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  • Is Modding Useful?

    [10.22.09]
    - Alistair Wallis

  • Height of Modernity

    The Guildhall has also seen its fair share of modding success. The winner in the Best Single Player FPS Mod category at the 2007 IGF was Weekend Warrior, a Guildhall-produced Half-Life 2 total conversion, which used the engine as a basis for a game "made in the vein of the old-school adventure games," according to the game's documentation.

    Tricia Skinner believes that the positive response to the games produced by students "is tribute to their hard work." The efforts of the "industry professionals" who work there are also a factor.

    Skinner has seen students move into the world first-hand, "and it's pretty exciting!" she says. "Quite a few studios were started by former modders, while others in the mod community choose to build amazing portfolios that lead to entry-level jobs."

    But do developers actually look to modders when searching for potential hires?

    Van Oortmerssen believes the industry sees the student modding community as "good breeding ground for new talent," and occasionally as "a source for new games or new game ideas," though he admits that's rare. "Not everyone makes Counter-Strike," he laughs.

     Bordbar recommends that modders do a complete overhaul of a game to reap the most benefit from the experience. "In most cases, a total conversion is the best showcase of a designer's skill because it demonstrates [the ability to influence] every aspect of design. However, there are many incredible partial conversions that have led to very successful careers for their creators. The original Counter-Strike is a good example of this, as well as the extremely popular Defense of the Ancients mod."

    Cleveland's advice is to keep a tight focus on creating something unique about the new game so it has a different play style and look. "If you're making something very small -- like an Unreal mutator or something that just tweaks some values -- then that will of course have less impact than something that you create with totally new gameplay and art," he says.

    According to Cleveland, a modder's work is more likely to be noticed if he or she is working outside of "content-heavy" genres like MMOGs and RPGs. He names multiplayer first-person shooters as the best genre to mod for showcasing one's developer talents.

    "Although it's cool to use mods to explore less common genres or new game design ideas, it should not be your main goal," van Oortmerssen says. "You want to show off your particular skill to the max, which usually works best in an advanced engine. These tend to be first-person shooter engines. FPSes may be a ‘tired' genre, but they're still a very effective [medium] for showing your work."

    It's much simpler to make an effective demonstration in an FPS because of the availability of robust and flexible engines like Half-Life's Source and Epic's Unreal Engine, as well as map editors like id Software's GtkRadiant, according to Bordbar. "Also the great immersion and 3D setting of first-person games just makes them ideal to show off great modding skills. Games that don't release a level editor with them or any tools are generally less effective, if not useless. Something like a sports or driving game also really lacks the base for an effective mod."

    Grosso Modo

    For game industry hopefuls who are not in a position to create a project from scratch, there's no reason to view modding as a "second best" option. While most mods won't end up as commercially distributed products, the act of creating them still puts the developers in a good position to show potential employers finished work.

    As Path of Vengeance, Natural Selection, and other successful mods show, creativity is crucially important -- but maybe not the most important thing, says Cleveland.

    "Iterate. Figure out a way to get your first version in a couple months, not years. Get something finished and release it at all costs," he says simply. "Get feedback from your players and release a new version."

    Van Oortmerssen agrees, commenting that the focus should be on "creating good portfolio pieces" when working on mods. "If you join a mod team," he says, "make sure both you and others are very serious about committing time to it, because a failed project isn't helping anyone."

    "The best advice I can give is common sense: Finish what you start, even if the mod tanks," Skinner says. "It's you, not the mod, the recruiters are interested in."

    "And please take your role on the team seriously," she adds. "The experience you'll gain will be invaluable."

    Starting a Mod Project

    You've decided to form a talented team and create an innovative mod. Your mod will be so original, so brilliant, that it will cement your reputation in the video game industry and secure you the $20 million to fund your dream project. So how do you get started?

    First, decide which game title you want to use as the basis for your mod. There are many PC titles that provide software development kit (SDK) libraries to help modders create new content. The Half-Life, Unreal Tournament, Elder Scrolls, and Grand Theft Auto series are popular choices, but there are numerous titles to choose from.

    In making your selection, look around each game's online community. If you see plenty of mods online or in development, it's a good bet that a game is easy to develop for.

    Second, you need to define your project. Think about how you can make PC gamers sit up and take notice. At the same time, don't overextend and design a mod that exceeds your team's abilities. Teams often include members with varying levels of experience; it's vital, then, to create detailed designs and concepts so that everyone can agree on the purpose and scope before you move into production.

    Carefully define your end goal, and then plan out a detailed roadmap to help ensure that your project gets to its destination smoothly and on schedule. Next, you need to define your skillset, and the skillsets you'll need from your potential teammates. Are you a naturalborn designer, an artist, a programmer? Learn the basics of these positions from tutorials, forums, and modding web sites, and then familiarize yourself with the tools you'll require.

    Aspiring artists will be expected to know some of the standard modeling and texturing programs (3ds Max, Maya, Softimage XSI, Photoshop, Blender, MilkShape, and GIMP). Even artists with 3D experience will need to understand how to use the appropriate converters to help get their models working in-engine and how to optimize those models to take advantage of the game engine's strengths while avoiding its weaknesses. Designers need familiarity with engineappropriate level design tools (Hammer, Constructor), while programmers need solid game logic, programming, and technical problem-solving chops.

    Plan to lead your team? You'll have to set and oversee deadlines, gather assets, and maintain clear lines of communication among your teammates.

    Finally, you need to make sure that you have all the tools you need for project and team management. For example, are team members inadvertently overwriting other people's work when they check something into the project? Version control, which ensures that team members are each working on the latest version of a given piece of code or art, is vital. Finding a solution that helps to keep all of these elements straight can make the difference between a successful project and one that never sees the light of day.

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