From Modder to Valve Employee; the MINERVA Story

What do you get when you combine a well-educated modder with a passion for his craft, a break-out Source mod, and a job offer from Valve? You get the tale of Adam Foster.

Popular Half-Life 2 mod MINERVA received a free “Director’s Cut” release on Steam in late April. The episodic mod, whose third and latest installment was released in 2007, tells an apocryphal story set in the Half-Life 2 universe and was met with critical acclaim.

Creator Adam Foster — whose journey took him from astrophysics to now working for Valve — shared with Game Front his story and some advice for aspiring modders hoping to follow in his footsteps.

Foster’s foray into the world of modding started with a childhood interest in city-planning. “I was basically doing level design stuff before I had any idea what level design was,” he said. “As a small child, I was constructing elaborate cities and road networks out of sand and soil in my parents’ garden — while producing overly detailed maps and architectural plans for any creative writing exercise at primary school. Years later, discovering I could build maps for computer games? It was like Lego with infinite pieces. I wasn’t even much of a gamer at the time.” Fractured, a custom map for Doom 2, is an early example of his level design work.

When he did take the leap into map making, Foster was coming from an academic background in physics and astrophysics, and a professional background in web and database design and programming — not exactly a life path you’d expect would lead to a job at Valve. His academic background left him “utterly fascinated with huge, abstract science research facilities,” an interest that certainly played into his involvement with Portal.

As an undergraduate student, Foster conducted an experiment at Jodrell Bank that brought him close “to a terrifyingly vast radio telescope and its associated infrastructure.” It was Foster’s professional background that helped him grasp entity logic and scripting in map-making. As he explains it, “A web application dealing with multiple users and potential failures and branches interacting isn’t that unlike dealing with loads of entities simultaneously interacting in a map.”

After releasing MINERVA, Foster was recruited by Valve in October 2008 to work on Half Life 2: Episode Three and, eventually, Portal 2. He admitted that some of MINERVA did wind its way into the latter. “There’s at least one place in Portal 2 that’s running entity logic copied-and-pasted from MINERVA,” he said, adding, “Please don’t tell anyone.”

In the past, Foster has been vocal about his philosophy on map design — that maps should be created as actual environments, rather than a series of boxes designed solely with gameplay in mind. But Portal 2 presented itself as a unique situation.

“Portal 2 was an interesting subversion of both approaches,” said Foster. “Test chambers working best when they are pure gameplay, seemingly unaffected by real-world considerations. Get the design of the test chamber up and running, then build the infrastructure around it. A realistic, connected environment supporting the abstract game systems — a glimpse behind the scenes showing the extent to which Aperture went to sustain their testing.”

Years later, it was thanks to the prompting and support of Foster’s Valve colleagues that MINERVA wound up on Steam. “I think it must have first been suggested that I put MINERVA on Steam not long after I started,” he said. “Finally, with a bit of nagging, I got around to sorting things out!”

Adding MINERVA to Steam was a challenge in and of itself, but Foster had help. “The recent improvements had me continuing to work on it as a standard mod of (Half-Life 2) Episode One — which I then tidied up into a ZIP file not unlike previous installations. This got sent to some persons at Valve, who effectively turned it into a separate game with its own binaries and depot on Steam, interfacing with Episode One’s content. Someone else sorted through the screenshots and marketing materials I’d found and created the Steam store page — everyone donating their time to help out, for which I’m incredibly grateful.”

Despite MINERVA’s huge success, Foster has remained humble, attributing the mod’s popularity to it being a “big chunk of Half-Life-y content, with a bit of a twist on the existing formula. Most definitely standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that.”

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