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  • Is Modding Useful?

    [10.22.09]
    - Alistair Wallis
  •  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."

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