the first patch since you were released on Steam last Friday – what have you got planned in the future?

The future is looking bright. In the first week of release I think
I’ve already seen three or four community maps coming into existence.
We have two maps which we hesitated to release for 3.2, but they will
be coming soon. We’re looking at a time frame of a couple of weeks. We
will continue to add new features and improvements as people ask for
them. If I have my way, we will see a content patch every two or three
weeks to tweak up the game, add features, fix bugs etc. The Steam
system allows us to send these patches instantly to everyone and it’s
a godsend for us.


TR:  One thing I really feel the mod pull off excellently is the feeling you get when you orchestrate a plan to perfection. The combination of coordinating the space combat and infantry assaults is pretty unique, but one region we felt could do with a little work is giving a little more indication of what everyone else is doing. Will we be seeing any improvements, maybe to the GUIin telling you what your team is doing perhaps?

Dan: Improving the GUI and the coordination during a strike has been
something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it’s always landed
on the wish list rather than the to-do list. Now that Eternal Silence
is getting a really solid community and player base, we’re going to
start exploring these features a little more.

TR: Will we ever get to see any larger player controlled ships, or is that being kept close to the chest at the moment?

Dan: Nope. It’s not because we can’t, it’s because we feel it will hurt
gameplay. Early on we tested large moving capital ships and it only
complicated things like landing, taking off and targeting. It didn’t
seem like the right decision, considering that landing is one of the
major objectives of the game. We also want to get as many players as
possible out there in space or on foot fighting. One goal of the game
is to create large battles with a small player count, and we do this
by automating turrets and capital ship weapons so we can get more
pilots out there. This won’t change, because I think we do it
extremely well.

TR: One thing mods of an ambitious scale on the Source engine seem to suffer from is chronic lag issues. I know for certain that one thing holding back Empires for a while was improving latency, and indeed one of the major criticisms (rapidly improved upon in the latest patch) of ES has been lag. Are there any better alternatives to Source in this regard or does its sheer modding potential otherwise make up for it?

Dan: The Eternal Silence network code is actually just fine. We discovered
recently that the network rate was defaulting to 3.5 k/sec. This meant
that the server was throttling all the clients to keep that low
transfer rate. This had the effect of making everyone play like they
were on a 28.8 modem, which is obviously crap. I found that bug just a
couple of days ago, and the fix is already out on Steam, so the lag
should be a thing of the past. The fact that we were able to squeeze
out 32 players from a modem-quality connection is a testament to how
efficient the network code really is. Actually, a ship in space is
less intensive than a player on foot.

Our first version had terrible lag though, and that was mainly because
of a lack of concern on our part. We simply didn’t know it would be so
bad. This was quickly cleaned up in version two. The Source engine has
an excellent networking system, and we really make the best of it.

TR: Playing ES genuinely feels like a combination of all the best Sci-Fi battles, like a mix of Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars and games like Sins of a Solar Empire or Homeworld. Something about the shields versus super weapons mechanic also really reminds me of some Asimov’s military vessel descriptions. Are there any other interesting game mechanics or units coming from these influences?

Dan: The main influences for Eternal Silence (at least for me) have been
Freespace 2, Homeworld and Battlestar Galactica. We draw heavily on
Freespace 2 for our controls and our HUD. Homeworld has been a great
inspiration for the capital ship designs and the trails. Battlestar
has inspired us for sounds and for scale. I can’t speak for the others
on the team though, since everyone brings their own influences to the
table. Unfortunately I haven’t played Sins of a Solar Empire, but I
think we’ve been around longer ;) .


TR: The Dystopia team have talked recently about the importance of Steamworks as a platform for new developers. As well as the exposure (we certainly struggled to find 8 or so slots on a decent server on Sunday! That’s gotta be a good sign!) would you say that Steam helps make your mod less a game, and more an industry standard product?

Dan: Steamworks has been like a dream come true. When Valve contacted me
about putting Eternal Silence on Steam, I knew we’d started a new era
for ES. It makes updating really easy, and has given us excellent
exposure. This means we can be more agile in our development. We can
get critical patches out right away and instantly to all players. It
takes away the headaches of preparing a release and getting download
mirrors and all. We’ve already shipped two patches this week, and we
definitely plan to use it even more.

TR: Also on Steamworks, how do you go about getting it on there? We’re seeing developers like Relic, Creative Assembly or Epic taking advantage of Steam’s functionality in the retail sector, but how easy is it for the Indie dev or mod team to get on there? Would you recommend they try to do so?

Dan: Valve has been great with giving us support for Steamworks. I don’t
think it’s too hard to get a hold of these people. Their phone number
is right on their website. The benefits of Steamworks are so huge that
it’s worth taking a look at for any developer.

TR: Are there any mods or developers you have particular respect and admiration for?

Dan: Personally, I like Insurgency, but I haven’t had much time to play it
recently. I think game development has really moved forward in the
last year or so and is really entering a golden age. We’ve seen big
companies like EA take more risks, and everyone is adopting practices
from Indie games. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry.

TR: Any messages to go out to any other teams aspiring to makes mods or games as ambitious and innovative as Eternal Silence?

Dan: Work hard, don’t give up. As long as the passion is there, you will
find a way. I don’t think modding is for everyone, you have to love
it, but if you do, you can make the most amazing things.

TR: Cheers for the interview Dan!

We’ve obviously not reviewed Eternal Silence, but we have been playing it a whole lot over the past week. It’s fair to say we regard this one as a hit! Definitely give it a whirl. When it’s free and this easy, you’d be mad not to!

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