Game and Mod Development Article

polycounter lvl 13
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cholden polycounter lvl 13
http://chrisholden.net/making_games.htm

I recently put together this article covering some of the basic of game and mod creation. This is aimed more for the novice and free game developers (those posts in the requests forum). Plenty of rules and tips squeezed in a to-the-point, brief article.



Game and Mod Development Basics

I see many game and mod ideas out there that defeat themselves by missing the basics of game development. This was written to briefly cover those basics.

So you want to make a game?
Most games today follow the same rules. 3D environments, running and jumping, vehicles, online play, killing with guns, and so on. Aim to create something similar to a game you are inspired by. For example, an RPG with realtime combat like Baldur's Gate.

Game Modification (mods)
Pick a game to modify that has the gameplay features you want. For example, if you want to make an FPS game like Unreal Tournament, make a mod for it. The engine is already capable of all the rendering, networking, combat, vehicles, tools and community you need to make almost anything. Popular games with large communities ensures that a lot of people will play your game. Mods also offer the developer a scalable level of development from small alterations to total conversions.

Standalone Game
There are many freeware, shareware, and open source 3D engines available for use in creating your own standalone game. Beyond that, a programmer may still want to create their own game engine. Any of these options allows the freedom to release a playable game anyone can download and play. More pre-production work will be required to get the game started without the assets of a mod, but allows the game's feel and style to truly stand out.

Development
Game and mod development occurs in distinct stages, such as.

1. Design Document is a writeup of everything about a game. For example, game's booklet, strategy guide and a technical writeup of everything described would be equivalent of a design document. Programmers need a design document to implement all of the assets created by artists. This order does not have to affect mod authors, as art can be added to the game at any point.

2. Pre-Production consists of developing initial gameplay mechanics, content pipelines and a schedule. Most of the design document is written at this stage, and it's a good time to get some placeholder art working in-game.

3. Alpha can mean a lot of different things, but a playable demo is the best description. This could be the first level with all gameplay mechanics and placeholder art working. The design document should be finalized at this point so that during beta production the game isn't subject to heavy change.

4. Beta is a fully playable version of the entire game. It doesn't have to be polished or optimized, that's the final. From this point, you'll want heavy bug testing, because you have to fix everything. Final release shouldn't be rushed, but try to stick to schedule. There is plenty of time to patch.

5. Final is testing the beta build, and writing a list of everything that needs to be fixed, finished and replaced. Taking screenshots, writing/outlining what needs to be fixed on the image, and assigning it to the proper department is a good start. This is also the time for all the proper menus and GUI to be completed.


Using a website
A website can be a powerful tool to announce a game's development, release the game, recruit talent, and seek publishing. A web design that uses images from the game with latest downloads/demos as the main focus gives the user an instant idea of what the game is like, and access to playing it.

Make certain that you are easy to contact, and credit anyone who contributed to the project. A few brief paragraphs about storyline and game play is enough, but let your game tell the story, not the web site.

Add a recruitment/jobs page if you need help. Be sure to be descriptive, explaining all aspects of the position. There are many community sites and forums for game developers that specialize in what you need. Most have a mod/requests forums where you can post a link back to this page.


Tips and Rules


Do not mod or game about an existing character or intellectual property. Do not steal its name or likeness. This is illegal. It's also unethical because you're piggy-backing on the success of other people's work and limiting your creativity. Be inspired by what it is, and what it's about.


Write everything down. It's easier to pick out good ideas from a long list of bad ones than it is to remember every good idea you thought you had. Save chat logs, keep a pen and pad with you. Notepad is one of the most-used programs by designers. This can fill out a design doc quickly.


You can't compete with AAA games from major corporations with 100 person development staff. Avoid trying to make a massively multiplayer online game and other game types that require an asset heavy development, support staff and expensive infrastructure.


Small core teams can be tremendously effective with the right idea. Teams as small as one artist and one programmer have a better chance than an 'idea guy' getting people to make his game. Be prepared to make everything yourself because it's more likely just going to be you working on it.


Never talk about money. People don't join mod teams for the hopes of getting paid, and offering of royalties is an empty promise. If your game happens to strike gold, you have a fantastic opportunity to build loyalty and longterm relationships.


Having free game/mod experience in the resume is very valuable to a developer wanting to get in the game industry. I encourage anyone wanting to get a job to join or start their own mods. Which is also great for building industry contacts.


Game modding can lead directly to professional work. The game industry is a small who-you-know industry. The people you mod with today could be the leads of major companies tomorrow.


There are plenty of great games, engines and people ready to make your game happen, and you can do it all yourself. It's hard work staying strong to lists and schedules, but with self motivation and discipline, anyone can make it happen.

Replies

  • bearkub
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    bearkub polycounter lvl 13
    I think this needs to hang around...
  • Sett
    "Game modding can lead directly to professional work"
    IMO if you want a job in the industry then ignore modding it's a dead end.


    Some other points you should touch on:

    Failure- most mod die before they finish. Live with it.

    Size- The larger the mod the greater the chance it will never see the light of day. Keep you goals low. If you reach them, good now expand.

    Many hats- 'if you want to get it done, do it yourself' You can ask, plead and beg on the net if no one responds to your 'can you vu map this for me?' post you are stuck. Be prepared to learn new skills, a lot of them. (this is why believe that modding is a dead end. Modding requires generalists, game co. want specialists)

    Do something different!- Jesus Christ! if you are going to invest countless hours of unpaid labour on a mod please don't let it be a WWII sim. Or any 'let's do game X with engine Y'.
  • Leech
    [ QUOTE ]
    "Game modding can lead directly to professional work"
    IMO if you want a job in the industry then ignore modding it's a dead end.

    [/ QUOTE ]

    Because Minh Le, Steve Bond, John Guthrie, etc. all hit a dead end.

    Along with myself, I know at least half a dozen other people that now work at companies like id, 3D Realms, Blizzard, Capcom because they demonstrated ability through a mod or user created content.

    I would say that most mods won't land you a job but successful ones most definately will. You have to be a good judge in choosing one to be part of that might have that chance.

    The alternate path to breaking in is QA or having a portfolio that kicks ass. But if you have a ton of art and you don't know how to implement it into a game engine - that puts you at a disadvantage.
  • JKMakowka
    Just my 2 cents (with the danger of repeating some stuff; good article btw, Chris)

    Think small, start small, then release. But don't make a big fuss about the initial release. It needs to make people realize how much potential your idea has, but don't create hopes you can't fulfill. Extent later on.

    Also think of creative ways to recycle content, but in a way the player doesn't notice it.
    Single example for this would be a character model in a uniform, with different props and heads, but the same body and animations. But it has to be believable! (and NOT 'oh there is just one playermodel with different skins').

    A major example would be, designing the entire game world to be easy/quick to build, but believable.
    A lush midevil/fantasy setting requires tons of distinct content, character models, plants, buildings you name it. It is about the hardest to create (well next to a post apocalyptic setting).
    A modern/slight future city setting would be somewhere in the middle, since you can easily get/make textures for it, but you loose on beliveability (ok I am repeating myself, right? tongue.gif ) if not well done, since people really notice small flaws.
    An Ideal setting would be something more abstract, but still believable. Space based games for example are ideal. You have to build a realistic looking skybox/background, but once that is done, you don't have to worry about the enviroment so much (but still have awesome graphics: see halo's ring world).

    Last but not least (and I am speaking from personal experience), if you are an Artist, get a single coder who is 100% behind your/his idea. Otherwise your Mod/game WILL fail!
  • kleinluka
    I got my job through a mod. I know MANY MANY people who got THEIR jobs through mods. It is anything but a dead end.
  • Vermeulen
    I really think most of that is common sense, but I suppose it would be useful for individuals thinking about starting a project rather than established teams.
    I also think the article should focus more on efficiency in development and actually talk about the disadvantages of working online rather than a studio. When you can't walk to another room, and tell an artist what to do behind their computer its a lot different. Its a lot harder to have a general direction for the art.
  • Mongrelman
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    Mongrelman polycounter lvl 13
    I was wondering for most people that get into the industry through mods, was it the case of when you sent in an application you said you were part of 'x' mod? Or did someone of you actually get sought out ie. a company contacted you? Apologies if this is a stupid question, it's just that I'd hear of a mod that kept losing people because they were getting hired by companies.
  • StrangeFate
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    StrangeFate polycounter lvl 13
    A lot of people here did the mod dance before getting into the industry.
    Some companies want you to list the mods you worked on if you don't have proper industry experience, to say it's a dead end is nonsense.

    It doesn't matter if the mod ever gets done or not, the point of it is the gained experience, to have worked in a team making something like a game.

    There's always people wondering wtf they should put in a portfolio, modeling a hydrant or streetlight without purpose doesn't seem to interesting for them and most novice portfolios just don't have enough variation.

    A mod gives you a lot of random material for a portfolio, plus the models/skins/textures were was made with a purpose, made to fit a style, modeled after concepts or real world images etcetc. You learned to work on a team, follow instructions, work together with LDs, textures/modelers etc.
    Being able to show off that kind of experience (in lack of proper industry experince) is invaluable, it doesn't get any better.
  • jzero
    I've been playing this guys' stuff for the past week or so: http://www.planethalflife.com/blended/

    His mods are all one-or-two-level maps, but each is distinct, tight, and even finished to the point where they are complete mods in themselves, storyline and everything. If you read his production notes, he mentions what inspired him and what ideas he was aiming to get across in each one. He's not an artist, he uses other existing assets, and rolls his own when he has to.

    But what comes across in the ones I've played is atomsphere, simple gameplay concepts, and a nice sense of humor. Doesn't get any better than that. I wanna make mods like this guy.

    /jzero
  • Vailias
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    Vailias polycounter lvl 14
    [ QUOTE ]
    Do not mod or game about an existing character or intellectual property. Do not steal its name or likeness. This is illegal. It's also unethical because you're piggy-backing on the success of other people's work and limiting your creativity. Be inspired by what it is, and what it's about.

    [/ QUOTE ]

    This needs the caveat of taking the time and effort to approach the IP holder and asking for/getting their permission/blessing to continue their IP in a MOD or independant form. Normally a very profitable IP this isn't even an option, but it can happen. The project I've been involved in did just this, and so far the association with the publisher/IP holder has been beneficial in terms of credibility, resources, and promotional value.

    Also mod work is quite usefull, as others have said, toward getting a job. The CEO/Producer of the studio I nearly got to work with asked about my experience, and had heard of Starsiege 2845. So its certainly worth while to say "I worked on X in such and such capacity."
  • Mongrelman
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    Mongrelman polycounter lvl 13
    Seconded smile.gif I think the word 'steal' needed to be written in bold as you can still get permission to do it.
  • KDR_11k
    The "no MMORPG/copyright infringement" part should be stickied in Requests...
  • Zitheral
    I think you get out of a mod project what the leader puts in to it. If you have a dedicated, organized project leader that keeps morale high, quality solid, and gets everyone moving the same direction on the same page, you will produce something everyone can be proud of.

    Most of the people on my team are working on the project because it will help develop their portfolio. It means that everyone is doing their very best because these are things they intend to show perspective employers when they go hunting for a job. If you want a high quality project, these are the type of people you want to target. They are motivated on their own to produce high quality work and as project leader, it is my responsibility to pick people in other areas who produce the same level of high quality. It keeps morale high if everyone is seeing a high level of quality in all areas.

    So yeah, in summary, I think the key to joining a mod team with the goal of getting in the industry has to be finding a motivated project leader to keep things going where they need to go.
  • cholden
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    cholden polycounter lvl 13
    Thanks everyone for the great feedback, and the sticky, bearkub.

    In almost every case, I've been contacted for the job, but not from sitting around waiting for them. Good self marketing, networking, modding, giving back to the community, and being social in general is where it all starts.

    Take Zitheral here for example, he talks about wanting help for his mod and about being a good leader, but if you check his signature and profile there is no contact information. This stops a majority of talent from ever finding him.

    On a personal note, all of my initial training and work came from game modding. I'll share my story:

    I started with Doom, building episodes of levels, painting sprite monsters, and modding the weapons to do silly things. It wasn't until Quake came out that I really got into the scene, sold a lot of clan skins and made plenty of full art conversions (textures, weapons, players, monsters) of Quake I & II . In the late 90s, I made some Quake 2 skins, for a mod called Red Rover. The people at id were gracious enough to release Quake 2: Extremities, an internet mod, add-on pack. Around the same time, I was contracted to help with another Quake 2 add-on that was destined for commercial release, Team Evolve's Zaero. This is two example of a game modding going to store shelves. After that, I was contacted by a webmaster that happened to know me, and happened to know a company needing a guy with fps modding skills. I worked my way up to lead artist, and hired my long time modding partner, Jon Jones, as the character modeler, and super skin god Dark Horizon to texture them. I knew both of these guys from the quake modding scene as good, hard working talent I could trust. As some of you may remember myself and Jon made some 5-10 player models for Quake 2. Everything worked out great, and we've all continued to work and be successful within the gaming industry.

    Game modding, took me from nowhere to what has now been an eight year career. I continue to work in mods and free games today as an artistic outlet and training.
  • Zitheral
    Chris,

    I have a thread in the help wanted section of the polycount boards for recruiting... it really wasn't my aim to derail your thread trolling for talent frown.gif though your point has been taken about creating a profile -- thanks! smile.gif

    I think that modding is probably the earliest form of "networking" that you can do to break in to the gaming industry. By working diligently and doing your best to be professional in everything you do, at the very least you will have people willing to write references for you when the time comes to apply for that big first job. While I doubt random references from internet people are likely to win you a job, I could easily see them being the piece of the puzzle that tips the scales in your favor when you are being compared against other candidates.
  • Noisybast
    [ QUOTE ]
    Do not mod or game about an existing character or intellectual property. Do not steal its name or likeness. This is illegal. It's also unethical because you're piggy-backing on the success of other people's work and limiting your creativity. Be inspired by what it is, and what it's about.

    [/ QUOTE ]

    Great article, Chris. To add to what Vailias said, I approached Rebellion a couple of years back about creating content for UT2004 based on one of their IPs, and they gave me the go-ahead. Sometimes you just have to ask! Just make it clear that you're not making money from their IP, and some companies can be very accomodating.

    Not that I've done much about it since then...
  • Mark Dygert
    Good stuff, and for God's sake don't P.T.E. (Pimp Too Early). The time to pimp your mod off is release not when the weapon modeler finishes his first pistol grip.

    I was in a pretty well put together HL1 mod. If I could work with 3-5 people the same way we worked (like a very small studio) then I would have my ideal job. I made some good stuff it gave me a taste of the industry. Over all I would say it was a plus, but be preapred to put things, people & even other personal projects on hold for the sake of the mod because it is a F-TON of work and you will wear MANY hats.
  • adam
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    adam polycounter lvl 14
    Hey Chris, good work on that man.

    Although I got started by doing contract work, working on mods is a definite positive to you and your career. I have done mod work before, about 3 years ago, but it was contract stuff that got me noticed.

    Adam
  • Mr Smo
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    Mr Smo polycounter lvl 13
    I got a job from modding >;0!

    i was picked up by creative assembly while working on dystopia because two of the guys working on dystopia worked there, yay!!
  • Irritant
    "Small core teams can be tremendously effective with the right idea. Teams as small as one artist and one programmer have a better chance than an 'idea guy' getting people to make his game. Be prepared to make everything yourself because it's more likely just going to be you working on it."

    This is how I have always worked.
  • Joshua Stubbles
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    Joshua Stubbles polycounter lvl 14
    Great article Chris, and great feedback from everyone.

    I also agree with most, in saying that mod work is key. I worked on a LOT of mods (about 30 in all) from 98' to 01'. Unfortuneatly, 90% of them died, but the experience helped.

    In 2001, I landed my first professional job at MLP in Illinois. After a raunchy 4 months there, I landed a much better gig here at 5000ft, where I've been ever since.

    Without professional education in game development, working in mods is the best possible way to get knowledable on things.
  • Vitor
    Yeah, as the other's have been saying that's a great artice. I think it almost resumes everything i've learnt with all the (failed) mods i worked so far.

    Just would add what Vig said... pimping the usual grey shaded models with a skylight render is the best way to screw it all up.
  • Wrath
    I'd like to point out that 'alpha' more typically refers to being content complete. All game features and assets are in the game in some form. There may be placeholder art, there are undoubtedly bugs, but for all purposes the entire game is there.

    Beta is all final content (ie, no placeholder art) all features fully implemented, and as many bugs identified and accounted for as possible.

    Those two defininitions are highly subjective depending on which publisher/studio you work for...but that's the most common guidelines I've run into.

    I'd also reccomend a high-concept doc as a first step. It's a much simpler, shorter document that will give you the very concrete foundation to build a full design document on. It's primarly designed as a sales tool for pitching a game idea to publishers, but it can still make a great first step in any mod development.

    Oh and I got my first job based entirely on some things I'd done for a mod and player models I'd made for Quake2. If you put your best work into a mod, you will have excellent portfolio material...and that's what will get you a job in the industry.
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