Is Modding Useful?

By Alistair Wallis [10.22.09]

 The cardinal rule for getting a job in the game industry is to first get experience making a game. It's the big catch-22: You can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job.

Even when people who do have all the skills needed to land a job in their field -- a firm grasp of 3ds Max, a mastery of C++, a complete understanding of UnrealScript -- if they don't have the experience to back it up, it's extraordinarily tough to get anywhere. What's more, developers need experience working on a game just to put together their first demo reel, which they need to land so much as an unpaid internship.

A La Mode

For students, in-school game projects provide an excellent opportunity to acquire, finesse, and showcase those muchneeded game industry skills. Yet another way to come by them is by modifying an existing game. While mods are far from painless to complete successfully, they tend to be popular with people who want to build their portfolios because the game can be up and running relatively quickly (quicker than would be possible with a project started from scratch, at least).

Mods essentially involve taking an existing title -- usually a first-person shooter or real-time strategy game -- and reworking its elements, including the level design, weaponry, textures, character models, and story by building on the existing game engine.

Modding was once perceived as being in the realm of hobbyists and amateurs. But in the last decade, a few games have earned much greater prominence for the modding community. Counter-Strike started life as a mod of Valve's Half-Life before Valve picked it up and released it as a commercial product. The duo responsible for its creations, Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, were also hired by the developer.

That's an unusual case, though. Just how useful is modding for would-be game developers as a means of displaying and developing their talents? Is modding useful, or are game industry hopefuls better off working on a project from scratch?

Modus Operandi

Wouter van Oortmerssen is a lecturer with expertise in software development at The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, based in Plano, Texas, a school that has students complete mods as part of its curriculum. He previously worked as a programmer on Crytek's Far Cry and believes that the usefulness of modding, in terms of showcasing one's talents, varies based on which job one is applying for.

"It depends on how far you want to go and how technical you strive to be. It's certainly a good start in game development for anyone to gain an overview of what steps are generally involved and what an engine does," van Oortmerssen says. "Programmers especially need to go further than just mods for most programming positions, though adding components to an opensource engine can also show good experience, if [the additions are] significant."

Level designers and artists, on the other hand, can get a bit more mileage out of modding, he says. "Modding is a good area to be in because you'll work with a professional engine and tools, and you can show that you can apply your skills in a real game environment. Work separate from a mod can work well for level designers, but it is important you show you can not only create good assets, but also integrate them."

Van Oortmerssen's colleague Tricia Skinner, director of placement and studio relations at The Guildhall, agrees that modding gives the modders a clear opportunity to develop their basic skillsets. "Creating a mod or total conversion of a game builds skills in several areas that can transfer to a full-time career making games," she says. "For example, you have a team leader who must demonstrate strong project management and team management skills to keep the mod going. You also have artists, animators, game designers, world builders, and coders toiling away together."

Skinner even sees mods as projects to be taken just as seriously as a commercial game, right down to putting the game out there for players to enjoy. "Just about every facet of a game's development is recreated on a mod team right down to public relations and marketing. The team skills are invaluable, though ... [for catching] a game recruiter's eye."

A Modest Proposal

Van Oortmerssen cautions that some aspiring developers "are not always prepared to put in the effort to pull through," which would make the modding experience somewhat fruitless.

"Making a successful mod means hard work and cooperation by a group of people, and 95 percent of mod teams fail somewhere along the way," he estimates.

However, he also warns that teamwork can have adverse effects as well -- if one person on the team is unable to separate his or her individual efforts in a project, "employers may be wary that you are piggybacking" on work of others.

"When presenting your portfolio, make it such that you can isolate your work," he suggests. "For example, don't say, ‘I made this character,' if you only modeled it but other people did the texture and animation."


iMod

"I definitely think the best way to start a career in game development is by starting out as a modder," enthuses Ali Bordbar, art lead and level designer with mod team Lotus.Arts. The group's first game, Path of Vengeance, won Best Unreal Tournament 2004 Mod at the 2006 Independent Games Festival, changing the first-person shooter game into a third-person action RPG set in ancient China.

"It shows how far you are willing to go," Bordbar continues, "how hard you can work and what areas of design you really excel at. It's also a great way to learn how to collaborate with a group and work within a timeframe toward specific deadlines and goals. Modding is ... the first step for many gamers out there who want to move toward a career in the industry."

Bordbar believes that modding is important because it offers "a taste of the experience of being a game developer," and that experience helps potential developers figure out what they hope to get out of working in the game business. As with van Oortmerssen and Skinner, Bordbar also advises aspiring developers to keep one eye on how responsible and committed the rest of the development team is.

"A mod is only as good as the people who make it. And if it has flaws ... it can detract from an individual's contribution and end up putting their work in a bad light." Conversely, if the project goes well and attracts positive attention -- as with Path of Vengeance -- the outcome can be lucrative for everyone on the team.

Lotus.Arts' game, for example, received press coverage on web sites and in magazines across the globe. And while the exposure did result in some new opportunities, Bordbar believes that the modding scene still doesn't receive the level of attention it deserves.

"Mods that receive a lot of exposure do get recognition from major companies. However, I think the industry really needs to take a closer look at modding and modders and try to take advantage of them," he says. "There are a lot of talented individuals who have worked on great mods but who end up not getting into the industry simply because there is no one there to open a door for them."

Accommodate the Player

Charlie Cleveland is the game director for Unknown Worlds Entertainment and was responsible for the design of Natural Selection, a Half-Life mod that mixed the first-person shooter genre with realtime strategy play. The game proved extremely popular following its release in 2002, and the company is currently working on a sequel, which will be released commercially through Valve's Steam digital distribution network.


Natural Selection

Cleveland used to work as a programmer for Stainless Steel Studios (Empire Earth) but left to get his own game idea "out to as many people as possible," he says.

Due to the success of Natural Selection, six of the team members moved on to positions in the game industry at studios such as Raven Software, Gearbox Software, and Taldren.

"Being able to show that you have a finished game with an audience is a huge asset when applying to a game company," Cleveland says. "Demos of any kind are nice, but I think it's especially impressive to have a finished product and know that the candidate has seen all aspects of game development, like hiring, making a web site, Q/A, etcetera. It's very close to making a real game, with the main difference being that there's less access to source code, and generally working with a distributed team instead of a team in one office," Cleveland says. "Making a successful or good game while working with these constraints is a great help for learning game development in general. You always have constraints. The trick is making the most of what you have."

While Cleveland notes that the number of modders who are making their way into the industry is "promising," he's quick to add that he feels the majority of people in the modding community are still "perceived as a somewhat wild and mixed bunch."

"I don't think anyone disputes the relevance of mods when you see the success of Desert Combat, Counter-Strike, and [Warcraft III mod] Defense of the Ancients. However, I think the average mod is still of fairly cruddy quality and wouldn't be taken too seriously."

Natural Selection, on the other hand, has done wonders for Unknown Worlds. Cleveland happily mentions that he can "get meetings with many more people and companies" than ever before.


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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