An Interview With James Stanfield, Lead Developer of the AMC Squad

Author’s Note: James Stanfield, renowned in the Duke Nukem 3D community graciously gave me a portion of his time to answer an email interview I had sent over to him. James’s work is a testament to classic gaming’s now illusive magic. Games like Duke Nukem 3D, aren’t made anymore. James gives us something to look forward to with his work and if you’ve not checked out his most famous work, the AMC Squad TC, I will suggest you read this. 

[All photographs courtesy of James Stanfield]Screenie for JS1

Q: Tell us about your early life and what got you into gaming?

A: Born in 1987, I grew up in South England in Hampshire; I messed around with an Amstrad (and made the standard ‘Hello World’ program that asked for you name and flashed the screen in bright colours if you had the same name as me) but the first gaming device I really got into was the Sega Genesis (called a Mega Drive over here) I also first saw X-COM being played and all I needed was to watch for a few minutes to be hooked on it. I was given an Amiga and managed to play it a bit via that and gained a lifelong love of the series.

It was a few years later when we had our own PC that I discovered Duke Nukem 3D; a friend was playing the Shareware version and I remember naively begging my Dad to try and fit it on a floppy disk so I could play it at home.  Eventually I got my hands on a full copy of the game and history, for me at least, was made.

Games were mostly useful for keeping me occupied when I was younger, they still do the same but I’ve always been into playing for escapism and exploring new worlds (Because there’s bugger all where I live!) The few times I wasn’t playing games, I was out exploring the local area with my friend John (who AMC TC fans will know well at this point) getting into mischief and building ‘dens’ (I think we deserve some backpay for all of these survival sims out on Steam!)

Q: What got you into game development?

A: It’s hard to say, but I’ve always been creative and it was a struggle for my mother to try and find something that occupied my attention span. Before I really got into mod development I made my own line of pen and paper games; they never had rules really made for them since I was the only one who ever played them but I did even create a whole line of little magazines called ‘James Mag’ (Have you ever met someone self-effacing and narcissistic at the same time?) It was basically my own version of Games Workshop’s White Dwarf magazines; even back then it was an expensive hobby so I settled for making my own knock-off versions of their properties (I was recently in a shop and the prices they charge now make me bulk)

I started messing around with Build and made some bad levels before starting work on my first project, Imagination World. That and the ‘Survival’ project I was working on were both roughly based on the games I had made in my youth.

Screenie for JS3

Q: Favorite games?

A: If I had to boil it down to 3 it would be Duke Nukem 3D, Deus Ex, and Half-life. Half-life to me is a masterpiece and a continiuation of the ideas started in Duke Nukem 3D (a more tacticle world, cinematic gameplay and scripted sequences, enemies that did more than just shoot at you and walk around randomly)

Deus Ex is phenomenal and to my mind is still one of the best written games of all time. When I was young I enjoyed it for the conspiracy elements, as I got older I started to appreciate it much more for it’s exploration of such themes as surveillance, the divide of power between the elites of the world, terrorism, and freedom in general. I felt that many modern games that tried to attempt these themes just really projected their author’s view points rather than let the player make their minds up themselves (To this day one of Deus Ex’s best parts is JC Denton’s character, who always plays devil’s advocate and backs the player’s actions up)

As for more modern games, the Mass Effect trilogy despite having a lot of flaws divided between the 3 games ranks up on my favourites. The general idea of exploring the galaxy and finding missions is great; whilst they all have negative aspects the trilogy is most categorically worth at least one playthrough. Phantom Pain is really good; whilst undercooked in some regards I actually enjoyed the open world activities it had to offer. I’ve also enjoyed the newer X-COM titles; Whilst you can’t replace the original UFO Defense, I’ve had a ton of fun making XCOM2 agents based on people I know as well as fellow AMC agents and other game characters. I even dabbled in making a bunch of XCOM2 voice packs; whilst I’ve moved on from the game every now and then I pop back and make a few more voice packs.

Q: What is the story behind Imagination World?

A: Basically it was an attempt at making a recreation of my Imagination World game I had created when I was younger; elements like the Pitfiends were present but most of it was hampered by my artistic abilities – the final result is more like a mix between Duke and Shadow Warrior. The name should of been changed since it really has nothing to do with the final product, but it’s distinctive enough that I can’t really see an alternative.

I made myself the main character because it seemed like a good idea at the time; I never changed it even nearly 2 decades later because ultimately I could create an original character but the name would be forgotten in moments after the mod was finished. Some people view it as a massive ego-trip but considering how obscure my stuff is, I just consider it a form of self-expression.

Q: What are some of your lesser known projects other than the AMC Squad?

A: I also released Nuclear Showdown, which is basically a general gameplay mod for Duke that adds new weapons, effects and polish to the game. I’m actually pretty proud of the name since generally I’m pretty terribly at making up mod names but I came up with it a long time ago back when I tried Quake 2 modding. I released the first version about 10 years ago and just recently released a patched and improved version that adds a whole bunch of new Duke quotes.

Apart from that, as mentioned before I’ve made a bunch of XCOM2 voice packs; mostly for old FPS heroes but also for characters like Venom Snake from MGSV as well as the replicas from F.E.A.R – I did also release a DM level for Unreal Tournament many years ago but it’s not good and I’m not even sure if it’s still online anywhere.

I was also briefly involved in the HL modding community for making HD models – many years ago it was discovered you could rip the high detailed models from the PS2 version, sans textures. Whilst eventually this was fixed I messed around and tried making my own textures for them; the results were bad but it was nice being at the start of a new part of a modding scene (back then I was known as jstanf35)

Screenie for JS2

Q: Tell us about the ideas that led to the creation of the AMC Squad?

A: AMC TC was concocted late at night on MSN messanger; I was talking with Highwire (who sadly has moved on from the Duke community) whilst working on Nuclear Showdown and we had the idea of creating a fun base map for the AMC community. His room and mine were some of the first things built for the TC (as well as the starting area of Big Trouble in China and Arsia Mons hub, which were built by Sang)

When that was built I actually thought about making a proper mod out of it; I had always toyed with the idea of an AMC squad mod but never put much thought into it. I started work not long after that on the character selection, and then it went on from there. Naturally the mod expanded massively from that; it was originally started as a joke mod but became more serious as more work was put into it. Its original goal was sort of a swan song and dedication to Duke modding, and a tribute to Total Conversion mods of the past (a term that has long gone from the general modding lexicon)

I wanted to create a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen/World Newton family vibe with the mod, which is why characters from other mods such as Oblivion and Brave New World were added in.  As far the AMC universe was concerned, most Duke mods and games were considered part of a shared universe (as well as the other Build engine games and even some Doom mods) Whilst the TC never became a rally point for all modders to contribute to, it has inspired a bunch of new mappers and modders instead which is just as good (Michael Crisp joined the TC’s development in episode 2 and is essentially second in command. Loke also has become a dedicated mapper and I discovered Snowfall’s maps for the mod on DeviantArt; he’s also now joined the TC as a character)

Eventually all of our work co-alesced into the first release of the mod; for a while development slowed down and at one point I had even typed up a cancelation post for the mod and was about to post it when I had second thoughts. Then a new dawn hailed from Australia and gave me a kick up the arse, and development continued onwards to Episode 2’s eventual release. With that, there’s now an energy building up as reaching the final goal posts feels more and more possible each day. The team has grown and become more dedicated.

Screenie for JS1

Q: What are your influences in game development?

A: Everything and the kitchen sink; my philosophy of game design is basically to create what you enjoy and find a way to water it down enough so other people can also enjoy it without diluting the taste. The AMC TC is a hard sell at times, but ultimately I would rather keep it that way than remove the elements that I feel make it unique. There are people who detest the voice acting, or the story; I wouldn’t be able to convince them otherwise without stripping out what makes the mod interesting to me.

Games like my aformentioned favourites Half-life and Deus Ex inspire the TC, as well as other classics like Unreal, Shadow Warrior, Blood, and SiN. I play a lot of games though, even bad or mediocre ones, because I feel you can’t really get good at something unless you take a look at the bad and reflect on what makes it so bad. Many of my ideas for improving gameplay or tweaks have come from another game and either seeing a good idea or a bad one and thinking ‘how would I fix that?’

Q: Why does the character Rusty Nails have that name? I love the cocktail called a Rusty Nail. Why does he carry revolvers?

A: You’d have to ask Rusty Nails about that 😉 I think it’s a cool name though, it’s a shame that he has also moved on from the community (alongside Highwire and Geoffrey) but his character is still one of the coolest. I personally get a Lynch/Cronenberg vibe from his character; finishing the arc that was started in Millhaven will be hard without Rusty around to oversee it but I think we’ll have a satisfying conclusion to it.

Simply for the rule of cool! His backstory implies that he’s quite a lot older than he lets on however, so it is possible he may of used Revolvers back when they were more ubiquitous.

Q: What are you playing right now that you’d care to recommend?

A: At this moment, not much actually. I go through brief spurts of activity for the TC where I can work on it all day. It’s been much easier for development now I live alone; I tend to have anxiety issues and living with other people who bang and thump around the house made concentrating impossible.

When I do take a break, I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3. I also chip away at a few games on Steam that I bought but I can’t fully recommend them since they have flaws. Kingdoms of Amular is basically a SP MMO; it’s a pretty simplistic game and something I enjoy playing alongside a podcast but I don’t find it engaging by itself. It deserves credit for decent DLC though. Valkyrie Profile is another game I’ve bought that was on sale; it’s fun but very very full on with the anime and I have to take breaks often so I don’t cringe to death on the dialogue.

Also waiting on the final Dark Souls DLC, I just started playing the series recently and fell in love with it.

Q: Where do you see the game industry going in the future? What do you think of the current state of the industry?

A: I’m not entirely sure; personally I don’t care much for the industry as a whole and I feel most AAA games are pretty creatively bankrupt. Games cost too much money to make nowadays because of the incessant drive towards better graphics, basically meaning the game is severly lacking in other areas like attention to detail or actually coding decent gameplay systems that isn’t a boring RPG skill tree or picking up dots on a massive boring world map. I have no issue with good DLC but most DLC is mediocre at best; there’s also now a growing trend of introducing micro-transactions into full price games. I have no issue with F2P games doing this as they have to make their money somehow but full price games should not do this at all unless the developers are actively still working on the title and adding more gameplay or content.

I’ve always been more interested in modding because they’re generally more passionate and you can appreciate all of the little details just a bit more.

Q: You are from the UK. Is gaming looked upon differently there as it is in the United States?

A: It’s hard to say but I feel it is; growing up I never knew anybody else as interested in PC gaming as I saw, let alone modding. Whilst I’ve stumbled across a few other PC players as I got older they mostly stuck to games like WoW or Leage of Legends rather than the titles I’m familiar with. I have yet to find another modder in person, although Sang did travel from Belgium to visit here a few years back which was a blast (if a bit unfortunately timed as I was inbetween jobs at the time and had neither money nor time to do interesting stuff)

For the most part here where I live, many people still view it as a not an adult’s hobby; it’s a dumb statement but at the same time I detest sports and will never understand the appeal so I’d be a hypocrite if I complained that they disliked my hobby whilst not giving theirs the time of day either. I generally don’t discuss it unless they provide an opening or they’ve also said they enjoy playing games. In England it’s custom to just talk about the weather instead if you have nothing else in common.

Q: What is next after The AMC Episode III?

A: Episode 4 and 5, hopefully! The plot is planned out, it’s just a case of bringing it to fruition. Hopefully with EP3’s release we’ll be reinvigorated and/or we’ll get some more new blood to bring life into the project and community.

Once AMC TC is done, I genuinely am unsure. I may start work on my own game then; I feel like AMC TC is getting all of the insane, unpractical stuff out of my system so my next project I can start on something small.

Q: Have I forgotten to ask something our reader might be curious about?

A: I can’t think of anything, but I want to thank all of the AMC TC members for their hard work. I don’t like ranking people but I have to give Micky a massive amount of credit for balancing a Uni degree and still having insane passion for this massive project. Snowfall has also produced a huge amount of maps for the TC, and Loke has as well. To Mikko, Zaxtor, Sang and the others as well for their dedication and sticking by the project; and to our departed members Geoffrey, Highwire and Rusty who while are not here in person still inspire the TC with the decade of good times at AMC.

Thanks to everybody who’s provided voice acting for the mod, including my interviewer here who appears as an important character in Episode 3 😉 Also thanks to the people who produced the mountain of STUFF used to build the TC up; without them the mod wouldn’t exist as I’m an awful artist.

Also I want to give a hand to TerminX, Hendricks266, helixhorned and plagman for their work on Eduke32; I can’t under emphasise just how good the port is when it can take 6.46mb of badly coded ‘code’ and not only still run amazingly well but not crash either. Best of luck to the Voidpoint devs and their future projects.

And thanks to the little community the AMC TC is building up; specifically to TheDragonLiner for dilligently reporting bugs he finds and also to Thatheavymetalgoat for producing a full YouTube walkthrough of the mod. Also to SeriousCacoDemon for streaming the mod; watching his playthrough I spotted some bugs and errors as well as a few points where the player’s goal should be more obvious. And to the rest of you guys as well, I can only hope the future episodes will live up to the first two.

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