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Unreal Tournament: Red Orchestra

I've never met Jason Mohr, nor anyone involved in the Red Orchestra project. That's not because I'm a solitary beast, crouching in fear under the desks in the commons, viciously snarling at anyone who approaches too close. It's because Jason Mohr is a full distance student, and the rest of the Red Orchestra team are spread out over the world. Red Orchestra isn't actually a UAT project, but rather an independent mod that one of our students helped with.

Red Orchestra itself is one of the best known and most popular Unreal mods out there. It takes place during World War II on the Eastern Front. That's right, no Americans: just Soviets and Nazis having it out. Hitler versus Stalin! Sigurd versus... Dobrynya Nikititch, I guess. So I don’t know my Russian mythology very well.

Research is definitely one thing that didn’t trouble the creators of Red Orchestra. There’s a virtual library of information about the Eastern Front and the battalions there. The entire mod is acclaimed for its realism, both in the setting and in the way the combat plays. You can visit the site and check it out for yourself. Take a look at the gaggle of awards they’ve won, too. Before you do that, though, take a look at what UAT’s own Jason Mohr had to say about the project.

First, introduce yourself and give us an idea of what you did on this mod.

My name is Jason. I am a distance student in the Game Design program and will graduate by 2005. I was born, raised and still live in Minnesota. I am a 3D artist for the Red Orchestra modification of UT2004. I have modeled many objects used by the level design team such as the Reichstag building in Berlin, a couple of vehicles, anti-tank canons and more. I have also spent a great deal of time behind the scenes in an art-asset management role.

This mod has a pretty extensive history and pretty huge fan base. For how long have you been involved with it, and how did you get on the team?

I have been with the team a little over a year. After completing my work on the D-Day mod for Quake 2, I decided to look for the next big hit in the mod scene and after a little searching found the Red Orchestra team. I thought the work looked great back then, even before it was released and applied.

The folks in charge of this mod had some pretty ambitious ideas. This was definitely no simple project. A huge list of completely new features were added. Was it daunting to have such a massive number of projects laid out for you?

I didn't feel too pressured. I was the author of a total conversion before joining the team so I had an idea what I was getting into. I knew it would take a lot of hard work, but the amount of experience (and fun) I would gain from the project would be well worth it.

The team just released, a bit more than a month ago, the Combined Arms expansion. With this, you’ve shown a dedication that’s rare among amateur projects. Where do you find the time to continually produce for this game without payment? How do you manage your schedule to do this, school and maintain a decent income?

The team consists of people from the ages of 15 through over 40. Everyone on the team is dedicated to making a great game, so everyone finds a balance. I work a full-time day job in retail and the project basically becomes a second job. The amount of time I can put in changes from week to week, but since it’s a voluntary project I just work on it when I can. I haven't started a family of my own yet so I still have plenty of time to put into it.

Do you have any professional (paid) experience? Have you received employment offers from any companies?

Several of our team members have gone on to professional work. Last spring the team behind America's Army contacted us and hired three of us to do some contract work to help them prepare for E3, and I was hired as a modeler. I created the source models for the Iraqi vehicles used in their Stryker demo at the E3 booth. I was also able to secure an internship with them for school credit this fall and am currently working in an assistant designer role from home.

I noticed that only handles (as opposed to real names) are used on the Red Orchestra staff page. Why is that? Wouldn’t it be in the team’s interest to spread your names around?

That would make sense if the project was there solely to sell our names. But in reality the majority of the team is just doing it for fun, and to make the game we want to play. So we go by our gamer handles.

This mod was largely done over the Internet. Given that organizing a group of people for this purpose is difficult face to face, were there many organizational issues? How did this team avoid the traps that destroy so many other mods?

It’s certainly a challenge to keep the ball rolling when you have an international team with such a varied age group. We communicate over message boards and IRC chat and there hasn't been much of an issue there. The biggest issue is coordinating code and art-asset management. Being an amateur team we don't have the funds to invest in good code and asset-management tools so it was mostly done with a simple FTP server. We finally found a good way to manage code with a free tool (CVS). As far as avoiding any traps goes, I think it’s been a combination of luck and dedication. As with any team we have had our share of internal drama, but level heads and dedication to making the game we want to play is what has gotten the team through tough times.

Is there anything else in the works for this mod? With so much content already, the team could easily call it a success and simply do bug fixes from this point forward. Will they, or are further major updates (such as Combined Arms) on the horizon?

We most certainly have more updates in the works! We have no plans on stopping anytime soon. We are definitely going to concentrate on polishing it up over the coming months, but there is more we as gamers want to see in it so we are going to do our best to keep it fun and compelling.

Changing directions, what is your impression of UAT’s distance curriculum? Why did you pick UAT? Why full distance rather than moving out here?

It's been an interesting year! I've had fun in some classes and wished others were different but I think you get that in any curriculum. The biggest challenge is getting the right content into a 5-week period; I think that’s where the school has some room to grow. As for why I chose this school: it looked like it would give me the chance to learn the areas of game development I was not familiar or experienced with while at the same time getting a degree. I have been to two other schools, but neither of them struck me as, well, something I wanted to do. I didn't want to move there, because being raised in Minnesota I enjoy winters. So moving to what I can only presume is the hottest spot on the Earth this side of the Sahara didn't look appealing.

Any plans after graduation?

Let me think real hard...get a gaming job? Full-time retail just isn't as fun.

Which do you prefer: pirates or ninjas?

What it boils down to is striped shirts and goofy hats, or black pajamas and oversized butter knives? Uhhh… ninjas.

Are there any tips you’d give to someone trying to make a successful mod, not necessarily of Unreal but any game? Any major traps you’d warn them about?

Tough question. I think the biggest challenge facing mod development these days, and the Game Development community as a whole is separating yourself from the crowd. It's easy to get labeled as a knock-off of any given popular game/mod. So I think a person needs to define what success is to them before they dive into a mod project. Is it creating the game they want to play, or is it being popular and making a name for themselves and their project? As the gaming community expands both professionally and on the amateur level it will be harder to have both.

Out of everything you’ve personally done on this mod, of what thing are you most proud? What would be the first thing you’d show to a potential employer looking at the work you did for this mod?

I'm most proud of the Reichstag building used in our Berlin map. I put a lot of time into it based on the pictures I was able to find. That said, I am currently in the process of rebuilding it for a remake of our Berlin map that will feel much more immersive and be much more historically accurate.

The Reichstag is, indeed, the focus for its map. How did you go about making it?

There are many challenges with trying to recreate a building like that. First is getting decent references. Luckily, as the symbol of the conquest of Germany, the Russians loved to take pictures of it. The second was trying to decide how much detail I could put into it without making players' machines choke when they looked at it. Being the last capture point for the map it was designed for, it was going to be in an open space and be visible from many places. I decided that in order to avoid a higher polygon count, to not make it as 'war-torn' as it historically was and let textures do most of the detail work. Unfortunately the texture artists didn't make any textures that would help it look war-torn, so it looks a bit out of place. The other decision I made was that since most of the structure is made up of repeating architectural patterns, I was able to make the building out of six models and a few BSP brushes. Since Unreal engines only load a model once into memory no matter how many times it's used, I thought this would be a good way to do it. These seemed like smart decisions, but I think I underestimated what the average player machine can handle. I am now in the process of rebuilding it, since the map is being rebuilt. The biggest change is that I'm going to make it war-torn and have the mapper sacrifice details elsewhere. This building is the centerpiece of the map and is the last stand for the German team. It should look as important as it was.

Any final words?

Pirates versus Ninjas? I'm surprised no one has made a mod of that yet.