Mod Creation For Idiots (By An Idiot)

By Kieron Gillen on September 9th, 2008 at 10:19 pm.

Ah, Jo Parkes, who was always kind of side-lined in Cassandra and I'll probably use for something else eventually. Also note the AB-originated culture-referencing texture bombard
[Five years back, I wrote a series of articles for PC Format magazine, about what learned from my time on a mod project. Namely, the Deus Ex mod Cassandra Project - whose site has been wiped, but is still available to download all over the place. Including here. This is all four merged into one, with a few Ed-comments where where things have changed enormously.]

The decision to do a mod is the first step. It’s also, by far, the easiest. From then on, you’re entering a painful world of hurting to strive to create something that, in all possibility, will never be finished or be completely ignored by the community. These are general rules that I’ve learned from my own time theoretically being in a mod team. I felt the pain so, ideally, you shouldn’t have to. Or rather unnecessary pain – no matter what you do, you’re going to carry your own scars.

From one of our desktops. The motto was TRUTH AT THIRTY FRAMES A SECOND, which I always liked, even if it'd only get people complaining about its frame rate now. Man!
1) CONCEPTION

Before you dive in and start, you really should examine what you actually want to do. Try considering the following questions

1) What game do you want to mod for?
If the idea of modding something has entered your head, you’ve probably already decided what you want to create it for. At least take a second to consider whether this is actually smart in any way. If you’ve no experience in mapping, for example, choosing a detail heavy next-generation engine isn’t the smartest thing in the world [And this is more true now than it was when I wrote this - Ed]. While Half-life is massively documented currently, what’s going to happen when Half-life 2 arrives? Is it worth waiting to see what tools are released for it? While Quake 3 skills are one thing, its sure than Id’s next level designer will require a different approach – while all the Unreal Eds build on the same precepts, thus making the skills transferable.

2) What do you want to create?
Obvious, but do consider it. Examine your idea – does it hold an element of originality or do you just want to make some more levels for the game. There’s a difference between just wanting to make a level and making your level. If it’s that you just want to fiddle with the game world in a minor way, don’t even consider opening into a larger project. It’s not what you’re here for. Simply confine yourself to the basic editing tools and thus save yourself the heartbreak of even thinking of dealing with other people.

3) Is the mod project of such a size to demand the services of other people?
Because if it does, you need to consider about how you can get them. There’s a net-full of mods, and all are looking for various staff. While some mod-positions can be filled by someone working across several projects – music being a good example – others, like level designers, have to be concentrated on one mod to be effective. So what makes you attractive to people? Do you have any skills? If not, then putting together a Half-life mod team to do significant work is going to be a huge challenge. The community is in a mature state, with most of the experienced people well positioned in already existent teams with long running projects. They have no interest in helping the dream project of a no-name newbie. [Especially now when a good chunk of mod-teams seems to view it as a portfolio exercise rather than a for-kicks-and-giggles thing - Ed]

If your heart is set on creating a large one, you’ll have more luck in building it for a newer game. Getting into a community early is a good way of appropriating its talent. General rule: Mature communities are good if you want to join something. Immature communities are good for attempting grand designs. [I suspect that if this was ever true, it's less so now - Ed]

If you don’t need more people, don’t get more people. The important thing is to – well – skip as many corners as possible to minimise your work, and think of what you actually want to do. For example, working on something like Deus Ex as a single-man project isn’t a clever idea, unless you’re choosing to limit yourself to a single level. The real developers take a multiple-pass approach, with different people with separate skill-sets taking turns to add their materials to the levels. For one person to do it all is an overwhelming task.

For action people, a multiplayer map system is a wise idea for a fairly simple project. For coders, consider a mod that alters the game in a simple yet meaningful way. Those who want to dabble in textures may just concentrate on that, or find a community like Freedom Force where most people just do textures. For fans of narrative, you’ll ideally want something that looks after the huge chunk of the visual side itself, leaving you to just design – think of Neverwinter Nights.

4) Is your mod project of such a size to be impossible within the time-frame of a human life?
And be honest. If you’ve never made a mod, starting work on a multi-map single-player campaign with new models and textures is a recipe for disaster. Consider whether it’ll be better putting your idea on hold while you gain skills and a reputation – people in the community, having seen examples of your talent and determination on a smaller project, are far more likely to sign up for something larger.

5) Do you mind sacrificing elements of your life? Do you mind not finishing your mod?
Because it’s really a case or one of the other. A mod of any size is considerable work. You can’t merely write it in your “Free” time – there’s never enough. You have to actively decide that you want to free-up time to get anywhere near completion. No, you can’t go down the pub. No, you can’t pop down the cinema. No, you can’t see your better half tonight. You have work to do. To choose a particularly bad example, I took a week off work to try and get some of Cassandra’s scripting sorted. Literally the whole week was taken up with wrestling with a single thing, eventually discovering that the game simply wouldn’t do what I asked of it. Are you willing to throw your life into something just to try and get it done?

Alternatively, if you don’t mind if you don’t finish it – the process rather than the release is your pleasure – be aware of it. And if you’re trying to drag other people aboard, make sure they understand it too. Wasting people’s time in the mod community is epidemic. Conversely, when it comes to trying to recruit more people to your project, determination is by far the most important thing.

Johnny Casino was a friend's character I borrowed and lobbed into the game. It was part of the meta subtext and... oh, long and wanky story
2) RECRUITMENT

Which leads neatly to recruitment. Now, If you had any sense, you’ll have decided to do something all on your lonesome. In which case, you can – er – skip a bit. If you’re looking to recruit people… well, think again. In fact, more than that. Go to a mirror. Look directly into your eyes and ask yourself the following question: “Why on earth would anyone want to work on my mod more than anyone else’s?”. The answer “Because I’m a beautiful, beautiful person”, sadly, doesn’t quite cut it. If you can’t think of an answer, you’re in serious trouble, as it’s not just about attracting the people to your project – but the right people. And the right-people don’t like nobodies.

If you have no skills whatsoever, you should acquire some. Really. And if you have skills, but no evidence of them, you should consider proving yourself. If you’re a mapper, do some stand alone work and release it into the community. If you consider this a waste of effort, make these levels you plan to reuse in the mod proper. When it comes to advertising, being able to write “Creator of popular DM level Rapture the Christians seeks mod team” is better than “Geezer you’ve never heard of seeks people willing to waste time”. Equally, if you’re planning a mod which has a fairly core piece of coding in the centre – like Thievery’s invisibility or Counter-strike’s unique structure – and you’re the coder yourself, getting that thing working and releasing as an early version to attract people to may be an idea. Alternatively, just joining another mod team, working on theirs until a release and then starting up your own may be more profitable. The important thing in all of these is proving, publicly, that you can finish work you commit to. Joining a mod-team and then quitting is actually counter-productive, in all but the rarest cases. It makes you look like a flake. Because you are a flake.

If all of that sounds like too much work, well… well, you’re never going to finish your mod, so just stop reading and go outside. But if you are looking for a short-cut to gathering a team, consider basing your game on a popular TV show or toy line. Post that you’re starting a Transformer or Star Wars mod, and you’ll have to beat off help with a stick. Of course, you’ll probably be closed down by the licence holder’s lawyers, but a terrible lack of imagination comes with such a price.

When it comes to advertising, be careful. A bad advert is the one sure way to scare people off. Obvious things to avoid is writing your entire e-mail in gibberish netspeak with no paragraph breaks. These are adverts. The more effort you put into it gives the impression of putting effort into the whole project. Spellcheck. Rewrite. If it’s a new community, sending your e-mail to all the fansites will get a news story, which is always good exposure – if it’s a more mature community, the announcement of a new mod probably won’t get coverage. The basic level should be to post to editing and creative forums associated with the game. Ideally, you should be an active participant in every forum you post too. If you’re a stranger, it looks like spam, which is hated. If you’re someone they’re aware of, people are intrigued what this regular is up to.

Also avoid advertising for – well – the complete list of development staff. The bigger your team when you’re starting, the more teething problems you’ll have when getting going. For example, do you really need a musician or an SFX man at the beginning of the project when you’ve little need of what sound you actually need? If not, well, don’t ask for it. A few level designers, a coder, possibly a modeller and a concept artist if you’re feeling all fancy what’s required for most things to get going. When you know what extra stuff is required, then go and find people to do it. Having people sitting around twiddling their fingers is one sure way to make them lose their initial enthusiasm – and having fresh, excited people join half way through is one way to give morale a boost.

And here’s some general tips in dealing with applications:

Have they referenced a work sample?
You should ask to see a sample of work before accepting anyone – you should have asked for this in the advert. Like, obv.

Is the sample finished?
If it is, this is an incredibly good sign. Someone capable of doing their own thing is to be hailed. If it’s a sample they’ve made especially for you, clearly you don’t need to worry so much about it being finished. Be sure if they ask you what to make, you have a sample idea for them.

Is the sample they made for you timely?
If they say they’ll have a sample done for you by a certain point, note it. The longer they over-run the date, the longer they’ll over-run stuff later in the project. If it goes considerably past what they promised, especially with no excuses, don’t even consider them. Such behaviour will only get worse. Realising your whole project is hanging on one person doing something they said they’d do for the last four months is heartbreaking. Cassandra’s release was delayed by months due to a voice-actor not actually being bothered to hook up their mike, for example.

Do you like them?
As it counts. Mods can be fun, but they’re work. Working with someone who immediately gets up your nose is hellish. If they’re massively skilled but simultaneously totally arrogant, don’t consider letting them in. It will almost certainly tear your mod apart.

And as for general processing notes: Be quick in all responses. Explain what’s happening after they’ve submitted stuff. If there’s a delay in the process, be sure to write and tell why. If there’s a delay in any communication, apologise for it. If you don’t decide to take them on, write back and be apologetic – but leave the door open to get back to them by saying something like “We’re trying to keep a small team now – but if there’s anything in future which may suit you, can we get back to you?”. This goes especially for jobs like Musicians or SFX guys who you probably don’t need at this point.

Debbie the car was, basically, 'What if KITT had the personality of a Valley Girl'. Bless her.
3) ACTUALLY DOING IT: THE WORK

You’re away then. You’ve thrown caution to the wind, gathered a team and actually started doing the work with varying levels of enthusiasm. Clearly, this stage can continue for as long as it takes, but it’s fair to divide it into two basic sub-sections. The first is The Work, and dealt with here. The second is Finishing The Bastard, which is the next section. Trust me, they’re very different.

First thing is that it really is work, and should be planned as such. As I’ve said earlier, you really need to be aware you have to sacrifice other elements of your life to get it done. If you just rely on your free time, the Mod will fail. You may find it helpful to actually time-table periods when you can do stuff, in the same way you would book a regular evening class. If every night you put aside a limited amount of time to do work, you’ll make steady progress. This is considerably healthier than the boom/bust approach which most modders will follow. But – y’know – most people on your team will move on a cycle of massive productivity followed by long fallow periods.

Be sure to identify the personal habits of each of your members, knowing their habits and abilities, and assign work appropriately. It may be useful to mentally divide your staff into two vague categories: Reliable and Total Flakes. You can trust the former to be committed. The latter will do really good work intermittently, but eventually disappear for long periods. Clearly, give essential jobs to the former and inessential ones to the latter. The skill is realising what are the essential gigs and what aren’t. For example, in textures, skins for the weapons you’ve modelled are of paramount importance. Reskins for a few of the standard game models to add colour to your world aren’t. If your Mod is in a position where it relies on one of your Flake characters to do something, make sure it’s the first thing they do. For example, if your coder is a flake, make sure he performs the basic changes to your interface before dabbling in minor alterations to the weapons or whatever.

This leads to an obvious second point: Are you a flake? You are. Shit. You’re really doomed. One of the odder things about a team-based mod dynamic is that work begats more work. If someone is producing interesting stuff, it leads to more people producing interesting stuff. Seeing that you’re actually getting there, no matter how slowly, is massively encouraging. Inertia can keep things rolling. However, the converse is also true. If no-one’s producing work, it takes a brave person to try and get things moving. That brave person has to be you. At the least, go on your internal forum every-day and give feedback to anything anyone posts. Also, encourage a climate where people post examples or screenshots of their work to the rest of the team. It’s much more helpful to the team morale to see other people’s stuff rather than everyone quietly beavering away by themselves.

And here’s another Golden Rule: Make It Playable. You’re making levels, not beautiful architecture. The biggest morale boost is being able to actually sit down and play your game, no matter how rudimentary a form. To choose an example from my Mod team, a mapper spent a year making a genuinely beautiful, sprawling map. However, it simply wasn’t playable and when we attempted to make it so, it all fell apart. If we’d had interactive elements earlier, this would have become obvious immediately and all the effort saved. As it was, the mapper was burnt out from his experiences and dropped away from the team, leaving us with an extremely pretty yet completely useless map.

Equally, encourage a climate where simple test levels are constructed to experiment with core concepts. So, yes, the CIA Base or whatever isn’t finished, but you can try out the new armoury on this mini-level. This is especially important if you’re working on a game like Deus Ex, where you may be taking a multi-pass approach to level design. This is where different people go into the level to do different things. One person makes architecture, passes it to the texture artist, passes it to a game-element person who passes it to a script-writer guy. If you can set up your work prior to getting the level, you clearly save the time. Finally remember to set objectives and make priority lists. Make sure each person knows exactly what their list of responsibilities are for creating assets.

Something I found useful was trying to make a virtue out of necessity. At one point in the modding sequence, especially in a single-player game, you’ll find you want the game to do something that it simply hasn’t been designed to do. Rather than spend months making it do what you want to, turn it into a plot point. For example, in Deus Ex children models can’t actually sit down, making a Classroom scene in the second unfinished episode we were considering somewhat difficult. Until we decided to make them all stand up as a punishment thing. Hurrah.

Oh – and one last clue. No matter what you ask your team to do, if they really want to do something else, they will. If the modeller has their heart on making an unusual gun model, they’ll do it whether it’s needed or not. The coder’s novel lock-pick system. The mappers odder designs for layouts. Hell, the example of the base earlier – it’s not as if I didn’t tell them to try and make it playable earlier. Since you can’t control them, try to guide their enthusiasm. Give them room to express themselves. Because no matter whose idea it was originally, it’s all your vision now. And abstractly, as long as it’s their vision and they feel they’re doing worthwhile work, they should keep on working.

Abstract. Frankly, you may as well play Russian Roulette. The odds are about the same, it’s about as harmful to yourself and is considerably quicker.

While all this is going on, you may be considering hyping your mod. Now, it’s easy to get carried away with Public Relations. Many Mods are much better at building their website than actually constructing anything worthwhile. The web is littered with a million and one mod-websites consisting of some rudimentary concept drawings, an early screenshot and an over-ambitious feature list. However, this isn’t to say such things don’t have their worth. A relatively simple website, updated relatively regularly will keep people vaguely interested in what you’re up to.

More importantly, is your position in the game community which your mod belongs to. When something major appears on your site, send a simple press release to the major websites of your game. Clearly, you’re more likely to get a mention if you’re writing for a smaller game rather than Half-life or whatever. The former are desperate for news and the latter, basically, aren’t. Equally, consider being a presence on the major message boards devoted to the game. A quiet, charming, professional presence can engender a lot of respect in the community. And this will lead to respect for the mod. While mods are played outside the hardcore community, it’s the people who frequent the sites specialist to a single site who will play it first and start word of mouth.

Of course, if you’ve got a tendency to swear, shout and say that people suck, it may be a good idea to avoid forums. Bad impressions are just as easy to get as good ones.

Before we move onto the grand finale, I mentioned that you probably didn’t need certain sorts of creatives early on. However, as you inch towards the close, it may be worth reaching out for some specialists. While none are essential for a good mod, it can add a certain professional touch. Unless you mess it up completely, in which case you’re doomed to being sniggered at beyond all human belief.

MUSIC: Of all the things you can add, this is the easiest to increase to a semi-professional level. This is, of course, because most videogame music is terrible and something someone with a modicum of talent has made on a tracker program will almost certainly be good enough. Most games currently use tracker files to create their soundtracks, though it’s possible through trickery to transfer MP3 files into it. The results are, mostly, fairly rubbish. A simple advertisement on the community site should get a number of auditions, of which you can select your favourite. [And obviously, in the world of internet music that's sprung up since I wrote the article, there's a mass of bands. If I was running a mod now, I'd reach out to an indie band I liked on MySpace and try and ask if we could include their music in the game - they may like the exposure. - Ed]

VOICE ACTING: This is perhaps the trickiest thing to sort out. Whatever you do, don’t just get a microphone and garble some gibberish into it – except as a place-holder. In which case, be careful, as place-holders have a horrible habit of actually slipping into the finished game. If you really want voice-acting, probably the best starting point is visiting one of the many voice-acting communities online. Mainly comprising of American teenage girls, they do radio-plays based around virtually everything, but can be tempted into doing Mod work if you’re polite and kind. Note: Getting accents other than American can be a little bit tricky.

WRITING: This is problematic in an entirely different way. Everyone, but everyone, thinks they can write. They start typing – and there’s words. And since they have ideas, they must be a writer, yeah? Well, no. Even if your ideas are good, your prose is – almost certainly – rubbish. The solution could be to get a writer to join the team later to transform any placeholder text into something that’s’ a bit more impressive. The web is full of amateur writing and fanfic communities – if there’s someone who’s actually good at writing fiction about your the game you’re modding, they’re probably a good bet. Given the quality of the average fanfic writer, this is something of a long-shot. The bigger problem is that writers tend to be egotistical idea people – and writing is, fundamentally, an act of structure. Not being able to decide on the structure (i.e. having to just write around what the game already is) will probably make them more trouble than they’re worth. It’s probably not worth worrying about. Most professional videogames don’t bother hiring a decent writer, so it’s clearly a bit presumptuous to for you to give it a shot.

And this is Charlotte, our lead. Shot. This would have happened to her a lot if we ever got further into the game. Man!

4) ACTUALLY DOING IT: FINISHING THE BASTARD

In every successful mod development cycle, there comes a time. That is the time to finish it. And when does that come? Well, the perennially optimistic – and there aren’t many people around at the conclusion of a mod who have that particular character quality – might believe that the mod is finished when everything in it’s actually done, polished and ready for release. Sadly, this isn’t true.

Let me let you into a big secret: a mod is never finished. In fact, a game is never really finished. There’s always more bugs to find. And the longer you look, the more ideas you have for things that would improve the game immeasurably, so you add them. The only time something is finished is when you decide that it’s finished, pack it up in an installing program and release the thing.

In the case of real developers, they plan their release based upon their budgets, reappraising the game when it becomes clear that they’re not going to finish it before the money runs out. In Mods, the “budget” is in the human interest of the team. Over time, you may notice that the work comes in spurts. You’ll also notice that the spurts get increasingly few as you continue. If you pay attention to these, you may be able to guess when the Mod will run out of steam. Now look at what you’ve got to do to complete your master plan and compare it to the amount of development power you have left. In rare cases, you’ll realise that you’re going to be fine. Mostly, you’ll find the cold knowledge that it’s not going to be enough.

At this point, a thorough re-evaluation of the project is necessary. In the same way the body will divert blood towards the vital organs if placed in stress to ensure survival, development effort should be focused to what’s absolutely necessary to gain a release. If you’re a multiplayer mod, you’ve got a number of advantages in this situation. For example, it’s traditional in the form to release multiple versions, each improving in piecemeal steps [Not as true anymore, alas. - Ed]. If you go back to the extremely early versions of Counter-strike, for example, you’ll find them almost shockingly primitive. However, as long as you’ve got the core of the mod there, you can get feedback, alter the options, and improve for the next release. While entering with a brilliant mod people can’t believe is great, doing it step by step is perfectly acceptable. This also has the bonus of a release of something decent gives the team another rush of energy. Feedback and attention is massively invigorating. While you may claim to just be doing this for the sheer pleasure, you’ll be surprised how motivating attention of the community is. Also, a release will usually gather some people wanting to join your mod, meaning fresh blood. Release early, release often: These are a multiplayer mod’s watchwords.

Things aren’t so easy if you’re a single-player mod. It’s likely that people will only ever play a mod once. If it’s rubbish, they’re not going to replay it to discover what changes you’ve made in a second release. This means that what you throw out into the world needs to be, basically, the finished article. There are ways around this dilemma, however. You’ll probably find that the actual creation of the levels is what’s lagging behind, with some areas in your master plan being completely under-developed. If possible, consider making your mod into an episodic one. This would allow your mappers to concentrate their attention on those early in the narrative to bring them up to a release state, and not worry about the rest. If that’s impossible – and I pity you if it is – then have a good look at the structure, especially the levels which are barely finished. Do you really need them? Could you tweak the plot slightly so that you don’t have to visit there? Could you even cheat completely and re-purpose a map from the game proper and change all the details? If so, bite the bullet and do it. There’s a lot of pride-swallowing to do before you’ll get a game anywhere near release. The same goes doubly so for any of the non-essentials. Do you actually need a new model for the gun or could you reskin one of the games standard ones for a similar effect? Alternatively, could you talk someone who’s released a gun into the community to let you use theirs?

The second you’ve got everything tied down, it’s time to go through the hell of bug-fixing. This always takes longer than you’ll expect – as does everything, remember. Be sure to include a healthy space of time inside your enthusiasm-plan for this essential aspect. You’ll find more bugs than you’ll ever hope to fix. Yet again, prioritise the bugs that actively break your game into tiny little pieces rather than the ones which can be passed off as some kind of hidden Easter-Egg feature. As I said at the start, bug-fixing is an infinite task. Something will always go wrong. Eventually, it’s enough. And when it’s enough, release it. Quickly, before you lose the nerve and congratulate yourself on actually managing to do it. None of your friends will believe it.

[If you want to contrast the above, I'll point you over at comrade Always Black's presentation he made about managing a mod project - namely Cassandra. He has a slightly different take than me, to say the least]

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46 Comments »

  1. Mike says:

    http://www.alwaysblack.com/blackbox/managingmods/slide02.jpg

    This is at least four kinds of wrong.

    Interesting stuff. I toyed with the idea of extremely small-scale, twenty-minute long mods, but abandoned the idea largely because programming has got to the point where it’s simple to create something very playable nowadays, and the community is such that it’ll still accept it. For me, Zafehouse is as great an achievement as Half-Life 2 Wars. So that side of amateur design is now what attracts me more.

  2. Dinger says:

    Okay, and some of the ways to sink a mod (never happened to me, I’ve just seen it):
    A. A large mod group has ideological drift. At the center, you have a core of hard-working people organizing it. On the periphery are sometime-contributors who take issue with the direction the mod is heading in. This is the Thirty-people flogging the donkey syndrome. Eventually, the donkey quits or dies. The same thing happens with F/OSS projects (I guess all mod group things apply to F/OSS projects too).
    B. Those doing a bunch of work start to question the contribution of their coworkers. It’s like starting a business: you need complete confidence in your coworkers. If you find yourself accusing your collaborators of not collaborating enough, you’re in trouble.
    C. People start demanding personal credit for things. The team gets the credit. If you’re leading a mod project, your job is to keep the team involved and motivated. That means making sure that any outside praise is directed to all the team members. In mods, like everywhere else, ideas are cheap, and hard work is dear.
    D. The ‘Old Guard’ refuses to move along. I disagree with the “established game” vs. “up-and-coming” split. Mod groups are made of people, and the time available to participate on it varies greatly. But most good modmakers, I’d wager, are only really active for a couple of years. Then they get married, have real jobs, spawn, take up table-top wargaming, start a blog to recycle all their old content, or convince some foreign government to pay them to do God-knows-what. So there is _constant_ turnover, and there’s no guarantee that the person who is at the top of her game when you bring her on board is going to have any time whatsoever to work on the project. In other words, “reliable” people tend to become “flakes” with age. The problem comes in when they don’t realize they’ve become flakes and cling to roles that they just don’t have the time to fulfill.

    heh

  3. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    Just saw the picture… Ouch. Dare I say it might be analogous to Dirty Programming Sanchez?

  4. KindredPhantom says:

    Wise words and lessons for modders.

  5. Pod says:

    Since the server move all of your articles have been going out full over RSS…

    …which is good news for me, as it means I never have to look at one of your money grabbing, sell-out adverts that you’re hosting! Hurrah!

  6. Jonas says:

    4) Is your mod project of such a size to be impossible within the time-frame of a human life?

    You know Kieron, it didn’t start out that way, it just sorta happened. Feature creep, it’s your best friend and your greatest enemy.

  7. cHeal says:

    heh,

    I’m working on a mod/Gametype for UT3, which I’m working on pretty much independently at the moment and my experience has been to expect to fail and fail again. I started it in about January, spent about 2 months without any real progress (at all). Then done a month during the summer and again made no progress but started at it again about 3/4 weeks ago and in the last week things have started to come together and I already have a Gametype which has an interesting new dynamic from the it’s closest stock cousin.

    Currently I’m hoping to have a release ready for Christmas (I expect I’ll get it released well before then) but the changes will be purely code based, no new content and it will probably be a bit bodged together but getting a solid working prototype up and running and released to garner some interest from the community is my primary objective.

    I’m hoping I’ll be able recruit a programmer sometime next year who understands Uscript better than myself so that I can improve the quality of the code and implement the more complex changes. If I can recruit a coder I can move onto the refining the game design and designing maps for it.

    I’ve come up with a 101 mod ideas in the past, many of which I believe were actually very very good but which equally I could never actually make. On this occasion I have created a project which is relatively small and which if necessary I can do completely independently (I can code, map, 3D modelling and 2D art, all to a basic level or better) and I’ve set out a series of objectives which will eventually give me a finished mod. Setting objectives which aren’t dots on the horizon is and has been very important for maintaining my own motivation.

    Good article, though I seen a really good guide for recruiting on the UT3 forums lately which goes into a lot of detail on structuring team and getting a project ready for participation by multiple people. If I can find it again, I’ll post it.

  8. Major McMuffin says:

    I remember Cassandra. I think I read the article where you killed Cassandra. It was interesting, even if it put me off modding. Not entirely though.

  9. Alex says:

    http://www.alwaysblack.com/blackbox/managingmods/slide02.jpg

    Look at that.. someone really likes HP Sauce!

  10. Jonas says:

    Okay look, if ever there was a time to pimp TNM at RPS, this is it. SO! Anybody reading this, if you are interested in Deus Ex mods, visit the following link:

    http://thenamelessmod.com
    Check out the feature list, especially. Pretty much all of it is already done, and the rest is being wrapped up according to plan. Yes.

    (Also, I made a list once, including every DX modification that I know of, categorized into type and split depending on whether or not it’s been released. It is here.)

    Now, it’s pretty scary how much of what Kieron wrote applies to TNM, but there are a few differences. One is that multiple passes can be avoided if you have one central guy (call him a project director or a lead designer) who can handle all the content design. For example, we split level design into two parts:

    1) Geometry, texturing, lighting.
    2) Everything else.

    Point 1 was handled by the individual level designers (and often tweaked later), point 2 encompasses pathing, the addition of NPC’s, items, scripts, triggers, and anything else. Point 2 was – for every level in the game – handled by one person (me), which saved us a ton of time and effort on documentation. Of course this requires that you have a person on the team who knows the game intricately and is willing to sacrifice about 30 hours a week on the project.

    Secondly, most of the pitfalls can be avoided if: You are willing to spend upwards of 5 or more years working on the project and keep trucking even when nobody else is contributing. In other words, if you are a fucking nutcase, your chances of success improve massively.

    There, self-indulgence out of the way, thanks for the article Kieron, never read it before and I always enjoy reading about TCP. For anybody who’s played Cassandra and wishes to learn more, I recommend checking out Kieron’s posts in the thread on the TTLG forums about how it was supposed to have played out if they hadn’t chickened out and given up after releasing the demo (no hard feelings Kieron, we can’t all be crazy):

    http://ttlg.com/forums/showthread.php?t=90463

  11. Gap Gen says:

    It’s a shame TCP was never finished. I think I played Nameless at some point years ago (can’t remember if it was that one, sorry).

    I’ve never really attempted mods. I’ve mainly started coding from scratch, with the knowledge that I’ll never write a blockbuster FPS. But then again, the world hardly needs more of those, right?

  12. Alex says:

    I used to follow the development of a single player Half-Life mod called Nightwatch, which seems like the poster child of what your article warns against. Lots of talented work thrown out because the individual levels didn’t flow properly into each other, a radical cut in scope in an attempt to get things finished before the dev team became burnt out, etc.

    Of course, their project founder (kungfusquirrel, if you remember his Natural Selection maps) getting hired away by Raven didn’t do them any favours.

  13. Jonas says:

    The Nameless Mod isn’t done yet, which is both ridiculous and impressive, if I do say so myself. We’ve been working on it for 6½ years now, and we’ll be closing in on the 7 year mark before we release. The mod is in closed beta and we’ve scheduled about half a year for that.

    So I’m fairly certain you haven’t played TNM. Perhaps you’re thinking of ZODIAC (fantastic mod), Redsun 2020 (huge project, though sadly released in something resembling an early beta state), or Hotel Carone (which is notable for getting an honourable mention from Warren Spector himself). Or, finally, Burden of 80 Proof, which is almost nothing like Deus Ex, but more like an old adventure game.

    (They’re all in the mod list I linked to above :) ).

  14. Colthor says:

    This is a real feel-good piece. I love the unbridled enthusiasm!

    For a long time I thought The Cassandra Project was just a running joke in PCG.

    Sorry.

  15. cotton candy crusher says:

    I like how the word “spellcheck” is one paragraph away from the word “priec.”

  16. randomnine says:

    “In other words, if you are a fucking nutcase, your chances of success improve massively.”

    This.

    You have to be grade A batshit mental to keep slogging away at the same bloody thing for years when people keep letting you down, but most people don’t have the determination to keep a project alive – someone’s got to be the core of it and inspire everyone else.

    Releasing early and often is good, too, but I think of it more as a general philosophy which can apply to single player concepts too: do great things badly. Provided it’s fun, people can dig a half-assed implementation of a cool idea almost as much as a solid version of something more mundane – and it’s a lot less work.

    When I modded I almost always worked by myself and just did a bunch of small, mad projects. Anything long term, I was usually putting out a version once a month or so. Good times!

    I should add: I remember playing The Cassandra Project. It was pretty cool, and it’s a shame it fell by the wayside.

  17. cHeal says:

    Okay look, if ever there was a time to pimp TNM at RPS, this is it. SO! Anybody reading this, if you are interested in Deus Ex mods, visit the following link:

    Is the lighting meant to seem cartoony? I didn’t really read too much about the mod, just checked out the screenies and that. First thing that hit me was that it’s very bright and colourful.

    Oh yeah and I remember Cassandra from years ago, I think when I joined pcgf you were still working on it, but the full extent of the project had hit home.

  18. Trestkon says:

    Is the lighting meant to seem cartoony? I didn’t really read too much about the mod, just checked out the screenies and that. First thing that hit me was that it’s very bright and colourful.

    Actually, the brightness is virtually all a product of the screenshot process. For whatever reason, Deus Ex refuses to take screenshots with proper brightness, forcing us to crank it way up to get something visible. You get a better sense of the actual lighting conditions in the various videos we have on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/jonaswaever

    Keep in mind, however, that the game is 8 years old, so while it might not be cartoony, neither is it hyper-realistic.

  19. Ging says:

    Modding is painful, especially about 4 hours before you’ve said you’ll release something and it’s all going tits up… Then you release only to find a thousand people all playing using your name and complaining about the shitty default config (right mouse should always be jump, damnit).

    But it’s also worthwhile as you build a community, get to know people and work (sometimes over years) to get something released that you really want to play!

    randomnine: I remember sitting next to you at an mpuk event while you coded up some right random stuff for HL, I seem to recall that leading to some amusing games of dm!

  20. Nick says:

    Dear god.. more than half decent voice acting in a mod!? I shall reinstall Deus Ex when TNM is finally released! (and it’s a pain to install as my disc came scratched – thankfully the only files it can’t read are the level files from the demo.. which I then have to install as well and copy across – luckiest damaged disc ever?)

    Er, yeah, Cassandra.. wish it hadn’t been such a pain as it was very promising.

  21. Jetsetlemming says:

    Ha, brings back memories of the first mod team I joined, when I was 15…

    Totally fell apart. The “mod leaders” had absolutely no other responsibilities but to write the script, didn’t do it, and had a fight between the two of ‘em and quit.

    This coincidentally was also a Deus Ex mod.

  22. Muzman says:

    Great stuff.
    I dunno what they teach kids in school these days, but over the years there seems to have been so many mods started by people who think the thing is 90% marketing and that’s the bit they’ll take care of (and writing too usually).
    Wide communication is good for recruiting and good for morale but that’s about all. No one should get caught up in it or make it the focus. Conversely, after announcing a mod and having it crawl along for a while, elements of the community will probably turn on you or lose faith and decide you’re probably full of it. This doesn’t matter in the least. Communication with the team is important, obviously. Keeping up community interest is almost irrelevent. If you build it they will come.

  23. Iain says:

    You know, I still think that the hackable ZX Spectrum in TCP remains the absolute apex of PC Gaming achievement.

  24. Crane says:

    The project I’m working on at the moment is hoping to avoid this…
    No actual publicity till all the levels are basically finished, for one thing. Plus, we did the important coding bits first, since it seems it’s always coding that screws over most mods..

  25. Bite says:

    Very informative article, especially because it comes from someone who worked on a single-player mod. Pretty much all guides-to-modding I see out there are focused on multiplayer mods, so there’s an overemphasis on “Release early, release often”. Still, an episodic release format can work for single-player mods, as is pointed out in the article.

    Oh, and:

    “Bad impressions are just as easy to get as good ones.”

    Waaay easier. Doing nothing makes a bad impression in itself.

  26. Bobsy says:

    Personally I’d love to see a mod or game being led by the musician that’s providing the soundtrack. A FPS or RPG which is built around the music would be awesome. Logistically horrific, but awesome.

  27. Schmung says:

    I think Half Life was a bit of a golden age in modding. The effort/reward ration combined with the huge install and fanbase made it feasible for lots of mods to garner a decent amount of success. Nowadays the amount of work required for asset and level creation has skyrocketed and there aren’t many games with a large enough fanbase to support a significant number of mods. It’s even harder to get anywhere nowadays and it seems that the public expect a far higher level of polish from their mods as well.

  28. MacBeth says:

    I suppose Cargo Cult is too busy working for Valve *seethes with jealousy* to contribute to this thread… would be interesting to hear his perspective re. Minerva…

  29. Jonas says:

    I think that for most would-be modders, if you’re really just doing it for fun and in whatever spare time you happen to have lying around, a 2D-ish game with a good editor such as Neverwinter Nights 2 or an RTS like World in Conflict would be the way to go. Modern engines are really a bit too unpleasant for most folks to dabble with, so you’d probably want to be an aspiring game design professional to mess around with them.

    As one of Kieron’s edits said, most modders these days seem to view their work as a portfolio piece, probably largely because you have to be damn near professional-grade to do anything with a game like Crysis or Unreal Tournament 3. The Neverwinter Nights 2 community still seems to be full of people with no professional aspirations :)

  30. phuzz says:

    I was just about to write exactly the same as MacBeth, great minds etc…
    Although in case he doesn’t show up, I think his key advantage was working on his own, thereby avoiding all of the problems in part 2.

    Also, Black Mesa Source: We’re all looking at you!

    Also, also, (I need to improve my wordy skills today), how about a monthly “RPS readers mods need:” voice work/textures/coding etc. I’d do some random voice work for a laugh.
    Or for a mod.

    (edit, oooo, this new edit function is spiffy eh?)

  31. Jaxtrasi says:

    http://www.alwaysblack.com/blackbox/managingmods/slide04.jpg

    Haha, I look so young there. Of course, that photo was about six years old at the time of TCP in the first place, but it was the only one I could find with my mouth open.

  32. Jonas says:

    Hey Phuzz, we’re still looking for voice actors for some of our minor parts. If you’re up for it, please send a sample to voicesubmissions@offtopicproductions.com and we’ll pick out some sample lines to throw at you :)

  33. Bite says:

    I suppose Cargo Cult is too busy working for Valve *seethes with jealousy* to contribute to this thread… would be interesting to hear his perspective re. Minerva…

    I think he’d say something along the lines of “Just do what I did, it seems to have worked durr durr durr”. Bitter? Moi?

    In an interview on this very website, Foster stated that he’s opposed to the idea of large, monolithic mod projects that seek to replace all original content (which would be closer to a total conversion). These inevitably trip over their own ambition and die. If a project is closer to a total conversion, an episodic release format is a stone-cold necessity.

    Personally, I see no shame in placing the bar high, in starting something bloated which is an ambitious endeavour at best and an impossible dream at worst. Because you can always lower the bar as development progresses. If you start low, you can’t go much lower.

    The main problem is that you’re dependent on other people who have to contribute time and effort to your idea, free of charge. As was pointed out often, team members make or break a mod. It helps if there’s a core group of developers who’ve known each other longer (or better, are geographically close to one another).

    I admit I have an overly ambitious project in the works, which definitely fits the bill of that “impossible dream” mentioned above. Thankfully, the story lends itself well to both a monolithic and episodic release format. And hey, smart people learn from their mistakes, and real smart people learn from the mistakes of others. Let’s hope I can do both.

  34. Cargo Cult says:

    I suppose Cargo Cult is too busy working for Valve *seethes with jealousy* to contribute to this thread…

    Actually, I spent today stumbling my way through pitch-black military bunkers in obscure parts of Poland, with only the useless light on my mobile phone and the focus-assist on my camera to guide me. Sorry.

    I’ll upload photos to my Flickr thingy when I’ve got time. And perhaps post a comment here once I’ve read the article. ;-)

  35. Crispy says:

    The NightFall post-mortem tells a similar tale.

    And I may as well throw in a shameless plug of something I wrote along the lines of the ‘release early, update often’ mantra. I’ll admit the article pulls examples primarily from MP mods because I play more of them, they tend to get finished more often than SP and they are more popular, making them a useful showcase for readers. There is a short section on single-player releases explaining how I think the episodic route can be made to work well (anchoring gameplay and story features to release modules).

  36. trioptimum says:

    This is a good opportunity for a confession…

    I responded to the Cassandra Project’s original call for mappers 7 years ago. I had no experience mapping, but was upfront about it. I had tons of free time at university, and wanted to volunteer some of it for something cool. As mentioned in the article, Kieron did indeed ask for me to build something and send it to him as a tryout — a Dartmoor cottage, if I remember. Which I promised to him in several increasingly reassuring emails. And which I never sent.

    Though it doesn’t excuse me from being an inconsiderate time-waster, the truth was that I did in fact spend many, many hours doing the task to completion, but was so ashamed of the unbelievable crapness of the result that I thought it better to feign disappearance than send it to Kieron.

    I’ve genuinely felt guilty about this for about 7 years. And now, buried in the quiet end of a four-day-old thread, I share it with you, dear reader.

  37. TheBard says:

    Wow great! The Cassandra Project. I actually sent the URL to nearly everyone I knew. I loved the style, the way the dev team adressed the world out there. And there was this very nice short story somewhere on the page, which gave everything a great mood.

    Is this short story still available somewhere? I’d love to read it again.

  38. Kieron Gillen says:

    Which one? There were a few little bits and pieces I did.

    KG

  39. TheBard says:

    I only remember the one where in the end, some server systems get switched off, ending the story in a peculiar way. I somehow stumbled over the story through Google and never actually found it linked in the site navigation. So, if there are others, I never read them.

    That said, if there ARE others, I would LOVE to read them.

    And big kudos for your work. Did you do any other fiction writing?

  40. Axonn Echysttas says:

    Mistake in article, correct is “price” ::- ).

    holder’s lawyers, but a terrible lack of imagination comes with such a priec.

  41. Kieron Gillen says:

    TheBard: Ah, that one. You know, I’m not sure I ever put that on the site – it was kind of a thing I knocked off for a forum “thing”. I don’t even know if I had a copy of it somewhere. It’ll be a shame if I don’t, as I quite liked it. Hell, if you can find it again, I’d appreciate it if you forward me the link.

    (It was kind of a compressed version of the full Cassandra narrative – as in the character blowing up the server who was storing the game they were in)

    Other Cassandra stories are still on Archive.org. It’s more little character pieces to do with the game. See here for the archive.org
    http://web.archive.org/web/20070705020258/www.deusex-machina.com/cassandra-project/recon-mission1-diaries.asp

    And yes – I do a bit of fiction. I have a second career as a writer of comics.
    http://www.phonogramcomic.com/blog/
    Is the site of my Image comic, and what I’m probably most known for.

    bustedwonder.com
    Is a webcomic I did with a friend.

    And there’s other stuff out there I’ve done – some work for hire stuff for Marvel. I’ve a Warhammer comic coming out in a few weeks too. And a Starcraft thing. And other bits and bobs.

    Axonn: Thanks!

    KG

  42. Jonas says:

    HAH!

    [Taped conversation of David Kohl, Freelance Journalist specialising in videogames to unknown parties on the subject of the previous night out.]

    I believe I recognize that name :P

  43. Kieron Gillen says:

    We are so meta.

    KG

  44. GoogleBot says:

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  45. Kieron Gillen says:

    TheBard: Actually, months later, I find the piece you were asking about:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20071213053728/http://www.deusex-machina.com/cassandra-project/savepoint.asp

    Terribly overwritten, especially in the opening, and clearly hammered up in a lunch-hour and lobbed on a forum, but I still like the cut of its jib near the end.

    It was, basically, Cassandra’s overall plot’s themes in a short story.

    KG

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