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Modder to Developer - muppetpuppet

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Today we have a special treat. We caught up with Tomas Sala, a.k.a. the esteemed Skyrim modder muppetpuppet, about his upcoming game release and his history in modding. For those unfamiliar with his work, muppetpuppet created one of the first "new world" mods for Skyrim back in 2012 - Moonpath to Elsweyr.


Thank you for joining us for this interview Tomas (aka muppetpuppet). So, going back to the very start, when and how did you first get into gaming?

I actually started straight out of art school in 2001, we started a studio in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. But at that time there was no self-publishing, I think Steam wasn't live yet and iPhones would be years away. So we rolled into educational and advertising work for hire, making games for anyone and everyone, it took many years to progress into entertainment games properly eventually creating PSVR exclusives for Playstation as games for the Wii, Switch and mobile.


How long have you been working in the gaming industry and what roles have you taken up during that time? 

I've been working there since 2001 and have always been a multirole person. I'm a 3D artist by trade, but I'm more than handy with a scripting language and nowadays C#. I've also been creative director and game designer over the years. I think that diversity is now coming into its own with The Falconeer.


Tomas is the sole developer of the upcoming game "The Falconeer". From the screenshots and gameplay videos, it looks fantastic. For our readers who've not heard of the game, how would you describe it?


Well, it's a throwback to the games I loved as a kid, Freelancer, Tie Fighter even Crimson Skies, and - of course - a good dose of open-world love inherited from Skyrim thrown in. So basically, you are a pilot or rider of a giant Falcon and you serve as a mounted warrior for your faction, doing air -combat missions as well as open-world exploration. Someone online described it as "what would happen if Gandalf had ridden into Mordor on a giant eagle..... but with lasers", which is a fair description. The actual combat gameplay is very WWI-WWII style close up dogfighting but with giant falcons, dragons and other fantastical creatures.




It's not just the game itself you created. I've been reading the extensive lore and set-dressing you've meticulously written to create a cohesive world for your story to unfold in. What can you tell us about the setting of The Falconeer?

Well, I love lore-heavy worlds, for me, it makes exploring an open world so much better if the setting makes sense and has depth. The world of the Falconeer is called the Ursee and it's a bleak yet beautiful icy ocean world. Mankind has always had a hard time surviving on it, and societies have been founded and collapsing for millennia, leaving the seafloor scattered with wrecks and ancient relics. One major faction steering these societies are the Mancer Order, an organisation that has access to a wide array of technologies hidden away in their massive vaults. They manipulate and organise the other factions by doling out these technologies through permits and grants. If a king has the Mancer's favour he'll get steam engines, if he loses it, he might find his competitor suddenly has machine guns. The Mancer order doesn't involve themselves with the daily politics of factions such as the empire in which most of the game takes place, they have a hidden agenda with a long term goal. Part of the different campaigns you'll participate in, inside this world, is to figure the true goal and history of the Mancer Order, and with it the Ursee.


In a video by Digital Foundry covering The Falconeer, they mentioned that the entire game is created without using any conventional textures, is that true? If so, what made you choose this approach to game design? 

Indeed, it's better described as no pre-made textures. So I don't work with a painting or material editor or even something like photoshop to create the material expression of my world. Rather I use procedural tricks and fairly abstracted shaders to do the heavy lifting. So, for instance, the snow on objects is a Perlin noise I generate in the game, and I then also use that for lava and water foam. The same goes for the colouring of the world, It's all done with gradients based on lighting and atmospheric parameters and values. It basically means I can create models and paint them fairly simple and have the game itself add a lot of detail and environmental colouring.

I've had comments saying this must be because I'm lazy, and I certainly like an efficient art pipeline. But it isn't 100% the case - the effort I put in to create certain effects would be many times less if I'd simply use a texture. Take the clouds, creating those without textures was a crazy endeavour iterated over months. The same goes for the ocean another very advanced effect, stuff that certainly wouldn't have been possible a generation or so ago.

The reason I do it is mostly twofold. One, it forces me to adhere to a very strict esthetic, and it keeps everything I make very, very compatible and unified. Giving the game a very clean and stark look while having radically different objects, buildings, vehicles and so forth in it. I both love how that looks and how "together" it makes everything feel. Secondly, it forces me to find novel and original solutions to visual designs, I cannot use "out of the box" clouds, water or lighting, so I have to take a different path to get there. Both the journey of that as well as the end result are usually novel and interesting, which is what appeals to me.


The Falconeer uses Unity at its core. What did you consider when choosing the engine for your game?

I've used Unity through my work, so I was familiar with it, which is a huge boon because knowing what you are capable off is quite a good thing to have, especially alone. You don't always want to dive off the deep end. That said I'm quite attracted by Unreal's blueprints and after the Falconeer is done, I aim to dive into that for a bit as well.



Some Unity games allow mods (or can be modded with tools like Harmony), will The Falconeer have any scope for user-created content? 

It's something under consideration, but modding and even game development are very distinct from enabling the creation of mods for your game. So basically because I'm working by myself it's quite a daunting task, but it is very much on my mind. It's also one of the few aspects I'd consider having external help with, as it's just such a specialisation to create adequate tooling and an open framework from the ground up for your game.


In terms of modding, your biggest achievement has to be Moonpath to Elsweyr. When you released it in 2012, it was one of the only true "new world" mods. That must have been quite an undertaking, considering the Creation Kit had only been out for just over a week at the time. What can you remember about the process of putting it all together?

Well, I remember getting into a bit of a creative frenzy after diving into a few tutorials. At my work, we had just wrapped up a kid-friendly RPG for a local dutch theme park ("Raveleijn"), so there was lots of curiosity on how the big games did certain things.

I think there was already a group of people trying to use the existing NIF tools and update them for Skyrim. Being a 3D artist grasping some of the odd quirks and oddities of that format and the tools seemed less of an issue. And within a very short while I had some trees and foliage imported. I think those were the palm trees and other greeneries uncommon to Skyrim.



From there I just went crazy, first with adjusting some of the material properties of default Skyrim objects, such as turning the snow into green moss (just fiddling got pretty good results fast). I think I then set about exploring the library of atmospheric fog and light FX and tweaking those to create a tropical vibe.

So initially I released a player home really quick, it's actually a really simple and manageable mod type to start with. What then happened is that the community just jumped on board and started offering voice acting, pointing out bugs and even assisting with my horrible spelling. That in itself was a ridiculous driver to continue, the player base (and other modders) was always waiting at the Moonpath Nexus page, ready with more feedback, more requests and more general helpfulness.

I think up to that point I had never had such a direct audience engagement, and it was a complete trip that burned away every free hour I had for about six months until most of what is now the Moonpath was there.


I noticed that both The Falconeer and Moonpath to Elsweyr feature airships, would you say that's something a staple in your creative works? 

I think the need to fly away and escape has a very literal form in much of the art and games I create, so I'd say that's something that's just a part of me. I'm also a huge fan of tall ships and historic sailing ships in general, so visually I'm always drawn to ships and airships.


For Skyrim Special Edition, you entrusted the development of Moonpath to Elsweyr to Illiani was this a difficult decision for you?

No not at all, there was a point where I realized I needed to focus on other things and long before Special Edition, I opened up the Moonpath and all its assets to any modder that wanted to use them. The Dev Aveza already showed what sharing things could lead to (I think it might actually still use my base airship model underneath all their epic expanding they did to it).

So no the community was part of creating the Moonpath and happy to see other modders take it onwards to new places. And improving it in many places I might add.


How do you feel modding Skyrim helped (or hindered!) your career as a game developer?

It has been an incredible boon because the direct contact with the community is a unique perspective which is hard to get when doing a more classical game dev project.

I've also met plenty of people in the industry that played the Moonpath and it's opened many cool conversations over the years. I even met some people from Bethesda who knew it (I guess they kept close tabs on the modding scene in the early days).


If you were to work on an Elder Scrolls title with everything you know now, is there anything you'd do differently? 

I have nothing but admiration for how Skyrim was made. I've made my own educated guesses on why certain choices were made and understand the lineage of the creation kit, and I think it delivered an unparalleled game world and modding environment. I wouldn't presume to be able to improve on that. I do really like the more "out there" aspects of the TES lore and would love to see that remain centre stage in a new iteration.



Important question - when do you expect we can get our hands on The Falconeer? 

Hahaha. Definitely later this year, working as hard as I can. ;) It'll be playable at PAX East (Feb 27 - Mar 1) for those wanting a gameplay taste.


Do you have any final words of wisdom for aspiring game devs in the Nexus Mods community? 

I think for those who want to use modding as a stepping stone it's good to keep realizing how much a part of the wider game industry modding has become. It's part of game development. And there might be moments where people showing off their mods can get apologetic because it's "just" a mod and they fear people might still see it as something derivative or adapted from something original.

But I've never met anyone in the games industry who isn't a huge fan of mods. Mods are such creative original works of art by themselves. So if you make something don't be afraid to show it to any game developer or artist you might meet, good chance they love mods, are gamers themselves or have even modded in the past.


Thank you for joining us Tomas, we wish you the best of luck with the release!


A big thank you to Tomas for taking the time to speak to us! If there's an author or mod project you'd like to know more about, send your suggestions to BigBizkit or Pickysaurus


Add The Falconeer to your Steam wishlist to get notified when it releases.

18 comments

  1. Lambar
    Lambar
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    Hi Tomas,

    Please allow first person play.

    Also is it possible to have Skyrim type graphics?

    I understand your 'game engine does things very differently so this may not be possible or what you're artistic vision is but for a 'real looking world' enhances my immersion.

    I'm an ex game producer and designer (20+ years on AAA titles) so it would be great to chat if you need any help as I still have the creative urge for games even though I'm not working in the industry any longer.

    best wishes, Pete
  2. Simon73
    Simon73
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    Great story, my compliments and admiration!
  3. Kiddgimmick
    Kiddgimmick
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    The artwork in The Falconeer looks awesome.
  4. Ashenfire
    Ashenfire
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    Thumbs up. I am honored to be with someone who got his education to work for him. Everytime I learned programming,
    a new one came into play and I couldn't keep up.

    Moonpath to Elsweyr was always in my lineup and inspired me to want to do my mods like that.

    Inspiring!
  5. rougeshot
    rougeshot
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    Hi Thomas,
    I just happen to be in the middle of a "Moonpath to Elsweyr" play-through, and it's a real joy to play.
    I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on "The Falconer" it looks incredible!
  6. MihailMods
    MihailMods
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    You were the reason why I started making mods for Skyrim. Moonpath to Elsweyr was my great inspiration, and you have my admiration and deep thanks forever. I wish you the best of luck in your new project.
  7. gh0stwizard
    gh0stwizard
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    I have played "Moonpath to Elsweyr" after it has been polished and I've enjoyed it very well. Could not say that even after years of polishing the mod is ideal, but the main reason why it was successful I consider the good level design, very good feeling of colour decisions and simplicity.
    P.S. Added The Falconeer to wish list.
  8. Dr3wgazmik
    Dr3wgazmik
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    I wish you all the best in the overwhelming task of being a solo developer! I remember creating a game in the RPG maker vx. What a task that was, and i can only imagine how much more of a task it is dealing with unity. Kudos mate!
  9. aegean77
    aegean77
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    May we enquire as to whom did the awesome music?
    1. muppetpuppet
      muppetpuppet
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      Sherrydyanne.com
  10. Araanim
    Araanim
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    This is a pretty neat premise, all around. Ships, airships, dogfighting, giant sea monsters; all my favorite things! It also has an interesting Sunless Seas vibe to it. Anybody else feeling that?